Sunday, February 28, 2010

again with the sodomy

A friend of mine recently linked to an op-ed from the New York Times called "Learning from the Sin of Sodom,"  by Nicholas D. Kristof that might have you shaking your fist just a bit less vigorously towards the masses of those calling themselves Christian in America.

I have no idea how the New York Times typically "leans" or where this dude puts himself, weltanschauung-speaking,  but he seems to be eerily echoing something I once stole from another dude to write about on this blog when he says that the sin of Sodom mentioned in the Bible was not that they were all a bunch of homosexuals, but rather that they were rich and didn't care for the poor. He doesn't stop there, though. He goes on to point out that - like it or not - some (well, a lot, even) of the Christians in America and around the world seem to have taken this little lesson to heart and have been behaving less like dinkers and more like Christ (my words, not his). 

Kristof suggests that public opinion about Christians in America has been tainted by "preening television blowhards and hypocrites who seem obsessed with gays and fetuses" and has less to do with reality than politics. How's that for a flip-change? He ends with a challenge, saying that "if secular liberals can give up some of their snootiness, and if evangelicals can retire some of their sanctimony, then we all might succeed together in making greater progress against common enemies of humanity, like illiteracy, human trafficking and maternal mortality". 

I generally tend to think that a lot of the negative press is well-deserved, given the public face that "Christians" present to the world. But given that the public face of any group is always going to be comprised of people who in some way or another enjoy power, this isn't all that surprising (or unique). The suggestion that the obnoxious loud people do not define what Christianity actually means is sort of a no-brainer, but from time to time it's nice to hear it. 

I was talking to Christopher John of Stabilo yesterday and he referred to a "groundswell" of like-minded folks who, sick of pretending to know everything and ignoring the stuff that really matters, are starting to walk another path. 

My previous post referred to people who speak grace into my life and pull me back from the brink. Although I've lived my life thus far deeply embedded in the North-American-Protest-Evangelical culture and have seen my fair share of its ugliness, people like Christopher and Kristof are those voices whispering hope. 

Maybe, just maybe, we can change. So be it. 

Friday, February 26, 2010

How I Plan to Dismantle the World's Economy

I despise sneakiness. If people have agendas, I think they ought to at least be honest enough to admit them.

I started writing on the first barkingreed site in 2004, which means I've been at it for about six years now. I have spent a little time recently mulling over what all those words have been pointed towards, and I think I've finally got it and am ready to admit what I have been up to. So here is my agenda - up front, and in English:

I am trying to dismantle the United States Economy.

Mostly, of course, I have been writing to try to get people to love and affirm me. But as I look at the overall tenor and thematic direction of my work, it seems to me that my secondary purpose has been to get everyone else to spend their money exactly the way I do.

There are complicated reasons for this. Like, for example, the guilt I feel for being raised the child of wealthy missionaries in the middle of obvious, real poverty; and the belief I hold that the way I spend my money palpably demonstrates what my values are, and who I am as a person.  The result of these and other things is that I have struggled to always maintain an understanding of the difference between wealth and poverty that is based not on my socio-cultural circumstances (a rich whitey in America), but on the reality of the situation. While I have not always acted on that understanding, it has always nattered away at the fringes of my conscience, demanding to be taken into account.

This means that I do my best to vote with my wallet for the sort of world in which I want to live. For example, I spend extra money on food products that I believe have been prepared and packaged with the health of the earth in mind. I also make and eat a lot of rice, don't go out a lot, and think, think, think each time I pull out a fistful of dollars. Furthermore, I don't really buy toys that don't directly contribute to my conception of who I am and how I want the world to be, and I despise malls and consumer conformity.

So when I heard on the radio yesterday for the umpteenth time that the way to get the United States back on its psychotic train-from-hell track is increased end-market demand, it occurred to me that what I have been advocating for all these years has been the downfall of the U.S. economy. Because if the average American spent money the way I do, it would be kerplooie for us all.

