Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Death of a Guru

Sheldon Brown, the nutty bicycle guru of West Newton, Mass, who has helped millions of amateurs in the fine art of bicycle repair via his website, died last night. I have jury duty this morning. It truly is a sad day.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Almost Famous

When I first moved to Philly I used to spend some nights with my then-girlfriend at the Pen & Pencil, a private club for journalists which is still the oldest continuously operating press club in America. The entrance was tucked away on Latimer Street between 15th and 16th. Just as the Badda-Bing could claim and boast of the likes of fictional mobster greats like Tony Soprano, the P&P had its share of famous members and guests, including former president William Howard Taft who used to give his bodyguards the slip in order to banter at the club til the wee hours of the morning. The walls were lined with signed photographs of past members in Geno-esque fashion. You had to be a member or know someone who was to get in. And you had to knock.

Being in the company of established journalists was a great experience. While my ex worked as a bartender at McGlinchey's just a few doors down, her career as a photographer was beginning to take off. Her series "The Regulars", which she presented at the P&P one night to a group of local journalists, appeared in a 2004 issue of The New York Times Magazine and gave her national exposure and the window of opportunity to pursue photography as a bona-fide career. One thing I respected about her work was that it was not lifted from anywhere--at least explicitly.

Kaavya Viswanathan's, the Princeton sophomore whose book How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life was pulled from the shelves after it was discovered that the book was laced with plagiarized style and structure, has become a kind of poster-child for plaigarism. Along with Jayson Blair's undermining of the integrity of a stalwart like The New York Times with his "borrowed" material from other journalists, and the accusations against Obama for his 'second-hand speech giving' ("change you can Xerox,") the scandals of Stephen Glass', Viswanathan's, and Blair's, serve as reminders that plaigarism is alive and well...and has very real consequences. (Just when I cancel my Netflix account, I find a movie that looks worth watching! Shattered Glass recounts the tale of then 25 year old Stephen Glass' fall from grace as a young journalist at the New Republic. He's played by Hayden Christenson of Star Wars fame, and Peter Sarsgaard (Garden State, Boys Don't Cry) as Glass' editor, Chuck Lane).

An emerging trend to be noticed is the attitude towards journalistic and literary integrity in a new generation of young writers. Foster Winan was quoted in an interview which appeared in Black Table as saying, “The younger generation thinks that everything has a reset button that wipes away the past and the consequences. [But] life teaches us that it takes experience and time to become the kind of success we truly want to be.” Winan did time for his 'quick-money' scheme at The Wall Street Journal, while writers and journalists like Glass, Blair, and Viswanathan try to reinvent their lives in the aftermath of their blacklisting. These were young, ambitious writers who gambled with their character and integrity...and lost.

One of the safeties of using your own life as lit-fodder is that you are in no danger of plagiarism, since you are pulling your information straight from the source. Which is why I am so excited about the possibility of co-writing a screenplay, as well as the possibility of making some (serious) money this summer penning a play for upcoming 2008 Christmas productions. With Jeannie's help, and some diligence, there's nothing to keep it from happening and becoming a bona-fide playwright. It's encouraging to know there is potential in something you can claim as your having your house sitting over top a geo-thermal pool: all you have to do is harness the energy. But after reading about all the fallen angels in the world of journalism and literature, the danger of having it all be taken away with one misappropriated idea is a reality whose presence is felt ever greater the closer one draws towards prime-time success.

Much thanks to Foster for his comments on yesterday's post. Best of luck in the future Foster!

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Doctors Who Birth Stories

A few years ago, when I lived in Bucks County, I was part of a writer's circle and critique group that met at the Writer's Room that sat on the corner of Main and Oakland Streets in Doylestown. The Writer's Room was founded by Foster Winans, a former Wall-Street journalist born in Doylestown. Winans had been convicted of fraud in the mid-1980s for tipping off brokers with pre-published feeds from the 'Word on the Street' column at The Journal (read the June 2003 article in Editor & Publisher here. I remember hanging around with him and a few other writers late on a weeknight every now and then. He was always in and out and floating around, but always had something he was working on. One thing I'll never forget him saying one day to us from his office. "I am a whore! I will write anything for anyone...just pay me!" Foster Winans was the first "writer" I semi-personally kind-of knew by association. My old neighbor Joe had one up on me--he would go to parties at Norman Mailer's house on a semi-regular basis. He thought Norman Mailer was brilliant.

While one may think the quotations insulating the word {writer} are for the purpose of romanticization. Quite the contrary. Foster was a "writer" because it was his job, and all he knew. He could not not write. But he was right about being a whore. He had no shame; nothing was above him. He would spit out cereal jingles onto his desk (which was simply a sea of papers, drafts, newspapers, etc.) as he was at the same time banging out a chapter for his new book. I imagine if I could mentor under any writer, I would want it to be someone like Kurt Voneghet or J.D. Salinger, even though I have not read much by either and don't even consider them to be significant literary influences (as Kerouac, Kazantzakis, Hesse, and Dostoevsky were). Nonetheless, I could see myself as a kid helping "Mr. Voneghet" change the carborators in his car on a Saturday morning and asking him not so much about Slaughter House Five but about what being a writer was like. "Well," he'd say, "I don't have a pipe and a view of the forest, if that's what you're asking." I'm momentarily embarrassed by my inadvertant romanticizing of his profession, but he goes on to say, smiling. "I wake up and eat some breakfast. And then I sit at my desk and write." And that's how books like Slaughterhouse Five are born--out the asses of very ordinary events and circumstances that, sometimes, do not differ much from that of the 9-5 office worker or the shop-owner. Having sex for a prostitute is not typically a pleasure; it has, at some point, become a job.

