This Website will be devoted to essays and insights related to diversity, addiction/recovery, psychological growth issues, global perspectives, the disenfranchised, aesthetics, and cultural values. The core value streaming throughout the essays I write will be about returning to our innocence, which sometimes requires a trauma, a jolt, an invasion of the “other,” or a paradigm shift.
Many of my comments will sometimes reflect a more radically progressive approach to an idea. At other times, I may very well see some healthy alternatives in a more reactionary, conservative approach. There will be few areas, if any, that I hold sacred, taboo territory. In that sense, everything will be up for grabs.
I am also interested in international film narratives, stories whose voices are too often left out of the more powerful voices of the international film industry. They have much to teach us about aesthetics, cultural values, and morality.
For those wishing to participate, enjoy the ride!
John T. Marohn
I recently was told that I don’t have to return for another colonoscopy for ten years.
Sounds like good news, right?
Well, my friends, human nature, being what it is, we can always find some chip in a dining room table, some flaw in otherwise perfect facial skin.
My immediate thought was simply, “Jesus, I’ve got ten years to sweat this thing out. Anything can happen in those ten years. I could get cancer. Then what? I’ll have to get chemo. All my hair is going to fall out. I’ll have to make out a living will. How will I be able to shit? What kinds of foods am I going to be forced to eat? Who’s going to take care of me?”
The simple gist of it all is that ten years is just too long to worry about anything.
You see how the mind works. My mind anyways. And I don’t think I’m that crazy.
Good news, especially about one’s health, is very much like someone being successful or enjoying a freedom you’ve lost for one reason or another.
I’m one of those guys who can certainly accept success, on some level. But success always comes at a price—the fear of failure; the panic of not being able to hold on to that success; the paranoia about the inevitability of time running out.
Release a guy who’s been in prison for twenty years and find out just how scary freedom can be.
Or talk to a young woman who’s been in an alcohol rehab for six months, walks out the door, climbs into a friend’s car, drives home to her parents.
“Well, honey, what are your plans?” her mother asks.
“I don’t know,” the daughter says.
And she really doesn’t know. The enslavement to the booze or to heroine took away her freedom. Now that she is initially free of her dependency, that freedom is the new normal. Now she has to worry about getting a job, reconciling with her family and friends, paying back some debts, looking for an apartment. Maybe even starting a relationship.
It’s very scary stuff.
Human nature always plays counter-intuitive tricks on us. We can throw a wrench of suspicion, or get a slight sensation in the pits of our stomachs that any good news contains the possibility of shifting into a horror show.
Positive results from a medical test bears the weight of many of our fears about the next time. Or, even if we are given a ten-year reprieve from another test, to worry about worrying for a longer period of time.
And, in my post-Social-Security days, it is not unusual to have this haunting sense that “Yeah, I beat the rap this time, but what about next year. Or the year after that?”
As I grow older—no, let me rephrase that—as we grow older, our bodies begin to show their frailties—teeth (if we still have them), legs, hips, knees, urinary tracts, hearts, brains, colons, bladders, eyes, feet, acid levels, cardio-vascular systems, intestines, memories—they are all ripe candidates for breakdowns.
So, it is not unusual for us old codgers, even with good medical news, to have this haunting feeling that something else is inevitably going to have to be attended to, at some time or another.
In our golden years, we are all like old cars—a muffler goes, a fuel pump dies, a battery stops working , the brakes begin to groan, or a windshield wiper suddenly starts spreading streams of oily water across our windshields.
Inhabiting any space and time for the elderly is not like the space and time of a millenial. Good news, for many of us in our seventies or eighties, is often accepted, stoically, for, like it or not, most of us knows there will always be a time when the news is just not good.
(I dedicate this Blog Post to Joan Rivers, the comedic master of the irreverent, the bawdy, the unseemly. RIP, Joan)
I am divorced. I’ve had many post-divorce and diverse relationships. I have also had a few live-ins. Some time ago, I just stopped having long-term relationships. I remain single.
That’s about it, for now, anyway.
Mind you, I’m a post-Social Security guy. I was born the year of Pearl Harbor (Google it). I grew up believing Bing Crosby should have been a priest; that a field of bushes were the only private places where mom and dad would never find me and my friends touching each other when we were kids; that a lay-away wasn’t about sex; that “girly magazines” had a reason for being. Continue reading
In my city, there’s a cadre of AAers who treat the program as a ritualized boot camp and see the steps as a military-like list of prescribed mandates, rather than “guides to progress.” Within this model, sponsors tend to see themselves as drill sergeants commanding the uninitiated through the twelve steps.
The Twelve-Steps Sequence, a Natural Order or a Human Construct?
There are also many who believe the sequence of the steps reflects a kind of natural order of events for recovering alcoholics and addicts in the program. Each step is seen as an inevitable awakening-like process, even though the order of the steps reflects a strong theological bias, particularly in the second and third steps—the “came-to-believe-in-a-power-greater-than-myself” steps I call them.
Those specific steps are placed early in the program suggesting that nothing in the program can be accomplished without some kind of “higher power” guiding those in recovery through the process of the program. According to this more traditional view, some recoverers call this higher power “God,” with grace-giving abilities capable of transforming behavior and attitudes. Continue reading
(I dedicate this article to all those who live in the dark world of chronic sadness and depression. Although I don’t address the issues of clinical depression, I believe that many of us have what I call a “depressive personality.”
My comments in this essay address that kind of personality. They are not meant to support the world views that many with that personality trait share. They are merely an attempt to understand the ebb and flow of those attitudes and world views that depressive personalities share.
And I would like to make it very clear that many of us with that depressive personality type are not consistent with our dark world views. There are days when those views dominate. And there are days when the world gives us every reason to want to go on living.
With the help of a twelve-step program and twenty-nine years of sobriety, I have gradually, but sometimes reluctantly, moved over into the world of chronic happiness. But, as the saying goes, “old habits die hard.” Namasté) Continue reading
Somebody’s Gonna Win, Somebody’s Gonna Lose
Winners and losers. That’s the name of the game.
“American Idol” certainly tells us that. American coffee-shop customers watching the bunched up “Tour de France” cyclists on the winding, stretches of a two-lane highway in the Pyrenees tell us that. The swift-footed American FIFA soccer team tells us that. The sweaty and bulky tv wrestlers certainly tell us that.
And the electoral college, what does it have to reveal? Well, no Spoiler Alert there: Somebody’s gonna win. Somebody’s gonna lose. Or as one tv contestant said, “Second’s not fun. First is what it’s all about.”
So, what is it about this pursuit of winning? This mania to be at the top of one’s game? This drive for a promotion or a bonus. This need to pass the car in front of us on the Interstate 5? This compulsion to get another right answer? Continue reading
The Great Beauty
Directed by Paolo Sorrentino
The Squandering of Talent
“Therefore, let this novel begin. After all, it’s just a trick. Yes, it’s just a trick.” This is one of Jep Gambardella’s final statements in the Italian film, “The Great Beauty.”
Spoiler Alert: So, now we know that Jep will begin writing again as the movie ends. Even if Jep’s goal may be more aspirational than real, we are left with imagining what the sequel to his 65 year-old life will be.
Up to that point, it looked as if he would squander his one-novelette talent, living among Rome’s “idle rich.” And my God, are there many of that ilk in this film.
In another of his final soliloquies, Jep says, “This is how it always ends, in death. But first there was life hidden beneath the blah, blah, blah.”
And what was that life, according to Jep: “the silence and the emotion; the excitement and the fear; the fleeting and sporadic flashes of beauty amid the wretched squalor and human misery.”
“All,” Jep says, “buried beneath the awkward predicament of existing in this world.” Continue reading
The Zealot by Reza Aslan (Random House, 2013)
So let’s get to the meat of Reza Aslan’s theory about Christ.
According to Aslan, in his potboiler book, The Zealot, Christ was a Jewish nationalist who was more interested in being an earthly king of the Jews than a sky-god miracle worker promising eternal life to those who followed him. “The principal task of the messiah,” says Aslan, “was to rebuild David’s kingdom and reestablish the nation of Israel.” Continue reading
Desire and Western Culture
Cupidity, desire, covetousness, avarice, craving, lust, longing—they all have a long history in Western culture.
The Old Testament is full of larger-than-life characters either wanting more from life outside the boundaries of what an Old Testament God would sanction (Adam and Eve) or allowing themselves to pursue forbidden desires (the male Israelites who used prostitutes and were avenged by God with a plague). Or longing attachment to a city (Sodom) by Lot’s wife who is morphed into a pillar of salt for turning around to see the destruction of the city (There is a hint of forbidden curiosity here, not unlike the fatal curiosity of Eve who is tempted by the devil to eat of the Tree of Knowledge)
And we have, in the many revenge tragedies of the English Renaissance, classic examples of thwarted desire (Macbeth, Richard III, Othello).
Even American writers have certainly given us a long list of desire-narratives from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s haunting novel of fatal attraction, The Great Gatsby, to Theodore Dreiser’s epic tragedy of American greed, An American Tragedy. The two contemporary television series, Madmen and Breaking Bad, also keep reminding us that the frantic pursuit of desire is not without its dark psychological descents. Continue reading
God as Metaphor of the Ineffable
God has been around a long time in Alcoholics Anonymous. For some, He remains the brick and mortar of the program. For that same group, He is the only Higher Power, a power that can, literally, move mountains.
For others, like myself, God is a metaphor of the ineffable. He or She only becomes the ultimate etiology of reality when nothing else can explain the mystery behind the mystery.
We are here. We are the effect of what came before. And something came before that.
But, at what point, does all cause stop at the door of the Ultimate Cause, the Cause that has no Cause before it? That, my friends, is the stubborn question that will not yield an answer. And, in my judgment, the door will never, ever open to that answer because Being is itself: it has no Ultimate Cause. It just is. And always has been. Continue reading
The Timelessness of Classic Characters
There are some literary characters who never seem to grow old. Oedipus continues to remind us that unbending pride—what the ancient Greeks called hubris—is still with us. Othello will not let us forget that jealousy, the “green-eyed monster,” can still take us down. Ibsen’s Nora Helmer from A Doll’s House is still a beacon of feminine independence.
And Hamlet can still send shivers up our spines in his relentless pursuit of revenge, clearly telling us that there are tragic consequences to such an obsessive pursuit.
The timelessness of these characters is not just because they continue to be mirrors of humanity’s universal flaws and aspirations. Often, they leap out on the page or the stage to reveal some nuanced shift away from the predictable psychological traits that many of us could easily identify on a literature multiple-choice exam. Continue reading
Psychologists and Psychiatrists are notorious for wanting to niche their patients into categories. Some of us who follow these things know that the clinical reservoir for all these categories is The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The most updated version is the DSM-5.
For those of us who are merely observers of the human condition, however, the DSM-5 is a deeply troubling reservoir of clinical labeling. Such labeling has often allowed the pharmaceutical industry greater latitude in discovering new prescription drugs that can control a variety of psychological/psychiatric disorders.
Not entirely a bad thing, really. They’re just doing their job. Continue reading
“Love and do what you will,” says St Augustine. We are told in the New Testament to “Love thy neighbor as thou would love thyself.” And then the kicker: “Love thine enemy.”
Shakespeare tells us that love is the “ever fixéd mark,” the stable grounding to all our emotional vagaries. And what fool in his right mind came up with the notion of “two in one flesh” to describe the close bonding we’re supposed to experience in a committed physical and emotional relationship? (the two-in-one-flesh metaphor, by the way, is seen by many as a convenient mandate to suppress individuality. I’m just sayin’). Continue reading
As many of you know, I continue to be an active member of Alcoholics Anonymous. I have been in the program for over 28 years. I am still hopeful that I will continue to learn more things about my own recovery, my relationships, and my psychological/emotional evolution.
As many of you also know, I am a non-theist. By that, I simply mean I don’t debate whether God exists. I am a product of Roman Catholic schools, and I learned all the alleged “proofs” for existence of God. Intellectually, they appeared full-proof at the time I learned them.
Over time, however, I moved away from the God debate. I also began to discover that many religions claim to know and experience their own sky-god divinities. I was no exception, even into my early adulthood. God, I was taught, was omnipotent and omniscient. He could, as the saying goes, “move mountains.” And there was nothing beyond his ken or capabilities.