There is a sense in which this is not a bad thing. We live in a corrupt, broken world, and we sit on the top of the heap in a country of ludicrous wealth that has been built on the backs of the poor - whom we continue to subjugate so that we can stay on top of the pile. Our culture is broken, and perhaps ought to be broken further so that it can be re-made into something better.

Except, it isn't that simple. If our economy tanked, we would definitely learn to recognize again the distinction between poverty and wealth, but a lot of us would starve in the process. We maybe deserve this - after all, fifty million people die of starvation and malnutrition globally every year while we blithely spend the resources they need on ipods - but that doesn't necessarily make our starvation a good thing. It makes it just, perhaps, but not necessarily good. Furthermore, there are a lot of people here who are very conscientious about how they consume, and who are much more heartbroken than I am about our wasteful selfishness. Their suffering would be yet another injustice.

The most sticky moral issue, however, comes from the fact that globalization has made it impossible to differentiate our own fate from that of the rest of the world.  Everything is so interconnected now. The United States is SO wealthy and powerful that if it were to irrevocably crash, so would everything else. John Donne's assertion that "no man is an island, entire of itself... any man's death diminishes me" has become, in our now for-better-or-worse economic marriage-of-souls, a literal and inescapable reality. If we get our just deserts, the rain of fire falls as well on the poor who - as a Christian with half a brain might say - are the image-bearers of Christ and the recipients of the favor of God.

So we are caught between a rock and annihilation. We crave economic justice on a grand scale, knowing that it would demand that our circumstances diminish, and feeling that in our current world such a justice has become impossible. It is in this place that we begin to feel most strongly the tug and pull of religion's promise for ultimate justice in the afterlife. We know that our world ought not to be the way it is, even as we contribute in small and large ways to the maintenance of the status quo. And so, as we begin to feel overwhelmed by the seemingly insurmountable evil that we perpetuate, we feel a straining in the arms of our souls towards some greater thing. We wrap these arms, then, around faith. We cling to the hope of a better - not tomorrow, but a "day after tomorrow."

I understand this need. I feel it and follow it. I am terrified, however, by the ways I see this faith turning us (and me) inwards, away from the brokenness that prompted it. As a result of our belief that the small justices we can work to enact in this world are not all the justice we will ever see, we turn our focus almost entirely away from them, circle our wagons, and wait.

To which, I say, "NO." This is, as a hair-shirt prophet would scream, a DAMNED-FOOL inaction, and I want none of it. I want action. I want change. I want the upside-down Kingdom, and I want it NOW!

But what am I to do? I can't fix the injustice of how wealth is distributed and consumed in this world with my own small actions, and I don't even feel I can wish that the actions I take were more broadly adopted. I am lost, small and alone, caught in cycles of faith and despair, yearning for the light. The only "answer" I have (if you can call it that) is one cribbed from the wisdom of the ancients, as transmitted by So-Crates in the movie "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure," in which he says that "true wisdom comes from knowing that you know nothing."

I cannot heal this land. I cannot even heal myself, and as much as I believe in the love, faith and grace that give me hope to live on through the darkness, they are not enough. I believe in something more. I yearn and hope for it. I mourn for it, really, teetering on the brink. And just when I feel that it is too much... when I am sure that I will fall, someone speaks some small grace into my life and pulls me back, for another moment, from the edge.

Grateful for that, I will continue on in the excruciating mystery. I will follow my convictions and try to dismantle this broken world economy, but I will remember to laugh at myself even as I do it. I will try in my own small way to be that voice of love for someone else, hoping (and praying) that my weak words will not be the last.

Monday, February 22, 2010

an apology

I'm used to annoying people with my blog. I am not, however, used to feeling like I was wrong to do so.

Two posts previously, I wrote about how to get a job. I didn't stop there, though, I went on to editorialize on the state of the economy. Because of the gentle, annoyed correction of friends who care enough to do that sort of thing, I have come to realize that my statements were overblown and, yes, mean-spirited. It's never nice to kick people, and although sometimes truth demands that we be not-nice, the time for that is not when those people are already rolling on the ground in pain.

