Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Three or Four Cigarettes

I recall a passage from the Journals of John Cheever that speaks to my current condition. It goes something like this I'm sitting in a yellow chair smoking three or four cigarettes.  I don't smoke, but the vague agitation of Cheever's entry, the restless paralysis, rings true for me.  There is plenty to do: pack for holiday travel to the in-laws, clean the house, meet my son for lunch-- all these tasks and more line up like gates, the passage through which would convey an imprimatur of normalcy. And yet I do nothing. Maybe I'll take up smoking.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Seeing Red

Yesterday we were caught behind a red-rust colored Camino, the rear of which was covered with celebratory messages of bloody salvation. Covered in the Blood of the Lamb read one such bumper sticker; Blood red is the color of Redemption read another. Ice and snow obscured the complete text of several other stickers, yet I was able to see that blood figured into the narrative of each one.

Today, while browsing the shelves at the library, I saw two middle age men hovering round a computer, discussing quietly to themselves the message on the screen. Eaves-dropping, I was able to pick up the disappointed tenor of their conversation. It seems that the web-site they were considering proclaimed the body count of the pending Biblical Apocalypse has been over-estimated. These two were discussing the relevance of Biblical citations to projected fatalities, and I thought I saw one of them doing a summary tally on his fingers as if to recheck figures against his shattered expectations.

Imagine the poor guy who owns the Camino; he may have to downshift the tone of his bumper stickers to something less ghastly, and seek a message of life rather than one of death from his chosen tradition.
That such alternative messages are inherent in Christianity is, of course, available. My seminarian wife tells me that up until the 10th or 11th Century, life affirming images of Jesus were more representational of the faith. These images depicted fountains and rivers as representational of what IT was all about. Of course, the ascension of the cross as the dominant symbol of Christianity began with Constantine and gathered momentum with the "conversion at the point of the sword" theology of Rome. In our day and age such gore becomes the fodder for Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, the violence therein pornographic in its appeal.

I offer these observations not to create controversy and not as a believer, but to offer a reminder that, starting next week, more light will be coming into the world, the days reaching however feebly at first toward Spring. And that process, that hope, is more easily glimpsed when we wipe the blood from our eyes.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

"Feel Good Capitalism"

It's everywhere these days. Purchase a cup of coffee, a magazine, an automobile and be assured that a portion of the profits thereof are put toward a market based world of salads and sun. As a way to assuage the guilt of consumerism these gestures provide point of purchase forgiveness for exploitation, obscene profits, environmental degradation and a host of neoliberal terrors. Given the psychological reach of such efforts, it's a wonder that a medium cup of dark roast has room for cream!

In a heightened extension of market perversity, the United Nations has bought into and is promoting the idea of carbon offsets and markets as a means to preserve forests worldwide. The process works like this: Corporation X can "offset" their polluting by purchasing a forest elsewhere thereby preserving, or so say the promoters of this scheme, the ecological integrity and biodiversity of the environment, and offer economic incentives to indigenous people who happen to inhabit the purchased forest.

The head of the World Bank supports this plan (of course, he also promoted The New American Century which lead us to the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars), The president of Ecuador supports this plan asserting against all evidence to the contrary that the "owner entities" of the world's forests "can be controlled," and more disturbing except as evidence of the desperation of caring people the world over, Jane Goodall supports this scheme.

Many indigenous peoples the world over are less enthusiastic. They wonder by what authority their lands are being sold out from beneath them? Unable to produce a recognizable deed--thousands of years of stories, traditions, and stewardship don't count to those whose imagination has been shaped by an affirmation of individuality via purchases in the market--these folks face the prospect of becoming squatters on their own land.

Any hint at regulations designed to limit market intrusion/greed are met with dire warnings of the failures of centralized economies or diminished as mere wishful thinking. The market is how the world works these days. You might wish it otherwise, but we have to be reality focused. This argument passes muster the world over and so accustomed are we to this bludgeoning that we are reduced to shouting, "Thank you sir! May I have another?"

Eclipsed in this abusive dynamic, what Naomi Klein has aptly called disaster capitalism in her book The Shock Doctrine, are any ideas of meaningful change. The market may be how the world works, but carbon offsets and markets never ask the question, For whom does this world work? Issues are framed to preserve current power structures; wealth continues to get transferred upward, Shell Oil continues to buy governments (see here), corporations continue to pollute, and people of the land, stewards of the Earth, become displaced, illegal, and unwanted.

All this is, the enthusiastic cheering to the contrary, nothing new. What is being preserved is the ability of transnational business to out maneuver governments the world over, to shape markets exclusively toward "bottom line" considerations, and to lull us into a guilt ridden sleep. I just might need that cup of coffee!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The View From the Cushion....