On my sometimes eclectic spiritual journey, all proofs for the existence of God became less and less important to me. His existence or non-existence became moot since humans of every stripe, after all, still have to “deal” with the realities of life that are denied or given to them, regardless of whether a God exists or does not exist. And I see no reason to alter my behavior under any threats of after-life punishments or rewards. Continue reading
Free from desire, you realize the mystery
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.
The Temporal and the Eternal
Okay, I think I get it. The opening poem (or chapter) of the Tao Te Ching is telling me that there are two worlds: the temporal, where words (names), “manifestations,” and “desire” exist; and the “eternal” where the “nameless,” the “mystery,” and serenity (free from “desire”) inhabit.
Just when I think I have nailed it, the Tao then tells me that the eternal and the temporal come from the same “Darkness,” or, better still, “Darkness within darkness.” Continue reading
Heliocentrism, Evolution, and the Bible
Modernity does not have a good track record with some religious enthusiasts. In the eyes of many religious conservatives, modernism is associated with a godless secularism and a culture of excess, sexual libertarianism, and moral relativism.
Although scientific inquiry has been around a very long time, it has often had to stand its ground against Christian Biblical literalists who, at one time, claimed that the earth was the center of the universe, contrary to the heliocentric mathematical model of the Polish cleric, Copernicus, in the 16th century.
In the next century, Kepler was to have discovered elliptical orbits and Galileo, with his telescope, confirmed the evidence for heliocentrism with the added scientific information that ours was not the only universe. Continue reading
“You are what you eat,” they say. If you believe advertisers, we are what we drive, what home we live in, what rental car agency we use, how manicured our lawns are. And, if ads are getting it right, a clean, sanitized bathroom becomes the wished-for goal of every woman (clean bathrooms appear to be the exclusive domains of women in America).
On a more personal level, a friend and I were discussing used cars. She is at a point in her life when she can’t afford a new car in spite of the “Only-$250-a month-and-$2,000-down” high-decibel ads blaring from the television every fifteen minutes. My friend painfully tells me that she sometimes feels embarrassed about her tired, thirteen year old Camry with its 190k odometer miles. And God knows what the suburban neighbors think about the small gravey-like oil pools in the driveway.
I shared my own concerns with her about driving my 2005 Corolla, which only has 61,000 miles. This from a guy who traded his cars in every three years. I still feel the draw of those bright, shiny new BMWs, gas-pedal to the floor, as I speed into the Interstate from my usual entry lane, not quite from 0 to 60mph in 20 seconds. After all, I blithely think to myself, I am still the thirty-year old metrosexual stud with a walkup fourth-floor apartment in Greenwich Village. Not. Continue reading
Roman Catholicism and the Marian Miracles
I grew up in a 1950s Roman Catholic culture in which I was taught that a virgin gave birth to Christ. I was later told that, several centuries later, the same virgin, Mary, appeared to a select group of barely literate, impoverished Portuguese children at a place called Fatima. Secrets were to have been revealed to these children, the specifics of which, to the best of my recollection, neither my elementary school teachers, nor my pastor ever revealed.
The dogma of the virgin birth was complemented by the infallible ruling of a nineteenth century pope that Mary was taken to heaven, body and soul. This dogma is celebrated in the church as the feast of the Assumption.
The Catholic Church, an untiring supporter of these Marian miracles, added to the repository of these mysterious events by claiming that Mary was to have been conceived without sin (the Immaculate Conception) and that she was to have received a visit by an angel announcing to her that she would be the mother of Christ, the Messiah (the Annunciation). Continue reading
I have been designed for death,
Cordially aligned to destiny,
Tempering my heated wanderings,
These lungs still full of fresh air,
The treads of my pumping heart
Firm against your warm back.
One lane still open
To a slumbering apple,
An unweeded garden,
A tired August rose
An ample sun
Dipping its spotted arms
Into the sleeves of the
Cool, patient night.
Religion’s Dependence on Leaders, Credentializing Insiders, Myths
Throughout our 200,000 year existence on this planet, humans have never suffered from a lack of gurus, priests, imams, ministers, rabbis, popes, bishops, monsignors, and rinpochés. Or even, if I may be so bold, spiritual motivational speakers.
If history tells us anything, most faith-believers seem to have a need for religious leaders. They want to feel secure in a religious institution that has someone at the head of the class.
I married you, my lovely,
Because I knew
You would be lured
By those who would
On the edges
Of your calm
Pretense of responsibility.
You would have your furtive bees
Circling another limpid flower,
These wily squatters
Foreclosed, too often,
By the cautious
Flashes of your tedium.
In the arched beams
Of sacramental wood,
The steady stream of the willing,
Not the rubber-band
Figures, bent, slouched
Along urine-smelling corridors,
Of their former selves,
Curled in their dumb memories
Of medicine cabinet
Doors aching in
To speak of cures,
Against the curse
Of what He
Forgets to mend.
So, here we are in a five-star hotel room overlooking the English Channel. I’m looking out the window. I see the calm Channel waters at full tide, an unblemished moon casting its blanching rays upon the beach, the glimmering and vast cliffs of Dover standing in all their silent majesty on a seemingly tranquil night.
I ask you to climb out of bed and look out the window with me to smell the sweet night air. You accommodate me. And I love you for that.
We are content. But things change. Continue reading
India: The Sacred and the Sensual
India, as I have said in another Blog Post, is a land of many contradictions.
On the one hand, India is deeply rooted in its Vedic/Hindu sacred culture, a culture of inward-journey paths, self-knowledge journeys, enlightenment/liberation rituals and transformations, and a monistic view of the universe that tells us all is “one.”
Some scholars claim that the Vedic tradition is steeped in mysticism, giving the tradition an aura of otherworldliness and the inexplicable.
Islam and Buddhism have also had many followers in India. And both religious traditions include spiritual paths and codes of moral behavior. Continue reading
On yet another night,
She waited for George
To come home.
Looking up at the solid sky.
She heard the bustle
Of separate voices,
Whispering their pallid secrets
Of other women, who,
In their nakedness,
Hummed muted tunes
To her sprinter husband,
As brief, in his fidelity,
As a toll booth’s hand.
Growing Up in the 1950s: Be Vigilant, “Watch Your Step”
I was a teenager when I first saw and heard the adage, Semper Paratus (“Always Prepared”), the official Coast Guard motto. My two brothers joined the Guard back in the 1950s, and the motto became a kind of meme of the 50s culture.
Of course, those were the times of the Red scare and the Cold War. It was a time when school kids were trained to duck under the chairs during a nuclear air raid drill, and Catholics prayed every day to “save Russia.”
I was taught early in life that I had to be vigilant. I had to “watch my step.” I had to avoid temptation or, as the Catholics of my generation used to say, “the near occasion of sin” (Over time, I desperately searched out those near occasions as an antidote to my increasing repression).
And I was always told to “look both ways” before crossing a street. Continue reading
The Christian Soul and American Culture
In my Christian tradition, I was told that every human being has a soul. That soul, I was led to believe, is created by God and is comprised of a mind and a free will. And that soul, I was also taught by my church, would live on after I died. (I was not taught that, since I have a free will, I could choose the after-life habitat I wanted. That decision would be made for me based on my earthly track record and an omniscient God’s foreknowledge—a very tricky combination.)
Using that philosophical and theological model, Hitler, Stalin, Ted Bundy, and Jeffrey Dahmer also had souls. According to that same paradigm, they also had minds and free wills and therefore were to be held accountable for their actions (Christian theologians, to my knowledge, do not accept paranoid schizophrenia, psychosis, or bi-polar disorders as viable excuses for getting off the hook on the final day of judgment). Continue reading
Mystery and the Legacy of Christianity
I continue to be grateful for my Christian heritage. If I can thank that heritage for nothing else, it has deepened my affection for mystery and my need for the transcendent. Granted, I still may be experiencing the collateral damage of that heritage by holding on to a need for the inexplicable and the otherworldly. Perhaps I was conditioned all to well.
And yet, I truly believe that mystery and the transcendent can be experienced without the access to a panoply of myths and rituals that feed into what can’t be explained as natural phenomena. Continue reading
Dove, we were told,
Would be the best
Detergent for the
Wooden pews, blackened
From sturdy congregants,
Their winter coats
Pressing against the backs
Of streaked dark wood,
Dampening the luster,
The fragile weight of forgetfulness,
Sturdy stains, we thought,
The loosened black grains
Mustering no stamina
To fight back
Against the drenched arc
Of the steady cloths,
The arms of the fervent
Something to be said
For not knowing.
Like the hesitant curls of your hair,
Or the disgruntled knees
That don’t plead
For less weight,
Or the child whose angled glance
Looks into your eyes
Hoping to cure
Your chronic silences,
Which abate slowly,
Like a Sunday hangover
Or the half-deck of your life
At the uncertain sun.
On this Veterans Day, November 11, 2012, I dedicate this poem, “The Silences,” to the brave persons who stand every Saturday on a beautiful section of Bidwell Parkway in Buffalo, New York. For one hour, between twelve and one o’clock, they stand in silent protest against war.
I also dedicate the poem to all the brave soldiers who continue to keep our country safe.
In the end, I believe we need both groups. We need those who protest wars, for they are the ones who remind us that peace is possible, that war does not have to be the default mode of a nation. On the other hand, we also need the warriors, for they are the protectors, the defenders, the ones who make it possible to be free of the horrors of war, although, too often, at a very heavy price.
“The Silences” does not take sides; it is an existential statement about the horrors of war, “Where bodies,” in mass graves, are often, “clumped/Together like rubber dolls.” And, of course, where the banal things of our lives—questions about lost keys and wallets—are completely out of place. It is a poem about the stillness in the air before a hanging or a lethal injection, “That lethal space between/I am here and/I am no more.”
It is a poem, I sincerely hope, about all of our sometimes languishing dreams for peace. Namasté
The tips of green grass
When the lazy moon
This waiting in silence
Is not peace.
For in your
You are firm in your fear
Of unhallowed ground,
Where bodies are clumped
Together like rubber dolls,
When earth-questions seem
Out of place:
“Did you see my keys?”
“Where’s my wallet?”
“Where were you last night?”
“Why did you leave me?”
And then I wonder
What fills the air
At that moment
Right before the hanging,
Or the content of the unstirred silence
After the needle is injected,
The lethal space between
I am here and
I am no more.
Does wondering replace
Or our stale, exhaled breaths?
Eric, my dear,
When I held you in my arms,
Looking at your blank eyes,
I knew that you would drift,
Into your own shoals,
Forever tilting away
From the weight
Of voiceless bruises,
Clutching, as always,
To the fragrance of possibility.
You would sit, my lovely son,
On bar stools,
Postmarking your sweet tales
Of a hunter’s conquests—-
Regal deers, coiled snakes,
This ragged foolishness, George,
To what end?
I’m thinking tonight
Of being unfaithful,
As I flirt with the dull night
To end the silence of familiarity:
A refrigerator light,
The morning newspaper,
The smell of toast,
The bent metal ribbing
Of my favorite umbrella,
Your veined hand
Between my unwilling thighs.
I remember you, George,
Tired as a rain-sotted leaf,
Flat against the pavement,
Gold in its surrender
To the dazed snow
Of your hospice days.
“Worn out,” you said,
The day before
Relinquishing the final gift
You thought you had in me.
I could not forgive your letting go
To leave me hanging in my guilt,
Forgetting you so quickly
In those brittle days
After whispering your last breath .
Evangelism, Psychology, Neurology, and Buddhism
And neurologists are getting into the act by having us face up to the reality that our behaviors are linked to certain parts of the brain. The neurological school is closely allied to the empirically proven conviction that pharmaceuticals can mediate and alter many neurologically based dysfunctions from anxiety to bi-polar disorders.
Buddhists remind us that all human behavior is about karma, the somewhat inexorable, but, we are told, “ripening” law of “cause and effect.” Whether that cause happened in another life, of course, is another matter. (The skeptic, Alan Watts, once remarked that he had no Buddhist friends who actually believed in reincarnation, the notion that we had or will have another life as an animal, a plant, or even another human.)