Work is an in-built human need, and not being able to fill that need is a painful, painful thing. It is hard to find good work right now, and it is arrogant of me as an employed person to act smug. Furthermore, referring to my smugness in the post doesn't make it any less obnoxious.

So I am going to do something that bloggers are not allowed to do. I am going to say that I am sorry.

OK, here goes:

I am sorry.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

oh, well

All right, fine. I give in. I'm going to tell you about my favoritest secret CD ever. It's called I Don't Think There's No Need to Bring Nothin', and it's a bit of piano genius by Linford Detweiler, one of the chaps behind the band "Over the Rhine". In my opinion it's not a particularly good name, because it doesn't begin to capture the delicate, haunting beauty of this album.

I always mean to tell people about this CD, but then I "forget". Maybe I like that it's been my little secret. When they invented the internet and started putting music on it I was shocked to find that it's sort of a one-shot deal for the guy, and that it hasn't made more than a twinkling little sploosh in the waters of the music pond. You won't find it on, and there are no youtube videos of him performing it. It's just not all that prevalent... but I think you can buy it digitally somewhere. Like, say, here.

I know sound quality is important, but I first heard it on a cassette that some stock trader in Canada had made for my dad. I listened once and then yoinked that tape and played it most nights as I went to sleep for the next, oh, three years. And I never got tired of it. It's serene, intimate, spare, and oh-so beautiful. It is also the absolute primary reason that when people have asked me over the years what my favorite instrument is, I have always said, "piano".

I don't know much about music, but I do know how this album has made me feel. It has been a balm to my soul, and it's just not right to not share that. So buy it. Tell your friends to buy it. Do it now. Maybe we can coax this Detweiler fellow out of hiding.

Friday, February 19, 2010

the four "P"s of emPloyment

I realize this is a bit off topic from my usual bloggeretic fare; but I know a thing or two about getting a job and  just figured I ought to share that thing or two with those who for some reason are still going to job interviews in greasy t-shirts from their fun week at Jr. High band camp.

What, you might ask, could a fruity art teacher happen to know about getting a job? Well, as it turns out I have read "What Color is Your Parachute", twice, and also "The World Belongs to Those Who Hustle", an article posted recently on the amazing site, The Art of Manliness. More than that, however, at the ripe young age of twenty-two I was put in the position of hiring people for a summer tree planting crew. Because it was to be such an intense environment and because my wages depended almost entirely on how well my employees performed, I took the hiring very, very seriously. I read books on techniques of management, leadership, and hiring. I interviewed each candidate for an hour and a half, checked all their references, and ended up writing a hiring and training manual that was disseminated and widely used in the four-hundred person company for which I worked.

Over the next six summers I interviewed probably around seventy different people, and unlike any other foreman I know, I never had a single one quit. There were quite a few I wished would quit, but that generally had more to do with me and my learning process, because the people who worked for me over the years were amazing, and we consistently out-performed every other crew in our company.

All this to say that although reforestation is a very specialized industry, I learned a bit about what it is an employer wants. I could probably talk your ear off about it, but instead I'm going to just give you four easy-to-remember principles, which I will call "the four 'P's of emPloyment." So without further ado...

Preparation: Locate a job you want. Figure out why you want it. Is it your passion? Your vocation? A logical and important step on your way to your passion or vocation? If it is none of those things, you'd better look elsewhere - primarily because you've got some soul-searching to do. I don't mean you have to be thrilled to death to work in a cubicle at Intertrode, but if you can't figure out how that particular job fits into a larger direction for your life (like, I've got to eat and save money so I can open that Hamster-Meat Taco stand I've always dreamed of) then you might get the job, but you're in for a whole lot of misery.

Figure it out. Then suck it up and get to work. Research everything - not just the position you're applying for, but also the company itself, and the industry in which it competes. It wouldn't hurt you to pick up a book, but the internet will do. Find out what sort of wage a top-performer can expect to earn. Find out what the company policy is on nose-picking - find out everything. Everything. I mean it.