To keep myself from chasing after passing fancies

I sit still, let the distractions find me,

move in, exhaust their lease,

and leave me behind

Breathing in, breathing out.

* * *

Seeking refuge from strong winds

I watch my breathe rise and fall.

From the plaster wall I face

An owl casts a stern gaze over his hooked beak.

I am not concerned, and he flies away.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Overheard in a coffee-shop

"So, can I give you a check?"


"I'm placing an order today."

"How much you gonna get?"

"Probably an entire case."

"Split it with me?"


"Kind of worried about the Feds turning up at my door."


"All those Republicans..."

"Oh man, you're just paranoid."

"No, man. They've got serial numbers on all bullets now."

"Oh fuck you, they do not."

"They could."

'Man, you worry too much. Nothing we're doing is illegal.

"Yeah, but those republicans are weird."

Well, sure, but shit man. No worries."

"How many rounds do I get if we split a case?"

"I don't know...500, a thousand."

"Cool. Wish I had someone to go shootin' with."

"Take your girlfriend."

"She's against guns."

"Take her anyway. She'll see shootin' is fun."

"That's what I tell her."

"I take mine shootin' all the time. She loves it."

"Wow. Maybe I could go with you guys...."

"Well, it's kind of a private thing..You know, just me and my girl."

"Oh, yeah man. I get it."

Sunday, August 8, 2010


The heat today is as solid as a wall, and walking outside I'm struck by the weight of the air. It oppresses any quickness, and what breeze there is barely moves the foliage. The sizzle of cicadas fills my ears like the sound of heavy meat frying in a pan. I slump into a chair beneath the shade of an umbrella, an unread pile of books on the table before me.

Sweat pours into my eyes, and my Southern born and raised wife tells me I must be more still; the only movement is my fingers across the keyboard of my laptop. Time has stopped. It will always be this warm, this humid. I wish my skin off of my bones. The futility of a sigh escapes me.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Effortless Effort

For several years a statue of Buddha on the grounds of the Minnesota Zen Meditation Center has inspired me. When I first noticed him he was already showing signs of wear, his surface crumbled by year-round exposure to the elements. I admired the perseverance even as the figure chipped and flaked and appeared to dissolve into the ground.

Years have passed and this statue is much the worse for wear. Halved in height, his legs reduced to rubble and the rubble swept away he now leans against a tree for support. Yet for all of the statue's infirmaries his serenity is constant.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

A Monk Told Me

Zen practice
left a hole in my heart

that I try to keep empty.

Thursday, July 8, 2010


I sit at the table reading a book of Harrison's poems. The air-conditioning switches on and begins to hum and whirl. It is on because my son is home for a visit, and his blood runs hot. He lives now in Montreal where it is typically cooler, a balm to his internal heat. The people there speak French, lips pursed as if blowing on invisible bowls of soup.

I think I finally understand poetry.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Conversation With a Stranger in a Coffee Shop

Where were you stationed?

I wasn’t so much stationed as sent, the names of places secondary to the mission. Hell, they wouldn’t even tell us what country we were in. Central America, I gathered. We crossed some borders in support of an objective, blasting the hostiles sometimes. Other times having to pussy-foot ‘round some rag-tag cluster of rebels when we coulda as easily taken them out. Three years of that shit and I got out. Hard to find a job, though, when the only skill I had was shooting people.

Monday, June 7, 2010


Autumn leaves are swept away with a broom of tears.

Now, the ground is ripe for forgetfulness.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

All Too Familiar

Colonizing efforts seek always to obliterate the peoples they dominate. My sister-in-law, a Ukrainian, was prohibited from speaking her native language by the dominant Russians during the Soviet Era. A former co-worker of mine, a Crow Indian, was prevented from speaking her people’s tongue by the priests and nuns of her elementary school. There is no shortage of historical examples of cultural suppression. Conquered lands and conquered peoples themselves are to be a tabla rosa on which a victor’s history of imperial aims is portrayed through a whitewash of benevolent intentions.

This peculiar and predictable narrative continues to play out in Prescott, Arizona where an artist’s mural at an elementary school in a predominantly white neighborhood has come under censorious consideration. The artist’s inclusion of a Latino child prompted a request from school administrators to “lighten” the complexion of the child. The reason cited by these administrators is, they claim, artistic considerations.

Given the demographics of Arizona’s population—a Latino majority—you might not think the inclusion of one dark hued face in a mural would warrant outcry from a Caucasian enclave. It is a dismal commentary on Arizona, and by extension on the United States, that the presence of a non-Caucasian cannot yet be seen as representational of community and continues to be viewed as provocation.

Sunday, May 16, 2010


I visited the home and studio of my friend the artist Paul Nehring on an autumn day. Among the many curios laying about I saw several casts of faces on the ground.

Here they lay, the perfect opportunity for a "portrait." I wouldn't have to worry about the subject blinking, moving, or otherwise ruining the shot.