In any event, one of the commonly repeated clichés of Buddhism is that a “good cause” leads to “good effects”; a “bad cause” leads to “bad effects.” Continue reading
“You know he’s gay.”
That was a response of a friend of mine. His remark came after a young man walked out of his restaurant job as a waiter, leaving the staff stranded and several customers still waiting to be served.
Although the waiter may very well have been the object of some anti-gay comments by the chef, I was convinced that the original remark of my friend was a way of distancing himself from the young man by commenting on his sexual orientation. Continue reading
Anne was her second,
Conceived in sultry lust,
A sly accident in July,
Was the new habit,
Spring having had its way
With bold promises
And anxious rain.
She would be remembered
As a casual glance,
The slim afterthought,
A hidden footnote
To her mother’s stories
Of life’s hoarse curses.
George, her husband,
Loved his silence
Like a cold beer
On a humid August night
Or a coiled snake
Content in the silent brush,
Its arctic mood unmoved
Even by two robin’s eggs
Falling from a tipped nest.
Too easy to accept arbitrary gifts,
The pursuit diminished by chance,
The trophy soiled by repetition,
George would wait
Until the particles of dust
Would settle from every argument
Then return to the void
Tasking his way into anonymity.
Harper Collins, 2012
The Larger View
Richard Ford’s “Canada” is a novel about memory. It is about failed relationships. It is about rites of passage. It is about compromises. It is about mortality. It is about defeat. It is about survival. It is about our need for psychological purges by performing acts of self-destructive daring or, if we are desperate, killing ourselves or others to wipe our slates clean of the mistakes of our past.
It is a novel about missed chances, individual choices, and the landscapes we end up in, not always by choice. It is a story about running away and, finally, about settling down. At the core of all our journeys, according to Dell Parsons, the sixty-three year old narrator, are the attempts: “We try, as my sister said. We try. All of us. We try.” Continue reading
“Feelings,” I have been told by many of the old timers in the AA rooms, “don’t matter.”
I have always struggled with that notion because, as a kid, I learned very early in the game that I needed to be a silent observer in my family. If I weren’t, if I decided to confront my siblings or my parents, I would pay the consequences—a smack across the face, a sarcastic remark, or worse, just indifference.
In this early family environment, it would be safe to say that I had learned to shut down, not just as a defense against negative reactions from my family, particularly from my emotionally unpredictable mother, but as my way of surviving.
I thought for a long time that being detached from my emotions was, of course, a far more superior form of living than those in the muck of emotional tantrums. (I might add here, that I used to think that any strong emotional reaction related to joy, grief, or rage was a reaction “out of control.”) Continue reading
Theism as a Cultural Heirloom
As a non-theist, it is often difficult to talk about the God of Western culture without offending someone. Even if individuals aren’t theologians, there is a tendency to fall back into a default mode with any discussion about God.
In that mode, some go on the defensive trying to protect what is considered sacred and allegedly timeless, not because they are necessarily connected to a specific sky-god theology, but because the culture has committed itself to a belief in an exterior anthropomorphic deity.
Inside of this mind-set, any discussion of God can descend into a defense of a Western cultural norm, a societal commitment that must be protected because traditionalists often believe that a culture will lose its integrity if it gives up its theocentric beliefs. Continue reading
Eric, her first child,
Like the pine tree
In their back yard.
He reached for the sun,
But settled for a half-lit moon
Behind scattered clouds.
In his twenties,
Eric wandered into many
New England towns
Which quietly took him in
As just another farm hand
With no plans.
After four beers,
Eric recounted two memories:
His bedroom full of
Unopened Christman gifts.
“Never like surprises,” he said.
And another dust-ridden story
About reading War and Peace
In his Ford pickup,
After playing miniature golf,
When he was nineteen.
Every so often, I return to thinking about the Ten Commandments.
In those revisits, I continue to discover how far removed I am from those ancient Christian tenets I grew up with as a child.
“Thou shalt have no other gods before me” says the first commandment. This is the I-am-the-leader-of-the-pack commandment telling humanity that there is only one God and, as my grandchildren would say, “He’s it.” Continue reading
Baseball, says one sports commentator, has to be won “on the field.” He goes on to comment: “You have to steal. You have to punt. You have to sacrifice. You have to have men in a scoring position. You gotta bring ‘em in.”
“You don’t do that with a bunch of statistics,” he continues. Later on in the film, another sports pundit repeats a variation on that same theme: “You don’t put a team together with a computer.”
Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, thought otherwise in 2002. In Bennet Miller’s film, “Moneyball,” Beane would become American baseball’s game changer when he hires a Yale economics graduate, Peter Brand, a young, overweight self-deferential-to-a-fault geek. Brand specializes in “player analysis.” Continue reading
Bartering for more time,
Slow, disgruntled goat
Among the sprinters.
A weeping clock,
In your own time,
To be the last
In the scorched land
Of stained notes,
Your aching bones
The coffee room,
Listening to your
Taut Monologues of
Of old age.
This blog-post is a kind of no-brainer. It is about money. But it is also about all the things that many of us encounter in our relationship with money: financial insecurity, freedom, autonomy, gratification, ownership, deferring payments, borrowing, owing anonymous institutions—unless we’re out on the street, we, in America, are all in on it
Money, it was once said, is the root of all evil. “Filthy lucre,” the medievalists called it. On the other hand, I was reminded many times in my youth that “money doesn’t grow on trees.” That was a statement that usually came out of the mouths of parents to remind their kids to give up even thinking about another handout from good ol’ mom and dad.
I think I first became aware of money when I was a Catholic elementary school student. “Second collections” were part of the Sunday-service ritual. I learned from that ritual that there were “needy causes” out there (usually in the Catholic Missions or in the Catholic Charities movement), that, no matter how poor my own church was, there was always some pocket change we could come up with to send to those we just assumed were more in need. Continue reading
“Discipline,” my partner said,
“Is the necessary content
Of a full life.”
Like the raw sun
Bored by the earth’s
Or the summer’s knuckles
The walls of Fall?
Or low-hanging fruit,
Without a second chance
I will remind you,
My dear occasion,
That love has no
This is not an atypical response of a caretaker. Someone asks the caretaker for money. The caretaker responds simply and to the point. And the response is positive. Caretakers are like that.
Suspend your disbelief for a few seconds, however, and listen to how another type of caretaker, the self-aware, over-the-top caretaker, might describe themselves: Continue reading
If it’s a dark satire like “Dr Strangelove,” or “Catch 22,” or even “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” the viewer always gets the feeling in the pit of their stomach that there is something not right with the world, that some impending dark force is going to place the world in a state of implosion.
In these hard-edged satires, that dark force often exists in the possibility that a nuclear holocaust could be started by a bunch of crazies; that our revered institutions could be run by psychopaths; that maybe we all have the potential for evil. Continue reading
Her wedding happened,
The brazen light
Of her floating world.
Would be made,
Like a rabid eagle,
Upon weightless chance.
Escorted to the
Of unbending oaths
And exit-proof promises,
She would learn
Into the craggy patches
Of her restless mind.
Insanity, some tell us, is doing the same things, over and over, expecting different results.
But what about expecting different results from other people, situations, or events—a brother-in-law saying something kind; a Verizon tech person avoiding jargon; an American movie not bleeding into sentimentality; morning commuters driving with less rage; a politician not speaking from an ideology; a cable news show understating a news flash; a doctor faxing a prescription on the same day; a bank mortgage department answering the phone with a real person; a muffler replacement being under three-hundred dollars; a teen-age son not saying “whatever.”
Several weeks ago, I was informed by my ophthalmologist that the cataract in my left eye had reached London-fog level. “We’ll remove the other cataract in a month,” he said.
I knew I was at a critical point with my vision. I could read most of the large signs as long as they had polar-bear-size white letters and arrows on dark green backgrounds. When the city decided that small flower-lined islands would beautify one of our major streets, I found myself cursing at their invisibility when I made left turns at night, barely shaving the blunt edges of the raised islands as I turned into the right lanes.
On rainy nights, I would squint at the front windshield trying to see through the patches of unstreaked clarity. The wipers would do their bump and grind, making vain attempts to clear away the glaze of film built up from the oil vapors unobtrusively spewing out of exhaust pipes at urban intersections. Continue reading
Some of us in twelve-step recovery programs have never belonged to a religious institution. Some once belonged but have left. Some are still emotionally connected to their religious heritages, even though they do not practice their religions.
There are a minority in recovery programs who have chosen Buddhism, a non-theistic sect. If they are practicing Buddhists they participate in daily rituals: chanting; silent, sitting meditation; or walking meditation.
Others in twelve-step programs have developed a very eclectic collage of practices, values, and beliefs they have gleaned from Pema Chödrön, Osho, Krishnamurti, Andrew Cohen, Deepak Chopra, Gurdjieff, among others
There is a vast number in recovery programs who remain attached to their Judeo-Christian heritages and continue to practice their faiths of choice.
When I was horse-drawn young
On a careless summer night,
Promises slipped from my tongue,
Like random, drenched branches
On hurricane streams,
Fidelity waiting patiently
On the arid shore.
For you demanded symmetry,
I, in the angled shadow
Of your sun-bleached certainty.
This artifice of order,
Sapping my desire,
Jostled me to turbulence
And humid winds,
Breathing life into
My canvassed heart.
In her sunrise bed
Of her birth,
Along a fluid canal
To be exhaled
Into the welcoming world.
How shall she appear?
Starled as a stray cat?
Or be what
She would be–
Of nine months,
Dawdling with her
In front of daily television
And news alerts.
Like a maimed horse,
Was put down,
Itself, a faint recollection
Of things forgotten,
Misplaced, a frayed pocket
Tubes of frozen toothpaste
In the freezer,
Under the hot-water heater,
A letter from a
Under her mattress,
On a windowsill,
Catching the precision
Of the sun’s lazy arch.
“Who doesn’t want to see their kids prosperous?” says the mother of Qin and Yang in the documentary, Last Train Home. This is a refrain begun earlier by the grandmother: “But who doesn’t want their children to live a good life?”
If we are to believe the mother and the grandmother, prosperity and the good life are the two goals of all families. China appears to be no exception to this rule in Lixin Fan’s brilliant documentary of one family’s attempts to achieve some form of prosperity in the new hypercapitalist China.
But it is a prosperity that has a profound emotional price tag. Over a period of thirteen years, the Zhang family becomes fractured when the mother and father leave their two children home with the grandmother as the parents pursue the Chinese dream to succeed.
And they don’t just leave home to go to a nearby city. They travel a little over 1300 miles to work in a makeshift factory in the city of Guangzhou in Guandong Province. Like the other 130 million migrant workers working in cities all over China, the Zhang couple returns only once a year to their small village. Continue reading
In the first part of this two-part essay on the anti-multiculturalism movement in Europe and United States, I attempted to carefully note that the backlash against multiculturalism was far more niched against specific groups—the Muslims in Europe and the UK and the Hispanics in the United States.
I did not mean to suggest, however, that there aren't other groups that are singled out in those cultures. For example, ever since 9/11, Muslim communities in the US have certainly experienced bigotry in their many attempts to purchase buildings or to obtain zoning rights to build mosques. And the historic persecution of the Roma (Gypsies) in Europe recently prompted a strong list of specific recommendations from a European Commission to counter that prejudice.
In the second part of this two-part blog post, I will focus entirely on multiculturalism in the United States.
America has consistently had tensions around immigration and foreign-culture issues. Ben Franklin complained about the “swarthy” Germans and expressed his fear that Pennsylvania would become a haven for a “stream of their importation” into Pennsylvania. Franklin's ethnocentrism would eventually match the intensity of prejudice against those of German heritage during World War I and World War II. This, in spite of the fact, Germans, at one time in American history, were the largest reported ancestral group in the United States.
The Irish also experienced extreme prejudice, particularly after their arrival in the United States during the great Irish Famine of the 1840s. They were often stereotyped as “shanty Irish” or “Lace-Curtain Irish”;were consistently harassed as papists; and stereotyped as criminals and paupers as they were in this famous passage from a Chicago Post editorial: “The Irish fill our prisons, our poor houses…Scratch a convict or a pauper, and the chances are you tickle the skin of an Irish Catholic.” Such prejudice, of course, led to their ostracism from many urban business communities that often put “No-Irish-Need-Apply” signs in their windows. Continue reading
This Blog Post is the first of a two-part article on anti-multiculturalism in Europe and the United States.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that multiculturalism is under severe attack throughout many Western countries, including the United States.
