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Why I’m Not Around So Much

The path moves itself

The path moves itself

My postings here have fallen off. Not a great loss, given my tiny audience, though I appreciate my tiny audience is not in it for the cat pictures. Does it matter? Nothing matters. Everything matters.

I’ve been working on a book. It’s a mountain from the past that still hangs out there, but the climb is any other marathon: the finish only imagined until afterwards. But I’m getting better at it. I’ve written more of it, in a more sophisticated way, than I ever have before.

I’d avoided the book for decades, having judged myself incapable of expressing it with the competence and grace I wanted. Jobless after Thanksgiving 2009 I’d at last started adult work on it, churning out thousands of words of character studies, outlines, treatments: a mountain of work a mountainous book deserved. I didn’t get to writing the manuscript until March 2010, and by then I’d exhausted myself. I got a job and gave up in a different way.

2013 was different. I started fresh, focused on simplicity. My outline was three pages instead of 90. I made a schedule of long-term goals, since I had been drifting so long. I’d have a draft finished before Thanksgiving 2013. I felt, if not excited, buoyed to a new level.

This time a year ago I was drowning in an anxious depression. The job, new in January, nixed my money worries but took all my time and energy, the school performance anxiety I’ve never quite vanquished transferred to the job. I worked evenings, woke up mornings, pounded out doughy, uninspired words that took too long. The opening was hackneyed (how many characters have startled from a dream?). It was March and I was hardly more than a chapter in. I worked harder, taking up the weekends. I spent so much time in front of a keyboard my shoulder still acts up. April had me back to antidepressants (don’t be fooled by the initial mania), and things only went down from there.

2014 is different. I don’t remember when, but after getting things straightened out by fall I finally took a friend’s advice: even just fifteen minutes every day is great progress, if you really take the fifteen minutes. So the first chapter–which I threw out and rewrote, and has morphed and grown in notes and in my head since–is complete for now. The second, a similar mess, the third, better. My parents visit, the holidays, work keeps going. I’m not winning any races, but I’m deep into the seventh chapter, the first in the second act. Thirty, forty-five, sometimes a couple hours a day; with productivity independent of the time spent. Frank Herbert, who wrote the Dune novels, observed that six months later he could see no difference between what he thought at the time of writing was good or bad. I’m trusting Frank and all the others. Nobody has confidence in this, and that’s fine. 

2014 is different. I have friends that I maintain. I keep up improv classes and harbor dreams of what that could mean. The book is coming together–slower than I’d like, but a daily stone to the pile. I don’t feel hunkered down in my little house, my only anchors to sanity the cat and voices on the phone. I am not like a friend’s brother, now deceased, rejected from work, rejecting of family, on his last dime and (in my friend’s frank words) with no chicks to bang. I don’t feel thrilled and released and terrified as when I was first divorced. Splashdown is complete and the capsule is still. But because I am still, I can move.

If, since Hawaii, I have been yelling at you, I apologize. It wasn’t my intention, even if that is what I needed. Many things have come together and stuck in the right way, and I suspect the friend who suggested I start this blog knew that would happen. Thanks for that.

I still observe things, still think into the dark. I go for walks and look up with wonder instead of the dread I have been so used to. I do my thirty or forty-five or hundred and twenty minutes, and then that’s the day, and I do something else, or nothing. I’m sleeping okay. The job won’t last forever. I’ll keep you informed.

Don’t push the river. It flows by itself. 

- Barry Stevens

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Words I Would Rather Never, Ever Hear Again

THE LIST OF WORDS:

  • entrepreneur
  • innovation (and innovate)
  • branding
  • learnings
  • gift (and the equally odious “gifting”)
  • ping
  • The Market
  • onboarding
  • resource, when used to mean “a person.” “We need a new accounting resource.”
  • resourceing, or the process of acquiring resources. “We’re resourcing some new accountants.”
  • organization, often shortened to “org” as a means for corporations to refer to themselves and their internal fiefdoms.
  • technology, in the overused software sense of any program, device, technique or method its proponents believe to be sufficiently complex and radical that it deserves coronation as a “technology,” instead of just another copy or variation of some longstanding thing. For instance, “Our new map technology provides robust haptic foldability.” (In other words, it’s a paper map.)
  • reporting. There are two senses here, one for data processing and another for what journalism has devolved to. In the first sense, reporting is the process of delivering reports, which are by definition tedious, opaque, and offer meticulous data about a process or status that is either too small to be relevant or too large to have meaning as charts and graphs: “We’ll need more resources to finish the TPS reporting on time.” The second sense can be seen twenty-four hours a day on cable television.

I am a writer. I know many other writers, and many others who write for a living or for pleasure who are writers in all but name. We treasure words, wrestle with them, hate them, luxuriate in their curve when fit together just so. Writing provides the most horrible sort of play: a game that is never quite good enough but you can never walk away from.

Words mean things. I’m not the nihilist Frank Zappa was when he shouted “they’re just words” to Robert Novak, but words must have some degree of fixed meaning to make comprehensible communication. Why didn’t I know what those third grade Texas kids were talking about when they asked to borrow a “payin”? Because my Ontario-trained auditory processing couldn’t figure out if they wanted a pen or a pin. Confronted with a pop test the answer was obvious, but I felt the need to make a point: these words sound different because they signify different things. (That doesn’t work with homonyms, homographs and homophones, of course, but that’s English for you.) The slop in meaning allows for poetry, but the slop flows through a solid center.