It's good and humbling to be with "real" anyones--that is, people who have committed themselves to a career decision that often proves to be lonely, hostile, competitive, and unforgiving; ie, people who don't have anywhere else to go if they get up from their desk. The checks in the mail, the food on the table, are dependent on your ability to sell the fruits of your trade, find your niche in the market, and maybe plant your seed of greatness underneath some unsuspecting person's feet. The motivation for writing has suddenly changed. It is a pregnancy of sorts, the birth of a new spirit--things, situations, the fact that there is no milk in the refrigerator, has become real. A brute cognitive-schematic represents it best: WORDS = WORK = $ = J.O.B = $ = food = play. Like 18 year old teenagers on their own for the first time, the loss of innocence that accompanies seeing the grownup world of 'selling words for money' for the first time. There is a reason there are guilds; there is a reason there are copyright laws that threaten federal prosecution for violations--these are people's jobs, people's work and intellectual property. Writers are actual people. If anything, the WGA strikes have shows us this and offered a view into the lives of the behind-the-scenes of relatively ordinary people--people with relatively ordinary jobs as writers, who have kids and families and mortgages, whom they financially support with the financial strength of their own words captured to text. These are the people in "the industry" and, like some kind of commonly known inside joke, their "honeymoon" with the writing life started to fade when they got serious and made it their life--they committed to their life as a writer. Without romanticizing it too much, their choice to live in a life devoid of safety nets, has my sincere respect and admiration.

After seeing 'Juno'--the result of a script (her first) written by a young ex-stripper-turned blogger-turned-now-millionaire--take home an Oscar, the fantasy of hitting it big with a Golden Script has begun to seem less fantasical. It's like hearing of someone in New Jersey, winning the 1.3m Super 6--suddenly "the winner" has become "Leroy C. Jones III of Cherry Hill," who resides at such-and-such Drive, coaches Little League, and likes to drink Milwakee's Best (you assume) because there is always two recycling bins filled with crushed Beast cans set out every Monday morning in from of his home. You start to imagine your own story within theirs. Like miracles, and affirmations, and Hope, these are the events that are happening every moment in the unfolding of the universe to keep us forgeting that we are connected; that his story is my story, weavings in the same tapestry that is being knit together from that massive yarn-ball of collective experience known as the Collective Unconscious. Like the encouragement found in the Communion of Saints, those who have gone before us and who share with us what its like, and what to expect based in their own writings, which have been passed along through the centuries like wisdom literature.

Without going into it too much, some inspiration came tonight, that kind of recognition of "hey, we might have something here": like George and Jerry's pitch of the 'Jerry' pilot to NBC, or Steve Jobs in his garage, or the "Foreman Grill." I was thinking in all seriousness in J.K. Rowling proportions of success, that the idea for a metaphysical sitcom that my friend and I came up with about our time spent as neighbors living in opposite sides of a duplex. The mainstreaming of 'gay commedy' was pioneered by writers of shows like Will and Grace--actual writers who became famous and well paid for an idea of theirs by a combination of luck, persistence, talent, ingenuity, and motivation. I tend to think the last one is what keeps me from making a full Kerikegaardian leap to writing (or at least more seriously entertaining the idea of writing as a profession). I am so impressed by the work Jeannie does because it is all self-motivated. She doesn't get work, she doesn't eat. It takes a lot of courage, faith, trust, and optimism to put yourself out there like that and rely soley on your own talent to earn your daily bread. Even being around Foster, who had used his gift (or at least his insider-status as a member of a greater community of ethically-responsible journalists) in a less-than-noble way and did eight months in federal prison for it, I still respected his commitment to his profession. He and Matthew the tax collector would have a lot in common were they to meet in the present day, because they understood one another's sin.

Having babies is sometimes known as the 'gift of life'; at the moment of birth, there are four parties present: the life itself, its Creator, its home, and its delivery man. All four work together to bring a new life into the world. Writers are like doctors--when they move away from Ego and embrace their responsibilities as a 'bearer of words,' they guide the raw, lucid, primordial energy found in a newborn child into a new world, a world enfleshed in Experience. It is this Experience that a child, from the moment he comes into existence, finds himself born into, begging the question: can one be born outside their own reality? It will have to be a question for another time but suffice it to say that doctors are paid well because they are trained to perform common miracles. They have accepted their role in society and seek to use it to serve the common good, stressful and under appreciated as it is. Writers are called to shoulder their own responsibilities of birthing Experience (both their own and that of others), or interpreting data and presenting it to general audiences, or spinning"just the facts, ma'aam" into thread for next morning's edition of 'The 2nd-Hand Experience' (60 cents). He should recognize the power and ability of his words to give life to the common, to the everyday, and treat it reverently, in service to--and for the benefit of--the salvation and enlightenment of others. Mahayana Bodhisattva style.

Sunday, February 24, 2008


"For Aristotle, ethics is essentially the art of living well. This can only be achieved by those who have friends, because friendship provides the ideal conditions for the successful pursuit of excellence."1"

'The only joy to be attained had the fragile brilliance of glass, a joy outweighed by the fear that it may be shattered in a moment."
--Augustine of Hippo on Original Sin

I just read an excellent article on Original Sin written by Gerald Schlabac which appeared in the December 1992 issue of Augustinian Studies titled:
Friendship as Adultery: Social Reality and Sexual Metaphor in Augustine's Doctrine of Original Sin. Schlabac's analysis of the influence of Augustine's existential crises (specifically, as covered in Confessions IV-VI) on his theological outlook, as well as his association of friendship and sexuality with finitude, Schlabac writes, "Just as Augustine would later say of the lust that Adam's sin had imposed on human sexuality, friendship in book 4 of the Confessions was self-punishing. For in fact, the fable of human society, the illusion of self-transcendence, "is what we love in our friends" (4.9.14). And so, our consciences condemn us not only when we refuse to return the love of another, but even when we reciprocate. For at some level of consciousness, we know we are false; it is not really the friend we care most about, but rather, it is the friendship that pleases us and the friend is the instrument we need to enjoy it. Sin taints even the best of human friendships, therefore, because each violates the other with mutually instrumental treatment.1."