Presentation: Your first impressions are the most important. If you don't take them seriously, they will be the only ones you get. This might seem like a no-brainer, but you'd be surprised how many people miss it. Put together a resume and print it on actual resume paper. Make sure it is flawless. The person interviewing you for that tree-planting job may (like me) just happen to have an English degree. Don't give him or her some stupid reason like punctuation to pick another candidate. The resume is just the start, though. Wash your clothes. Trim your hair. Iron your frickin' pants. This may be stupid, but it's the way the world works and if you don't like it you can either suck it up, start your own internet-based business, or go find another world to live in.

Now, straighten your posture and suck in your gut. Then breathe in and out a few times and relax. Be yourself. They don't want to hire an automaton, they want a person. You happen to be a person - an awesome, unique one - so use that. If you can't seem to calm down going into this, then take a day and go on a silence retreat in the woods near your house. Chill out. Walk right into that interview and shake hands with confidence. Remember, you are awesome and have what they are looking for - you! You are the human resource that they are shopping for, so be confident.

Did I say that word already? Let me say it again: confidence, confidence, confidence. Most people are scared little sheep and will bleatingly follow a confident person wherever they go. Remember that "confidence" and "arrogance" are two very different things, and then go for it. I hired a number of people based primarily on confidence, and they never let me down.

Persistence: You probably heard about Winston Churchill's famous speech to a bunch of schoolchildren? He said, "Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, give up. Never give up. Never give up. Never give up." Winston Churchill was the Man, so listen to him. Be polite, but for the love of Jim-Bob-Pete, it is not the job of the employer to track you down and make sure you're still interested in the position. By checking back, you demonstrate your eagerness to work, and your willingness to be a self-starter. Everything you do before you're hired shows what you'll be like once you have the job. So prove you deserve it.

Performance: The moment you start this awesome new job that you've yearned and burned for, you need to prove that you're worth the time it will take to train you. Work is a privilege. It is a gift. It is an honor and you have just landed the opportunity to show what you are made of. And here's the kicker: every day you come in to work, you are interviewing for your next position off down the road. So even if you come to hate your job and feel like you were made for far more glorious things, take a deep breath and remember that the decisions you make today determine the worker you will be tomorrow.

All right. That's it, then. Super-brevified and not all that original, but it ought to get you started. It's up to you now, so go make me proud. I'll be right here rooting for you and who knows, maybe you can put in a good word for me down the road when I get laid off.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

signs of the times

My favorite bad church sign I drive by on the way to work had this little gem the past few weeks:


As usual, I could not tell exactly how I was meant to be offended by that statement. Should I be bothered by the vaguely threatening tone? Or insulted in a half-bemused way that this church seemed to think it a good idea to pitch Jesus as something you ought to just "give a whirl?" Has the marketing of Jesus come to this point? 

"Tired of your regular, boring old morning pick-me-up? Try the all new and improved... JESUS! Guaranteed to  put a pep in your step and a nest egg in your bank account. We're so sure you'll be thrilled with our product that we're cancelling our 'All-Sales-Final' policy. Just bring the item back in the same condition you found it and we'll return your putrescent, evil, useless life to you... No Questions Asked! What are you waiting for? Try JESUS today!"

Sunday, February 14, 2010

it's gettin' hot in here

Fred the Dude just wrote on slacktivist about the human tendency, when someone tries to implicate you in the brokenness of this world, to start yelling and blaming and passing the hot potato to the closest patsy you can find. I have been thinking about putting in my two bits about the whole global warming thing since it first started snowing a couple of nights ago, so here it is and nuts to you, Fred, for typing faster.


I have always thought it a wee bit funny when people start to rage about global warming - not those guys with the lab coats and the oscillating spectrowitzits - but rather people like me and you: people who don't know anything, and yet perpetually act like we know everything.