UK's Prime Minister, David Cameron, gave an impassioned speech in Munich advocating what he called, “muscular liberalism.” It is a concept deeply troubling to minorities in England, particularly among Muslims.
Cameron's call for a kind of testosterone-driven toughness on foreigners to assimilate into a homogenized English culture speaks to the fears of many other Europeans that their Caucasian, secular, mono-language base will be diluted by non-Western cultures and values.
Germany's Chancellor, Angela Merkel, in a 2010 speech, claimed that the attempts at multiculturalism in Germany have, in her words, “utterly failed.” There is no doubt that she was aiming her comments at the 4 million Turkish and Kurdish Muslims in Germany. Continue reading
In all this vastness,
We are the ones who weep,
Salted fragments among
Colliding stars where
Nothing is missed,
No god who cries
For his lover's return,
A memory of former days,
When the angle
Of the afternoon sun
On your unbruised neck,
Or the touch of
Your damp hair
Of lounging books
On a summer porch.
“Business—that’s easily defined: it’s other people’s money” (Peter Drucker); “The social responsibility of Business is to increase profits” (Milton Friedman); “First amendment never shows why freedom of speech….did not include the freedom to speak in association with other individuals, including association in the corporate form” (Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia in Citizens United v Federal Election Commission).
There it is folks. The American way: Profits. Corporate free speech. Other people’s money.
There is little doubt that America has become the global symbol for upward mobility, profits, and economic success. But we have also become the global capital of commodification in all of its forms, including prisons, education, health care, and, more cruelly, in our political arenas.
There are few institutional venues in the United States that aren’t, in some way, touched—some would say tainted—by the profit motive. Politicians curry favor with the wealthy who contribute to their campaigns. The health care system continues to be driven by ever increasing profits. The national defense budget has become so entrenched with defense contracts that it would be safe to say that United States Defense is an industry in and of itself.
And some of the top universities are run as corporations with heavy endowments, investments in the stock market, and huge government grants. Not to mention the sports industry that dominates the budgets of many very wealthy universities and colleges throughout the United States. Continue reading
I recently became a member of a group (three's a group, right?) that has been having an online discussion about issues brought up in a video-taped dialogue about egalitarianism.
The taped conversation had its bright moments when one of the philosophers stated that she knew a colleague who had left Southern California because, according to her male colleague, the area did not value intellectual competence. Apparently, Southern California culture is more into acquisitions and does not put a premium on academic achievement.
Equality is often based on commonly-held values. If a community values owning things over intellectual ability, it's going to be very difficult to gain equal stature in that culture if you're an ABD history major working as a part-time faculty in a local community college and shop at Wall Mart. Continue reading
I am reckless in
My daily acts to
Trimming silent hedges,
Unable to mold
To my liking,
For your mistakes,
Rare as they are,
To test the metal
Of my moral symmetry,
Bound only by the
Your words to me
That things close
Are not always what
I tried to love you
In ways that moved
With the unrushed wind
Of the open air,
Void of interferences
And tales of other
Plainly, I thought,
On the hills of
What we thought
Would never end.
Here we are,
Long dead to our
Alive in our loyalties,
Domestic as two
I grew up in a family of screamers, duckers, fighters, and scramblers. If that didn't work, my family withdrew into icy silence. That's what we thought bedrooms were for: our little caves of isolation where we could get our way in frozen-lake invisibility.
If that didn't work, we could always go to plan B: smart-ass sarcasm.
At the same time I was watching the pro-active survival skills of my siblings, I was being taught in Catholic elementary school that saints suffered quietly. They accepted their lots in life with passive surrender. And many quietly walked the gauntlet of martyrdom with angelic resignation, assured of a first-class room in the heavenly kingdom.
In my little elementary school mind, Christ was the icon of emotional stability. He may have thrown the gambling rabble out of the synagogue in a fit of rage, but his life seemed more about waiting his turn in the queue of acceptance and surrender. He was the gentle fisherman, the quiet shepherd. Not the raging truck driver or the sweaty faced hockey player, fists thrashing the air.
In my childhood, adolescence, and throughout my adulthood, I constantly pursued the “key” to sanctity. At one time, I thought all I had to do was go to mass, receive holy communion, confess my sins, and read spiritual books. The world, over time, I thought, would adapt to all the higher spiritual goals I had set out for myself. Or, on my journey to sainthood, I would be above it all. Continue reading
This is the second in a series of blog posts in which I expand upon key concepts from my e-book, “A Recovery Journey: The Beginnings”
So, you have a great day at school. Your teachers laugh at your jokes. You get a 95 on your math exam. You talk to one of your teachers during lunch. They tell you are a remarkable young man. You leave the school at three and walk home. You’re in high gear. The world is your oyster.
Then you walk through the front door of your home. Your mother is screaming at your father. You duck as a frying pan comes flying across the kitchen. She’s yelling at your dad, “you took Janet to the drive in, didn’t you? I saw the popcorn in the back seat of the car. You’ve been sleeping with her again.” Janet was my red-headed Brenda Star look-alike aunt, my mother’s sister-in-law.
That was the daily routine: Great day at school. The Inferno at home. Kids, of course, learn to make connections, as irrational as they may be. When they are nurtured in one place and are dragged into the emotional muck in another, they begin to believe that, not only are there no guarantees in life, but that life cannot be trusted to offer any permanent security. They will always ask themselves, “when is the other shoe going to fall off?” And they view happiness as an occasional blip on the machine of life, more often than not, set on disappointment. Continue reading
This is the first in a series of blog posts in which I expand upon key concepts from my e-book, “A Recovery Journey: The Beginnings”
Knowledge has always been important to me. I grew up believing that if I knew things, I wouldn’t be invisible, especially in a family where high drama and chronic volatility were more the rule than the exception.
Knowing things gave me the kind of security I could not depend on my family to supply. If I had intellectual competence, I knew, at the very least, that my worth would be valued, that I would not be another cog in the machine of my family’s dysfunctionalism.
Little did I realize that, over the years, I often used knowledge as a substitute for living. I came to believe that my identity was exclusively defined by my ability to acquire information, know historical time periods, pass a college test, get a good grade on a paper, give a convincing presentation in a speech class, shape a college lecture. Continue reading
Now that I’ve got your attention.
It took me a long time to discover that I had learned, from early childhood, to be a detached observer. I was the youngest of five children. My family was in constant turmoil. My parents argued all the time. My two older brothers were always fighting. And my mother’s volatile and often violent mood swings continued to keep the family on pins and needles.
So, kids do what kids do. They protect themselves. They go to their rooms. They stay away from the chaos as much as they can. And when they are in the midst of the family tornadoes, they often withdraw into silent observers. They become recorders, television cameras, quiet witnesses. They learn, very early in the game to passively take in what’s happening and not to participate. It is the only recourse they have; it gives them some kind of order and safety in their lives.
Then they become adolescents and adults. They can’t figure out why others tell them they are “too analytical.” They find themselves observing again as they did when they were children. But the observation mode begins to implode when a friend breaks down after his girlfriend tells him the relationship is over.
The first instinct of the grand observer is to look around for the nearest exit. Continue reading
Saddled by my hard secrets,
Like roving balls of dust
Under a firm bed,
I try to hide myself
Before the rising sun,
Avoiding others who will
Notice my angular walk,
Arms hanging like tired branches,
Sighting the city’s
Empty arched bridges
Above the rippling sheets
Of slow-moving rivers.
I will not be known.
I recently read a local newspaper story about an eccentric mother and son who were hoarders, midnight garbage rummagers, and isolationists. The mother was eventually admitted to a hospital’s nursing home. She died not long after the remains of her 79 year-old son’s body were found in the basement rubble of their home, two years after he had been reported missing.
They were harmless hoarders,
Midnight garbage rummagers,
Mother and son magicians
Lifting startled rabbits
From top hats,
Unable to slide them
Phone books, used cue-tips,
Jars of minced garlic,
Basement shelves of tuna fish
And winter-weight oil,
Like pieces of cardboard
On top of candy wrappers,
In the backyard’s melting sludge
Of stained snow.
A car trunk full of
Desk drawers with
Unearned pennies and
Broken 2h pencils
Magnified by a hoarder’s
Cry to vacancy:
“Nothing will be emptied,
No orphaned space unused,
Infinity, impotent against clutter;
There will be room for everything.”
They had banded together
As lunch widows every
Second Sunday afternoon.
Miffed by empty wills
And a husband’s
Some sat silent
In their thinning possibilities.
And shiny calculators
Morphing themselves into
And genteel moats
Against an avalanche
Of loss and shy memories
Of their very, very dead
I’ve heard it all before,
The flaccid promises
Are a child’s oaths,
As you dangle permanence
And fidelity’s long-haul
In front of my drained face,
Fox-holing yourself into
Daily purges of remorse,
Like used concert tickets,
An amnesiac’s memories,
The false covenants
Of better times to come.
I often fool myself into sanctity,
The credo of the stainless,
That whistles tenderly in the morning,
Hastening my giant strides of will.
But I am less inclined to virtue
When I am presented a complete score
Of innocence, every instrument allocated
Its brief moment of holy affirmation
In old, familiar bowdlerized tunes.
Perfection will just not do,
No matter how lovely the rose’s odor
Or the fresh lips of my last lover,
For catastrophes draw me more into
The ragged corner of my undoing,
Where the tilted ground
Of my uncertain heart
Is scorched a tender shade,
Bruised back into possibility.
It is there among the culpable
That I pray to live out my days.
I was at an AA meeting recently when someone criticized what he considered to be the psychobabble at meetings.
For some of us in the rooms, such criticism is often a back-door way of hiding behind the literature of AA in order to avoid being honest about our our motives, our rationalizations, our hidden agendas, our imperfections, and, of course, our strengths and virtues.
Accusing others in the room of “psychobabble” can be a convenient way of avoiding any journey that might take us deeper into ourselves. It can also be a way of remaining stuck, safe, even smug. Continue reading
It is one of the beautiful peculiarities of writing, if you do it often enough, that content often unfolds in ways you had not expected.
As I was writing about conservatism, for example, I would discover the need conservatives have for “order”; that they need a chain of command; that a golden-age past looms very large in conservative thinking; that their obsession with “states rights” is an extension of their belief in “rugged individualism”; and that religious conservatives depend heavily on “sacred texts” for their values.
I am still discovering more about conservatives. Continue reading
When I was growing up, every adult I knew seemed to be conservative. They watched Lawrence Welk. They dreamed of having a family like Ozzie and Harriet Nelson. They feared blacks. They played pinochle and drank lots of beer.
They all had dinner around five in the afternoon. They loved roast beef. They huddled around their televisions at night. They smoked cigarettes or cigars in the house.
The conservative adults I knew complained about the teenagers “going to hell in a hand basket” after watching Elvis gyrate. Some conservatives even read “Peyton Place” or saw the movie as one of their few radical ventures into the forbidden. Or they secretly sneaked off to a movie theater to watch Marilyn Monroe sleaze her way through “Niagara.” Continue reading
I have been alone before,
Nothing strident, for now,
In the thinning air
Of your absence,
But I am mellow
As an autumn oak,
Or a discarded penny
Hugging a sewer grate—
A black crow,
Spare in its grief,
On a low-hanging wire,
Or the solitary cat
On a window sill,
Startled back to
After a fleeting hailstorm.
The reality of impermanence has always seemed a no-brainer to me. People and animals come into existence; they live out their lives; and then they die. Or, in the words of the bumper-sticker, “Life’s a bitch, and then you die”
More importantly, my own experiences with memorial services, funerals, hospice, suicides, emergency rooms, psych wards, and drug and alcohol rehabs have helped me to understand the fragility of life.
On the other hand, I was recently confronted with someone’s concern that, in being aware of life’s impermanence, there may be a hidden agenda to “glorify” it as a license for moral relativism, an excuse to bow out of commitments and responsibilities. After all, if nothing in this world is permanent, why bother to be loyal, to love, to be grounded in anything?