The article feels kind of like a formal documentation of an affiliation I did not know I had committed myself. Like when Grandpa Simpson is going through his wallet to give Homer his Stonecutters membership card and finds a card for the Communist Party: it confirms my suspicion that I was an Augustinian, or at least had adopted the mind of Augustine before I had even known him, and long before I was a Christian. From his constant and acute cognizance of the finitude of human existence to the "damned if you do, damned if you don't" ethics of participation in the "goodness of creation" (which includes friendships, as well as the enjoyment of sexual pleasure, and any other kind of participation in illusion of a permanent refuge and happiness outside of the Infinite), the theological developments and dogmatic formulations that came in a more spiritually mature Augustine were grown from this damp compost of his personal experience with death and loss, and is almost inability to fully grasp or accept that we cannot live as human beings in anything but a finite existence. Augustine's ideas on Original Sin came from his attempt to make sense of this reality through reliance on biblical exegesis, a literal reading of the book of Genesis, which resulted in the need to explain how the effects of that 'original sin' were transmitted from generation to generation. Augustine's "sex-ed" deduced from this that the only way this infection could have be transmitted from the first parents was through sexual intercourse. Just as when Augustine's best friend died and from that point on he was blinded to anything but the finitude of human society and thus unable to fully "love another person the way they aught to be loved," it became an impossibility not to sin, since were were always failing to love the other as we aught, because as he lamented to God in Confessions: "I loved what I loved in place of you. This was a huge fable and a long-drawn out lie, and by its adulterous fondling, our soul, itching in its ears, was corrupted. But that fable did not die for me, even when one of my friends would die." Schlabac quotes Reinhold Niebuhr from a half century ago: "Contemporary history is filled with manifestations of man's hysterias and furies; with evidences of his dæmonic capacity and inclination to break the harmonies of nature and defy the prudent canons of rational restraint. Yet no cumulation of contradictory evidence seems to disturb modern man's good opinion of himself."5

That sense of betrayal when anything is preferred to God--the conscience tightly strung and attuned to violations of the most important commandment of the Law, to "Love thy God with thy whole heart, mind, and strength"--and the recognition that it is virtually impossible to fufill this commandment (or it's kin, "to love they neighbor as yourself") , thus keeping us in a kind of "bondage to sin"--is enough to keep Augustine from any kind of restful sleep in the world. The sirens of Pelagius whisper in his ear at night, offering the peace that comes from acceptance of a doctrine that says that a force of will is sufficient to reduce such ideations toward the demonic. This would at least free Augustine from the nagging feeling of powerlessness that comes when one feels fully entrapped by the incredible power and draw of sin, the riptide that pulls men to their death. No one likes to feel trapped, or that they don't have a choice or say in their "lives." That kind of swift kick to the ribs knocks the wind out of the Ego. (It's only a matter of time, however, before it gets up and makes a new story for itself to hide out in.)

[to be continued}

Thursday, February 21, 2008

How To Drown

"Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus.
But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, "Lord, save me!"
Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught him, and said to him, "O you of little faith, why did you doubt?"" (Mt. 14:30-31)

There was a Simpsons episode ("Bart Gets an Elephant," 1F15) when Homer was sinking in a tar pit. When Bart and Lisa yell out to him, he says (very logically) "It's okay, I'm pretty sure I can struggle my way out. First, I'll reach in and pull my legs out. Now I'll pull my arms out with my face." Of course he begins to sink and it's Stampy, Bart's elephant, that pulls him up.

Lately I've been feeling like Homer, trying to pull my arms out with my face. Being able to work from home for most of the week is both a blessing and a curse. I'm content to be inside most of the time, but after months of feeling sequestered by the weather, I'm starting to go a little stir-crazy. My friends know that I have more of a tendency to hunker down up in Roxborough during the winter (sub-freezing days without a car doesn't make jaunts to Center City for a beer as casual an act as I would like it to be); nonetheless, the feeling of being isolated in this way can cause a kind of "NO BEER AND NO TV MAKE HOMER GO SOMETHING SOMETHING" "Misery" effect.

I always found it interesting that historical accounts of insanity were always described as a kind of 'descent into madness.' Loosing your mental grounding is not like having the floor drop out from under you; it is a gradual decline, like Alzheimer's, or any other kind of degenerative disease. One couldn't tell you the moment they 'lost it,' because there is no 'moment.' Loss of faith, like loss of sanity, is an erosion, not a destruction.

I have been off of lithium for about a month now. I find myself feeling less tired and taking less naps, and having more motivation and energy. It's certainly not over the top, but I have pulled a few of those 'all nighters' when you hand the mind the reigns and try to keep up and wonder how much control you really have. Mania begins in relatively predictable ways: concentration becomes harder and harder to keep aligned; excessive spending also occurs; speech becomes sped up and feelings of euphoria begin to seep into everyday experiences. A gluttonous 'more, more, MORE!' desire for what feels good can lead to unchecked excess.

I wonder if this move--going off lithium--is like giving a prisoner a plastic knife and fork to eat with--it's more human than having them eat with their hands, but you also know how creative their destructive ingenuity can be. You wonder 'how could someone possibly escape from this place with a plastic fork?' But it has been known to happen, as anyone who's seen 'Silence of the Lambs' or 'The Shawshank Redemption' can tell you.

I don't think a breakout is occurring under my nose, but I do know that there are days where I feel loony at home, pacing around unable to rest and shut my mind off from its attempts to escape the present and procrastinate from what needs to be done. I try to get myself out of it but end up sinking more, loosing more sleep, becoming entrenched in more projects, not knowing how to get back to start, or even if I have the willpower to do so. My trail of bread crumbs has been eaten up by birds, the ribbons tied around trees undone by squirrels. The act of sitting peacefully in contemplation seems like a pleasant fantasy, a life from another time. My prayers have become desperate cries; my face is not doing a great job of pulling my face out from the mud.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Promise Keepers would not have me...

I've always taken Martin Luther's maxim "sin boldly" to heart. At 6:46am and 10 hours later, my 500w Kollmorgen electric assist with 24v 3500ah NIMH custom-built battery pack and micro-controller is looking to be in its final stages. Of course I wanted to try to keep from the E-projects all together this Lent; this time the rolling boulder got away from me. I hope the Lord will forgive me; resisting temptation does not seem to be one of my strong suits.

