Home, I Like to be Here When I Can

July 28, 2007

First, thank you all who have understood and supported my trip to the hometown. It was a messy affair as I knew it would be, and it’s good to be back in the Outlands, swatting the black flies from off their bites, smoking cigarettes in the dark shade of the front stoop. There were some good times on the seaboard, and my family is rocking along much the same as when I saw them last. My old friends were still there with a few exceptions–one is a real estate agent in South Carolina, another a graphics artist in NYC, and yet others are lost to who knows what and where. Which is how it should be, I suppose. For all they know, I’m face down in some roadside ditch. And for all I know, so are they.

I am not a sentimental man by any means and believe in the virtues of understatement and quietude, in a person’s right to reserve to themselves all counsel, all judgment, all emotion. It’s not to say I don’t feel, I just don’t do it on the outside. This, as you can imagine, has elicited all manner of choice descriptions: cold bastard, indifferent prick, and my all time favorite spewed by a very talented writer, an aloof robot low on batteries. None of these things are actually true, mind you, but the reality is more that I don’t see the benefits of hemming, hawing, or otherwise getting too worked up for good things or bad. 

Which brings me to this: back home I caught up with a friend who had recently gotten back from Baghdad, where he served 18 months kicking down doors, waving around his rifle, and driving in the back of an armored truck ducking potshots from militia fighters hidden in buildings, along the roadsides, and wherever else they could see and shoot without being seen and shot at. While his stories were horrific and terrifying, it was the digital pictures he took that continue to flash on my eyelids’ insides like sordid home videos, grainy and haunting in their refusal to fit into any sort of context, any sort of framework, I can understand. I saw a photo of a headless body, hands and feet bound with some sort of wire, and what struck me was the shoes. They were old Air Jordans. Basketball shoes. The kind we coveted as kids and cried for when our whines went unheeded. Needless to say, it’s a disarming juxtaposition to recognize shoes as an ancient status symbol from my past on the feet of a young man who has had his head forcibly removed from shoulders. And I wondered how he would have reacted should someone have told him when he was still whole what those shoes meant in the late 80’s. Would he have laughed? Cried? Would he have spit in the sand and broken glass and looked off into nowhere in particular?

These thoughts have brought on a real evaluation of where I am and what exactly I think I’m doing with my life. I’m not a true believer in that I’m off to join this that or the other cause. But I recognize current events as a series of fenceposts getting thinner the further we move down it. At it’s distant end, it’s razor thin, and there can be no straddling, no indecision, no nothing. In other words, right now we move in a world full of gray, and the choices between either all of this or all of that are largely false dichotomies. However, could it happen that something becomes truly this or that, and there are only these two choices? Throw good and bad, right and wrong out. Forget that stuff because they’re pointless designations for what we want to happen and what we don’t want to happen. So, I’m wondering what’s going to happen when we get to the thinning spots in the landscape, when we’ve exhausted all nuance and are left with a broken compass, an untrue astrolabe under a new and curious sky.

Ugh. Enough, Puddlehead! You’re scaring the children and boring the adults. The long and short of it, I’m grateful to be home, and there is a north wind, and the nights are chilly, and I’m glad for the thoughts you’ve all sent, and I’m off to read all that I have missed.


On the Precipice of Messiness

June 25, 2007

T-minus seven hours and counting until I leave the mosquito-fest and blackfly bonanza that is my home for the summer staple roadtrip. Over the years, it’s been a complex event, going to my hometown, filled with the whole catalog of emotions and psychological confusion that one could reasonably expect in this our frenetic modern era. I left home young and with few resentments. I just drove off one day when I was supposed to be on a week’s paid vacation from work. I drove to Amherst and drove on. Cleveland, Council Bluffs, Denver, and I just kept going.  But I owe my family everything, and I knew that then as well as I know it now. I just wasn’t cut out for the East Coast. I hate traffic, the Joneses, and the curious ability of people from my home city to sincerely believe they not only invented urban life but have perfected it beyond any point of debate. 

So, when I go home and catch up with my friends, with the boys who are men now, I never feel quite exactly home. Rather, it’s almost home but as close to home as I can ask for. It’s a dreamish blend of reality and memory. For it is memory we’re acting out. Except we’ve traded the high school classroom and pool hall for the bar, for the nightclub, we’ve traded the study hall for the “so how are you doing? Another Yingling?” 