Words listed above break the rules. They have become tools of those who want their true motives hidden, or–even more bizarre and dangerous–desire to erase any sense of art or humanity.

Cubedwellers will recognize all as corporate language, and everyone will recognize some as the undying patter oozing from every mass media orifice.  These words have been designed to be numbing. They deny basic humanity and elevate the rigid authority of those who buy and sell. I don’t think this is going too far. What’s the difference between a resource and a slave?

I am tired of these words, of this list, of the blank-eyed quarterly statements that generate them. I have resisted them small-scale, refusing to ping but instead contacting or reaching out to. When referred to as a resource, I correct or ignore the speaker or writer, shifting the word used to person. (It doesn’t stick, and I can feel the weird looks through email, but I’m not afraid of this modest sabotage.)

Now I’m turning my back on these words. They are empty shells, obfuscating with their Potemkin village show of fullness and plenty. There is no there there so why be cramped by empty space? The Market can stay rich with its innovative paper fluff. Value is solid, whether it’s held in the hand or on the tongue, and I cast out these derivative collateralized words.

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Snow

Falling

Falling

Winter has been tame here, polar vortexes directed toward flyover country and parts east. I make no moral observation but in quiet moments allow myself reminiscence without return. It’s new and not bad.

After a week of bright sun and polar lows in the teens, some snow comes on the warm tail of cold’s departure. Enough to make Saturday night glow in the sodium light and clear out the streets, enough to cause delight without panic. Even a week of teens doesn’t have the ground cold enough to make the stuff stick, only pile up and give us the puffy silence and glow through the windows.

Street

Street

Adults who have no love of snow are not trustworthy. I allow no exceptions or addendums: their inner child is lost, or beaten down. Snow is the most approachable and banal sort of magic, but magic it is. Touch it, smell it, taste it–all its textures and qualities calling out to first grade science class. Snow is not mysterious at all. That’s why kids like it so much.

Home of snow

Home of snow

Snow does not last. This night of its pink and bluewhite shining is the only night we’ll get. The snow falls but only for now, just like when you were a kid, just like always. Even where it is common I hold it is a gift. Pull a blanket around you, look out the window, and listen. Snow falls but does not fail.

 

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Justice from the Drug Man

Who gives unto Caesar?

Who gives unto Caesar?

I haven’t been feeling well. Nothing to break the surface tension of worry, but I would rather stamp it out. My arms have burned with sandpaper inside the skin off and on for the past few months, sparks jumping deep inside the muscle. Then the night sweats started, waking me in the wee hours to a drenched bed. Peeling the undershirt off, I could wring drops out of it. Surely a sign of personal growth is unwillingness to return to the bad old days. Doctor L gets a call.

The meeting in her office of kid drawings and kid pictures on the wall is focused now: we have been here before. My patient records span multiple folders, each thick enough to clobber a big dog. Ahhh, she flips. When did we last do that? Over a hundred here. Not too bad. You still got that crap in your mouth? We discuss, compare. We are old hands at this now. Then the flourish: Ooo-kaaay. So here’s what we’re gonna do. 

Lyme involves a retinue of henchmen and stragglers who cause their own trouble. Two of these are bartontella and babesia, creepy corkscrew things that can hide out, flare up, and hide again. In 2011, six months of medication seemed to clobber them. No more sweating at night, the fatigue and zinging pains were gone, and my mind hummed like a plucked string. I was set.

In 2011, Doctor L suggested Mepron, a powerful new anti-bug juice intended for malaria but which was excitedly reported to lower the boom on Lyme co-infections. At the time I had comfortable insurance through my job, but had pause when the good doctor mentioned it could be expensive. After twenty years of horror stories about the very ill having their insurance yanked when they become unprofitable, and having taken some expensive pills at length already, I called around. In 2011, the cheapest Mepron was from the Costco pharmacy: $1500 for a month’s supply.

Many other treatments–for cancer, say–are much pricier, but fifteen hundred bucks set off alarm bells for me. A discussion with Doctor L winds down to Bactrim, an old, dirt-cheap sulfa drug. The pharmacist showed concern and lectured me intensely in broken Asian English about allergies and reactions, the chief reason the sulfas are not much used. Cheapness or luck was with me, and the big white pills became daily familiars.

Now, come back around in 2014, Doctor L suggests the azithromycin and Mepron as in 2011. No alarms sound this time. Is it my new sense of self-trust? Unconscious retention of Obamacare preventing the chronically ill from getting kicked to the curb? This is America, after all. A new day is always around the corner.

Zith is common enough, but Walgreen’s must send out for Mepron. Waiting tickles my subconscious. I didn’t get this before but don’t remember why. When the stuff shows I remember. 

Look closely at the picture above. Small type at the bottom of the red box proclaims a retail price of $2144.49. The white paper Rx bag contains not a diamond ring but a brown bottle:

Mepron bottle

Mepron bottle

Inside is a washed-out yellow liquid thick as tempra paint. I don’t think it’s made with diamonds either.

I am one of the lucky ones with insurance that will cover such medicine: I’ll shell out the top-level $40 over $2150 any day. To have such insurance one must also have a job, and to have and keep a job one must be well. If you’re missing a piece, well, you console yourself with knowing America is great.