As bad luck would have it, however, my camera's battery wore down. I recall snapping these two shots quickly and hoping there was enough juice left for the camera to function.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Faces in the Trees

In the woods around the tiny clearing plaster casts of skulls lay on the ground. Some lay face down, empty eye sockets full of earth; others lay on their sides as if at rest; still others incline to the left or to the right as if quizzical regarding the origin of a sound echoing among the trees. Finally, there are those skulls who stare into the tree tops awaiting the ripening of the faces growing there, guessing at their intention.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Civic Lessons

We were to rise from our seats, all of us in 3rd grade, place our right hands over our hearts, and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. All but one of us took to our feet. Sandy remained seated with her belief that any such oath taking was a form of idolatry forbidden by her faith.

In full voice the teacher swooped down on Sandy and attempted to yank her to her feet. She pulled on Sandy’s body while Sandy clutched her desk. The desk, with attached chair, clanked and banged against the floor to the rhythm of the teacher’s exertions, while the words from my mouth spun like dust-motes in the sunshine.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

To Adam Smith

I am an ipod

An iphone

A laptop

My wallet groans.

It’s not keeping up

It’s coming to be.

You can’t be yourself

Except as commodity.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Regarding May Day

I wish I'd have been aware of this in time for May 1st. I offer it now. It is from The Book of Embraces by Eduardo Galeano and is entitled Forgetting.

Chicago is full of factories. There are even factories right in the center of the city, around the world's tallest building. Chicago is full of factories. Chicago is full of workers.

Arriving in the Haymarket district, I ask my friends to show me the place where the workers whom the whole world salutes every May 1st were hanged in 1886.
"It must be around here, " they tell me. But nobody knows where.

No statue has been erected in memory of the martyrs of Chicago in the city of Chicago. Not a statue, not a monolith, not a bronze plaque. Nothing.

May 1st in the only truly universal day of all humanity, the only day when all histories and all geographies, all languages and religions and cultures of the world coincide. But in the United States, May 1st is a day like any other. On that day, people work normally and no one, or almost no one, remembers that the rights of the working class did not spring whole from the ear of a goat, or from the hand of God or the boss.

After my fruitless exploration of the Haymarket, my friends take me to the largest bookstore in the city. And there, poking around, just by accident, I discover an old poster that seems to be waiting for me, stuck among many movie and rock posters. The poster displays an African proverb: Until lions have their own historians, histories of the hunt will glorify the hunter.

Monday, May 3, 2010

For My Stillborn Sister

What? What? I’m related by blood to a phantom. She ages slowly and bears the bruised knees of childhood.

She opens her mouth and swallows my unanswered questions. Her eyes are bright with reflections of emptiness.

Character from a blank book, she erases what could have been; her absence is my presence. She holds unheard history.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Words on the Wind

Several weeks ago I hung a string of Tibetan Prayer Flags from our back yard fence. They are wind-blown, tattered by rain and sun, and faded to pastel shades of red, blue, yellow, and beige.
They flutter over tulips now shed of their blossoms, and wait for the roses to bloom.

I hope for some divine intervention to ease the eyesore of our back yard. We inadvertently applied an agent-orange like defoliant, thinking only that we'd applied some weed-killer. It looks as if the hounds of hell have been pissing on the grass.

I think I need larger prayer flags.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Blurry Images, Clear Memories, and Heavenly Music

I last saw Chick Corea in Kalamazoo, Michigan back in the 1970's. Then, he was taking a break from his heralded jazz-fusion group Return to Forever by playing improvisational piano pieces. My appetite for these pieces had been primed by my introduction to both Corea and improvisational piano by my dear friend Anne.

Mr. Corea has lost none of mastery over the years. He roams the keyboard with a certainly that yields magic, blending styles, riffs, and rhythms in a seemingly effortless performance made all the richer by the crystalline contributions of Mr. Gary Burton on vibraphone.

Mr. Burton, his hands sometime a blur, two mallets in each hand, exchanged leads with Corea. Together they wove a magic carpet of sound. I couldn't help but recall my introduction to Burton's music by Lenny, my college roommate.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Burning Away the Fog of War

Much gets excused and rationalized during wartime. The disgusting particulars of murder, rape and execution get obscured by the widely accepted caveat of "That is War." Yet some specifics poke through the numbing justifications. During the Vietnam War the image of the Saigon Chief of Police executing a suspected Viet Cong guerilla seared itself into the consciousness of many Americans. Many more who having seen the photograph or film clip began to question America's role and purpose in Vietnam.

We have mostly been spared the photographs and news clips of the brutality of U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan by the curious practice of "embedded reporters" and the abdication by the mainstream media of their Constitutional duty to inform the citizenry. Yet the recent disclosure of two stories, one having occurred in Iraq and the other in Afghanistan, provides the kind of illusion-ripping clarity necessary to understand war's horror.