Here's the bastard child of my infidelity. I'm convinced that it will be to date the lightest, most powerful, and most discrete variable-geared, completely-encased down-tube mounted electric assist for stock bicycles available; i'll lay out a schematic when I get the chance:

Copyright 2008 R. Marco; All Rights Reserved

Viva la Revolution!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Five Minutes of Thought

It's been a while since my last exercise routine. Now that I'm at Starbucks procrastinating...why not now? Nothing added, nothing subtracted, tidied up after. Like the sugar in my coffee: Experience-in-the-Raw.

[Start] 8:40p

A flood let the torrents open in a dark place of the mind--place in a dark alley. I will fly to the moon on a 48 volt battery that i sold my soul for. When i sip, i will be in a place alone with friends l
istening to the light and the chum next to me will say, 'did you see the plate shatter against the wall? he must have been MAD!' i didn't see it, per say. When i left to go to the pastry shop, i took one of the boys with me. He asked, 'why does a tree grow up and not down?' i said Raheem, you ask too many questions which does you no good--questions are what got me here, in a chair rocking back and forth like an aggie dog basset hound and with tap-map in hand and the old coverall porch-deck moonshine whiskey willow chocolate brandy sky, i thought 'if i am under surveillance all the time, what would they see?' Did it matter? When i am with friends i am not myself. When i am working under the sun in 100 degree conditions--time so hot it makes the styrofoam atmosphere melt and drip on my slick shined bootstrap head--well you have no place to go, meatman. Sit with me and take a dread-long-look at the Jamaican blunt trip to the airport. The caravan that takes us is meandering and careens into space like a question mark flipped upside its head, like a mother smacking some sense into the mathematician who does taxes and says, 'you owe me something now.' sit down and walk into walls. I'll meet you there. But first you have to present yourself, be presentable, and not justify yourself too hard. [End] 8:45p

Quote of the Day:
--Johnny Becoate

Extraordinary Measures

God is a just judge
slow to anger;
but he threatens the wicked every day,
men who will not repent. (Ps. 7)

I've always been moved by the Church's teachings on Confession and Baptism in extraordinary circumstances. It is a common misconception among non and misinformed-Catholics that one can only receive the grace of God's forgiveness through the sacramental authority of the Church or the priests she confers it upon. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that:

In an emergency, the person who baptizes can be anyone-man, woman or child, Catholic or non-Catholic, atheist or unbeliever-as long as he or she administers the sacrament properly and does it with the intention of "doing what the Church does." Emergency Baptism is given by pouring ordinary water three times on the forehead of the person to be baptized, saying while pouring it: "I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." The words must be said at the same time the water is poured. When properly given, Baptism administered by a lay person is as valid as Baptism given by a priest (1256, 1284).

Article 1484, on the necessity of sacramental confession, states:

Individual, integral confession and absolution remain the only ordinary way for the faithful to reconcile themselves with God and the Church, unless physical or moral impossibility excuses from this kind of confession. Personal confession is thus the form most expressive of reconciliation with God and with the Church.

There are two important point worth noting in this section, mostly because their misreading has lead to erroneous beliefs and attitudes towards the Sacrament, by Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

The first is that that the word 'ordinary' in this section is often overlooked. Its omission (Individual confession...remains the only way for the faithful to reconcile...) leads to the belief that the Church has exclusive rights to mete out God's forgiveness. It is good, then, that our God is not an 'ordinary' God! While sacramental confession is a good and valid way to approach reconciliation, I still hold to my belief that God is bigger than the church that tries to hold Him. In this sense, an extraordinary God does not limit the bestowal of his full forgiveness to simply 'ordinary' methods of confession.

The second point worth noting is that the sacramental Confession is "the most expressive form of reconciliation." But it is not the only form! The advantage of participation in the Sacrament is that it not only accounts for those offenses against God; it also recognizes that "the spiritual well-being of the church, of which every member is a living stone" (1487) is dependent on the responsibility assumed by each of its members. Sin is a three-fold offense: it offends God; it offends one's neighbor and community, the church; and it offends the individual. Just as we are called to take civic responsibility as Americans through voting and paying taxes, baptized members of the Church are called to account for and take responsibility for their actions, which may have directly or inadvertently, positively or negatively, affected the well-being of others. If you are a baptized Catholic, you are a member of a family...for better or for worse.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Spiritual Recovery

When I was in college and preparing for my Confirmation, I was extra careful when I went outside because, I reasoned, if I were to get hit by a bus and died before receiving the Sacrament that December, I didn't know where I would go. Very rational reasoning, I figured, no shades of gray. After all, the priest who was instructing me was "raising" me to think this way.

That brief six month period of spiritual upbringing was enough to scar me to the present day, and I still find myself trying to overcome this way of thinking. I often wonder if I had been instructed by a different priest (a Jesuit maybe?)--one not as orthodox (I was taught masturbation and speeding were mortal sins), religiously maladjusted, socially retarded, or emotionally thwarted--how my ability to relate to God would have been affected. Sometimes little things go a long way, and the influence of spiritual instruction during one's formative years is no exception. I guess this is what makes parenting so frightening, when you think about how much your child absorbs from their environment...and from you. It does not take much to drive someone away from religion.

But this is what motivates me to try to change that. Whenever I hear a God-awful homily, it fuels my desire to preach. When I hear horror stories about people's experiences in Catholic school, or with insensitive evangelicals, or encounters with colonialistic-minded missionaries, it makes me want to get back into the foray of teaching (though no more 7th graders dear God PLEASE!) and part-time RCIA and religious education. And when I hear of people who have been abused by priests (and think about how much the Church's rules on mandatory priestly celibacy might contribute to such behavior), I feel very sad...for both the abuser and the abused.

I dated a woman for a brief period of time who had been raped. She did not talk about it much, but years after it had happened, it was clear that it still affected her relationships, her psyche, ability to trust, capacity for affection, etc. Warring tribes in Africa use genital mutilation as a brutal "below the belt" blow because it scars for life, emotionally, , mentally, physically, sexually, spiritually. Rape, like genital mutilation, is more than just violence: it rolls the sins of theft, adultery, and murder into one horrific act that is worthy of the harshest judgment.