Twenty years ago the carnival of healthcare enraged me. I suppose it still does, but even rage becomes boring. All the time I have been alive, American health care has gotten worse. It serves no one but the few dozen super-executives whose functions have always eluded me. Obamacare’s reforms are so meager compared to the problem’s enormity–and its vast handouts to the health insurance and drug companies–that it makes one question the point of government at all. (And that’s by design too.)

But these are selfish rants. Compared to the poorest billions (billions with a B), I am in the one percent with my clean water, healthy food and internet access. Mepron is effective against malaria grown resistant to everything else. All sufferers of this are in the true ninety-nine percent, languishing in Africa and southern Asia. Where are they supposed to come up with $2150 a month? Or the millions of Americans without insurance, and who will remain without it after all of Obamacare is said and done?

The usual rants about greedy drug companies are in order, their research spending less than their marketing muscle, their resources bent to upping dosage recommendations for profitable drugs instead of making things cheaper. How many types of boner pills do we need? The interwebs are full of people’s stories mugging for the drug companies’ largess, filling out charity forms and jumping through hoops while ill in the hopes of free or cheaper medicine. I have no patience for entities that would visit such indignity on citizens. I have no sympathy for giant corporate whining on their formidable expenses. Twenty-five years ago, the anti-balding drug Minoxidil went for $2000 an ounce. Now I can buy it at Safeway for less than $20. Why should I believe their whining?

The smartest thing is for me to take the medicine, ask no questions, and certainly not call the health insurer. With luck a refill will go by undetected, and then hopefully the breath-holding will be over. The sun will shine and good old stick-to-it-ive-ness will again prove this is America after all.

But I will always know that the poor and sick and stuck are out there, continents of them, and down the street from me living under bridges. There but for the grace of God go I.

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He Shuffles His Feet

ASK NOT

ASK NOT

Fort Worth is a Plains town, its placement in Texas notwithstanding. Like a Plains town, the center is laid out in classic rectangles, which the twentieth century sometimes extended but mostly abandoned to the suburban pattern’s curving drives or weaving cul-de-sacs. It has the feel of all American cities that grew up after the car (meaning most of them): a placeless ever-changing place, the minimum required for the time being, because we all know Progress keeps coming and Progress will cause change. So this stretch of freeway has both grown and stagnated, the Ray’s Coil and Spring with the same sign and the same building as when I was eight years old and the freeway was a sine wave ribbon ducking under the city’s east-west streets. Between 1987 and 1992, I-35W was turned into a concrete channel a la the Los Angeles River, city streets carried on concrete pylons. Ray’s floats above the channel and its roar, as close to the action as it is cut off.  The streets around Ray’s are all on the same separated grid, I-35W and the city’s east-west freeways the central meridians that intersect in a central aligning cross. I-35W is straight as a spine.

Like every other Plains town, the north-south/east-west cross defines the city’s central metaphor. The dominant faith shares the same symbol, and is as omnipresent as these concrete channels that determine all movement, and thus all choice.

This billboard was on Fort Worth’s south side, a working-class to poor Hispanic part of town of leaning little frame houses. The billboard’s yellow letters screamed out at me the first day of my Thanksgiving visit. Plane ride disassociation was nothing compared to how shocking and loud this sign was. Driving north the next day, I took the time to get off the freeway, find the access road, and get this picture. The neighborhood behind looks like this:

Light industrial

Light industrial

Unwanted

Unwanted

It still does, in my mind.

Growing up here was shock and contrast. Transplanted from north of Toronto in 1978, I have a vivid memory of the first Texan I met: my ten-year-old neighbor, deeply tanned and wearing only bright red shorts with the white piping popular then. He was all smiles and greeted the eight-year-old me. I didn’t understand a word he said.

Religion pervaded every atmosphere, my experience with the East Coast’s moldy Catholicism no bridge to this new paradigm of flames as tongues and your every move and thought monitored by powerful, invisible forces. The TV brought Carl Sagan and Star Trek, but word on the thin, sun-fried streets was a yowly certainty that we were all going to Hell. I could not square the two. For the first time, I began to think about the dark side of things.

Elementary doubt and avoidance turned to fierce horror in high school. I did not know everything and was enraged by the small army of wild-eyed adherents that insisted they did. Jim and Tammy Fae Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, and all the rest were pounding their message from their gilded coliseums of tawdry fear, building their fortunes hawking a poison message that boils down to you are a bad person. Classmates delivered pronouncements of unassailable illogic. My town made the national news for a school board that wanted to remove evolution from science classes (in 1986, before it became fashionable), and later for a church-sponsored haunted house featuring the horrors of un-Christian living, one being a blood-and-gore soaked woman who cried I’m an abortion! 

Looking back, I realize how enraged I was at this rigid, all-pervasive fear of an invisible Master whose love you were condemned to endure. Figuring out girls was complicated enough without adding that.

Then high school ended. College was still in Fort Worth, still in that soup, but the crazy seemed more optional. Living elsewhere proved it could be lived without. In Seattle it is all a different reality in a different place. It has nothing to do with here and now.