Some dude somewhere who has several pieces of paper that insist he knows everything says, "Oh, by the way, we've averaged every temperature in the whole wide world and analysed all sorts of stuff you would not understand and guess what? We've got some oceanfront property to sell you in Kansas". Then some other dude says, "Check me out, I've got a lab coat, too, and guess what? It just snowed in Louisiana. So there, you stupid, stupid, stupid-head". And then all the sudden you and me and all the other sheep who have even less of a clue what's going on, we all start yelling across the dinner table about how obvious it is that people who think the opposite of us about the decimals in the average global temperature are all idiots.

You know what I say? I say that no matter what, the world is going to have people who are going to do whatever stupid, destructive things they want to, as long as they can still feel good about themselves in the process. So they're all going to seek out people who tell them that they are awesome (or at least a bit better than most) and then they are going to listen to those people and vilify anyone who says different. We argue about average global temperatures because it is such a gargantuan concept that it enables us to yell angrily without ever facing up to the fact that everyone - even (gasp) us - is making selfish, tiny, day-to-day decisions that are making the world dirtier.

You may not litter, but you sure do drive a car on a road made out of petroleum. Or if you don't, and instead ride a bicycle and eat from dumpsters, the fact remains that that cast-off food you eat has been paid for by a glutted culture of death and destruction.

Whether or not the world is getting colder... or hotter... or more green... or even purple, the fact remains that we (that is, you, specifically, who are reading this, and I, who am writing it) are taking a beautiful, balanced, God-infused thing and we are destroying it for convenience, pleasure, and the possibility that if we pile up enough stuff other human beings will finally love us.

Now, I know you can't stay alive without destroying and that even the vegans kill things when they clean their houses and cook their bland food (microorganisms are people, too!), but it is one thing to destroy because you have to to stay alive... it is quite another to destroy without thought or care because you want to control your fear by making a big huge fort of toys in which you can hide from the reality that you are very, very small and are for absolutely certain going to get old and die.

I understand this, I do. I am writing because I feel the need to do something, and because I feel very small and want to do anything to be able to feel, today, as though I matter. I need to "wail, for the world's wrong" and the truth is, most of the time I don't. Most of the time, just like you, all I want is to be entertained and  to feel good about myself. For example, when I put my son to bed for his nap just now I sat down at this computer and honestly debated for a while whether to just watch TV on hulu, or to look for some fantasy woman I could objectify and use for pleasure (drug/failure of choice: quitting, I swear... thank God).

I chose instead to do this thing - this writing - because I believe that my options in life are only two: create, or destroy.

I feel better now. I have made something. It sure beats killing brain cells with streaming video.

Acknowledging that I am a destructive wastrel is important. It is the first step to actual, real change. It is the first step to beginning to turn destruction into creation, and it is also something that I have been saying for a long, long time. This is because I am different. And, of course, less to blame... because it's really more your fault, when I think about it. So do something already!

I'll be right here, tapping away at this coal-powered computer.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

building the mystery

Today as I was washing dishes, making pasta, listening to music and trying to keep Mateo from destroying anything, I thought that maybe I heard a dog barking. I don't have a dog, so I ignored it for a long time. It got louder, though, so I finally popped my head out to see a large hunting dog (floppy ears and everything) baying up an oak tree right by my house. I followed his gaze, expecting to see a raccoon or something, but instead saw Wormwood, my jet-black cat, about ten feet up and clinging desperately.

I wanted to help, but being a little preoccupied, I called my dad over in the other house and asked him to come out and deal with it. He did, with a few well-placed snowballs, and then came laughing to my door to tell me that the hound dog had run off, side by side, with the orange cat who sometimes hangs around and fights Wormwood.

Sherlock Holmes used to say that you eliminate all the theories you can and the one that remains, however improbable, is the truth. I don't have time to suss all that out, but this is what seems to me to be the most plausible explanation: The orange cat (we'll call him Fred) got in a fight with Wormwood recently and lost. As he crawled away in shame, Wormwood called him a mouse-licker. Fred burned an even brighter shade of reddish-orange.

Determined to have his revenge, he went home and found Chuckles, the next-door neighbor's hunting dog, whom he'd helped out with some legal issues the year before. "Chuckles", he said, "you owe me a favor and I'm calling it in." The rest, as they say, was history.

