Saturday, January 30, 2010

speaking of drugs...

I am sick, sick, sick... dog-sick. I know that I have progressed to the canine level of sicknosity because I have resorted to taking drugs to kill the headache and coughing at night so I can maybe sleep a chunk and allow my body to heal itself. What I really need right now is a kind and loving homeopathic fairy godmother to make me exotic herbal teas and knead my knotted kneck. The ice storm must be keeping them away.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Kids Aren't All Right (but neither are the adults)

In my little corner of America almost everyone is a drug addict. Seriously. You will often see box drugstores directly across the street from each other, and it's hard to find a moderately populous road you can drive down without passing one or two pharmacies every couple of minutes. There are more drug stores here than there are grocery stores, so you might almost start to wonder if people do drugs more often than they eat food.

And that's just the legal stuff.

I don't have any hard statistics, so I decided to run an impromptu survey and ask my high school students what percentage of kids they figure are smoking weed or doing some sort of illegal narcotics, and the general consensus was between forty and sixty percent. From my experience as a teacher somewhat privy to this sort of information, I would say that twenty-five to forty percent of the students are on some sort of prescription psychoactive drug, so it would not be too much of a stretch to say that at least seventy percent of the students at my school are regularly on some sort of mind-altering substance. If you include caffeine drinks, then you could take that percentage up to just about a hundred. And this is in one of the most affluent, ostensibly "Christian" areas of one of the most ostensibly "Christian" countries on the face of the planet.


Sometimes I feel as though I'm in the middle of a dystopian novel. I am not the sort of guy to look around and cluck my tongue and bemoan how bad everything and everyone else is - so don't think I bring this all up to show how we're all going to hell in a gold-plated handcart (although we probably deserve it). I'm just sayin'... something ain't as it should be.

Last week I took a planning period to drive over to a student's house. He is a capitol fellow - the sort of intentional oddball who makes me happy to be a teacher. He's generous and loving and very creatively talented. He also gets depressed sometimes and can't sleep, and for that reason was missing school.

I understand this more than most. I spent a lot of high school depressed. I could feel it coming up on me like a giant, sickly-green wall of goo, and I would usually sneak off to the upper branches of some tree to sway around, sing, cry, and maybe just wonder how much I'd be missed if I were to slip.

I remember this one time when I was in the back of a pickup truck, inside a metal box they had placed over the bed for shelter from the elements.  I was riding home from a youth event with some peers and the green wall caught me and I couldn't get away, so I actually ended up banging my forehead on the aluminum for about ten minutes - to the point where one of the more muscular fellows in there with me ended up offering to help.

Weird stuff, I know, and it is just possible that some sort of happy drug could have not only taken away my bad feelings, but also might have allowed me to avoid some of the bad, destructive habits I formed to cope with them. Maybe then I would have been freed of a lot of the baggage I had to carry for a long time. But maybe not.

It was spirit week at school last week and the theme the day I went to visit my student was "being mauled by a lion". I wasn't too keen on cutting up a shirt and slathering myself with red paint, so instead I dressed in full indigenous Amazonian warrior regalia - complete with spear and monkey-tooth necklaces - and it was in this garb that I was greeted by my bummed student's mom, who had contacted me because she was concerned for her son's well being. I brushed past her startled response and walked over to my student with my spear held menacingly in front of me. "I've come to put you out of your misery", I said, and he laughed.

Then we talked. For about an hour. He told me about the Civil War-era piano of his sister's in the living room,  and when I noticed a thin sheen of dust and asked him if he played, he said she was "really anal" and wouldn't let anyone else touch it. We went up the steep, open steps with the nifty curved banisters, past his toddler brother's room with the floor and bed covered entirely with brightly-colored plastic toys, and then into his room, where we sat and chatted about whatever came to mind.

I didn't have an agenda. I told him straight up that I was there because his mom was worried about him, and then we talked about other stuff. Later, he told me that he'd stopped taking his meds about a week before, and I told him about being depressed in high school. I enjoy this guy and had been really bothered to hear he wasn't doing well, so I was thrilled to be there - thrilled for the opportunity to be a friend. We had a good chat and then I had to leave.

