Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Live from Surat Thani!

sa-wat-dee jahk grung tep!
updated photos on flikr

29 October 12:00Chinatown

All the sleepers to Surat Thani were booked for this evening so I ended up getting a 2nd class car leaving at 11 o'clock tonight. With ten+ hours to kill, I check my bag at the station and head to Samphan Thawong for some lunch (vegetable + beef soup with sticky rice--45B ($1.25)) and figure out what to do for the day. It's so bloody hot--I'm sweating standing still--that I think it will have to be some place with air-con. It is difficult to stay hydrated. The military police are a strong presence here, but bicycles are not surprisingly. There are hordes of 125-250cc motorcycles and scooters, though. The traffic is insanely trecherous but if you're Zen about it, you can cross a crowded street as smoothly as navigating through a crowd of students on campus.

As in Mexico, personal shrines set up in cafes, public places--even taxi cabs and busses--are common. Small buddha statues surrounded by flowers, candles, incense, and small bowls of rice. Pictures of revered buddhist teachers, military generals, and the king himself hang on walls like the St. Joseph's and Sacred Hearts in Italian restaurants, and make for a strange mix of religion and militant nationalism. Pictures of the king are everywhere, even on skyscrapers. I shudder to think if we did the same with our President.

As for the monks, they are no mythical figures. They walk the streets and through the crowded train station like ordinary citizens, with orange robes in lieu of a suit and a canvas satchel in place of a briefcase. I even spotted one wrinkly old monk checking out Lotto tickets at a roadside stand.

A squat woman at the station asked me if I had friends. I said no--I knew she meant 'Are you by yourself?'--and pointed to myself, holding up one finger, to which she replied 'aah.' Aside from summers spent hiking the AT with Andy and Brian Pye, I have always traveled alone--never with a girlfriend and never with friends. Anonymity can give way to lonliness now and again but for the most part it is a comforting blanket. The freedom from agendas and the freedom to come and go as I please--to sleep under a tree all day if I want to--when there is no one to object is a benefit I claim in exchange for an empty bed at night. But judging from the way I feel at the end of the day, I reckon I wouldn't want to be using that bed for anything but sleeping.



The South African wasn't kidding about the tak-tak drivers--they are crafty sheisters. I got roped into a ride from one after leaving the cafe. I offered the small brown man 30 baht for a ride to Saphan Taksin which he accepted but kept repeating 'ten minutes. You wait. Free gas.' I had no idea what he was talking about, so I just nodded when he showed me a coupon for 'Free Gasoline.' I was only half surprised when I found him pulling over in front of a clothing store telling me to go inside. Turns out the '10 minutes' was how long he wanted me to look around the store and the 'free gasoline' was his commission from the shop. I gave him 40b and told him I would walk the rest. I turn off the main road onto a soi (side st.) and it is suddenly a different Bangkok--shadowy noodle rooms, bony street kitties lapping broth and scallions from little wells in the ground, Chinese herb shops full of gnarly roots and magical powders. When I get tired of walking I hail a cab to the pier. Two things astound me: the sheer volume of scooter traffic on the roads and the number of yellow-shirted government workers seen on the street. Every now and then you will see a guy on a shiny 650 (not much bigger) but they're about as rare as scooters and 125cc's in the States.

I take the Skytrain above the snarled city traffic to Victory monument, which doesn't look like much more than a concrete pillar surrounded by a swirling clog of cars, busses, and scooters. The heat is oppressive, so I decide to head out farther to Chatuchak Park to try to take a nap. I rent a plastic straw mat for 20b (65 cents) and lay out in the grass by the water. There is a breeze and its a quiet respite from the city. A brother and sister try to sell me dried bread and bird pellets for the pigeons. They play with my camera and I give them each 2b and tell them to shoo so I can take a nap.



I wake up three hours later; the mat guy is standing over me with a smile. I hand it back to him and jump on the Metro to Huamphlong. By now I have a headache that only gets worse. I get a massage and try to eat some soup but only feel nauseus in the sickeningly hot station. I got out on the platform and lie down on the floor with a bandana over my mouth to filter out the fumes. I feel like I'm going to be sick and remember the legless beggar I saw earlier. Drifting in and out of sleep the train finally arrives. The Russians I saw at the cafe earlier are sitting in front of me talking loudly. I hope I can sleep for some of next 11 hours.


Thankfully the car is modestly air-conditioned, but I am still shivering with a coldsweet. I drift off to sleep for a bit only to wake up with just enough time to stagger into the toilet and throw up. I feel like death and it is a brutal ride, but emptying my stomach helped a little. I wake up next in the pre-dawn and watch the sky lighten exposing water buffalo with little birds hopping around in the jungle. I am sad because I think to myself, 'I will never reach buddhahood because I cannot transcend pain.' Sometimes a minor headache can throw me more than a debilitating depression because of the horror, I think, that it comes from outside my control.

As the Russians and most of the other tourists head for the taxi stands, I decide to take the local bus from Phun Phin to town. At 12b (30 cents), it is a tenth of the cost of a taxi and is more uncertain, which is half the fun (if you look at it that way). In this section of the country, though, almost nothing is written in English and communicating is harder. I am feeling a little better now, though I do just want to get into town and get a room and something to eat and then hole up and sleep and get an early start to Chaiya tomorrow. I find the Ban Don Hotel amid the stinking fish and vegetable markets. Apparently it has the reputation of a 'by-the-hour' hotel, but my room is cheap and very clean and big and has air conditioning.

When I look around at other backpackers making their way to the islands or national parks or to here-or-there, I'm reminded that when it comes down to it I do not especially like traveling that much. It is draining rather than invigorating for me; still, I enjoy it because it is impossible not to grow when you expose yourself to a world outside yourself. It's a strange duality. So for that, I like it. But I am looking forward to being at Suan Mokkh, if anything just to have the comfort of being in one place for a while.

Will not get to write for close to two weeks, so enjoy Halloween, the gloating Sox fans, and be well.

jeu gan na!

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Hello from Bangkok!

sa-wat-dee jahk grung tep!

After a furiously relaxing Thai massage I'm en route to Hua Lamphong to escape Bangkok and all its filthy charm, but am looking forward to a taxi ride through the city on the way to the station. Hope to catch an overnight train to Surat Thani this evening. Everything going well, in good health, though it's disgustingly hot. Check blog for updates, and some photos on flikr.

dit dor mah na! (Keep in touch!)


26 October 2007NY, NY

Slept quietly most of the way to New York and was birthed on to steamy seaweedy Canal St. in the spitting night. Find a back alley Chinatown soup-kitchen noodlehouse and get heaping plate of white rice, seaweed with black tofu, hot chicken, and some kind of fried white root, on styrofoam platterplate scooped up with chopsticks, for $4. The peasant soup makes me feel kind of like a sad little bum--mostly tepid water with salt and a few floating pieces of celery and onion in a styrofoam cup. I watch the Chinese kid with his girlfriend across from me drink it down. I try to stifle my laughter at the Chinese music videos playing on the tv--American songs sung by Chinese people; somehow I can't take it seriously. It is strange, though, feeling like a foreigner before I have even left the country.

I meet Mel at her apartment on St. James Place and we catch up over tea in the kitchen after a half hour talk with her landlord about the ten Chinese people living in the one apartment above leaving the water running. It's been about three or four years since I've seen Mel, and she is as gorgeous as ever. We go to Little Italy around 11pm to get some dinner, and talk about her recent trip back to India, and about sex and chastity, and her father's new koi pond. I kid her about being a saint and she viciously rebukes me; rightfully so, but there's some truth there nonetheless.

27 October38,000 ft. above Anchorage, Alaska

One of the movies on the plane is "License to Wed" and I can't help watching it in silence, Mandy Moore looking so cute and grown-up Disney and getting, married. And I get a little sad but then I remember when Ray Smith says, "pretty girls make graves," and it makes me feel a little better. To help myself back it up, I cut all my hair off two nights ago. Kate came over and I thought she was going to do it for me but she said (to my initial chagrin, since she promised) "no, you have to do it yourself." And then I realized she must be some kind of boddhisatva angel come to help me by refusing to help me. I said "okay." I pushed the clippers across my scalp like a lawnmower; bristly clumps of hair floated down into the sink. I felt no sense of consequence and actually it was kind of like a sighing mechanical Fuck You to no one in particular for having been put in a grave in the first place. Kate navigated from a distance, but never did it for me, just stood there with a wry smile like a pleased buddha and assured me "everything will happen as its suppossed to happen" and I experienced a little burp of enlightenment, like when Ray discovered "you cannot fall off a mountain." Then she went home and I threw my hair in the trash and packed my rucksack and then ate some food in the quiet kitchen, because I was hungry, and was still kind of high.