As a man, however, I am familiar with the animalistic impulse that drives men's sexually aggressive behavior. Fueled by alcohol, for instance, a horny college freshman, or lonely trucker, could find himself in a situation which he might normally have been able to keep in check were his inhibitions not lowered to this base level. (One reason why I am an advocate for marijuana reform--or at least a critique of current U.S. drug policy--is because, at the very least, such reform seeks to redress the glaring double-standard that exists in the system: alcohol, a drug so widely used and yet responsible for such a large percentage of assaults, rapes, and deaths, is legally condoned, while a relatively harmless plant is demonized and criminalized. I am not advocating prohibition--just an admission of this inconsistency). When I was in college a freshman broke into a bunch of girls rooms and sexually assaulted them, under the influence. He was sent to jail, and I read about it in the papers. I knew he was very ashamed and scared, and I wanted to ride my bike out and visit him, but he hung himself before I got the chance.

Men are driven outside of themselves with their desire to release and sow oats, so to speak. The violent rupture of ejaculation (how often is the double entendre "shooting"associated with this?) is merely a figurative model of a man's mind. "Wine loosens the tongue," but also the belt. Somewhere, a "no" is misheard...or not heard at all, and the consequences are devastating, and irreparable.

Trying to unlearn the things you were taught is a slow and frustrating process, not unlike some of the adults I tutor who are learning to read, or guys wrongfully accused of a crime trying to adjust to living in society after a thirty year stint on Death Row. "Slowly, slowly." One thing I do know, though. If I get the chance to help people from having to enter spiritual rehab in the first place from a fucked-up religious upbringing, I'm going to take it.

Morning Prayer

Psalm 7:
Appeal to God's justice
Form II 10

"We have no difficulty with the opening of this psalm but the confident proptestation of innocence that follows it is frightening: we prefer to invoke God's mercy rather than invite his strict scrutiny. But perhaps we have no cause for misgiving. A Christian may confidently boast that he is 'just' because the righteousness that is the property of God alone is truly and internally communicated to the Christian. In Christ himself the righteousness of God appears and becomes available to those who have access by faith and baptism to the power of Christ's resurrection. This is the 'justness' we can boast of when we sing this psalm: 'Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.'" -JG

Friday, February 15, 2008

Morning Prayer

Psalm 6:
Prayer in time of distress:
first psalm of repentance
Form V 3

"At this stage of revelation there is no hope of praising God beyond the grave: the conclusion should be clear: death would deprive God of one of his servants. The implication is almost impertinent, that God will be the loser if the psalmist dies. May we threaten God in our private prayers? I suppose not, but some of the inspired authors come very near to it. Anyway, let us not be too scrupulous: God knows how awkward we are and that we mean well. He is a Father, not a literary critic." -JG

"Save me from myself!"
--Fat Bastard

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Evening Prayer

I have been wrestling with my mind for 36 hours.
Each time I try to tap out I get dragged up by my feet,
and thrown back down again.
He is like a Tazmanian Devil, swirling, electric.

My head bobs in my corner as I nurse my own swollen eyes.
The bell rings (the dread!)--
I get sucked back into the eddy, looking for a hole.
He leads leads me in as if I were a kitten,

pawing at a ball of yarn.
I shoot and he yanks back with glee,
palming my head and driving my face into the mat like a basketball,
his mouth dribbling, my brain rattling inside my skull.

He sits on my neck and takes a rest (a second, no less).
I feel the ringworm squirming against my temple
as I listen to the blood
rushing to the bulbous cauliflower roots
spreading throughout my eardrum,

and watch the clock, waiting for the bell, hoping
the hand will not retreat.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A Gentleman's Call

Today was an awful dreamy day and I have nothing to show for it but a trail of fanciful urls. When the weather is shitty and you're stuck in the house all day, who wouldn't want to escape to someplace more inviting?

Of course, a 4 never has to leave his armchair to explore some of his favorite fantasies; like, say, a rambling springtime tour of Lake Pepin of pre-war England with other "Gentleman Cyclists" on nothing other than a Sturmey-Archer equipped 3-speed bicycle. Jon Sharratt paints me giddily nostalgic with his description of the event:

"This is, without question, the most memorable cycling event you'll find. Why? It's simple: time travel. If you are with us next May, you will be cycling through the Golden Era of English cycle touring: the 1930s.

The Lake Pepin 3-Speed Tour is based on cycle touring in pre-war England. It was a gentlemanly time; few people owned a car and recreation based on automobiles was extremely limited. To get away for the weekend they would pack a few things, mount up and head to the country. Most every farmstead had refreshments or a room to rent, every little village had a family-run restaurant; just look for the “Cyclist Teas” or “CTC Recommended” sign. It’s a romantic image to be sure but firmly based in reality. It’s a reality that is fairly easy to reproduce given the right scenery, equipment and most important: attitude. One cyclist in a thousand will understand what I’m offering and that person, as you, will glaze over and say “I simply must go!”.

Of course today wasn't an especially happy day; living outside the Now generally has that effect. The past leads to guilt, regret and depression; the future, to anxiety, disappointment, and disillusionment. It never ceases to amaze me how easy it is for me to hang the Now on a cross while I go off chasing lolly-pop promises from the future; I guess I shouldn't be surprised that I feel like a rat in a maze at days end, worn out and having no idea where I am, or how I got therein the first place.

the author en route to Frenchtown, NJ, circa 1997

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Fasting From Sin

I've always thought Paul's description of sin as some kind of infectious disease was spot on. If you've ever gone through withdrawal--be it from a breakup, from drugs, or from a lack of attention--you know that removing yourself from a strong attachment causes pain.

After fasting from food for forty days in the wilderness, Jesus "was hungry." I always found that understatement to be very funny. If it was a true understatement made by the gospel writer (he chose not to write "after forty days of not easting, Jesus was fucking starving!"), it makes me wonder what Jesus' state of craving was. Was he composed, and could say nonchalantly, "I'm hungry?" Or did "hungry" really mean his human appetite came to the forefront and forty days worth of not eating made him think of nothing but food--i.e., his craving was pretty strong.