He came back to school the next day. I don't know if he would have otherwise done so, but I do know that I was able to cheer him up quite a bit. I know because he told me, and because his mom wrote a grateful email as soon as I was gone, thanking me and telling me that those were the first words she'd heard him speak in two days.

Could I have used prescription drugs in high school - would they have alleviated my suffering? Yes. Maybe. I don't know. I know that what I needed even more than drugs was not money, or toys, or a smokin' hot girlfriend with money and toys, but rather a friend without an agenda. And even though there were times when I felt as though a broken branch and a quick fall would have left everyone (especially me) a whole lot happier, my friends were there. They were selfish and broken and stupid, but they were also wonderful, and I always knew down in my duodenum that they loved me.

I am grateful that my depression was not so deep that I succumbed, finally, to despair. I am living now through the ugliness of a dissolving marriage, but I am also so full up with joy at the wonderment of an exciting, creative world. I am grateful for the moments I have had. I am also savoring the ones I am in now and am anticipating a great many others with hope. I am living and creating and loving in more meaningful and poignant ways than ever before.

This morning a good friend of mine wrote that a friend of his named Brandon had, in fact, given over to despair and had overdosed. He wrote about what a beautiful, talented person Brandon had been, and how he had gotten my friend through an intensely difficult time in his life with prayer and with love. I cried, reading that. I cried for the suckiness of this broken, ugly world. I cried for a small child in Haiti who, after a short life of poverty and hunger, now lies trapped beneath rubble - perhaps at this very moment breathing her last breath. I cried for my students who, trapped in the wealth of their sterile, museum-McMansions, take drugs and look for a way out. I cried for the desperate gasping of a dying culture, glutting on money and drugging away the pain while the medicine we all need lies all around us like snow... or sunbeams.

We are the solution, and the lonely death of any man is a tragedy for us all, because we all have failed and are continuing to fail each other. God is here in human flesh, and that flesh is me. Again and again I silence God, choosing instead to to worship the tawdry idol of my own selfish momentary desires.

Enough is enough. And the drugs aren't working.

Friday, January 22, 2010

burning to shine

Epiphanies are weird, and today I had two. I forget the first one (so it must have been an epiffle) but the second one was awesome. I realized that for the first time in my life, I feel as though there is not enough time in the day.

This is awesome not because I have suddenly discovered my inner workaholic, but because I have begun to discover a passion for making art and am realizing that despite my best efforts to use my spare time as well as I possibly can, I still seem to end up a little temporally short. It isn't that I couldn't find a little more time -  that I have become uber-disciplined to the point where I schedule my life down to the second - it's just that as events in my life have begun to allow me to laugh at my fears, I have started to have a whole bunch of mini-creativity-eruptions.

For starters, there is the previously-mentioned feature-length screenplay, which I'm only beginning to lay out because I have two screenplay-writing "textbooks" I need to pretty much memorize before I can proceed. Next, there are screenplays for film-shorts I am attempting to write in order to develop my "chops" - one of which is scheduled to be shot by actor Austin next month.

I also have an incomplete painting sitting in the other room, taunting me. Its siren song tickles my ears at night, competing for the ministrations of my artisty fingers with the filing cabinet full of children's book illustrations I am trying to get around to polishing so I can submit them to publishers.

Then there are the books. As I toil over marketing materials for my memoir, I realize that one of the first questions I will likely be asked by any agent or publisher is, "and what are you writing next?" They like to sign author's, not individual books, so I need an answer ready and you know what? It's pretty easy at this point.

There is the book about the Philosopher Jungle Man, for instance - a fellow who grew up in Peru as I did but pretty much stayed in the rainforest with one of the indigenous groups and would be there now, working on fish-farming projects, if not for his commitment to his ailing mother's care. He was once a guide for a National Geographic TV Special and is certainly not interested in that kind of spotlight any more, but I would love to convince him to let me tell his story as a way of exploring the effects of globalization on a marginalized group such as the Achuar.

Or there is fiction. Writing screenplays has whet my appetite for fiction, and I have been contemplating digging back into a fantasy novel I once started writing that was some sort of elaborate Christ-metaphor I couldn't figure out how to maintain.