28(?) OctoberTokyo

10 Minute Narita

In Narita airportthe toilets in the men's room are like porcelin sand pits.
I snap a picture in amazement of novelty;the janitoress is agahst.At first I was afraid she thought
I was an American spy,but then realize it was becauseI had robbed her of the chance to clean it first.
She continues to laugh and scold me with her fistas I dry my hands and slirk out.

28 Oct., 21:00Bangkok

On the road to Banglampuh--my apprehensions melt away. The white lines passing underneath the busare like ghosts quickly forgotten;exhaling sighs of gasping repose,time no longer coursing through their veins,they pass into the nightlike snakes into the forest.


I now have one goal on arriving in Bangkok: escape Banglampuh and its backpacker ghetto enclave, Th Kao San (thanks Tim). Lights and noise and hawkers and gold buddhas--it is the Tijuana of Bangkok, sans the Red Light, and has me feeling like a frightened bhikku trapped in a cage. I know now why Buddhahasa Bhikku fled the city to found the Wat Suan Mokkh in the docile forests of the south.

Things do go pretty smoothly when I arrive, though; I find a cheap room right next to the 7-eleven for 400 baht ($12)/night. A German guy tries to ask the receptionist when she gets off work, but she shuts him down politely by saying, 'Midnight. I'm going home.' I point to the sign on the desk that reads: CHECK OUT 12:00AM (NOON) and try to explain to her that 12:00am is actually midnight, which I think she finally got after a while.

I drop my stuff in my room, which in its poverty (the 'shower' is a faucet connected to the wall and a drain hole next to the toilet) still sports a bidet attached to the toilet and clean, thread-bare sheets on the mattress. A ceiling fan pushes the warm stale air around the plaster-and-wallpapered room. I think of Thomas Merton and his early electrocuted end, which could have happened in a room like this in Bangkok some forty years ago. Some American band across the rooftop is playing covers of James Blunt and Alabama. In the distance I can see the Democracy Monument and the jutting gold spires of buddha fortress Wat Ratchanadda piercing the red sky.

There are a million and one bars and cafes, so I just go to the one next door and order a papaya and crab salad with red chili and a yogurt shake. I had every intention of sitting and eating and writing for a bit and then crashing, but a Thai girl sitting alone at a table nursing a beer asks for a light and so I invite her to sit down. She is gaunt thin, wearing a blue dress, and when I ask her name she says 'Pu' ("like the crab in your salad!" she laughs). We talk about family and a few things but she is quiet and I am quiet so the conversation is a bit strained. I ask her if she has a boyfriend and she shakes her head no, "I am ugly," she says without laughing, and it is heartbreaking in a way. She works in a shopping center. I talk with a South African from the same town as Charlize Theron watching the soccer match who has been here for three years who says, "This country is awesome, but get the fuggoutta Bangkok mate." I intend to do just that. I pay my tab and decline an invitation from Pu to go to another bar and leave her looking gaunt and splendidly beautiful in the alone lit night smoking and wondering about everything that is, but I'm too tired to talk anymore and head to bed. In the lobby a girl in pink (thanks Jeremy) follows me into the stairwell asks where I'm from; I tell her America but that's about all I'm going to tell her besides, "thank you, I'm good," as I head up alone to my room. I hope it is an accurate double entendre as I lie in the wide bed in the thick air of night staring at the gently convusling ceilng fan. I hope to secure a sleeper car to Surat Thani first thing in the morning; that is, if the night gives way to to a respite of sleep.

29 Oct. 07:00

Th Kao San never really slept last night, at least as far as I know--day and night stitched together in one seamless blanket of activity. I rouse up at six and from my window watch the dusty orange robed monks padding along the freshly swept thanon, making their morning rounds with alms bowl in hand.

I go next door to the bar for breakfast: fruit and yogurt, porridge w/ banannas, and iced coconut milk. I watch a man across the street get a Thai massage in a plastic lawn chair. When the boy working on him hits a nerve in the neck or side, the man throws up--neon green pellets making a 'splash' in the street. I ask the waiter about it. 'Ah," he says, 'proahly too much to drink,' which would make sense. Tak taks--three wheeled death traps driven by sheisters looking to pick up tourists--choke down the street alongside wimpy looking scooters and olive-drab military men riding pink bicycles. It is hot already.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Resignation of Turning Down Self Destruction

My dad was formally diagnosed with bipolar disorder after three successive hospitalizations for accute paranoia mania. This is an excerpt from an interview with my dad in Six Feet:

“I can remember it so vividly. I was doing something numerically, something mathematically. It was a series of steps and I was checking it over. And my mind…there was nothing leading up to it...all of a sudden I got a strange feeling in my mind. So I thought “okay, let me not do this any more.” So I drove down to Redner’s [Supermarket]. I was right at the entrance and it was like I was observing myself out of body. I kept going up to people and asking them things. The Warrington police [were called in and] thought it might be a drug issue. Thankfully the Grumkows were there and explained to them that I wasn’t on drugs.”

The other two times my parents were abroad, the first occurring in London and the second in Panama. It was very scary for both of them, but for my mom especially. She said my dad was getting more and more excited on the trip because there was so much to do. Thankfully, England has great hospitals and were very nice and accomodating; the cruise ship they were on in Panama, as well, had a hospital on board.

I'm scared about the retreat. Not so much the retreat itself but what seems to be riding on it. I'm afraid if I keep up at the pace I have been with writing and getting incredibly stressed out like I have been over the last few days that that would jeopardize. I am not taking care of myself, and I have no one here to take care of me. So I'm going to pretend like my mom is here. She would tell me to shave and clip my fingernails, wash my face; keep drinking water, eat the broccoli and carrots in the fridge, do the dishes and clean up the house for guests tonight. Relax and watch the Three Stooges. Do Not Write. If you push this, you will not be well for the retreat and may be forced to forfeit your spot. I've taken two 'mental health' days today and yesterday to diffuse the stress of lack of time. Something in me tells me this retreat is important, and I need to be doing whatever I need to do to ensure that I get and stay well--mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. As Cousade writes, I have become the Lord's rag doll which he throws this way or that.

So until things clean up a bit on the homefront here, I'm going to have to put the writing on hold for a bit. It's funny...he gave me the impression the other night that the One Thing that was holding me back from following him was acknowledging, accepting, and affirming his invitation of love. I sent a txt to my my parents, reading: 'Mom and Dad, I love you too,' and then I read this quote by Rose McGowan on Michelle's blog--one I could have written myself:

"I have great luck. I'm used to people dying and going away. Not used to it exactly - but I expect it. Like, whenever people go off on a trip, I save their phone messages because I think they might die."

I hope that if I die in Thailand that I will be back to tell the story. And at least will my parents would have had it in writing to remind them that all this time, their offers of love were not unrequited.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Chapter 2: The (Re)birth of the Faceless Kumoso

Losing faith is a funny thing. From the point of view of the one losing it, it looks like a betrayal. It is the embarrassment of a declined proposal, or the sinking feeling in the pit of one's stomach after one realizes that the roulette machine has an indifferent predisposition towards black this particular hand, when you bet your kids' college funds on red. But from faith's point of view, the whole tragedy is nothing more than a dramatic misunderstanding which is endured patiently and with the slightest of smiles, like the smiles on the stone buddhas on the cover of my Lonely Planet guide to Thailand.

I was afraid to go to bed last night. Not because of any fear of nightmares or someone breaking in while I was asleep. No, I was simply afraid that if I laid my head down at 6:30 this morning, there would be no alarm loud enough to wake me for my 10 o'clock meeting. I hate sticking people like that. One of my biggest pet peeves is people being late and not calling. And there I would have been, doing the very thing I hate. I guess that is how the drinking in the bathroom began, staring at the reflection of my haggard face in the mirror.

I had googled 'sore throat remedies' yesterday in a desperate attempt to try to do something for this disconcerting malady and had found a large number of people attesting to the healing powers of...cayenne pepper. Mixed with water and gargled. Every fifteen minutes. I winced just thinking about it. But reading things that people from as far away as Malaysia were writing, testifying (some incredulously so) to their miraculous cures within days after "nothing else worked."