And I’m doing well. I’ve a good life here in the middle of nowhere, in a place my friends are convinced is Canada. If pressed, they’d have a fifty-fifty shot picking my town from Kuala Lumpur. But I live here. I’ve my work,  my dog, and a lake. I’ve got 300 inches of snow a year. I have good snow shovels and scoops. And I know that I can never come home again in any way that matters. I’ll take my few weeks off, I’ll enjoy my friends, my family who I love, and I’ll know, as I drive out of the city, the interstate on-ramps blinking in the rearview, that those who said they’ll visit, won’t. I’ll know that my life and theirs are seperate, and there’s no reconnecting. There is no way-back machine strong enough to erase the intervening years. And I’ll be grateful for what I have, for the radio and the sleeping dog in the back of the truck, and for the cigarettes, for the coffee, for the last city lights fading like so many  ignis fatuus I’ll be glad to leave to their own messy devices.  

Be Afraid, U.S. Interstate Sytem, I’m En Route

June 23, 2007

I know all sorts of useful things about vagabonding the States. For instance, I know that it is quite difficult to sleep squatting on the flats of your feet, huddled in a blanket. No matter what those mushroom pickers told me, I don’t think it’s actually possible to do for any extended time. Sure, I can fall asleep, but to stay upright’s the trick. I also know that Arizona kids sometimes slash not one, not two, but four tires if you refuse to buy them alcohol (not that I could have, I was nineteen, which, apparently, they didn’t believe). Quick hits of good advice:

1. Throw the game. Do not play pool for money at a bar where the owner also owns the trailer park out back.

2. Abstain. Or at least do not get drunk with strangers off-strip in Vegas.

3. Shove on. If you find assault rifle casings near an otherwise perfect campsite in the Sawtooth Range, all the “otherwise perfect” in the world does not outweigh the casings.

4. Look away, Dixie. It is impolite to stare at what might or might not be a polygamist family in the West Desert. You will probably be outnumbered and undergunned.  

5. Fido knows. If your dog hates someone, you should hate them too. 

I’ve gleaned this and more, but I also know the importance of good music for any trek. Before a trip I put together a few playlists meant to coordinate the tunes with the terrain. Sometimes this works, sometimes not so much. But as I get ready for my summer trip East, it’s come time to map the route, chart the anticipated playlist, and hit the local casino for some cheap cigarettes. This year’s playlist should be easy because I’ve got a destination which will channel the music selections through definite states, regions, and cities. One of these cities is Youngstown, Ohio, roughly twelve hours from my starting point. Here’s the song below from a live Springsteen concert in (serendipity!) Youngstown. The song (serendipity!): “Youngstown” from his 1995 accoustic album, The Ghost of Tom Joad

I’ll be scouring my collection for more music soon for this particular trip and will continue updating as the playlists come together. And, of course, I’ll worry so much about the playlists, I won’t remember to pack socks.     

The Vatican Takes on Road Rage

June 20, 2007

One of the great challenges facing organized religion is how to remain viable in an increasingly secular and scientifically-oriented society. Toss this in with rampant materialism, church scandals (specifically those of the Catholic Church), and the fringe religious sects that–though the minority–get the majority of media coverage thus effectively tarnishing thoughtful and intellectually rigorous belief systems, and you’ve got a rough row to hoe if you’re set with the task of capturing people’s attention. In other words, there is a sense of organized religion’s failure to meet the contemporary needs in many societies. While Father This-and-That extols the virtues of piety, the eyes of the congregation will gloss over and minds will wander to the evening’s plans unless he can make it meaningful to a contemporary and impatient audience.

This is not like any other profession meant to instill learning on a sometimes resistant or potentially distracted group of people. If Buddha didn’t have awesome stories to get his points across, would he have been as widely admired? If Jesus couldn’t talk to followers in a way they could understand, in a way through which they could see the importance of his message in their own life, Christianity would have had a heck of a time getting off the ground.

So, any religious organization is also its own PR firm of sorts. They are charged not only with maintaining the tenants and doctrine of their specific set of beliefs but also with the daunting task of keeping the message pertinent to their adherents.

Enter Cardinal Retano Martino, head of the Vatican’s office for migrants and itinerents, who released this document which blends core Catholic beliefs with modern realities of driving:

The Vatican’s Ten Commandments for Drivers*

1. You shall not kill.

2. The road shall be for you a means of communion between people and not of mortal harm.

3. Courtesy, uprightness and prudence will help you deal with unforeseen events.

4. Be charitable and help your neighbor in need, especially victims of accidents.

5. Cars shall not be for you an expression of power and domination, and an occasion of sin.

6. Charitably convince the young and not so young not to drive when they are not in a fitting condition to do so.

7. Support the families of accident victims.

8. Bring guilty motorists and their victims together, at the appropriate time, so that they can undergo the liberating experience of forgiveness.