And finally, there is tree planting. There are volumes and volumes I could write about tree planting, the hellish/euphoric alternate-universe Vietnam-without-guns I inhabited for ten summers. I would love to mine all that for the gold lying about in plain view, but I just don't feel I have the time. I got a call recently from a film producer who was looking for some storyboarding for a movie. This is paid, creative work with the potential to generate a lot more, but I had to redirect the project to a couple of pretty-much-genius students I have, because I had to make a choice and my greatest passion right now is my writing.

This a great place to be - too much passion-work, not enough time - but I'm starting to get a little anxious. I told a few of my colleagues at dinner last night that I can feel the frustration growing, and as much as I love teaching I just don't know how long I can sustain this before I lose my mind. Seriously. Sometimes I wonder if I am starting to go a bit crackers, or if I'm going to get smithereened by some large truck before I can actually finish something. I always seem to run up against some new, seemingly worthy distraction - like the short I'm helping Austin film this weekend, or the ukulele I am still trying to pick up at intervals, trying to learn how to play a song I wrote that I am supposed to be recording sometime soon with a friend of mine.

This has been a rambling whine-fest, I know. It isn't that I am not happy about all this. I love that I'm starting to at long last get excited about life and to treasure my moments enough to be concerned at their passing. The time will come when I will have to leave teaching and give my entire work-time to this, but for now I am still enjoying a pretty swank existence. In light of the struggles most people face in their lives, it seems rather stupid-dumb to be sniveling at you about this.

So I will end, instead, with something light and fluffy. It's a poem I wrote a few years ago to embarrass a treeplanting buddy, and I think it is a perfect example of the sort of outrageous characters who would make a book on planting so compelling. It is a (mostly) true account:

Ode to Nate's Toe

Here ye now a tale I have
both harrowing, yes, and bold.
A tale the likes of which, my friends,
your ears have not been told, been told,
A tale you've not been told.

There once was a man who - chances are good -
you could possibly even now know.
But this isn't the story of him, my friends,
it's the tale of his missing toe, his toe,
the tale of his missing toe.

Nate the explorer set out one day
to climb to the top of the world.
If only he'd known what fate was in store
I tell you his toes would have curled, have curled,
I tell you his toes would have curled.

When he put on his boots I betcha he thought
that in no time he'd come tromping back.
But he didn't know that when the time came
there'd be something he'd had that he lacked, he'd lack,
A piece of himself that he'd lack.

Conditions were bad (they were wicked in fact)
a blizzard was coming in thick.
If you or myself had been there that day
I'd wager we'd turn back and quick, so quick
I'd wager we'd do it so quick.

But Nate and his toe were bound for the peak -
so they laughed at the snow and the ice,
'til the mountain was filled with a mountainous rage
that made it do something not nice, not nice,
this terrible thing wasn't nice.

A rock in the way that his toe didn't see
sent Nate off a precipice tall.
He bounced off a ledge and then off two more,
then he plunged for a thirty foot fall, a fall,
he took a gargantuan fall.

Nate, mighty Nate, the manliest man,
the manliest man about town,
had at last met his match on the mountain that day -
that mountain that knocked poor Nate down, so down,
it knocked our poor hero far down.

He crawled for a day and he crawled for a night,
half-naked he crawled in the snow,
and all the day next, ignoring the pain
that was starting to shoot through his toe, his toe,
the cold that was claiming his toe.

With two broken legs and three broken arms
he struggled for two nights and days.
He came down from the mountain - but minus a toe -
and up on the mount it now stays, it stays,
it rests on the snow where it lays.

So remember the toe and the end that it met,
the tragedy of that toe's fate,
and fear for your life if you anger the man,
the manliest man that is Nate, is Nate,
the manliest man that is Nate.

Monday, January 18, 2010

when a man loves a man, et cetera

The internet is a scary place, full of goblins and ghouls lurking in corners and alleyways and - as time goes on - rattling with skeletons in a myriad of cob-webbed closets.

Take, for instance, homosexuals. When I was in college and knew everything, I wrote an article about them in response to something someone had written in the online version of our school paper. I still think that this person was sort of an idiot and had written a terrible piece; but the problem is that I was an idiot, too - perhaps an even bigger one. I compounded this idiocy by emailing my little rebuttal to the online paper, which, lamentably, proceeded to publish it.