I had a small jar of it on my spice rack. It seemed brash. But seeing how we tried in the same desperate manner to get high in middle school by smoking cigarettes packed with nutmeg because we "heard it" somewhere, making fire water rinse out of a neighboring spice did not seem as ridiculous in comparison.

I stirred two tablespoons in warm water like the recipe said. The Jim Bean specials at Bob and Barbara's had accustomed me to to this nauseous hesitation, like looking over the edge to the water below just before jumping a cliff. I closed my eyes, mouthed a little prayer, and threw my head back, the molten pool spilling over the lip of the cup and welling into my mouth. Of all my body parts during this experience, my throat was the one trembling with fear like an 18 year old boy going to war for the first time. That was, at least, right before my mouth was empty. Now, it was all he could do not to collapse under the pressure of the sustained weight of the water. I gargeled once, twice...three times for good measure, and spit the venom in the sink, wiping the stringy lines of spittle from my mouth on the back of my hand. I rinsed with water, and went to the bookshelf to take de Coussad into the bedroom with me.

He assured me it would be okay, that he would wake me up when it was time and that I had nothing to worry about. I was hesitant, but the offer of sleep to one who has not had it was like the offering of a virgin to a sex-starved man. I decided to trust the voice in my head telling me that it would not be necessary to do the old five-glasses-of-water-before-bed Native-American alarm clock trick; two should suffice. I just had to trust him that I would wake up after I had gone to sleep.

I drank the first cup of water, then the second. But my hand did not return the cup to it's perch. It felt as if the moment I put it down, the moment the porcelin 'clinked' when it made contact with tile, that I was signing something. I did not know what it was. But it felt important...important enough, at least, to take a minute to consider it.

It was then that the voice that led me into the bathroom--the one that to this point had been gentle and comforting--began to seethe with suppressed but controlled rage. He ordered me much more forcefully to put the cup down and go to bed. But still my arm stayed in the air as if it had turned to stone, the cup hovering a hair's thickness above the surface of the holder. This really set him off, and he became like a drill sergent, yelling at me incessently. I could feel it's hot breath on my face...the smell was nauseating. I closed my eyes the way you turn off a tv. And yet all this did was diffuse his form into the darkness. I had become blind. I curled myself into a ball on the bathroom floor. I felt the terror of a child about to be born.


When I opened my eyes, it was quiet. The florescent light by the mirror hummed slightly and some crickets were scratching their wings somewhere in the night. But the voices had stopped. I got up off the ground and stared at myself in the mirror. I should have been shook up...and I was. I clutched the sides of the sink with my hands and spit into the sink, tiny red flecks floating in the clear bile like grains of sand caught and suspended in a piece of amber.

"Take this and drink it."

I spun around, only to face the shower curtain. I turned back towards the mirror and was caught by my reflection. I looked into my eyes as if they weren't my eyes at all, but the eyes of someone watching me from behind a painting, the way they say the Mona Lisa's eyes move with you as you walk by her. I have no doubt this was enough to drive more than a few men to madness. But it was only because they did not believe that art could possess life, could transcend time and place. To those who believed that, it imparted a secret, a key, delivered to them by Da Vinci himself.


I stood at the mirror for a long time. I didn't know what was what or who was who, and nothing was making any sense. Whose voice was this now? Whose was the other? What freaks me out the most is that they both sound the same...at least, before the first started screaming and carrying on. This voice is gentle, but firm; kind, but stern. He tells me to fill my cup three more times, and drink.

I turn on the faucet, and slowly fill the first. I raise the cup to my lips and look in the mirror. Dark circles are beginning to form under my eyes, and my stomach is churning in it's own juices. I am not surprised by how I look...but it is not until you really see for yourself that it hits you: this is what it's going to be for the rest of your life if you listen to him. I buck up and throw back, wanting to crush the little white cup in my fist and shatter it into a million pieces on the way back to it's little alter. Instead, I turn on the faucet again.

When I look up I see my father. I am visiting him in the hospital. He is very happy, telling my mom and me about all his new friends on the ward, how they played basketball the other day against the staff and almost won. He introduces me to his roommate. "This is my son," he tells him proudly. Then he asks if we would like an ice cream sandwich, as if icecream sandwiches were one of the greatest joys life had to offer. I have never been so embarrassed to be my father's son.

If I had tears to cry and could cry them, I would have then in the bathroom. Reliving this scene playing before me in the mirror like a movie, knowing that someday too I would have a son who would feel the same shame, who would be trapped in his own hell in a rented room in Maine in the middle of winter with a bottle of pills that can either save or end him, depending on his choice of what to do with them...

"Okay, last one." The voice startled me. I filled my cup and raised it to my lips.

"Tell me," it asked, "if you had to guess what the One Thing was, what would you say?"

I said I didn't know. I suppose smoking was a pretty heavy chain I had been trying to break for years. It's a little disconcerting to think I would have to give it up for good, but I know I could do it, especially since there seemed to be so much at stake here. Maybe chastity was the one thing I was missing. God knows how my life would be fucked over by that one.

The voice smiled. It was the faintest of smiles, but appeared in the emptiness like a shard of sunlight escaping from behind a cloud. The emptiness was saturated with tension, the kind that is strong enough to send veins of light crackling across the sky right before a thunderstorm. I have always been terrified of thunderstorms. They meant...


I was screaming. Hysterically. Like a decapitated head staring at its body in the seconds before it's extinction. The mind, completely severed from the very body that has assured its existence since their fusion, suddenly finds itself spatially and temporally separated, like a liferaft from it's ship, existing afloat in an ocean with no land in sight. But unlike a life raft at sea, not only is there no land in sight, but there is also no sea, no raft...no thing. If screams were possible here they would be loud enough to be heard in lives to come.

"No, no, NO!" The reflection in the mirror kept flickering in and out like a bad tv set. It was hard to make anything out...just streaks of purple velvet and black and screaming as if a mother's child had just been cut out from her wound; there is no rational way to process the event. "Please PLEASE! Take it, I CAN'T!..." I threw the porcelain cup against the wall, sobbing. But instead it hit the towel hanging on the rack in front of it, and dropped to the vanity in tact. I screamed and put my first through the mirror, a million shards of glittering reflection like stars in the universe, about to fall to earth. But they never fell.

At this point I seriously thought I was losing my mind. Like the flecks of cayenne in my spit in the sink, the pieces of the mirror were frozen in the air. I could see my eye, its reflection at least, in a shard, like that weird eye on the pyramid on the back of dollar bills. It held me in its gaze, becoming more and more intense. I felt my retna beginning to burn, stronger and stronger, until I finally blacked out, and crumpled to the floor.


I woke up around noon. It took a moment for my mind to register the painful discrepincy between the pressure of my bloated bladder and the time on my phone. He was supposed to wake me up. I have that fucking meeting! I trusted him.

A string of "fuckfuckfuck"s follow me out of the bedroom as I try to figure out what to do. I check my work phone: 1 missed call. Ugh. I throw the phone back on the table and sit down in my boxer shorts in the sunlit kitchen to think. I rub my eyes and try to clear my throat but it's just as closed off as it was last night. FUCK!!!

I don't understand. First I follow a false voice, which gives way to what I thought was a real voice. I follow the real voice and it tells me to do something, which I do, and none of it comes true. Not only am I not healed of my cold like I thought I would be, but he promised that if I drank all five glasses of water that I would wake up. Was this just another wolf making sheepcalls?

I decide to bag the day and call out sick. The feeling is nice--just having a day to hide out. It reminded me of the winter I spent in my apartment. It was the best winter I ever had. I took out a file folder from my desk drawer of writings and pictures I made. I was big into Kayne West that winter. His music made me do a lot of crazy things. His beats got into my head and pounded with each footstep I took, his lyrics engraved themselves in the back of my head. Kayne had a lot of potential with Jesus Walks. People were getting it--the message was getting through. Then I heard about his wager with 50 cent over who could sell more of their most recent albums, respectively. And then I knew that he was gone.

I put the folder back in the drawer. I decided to call the agency and my client's parents to apologize about the meeting, but wanted to do meditation first; with nowhere to be, it was harder to find an excuse not to. I still had the desire to listen to Kayne, or something pulsing, maddening, to jet into the morning. But instead I found myself at the bookshelf, pulling an obscure cd case out. It was a cd Rebecca had given me. I only listened to it once, but I remember her giving it to me because she thought I would like it. At the time I did not--it was like some kind of bland taro or white rice with no soy sauce. But I decided to give it a go, since he was allowing the use of music for this meditation. I could choose one disc to listen to. I couldn't tell you why I chose this one.