When I was very sick and frightened, my oldest friend would take my hourlong phone calls. I would walk when I could; on lucky nights the stars were out. From our respective time zones we looked up at the great existential questions, now far more than amazing things to wonder about from youthful safety. A few times he emailed passages from the New Testament, on strength and forces larger than us.

Ten years ago some anger flashed, briefly. There are so many stars. I understood what he meant, and was grateful.

Since taking the picture I’ve been meaning to call. There’s the number, big as life. It’s what they want, but I’m not sure why I’d call. Certainly I’m not going to heckle anyone, nor will I sit still for that. Maybe it’s just a phone tree: press one to learn more about Jesus, two to accept him as your Personal Savior®. As the weeks go by I feel the foundation form beneath me. It’s not about any of that old stuff: that’s in the past, irretrievable and inapplicable. I don’t want to shout or be shouted. I want a conversation.

Yesterday is sunny, my street noisy with trucks. I put the phone on speaker and click record.

Thank you for calling gospelbillboards.com.

A recording. I will admit to slight relief. A young man with no professional training and the rounded but not completely spherical vowels of the Southern-to-Plains accent reads from a script.

Can I really know what is true? What will happen to me after I die? Who is Jesus? These are very important questions and it is crucial to know the answers to them. If we don’t, we will miss our purpose for being here on the Earth, and we will not be prepared for life after death–eternity. Be assured: Jesus cares abo–

Click. A brief noise coat like a coat being brushed.

Good afternoon. This is David with Gospel Billboards. 

Startled by the transition, it takes time to realize this is a real man. He sounds older, raspy not from smoking but age, perhaps weight. The voice is thin and I imagine thin hair, but still hair; the skin is stretched instead of loose. There are chrome glasses. There must be glasses. There are occasional other noises, thumps and clangs, possibly voices.

I only fishmouth for a moment. Hi, David…my name’s Derek.

Oh! Hi, Derek. He sounds startled too, and this is comforting.

Uh…. thanks for taking my call. I was visiting my parents for Thanksgiving in Fort Worth a couple months ago and saw one of your billboards. I was…am, intrigued and I’ve been meaning to give it a call. Glad it’s not just a recording and I got you. 

Well. Okay. He laughs, a small volume of modulated rasp. Well, I’m glad that you called. There’s actually eleven of us…. He explains the operation: a self-funded group with billboards throughout the country and volunteer ministers staggering their phone time. Several churches (or ministries; he uses the terms interchangeably) cooperate to maintain the website, put up the billboards, and run the phones. We’re a prayer line as well as providing encouragement from the Scriptures, applying the Bible to their situations. To those who don’t know Christ, we’re introducing Christ and offering prayer. We’re fully funded; we’re non-profit and we’re able to take care of counseling if that’s necessary.  

Vocabulary from a world left behind is the present’s thin guest. I remember that world (the churches, the Christian tinge to radio and bumper stickers, the Christian bookstores), though without the meaning this man knows. I am not part of the club. His voice is easy, undemanding and conversational, even as speech seems a minor struggle. He just sounds like someone on the phone.

I stumble with logistical questions: sounds like a real operation. David answers with friendly matter-of-fact on the group of churches–Anabaptist, Baptist Brethren, and a few others–their goal of linking the physical church to people. If there is a physical need. We’ve just started a campaign of billboards on major interstates all along the West Coast. It’s increased calls quite a bit. His little laugh has no pride but more small-town surprise that something was a success. Three fulltime and eight part-time people handle all the calls. He is fulltime. Calls not answered live are returned the next day. It’s been a bit of a challenge. 

I ask what the calls are like: is there an average call? exceptional calls you’ve had?

He lets out the kind of gentle, gasping snort of someone reflecting on all the invisible and enormous worlds humans can make. Total range. We’ll have Christian callers that will pray for us, and we love that. [He laughs.] We can encourage them, so it’s a mutual encouragement. Talking about the End Times, talking about the days we live in right now. You get calls from people who are in desperate need. [The tone sinks here.] They’re faced with a life situation that they can’t handle, so we pray with them. We search the scripture. We counsel them to try to bring them some hope. Sometimes, we have…a couple of times we weren’t successful. [Pause. Mmm, I offer, thoughtlessly.] They ended up killing themselves. But…. We grieve over that. Because we desperately want to be able to help. 

Against the truck rumble and the sun outside, the world of the call is still. During my times in extremis, the void opened, its airless breath vast and timeless. I can imagine what it must be like for David and his ten fellows: getting the call, the person manic or smothered, the string of electricity and bits carrying their voices the last tenuous connection and everybody knowing it. And then it was cut. I want to be thoughtful, to share something about what that must be like, to ask a meaningful question delicately. All I can think of is what training they have to deal with that.

I ask nothing because David barely pauses.

But homosexuality is an issue that we’re facing. So we’re trying to give a Biblical answer, and it’s still extending the hand of hope because they’re sinners. The same as any other sinners. And we all have sin because we are children of God. We all have to come to the cross, and it’s best to come to the cross, be saved, changed, given a new heart and life, rather than face God at the end of life and…be judged. 

David does not explode with fire and brimstone. He does not pull out an ax and begin grinding it on me. His raspy voice measures out the words as carefully as a doctor would explain the need to quit smoking. 

My response is visceral and total: tension, deep against the bones, and cool. At once there is disbelief sharing the stage with no surprise at all. Of course he would say this. Of course he would quietly associate suicide and homosexuality. Of course his tone is even and reasonable, a little tired. His task is enormous.