If you've got a better theory, I'd love to hear it. For now, though, I love this one more piece of evidence that the world is a strange, mysterious place of wonderment. Oh, and that you can't trust the cats - they're up to something.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

potty words

Today, as with most Wednesdays, I listened to a man say stuff from a pulpit. It's always a man and it's always stuff and it's always a pulpit. Today, though, the man said something different. He said, "crap."

"Crap" is definitely a potty word. I know this because it refers, very specifically, to the brown stuff that goes in an actual potty. So as this man continued to ramble on about some other stuff, I started to think about potty words.

My attitude towards potty words has shifted significantly in the past few years. This is perhaps inevitable, since my way of thinking was shaped primarily by a childhood spent in perhaps the most conservative "Christian" environment possible - a missionary community in a foreign country - and I haven't been in that environment for quite a while.

As a child every adult I knew not only claimed to be a Christian, but also claimed to be the sort of Christian who would dedicate his or her life to the translation of the Christian scriptures into other languages. Because of this, they had a commonality of belief that you would be unlikely to find in even the most tight-knit Protestant church group in North America. Although these people (being people) did disagree about things, for the most part their commonalities were much, much greater than their differences. Like, say, how they felt about potty words... words like "crap."

As a result I grew up, along with all my friends, believing that there were certain words that you could not say without incurring the wrath of God. Oh, and I am not exaggerating there when I say "the wrath of God." We were IV-pumped full of Bible verses telling us that we should never allow anything unclean to come out of our mouths on pain of eternal burning fire - so much so that when in the summer after our Senior year my friend Seth and I paddled to the middle of the Amazonian lake on which we lived and I stood up and hollered out that you should never say words like (insert string of expletives here) it became something of an epic story that Seth still enjoys telling.

That was the only time I ever said any potty words in my first seventeen years of life, and in the ten years that followed I don't think I ever said another potty word without putting it in some kind of "quotes" - and even those occurrences were very, very rare. For the most part I just re-wrote any potty word I was quoting with one of its more culturally-bland counterparts.

So darn it to heck and back again, what changed? Well, in practice, not a whole lot. As a former English major, I absolutely love language and find most potty words to be unintelligent and uncommunicative. I am also still living in a culture that has fairly conservative mores regarding language. Unless I have a moral reason to do otherwise, I think it is very important to live at peace with my culture, and one of the ways to do that is to respect its traditions.

I guess that's where I've changed. I have come to view a lot of language as culturally-conditioned. I hear a guy say "crap" from the pulpit and my gut-level, culturally-induced reaction wants to judge him and say, "Oh, look! There's another lame-donkey youth pastor trying to be hip with the kids." But I don't know that. I don't know him or his culture of origin, and although I wasn't particularly into most of what he had to say, I felt it was important to assume the best of him... to assume that he spoke the way he did because it was natural and normal for him to do so.

In the same way, I feel it is important to grant the same grace to anyone else I encounter who uses language that, because of my upbringing, it is awkward for me to hear. The words hardly matter at all - what matters is the heart of the person and what they are trying to convey. "Unclean talk", I have come to believe, has more to do with words that are not spoken in charity, grace and love than it does with a particular set of syllables.

I have mentioned this before, but I can remember mentally recoiling from a friend who playfully punched me on the arm and said, "Barkey, you little motherfucker", when it was abundantly clear from the context that he was trying to communicate affection and gratitude for a favor I had done him. I am ashamed of this, and have tried to rectify this by "de-training" my gut reaction so that I can really listen to what people are communicating, instead of just judging them by the standards of my childhood culture - a culture that, truth be told, no longer even exists.

Language changes, and words have meaning only inasmuch as culture gives it to them. This places me in an awkward spot, sometimes, because I work in a culture that does share many (but not all) of my childhood biases against potty language. As an authority figure, it is important for me to respect that and maintain the preferences of the institution, while at the same time recognizing as I listen to students that while they spend a lot of their days in this culture they are not, as I was, fully immersed. They entertain themselves with words and ideas that were utterly taboo in my childhood world, and absorb from their culture and their parents lessons and attitudes that I sometimes still have difficulty comprehending as having anything to do with Christ.