I slipped the jade-green jacket from its sheath and fingered it like it was a delicate piece of parchment. I sat down on the couch and read the brief introduction:

"In many ways, I am a modern-day komuso. The komuso were itinerant, mendicant priests of the Fuke-Shu sect of Zen Buddhism who wandered Japan during the Edo period (1600-1868). These priests were samurai who had lost their masters, and they would take the problems and illnesses of people upon themselves by playing a certain kind of shakuhachi music called Sui-Zen. The ko is komuso means "emptiness" or "nothingness," so the komuso were quite literally priests of emptiness or nothingness. They would wear tengai, a kind of woven basket, on their heads, hiding their faces. This was for anonymity, to suppress the ego. Since they were selfless, empty vessels, other people's problems could be "poured" into them. When someone needed a komuso to play for healing, the patient would see only a flute extending from the bottom of the basket, not a person."

I put the cd in, lit some incense, and sat down. I settled down and watched the smoke spill out from the tip of the incense stick. They were like dragon clouds entangled with one another in the sky. What it must be like to be lighter than air; what it must be like to disappear without having ever really appeared in the first place.

As my eyes adjusted to the smoke, my ears began to adjust as well. It seemed now that the dragons rolling playfully in the heavens just moments ago had now become like great pall-bearers in procession, bearing the notes of the komuso's flute on their backs. I didn't know what was happening, but it felt really important, and my eyes began to close.


I wake up in a grove, not unlike the one in Henri Rousseau's The Dream. But this grove I know, I've seen it somewhere, been there before. I can't place it. But I'm too tired to think about it from all the running around. The lack of sleep, food. Not knowing who to trust, what goes where, when I'm dreaming and when I'm awake. I roll over in the grass despairingly, only to hear the sound of rushing water.

In the pasture of this world, I endlessly push aside the tall grasses in search of the bull.
Following unnamed rivers, lost upon the interpenetrating paths of distant mountains.
My strength failing and my vitality exhausted, I cannot find the bull.
I only hear the locusts chirring through the forest at night.

When I come out of the grove I am standing at the banks of a river. What felt like a tranquil gurgling stream while my eyes were closed had now become a full raging mass of water a good twenty feet wide. There was no bridge, and the bank when on for miles.

I heard something snap behind me and spun around to find myself face to face with a toothless monk. He burst into laughter at my expression and in one great leap, jumped clear across the river, landing without a sound. He must have seen my expression again, because he again burst into laughter--spontaneous, controlled, punctual laughter. I could see from this angle that he was no more than four feet tall. Truth be told, he kind of reminded me of a leprechaun.

He shouted words at me from the other side that I did not understand, all the while pointing at the river--he was telling me to walk across. It was then that I realized I must be dreaming. A quiet part of me exhaled a sigh of relief; anything is possible in dreams, and nothing is real.

But as soon as I put my foot on the surface of that water, the old monk must have thought I was mistaking it for concrete, and howled in laughter. The color drained out of my face as I watched the river take my shoe and swallow it whole. It was only through a closely placed tree branch that I was able to escape the same fate. I sat on the shore to breath and tried to wrap my mind around the fact this was real. The monk hurled what I took to be insults at me from the other shore. I yelled back complaints in English about how I was supposed to do this, how this wasn't even possible. Shit, if Peter had Jesus with him and he still started sinking, what was I going to do with this old Chinese leprechaun when I go under.

What the...the bastard just threw a rock at me. Well, maybe not a rock, but a pebble! Hit me right between the eyes. From twenty feet away! He suddenly looked stern and locked eyes with me. His pupils were black like giant pits of tar. The longer we stared at each other, the deeper I went into those pits, like a miner being lowered down into the earth. For a long time it was blackness all around. Then, like a speck of dust, I see it glitter. I can see the core. But it is his core. And even then, it is a long way down still.
Along the riverbank under the trees, I discover footprints! Even under the fragrant grass I see his prints. Deep in remote mountains they are found. These traces no more can be hidden than one's nose, looking heavenward.

Next Installment: Chapter 3: The Meeting of the Village Woman

Part 1: Leaping Embers

The following is a chapter-piece from a series (presently in four parts) that I am considering appending to Six Feet--it might just be the stuff to raise it from the tomb which is my hard drive! The section was written 22 October between the hours of 2am and 6am. More to follow.

Part 1: Leaping Embers

There is no time to edit this. what is in my mind is beginning to smell like rotten manna, and there's a lot of it. I've been pacing around the last two days wondering when it was going to be the time to put it down on paper. I was going to lose it otherwise, my memories, to the fog. I wanted to get down everything, and he was making me wait.

I can understand how this might come across as being more urgent than might otherwise be appropriate in such circumstances. The wager of the side of the justification of urgency; and yet it still leaves him open to a stab at double or nothing, the calling of the bluff: the justification of content.

Of course, having already made my confession to you just moments ago of my faith in the urgency of the matter at hand, my ultimate fate, at this point _______...my fate is in your hands.


Of course, I would have hoped you would have believed me...it was the reason I came to you in the first place. But you wanted to shoot craps for what I had left, to make sure I did not leave with a scrap of my self left hanging on the bone, so as not to bring too much attention to what you had done to me. That's why I did not leave you anything...to bring to attention to what I have done for you.

But that was the past and this is here and now, which requires here and now reminders. The past is a key to the future, as the saying goes. But that's just it: it is a key to the future...not the past. Using the past as a key to the past is like trying to use the same key to get back into your old apartment. The keys look alike...but they are, without a doubt, different keys. Sometimes the Korean shoe repairman Happy at Market St. Station can cut you a copy, single-use grade. Use it to look. The clues are there.


When you say to the professdor, where is the wevenen suns? uhghkkdnnnvollllthat. twas my original aintention, in bringing you to this place. this where. where am i> ''I apologize for that. He told me to stay composed!)

Sometimes it has to be clear like that. The force against the insides through can be painful...the repression that is. senial.
blue door the wayagain.

The pressure, on the inside. there is something in you. clawing against the walls of your chest. It is as if you a pregnant with fire. The pain puts you on a different plane...the pain itself is of a different plane.it is like the pain is from another planet. but when yo

When you are bearing the sun in your womb, unless you find a way to transcend the pain, there is no way to endure it.

There is one being who has walked this earth who has transcended the pain of enduring the birth of the sun. no rational thing is possible. that's what i'm getting at, i suppose.


But the birth of the sun led to the spilling of seed, fiery seed (being the product of the sun). Like embers leaping from the inferno of a burning fire, this seed leaps out, looking for something to ignite. A few may catch onto something combustible, some oily rag or an old Hustler lying nearby. Most of these times something big burns down...somebody's house, or tent, or water skis. It's not always pretty. Without combustible material, though, most of the embers fade out quietly into the darkness like a dying planet slipping into the abyss of the cosmos.

Believe it or not, the fire was a blessing. I wouldn't be writing you at 3:30am if it wasn't, right? There must be something....right?


I guess he is a John Coltrane fan. A Love Supreme--his request. He made it seem like there was something special about it, like it was reminding him about something nice. Personally, I think he loved it the same way my mother used to love the macaroni art and all the things we made for her. I remember all those birthday, Mother's Day, Christmas gifts we made by hand because...well, because we had no money.

These gifts took a lot of time to make, but that worked out well, because as kids we had so much more of it. And it didn't seem like work because the whole time we were engrossed we knew we were making something for mom (and we wanted to make it good, so she would smile, even though we knew she would smile if we handed her a plate of flaming dog poop). Now I pick up a 2 for $1 card for my mom at the Dollar Store on my way to the pharmacy. I sign Love, and my name, and drop it in the mail, addressed to "Mary Marco."


Okay, well now that we have some music on, let me get right down to it: I have a very busy week ahead of me. I am leaving for New York on Friday and am boarding a plane to Bangkok Saturday. This Saturday. Not the most convenient time for him to pop in unannounced; but then again, he was never one to be able to just sit around. If anyone else tells you he is eternally patient...they're lying. So, I would like to get on with this, so I can get into bed and not end up sleeping through my ten o'clock meeting. Please forgive me if I will seem a bit frank...tiredness can wear manners fairly thin.

This week I was given one assignment, three parts. Michelle was writing vignettes the other day...I guess he noticed me reading them. I guess he also thought that I should write some of my own. Three, specifically. The first began Sunday night. God, please keep me focused, I don't want to see that sun coming up!