I say: hmmm. 

David continues for a while. If you don’t know the script, you can guess how it goes. But I am not interested in scripts now, on either his part or mine. My furious teen self–my righteous self, to use a word of Abraham–would poke at him like a caged animal, or a clown, and turn the conversation into division, maybe shouting. To use the best lesson a writing mentor ever gave me: and then what? Neither of us would learn anything, our characters as cutout as ever. I am not sure why I am calling him, but it’s not to be right.

Well, that’s…. First of all, if you’ve ever been on one of those calls with somebody who’s…who’s really in trouble and then you later find out that they took their own life, I’m…I’m sure that’s really rough. I’m really sorry if you’ve had any calls like that. I’ve…ah…last year was a really tough year for me, and I don’t think I would’ve hurt myself. Ahh…. I was having some trouble adjusting to medication and some other stresses in my life–

Yeah, yeah that’s hard! David’s response is not fawning. His voice is not fake in it’s slow-giggle rise, the sound of somebody who can empathize, maybe better than they would like, with another’s bad time.

Yeah, yeah and it’s–

That’s very hard. I realize what I hear in his voice: the muted kindness of Pooh.

Yeah, it’s hard for the person on the other end of the line, too, if they’re really there and really wanna help. You know, if you’ve been on those calls my heart goes out to you. It’s really rough with just some voice on the phone and you don’t know what’s gonna happen. 

Seven months ago on the Fourth of July, on one of those hanging-by-a-thread phone calls, a friend asks: I wonder what it is you’re meant to learn in this time. I think this is part of it: to not be outraged and instead find connection with the other human being. Nobody behind the billboards is a monster. Believing this offers the chance of getting somewhere.

Well, you have to be aware there’s life situations that occur…I mean, you yourself…I mean…I can tell you mine… [He does.] …it really affects you, stress, I have to watch my stress. Not that this job isn’t stressful…because it is. But I’m a minister, and I chose that. 

Improv taught me to foreclose judgment. If someone walks onstage, declaring themselves an aborted fetus, that’s the scene. Being offended or refusing to play are not choices. Your partner took a risk and committed to it, and commit to the hand that’s played.

David and I are more than playing a scene. I am, for once, trying to learn how his world works.

Anyway, it’s a recognition that God does give us strength to get through those difficult times. We also have to recognize there’s changes that occur, especially as we get older (a small catch of a laugh), that aren’t going to be perfect. We aren’t going to be perfect til we go to Heaven, to be with the Lord. 

We talk some about health, losing it and getting it back. While speaking I am trying to integrate something constructive to ask about homosexuality–something that would further the conversation.

I was struck by something you just said…ah…in terms of homosexuality being something you guys are dealing with….and in the frame of, what you said about helping people through difficulties…um…. [....] I wonder if you can unpack that for me…. I mean, what…what does it mean when you say you’re facing the challenge of homosexuality?

There: I opened an unjudged door. It doesn’t matter whether I agree or not. I won’t learn anything from catchphrases.

Homosexuality in our country right now has become an issue of coming out of the closet in just a…tremendous way. Fifty years ago you didn’t hear of it. I mean it existed, it existed in different cultures throughout history. But the sign of is is usually an indication of a de–…uh, a tearing apart of the society itself, as part of the downward slope before the society starts to sink. 

Hmm.

And when you look over history you can see, like the Greco-Roman societies, fell into that when they were really, especially when Christ came and presented the truth, and they rejected it. It just went downhill. Different times which Christ and his ways have been rejected, you can see depravity hitting. When you read in Romans chapter one, it talks about it as being a giving over to the lusts of the flesh in an abnormal way. So it’s a product of sin and a continued downward spiral of sin. 

Hmm.

You lose track of reality, of how that God made us, in the beginning, Man and Woman–it’s obvious what we are. [I can hear him smile.] But when you start sliding in your sense of real, sense of reality, and everything’s relative, there is no absolute truth, and all of a sudden everything is subject to feelings. And when it gets subject to feeling, everything falls apart. 

We talk a while. It’s a one-sided conversation, but I’ve set it up that way. I learn many things, directly or by inference. David is old. He knows this, feels it, has no doubt had long talks with God about it. Times were better when he was younger, when everything worked and made sense. Nothing had fallen away then. Everything had a place to go and someone to put it there. People were decent and good. Now, as his physical body falls apart, the outer world is falling apart too.

I also think David is terrified of feelings. Beyond the accepted go-to conclusion that he must be a repressed homosexual, he fears what we all share as humans: rage, lust, joy, fear itself. Feelings are dangerous evidence of our flawed nature and inherent brokenness. They must be contained.We are lucky to have Christ to bind them, to fix how unimaginably broken we are.

David’s worldview is ridiculous to mine, easily dismissed as self-flagellation from a previous, crueler era. The talk of sin and homosexuality are artifacts of the early Church fathers who were terrified of sexuality in all its forms, Origen rejecting it to the point of castrating himself. As a kid I was repulsed by David and what he represented. Now I feel no anger. Not even pity. I see him as another person struggling to find meaning but, like joke where the drunk lost his keys, looking over and over in the same place that gives the same anti-human answers.