But it is easy to quote Jesus and say that I should "Judge not, lest I be judged." It is quite another to follow through on this teaching when my gut-level, emotive reaction has been so long conditioned against the culture in which I now sometimes live. I do not want my son to grow up behaving and believing as I did, and I have realized that in order to change him, I have to first change myself. I have begun in a very tentative way to live with just a tiny bit of grace. I have realized that I don't have to recoil at potty language and am able to listen, instead, for the heart. I don't really care all that much, any more, how people arrange syllables. I yearn, rather, to understand what it is they are trying to get those syllables to convey.

It took years of poorly loving my wife and pushing her further and further away - often because of something as stupid as all of this "potty language" stuff - before I could begin to come to this point. Sometimes you have to get your face severely kicked in before you can finally begin to shut up and listen.

It has hurt like the bejeebers, but thank God for the kickin'. I really, really needed it.

Monday, February 8, 2010

How to Stop a Conversation: Two Methods.

First, if someone asks you whether you are a dog person or a cat person, the correct thing to say to stop the conversation is this: "Hmm. Good question. I've never thought about it. I guess when it comes to pets, I'd have to say I'm most in favor of the animal that will yield the most meat... you know, in the event of the apocalypse. Given the current high prices of traditional pet foods, I'd have to say I think I'd side with Guinea Pigs, which are not only considered a delicacy in many South American countries,  but will also put on considerable weight on a diet that can be easily gathered from the woods and fields near my home."

Second, if someone asks about politics, just say what one of my students did today: "One of the most important things about me is that I hate Barack Obama." Then, when someone asks you (as another student did) why this is, just say, "Oh, you know. The obvious reasons."

Saturday, February 6, 2010


I rejoice in the freedom of calcified lies grown brittle,
cracked and broken and then thrown out carelessly to the winds.
And, Oh, God, I see my sins stretching back
as sighs torn from between my eyes whisper off between the trees where I am lost,
so lost in thickets of apologies I never learned to say.

And way off on the crest of a hazy hill I see her lone and lonely figure
and I am crying for her to look my way so I can scream for her,
so I can cry for her 
and love and live for her 
as long as I have days.

But she can't hear me... can't come near me. 

So my eyes look up at you (or is it down? or sideways?)
My eyes look all ways until they roll in paroxysms of existential ire 
and I scream, then for fire. 
I scream for blood and vengeance... 
but all that falls are tears,
bloody tears of love-lost's salted taste.

And it seems a waste.

All this screaming on deaf ears... hers and yours.

All this smiling at lost fears pretending I have made it through,
silencing the tears, pretending I've received what I've desired
as on I've wallowed through the mire of lost paradigms,
making nonsensical rhymes as I proclaim the farce of freedom's fame.
As I proclaim the lie that lies are dead, and gone, and died.

But are they, God? 

Some of them... yes. 

The small weak ones grown worn from winds of admission, 
have detached in resigned submission. 
This, only this, has me screaming on despite my tears. 
This thing, this relief of fears. 

And God. Yes! God. 

Thursday, February 4, 2010


Samuel put his brush down on the rough board next to the ragged strip of raw canvas he had been working on, contemplating the long strokes that no matter how hard he tried never seemed to have the fluidity and grace that flowed so effortlessly from Zebulon, his teacher.

He looked over to where he worked a few feet away. The old man was sitting on a stool and painting a large, home-stretched canvas that sat on a thoroughly splattered easel. The fine wisps of his silken white hair were lit by the warm glow of afternoon light through the many windows hap-hazardly cluttering the northern wall of the small, clean studio. Samuel watched the gentle rhythmic stroking of his brush, transfixed.

"Do you ever wonder", he began, "if violence is ever good?"


Samuel almost continued his question, but experience of his teacher's insistence on a very precise use of language made him pause.