It had been a dry couple of weeks, but Kerri had finally scored some herb. I was overjoyed--I didn't think I would have the chance for a last session before I left. It was very sticky and we cruised through three straight episodes of Lost on just a couple of hits. The episodes themselves were some of the best yet. I made up a word to describe them: "they are like philosophical fudge." I always leave feeling like my mind is still digesting them.

When I get back to my apartment, I'm hungry. I go to the freezer and take some strawberry ice cream out and over to the sink. A breeze brushes the sheer, and it flies up like a ghost, and I look over to the window. There is nothing there. When I turn back to the carton of ice cream, it was like a well that I could not stop staring into. My desire had not left me, but my arm was as if paralyzed and I was unable to bring the spoon to my mouth. And then I knew he was in the room, standing with a switch in his hand. "Put down the spoon, and place your hands on your side." I did as he commanded, feeling like the unwitting victim of a stickup.


But there was no gun nozzle jammed into my back; even the switch he kept was at his side, and it looked like he did not intend to use it. I could not see his face, as he would not allow me to move. But I felt myself in his shadow. I could have been imagining it, but it felt warm, the way you feel when the sun is shining on your skin. How can you tell it is day, that the sun is in the sky? The sun makes no noise to hear. Your eyes--unable to look directly at it--can only close and guess what it looks like...or even if it exists at all (since your eyes are closed). The sun does not smell. But if you get close enough to it, you get to feel just how hot it really is.

"Okay. You know the drill. Twenty minutes...where do you want it?"

I thought it was nice for him to give me choice. But I told him I that right where I am would be fine.

"Okay then. Put the ice cream away." I took one last look into the carton. The strawberries seemed to be glistening. I carved off a few bites with my spoon and lined them up on the bottom of the carton.

"Come on. Put it back." He said it gently.


It's close to five. I've been told at the rate I'm going I have no hopes of finishing the assignment by sunrise. I am going to take that as a challenge.


Just as Ulysses had himself tied to the mast of his ship, I stitched my hands to my sides and spread my feet. I always wondered what those London guards thought about while they stood motionless for hours on end. Maybe they weren't thinking at all--maybe the hours of standing motionless had made them into stone white buddhas.

I, on the other hand, felt like St. Anthony being thrown against the cave walls. Unlike before with Janine, there is here nothing to look at, nothing to sink my imagination into. It's just this...feeling, of dis-ease.

And then I feel it. The way a woman must feel the first time she feels her baby kick. The feeling of something moving, living, growing, and breathing inside you. I listen closer, anxiously; my mind becomes like a stethoscope, scanning my body, perfectly attuned. The apartment is volatile with silence. And then I hear it.

A scratching, scraping, against the inside of my stomach. I hear the sound of water, like someone stepping in a puddle, and feel something tickle against me, like a feather. I take my flashlight and enter inside, lowering down and following the sound. And then I see it...


Aren't dreams nice? You know what's really nice about them? The fact that you are SLEEPING when you're having them! I'm sorry; as my disclaimer discloses, tiredness is prone to make a man gruff. So, again, please forgive me.

I would like to say 1 out of 3 ain't bad. But I can't...not in good conscious anyway. I'm nervous for this retreat, the same way I used to get nervous...horribly nervous...before my wrestling matches in high school. I was always afraid that I didn't train hard enough or practice long enough. And I was always right. I would look at guys like Jimmy Deven and Matt Bloomberg and see fire in their eyes, wearing garbage bags shirts and resigning themselves to a steady diet of lettuce and water for the course of the season. They were like wild boars waiting to tear out from their cage. This was their One Thing. Going one-to-one with one of them was a humbling honor. In general, though, I was ashamed to even be near them.


Next Installment: Part 2: Walking on Water

Monday, October 22, 2007

Sunday's Secrets

Here are some of my favorite PostSecrets from today. The first one hit me like a lead weight in the chest. The way a Whopper goes down and then sits, being dissolved by stomach acid while the body seeks to filter through. The density clogs ...like an anyrism. That's why they sometimes show, in cartoons and stuff, people's heads exploding--it's to express a situation being encountered that is too much for the rational mind to grasp. And so for a second (which is a bit of a misnomer, considering that this event is operating outside the realm of time and space), everything stops. And you are presented with the choice of experiencing a particular moment--this unique and particular moment that will never again be repeated is the course of history. Like dropping a leaf into a stream or throwing a stone into the ocean--once it gets swept up in the current, by the undertow it is to advance time, moment by moment, til the (literal) end of time. It's funny I never took note of what it was really saying, the double meaning, the fact that we may be approaching an undeniable "end." But what if that "end" was just the end of X. There is still "the end of Y," and "The end of Z," and the..."

Me: "Well, what's after Z?"

The answer: "Why, 'A', of course!"

Anyway, this PostSecret exploded on impact and soaked the walls, black lines racing towards the floor, like legs in a glass of wine. It didn't hurt; when you're not expecting something and it hits you in the face, it's just more like a shock (not unlike the shock bodies go into after a shark attack) or a stun, like, "did he really just take my tooth?" The fear of getting hit is becoming concentrated in the coils of a spring when it is being compressed but has not yet been experienced--it is "kinetic emotion," aka, "a Reason Anurism," aka, a "Buddha Slap." When a moment of insight into buddha-nature occurs, it comes from within, but is spurred from outside. I wonder about these "Reason Coated Prayer Bombs", of if when artists create--when real birth, real creation has taken place--they are really just being used as earthly messengers to, commissioned to communicate messages that are beyond their rational capacity and to understand. A piece of art can be like a synapse looking for it's connection--it is the message meant for one person and one person only. When that person is you, and you find yourself now like someone holding their breath because they have just woken a sleeping bear, it's as if when the bear starts charging towards you, compressing a shield of time to it's breaking point, you're brain shuts into conservation mode, the way trees shed their leaves in times of drought. It cannot afford to allocate any time in what is not necessary for the task at hand. That is Zen.

So like Albert and Tommy in I Heart Huckabees taking turns wacking each other in the face with a giant rubber ball because "you stop thinking!", and it's eery similarity of taking turns with the bong, "hey, you stop thinking!", an enlightening piece of art can become like a bag of drugs you can't keep your hands out of. I read a quote on another blog by Langston Hughes that said, "an artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he might choose." In trying to flush out the message embedded for "you...only you," you have to contend with the constant temptation--the lingering, wafting smell of rotting fish filling a room--of making an idol out of the envelope bearing the letter. But if you can connect with what was sent to you, if the message was 'activated' and 'received successfully,' then tell your mind you'll see it in a few seconds, but until then, ciao! i'll send you a postcard!

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Secrets in the Mail

A friend of Tim's gave him a book called A Lifetime of Secrets, which I've gotten into the habit of staying up and reading whenever I spend the night. This guy had made this blog encouraging people to decorate a postcard and write their secrets on it and send it to him. The book is a scrapbook of sorts of all the postcards, and it the kind of book you want to just devour in one sitting, but it would be a disservice to do so, and so the practice of self-restraint has the opportunity to be exercised. Some of the posts in the book almost knocked me over, or took my breath, or both.

It's interesting, too, how religious Confession (in the Roman Catholic sacramental use of the word) has fallen out of style. And yet, people still feel this need to confess their dark sides to someone. I think the anonymity of Post Secret allows for this. People may or may not be seeking absolution or forgiveness. Some people may capitalize on the opportunity to write to a stranger about themselves because they have no other friends. Occasionally there are jubilant posts about being in love or beating cancer. But the majority attest to the fact that most of us are living our lives under heavy yokes. And they want someone to unload them on.

The founder of Post Secret gives people that opportunity. But he is completely laissez-faire. There is no need to play God or therapist or counselor. He could have thrown all the postcards in the trash for all anyone knows and it wouldn't have made a difference. Because it is the act of confessing itself that heals and unburdens. A 4x6 piece of cardstock becomes a scapegoat, marred and profaned, dropped in a box and forgotten...one step closer to redemption.

* * *
Here are some of my favorites:

check out the website!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Killing Time

I went for a walk this evening. I don't like to walk. But I didn't know what else to do. It was one of those nights--feeling bad and restless enough to force one into pacing the room (but too tired to do anything about it), but not feeling bad enough to warrant calling up a friend to say, 'Can you come up? It's one of those nights.'