For years thereafter, if you googled my name this article was only ever a short ways into the search results, a fact I noted with a growing amount of consternation. I hope that I have since learned to temper my opinions with greater humility, but it still does worry me, and the corporeal remains of my ill-advised college article still rattle around in some dusty corner of the world wide web.

Last night I told a friend my latest writing project, now that I have "finished" my memoir. I told him that I am learning how to write screenplays - working on the development of a script that has as its hero-protagonist a homosexual artist-painter living in California. I won't tell you any more details here, since the internet is full of writers (who are all a bunch of weaselly little thieves - I should know) but I will say that his reaction intrigued me, as it echoed very closely my own attitudes about homosexuality back in college.

I am only barely less ignorant than I used to be about what homosexuality  really is. Television - with its over-the-top, politicized scripting - hasn't educated me too much, and neither have I bothered to expend too much time or energy studying the issue from either a ratio-centric or theological standpoint. Nonetheless, I do have what I consider to be a much wiser (and from the standpoint of my faith, a more Biblically sound) response: I don't know.

If pressed, this is what I say: "Hmm. You know what? I've been a sexual pervert for quite a while now. That is to say, the ways I engage and express my sexuality have been a tawdry, pathetic excuse for what I feel like sexuality can and ought to be. Are homosexuals perverts? Undoubtedly. But so, I think, is everyone else... and most especially me! Who am I to judge someone else's perversion as being any more wonky than my own? I just don't buy that any more - and I don't think Jesus taught that I should go there, either. I think what matters much more is how I love people."

I told my friend this, and went on to point out the ugly pride in picking one behavior you don't personally feel any compulsion towards and then screaming that it's a sin and God can't love you if you do it. I explained how that sort of attitude misses a whole lot of what the Bible seems to be written expressly to get across: that is, Pride is Bad, Love is Good. "Christians", I said, often seem to be more concerned with being right than with being in Love, so to speak. And that's stupid.

My friend was not particularly impressed by this. I mean, he agreed in theory, but he seemed to think that I ought to have an opinion, one way or another, about the issue. If I don't take a stand, he asked, then am I not dropping the ball and avoiding my responsibility? I gave this some serious thought as I was riding my evil two-wheeled gas machine up into Charlotte to visit my actor-friend. Must I have an opinion?

I have a buddy from my childhood who no longer agrees with me about matters of faith. He has begun attending a Unitarian church and considers himself something of a (forgive me if I've got this wrong, J) neo-pagan. He knows that I don't agree with him. We've had that conversation. But so what? Do I keep having that conversation every time I see him? NO... and I say it again, NO! We talk about how our days went. We talk about our relationships, our passions, our art. He ends our phone conversations by telling me he loves me and you know what? I love him, too! And I don't give a rat's left eyeball for convincing him I am right. Who cares!?! I can't sort all that out - that's what God is for.

What really matters to me is that my friend knows I love him, because he is an important friend - one of the few who consistently keeps in touch and has encouraged me through my often excruciatingly painful separation from my wife. He has done this even as he deals with his own, much more pronounced life-pain.

And that, my friends, is love. Greater love has no man than this that he lay down the pride and stupidity of having it together and just sacrifices his time and himself for other people. And they will know you are living in Christ's kingdom by your love. If I had to figure out everything that's bad or immoral or wrong in this world and loudly proclaim my personal opinion of it to all and sundry, then I would be spending my entire life wallowing in the muck. We are all screwed up, and me most of all! Instead, I choose to look up into the light.

So I will write my script and love my fellow screw-ups, gay and straight alike. I will earn with my relationships the right that love allows to tell them what I believe. I will tell them... gently, and in private... once.  And then I will pass them the potato salad.