If people really took the humanity of Jesus seriously, I don't think we would equate things like his 'being hungry' to a dainty expression of "really being able to do with a hamburger right about now." If his tempting in the wilderness was anything real--and worth taking as real--it would be the anxious distress and temptation towards savagery that comes when a human being is deprived of something that keeps his clock ticking. "Being out of one's mind" with hunger might be a better expression--at least if it was me doing the fasting (and that might only be after forty hours).

There's a reason why men (and women?) are said to think about sex every seven seconds: sex brings us into being. Our continued existence depends on procreation and the best way to ensure that that happens--that we don't say 'I'll get around to it after I get home from work-take out the trash-turn forty, etc.--is to always have it at the forefront of our minds, i.e., "Must have sex. Must have sex. Must..." If you subscribe to an 'Intelligent Design' theory (I don't), maybe that falls in there?--i.e., we were 'programed' to want to have sex, and have it often.

Of course 'having' sex is only an external expression of the drive that motivates the desire. The undercurrents of that desire make up our psycho-sexuality, the more 'sophisticated' department of sexual desire, if you will, that bleeds into our everyday thoughts and actions. It often partners with sensuality, making cameos in the form of: perspiring at the sight of fruit; being overtaken by a dark chocolate (Chocolat), being aroused by an invigorating intellectual conversation, feeling connected through a mystical experience (spiritual orgasm). Sexual energy is incredibly powerful. Tantric practice in its genuine form is not so much about how to have explosive orgasms (thought it is often mistakenly used for that purpose) as it is about harnessing that incredible energy as a focusing tool for enlightenment.

When I was in college and thinking about sex every .7 seconds, I used to pray for some sanity so that I could stay chaste and get my schoolwork done. Of course, in that context sanity=rationality, the antithesis to sex, which has no use for reason. That's why philosophers like Augustine eschewed sex like the plague in the interest of job security (he was a professional rhetorician). Their life depended on clear thinking, and sex doesn't help with that. If you've ever wondered where the distorted anti-sex sentiment comes from among Catholics...thank Augustine.

My prayers were answered in my mid-twenties when my biological sex drive quelled, aided significantly by the introduction of a steady dose of lithium into my bloodstream (which was being used to keep my irrational mind--not my irrational sex drive--in check). It was a perfect example of not knowing what you had until it's gone. I felt like each day I had sold off part of my sexuality in order to be able to have a healthy mind. Creativity, among other things, fell through the floor. At some points it seemed like a small price to pay for a sane life. At others, I wondered what was keeping me human.

I had a friend from college who decided he would not masturbate for forty days during Lent. He had to change his sheets a bit more often, but he did it. I was impressed, as I always am with people who say they are going to do something and then actually do it. People who say that sex is not a sin are right in one sense: I would call it more of an appetite. If you think you are addicted or attached to something, try cutting it out of your life; your suspicions will be quickly confirmed or dismissed based on the degree of craving you are accosted by.

But sex in a Christian sense can, and is, sinful when it is misappropriated. If you are a strict moralist, and prefer certainties and black and whites, you will have no problem living by the Church's authoritative teaching on sexual ethics--at least in knowing what is 'right' and 'wrong.' If you are like me and view the Law like a posted speed limit, or (in filthy Thomist terms) like a 'NO FIRES' sign in a national forest, you see the responsibility of making moral choices with regards to sex as being on the individual, not on the Church. There is a reason we have speed limits--people don't always know how to drive safely or prudently and need a standardized law and threat of enforcement and punishment if that law is broken to keep them from killing themselves or other people because of reckless, unchecked driving. Would I view, in moral terms, doing 66 in a 65 as a sin? No. Because I see the purpose of the law through a different lens. But take it to court and the police would have every right to ticket me. Fucking pigs;)

* * *

Sometimes it is easier to fast from food than from sin. It allows us to justify ourselves in our own eyes as righteous while completely missing the point: fasting is a practice, a discipline, used as a means to an end. In refraining from food, we see that we may suffer from hunger as a result...but we will not die. Food is necessary to sustain life...but overindulgence sets the stage for sloth, not just at the dining room table, but in all areas of life.

In fasting from sin--whether that be in a generalized or particular sense--, we suffer because sin has made a home in us. More accurately, we have made a home for sin. Try to kick it out, and it will put up a fight. In that sense Sin and Ego are like cousins: tell yourself that you are not the center of the universe but only a small part of something much greater and see the depression that sets in. That is because for most of us, our ego has taken seat behind the cockpit controls and has been flying our plane since the day we were born. It not that we can't fly--we've just turned over the controls, like parents who spoil their children and then try to get tough with them by saying they can't have a toy in the supermarket. Brutal. Try to take back your rightful seat and you will be in for a hell of a fight.

Sin as attachment has always reminded me of those gophers at Chuck-E-Cheese that you bop on the head, only to have them pop up from another hole. I'm drinking coffee this morning because I had a hard time getting to sleep and didn't sleep well even when my eyes finally did close. That was because I said to my body, 'I think I'm going to fly this one tonight, thanks." My body is like an old man who likes to have the same seat on the bus every day--if someone else happens to be sitting there, he gets cranky, and its all he can think about. The night was not especially white knuckled, the way you might drive through a snowstorm. But it was still a bit of a red-eye. Jesus was tempted and never sinned I seem to sin without even having to be tempted.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Prayer for the Evening


I want to masturbate;
I will lie down instead,
for You.

"Fear Him, do not sin. Ponder on your bed and be still. Make justice your sacrifice and trust in the Lord." (Ps. 4)

Everything Falls Apart

"Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and ye perish from the way, when his wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all they that put their trust in him." (Ps. 2)

I thought about this psalm, which I had read before leaving for work this morning, while reading about a fire in Seoul that recently destroyed South Korea's "No. 1 national treasure," the Namdaemun, the southern gate of the wall which had been surrounding the city since the 1300's. Maybe they will build condos there now. In any case, what was there can never be replaced. Cry if you want to.

I was a very untrusting boy growing up. Although I did not know an alternative, I felt that "people, places, and things"--how we learned to define a noun at that age--were shaky investments, at best.