So I put on my sandals and headed out. I figured I needed to drop my laundry off anyway, and pick up cigarettes, and if I headed up Ridge, I would even treat myself to an icecream. The night was muggy and walking uphill I warmed up quickly. I walked by Bike Addicts, the shop next to my dentist which was never open. Sometimes I would see the owner just coming back from a ride; other times the lights were on in the shop but there were no customers. Maybe if he kept some regular hours he'd get some damn business. Faded posters of Italian bicycle racers and equipment which will probably never get sold adorn the walls. The shop itself looks pretty faded, not unlike the small hockey shop I passed a few minutes earlier; I just as soon imagined it was a front for a meth lab or something.

Coming back down Ridge (after finding the ice cream shop closed, damn those sixteen year old girls) and realizing my laundry would be done soon, it occurred to me that what we do while we are waiting for our laundry is not so different from our lives and how we run out the clock. When I want to kill time I usually sleep, or think (in that order). Tonight I could have taken the bus into the city and back; gotten a beer at Hogan's; read a novel, or done work for school. No matter what I would have done, though, I still would have been waiting for my laundry. There's a bit of Absurdism there, if I'm not mistaken.

It was a meaningless night of sorts, and, as has been the case over the last couple years, there was nothing available that made me feel 'better' about my situation. But this meaninglessness is not negative--it is simply a blank slate on which we create our story and assign our meanings. To take a walk for exercise or to set out to count the number of paces from Rochelle to Righter or to raise awareness of lupus--in the vast indifference of a yawning universe, the 'meaningfulness' of such endeavors is lost. But to us it seems a great deal.

So, in the remaining ten minutes before the buzzer, I started to look around and what would you know...Roxborough is a mecca of absurdities! There was the sign that read 'Stanley,' in red white and blue letters, planted in someone's yard, as if it was for someone running for office. But all it said was 'Stanley.' Then there was the yard full of cactus...I recognized them from roadside stands in Mexico where squat housewives would dice them up and serve them with eggs and beans. Across the street a white leather couch sat in the shadows in a narrow alley, and I wondered if people sat in it or if they just wanted it out of the house. I made my way past crappy Jimmy Cannon's All Star Restaurant and was reminded why I don't go there to eat.

I got back to my house feeling like a fat man in summer who has reached his exercise quota for the month. I heave my laundry sack on the bed and empty it. The place is quiet and just as stale and loveless as when I left. But at least I managed to kill some goddamn time. I just hope I don't have to pay too much for it in the next life.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Western Medicine...the New Junta?

In preparation for my fast approaching trip to Asia, I decided to make an appointment at a chiropractic clinic in Old City. I figured if I'm going to be sitting on a pillow for ten hours a day, I should at least make sure my spine is in good shape. I also wanted to get a massage while I was there to work out some knots in my neck and shoulders from my over-exerted "shit-I'm-late-for-work" ride to the office this morning.

The place was super nice and relaxing. The cute receptionist was very pleasant, as was the doctor himself (a MD might object to that term). He explained things very well, though it soon became apparent that this was not a "crack my shit and send me on my way" kind of treatment. It was a "holistic" approach, which necessitated a commitment on my part to good diet, correct sleeping form, avoidance of toxins, regular stretching, thinking positive thoughts, etc., since all these things were connected. As they say on the cover of their brochure: Mind - Body - Health. I was happy with one out of three, but I think they are labeled 'Not For Individual Sale;' it was a package deal.

Reading an editorial in the Metro this morning got me thinking about how the the non-violent resistance to the military junta in Myanmar is similar to the holistic approach to medicine in the West. The junta operates like the big health insurance companies here in the States: with a rigid agenda and heavy hand for dissent. Like holistic medicine, peaceful resolution to conflict--while likely more beneficial in the long run--is more involved. Governments are empirical and often impatient for results. It is easier to bomb a country over the course of a fortnight, or lay bullets into chanting crowds, than it is to invest in talks for an indeterminate amount of time. Like taking an aspirin, it is "addressing a problem." But it is really addressing only a symptom of a much larger disorder.

Health insurance companies are good with paying for treatment for things that have already gone wrong. Getting them to pay for preventative treatment to keep such illnesses at bay is another story. (I was glad to see that my insurance would cover a good number of visits to the chiropractor, albeit with a $300 deductible. I was surprised they covered it at all.) Which makes me wonder: by continuing to follow traditional practices of Western medicine, are we in effect unwilling to let go of the very things that are making us sick in the first place?

It sounds like a ludicrous statement--"do I really want to be well?"--because we just assume it, but it would explain a lot. When you test empirically what people say they want against what they are actually doing, you'll see that most people aren't willing to give up what makes them sick: the angry man holds on to his anger because it's the only way he knows how to respond to things; the woman in the abusive relationship who can't see herself apart from it; the truck-driver with hypertension who knows he should eat better, but likes biscuits and gravy too much to change.

Even when I pray desperately to be able to shed my vices like a winter coat come Spring, there is a part of me that secretly wants this prayer to be denied. For without my sin, who would I be? What would I write about? The awful fear of actually being taken up on this request keeps me from putting my whole heart into it most of the time; when I say I want to be good, God and I both know that I'm lying. If I became good, life as I know it would plunge into abject poverty; my Self would be cast off into the shadows like an old coat on the floor. I would be like the woman who was given every good thing in life, and escaped it by swallowing a revolver.

Of course, this thinking itself is a lie, second only to the Devil's greatest, which is convincing the world that he doesn't exist. The terror of actually being good--being healthy--is what keeps us sick and chained to our vices. The attachment to sin is so strong and reinforced in us, that preventative discipline is worth it's weight in gold, both in body and spirit. This holistic stuff is new for me. And patience is not one of my virtues. But in light of everything above, I'm beginning to have more faith in it. I just hope my insurance company doesn't send some goons to my house to see just how "sick" I really am.

Unfinished Business

I've always admired the Motzarts and Bobby Fischers of the world, mostly because I could never imagine being so focused on just one thing. I'm more of a Da Vinci, with my hand in a hundred different hunny pots. This tendency makes it especially hard as a writer to get anything published because in order to publish something, you have to finish something. My first manuscript on manic-depression (which I thought I finished three years ago) has gone through fourteen major edits, has been rejected by thirty-plus agents and now I am finding some major holes I would like to patch and develop.

Of course, that would mean staying with that project for an extended period--the prospect is not enthralling. I am a Big Picture person, not a details person. In order to avoid doing that I started up a side piece that I thought would be fun to develop--a series of essays and reflections using the bicycle as a metaphor for the perfect life, one based in simplicity, connection to the earth, physically engaged, free. I reasoned that it could be written piecemeal and stitched together to avoid having to approach it as one Big work. I'm still working on that one. I went to Mexico last year for a week to chill out and devote some time to the project but ironically didn't get a lick of writing done.

I mentioned recently to a friend an idea I had for a novel. Fiction is not exactly my forte, nor my favorite genre to write; nonetheless, it always crops up in my mind begging to be let out on the page. It is about a monk who becomes disillusioned with the mission of his monastery to provide for "the poor, the widowed, the orphan, the sick, and the hungry." He leaves and makes his way to Los Angeles, where he gets a job as a dishwasher and is exposed to the life of the most glamorous celebrities. Seeing the sickness of their souls, he prays daily for the opportunity to administer to their needs and is one day visited by a B-list actor. The actor, disillusioned himself with the empty promises of Hollywood, takes to the monk and begins to tell those in his inner circle about his wisdom. News spreads throughout Hollywood of the monk and his "spiritual healing" ministry. But after a large number of actors and actresses leave the glitz and glamour of the big screen to become disciples, a band of agents decide for the sake of their jobs that it is time to do something about this "Moviestar Monk."

The book is meant to be a challenge to the conventional Christian notion of who "the poor" are, and to expose the downfalls of this 'preferential option' when that option leaves out those who need the Gospel the most...but are least likely to be exposed to it. My friend thought it was a great idea. But as all writers know, "I had a great idea for a book..." is not quite the same as a book itself.

Listening to: Louis Armstrong--100 Anniversaire

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

This orange...not that one

While I was living in Doylestown I belonged to a small writer's circle of twenty-somethings. The Writer's Room was just budding at the time; since then it has exploded full-bloom, attracting writers from all over Bucks County and beyond.

I give props to the girl who organized our little group. Trying to establish a cohesive, semi-permanent community out of a group of die-hard egoistic individualists, most of whom were in a transitional state of life (myself included), must have been hard. But we got together once a week to discuss and critique each others work, talk about writing, go out for beers, and do exercises.