If this angers those righteous few who consider it their God-ordained calling to point out the sins of the world, then I will weep for them, too. I will bear their aspersions with all the love I can manage as a testament to the grace of God in which I somehow (despite the best efforts of these lovers of their own dark selves) still manage to believe. Perhaps in this way my own closets will be flung open and the bones contained within in them will turn to dust in the glaring light of the sun.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Jesi Renmen Ou, Haiti

Jesi Renmen Ou, Haiti

Three years ago I got hornswaggled into watching the rom-com "Catch and Release". As I recall there is a moment in it where the character of Gray, played by Jennifer Garner, confesses that when she hears about great natural disasters, she wants them to be bigger - that she hears the rising death toll with a likewise rising sense of excitement. 

This jolted me a little as I realized that - gulp - there was a part of me that felt the same way. I liked drama - ate it for breakfast, in fact - and there is nothing more dramatic than death.

When I spin the dial on the radio this morning they are talking about the earthquake in Haiti. Before my mind's eye there flashes an image I saw last night of a bloodied teenage girl, covered in dust and starting straight into the camera with a look of anguish and despair. In an instant I am drawn back to the Haiti I saw when I visited last year, a land of beauty and sorrow commingled in the faces of a people at once joyous and defeated.

As I drive along I start to cry, to "wail, for the world's wrong", tears running down my face for the tragedy of Haiti. I think of the song "Dear God", a beautiful piece addressed as a letter to God from the band "Monsters of Folk". I can do no better than to quote the lyrics here:

Dear God, I'm trying hard to reach you
Dear God, I see your face in all I do
Sometimes it's so hard to believe in
Good God I know you have your reasons

Dear God I see you move the mountains
Dear God I see you moving trees
Sometimes it's nothing to believe in
Sometimes it's everything I see

Well I've been thinking about,
And I've been breaking it down without an answer
I know I'm thinking aloud but if your love's 
Still around why do we suffer?
Why do we suffer?

Dear God, I wish that I could touch you
How strange sometimes I feel I almost do
And then I'm back behind the glass again
Oh God what keeps you out it keeps me in

Well I've been thinking about,
And I've been breaking down without an answer
I know I'm thinking aloud but if your love's 
Still around why do we suffer?
Why do we suffer? 

Why? Why do we suffer? And how can I simultaneously experience a despicable twinge of pleasure at tragedy and a more defensible, unutterable sorrow?

Pleasure and pain. Love and hate. Sacrifice and greed. Grace and bitterness. Orgasm and despair. The mystery of the co-existence of these paradoxes overwhelms me and I wonder what, if anything, it can all mean. In the chatter before classes and at lunch, some of my students and colleagues try to tidily answer this mystery. "The first thing I thought when I got up this morning", one of them says, "is that God has brought down their government for their evil voodoo practices." Another suggests that sometimes people have to be broken down before they can look up. I want to throttle them for these violations, yes, but mostly I am just saddened by the desperate paths we stumble as we try to make the nonsensical fit within the scope of our puny reason.

One of my more honest students walks into my crowded room at lunch and announces loudly to a group of his fellow Christian High School students, "Well, what if Jesus doesn't love us?"

As he continues to loudly insist that they face his question, I realize that I don't have an answer for him... or at least not an easy one. It must be faced, however, for if I am to be honestly human in the face of such unspeakable suffering (even if I am going to make the choice of love, to mourn with the sufferers and do what I may to ease their pain) I must pause, at least once, to shake my fist at the sky.

I believe, I do. But it is hard, and oftentimes it feels that I am clinging desperately to one end of a rope that stretches off into an infinity I cannot comprehend. The rope holds taught, though, and it seems as though I am just going to have to accept that I do not know why.

The title of this post, "Jesi Renmen Ou, Haiti" is Haitian Creole. I included those words in a mural we painted on the outside wall of a new residential building at an orphanage I visited last year with a group of students from this school. It means, "Jesus Loves You, Haiti." We had the orphans put their hands in paint and leave bright, multi-colored prints all over those words. The orphanage is in Les Cayes, on the the far side of the country from Port-au-Prince. It is likely that it still stands, its mural intact. It is likely that it still declares the love of Jesus to the poorest of the poor, who have just taken another kick in the teeth. These children are some of the most beautiful people I have ever met, their faces shining with love. When I met them, I thought they were Jesus.

Dear God.

Why do we suffer? Why do you suffer?

I believe. I want to believe. Help me believe.

Dear God.