The ancient carpe diem (“seize-the-day”) philosophy was certainly based on the notion that, since the world and its pleasures are finite, we should wring from life every moment of pleasure we can get. Continue reading
I feel obligated to give some background to the poem, “C’est Fini.”
As some of you know, I am sympathetic to those who choose assisted suicide because of the finality and severe chronic pain of their illness or disease. In such cases, I believe any rational person has that right. I wrote a blog post, Assisted Suicide defending that right.
“C’est Fini” was jump-started after a recovery meeting in which one of the members revealed that his alcoholic brother had committed suicide. It brought back many memories for me in my journey through alcohol recovery.
About twenty years ago, one of my close friends, cross-addicted and a compulsive sex addict, asked me early in our program if I would help him to commit suicide when the time came for him to make that decision. I told him that I would not. Many years after he was diagnosed HIV, his body was found by a group of hunters not far from a porn video store.
Another friend had hanged himself from a garage rafter two days after asking me about therapy. And one of my sponsees, a cocaine addict, had died from an overdose.
My only experience with a suicide impulse happened about a year into my alcohol recovery. About twenty-five years ago when I was teaching at a community college, an older student, a Cuban immigrant, had become despondent over having lost everything when he came to this country. His body was found in the gorge not far from Niagara Falls.
At the time, I did not realize that I was profoundly affected by his death. Within a couple of days after the older student’s body was discovered, I became compulsively drawn to jumping over the Falls. I called my alcohol counselor who agreed to meet me at a local hospital, even though he was off that day. I asked my office-mate to follow me in her car to his office.
I wrote “C’est fini” as a kind of metaphorical transcription of what it must be like to withdraw into that dark cave of isolation and secrecy before actually committing suicide. I chose the inanimate “pallbearers” (the furnace, the lawn chair, the three unmatched socks) to suggest the devastatingly silent witnesses to that final act of desperation. And the charcoal portrait of the father, to me, is the final sad affirmation that the young man wanted from his father in the same way that a loving parent would show grief and love watching their death-row son or daughter being given a final injection.
Finally, I now realize that for so much of my adult life, I lived in a very dark world of low-level depression. I may not have wanted to literally commit suicide, but I was drawn to all kinds of real and virtual self-destructive behaviors. It wasn’t until many years into my recovery program that I began to feel this wonderful surge to live.
So, for those of you who may have thought I was going off the deep end in “C’est Fini,” I am here, today, to assure you that I love being alive. And thank you for your loving concern…John
You chose tonight
To end your gaunt battle
Deciding, as you did,
To have your neck
Bear the burden
Of your solitude,
In a quiet cellar,
A silent furnace,
A tool box,
A folded lawn chair,
Three unmatched socks,
Your father’s charcoaled
Portrait against the humid wall,
Gazing at your dangling body,
His tired affirmation
That all things end.
Concubined into silent lunches
And ardent price tags,
I come to you
As I always do,
In the dying heat
Of one more fall,
Our anxious spring.
I am, as they say,
The new addition to your house,
The extra winter scarf,
The second pair of
You, my sweet occasion,
The odor of vacuumed rugs
In air-conditioned motel rooms,
Still lingering on my bald feet.
You, the choice I made
Never to commit
To another fatality.
“Abandon holiness,” says Lao Tsu. and “See with original purity.”
Although these lines are just fragments of Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching, they are typical of the ancient thinker’s radical take on reality.
Who, for example, would “abandon holiness”? After all, Western culture prides itself on Christian values, especially those values gleaned from the Old and New Testament, saintly teachings, and church pronouncements. And, for those who believe in an afterlife, heaven, the “holiest” of places, is the ultimate goal of those on a Christian journey of virtue and sinlessness.
Lao Tsu challenges us, however, to give up the pursuit of the holy, for it is a goal fraught with other people’s notion of what holiness is. It is also a journey that can be riddled with self-righteousness and arrogance. And it can be a path that will often distract us from paying attention to what is in front of us. Continue reading
Ayn Rand once wrote that a butcher, a brewer, and a baker do not make a dinner a success because of their “benevolence”; they are motivated by their own “self-interest.” She also believed that humans should participate in the world as heroic beings pursuing their own happiness and their own “productive achievement(s),” limited only by what she calls the facts of “reality.”
Rand refers to her reason-based philosophy as objectivism, a hard-edged ism that focuses on objective reality as the only rational plain on which humans can, and ought to live. All other forms—faith, religion, theism—are nothing more than subjective, irrational, even delusional venues that humans have devised for any of a number of subjective motives. Continue reading
I will return
In the wily spring
Of your memories,
Delayed, for a time,
By shuffling tasks
And the patient murmur
Of my still-pulsing heart.
It is the sleeping lilac
That defines me now,
Leading me gently
From the dull crowds
To the plains of
Your fevered dream
That I am here
Dressed in my own
To let you go.
(Writing, as many of you know, is an art. It is also a profession, a career that, because of the internet, may give the impression of being more of a lite-weight hobby than a serious pursuit. If you believe, as I do, that good writing is hard work and deserves to be compensated, please consider donating to this site. Thanks.)
This is the second part of a two part series on “Owning Up, Emotional Honesty.” In the first part, I discussed the confessional-box tradition I grew up in and my many years of therapy.
In this part, I discuss the importance of what twelve-steppers refer to as the “rooms,” the meeting places where we go to “share,” as they say, “our experience, strength, and hope.”
Those of us in peer-group recovery programs like AA, NA,
OEA, and SA know very well the importance of hanging out in “the rooms.”
They are often cold, damp church basements with concrete walls that have been painted over so many times they begin to look like melting taffy. But they are the rooms where I go three or four times a week, if not more, to learn how to live in the real world.
As a recovering alcoholic of over twenty-six years, I take great consolation in knowing that others in these church basements are struggling with all the issues that normal, earth-people deal with every day: money, relationships, anger, a boss, an adolescent child, a new job, or Verizon tech support. Continue reading
This is a two-part series on owning up, honesty, and emotional transparency. In the first part, I discuss my confessional-box heritage growing up as a Roman Catholic. I then go on to cover the contrasting role of therapy in helping me to be more honest about myself.
In the second part of this two-part series, I will discuss the significance of recovery meetings in opening me up to my daily emotions and behaviors and my on going relationships in sobriety. As they say in the rooms, “it ain’t over until it’s really over.”
Governments will often hide its dirty little secrets behind the mantel of “national security.” Corporations and large institutions (including churches) seem to like silence because they fear a customer backlash, a class-action suit, or media exposure. Or they often cover up a questionable ethical policy with public relations departments which have mastered the art of linguistic subterfuge.
And, in the world of advertising, truth is often enhanced with glowing images of a product or service in order to dull the minds and senses of a potential customer.
Closer to home, families often hold on to their own white-elephant-in-the-living-room secrets to protect a family member or to defend their we’re-just-a-happy-little-family public image.
So, when do we learn to “own up” to our own truths? I’m not talking about a factual transcription of a mortgage transaction or a detailed “and-then-we-did-this-and-then-we-did-that” description of a cruise to the Caribbean. Or a lengthy machine-gun rant about how a husband “ripped me off of my alimony.”
I grew up in a Roman Catholic confessional-box culture. I was taught, as a child, to “own up” to my sins, to tell on myself in a dark box of a room with only a punctured out plastic window divider between me and the priest. And I was always in the kneeling position, my hands held in prayer resting on a small shelf as I weekly went through the “bless-me-father-for-I-have-sinned” Saturday afternoon ritual. Continue reading
Mind you, I have my own ongoing battles with academic theorists in the Humanities, Communications, Social Sciences, and the Arts.
Many of these tenure-track theorists continue to live in the realm of abstraction that has become elitist, exclusionary, and so far removed from primary sources that their journal-driven monographs have morphed into theoretical meta-narratives about themselves, not about the works or events they are supposedly critiquing.
Having said that, however, I do not sympathize with Slavoj Zizek’s not-so-subtle contempt for what he sees as the moral relativism of the academic left. Continue reading
In the first part of this two part series about where we learn our attitudes about good and bad, I discussed the “interventionist school” of Christianity, a narrative that teaches the followers of Christianity that all of our notions of good and evil are created or altered by an interventionist deity through grace, epiphanies, miracles, the handing down of the “ten commandments,” the incarnation of Christ, and a divinely inspired Biblical text.
The interventionist school of Christianity has been the guiding model of Western Christian morality for centuries. It is a model that relies heavily on a Church hierarchy and ancient texts (the Old and New Testament) as the icons of moral authority.
The Catholic Church goes even further in portraying itself as the recipient of powers to round out all of the intricacies of sin, morality, and faith-beliefs through a clerical hierarchy, which, according to the church’s narrative, is a direct descendent of St. Peter, the alleged first appointed leader of Christ’s followers.
There are many of us, however, who believe that morality can be gleaned from many sources other than a theistic or religious institutional model. Although most religions seem to adhere to some version of the do-unto-others golden rule, I believe that generosity is often at the root of all of our optimal behavior patterns. Continue reading
Grief and Addiction Recovery by Glynis Sherwood MEd, CCC, CSAC
A while ago I received this email from a woman experiencing the opposite of the positive emotions she had hoped to find in recovery.
“I’m in recovery from alcoholism and should feel happy, but I feel sad and angry and empty – almost like I’m grieving. But not only has nobody has died, in fact I got my life back. I’m worried that if I keep this up I’m going to start drinking again. How do I make sense of my emotions and hold onto my recovery?”
As you can see from the desperation of her tone, this woman feels confused, fearful of relapsing and maybe a little guilty about feeling grief rather than joy in the midst of her recovery. But not only are feelings of grief common in recovery, mixed feelings ranging from joy and sorrow can be present too, adding to the confusion. It’s hard to deal with such emotions, but that does not mean that these feelings are wrong. Our emotions are there to tell us what we need, and if our legitimate needs are being satisfied or thwarted. It’s the same way with grief. But how do we understand the role of grief in addiction recovery? Continue reading
I never liked contact sports. Whenever I worked out, it was always a single-player engagement like jogging, swimming, or running frantically on a tread mill. Even today, I continue to exercise by myself, even though I am sometimes in a gym or in a park walking with others.
During my college teaching years, committees were, for me, the most difficult arenas to get anything done. Discussions were often endless, tangents seemed to be the norm, and listening levels almost non-existent.
Even my experiences with institutional religion, growing up Catholic and attending Catholic institutions right up to my Masters Degree, my notion of community was limited to Sunday services or singing in a choir. Continue reading
I will die on this side
Of my silenced breath,
Not the other side,
Where stories scramble
Marathons of panting
In their drenched bodies,
To win my dazed
To the simple truth of
What will happen next,
When I close my questioning
Eyes for the very last time.
She had raised the bar,
Or so she thought,
Hands moving above
The restless table,
Weaving through her
Tidy argument like
A sly dolphin,
Self-assured, in the end,
Against the rabble
Of our inquisitions.
But our pliant concessions
Would not hold,
For she had decided,
Like a street preacher,
To strip us of our assents,
Unworthy, as we were,
To hear her gilded message.
Night Train to Lisbon
by Pascal Mercier
Translated by Barbara Harshav
Grove Press, 2008
“Last Train to Lisbon” was going to be read in a book club a friend of mine belonged to. The club started it, then decided to drop it. Another friend started reading it and has yet to complete it.
The criticisms were consistent: it was too long; it was too windy; it was too dense; the memoir writing was too tedious and philosophical; there were too many characters; there were too many scene shifts.
Well, I’m here to say. I finished the novel. In fact, I read it twice. What can I say? I was an English teacher. I love a challenge.
On the surface, the story is really quite simple: an aging philology teacher finds a book of memoirs in a book store. He starts to read them. The author of the memoirs was a Portuguese doctor and a resistance fighter during the Salazar dictatorship.
Gregorius, the teacher, has found his fantasized soul mate in this resistance fighter, Amadeu Prado, a brooding and tortured aristocrat, a “goldsmith of words” who destines himself “to rescue the silent experiences of human life from their muteness.” Continue reading
So, if I get it right
The first time,
I’m not required
By any dusty law
To do it again.