Should I argue with David that he is wrong? Beyond insulting someone who has opened his home in kindness to strangers, what does it even mean to say he is wrong and I am right? The very science I would argue this embodies the task’s futility: there is no privileged reference frame. What you see depends on where you are standing and how fast you are moving. There is no stillness, no center of the universe. The observer changes what he or she sees. Homosexuality exists throughout nature, and sexuality is a broad continuum. The flourishing of human societies has little to do with what their beliefs and practices are, more with how compatibly they live within their environment’s available resources.

I am not judging. David has walked on the stage and presented this character: and older man headed to frailty, a man with strong but not adamant opinions, a man from an age where the Bible had all the answers in a way that was magic. I don’t want to go for the cheap joke. The keys aren’t under the drunk’s light.

I understand what you’re talking about, and I’m not trying to start an argument, or be dismissive, or be disrespectful in any way, but I just…the arguments that I hear, I don’t…they’re difficult for me to square. You [...] said that there’s a decline…what is the decline that you’re seeing? 

A hardening of the heart. 

I remember my surprise at hearing this.

It’s a loving of self rather than a loving of God. Or loving…seeking of self-pleasure over everybody else. Self-serving. I was in the Navy a number of years ago. Our headquarters was down in New Orleans. There’s an area down there called the Vieux Carré [French Quarter]. And we were told, as sailors we were told: don’t go to the Vieux Carré…. [When traveling in the vicinity] go as a group, because you’d be in danger otherwise, especially at night. These are sailors! It’s just a recognition that… [He makes an exasperated sound.] Sin increases when righteousness of God is rejected. And so that’s what I mean by hardening of the heart. A rejection of righteousness of God. God is all love. He is a righteous God; He is a holy God and his judgment is sure, but because of his judgment his mercy is sure, and in his mercy he forgives. And he forgives and forgives and forgives. And he works with us until there’s no more working–either our heart is completely hardened and we receive no…nothing from Him to give us any strength to live this life…. 

The first few sentences elevate me. Self-reflective comment on the world’s cruelty is coming. But I break an improv rule: I have an expectation. So I am let down when his offer, like so much religious, folds back on itself without explaining anything. Nothing is connected. He took no risk. But I take one.

So this hardening of the heart you talk of, I mean, is it exclusive to homosexuality, is that the largest problem? I mean when I see Wall Street, Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, all these guys getting away with whatever they want, that seems like a much bigger issue to me.

Well, sure, I mean, homosexuality is not the thing that everything else goes to. That’s just one. I mean, murder. The extreme end where people just go off…you’re talking about murders, serial murders. You’re talking about rape. You’re talking about total lack of respect for one another, and love. No taking care of each other over self-pursuit and the pleasure of self to the destruction of others. And I have to say the media plays on the edge. [...] People are seared by [the media's constant focus on depravity]. They’re no longer surprised, no longer ashamed by it. Just numb. And then things start happening. Then organizations like us are out there trying to pick up pieces and get people to come back together again. 

We must both realize we are each playing our own game. There is something he is not saying that I want: that secret thing that makes homosexuality an ultimate bad, what the French Quarter has to do with our society’s largest problems aside from “sin is bad”. There has to be somewhere else to go. I unload about the commercial media, how its pressing of buttons doesn’t help anyone.

Yeah, David says. How are we gonna help each other? And then to this hopeful start, more about God the maker, knowing best, Biblical answers, Shias and Shiites, Satan. But that is just so much white noise from an antique radio. Where can we go?

You know, my oldest friend, who I’ve known since the seventh grade…. He’s been going to church for a while and he talks about the fellowship he receives…. You’ve probably figured out I’m not religious, but my friend has a phrase I like: we’re all on the bus together.

David chuckles.

I mean, the boat, it’s gonna sink or swim…we’ve all gotta patch the holes, all gotta paddle together. Whatever frame or labels…. I think that more often people are talking generally about the same kinds of things most of the time but they just use different labels. They come from different cultural environments and a lot of times people just talk past each other because we use different terms, different labels, we’ve been raised different ways. 

It’s sunny and Saturday morning. I am grasping at something, trying to build something in the long distance silence buzz.

I guess that’s the closest thing I have to a question for you. Are we all talking about the same kind of thing? [I relate growing up in Fort Worth and finding its species of religion oppressive and declarative, in so many words.] Is part of it that I was focused on surface things and not able to see we’re really talking about the same thing? You talk about God and following the path of God–I think you’re earnest about that, about trying to find a way to integrate and become a whole and better person, to find love and creation instead of destructive forces that want to tear us apart, physically or psychologically. There are all these forces whirling around in the world and we’ve gotta figure out what’s good for us and what’s bad for us, and now in our complex society it’s not obvious what’s good for you and what’s bad for you. 

Only briefly is David silent. He hesitates to use the term Christian, he explains, because so many Christian groups have fallen away from Christ. There is another world to aspire to. It leads you to understand that I can’t do things by myself because I would go the opposite direction. I need him. His strength, his morality…because he gives that with his spirit. When I confess my sin to him I have something different. He gives me a new heart, and I recognize at that point that I can live differently. But if I’m left to myself, I can’t. It’s impossible. 

He goes on that this is what Jesus has to offer, and down the rabbit hole of choice and love and punishment and sin and guilt that the Church has confused the West with for two millennia. I am not reaching him.