"I mean, do you think violence is ever good?", he asked.

Again, his teacher said, "No".

"But what about like if you have to stop someone from hurting someone else", he continued, "do you still think violence is bad?"

"Absolutely", Zebulon replied.

"Is that why you gave that man your money yesterday?"

Zebulon sighed, resting his brush across the corded muscles of his dark forearm. "No, I gave him my money because he had a knife".

"But you know the disarming move for that better than anyone... I've seen you do it hundreds of times in our other class", Samuel argued. "And you told me once that it was very easy to do it in such away that the other man's wrist was snapped and useless for months, if you just applied downward..."

Zebulon cut him off with a wave of his hand. "The capacity for violence does not automatically imply justification. But that is not what I mean, exactly, when I say that violence is never good. Listen..."

He swiveled on his stool and Samuel tried to hide a smile at what he hoped would be a story or a lesson. The old man rarely spoke much without prompting, so when he did Samuel was always sure to listen. He loved the melodic sound of his teacher's voice. It had aged into something all the more precious for the rare histories it contained in it's musky tones.

"...I learned to disarm so that if I ever had to I would be able. But although that man seemed to be drunk and was probably so inept I could have easily hurt him far worse than he could have hurt me, I could have been wrong or he could have been lucky. With violence, there is always the possibility that you will lose. By giving him my money, I traded the sure loss of a few dollars against the possibility that you or I might have lost our blood, or worse. It was only money, and eventually that man's actions will find him out anyways. Justice is a hard and fickle thing, and mercy is usually not only better for the person to whom it is given, it 'twice blesses', as the bard said. The giver, for his part, is freed from the bondage that power demands. Do you understand?"

Samuel nodded. "But what about when you have to do violence? Like when the man has a knife and you are sure he is about to hurt you, or me?"

Zebulon nodded. His chin dropped to his chest and he seemed to be lost in thought, but when he answered his voice was as clear as ever. "Violence is never good. There are times when one must do violence, because one has to... but these times are so very, very rare, and so very hard to know. The webs of actions, re-actions and consequence that we spin out all around us are a mystery - and often we may believe that violence is our only recourse when there are, in fact, still many avenues available to us. Unless we hate violence... unless we loathe it with a deep and burning passion, then there will always be the possibility that we have not taken the time to give a nonviolent course of action enough of a chance. And that possibility will hang upon our shoulders for the rest of our lives, an invisible weight made all the more terrible by the fact that we probably do not even acknowledge its power over us."

"Is that why you hate war so much?" Samuel asked.

"Yes. Because I find it very hard to believe that the men who make the war machines and grow rich and powerful off their use will hate violence enough that I can trust their decisions to use it. War takes their lack of antipathy to violence and nurtures it. The violence then grows beyond what anyone would ever have intended. It kills the good earth and destroys the lives of the innocent. Even worse, perhaps, is what it does to the hearts of all the men and women who are touched by it, hardening and hardening until it seems there is room for little else than hatred and destruction, which are in fact the same thing. I am an artist. It breaks me when people chose to destroy instead of create."

"But enough... enough talk. We are here to paint. This requires not our words, but our actions."

With that he turned back to his easel and the steady motion of his arm continued. Samuel applied himself with greater concentration to his work and became so lost in the making that an hour later when he again looked up, the old man was gone. All the raw daylight had gone from the studio, but a lamp still burned over each of their work stations.

Samuel stood up, his long-ignored knees creaking, and walked over Zebulon's canvas. It was a scene of war, dripping with rage and anger and passion. Samuel could feel the power in the moment, and he was drawn to its tension and strength. The torn figures of men and beasts writhed in bloody combat, straining in battle with faces contorted in gruesome expressions of hatred, fear and desire. Something about the piece seemed odd, though, and as Samuel leaned in close he saw that each face was the face of the same man. He drew back when he realized that that man was Zebulon himself - young and full of life. 

He stood watching, almost afraid, and then after what felt like an age left the room, taking care to shut the door with a gentle whisper as he stepped out into the cool night air.