Repetition doesn’t always
Work like fearless
In chatty unison
From an aging trunk,
Towards the sun,
In their laziness,
Weighted with memory
Of last April’s
They’ve all been
Some yearn for the sky,
Others for the
As they did
If I repeat the right thing,
I become the surly branch
Scanning the wrinkled trunk,
Defeated by the
Crusty chance of
Being too common
In my frantic mimes,
Just another water-logged
Dog paddling its way
Back with the same
Haggard stick in his mouth
He had twenty minutes ago
A text-message was discovered on an ancient Blackberry found in a dumpster behind a Greek restaurant outside Athens by a group of roving teenage scavengers. The message was sent by a girl named Hermione to Iphigenia, the classic heroine, who was sacrificed so that the winds would begin in Aulis harbor, allowing the Greek ships to set sail for Troy.
Although Hermione was believed to have been illiterate, Anthropologists and Linguists both agree that the message contained some brief poetic possibilities. Upton Simpson, a philologist from Greenland, has even suggested that Hermione’s text message “most assuredly, contained a tone of formality and high seriousness.” Continue reading
You will, of course, change.
We all know it.
From ragged-edged coat,
Smelling of beer and car oil,
Tested every day
In the blustery wind, near
Old, dank harbors,
To rose-odored concert-goer,
Your main of hair
Waving with each breath
Of lush spring air,
Not wild as the wolf,
But tenderly, as the pliant,
Meeting, as we do,
Under the shoals of
We hear a simmering
Gideon from a motel drawer,
Of ancient avatars
Descending to the earth,
Their rights unearned,
To play among the herds.
We, after all,
Are no different,
Disloyal to a fault,
Staggering in the rinks
Of our desires,
Welded to our transience,
Baffled, at times,
At the world’s indifference.
I am, today, steady as a
Even regal, I think,
To sibilant rumors
Of my demise,
And feeling sturdy
As the kitchen stove
In its unburnished
But weary as the old oak,
Or the aging Labrador
Attacked by children
Fists against their
Favorite punching bag.
February 20, 2011
Je suis ici
I am present
Like a confused cat
Full water bowl,
Of what is given,
Not like a wrapped gift,
But as the raw,
Opening its glazed eyes
To an ungrateful earth
And then lumbering,
As I do,
Across the slow
arch of another day.
February 20, 2011
“You know, John, there’s another school of thought.”
I always loved that phrase, “another school of thought.” It seems less hostile, less likely to deteriorate into a conflict-driven debate. Especially, if the sentence comes from a close friend. It is even more poignant when the discussion is about religion.
I grew up in a very Catholic environment. In fact, my entire education was in Catholic schools—elementary, high school, and college. Unlike some of my friends, the experience, in general, I found rewarding and nurturing. I truly admired the clergy-in-the-trenches who taught me what it meant to live in the world of “service.” It has made a marked difference in my life. Continue reading
I am, you know,
The elder child,
A long time ago,
To abdicate my duty
To protect my sweet
Against the lithe advances
Of the puerile sibling
Who would own
Father’s prickly advances
When he stole a
Luscious red apple
Or touched Mrs Garrison’s
On any day in August
When she floated naked
On her supple back
In the blue-tiled
1st poem of 2010
I was told by the orthopedist
That I would eventually
Favor my left hand
If I didn’t have surgery.
I never knew enough
About my left hand
To give it a monarch’s
Supremacy or even
A gilded moment.
Nor could I say
That I would have doubts
About its latent competence
Against a hearty sibling,
The self-assured strutter
Among the unelect,
Not ill-favored, exactly,
But just not chosen,
Over weary time,
To lift the lids
Of the hottest
It was four in the morning
When he called his friend.
Bending over the phone booth
With five quarters in his hand,
He wanted to be rescued
One more time, to hold his hand
Pouring the scotch down the drain.
For one brief moment
He remembered his mother
Talking about the first night
They brought him home
When he was born.
She had stayed up all night
Listening to every spastic gasp,
Every rustle and creak of the crib
The chiming hours of the clock.
Mortality followed him
In the languor of women’s hips
The slow ticking of the cabs,
Pigeon feet on city sidewalks
The wet air of the August night,
And the sour
smell of levis
I’ve been told to be patient
Among the shards
Of my quick pulses
And galloping thoughts.
Not having been trained
To covet silences,
I am drawn to
To wistful spectacles,
And unbridled words
That leap into the grainy
Alleys of snoring dogs
And uncluttered nurseries
As I uncork the raving chaos
Of all my loud urgings
Wanting to dazzle,
But fearing, after all,
The ancient reprisals
From those who would
To sit turtle-still
Can’t say I’ve
In more than three
Or maybe four
Caves of fear.
But lately, outwardly mute,
I’ve been mind-pacing
In my bed like
A frenzied rabbit
Hemorrhaging all kinds
As I hang from a cliff,
Naked to the burly,
Hissing caps of
Waiting carelessly to
Swallow me whole.
I am old
In my brief certainties,
Destined to short debates
And blemished toilets,
Once brazenly clean.
I am a one-pair-of-shoes guy
With lazy underwear,
Two missing combs,
Ivy-growing nose hairs,
Mounds of pills in orange tubes,
Toe nails hard as turtle shells.
My ties are too wide.
I cough at movies.
My body slides out of chairs,
Reluctantly. My pen hesitates.
Headlines will do for today.
Television shadows invade
My mind wanders
Into my father’s garden
Or into the basement
As I hear his fingers
His tool box.
I was afraid for you
As you twisted your face
With your cupped hands,
Your right foot jabbing
The unsuspecting wall.
Arguing with the opposing day,
You said your dervish prayers
To Shiva of the dancing arms
To stay your frantic legs
And thighs buzzing like bees
In a lidded jar
How would I hold you
In sweet contentment?
After, in your feathery calm,
You were like a lazy lizard
Sleeping on drift wood
Or a string snapped from a shoe
Laying limp on a wood floor
Too tired to talk
As you gazed into the
Summer glaze of daffodils
And castles along the Hudson River,
Watching impish, howling cats
And two spastic squirrels
Darting across telephone lines,
One running from love.
During my active alcoholic/addiction days, I vividly remember believing that if I descended into the booze enough, I would somehow come out car-wash clean. My repressions would be lifted. I could be my real self. I wouldn’t have to hide. I would be diamond-cut perfect. And, of course, I would have a winning style and personality.
What is it about this “descent” thing? Dante certainly believed it. Buddha had to go through his moments with his demons. Christ had his Gethsemane and his desert temptations. And soldiers have their foxholes.
No pain, no gain, as the saying goes. Continue reading
In his recent controversial Munich Multiculturalism speech, UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, called for a “muscular liberalism” in the face of what he refers to as state-supported multiculturalism.
According to the Prime Minister, multiculturalism, as it exists in what he considers to be its segregated form, is the disease; complete assimilation, of course, is the cure. Continue reading
I grew up in the 1950s. Men were considered “real men” if they were either the strong silent type or the tough, “you-talkin’-to-me?” street type with their ducks-ass hair style and pack of Lucky Strikes rolled up inside their short t-shirt sleeve.
These “real men” played sports and avoided the arts; loved manual labor and hated desk jobs; were hard drinkers; drove stick shift; and dodged commitments, especially marriage (“tying the noose,” we called it), until the 11th hour, after a brief courtship of prom night, drive-ins, street dances, roller rinks, a summer at the beach, and making out in the balcony back row at a movie theater.
A “man in a uniform,” fresh from active duty, always had the upper hand on the street. Women, of my generation, loved a guy in a uniform.
Television, of course, had another narrative of the male ideal. Ozzie Nelson, of “Ozzie and Harriet” fame, was presented to us as the classic suburban husband and father in his button-down white shirts and tie-clipped thin ties. Reticent to a fault, even in his wry humor, he was always pathetically even tempered. Continue reading
When I retired from college teaching many years ago, I had become radicalized by my experiences with teaching International film and culture and African-American Literature.
Both courses led me to my belief that “story” is an essential ingredient in teaching students how to understand another culture. Once a student can identify with a person in a story, once they can follow a fictional narrative of a person’s life and conflicts, they are more apt to “identify”with that person, to humanize them. Continue reading
I recently went to South Beach, Florida, to escape the gray, wintry skies of Buffalo, New York, my home town (I am reminded of those skies, as I sit here today, listening to a neighbor frantically scraping the ice off his car windows).
South Beach. I had no clue what to expect, other than a few friends who hesitated when I told them I was going there. Apparently, they knew more about the place than I did. I should have listened. Continue reading
I have these recurring variations of the same dream. I am running down a school corridor, desperately trying to find my next class or I am in front of a class that is paying no attention to me. In yet another panic-dream, I am a substitute teacher in a Chemistry class (I was an English teacher).
And then there’s the dream where I constantly punch in the wrong phone number of someone I am frantically trying to call or I am darting through mazes of streets trying to find a relative’s apartment. Continue reading
The central character in the movie, “Eat, Pray, Love,” is a thirty-something woman who breaks up with her husband and goes on a global journey in order to rediscover her passion for living.
She travels to Italy and has an orgiastic love affair with pasta and pizza while bonding with what we can only assume is a typical community of Italians who love their food and wine and lead rich, full extended-family lives with their significant others.
On the more spiritual side, she connects with a shaman and eventually does a retreat at an ashram in India.
On the final leg of her self-awareness voyage, she ends up on the island of Bali and finds the love-of-her-life, a Brazilian expatriate.
The message in all of these wanderings is that no woman can be complete without a man. The movie is replete with men who seem to hover around the central character like stray animals looking for a place to crash—a husband who can’t decide what he wants to be when he grows up; a young new-age, sexually pliant actor whose cuteness would make any adult woman’s teeth ache; an Italian teacher looking more like a forlorn Gucci model, five-o’clock-shadow-and-all; a disgruntled Texan and father-figure who exposes his vulnerability to the central character by telling her his story of coming home drunk and almost running over his child; and, finally, an emotionally wounded widower now ready and willing to settle down into a happily-ever-after relationship (the movie makes it quite clear that both he and the central character have gone through their own baptisms of fire—he, as a widower, and she, as a rite-of-passage world traveler sufficiently enriched by pasta and a short-lived stay in an ashram).
I realize that the central character in “Eat, Pray, Love” has no grand pretensions to make her mark on the world. Her psychological cosmos is quite small in spite of traveling to Italy, India, and Bali to reignite her passion for living.
However, the self-awareness journey she takes feels more like a mix of a bourgeois global tour and a prom-queen’s fast-forward speed-dating exercise.
And the film is quite blatant in its didactic message that men, all men, are essential ingredients to her journey—a dreamy, irresponsible husband; a care-taking divorcé; a parody-of-himself shaman; a hunky Italian teacher; and a widower who has had his own life’s tragedies. As the old song goes, “It’s raining men” all the time in her life, and I mean all the time.
Some of the men may be in the shadows as she tries to reorient herself to being single, but Hollywood is not about to let the ghosts of male availability out of the central character’s reach, even though she is supposed to be on a self-awareness journey without any intimate entanglements.
The company of men, in itself, doesn’t necessarily have to be a deterrent to her journey. However, the constant potential they have to either have an intimate relationship with her or to be a permanent codependent caretaker for her spiritual and grown-up needs tends to diminish her own strength as a character in the movie.
Her final surrender to Mr Right, the Brazilian expatriate, is not so much an agonizing acquiescence after a hard-fought soul-searching battle to find herself; it is more an adolescent girl’s surrender to the guy who just happens to be at the end of the queue, the default guy after Hollywood ran out of available male options.
This is Part I of a two-part series on Images of Women in Western Culture. This first blog post will look at the current movie, “Black Swan,” through the lens of women’s many images and prototypes in Western Culture. Part II will continue the same theme but focusing on the movie, “Eat, Pray, Love” and the image of a woman on a spiritual/self-knowledge journey).
In two recent Hollywood movies, “Black Swan” and “Eat, Pray, Love,” moviegoers have been presented with two more celluloid peaks at different images and prototypes of women.
In “Black Swan,” we have a shy, self-conscience, self-deprecating, and certainly virginal ballerina who yearns to be the “perfect” swan in a performance of “Swan Lake.” In her own personal life, Nina, the central character and wanna-be prima ballerina, lacks even a vicarious connection to the seductive wiles required of her as the black swan in the same narrative. Continue reading
“My ten year-old spends too much time on computer games.”