The call wraps itself up: his wife has things for him to do. I say I’m grateful, and I am: he has taken a lot of his time to talk to someone who will not fill up his scorecard. I took a picture of this billboard and I’ve been meaning to give it a call, because I’ve been curious–is there anybody there to talk to? And there is and I’m grateful. 

He laughs a little, though I don’t know if from surprise. He’s glad to have spoken with me. He ends by describing the oldest among them, the cancer now pinning him in his final hospital bed. His counseling materials are in the room with him. His thoughts are: if I can talk to anybody–encourage them, pray for them–while he’s lying there in pain…. David pauses with a hard exhale, and from the cellphone distortion I hear his gravity and grace. He’s just a…he’s a gem. He’s got his mind. He’s got his heart. He’s such an example to me. I wish–I hope–that when the day comes for me and I face his situation that I’ll be as godly as he is. 

I hope that for all of us. 

For all of us! Yes, yes. 

Over the cellphone delay, we goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture appeared on Netflix. I remember seeing it on a cold December day in 1979: nine years old, in Texas a year, the weather at last cold. My mother drove me in her spunky Pinto with the weak heater out in that Prussian blue Plains dark and we stopped at McDonald’s (very, very rare) and I got a movie-themed Happy Meal. I was amazed by the movie then–its colossal scope and darkened palette, drawn to the idea of Voyager 6, the little engine that could, finally making it home.

Despite constant panning I like this movie still, and Netflix revealed to my adult understanding why. Like 2001, the movie is a high expression of the oldest quest of mind: to know more, to be brave in the face of ignorance, to ask a question unafraid of the answer. While hobbled a little by its TV roots, the first Star Trek movie is the same metaphysical play as 2001. Both ask the ultimate questions that have always been science fiction’s mission: who are we? what is the universe? where are we going? what does it mean?

This is why I stayed up huddled against the bedside lamp that cold December of 1979, falling through the pages into Ray Bradbury’s Mars and silent city streets. It’s why the next autumn I was glued to our massive Zenith on its shaky metal stand as Carl Sagan explained the cosmos, and that we were just starting to know. This was a world so huge we could never get to the end–the idea of an end meaningless. The universe was big in time and space. There was room enough for everybody.

But even at ten years old, I understood the Texas outside books and TV was a universe removed, cut off, separated–just as the Christian story insists, so the people had made it. Rules are specific and small, designed to avoid pain, embarrassment, and shame. The horrible stories of faith–almost killing a kid, wiping out other tribes because God says so–repelled me even then. God was everywhere and nowhere to be seen, a giant god small in his terrible pique. That god seems much more the raving desert lunatic than V’Ger, who is done with this level and wants the next big thing.

I think I called that billboard number to see if things had changed. Was God indeed the god of love–not the convoluted, beyond the sky love that had been schizophrenic-ally explained to me growing up, but plain and simple mammal love?

No. David’s god is unchanged from the terrible desert of its birth: fearful even of itself, judgmental, devoid of compassion or majesty. It is like V’Ger in that it doesn’t understand humans at all. It is unlike 2001′s monolith.

People want answers. They want to know why. Science offers answers that are true but have nothing to do with us. Religion offers answers that aren’t answers but sound like them, and are of human scale. So many of us want that personal touch, the universe small enough to tell us it’ll be okay, the invisible parent. More of us than I would like want someone to punish us, to control scary parts of us, to enforce rules.

The call showed me David is a good person. I am sure as anyone with a half-hour cold read can be that he is a good neighbor, sees to his responsibilities, is kind to children. He wants hearts to be opened. But he wants them open so far it becomes a surrender, and not of the type the Buddhists talk about. His god wants an abdication of the self, an admission we are incapable of being grownups, of having autonomy. His god wants dependence through fear.

I don’t think David is broken and needs fixing. I believe he and his fellows are sincere in their desire to help. None of them realize the world has moved on. There hasn’t been a center of the universe for a long time now.

The people sat waiting
Out on their blankets in the garden
But God said nothing
So someone asked Him, “I beg your pardon:
I’m not quite clear about what you just spoke -
Was that a parable, or a very subtle joke?

God shuffled His feet and glanced around at them;
The people cleared their throats and stared right back at Him

“God Shuffles His Feet”, Crash Test Dummies, 1993

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Winter of Old

Paths

Paths

Winter of old returned. For a while at least, and for The America that has forgotten. The ninny media performed its usual work, everyone able to stand out in the cold and take pictures and put them on every screen. The species of logo-wearing meteorologist that hunches against hurricane-driven surf was upstaged. I was grateful.

A little snow

A little snow

Seattle got none of it. Our winter blast came in early December, as happens every few years. I love the brilliant mornings: the night sky naked to space, black silence cold flowing down, pooling, bricking itself in. A brilliant dawn follows, friendly with the sharply drawn stars, the Olympics across the city stark as cardboard cutouts. Walking out in such cold is the pure release of knowing for certain there are things far bigger than me. I am the ant, and the cold is the shoe.

A few weeks later the Midwest and East get it, the news sites filled with stories of power outages, school closed, negative-so-much-Fahrenheit. Lost in the shouting are little stories noting such cold outbreaks were more regular in the past, that the Seventies were a cold decade, that we have warmed so much now. The usual suspects bellow whar’s yer global warming now? 