9. On the road, protect the more vulnerable party.

10. Feel responsible toward others.

  I think this is a great document. It’s good advice, it’s in a form people can relate to quickly and easily, and–most important–it speaks to contemporary issues while adhering to the tradition from which the list came. If Catholicism or any religion is to remain a force in our society (and I think all religions should have a voice in society), then it’s wise to package the message so it has value and meaning in our contemporary, material-driven culture.

Any faith’s main goal ought to be the spiritual, mental, and physical well being of its followers. All three should be addressed in fair measure, and it seems that Cardinal Martino understands this. 

Certainly, there are things we could nitpick here, such as, “What exactly does he mean by ‘occasion for sin'”? But that’s not the point just now. The point is that he made an effort to guide Catholics with a set of suggestions which will help them integrate their faith in their day-to-day lives. If a religion can be called as much, it ought to provide guidance in all facets of life, and not just those hot topic issues that cause so much conflict and argument.

*Original articles are from Yahoo!News and can be found here and here.    

Odds and Ends (and a Poem)

June 19, 2007

Find below evidence of my growing web-savviness in the Regina Spektor live performance of “Samson” I found on YouTube:

The quality leaves a bit to be desired, but I opted for this bootleg over both the music video (which is ok) and the produced live version from a music festival in April. I found this more real somehow. Whatever that means. If you like the song, you can get it here.  

Also, DawgE will live! She is without parasites or any real health problems. She had some gland issues that needed to be flushed out. And I should tell you that I did not enjoy putting a headlock on the poor girl as the vet swabbed out her rectal cavity with two well-lubed fingers. The dirty look afterwards, however, was masterfully expressive. Who needs language when you have daggers like hers? Plus, I got shunned for a few hours afterwards. We’re good now, though, thanks to a treat and a long morning run.

That’s about all on the odds and ends front. As for today’s poem, it’s a piece from Yusef Komunyakaa’s Talking Dirty to the Gods. A brief bio on Komunyakaa can be found here. Though this is not the poem I wanted to post, it’s a strong piece worth the time to examine. The book is taut, and Komunyakaa imposes a systematic design to both the form and organization of the individual pieces within the collection. Each poem is four quatrains long, which adds a cohesion and a design befitting the abundance of gods, goddesses, and the geometry of nature the poems tackle. Here’s the bibliographic information:

Komunyakaa, Yusef. Talking Dirty to the Gods. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.

And here’s the piece:

Body of a Dog

(Cadavere di un Cane)


He’s chasing a hare.

In eleven or twelve countries

The philosophy of the hourglass

Has turned into weathered stone,


But he races the same sun

Through threadbare silhouettes.

If there were human prayers

Left, they wouldn’t reach him


In Vulcan’s dream come true.

Did he know when vicissitude

Eased over hills like mist or scent

Of a bitch? Given another month,


He would have made the boy

Into a very good master.

He’s treed his own ghost

In a nearby poppy field.   

With “Body of a Dog,” I think we’re being asked to confront our transitory existence on earth. Referring to the “philosophy of the hourglass,” “Vulcan’s dream” and closing with the surreal and vivid image of the dog in the “poppy field,” Komunyakaa uses the ethereal and lofty connotations in philosophy, dreams, and poppies to contrast against the penultimate sentence, which spans the end of the third stanza into the first line of the fourth and helps us realize more clearly the importance of the hourglass in the first stanza. If the dog were given that month, things would have been different. In essence, it’s potential unrealized. Time had run out for the dog (and the boy, too, in a different way), and as it is those plans are left unfulfilled. 

As always, there’s plenty more to say, but I will shut it here. Feel free to drop your own thoughts on the piece or question mine.    

Marquez and “The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship”

June 18, 2007

First, I know that I promised a Komunyakaa piece for an upcoming post and apologize for the bait-and-switch. I am more upset than you about this. The book that I was to take the piece from is missing, and I suspect a great book heist sometime in the past week or so. How the thieves would miss my other awesome books, not to mention the television, the computer, the printer, and the PS2, is curious to me. But the word lives on. And I have switched out the Komunyakaa piece for a brief passage from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s short story “The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship.” Here’s the bibliographic info for those of you who might be inclined to check it out from the library or buy it here for a few bucks (plus postage and handling):

Marquez, Gabriel Garcia. Leaf Storm and other Stories. New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1979.

The short stories in this collection are some of the finest I’ve read. The title piece, “Leaf Storm” is like Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying only set in the small Latin American town of Macondo and, at times, more lucidly told by the multiple narrators Marquez employs to offer the perspectives, motives, and interactions through various lenses. Like most of Marquez’s short fiction, the sense of religious mystery pervades the tales. And these mysteries are thematically woven through the stories by characters who, confronted with the surreal, provide the human drama so important to strong short fiction.