“Well, what you need to do is to ration his time. If he goes over the limit, you reduce the appropriate time on his next session. That’s what I do.”
Now, keep in mind, this might be the advice of your best friend, someone you have known for most of your adult life. You want to keep the friendship, but you know that your friend loves to give advice, to seep into the quagmires of your marital problems, to find just the right herb or vitamin for your rash, to come up with “just the recipe” for your Thanksgiving dinner. Continue reading
Let The Great World Spin
Random House, 2009
Except for a brief time in Dublin, McCann’s setting for this novel is in New York City during the Vietnam/Nixon-resignation years. And what a city it is: artists, clergy, prostitutes, judges, black/white/latino/Irish, computer geeks and hackers, street magicians—a veritable urban dream world.
McCann uses the famous event of the French tightroper walker and brilliantly fictionalizes it back into existence. It is the event that often grounds the novel (I would have to say that that event loses its force in the last two chapters when Tillie and Jaslyn narrate). Continue reading
Buddhists tell us that desire and craving keep the wheel of samsara (suffering, the threat of mortality, the cycle of fight/flight, emotional/physical pain) in constant motion.
And desire can be both the cause and effect of suffering. As a cause, it can lead us into more suffering. As an effect, it can drive us away from suffering in the same way that we can dive into momentary pleasure to avoid pain. Continue reading
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that Americans love instant solutions. Chris Prentiss, in a television ad promoting his book, The Alcoholism and Addiction Cure, does not claim outright that a cure for alcoholism can be acquired immediately. But there is no doubt that he views recovery as much less than a life-time endeavor. And there is little doubt that he views recovery within some kind of time-frame in which all the recovery/cure process will take place.
For all intents and purposes, once the cure process begins and the client surrenders to Prentiss’s approach, there will come a time when the addiction will be in complete remission (make no mistake about Prentiss’s model here; his time-frame for a cure is quite finite).
Prentiss’s how-to-reach-the-finish line approach is very similar to the world of television ads about instantaneous cures from headaches to menstrual cramps. The entire subtext of these pharmaceutical ads is all about the finishing line, the immediate conquest. Continue reading
Conservatives like to malign liberals as naïve adolescents, big spenders, pot-smoking pacifists, tree-huggers, moral relativists, Marxists, and worshipers of big government. They also like to think that liberals would rather write to a criminal in Attica than offer public sympathy to a rape victim.
There you have it folks. We're the bad-guy liberals. We are profligate. We are undisciplined. We love to be taxed. We don't like guns. We hate religion. We would rather date a Mexican. We love to run other people's lives from some Kafkaesque, bureaucratic big-government agency. We want every home in America to have solar panels. We despise war. We want to have an equal number of non-Caucasians and Caucasians in all of our elementary schools and high schools. We think men should stop being gynecologists. We want to annihilate all embryos. We love to fantasize about just when fish started growing the two legs Adam and Eve eventually sprouted. Continue reading
Once an Insider, Always an Insider
I grew up in a Christian tradition. My education, all the way up to my Master’s Degree, was at Catholic institutions. I was steeped in Catholic liturgy, studied for the priesthood, wanted to become a Trappist monk.
Even though I have formally left the Catholic Church and its theistic tradition, I still think of myself as a cultural Christian—I discuss Christianity, I participate in dialogues about Catholicism, I make references to classical Christian music, I often refer to the role of Christianity in Western history. I do all of this with the inherited legitimacy of an insider.
I say all of this by way of an introduction to prepare my readers for the voice I purposely take on in this essay. It is the voice of a kind of “Mother Jones” writer who sees himself as a guerilla-journalist camping out in the hills far enough away from a foreign institution, not to be re-intoxicated. But close enough to come down from the hills to engage in a serious insider’s critique.
I must also make it very clear that, when I question some of the outdated theology and dogmas of the Catholic Church, I do so as someone still culturally and intellectually connected to my Catholic heritage, even though I have officially left the Church. I also think it is important for my readers to know that I continue to be positively affected by so many of the nurturing and loving clerical servants within the Catholic Church who taught me so much about the need for self-examination and service. These humble and poorly-paid servants will always be in my heart. Continue reading
They had learned
From desert stars
That nothing matters.
Now they are asked
By ancient mothers
Trained in doubt,
To turn their heads
From the arbitrary dark,
Once dripping in shadows
And fresh blood,
To turn towards
The dusty marriage-vow world,
Before the clanking war
Danced its death-beats
Against the sifted ground
Of mangled bodies
Like slim, pale puppets.
September 13, 2010
Alfred A. Knopf, 2010
“….the gods love to eavesdrop on the secret lives of others.” So says the novel’s narrator and mythological character, Hermes, son of Zeus and Maia, the cave woman.
If we’ve forgotten our mythology 101, Hermes is also the messenger. And does he have a story to tell, a very modern story about ordinary human interactions and relationships and a story in the ancient classical tradition about love, larger-than-life genius, death, destiny, unrequited love. Continue reading
A few days ago, I was tail-gated by a woman in an SUV. As I looked at her face through the rear-view mirror, I could see the I-wanna-get-there-now look—squinting deep-set brown eyes glaring straight ahead, fingers of both hands gripping the left and right curves of the wheel, jaw jutting forward like the prow of a racing yacht, her entire face angled to the right as she appeared to bite off a thin slice of skin from the inside corner of her lower lip.
In that jet-stream moment, as I approached the red light, I was ready. My thoughts shifted into first, the power gear. She’s gonna slide into the inside lane. She’s gonna rev her monster tank-of-a-gas-guzzler. She’s gonna roll down her window for the duel, pin her hair back, tighten her seat belt, light a cigarette. Continue reading
(I would ask my readers to please keep in mind that my analysis of the anti-big-government movement in the U.S. is only an analysis. In general, I do not reach the same conclusions that many of these sometimes disparate anti-big-government groups come to).
In a densely-packed essay in The Nation, Eric Alterman outlined his reasons why Obama and the Dems will never be able to get an untainted progressive agenda through the hollowed halls of Congress.
Alterman sees the problem as structurally rigged against such any progressive agenda: the media-controlled narratives; the filibuster threat; the supermajority rule; the ability of any one Senator to put a “hold” on legislation; the corporate/lobbyist money running Washington and now the media with a recent Supreme Court decision. Continue reading
I remember the day. It was fifteen years ago. I was standing outside my father’s apartment. We were engaged in a conversation about Mary, my stepmother, who had just been diagnosed with esophageal cancer.
My dad made a vain attempt at telling me that he wasn’t bothered by my stepmother’s inability to travel. I didn’t believe him. Continue reading
Many of my friends are believers. They have faith in a personal, creationist God. They go to Church regularly. They have families who wed and die in these churches. And they see this life as a preparation for an eternal one. Some believe that only a select few will reap the benefits of their good lives. Others believe that everybody will have a shot at it.
Their deep faiths continue to nurture me, even though I have gently moved away from all theistic traditions. Continue reading
Spiegel & Grau Trade Paperbacks
New York, 2010
In all of the reviewing I have done over the years, I don’t ever recall using a statement from an author’s acknowledgment page.
When I read the last paragraph and then went back to look at the last page of the narrative itself, there appeared to be some covert, even tendentious wrapping up, some moral statement LaValle seemed to be making in this part allegory, part fantasy, part gothic, part magic-realism, part gruesome, grim-reality novel. Continue reading
(This is another blog post on addiction and may help non-addicts understand the many-layered world of addiction, a world I once inhabited and continue to recover from. Because addiction is an equal-opportunity emotional and physical derailment, I purposely shift between the pronouns, “he” and “she” to avoid the impression that men have a monopoly on the world of addiction).
My drug of choice was booze. But the behavior and emotional patterns I exhibited could apply to all addicts. Each addiction obviously has its own uniqueness, but, in working with cross-addicted individuals, I have found many of the emotional and psychological traits to be the same. Continue reading
Michael Haneke’s films are never easy to watch. I believe it would be safe to say the Haneke tends to assault his viewers out of their complacencies.
If you like your films to have a soft-edged, feel-good resolution, you should definitely save your ten bucks—twenty-five with popcorn and a beverage– and wait for Hollywood’s romantic-comedy summer fare.
Haneke is not your man.
That said, let me begin by saying that “The White Ribbon,” Haneke’s latest, is a tour de force. It is no wonder that Cannes gave the film its prestigious Palme d’Or award. It was well-deserved Continue reading
Imagine, for a moment, that you are overhearing a male neurotic narrator talking about his steamroller overconfidence. You are the listener and observer. Feel free at any time to interrupt him, to offer him advice, or, if you are willing, to identify with him. Be patient with him; he does manage to offer himself some gentle alternatives.
When I am overconfident and manically attached to an idea, a process, a value, or an opinion, I often don’t expend any time on allowing myself to settle back and let the world in. I am on a mission. I know what I’m about. I am convinced that a mere stream of ideas will purge the demons, settle the dust of my confusion. Continue reading
The White Tiger
“Sweet-maker…that’s my caste, my destiny,” says the protagonist, Balram Halwai, in Aravind Adiga’s novel, “White Tiger.” Another character in the novel asks the question, “Do you think sweet-makers can manage fourth gear?”
Western readers are not used to reading about castes, an historically rigid class system in India for centuries. Historians tell us, however, that in urban India, the caste system is breaking down, even though it remains entrenched in rural India. Continue reading
Before I began reading “White Tiger” and V.S. Naipul’s “India: A Wounded Civilization,” I had developed several stark stereotypes of the country.
As Buddha’s birthplace, India had become mythologized for me as a culture steeped in self-examination, the interior life, meditation, and the renunciation of the material world.
Gandhi was the other part of the jig-saw puzzle; he fit quite naturally into my notion of India as the golden land of serenity, inner peace, and wise teachers. Although he raised consciousness to more political, social-justice levels, I continue to imagine Gandhi as this austere, simple, reflective man who never raised his voice, meditated daily, and led quiet passive-resistance demonstrations for social equality, Indian independence, the end of English colonial rule, and reconciliation between Hindus and Muslims. Continue reading
The mottled crowd
Had refused to interrupt
My slowly raised head,
Feeling, as I did,
Like a dazed bird
Rushing from an
I crawled up the stairs,
Stopping to rest
My right arm on
The damp concrete
As I lifted the strands
Of my hair,
Imagining, for a moment,
Prince leaning over
My shoulder with his
Soft cottony breath,
And long fingers.
“Sorry,” I paused,
“I’m not here.”
He left without
Woody Allen once said that whenever he was somewhere, he always wanted to be somewhere else.
We are never satisfied, it seems, to be where we are. There is always some other goal to attain, some other fantasy to fulfill, some other dessert we haven’t tried.
I say that to all my twitter friends because right now I would rather be conversing with all of you. But today I must engage myself in the beautiful discipline of expression, to dip my feet into the pool of some thoughts I have been having about my own addiction (alcohol was the addiction of my choice). Continue reading
I am not willing to go far as to say freedom is the last refuge of the scoundrel. But Tea Party patriots often make me feel as if my own patriotism can never possibly match the depths of their own brand of flag-waving and highly demonstrative calls for pledges of allegiance. I am not and have never been a flag-waving patriot constantly in need of some kind of pre-game national anthem ringing in my ears. And, in all honesty, I have never liked parades ushered in by all of our veterans, an iconic display that continues to narrow the frame of patriotism to war and a physical defense of our country.
My love of this country, however, comes from a different source—its artists, its writers, its musicians, its thinkers. When our country was attacked on September 11, 2001, my soul sank. Here was a country of Walt Whitman, August Wilson, Benjamin Franklin, and Aaron Copland that had been knocked on its ass by a group of religious fanatics who had no clue of the range and depth of America’s soul. Continue reading
Reading theorists have told us many times that readers take an active part in creating the very narratives they’re reading. A text is not static, no matter what the intention of the writer. Once the story goes out there, we, as readers, begin a kind of paint-by-numbers process of reinventing the narrative to fit our psyches. The broad outline of the story is there, but we color in the personal textures to suit ourselves.