A week goes by and the winter of old is gone, replaced by mid-50s in Massachusetts. In Seattle trees are budding. No one outside of climate science blogs says anything about this new winter, the winter of not.

Fog

Fog

In the Cascade West it is warm, high as 60 when the sun is out. The blocking pattern that sent the “Polar Vortex” down south has swung up here, stagnating everything. Seattle is under a stagnant air advisory for another week. Fog pillows in where normally there is rain, sometimes snow.

Fog signifies nothing. It can happen anytime, in any season, even in desert. All fogs have the same clammy, indistinct sameness. In fog, I do not know where I am in any way.

When I remember the harsh vacuum freezes of childhood, high school, my twenties, they are stark in outline and clear with purpose. Getting firewood in, holding the ladder so a grownup can break up the ice dams on the roof, heating up soup: everything is the foundation of adventure. Straightline winds curled snow as sharp as glass shards down the street, and to go out into it required layers of preparation like leaving a spaceship. Opening the outer door was entering that outer world, the wind hammering me, the snow raking my outer polyester layers, movement constrained to shuffling. Winter transformed the world.

Now the heat has come. The average is raised. The doubt that persists is paid for by those who want to keep making the same money. People are eager for nothing if not denial, and this is the biggest denial there is.

But here’s a truth: I like it warmer now. Away from Texas long enough I can appreciate sun and heat (but still not humidity). I get the snowbirds.

I do miss the snow and appreciate its coming scarcity. I appreciate the aesthetic of its loss. Snow blankets and muffles. Snow becomes a touchable sun. Snow generates riches of moonlit silence. Snow makes work to prepare for it, and appreciation when it is gone. We will lose these things.

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2013-2013

Needle Instants

Needle Instants

A year ago I wrote here to summarize what had happened that year. I realize now I wrote it for myself, and realize all my writing is like that: for me, and for you as me. I hope I don’t presume to know you too well.

In graduate school, I have the vaguest memory of a discussion on historiography. Arnold Toynbee’s colossal Study of History was a professor’s favorite, as was Arthur Schlesinger’s Cycles of American History. I never read beyond bits and pieces, but latched on to the idea that there are different types of history. History is a cultural idea as much as music or dress, my professor believed. What clicked for me was the connection with the idea of time and experience in the quantum age: nothing exists until we observe it. Applied to history, nothing exists in the stream of shared memory until we apply a preformed idea of the story of what it’s supposed to mean.

A year on, I see evidence of cycles and a new sort of meaning. 2012 began well, had a terrific middle, and collapsed at the end. 2013 began with a wrack of anxiety and questioning, frustration that things weren’t going fast enough, and a long descending period where I tested where rock bottom was, or at least felt that place’s yawning hole. At the middle it turned around, and now here I am, already five days into 2014–a year used in Ray Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke stories–and the sun is out, and I am okay.

It is easy to think I have failed. I meant to have a novel first draft by October. At the moment I am midway through the fifth chapter. So, objectively: fail. But over the year’s rise and fall I can see my driving, wretched attempt to make something happen in a way and at a rate I wasn’t prepared for undermined my mental health and made my right shoulder really hurt. Now I feel better about writing, and at moments have the sense that it really is possible, that I am writing to the best of my ability, that it will come together. Other days I don’t. This must be that package old folks keep talking about.

It took a long time to get over a woman I’d fallen in love with. There, I said it. New York made me realize I had never felt that way before, and it was something I wanted. I kept holding on to it through 2012, still grieving about my cat’s passing away, and I don’t care how sentimental you may think that is. I understood my teenage self in a new way, grasped another reason why I had steered clear of such involvements then. Fall of 2012 was all this, plus being jobless in a way I hadn’t planned: heartbroken, alone in the way of heartbreak and grief, and with a stack of vet bills. Unemployment had me out looking when I’d planned to get writing in earnest, landing interviews but no jobs: failure and rejection on three fronts (love, job, writing). 2013 opened with a new job, but with it the anticipated terror of failure. What am I getting into? Am I wasting my life in a different way?

From here, safe with the bright winter sunshine and citalopram, I can see the year’s weight came from holding on. This is the baggage that is so talked about! Voices as old as middle school I could at last see, high school’s crusty and overwrought ideas of success. I would have rather taken the appropriate meds from the start and avoided the darkest nights. The darkest nights are what I needed to have.

The first minute

The first minute

This past nervewracked summer, a friend asked why it was so bad to not have my life’s aspirations completed already. Are you in a hurry to be all done, to live a few more decades bumping into furniture, lost and rudderless? By the end of 2013, my inner animal understood what she meant.

2013 did not close with a first draft done, but I am friends with writing again: I can see back to the verve I had in college, and at last have the patience to make a good story instead of just good sentences. I feel like I know where I am in the book. I’ve held a job a year and saved most of the money. I was able to loan some to friends in need. I have a new car for another twenty years. I have a warm and safe place to sleep. I am healthier than I have ever been. I have met someone new.

It’s taken a little longer than I thought, but it always takes longer than you think. Today I will take down the Christmas lights and put them away, free of sadness, free of Monday school dread. It will be fine, for all of us, on the bus together.

Lost in fog, we are happy anyway

Lost in fog, we are happy anyway

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