I remember one exercise we did specifically. We went around in a circle, each person picking an object in sight, which we would then write about for five or ten minutes. Then we would stop and read what we wrote. It was not very complicated, but was neat exercise because you saw how two people could be looking at the exact same thing and be seeing it totally differently. I remember seeing an orange sitting on a table and using that as the subject for this exercise.

I also liked this exercise because it accentuated the inexhaustible potential of words to describe reality. The primacy of the written word in the Christian religion and even John describing God as 'the Word' (logos). There is always something to write about; there is never anything that can't be written about. For someone who gets bored quickly with just about everything, this is comforting knowledge.

When I first moved to Philadelphia and taught 7th grade English at St. Martin's, I used such exercises as a warm-up before each class to get the kids' minds limbered up. My favorite exercise (which soon became their favorite too) was timed stream-of-consciousness. I laid down the rules at the beginning: 10 minutes, pen or pencil must never stop moving; no editing, no erasing. There are no limitations or parameters on content. If you get stuck, keep writing the last word in your stream until you get unclogged. But there is to be absolutely no stopping to think, and no stopping of the pen, until the ten minutes is up. You may share what you wrote at the end if you choose, but no one will be asked to.

It took a while for the kids to get used to this kind of writing, since they were so used to censoring themselves. I think they grew to like this exercise because it gave them what every kid wants when they are in 7th grade: freedom. Freedom from rules, from their parents, from convention, from peer pressure, from expectations.

But it was also a spiritual exercise in letting go, that is, refusing to let the mind be controlled by reason for a time. Any time I would see one of the students stopping to think, I would slam my hand on the desk. It was the best equivalent I had to Zen masters hitting their students in the back of the head with a stick. Your mind has diarrhea, I would tell them...don't hold it in.

If I could think of any job I would love to have, it would be to teach creative writing. Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like if I had gone through with my application to Temple's MFA program instead of studying Theology. I wrote a proposal to teach a creative writing class at the Mount Airy Learning Tree last spring, but never heard back from them. I would do it for free I enjoy it that much. At this point I don't know where to start or what is available to me. But it does feel good to know a little more clearly where my passion lies.

Monday, October 15, 2007

We Are Standing Here at the Edge of Time

"There's a game out there, and the stakes are high. And the guy who runs it figures the averages all day long, and all night long. Once in a while, he lets you steal a pot. But if you stay in the game long enough, you've got to lose. And once you lost, there's no way back. No way at all."

For almost ten years I have had this shard of a monologue stuck in a back corner of my mind like a splinter under a nail, waiting for it to grow out. It finally did a year or so ago thanks to Google (I don't know why I never thought of using it earlier). I first heard it in What Does Your Soul Look Like (Part 2) on DJ Shadow's 1998 Preemptive Strike. Hearing it was like one of those deja vu moments, a memory that you may or may not have had in real life. It first caught my attention because I could have sworn it was Kevin Spacey's voice, and I thought "What movie is this from?" It wasn't until I googled it years later that I discovered Davis was pulling the sample from a line in an obscure 1971 anti-war movie called Johnny Got His Gun.

Solving this riddle made me feel like a bit of a Junior Detective cracking his first big case. It quickly became apparent, though, that the real mind worthy of praise was Davis'. Like a lost civilization embedding clues in history to tell future generations of a cataclysmic event to come, Davis has embedded in his music clues to lead the listener...somewhere else.

Could it just be coincidence that I happened to watch this movie as a result of thinking I heard Kevin Spacey's voice on a track and being bugged by it enough to want to investigate its origins? Sure. But could there also be something to Davis' artistry that is especially effective at communicating that which could not be communicated in any other way? I think so.

So despite originally just wanting to watch the movie in order to hear from the source this obscure six line monologue, and going so far as to order the DVD from overseas because it is not available anywhere in the U.S., watching Johnny Got His Gun last night opened more doors, which led down more corridors, into still darker parts of the psyche and grayer states of morality; it was like Alice and the rabbit-hole.

From this I can only conclude two things: that Josh Davis is either simply one of the greatest hip-hop artists of the 21st century for both his innovation (a model representation of introspective hip-hop, in my opinion), ingenuity (Endtroducing made the Guiness Book of World Records in 2001 as the first completely sampled album in history--a AKAIMPC60 12bit drum machine was the only piece of equipment used in production), and style; or, that the possibility exists that Davis has found a way to graft his work into the fabric of time and history to communicate a message of utmost importance, so much so that it must be embedded in past, present, and future as code, stitched together, package, and delivered to the recipient, who is then left the task of unzipping and deciphering it. Davis is the appointed messenger in this regard; the senders can not be located in any time-bound sphere of existence but make their temporal nest in the subconscious of each and every recipient, like larvae waiting to be hatched. The message and purpose is left unknown.

I could write a lot about the movie and may at another time; I will admit that it was not what I expected. There was one (actually two) scenes that I was thinking about last night and this morning. Joe, who describes himself as a piece of "living meat" (he is essentially a torso and a head and genitals--everything else has been blown off in a mortar blast), is being kept alive by the army as a marvel of modern science--the ability to keep someone alive injured in war. The army hospital doctors consider this some kind of benevolence, but are cold and merciless to Joe's real needs. All Joe wants is death. But there is one nurse who is the film's model of compassionate humanity. She is warm, and kind, and compassionate. She is so moved by Joe's condition and feels his pain so accutely that she sheds tears on his chest. She writes on his chest with her fingers to say "Merry Christmas." She is a deeply religious Catholic, a model of compassion. But as if to show--using morality as one particular vessel--how upside down Joe's world is, her own religious behavior contorts into a strange representation of mercy completely foreign to contemporary religious reason. In one scene, she notices in changing his feeding tube that Joe has an erection. A look of anguish washes over her face; she thinks for a minute, then to her knees and drops prays. After she is done praying, she lifts her head and thinks again. Then she gets up and masturbates him. It is a very moving scene, to be honest. But if you take it seriously, it is also very conflictive.

Likewise near the end when Joe figures out he can communicate with Morse Code by nodding his head. Over and over he signs 'Kill me. Kill me. Kill me.' The army doctors coldly refuse, answering with a sedative and a promise to 'make him as comfortable as they can.' The army chaplain says in response to their asking "can't you do something Father? Can't you tell him to put his faith in God?" to which he responds "I will pray for him for the rest of my days...but I will not risk testing his faith against your stupidity." It is a brilliant, scathing line. The intersection between personal morality, religion, and political authority at this point, though, is getting kind of muddled. Near the end the nurse, again dropping to her knees after everyone has left the room, makes an act of contrition--which is meant to be made after a sin is committed. Ironically, she makes it before she pinches his breathing tube and attempts to suffocate him. Her behavior is bizarre...and makes perfect sense at the same time. It's an affront to the rational, cut and dry, black-and-white theoretical morality laid out in ethics classes and seminaries. Because it intersects with the heart...and we all know how that can fuck things up.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Bone, Thugs, and Memories

I'm not a huge fan of hip hop; what I do like I'm pretty selective about.

I'm indebted to my brother for introducing me to one of my favorite rap groups, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. It doesn't have as much to do with their music, though (though I am a big fan of their roll style). BTNH is just a box carrying a lot of good memories I have of growing up with my brother at a time when he was becoming a new person, slipping away into autonomy. I could care less how silly these scraps of memory are that I hold onto: lying on the carpet cracking up when Bizzy Bone and Silly Bone and all the other Bones would spit about Cleavland and their daily life on tracks like "Shoot Em Up," "Fuck da Police," and "Foe the Love of Money": waking up and being high, smoking reefer, rolling dubs, selling dimes, smoking that weed...you get the point.

In all honesty, "First of the Month" is one of my ultimate feel-good songs...not just because it reminds me of my brother, but because it really does invoke that great feeling of summertime when you don't have shit to do and can concern yourself with driving around Cleveland "sipping on forty ounces" with friends, cashing your check on the first of the month, "getting a bag of dope and a quarter roll" and riding high. Whether you're rolling blunts or going to the public pool is besides the point. Being carefree--if only for a night--is a real blessing.

I miss my brother. And I'm glad nothing is sacred to a writer. Because when Krayzie Bone pulls up and spits something like, "Bone in the muthafuckin' house for the nine-quat, nigga," and offers me a ride to spend a few minutes with my brother, I'm grateful, and graciously accept.

new ride

Got the last of the parts for my new steed, to replace my Trek that got heisted in Society Hill over the summer (Philly thieves are ruthless!): carbon Kestral fork, Selle Flite saddle, derailleur. The rest came from scrap lying around the basement. I do love Cannondales--taunt like bowstrings and light as a feather.