Louise Erdrich’s novel, Shadow Tag, certainly opened up my own politically-correct notions of what I want to read or see in a fictional work about another culture. It continues to be difficult for me to shift out of a rather rigid belief that indigenous cultures should exist in this rarified world of innocence, that they should not accomodate themselves, in any way, to a dominant, sometimes oppressive culture—Japanese art should be pure “Japanese”; Chinese literature should be untainted by Western values; Indian film should always be driven by the country’s Hindu heritage.
Although I have evolved to having made my own accomodations, I find myself sometimes becoming a kind of politically-correct tourist who doesn’t want any ancient culture to change. I am sometimes particularly hard on writers and artists who produce assimilationist works, hybrids that have their sensibilities in two cultures. Continue reading
I grew up in a religion that preached “poverty of spirit.” It was a high-church Christian religion with lots of rituals, pomp, icons, and incense. As a child and an adolescent, I was told that poverty existed on a higher, more spiritual plain than wealth because, if I were poor, I would not be distracted by the material world.
I was taught, in no uncertain terms, that just as it would be impossible for a camel to thread its way through the eye of a needle, that it would be a cold day in hell before a wealthy person would ever enjoy eternal bliss. From that small kernel of a moral presumption, I learned to be suspicious of wealth and to pursue “higher,” more spiritual goals. I saw no contradiction between the poverty message and the comfortable, sometimes extravagant lives of the male messengers. Continue reading
Those of us who are cultural-diversity followers continue to be intrigued by the global verbal battle going on between the conservatives on both sides of the “which-culture-is-superior”topic.
In the West, the Berlusconi followers continue to rant and rave about the superiority of Western Civilization. On the other hand, Islamic fundamentalists and militant jihadists believe that the infidel West is going to hell in a hand basket. Both sides have reduced their enemies to demonized objects. Continue reading
Too Much Happiness
Alfred A. Knopf, 2009
Alice Munro is one of those rare literary icons who has the distinct reputation as a crossover writer. She is admired by academics for her literary sensibilities, the mainstream for her easy-to-identify-with characters, and fiction writers who continue to be amazed at her ability to construct a strong story out of what Hollywood would consider to be the uneventful and ordinary—an impossible judgment to be made after reading “Free Radicals” and “Dimensions” in Munro’s latest collection, Too Much Happiness. Continue reading
In my last blog essay, I attempted to unravel the many complaints of the Tea Party followers. Three issues, however, seem to stick in the craw of those who believe in their heart of hearts that America is on the road to self-destruction: (1) The continuing loss of freedom because of big government and what appears to the Tea Party followers as a move towards socialism, the inevitable political paradigm that will only exacerbate that continuing loss of freedom (2) The desire to return to a golden age of a true America (3) The end of Patriotism in America Continue reading
Patriotic fervor takes many roads these days. Now there is a new highway entrance for the disgruntled and the angry in America. They are the new-and-allegedly-improved original tea-party patriots of America’s legendary Boston Tea Party.
If there is a bonding message among the Tea Party followers, it is simply that they are not being heard by their politicians.
And their messages are seamless streams of rage that have become the sound-bites of this new generation of discontented: “it’s up to the people to take back the government”; “we rule the government”; “people are fed up with the government that won’t listen to them anymore”; “government crap”; “I just want my government back”; “people should keep as much of their own taxes as possible”; “government should stay out of the car and banking business”; “pull the plug on Wall Street”; “screaming at my tv”; “I had to do something out of frustration”; “they don’t have a clue.” Continue reading
Showing up on time
Is the easy part.
The dashboard of
My rented car
Free of dust,
And a lemon smelling
Tag dangling from
The rear view mirror.
One more look
In the sun-visor
Mirror, an angled glance
At the straggly sideburns.
Fly firmly zipped.
Spitting on my closed
I drag them along
The creases of
My black pants.
I pull out a hanky,
And shoe-shine the tips
Of my eager shoes.
The bottom of my red tie,
I firmly wrestle
With the knot
To shield the
Top button from
I open my sport coat,
Lowering my head
Into the dark corners
Of both arm pits.
I turn off the
Open the door,
And look up at
The scoop of a moon
Glancing down at
Nothing in life is certain, as the saying goes, except death and taxes. We live in a world of profound arbitrariness. No one has any control of where they’re going to be born, what kind of parents they’re going to have, and what economic and social status they’re going to born into. We don’t come into our lives with a warranty even if our parents are wealthy and live in the Hamptons. Life, in general, has an arbitrariness that few teleologists are comfortable with.
When it comes to Health Insurance in America, the crapshoot world of arbitrariness becomes even more transparent. If you just happen to be employed by an employer who pays 60% of your premiums, you’re one of the chosen. If your employer pays the deductible, then you’re one among the few. If you just happen to have a health-insurance policy that has dental, you are definitely in a minority, unless you’re willing and can afford to add dental to your basic coverage. And if you can afford a gold-plated policy with all of the medical amenities,including face-lifts, then you are, indeed, among the rich-and-famous.
(The next two blog entries I will be posting consist of a two-part series about the American Health Insurance crisis. In the first essay, I discuss the Health Care industry in the U.S. as a profit-driven corporation. In the second essay, I will be looking at privatized Health Insurance as a crap-shoot)
Before I begin this attempt at getting my mind around the issue of Health Care in America, let me preface my remarks by thanking Ann from Baltimore who has promised to intervene on my twitter messages when I become too obsessed and frantic about the state of private Health Insurance in America.
To those who have not heard of Ann from @annq, check her twitter venue out. She’s my steady force of calmness in the sometimes frenetic world of cyberspace. Love you, my dear.
Now, Let’s play ball.
Before I started to write an essay on surrender, I went to my twitter page and tried to send another one of my many “What are you doing” twitter messages. Up popped a mysteriously serious black-and-white message, “HTTP Server Error 503.” I was back in Kafka land, the world of high-tech jargon, a cosmos that leaves old-timers like me speechless and cantankerous.
By doing some google research, I found out that my provider (whatever that means) is allegedly “working on the problem,” but that I should expect a delay. Given the fact that I have no clue about providers, I was forced to surrender to the land of technological obscurity (And, by the way, I’m from New England: I’m a guy who doesn’t like to be “beholdin’,” especially to some invisible “provider”).
After experiencing this mixed curse of temporary high-tech impotence, I felt gently nudged to start writing my essay for a twitter-friend in Vancouver. So here I am, my initial procrastination morphing into foxhole surrender.
In economic hard times and an ever changing economy, older Americans are becoming increasingly paranoid about being let go or bought out by their employers—for the sake of raising the bar, let’s just call it the Willy Loman syndrome
Older full-time employees are often a high needs group in spite of the experience they bring to a workplace. Our salaries are often at the prime-rib level, our equity loans more numerous to pay for children’s colleges, our medical needs more extensive and expensive than they were when we were in our twenties.
Because I was well into my adulthood before I began to figure out who I am, it is difficult for me to see where the desire to know about myself could ever be a bad thing. The self-knowledge journey continues and, I hope, will be with me for the rest of my life.
On the other hand, there are those who would probably stereotype me as an effete, self-indulgent dilettante wandering around the ring of shamans and spiritual teachers, decadently immersed in questions rather than answers.
It is difficult to write a review of a novel that has significant events that cannot be revealed without destroying the tension of those events. In the same vein, Internet film reviews often caution their readers that the review contains spoiler information that gives away key plot information.
In the recent controversy over Health Insurance, it occurred to me that I remain an incorrigible Jekyll-and-Hyde when it comes to public services. On the one hand, I want my roads to be fixed, my DMV to have short lines, my Social Security Office to answer its phone. On the other hand, I complain every time an interstate highway toll is increased or when my real estate taxes go up.
In the same way, now that I’m on Medicare, I want to be assured that my doctors (for the most part, specialists required for old birds like me) will give me the same care I had when my private insurance was my primary insurance. As one of the lucky ones who got under the wire because of my age, being born at the right time, and choosing the right career, my drug copays are chump change in contrast to what I would have had to pay out of my pocket—$7,000-a-year—if I didn’t have my private insurance drug plan. Medicare Plan D? No thank you.
Sociologists have given us pretty accurate stats about the majority of us marrying or having intimate relationships, endogamously—that is, inside of our class, race, religion, and/or economic status. Exogamy is the exception, not the rule. Even if we know someone from another culture in the workplace, most of us still go home to our homogeneous and segregated communities.
The notion of marrying or living inside one’s own heritage and culture was constantly reinforced when I was growing up in the 1950s, an era that was in denial about how deep the racial and ethnic divides actually were.
I was listening to an NPR program, “On Point,” the other day and a writer was being interviewed about his book in which he claims that alcoholism is not a disease but an ism of choice.
I don’t believe there are too many recovering addicts or alcoholics who would give themselves over to the generalized assertion that all you have to do is “will” yourself into sobriety. Those of us who have been in the rooms for a while would not deceive ourselves into the naïve belief that one’s individual will can unilaterally “conquer” or defeat the enemy of addiction.
I jokingly made the comment to a friend of mine that English majors, like myself, seem to revel in literature that’s hard to get the first time round. That doesn’t mean second readings don’t enhance our understanding of a work. It’s just that we sometimes distrust our I-get-it reactions as being superficial because they’re too immediate. For some reason, we seem to require wallowing around in the miasma of linguistic challenges.
Maybe it’s masochism or maybe we just have to prove to the world that we have some kind of secret knowledge of texts that are just beyond the ken of most mortals. And “stream of consciousness” writing is often one of our favorite genres. Similar to academic art theorists commenting on abstract painting, it leaves us ample room to show others just how brilliant we are when the rest of the world doesn’t have a clue what the hell we’re talking about.
I recently read a very touching story of an English couple who had gone to an assisted-suicide clinic in Switzerland to end their lives together. The wife, in her seventies, was a television producer, choreographer, and former ballerina. She had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Her ailing, eighty-five year old husband, was a former BBC conductor and Verdi specialist.
Sir Edward Downes and his wife, Joan, both agreed to terminate their lives at the Dignitas clinic outside of Zurich. Members of their family were at the bedside of the couple and watched the elderly couple eventually die.
A biopic, a non-documentary film that dramatizes the life of a real, historical person, presents a challenge not only to film-makers but to audiences as well. Accuracy issues are always at stake when a director decides to do a dramatic narrative about a famous person, particularly about someone who carries a lot of mythological baggage.
If movie audiences have even a faint knowledge of the historical character, they will come armed with predisposed beliefs about how a character should be portrayed. Hagiographers and groupies are going to be particularly difficult to convince if a film’s portrayal violates their own notions of their heroes.
Over the many years that I have been in alcohol recovery, I still remain grateful that alcohol rehabs were available when I first chose to stop drinking. During the first year of my sobriety, I continued to go to an out-patient counselor whose professional experience proved to be invaluable.
However, around the last month of my first year as an out-patient, I began to sense a need for closure. My counselor also seemed to have run out of material, and I had sensed that his usefulness was beginning to become more frayed. It wasn’t that he had suddenly become an incompetent counselor; it was just that recovery issues for him were limited to the more immediate, day-to-day behaviors and relationships during that first year. He was not trained to deal with deeper, more chronic psychological/psychiatric issues.
Vittoria de Sica’s classic 1947 film, The Bicycle Thief, has probably been written about more than any other film in history. At one time, film audiences considered it to be the best film ever made; unfortunately, it has slipped off the charts in recent times.
I have longed maintained that films consistently use visual and auditory images as stories in and of themselves. They often become complementary social plots replete with cultural values and world-view perceptions. The central story line in many classic films becomes more than just ornamented with these visual and auditory images, it often becomes a kind of call-and-response complement to the less evident images of a film.
Insanity as a literary theme has always had an audience—those ardent peeping-Toms who love to wallow around in somebody else’s mania. And there is something about the draw of a house fire or a mangled car on the Interstate that seeps into our indifference with the power of a jackhammer.
In a recent Harper’s Magazine essay, “Go Forth and Falsify,” William Gass made the comment that a “storyteller’s assignment…was to glorify the past and its daring, protect the family tree, justify male ownership of land…” among other obligations.
It appeared at first glance that Gass had no aesthetic sympathy with the classic role of the “bard” telling what Gass calls “the first stories.” Nor did he seem to support the classic “storyteller’s assignment” in his laundry list of the teller’s obligations. In this sense, he was merely the messenger telling us what the old bard’s role and obligations used to be.