The following quote opens the story. Told in the third person in driving, frenetic prose, we are in the perspective of a misathropic young man who intentionally grounds a ghost liner into the coast of his small town. This eight or so page story is one long paragraph. It’s one long sentence, for that matter, but it reads fluidly enough, and the reader auto-locates the natural pauses in the speaker’s cadence. It’s an amazing feat, truly, to constuct language without relying on the standard conventions of grammar and mechanics. Instead, we seem to slide into the speaker’s mind with enough ease that we accept Marquez’s technical and stylistic choice without even realizing it. Without further blather:

“Now they’re going to see who I am, he said to himself in his strong new man’s voice, many years after had seen the huge ocean liner without lights and withou any sound which passed by the village one night like a great uninhabitated palace, longer than the whole village and much taller than the steeple of the church, and it sailed by in the darkness toward the colonial city on the the other side of the bay that had been fortified against buccaneers, with its old slave port and the rotating light, whose gloomy beams transfigured the village into a lunar encampment of glowing houses and streets of volcanic deserts every fifteen seconds…”

As I mentioned earlier, a sense of religiosity is one of the trademarks of Marquez’s brand of magical realism. And it’s important to note that the ghost ship is taller than the village’s steeple. We have to believe this is not accidental on Marquez’s point; instead, we should realize that the ghost ship’s looming silence casts a sort of shadow over the town, looming over the “encampments” we glimpse in the circling motion of the “rotating light.” It’s an interesting juxtaposition between faith (represented in the steeple) and the regular intervals of light and dark over the town.  

 I suggest finding a copy of the collection in a library or used book store near you, if only to read “The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship.” Judge this cover:


Pretty cool, eh?



“Poop! Do Not Eat!”

June 17, 2007

Over the past few weeks, my longtime travel companion, guard dog, and best friend has been having some bowel problems. This is not a sexy topic to write about, me scrubbing poop off the carpet, sifting through the runny muck for any sign of blood, the trip to the vet where I started crying because I thought she had somehow, regardless of her vaccinations, been stricken with Parvo and was going to die. And while it’s not Parvo, she’s losing her bowels again, even pooping while I’m in the house. I can tell it bothers her; she starts whining, hides under the table, and watches me clean up out of the corner of her eye, her head slanted away. I don’t yell, chide, or reprimand. It’s not her fault. I wish it was. I wish she was just angry about something and decided to take it out on our carpet. That way, I wouldn’t have to consider that she might be sick or dying.   

We have been together for a long time, and while we were backpacking and carcamping the west, she was always plodding along beside me. She bailed me out when I got circled up by a bunch of coydogs in Tuba City; she snarled off a scary dude in the desert near Sinclair; and she’s my touchstone now that I’ve entered the world of adults and careers and 401K’s. And now this. I am scared for us. 

So I’m doing what any responsible friend does: I’m scheduling a vet appointment and have collected already the stool sample in a plastic bag. The sample needs to be refrigerated to protect its integrity. In other words, if it’s not refrigerated, the vet won’t get a good read on accurate counts of blood per parts per million, etc. Needless to say, there’s something strange about a bag of poop next to all that food. It’s unnerving for me to grab a plum by reaching beyond a plastic baggy of my dog’s poop, or reaching for the milk only to knock the poop down a shelf. 

I solved this problem, though, by putting the bag of poop in a box, giving it its own shelf (the bottom one), and writing on a 3×5 card taped to the box: “Poop! Do Not Eat!” This last flourish, I admit, baffles me. Why would I do this? My roommate is gone all summer for work, no one else uses the fridge, and I am not so scattered as to forget what precisely is in the Morning Glory Black Bean Burger box on the bottom shelf all by itself. Throughout the day, whenever I grab something from the fridge, my eyes are drawn to the chicken scrawl in magic marker and, almost like a mantra, I’m compelled to say it out loud: “Poop! Do Not Eat!” It’s sound advice. But do I really need it?

Whether I do or not is debatable. What’s not debatable is that someday she’s going to die. And it’s likely that it’ll be before me. And while I am filled with nothing but gratitude and love for her, there’s a part of me that already mourns, by extension, everything I’ll someday lose. It’s a difficult reality we’re confronted with. We love, we work, we strive. We grow close to some, lose touch with others. We continue with our lives regardless the shots we endure. We fight the good fight. Yet, for all our struggle, our passion, our joy, the end of anything is written in its genesis. Therein is the miracle, therein the grace. It is not miraculous to love. But to let love trump the fear, the inevitability of loss, and the sorrow bound to come, that’s the real deal. Everything else is shit. Which, as you know from the 3×5 card in the fridge, is not for you to eat.