"Uncle" Ron

In ninety-seven I graduated from high school in the Amazon basin of Peru and hopped on an airplane to Lima, then to Cuzco. That was an elevation change of nine-thousand, five hundred feet in two days. It hurt my brain, but I wasn't done. A day later I boarded a train and left Cuzco headed to the world famous ruins of Macchu Picchu - but not quite. Instead, I stopped a bit early and with four other guys my age and one debatably more responsible adult proceeded to hike another four thousand feet pretty much straight up by nightfall. That really hurt my brain, and also my legs and arms and everything else.

After we made it to the ruins and tromped around a while, we jogged down some switchbacks, took the train the rest of the way to the end of the tracks, and the next day rented a truck to the very end of the rutted dirt road. From there we camped on a rocky beach, inflated some kayaks, and began an adventure of madness down four days of whitewater rapids so insane that our nominally responsible adult chaperone begged our forgiveness and made us solemnly promise that if he or any of the rest of us died we would tell our parents that he wouldn't have brought us if he had known. At that point, though, we had no choice - the only way out was a small plane scheduled to pick us up in a village downstream.

That "adult"s name was Ron Snell.

He ended up living through that experience (as did the rest of us) and went on to not only write up an essay about it, but a bunch of books about growing up as a jungle boy as well. He recently slapped a little essay online about the awkward realization that people were starting to think of him as a liberal.

"Uncle" Ron is the first published author I ever knew, and even though it's taken until this year for me to finally start actually thinking of myself as an actual writer, it was probably him who put the bug in my ear about writing, so that I kept toodling away at in on the side all these years. So kudos. And thanks.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

I Smell Sex and Boardwax

I had this perfect metaphor all worked out in my head, about how sex was like snowboarding. Real sex, I was going to say, is like snowboarding in the back country where the air is crisp and clear and there are no crowds and no clackety-clackety lifts and artificial terrain, so all you can hear in the biting cold of winter is the conversation of the wind with the trees and the whisper of your board as you float over pillows of un-touched snow. It is a conversation you have with the whole mountain, and your whole soul. It takes work to get there, and it costs dearly in time, planning and effort. You do it with another person, because it is safer and because a mountain unshared is a lost opportunity, but it is still very, very risky. Sometimes you put a lot of work in and get snowed out. Sometimes you think you're taking a good line and you end up having to slog your way out of some wet gully. Perhaps you even die, having failed to attain to the experience you desired. Nonetheless, there is no pleasure more exhilarating, no sensation more fine. 

Then I was going to say that the fake sex of pornography was like going snowboarding at the resort, where everything is slick and polished and the illusion that risk is non-existent drapes over the whole thing like a fog. It all seems pristine, but the none of the marketing and merchandising can quite hide the ugly realities of a gluttonous hedonism that ships consequences off to China. It is crowded, and yet very, very lonely. There is little room for awe, and wonder is far too transient.  

I had this all worked out and was set to write it up and post to this blog, and then a few hours ago my obnoxious friend Austin the actor got on his obnoxious little i-unit from the airport in Miami and wrecked the whole thing by obnoxiously saying that, no, pornography was like playing a snowboarding game on your computer. 
He wrecked it, but I guess he also added another level of nuance to the metaphor. Because with a video game, all personal risk seems to be eliminated and you get to imagine that you are this superhero doing all these ridiculous things that aren't even possible, not even for Terje Haakonsen or whomever else happens to currently be the hottest thing on one plank. You are settling, though, for a cheap imitation of the truth, living in a false unreality where you do nothing but consume and all that is asked is that you pay for it with your chance at Real Life. You turn a blind eye to the horrendous, earth-hating culture that made your hedonism possible and live in your pathetic moment, blinders firmly stapled to the side of your head.  

Snowboarding at a resort, then, would seem to more closely parallel the sort of pointless, stupid sex that stupid people have, where it is nothing more than a quick-and-dirty act of selfishness, slathered over with gold paint - the sort of thing you're better off doing drunk, so that at least then you will have an excuse.  