When we would go on vacations, I was ill-at-ease with the fact that our minivan could break down at any moment...and I would not have the slightest idea how to fix it. As far as I was concerned, I had two options. In the interest of self-preservation, I would have to learn how to learn and do everything there is to do and learn, from knowing how to build a nuclear reactor to how to drive a car. The second option was not to trust or rely on anything. Realizing the weight of the first was realistically too much for my tiny frame to bear, I would have to defer to the second.

I did not take for granted that the world was not going anywhere anytime soon. In fact, I was pretty convinced it was just a matter of time before the Apocolypse came crashing upon us like a tsunami, wiping out all the pillars of certainty that we put our chips on. In a sense, this is the "age-within-an-age" of post-structualism/post-modernity that we are presently living in.

I 'practiced' for this new age of destruction by hitchiking--throughout the States and abroad--, whittling down my material possessions so they could fit in a rucksack, and spending training time in the wilderness, not tracking animals and identifying edible roots, but learning to be alone.

It was in fact during a time spent in this very wilderness where what was written was fulfilled: "He has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart. He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly." My valiant attempts at stoicism were rendered into quivering puddles of embarrasement and shame as the sight of His mighty arm descending upon me from the sky blinded my sight and engulfed my ego in flames. I became like a piece of ore burning in a kiln, a burning bush, burned but not consumed as the layers of insulating fat melted and dripped down my back, crackling like bacon in the pan. When His fury relented and my 'I' had been fully consumed, there remained nothing but a charred skeleton lying on the blackened bed of leaves and pine needles, cooly smoking under the wetness of my tears. He relaxed His arm and like a mother hen, gathered me into the cup of His hand. He reattached my broken bones, formed a new heart from the mud I lay in, stitched together a fresh blanket of skin. With His mouth he breathed new life into my lungs and sent fresh blood coarsing through my veins. When I awoke I was alone in the forest again, the canopy of leaves gently swaying above me. It was morning, and the world as I knew it had ended after all.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Night

I disrobe my walls by candlelight
as my faceless attendant follows in step,
blowing his shakuhachi.
After I had finished with the last hanging
we sat down and poured wine.
The komuso lay his flute on the table and said: A man once came from far away to visit me
and asked where all my furniture was.
I asked him
, 'where is yours?'
'Me? But I am only a visitor here.'
As am I.
I nod and empty my glass.
The candles' flames swayed with gentle drunkenness,
revealing tiny bumps covering the gessoed plaster walls.
I get up and take the wall hangings into the closet,
wrapping them in soft blankets, and laying them in cedar beds
before blowing out the light and sealing the door.
They rest in tombs until Easter, as I lay down in my cell
to sleep until morning.

The Black and White Truth

Psalm I: Two Ways of Living (Form. V55, J.G.)

"A study in black and white as a prelude to the whole psalter. The sharp contrast between the virtuous and the wicked is characteristic of Hebrew thought and its uncompromising literary expression. This is not to say that the psalmist was unconscious of the mixture between good and bad to be found in himself and in others around him. We may never reach the extremes either of virtue or of vice, but we are every moment making for one or the other, and it is salutary to remind ourselves what the end of each road is. It is better still to remember that we have a powerful companion along the one road, but along the other we are alone."

While typing these words from the introduction to J. Gelineau's 1966 translation of the Psalms, I poured myself a piping hot cup of white tea from my black cast iron pot, not realizing that there was already some, now cooled, sitting in the bottom of the cup. Tea is either good very hot or very cold; tepid tea is an abomination to the tongue, just as lukewarmness of heart and action is an abomination to the Lord (Rev. 3:16). It would have been better for me to have swallowed the cooled bitter dregs first before refilling the cup (or better yet, thrown it out). Without doing so, you have a quarter cup of cold tea which is not supposed to be cold, as well as a full cup of tepid tea that is an insult to Japanese and Brits everywhere. As Jesus said, "no one puts new wine in old wineskins."

I like when J. Gelineau writes: "We may never reach the extremes either of virtue or of vice, but we are every moment making for one or the other." We are living in a sea of gray, swinging on a pendulum between two poles.

Black is both a color and not a color: it is a complete absorption of all the colors on the visible spectrum, reflecting none. Likewise white is both a color and not a color: it is the reflection of all colors, and an absorption of none. All colors are simply a reflection of their proximity to one of these two poles. In this sense, Black and White are the purest of all colors, because they are at the source of all color. Of course the perception of 'color' depends on the anatomical prism set and operating within the human eye which interprets their invisible wavelengths (which are their true reality, if you will).

Grayscale--the pairing of black and white in varying proportions--is a kind of 'second echelon' of moral living, one in which the visual cacophany of color is reduced to dualistic simplicity. Just as all elements of modern technology is based in binary code (the dizzying world of 1's and 0's--thanks for the lesson Jay!), the conditions of morality are set in the dualism of black-white, configured in the world of ethics-in-action grayscale, and played out in the blurry world of color, where the eye delights in the cotton-candy Crayola playground of the natural world.

If you have been living in a world of gray, of ethics without context, try pulling back the curtain and peeking into the absurd world of color, where God himself fell with a splash into the pool of humanity--the Divine Milieu. If you have been spending your 'Nights in Paris,' try spending your days under the stoic skies of Dublin to reconnect with what it is like to live without color, and to bring closer into focus the thousands of veiny arrondissements which make up the heart of a city. And if your home is in the world of black or white, then I think you already know what it feels like to be home.

Recommended Lenten movie-watching: Pleasantville.

Sight of the Day: A man with a big gray beard walking down Ridge Avenue wearing this t-shirt:

How's that for black and white?

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

A Journey of a Thousand Miles...

Last night's Fat Tuesday may have been the best yet. The gumbo turned out extra spicy, the crowd was extra fun, and Francine, our secretary at work, took home the arm-wrestling trophy and earned a day off from work with her powerhouse win over yours-truly(I said if I beat her she would have to go in--it was a good thing I didn't!)