Ah you mongrel, you mutt!
Ascend Mt. Hippopotamus
Bark at the howling wind!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Butt Buddies

I was overjoyed when a few months ago when someone (I think it was my dad actually, since he is a fan and loved Hustle & Flow) showed me an interview with Terrence Howard in which he reveals that he is man with the highest standards of personal hygiene and that will not tolerate uncleanness. He spoke to Elle magazine about what he demands of the women he dates:

"If they're using dry paper, they aren't washing all of themselves. It's just unclean. "So if I go inside a woman's house and see the toilet paper there, I'll explain this. And if she doesn't make the adjustment to baby wipes, I'll know she's not completely clean."

It's unclear whether Terrence uses a bidet or not, but judging from his disgust at the very sight of TP, and knowing that he is a man of refinement that recognizes barbarity when he sees it, I would venture to say that he has one in every room of his house. Celebrities have major street cred; they can and do make weird fashions and eccentric habits normative. Attach their name to a Free Tibet or Farm Aid or Save Darfur event and "they will come." Maybe bidets will become the next big thing in Hollywood. If the celebs hop on Terrence and my Clean Ass Express and talk about their enlightenment in the public space they command so well, who knows what could happen? College students raiding campus bathrooms and burning rolls of toilet paper in the streets like they were bras or draft papers; the ascension of Toto, Kohler and other manufacturers from the brink of bankruptcy to commercial success; the obese, the handicapped, the elderly able to enjoy the same level of cleanliness as the more physically enabled; hundreds of thousands of trees spared from a shitty karmic rebirth (no pun intended).

But I need to touch base with Terrence, because I know he's getting a lot of flack for his convictions. Like this hatin' interview with jezebel.com:

Terrence, I was wondering if you could comment further on your remarks in Elle regarding baby wipes and your feelings about them.
I stated my position pretty clearly. More people need to use them. This is a very serious subject. What more is there to say?
How many women have you tried to convert?
Howard's Publicist:
Ok, and that's it. No more questions. Time to end.
Assholes (no pun intended), probably hired by Charmin goons. Nothing but hate.

Unlike Terrence, I don't make demands as far as other people needing to adjust their hygiene practices for me. But I can respect him for laying those dema
nds out there from the start and saying, 'Look, it's me or the TP...which do you want more?' Of course he can say that because he's a good looking movie star and I'm sure there is no shortage of women who would be willing to make such a sacrifice (if you want to look at sanitary evolution as a 'sacrifice'). I, on the other hand, might be a little more hard pressed to find someone willing to undergo such a radical conversion as a condition for dating me. I think I'll just keep doing what I'm doing, enjoying the benefits of refined personal hygiene, and talking to anyone who "has ears to hear" about the Good News: "Water washes away all uncleanness. The reign of TP is no more. Repent, and believe in the Bidet!" Either way, the two of us are still living on the fringes. "I just don't get it," Terrence would say to me, taking a swig of of Jim Bean and passing me the bottle as we dangle our legs over the the giant Hollywood 'O,' "I mean, doesn't everyone want a clean ass? I can't go back to paper, man. I can't! Not now, not ever!" "I know Terrence. Just remember: 'the stone that the builders rejected has become the corner stone.'" "You're right Rob. I'm glad you understand." "I do, Terrence. Believe me, I do."

ps: I got my travel bidet in the mail today for my trip. I was going to go with the Toto but decided to save the extra $40 and go with the Sanicare, which also got good reviews in Ass Washers Weekly, which Terrence and I both subscribe to. Just kidding.

Listening to: DMX--The Great Depression; Guilt--Bardstone Ugly Box

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Theological Responses

Dear _________,

I'm glad you are enjoying the book so far. And no, you are not being too forward in asking questions (and they are good questions, too.)

First, the issue of being on medication during pregnancy is a complicated one and depends a lot on the woman herself.

For women who are consciously committed to having their own children: for the sake of the baby's health some women make the decision to go off their medication during the pregnancy. The repercussions of this vary in severity from person to person, but it can be disastrous, enough so to keep one from doing it all in the first place. This is the "put my child first" approach which believes that the risk of possible disfigurement or retardation is enough to warrant the suffering of the mother during the risk of the term.

For women who are consciously committed to having their own children but who are not willing to go off their medication during a pregnancy: this could be for a number of reasons but may align itself with the "women's health" issue that sees that the potential risks of going off medication are severe enough to outweigh the risks involved in possible disfigurement to the child. The mother may make this decision not just for the sake of her own mental/emotional health, but for the effect it has on her husband, family, and society in general. If the risk of suicide or suicidal ideation is high when off meds, then the issue becomes one of a life-threatening nature.

But if I'm reading it right, your question was "if i was to get pregnant...would the Catholic Church allow us to plan on not having children?" Unfortunately your question lacks the consistency needed to answer it on one level alone. When you say "if i was to get pregnant," i assume that to mean you are asking hypothetically ask if you had already discovered you were pregnant. Your question then goes on to ask if the Church would "allow you to plan on not having children." To be consistent with the previous part of your question, this needs to be reduced to, "would the Church allow us to not have children?" The answer to this is unambiguous: since the child is in the womb already, any question of terminating the pregnancy is null and void, since the Church's stance on abortion is pretty clear.

If you were to assume, however, that you were not yet pregnant, but wanted to discuss whether or not the Church would allow you to PLAN on not having children, then that is a different question altogether, one which I can't speak with any steadfast assurance on. I do know that adoption is ALWAYS an option and encouraged in the Church...the decision to have children of one's own (i.e., biological) is a personal one, and one that some people will go to great lengths for--even going so far as to pay thousands of dollars for somebody else's egg or sperm just so they can experience the natural process of pregnancy and call the child "their own." I think parents of adopted children, however, do not consider their children any less their own than their biological children.

I will say that I am not in agreeance with the Church's teaching on the use of artificial contraception. I come at this from a theological perspective, but also from a personal one. I took NFP classes and it seems to work for some people...for others I think that the constant fear of pregnancy at a time when a couple is not financial or emotionally prepared for a child has the potential to do more harm to a marriage than the use of artificial contraception does. But that is a discussion for another time.

I would say that if you wanted to PLAN on "not having kids" with your husband, you would have to specificy if this meant not having biological children, or not being open to raising children at all. I think the Church would bless the former but not the latter if adoption was considered. But even this is open to debate, since recent developments in sacramental theology have acknowledged the bi-dimensional nature of marriage, which possessed both a "procreative" and a "unitive" function. The former was always given more weight, but both need to be considered equally.

2) The paper you are talking about is a voluntary committal waiver (in contrast to a "302" committal, which is non-voluntary). I did sign such papers when I was committed, but I would be willing to sign them over to my wife, on the condition that the criteria for such a committal are clearly defined beforehand to prevent the risk of being "whimsically" committed to an institution at the first sign of having a bad day.

3) I believe all things are possible in Christ. However, this decision again is an entirely personal one. For myself, I feel that in a marriage you are constant shifting weight from one partner to the other. I could fall in love with whoever I fall in love with, but marriage is always--and always has to be--a conscious choice. We make choices all the time. I choose not to be friends with people who are on drugs because I know that is not a good influence. I choose to invest in mutual funds rather than straight stock because I'm not comfortable with super high risk. You have to accept the consequences that come with all these choices. If I decide to marry someone who is fiscally irresponsible or who is a social butterfly, I know, to an extent, that this may pose some issues down the road. Since manic-depression is a lifetime condition, and marriage is a lifelong commitment, the decision to commit to someone with it is a heavy one and one that I personally do not feel comfortable in making. My own disease is sometimes all I can handle...to live a life with someone going through the same is one of those things that I think, for whatever reason, is not in either parties best interest. It's hard to bear someone else's burden of mental illness when you are having enough trouble bearing the burden of your own.

This, of course, is a conscious choice. But you might marry someone who gets diagnosed 10 years down the road, or gets cancer, or gets run over by a bus and is in a wheelchair. You can't anticipate that stuff and so you don't worry about it in the present because it doesn't yet--and may never--exist. THAT is when putting your trust and faith in God and his Providence really becomes a daily activity. Making choices with your God-given free-will--for better or for worse--places (paraphrasing Thomas Merton) "100% of the responsibility on you...and 100% of the responsibility on God").

Have to get to work now. Hope this was helpful. I love writing and answering questions, so don't hesitate to ask.