Now, I have snowboarded at seven different resorts (non-metaphorically speaking). I have probably gone riding maybe about a hundred and fifty times. I have ridden terrain parks and half-pipes in good conditions and bad. At these resorts I have straight-lined at top speed down runs in conditions both icy and pristine, where snow was bulletproof or cotton-candy. I have even tried my hand at snowboarding video games. And it was fun, too. I enjoyed it, and while I was there I did my best to ignore all the things that I have mentioned.  

Nonetheless, in the end it began to grow more and more empty, and although I do not regret the experiences - am grateful, in fact, for the often lovely moments I shared with wonderful people along the way - I find it hard to see myself going back to snowboarding if not for the sensual, dangerous, glorious reality of back-country riding. For it was on the few occasions when I did venture off-piste that I was able to glimpse, if only fleetingly, what it meant to be a human, riding the mystery of a mountain with love.

Monday, January 4, 2010

the cancer competition

Yesterday morning I absentmindedly turned my box of Quaker Oat Squares sideways and began to scan. As an obsessive-compulsive bibliophile, I read everything. I read every road sign and billboard I can manage while driving. I read trade magazines I have absolutely no interest in as I sit in waiting rooms. I read newspapers, books, books, books and, yes, product information. I do this because I love LOVE love words. But yesterday, as I worked my way down the Quaker Oats Squares ingredients, I read something that shocked and disturbed me... Yellow Number Five.

I have no idea what Yellow Number Five is. Some people say it will shrink my intimates. The truth is, I don't care. What I care about is that Yellow Number Five sounds like a dirty pop song, that I have no idea what it is, and that it is in my food. And I'm talking, like, in almost all of it. Even Quaker oats! I mean, if you can't trust the rosy-cheeked chubby guy, who can you trust?

The truth is, I have been growing more and more suspicious of this jolly old religious elf who, like Santa Clause, seems be something of an international figure and therefore answerable to no one. As I have gradually weaned myself off food products with a lot of sugar (everything), the old quaker's food has begun to me to taste more and more like... well, candy... and I have begun to become very suspicious of the claim to "just a hint of brown sugar". I mean, what the fuddruckers! It's the third freakin' ingredient, right after "whole oat flour" and "whole wheat flour" and right before "sugar" and "molasses".

I don't want to eat candy for breakfast, dodge gambit, so the only breakfast cereals I can really enjoy and feel good about now are those expensive, preservative-free granolas that do not apparently entail pouring more than a quart of oil per box onto arable farmland. What does this mean? What will I do when every single time, I can't help but taste the difference between actual food and a Molotov cocktail of chemicals masquerading as food? How will I eat?

See, food-shaped chemicals are apparently cheaper to make (not grow, mind you... make), so what we have here is a serious conflict of principles: World's-Cheapest-Male-Human meets Man-Who-Doesn't-Want-to-Eat-Cancer-for-Breakfast. For some reason, the no-cancer part of me has started to win. At first it was just a hobby. I dabbled in "organic this" and "carcinogen-free" that; but then something changed. Now that I am a dad shopping for food for a small human wormbaby (for whom I am terrifyingly responsible) it is becoming less and less conscionable to feed him any cancer - even the tiniest little bit.

I long ago gave up putting cancer on my ever-so-absorbent skin in the form of lip balms and moisturizers and colognes and anti-antiperspirant and hair cleaning products and hair restoring products that try to fix the damage done by the cleaners. I nearly freeze to death riding a motorcycle to work in the dead of winter so I can use less gas (and, yes, less money). I recycle nearly everything so I don't contribute to that whole "Wall-E" scene, and I've moved out of my bedroom into the living room so I can close it off and save on heating bills.

But now I have to stop eating cancer, too? Almost everyone in America is involved in a big old cancer competition, and here I am dropping out of the game and losing my chance to die a horribly painful death at the hands of my own warped sensibilities.

Well, I have just one thing to say to that... genetics. That's right, suckahs. My grandfather died of cancer at a fairly young age. So you may think that with all your yellow fives and your aluminum disulphates and your tocopherols that you're on a fast track to beating me to this whole mess of free money all those frickin' liberals want to pump into the medical system (how dare they try to fix what we broke... it's un-American!), but you've got another think a-comin'.

I'm number one and you? Why, you're probably all no better than a yellow number five.