I took the day off from work and spent the day with Jeannie. We got Dunkin' Donuts to help nurse out my hangover and went for a walk in Fairmount Park in the afternoon. I spent the latter part of the day napping before having my one meal of leftover cornbread, collards, and beans, and catching the bus to Andorra to go to Mass. No one would be seeing my ashes tonight after church since it is so late--no running into other members of the Tribe marked with the charred sign of the cross on their forehead; no subtle masonic nods of recognition on the bus; no feeling like a full burka-clad Muslim gliding along the streets of Germantown, passing stares like a fantôme noire. Instead, it is a quiet bike ride back to Roxborough, pedaling lightly and coasting downhill in the windless warm red night, for the evening benediction of taking the pictures off the wall and putting them into storage until Easter, shaving my head, and lying down to sleep. I did not go into the basement tonight, though my mind twirled with thoughts of geared electric motors and three-speed hubs as I sat in the pew at church, munching on the Body of Christ. Riding home without my laden messenger bag (which I almost always have with me, filled with things, 'essentials'), there seemed to be a lightness to each stroke, like cutting butter with a warm knife; it was nice to do without the weight for a night.

Upcoming Lenten blogs:

"No Light Without Darkness"
"Ashes to Ashes"
"What Goes In; What Goes Out"
"Plucking Grain"
"Orgasm--the Capstone of an Anticipatory Existence"
"Slowly, Slowly"
"Liturgy in Two Part Harmony"

Quote for the night:

"Don't even think about leaving." --Msgr. Mcgeown, addressing those who might be tempted to get their ashes and run before the end of the liturgy tonight.

Listening to: Samamidon; But This Chicken Proved Falsehearted

Friday, February 1, 2008

Final Hour

I am scared to death of being away from my bikes for a month and a half. Tim asked when I was going to install the padlock on the basement door and hand over the key. I think he was only half joking.

The countdown is not unlike when I tried to quit smoking--with the help of the American Cancer Society. I called the free Quitline and was assigned a counselor who dissuaded me (ironically) from quitting right away. Rather, he told me to set a quit date a good two or three weeks away, versus making the 'next day' Day 1. This way, he explained, the anticipation of "let's get on with it" makes success more likely, since you are actually looking forward to quitting--like a drag car on the line gunning the engine at 12,000 rpms, ready to pop the clutch at the sound of the gun. I'm ready to quit working on my bikes for a time, but I'm quaking at the thought of what life will be like them for a time.

When my father was hospitalized after an acute psychotic mania, he was placed on the D&A ward because there were no more beds available in the psych wing. As a result he got to spend time with recovering addicts, eat, sleep, play ball (orderlies v. patients, circa. 'One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest'), flirt with nurses, make friends, etc. He was happy as a lark. He recounted some of the stories, which I recorded in interviews while I was writing the first draft of Six Feet:

"My one roommate, he was delusional. His name was Bobby. He was a likeable guy, but he never seemed to able to focus his eyes and engage himself in anything for more than a few seconds. He’d go around saying he was going to be president of a galaxy that didn’t exist yet and that he was going to appoint me Secretary of State. He was in his late twenties. The times that I was there he would have incidents where he would have to be subdued and medicated to calm him down. Fits of uncontrollable anger. We would have occasional conversations, but I would usually hang with others more. My roommate was hard to talk to because he couldn’t focus, and was out of touch with things. So he wasn’t someone who you would spend a lot of time talking with.

"I had a lot of different roommates. I had one named Joe, who was almost toothless. He always had to be woken up in the morning by the orderlies and he would always yell at them, “leave me alone!” He’d come into group and always be so tired. He was there for drug abuse.

"And my one roommate was Stanley. He was like a human Shrek. That big shape, imposing, but one of the most loveable human beings. You could share a lot with him, reflect on things together, gain a different perspective on thoughts that you might be having. He had…something. But you never knew what. He seemed totally normal. Very jolly. You wouldn’t think he was, what was it? Like, in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, the guy with the cards? And Danny Devito, saying “hit me, hit me?” Voluntary. You would think he was one of the “voluntary” ones.

"The basketball tournament was the highlight of my time there. We weren’t allowed to sit with the people from the other houses during meals. But afterwards we’d meet in the gym and there was an orderly that was nice enough to let us play. That whole experience was very bonding with the whole unit, about a dozen of us. Group was very good. I felt very safe there. And very worry free. A sense of well being that I wouldn’t have normally felt for such a sustained time." (101-2)

There's that fear whenever you are in a safe, comfortable environment that keeps you from wanting to leave. It is so strong that people will sometimes choose enslavement over the freedom of the unknown (think the Israelites in Egypt, the plight of blacks post-Emancipation, The Matrix, etc.). Insurance companies don't like rehab--they will limit you to a certain number of days in a psychiatric institution. This isn't a bad thing, though (unless you are really in need of more time); it's just a financial reality that they deal with in a calculated, often heartless, way (as with capitalism, it is not the job of insurance companies to be compassionate--they operate on numbers and bottom lines). It can also be the impetus for facing the inevitable: taking the first steps out (or in) the door.

I had been thinking about Tim's comment from the other day and it was starting to depress me a little, making my whole commitment to a future "now but not yet" metanoia marked by calender days to seem...childish. But looking back at my time spent in the same hospital where my father indulged in an endless supply of icecream sandwiches, basketball, and group therapy, looking out at the same door counting the days til you get out and at the same time not wanting to ever leave, I realized that there is value in anticipation. It kneads together fear and longing into an indivisible cake, one in which preparation is the most important step. As the prophet Isaiah said: 'Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight the path for him.'

Christians often refer to the cross as a tree of hope, but it is also a dreadful sight. Jesus was filled with this dread in Gesthemani sweating blood at the thought of the future, his future. He was not living in the 'now.' If he was he would have eaten breakfast, talked, and lay down serenely to sleep in the days approaching his death, because the time for it had not yet come and so did not exist. But these cracks in the divine armor reflected a glimpse at a humanity so vulnerable that even it could not withstand those moments that despite ourselves, despite reason and the fact that we know everything will turn out alright in the end...we get scared. Maybe we would prepare ourselves more for our deaths if we didn't forget our fate (the one sure bet) so often. Then again, it's not surprising that we prefer not to think about it.

Recommended reading: Silence by Shusaku Endo