By now, many of us have seen the video of the circling helicopter over the Baghdad suburb and the execution of the civilians on the ground. Those of us with stronger stomachs continued to watch as two men exit a van to aid the dying civilians and too are shot down. And as a "bradley" rolls onto the scene it runs over one of the fallen, said to have still been alive.

There are no photos or video of which I am aware that recorded the ghastly murder of Afghan women; perhaps the words describing the event are sufficient to scorch indifference. I urge you to read them.

Taken together, the revelation of these two events cast light onto what war, any war, is about--namely, the violent eclipse of humanity. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman in his landmark book On Killing argues that soldiers, in order to kill, must overcome a strong instinctual prohibition against killing a fellow human. The reluctance to do so is exhaustively accounted for in Grossman's book by studies that measured the firing ratio of soldiers during combat. In large part, the military, our military, has taken seriously this reluctance to kill and sought through training to overcome this human instinct. The results of these improved methods of training are all too evident in today's headlines.

I believe the troubling incidents of returning soldiers reveals what many of them have said; having been taught to kill, they just can't turn it off. And so the bodies of innocent Iraqis and Afghans pile up over there, and the carnage of suicide and violence pursues our returning soldiers, and the obfuscating garment of policy and patriotism cannot soak up all the blood on the ground.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Burden of Civilization

I just returned from the library where a book I'd placed on reserve arrived. Said book is Jeremy Rifkin's Empathic Civilization.

While every book "reads" better with an empathic reader, the above title--weighing in at at least 10 lbs.-- requires more than empathy; it requires a weight-lifter! Already staggering beneath a list of titles awaiting my attention, I left Empathic Civilization on the shelf.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Adult Children

Whose child descends the staircase casting longer and longer shadows
As you blink into the light?

Anxious for touch, ever fleeting,
And like a current of air, he is out the door,

Stepping into a day of which you won't see the end.

A Consideration of Some Clutter

Preparing for the Easter Holiday, Tresca separated the books littering the coffee table into "his" and "her's" piles. This morning I scooped up my stack of titles and deposited it on my desk.

Scanning the spines I see an inventory of my recent obsessions. Several titles concern what might be called "Men's Issues." There is "The Hidden Spirituality of Men" by Matthew Fox, and because I enjoyed that book I picked up another volume by Fox--not specifically related to the genre-- called "The Reinvention of Work." Having never read Robert Bly's pioneering volume "Iron John" I picked it up for a bargain basement price. Echoing the mytho-poetic focus of those books is Moore and Gillette's explication of male archetypes entitled "King Warrior Magician Lover." A slim volume with the off-putting title of "The Way of the Superior Man" by David Deida peeks out from this tower of words contributing a scant half-inch to the height of the pile.

Foundational to this monolith is Ralph Freedman's inches thick biography of Rilke entitled "Life of a Poet Rainer Maria Rilke." Periodically bogged down by the poet's somewhat suffocating humanity, I added "The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke" to my considerations, and, as always when I read his work, I rediscover divinity! Cheek by jowl, W.S. Merwin's recent title "The Shadow of Sirius" sits quiet as mist and as light as sunshine.

Topping this spire is a recent purchase I first heard of while reading Chris Hedge's brillant book "War is a Force that Give Us Meaning", "On Killing; The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society" by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman.

The as yet unread book "The Taming of the American Crowd" by Al Sandine spans time from stamp riots to shopping sprees.

And more a pamphlet than a book is Marshall Rosenberg's "Practical Spirituality."

No doubt as Spring merges into Summer my interests will shift and other volumes will contribute to the clutter on my desk and to the lived in look of my home. As yet, I am too restless in the seasonal novelty of warmth and light to apply myself in a disciplined way to the array of topics that catch my attention. And then there are writing projects related however tangentially to these books that disturb my cozy, addled, sun-soaked satisfaction...

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Green Fuse

I'm staring out the window and I swear I can see things growing! Tulips thrust through the insulating layer of last Autumn's leaves, and a green tint spreads across the ground. "April is the cruelest month" wrote T.S. Eliot, and while this might have accurately described a chilly Parisian Spring day, in Minnesota--at least this year--April is a delight!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Holy Week Meditation

At the library today I plucked two DVD's from the shelves, and holding one in each hand I had to smile. One was titled "Factotum" and was based on the gritty stories and life of writer Charles Bukowski. A gritty, realistically rendered depravity typifies Bukowski's work, peopled as much of it is with barflies, hookers, alcoholics, the unemployed, and the unwanted; The other title was "Into Great Silence", a documentary film illustrating the life of monks practicing in the Grande Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps.

At first, I reflected on the obvious duality of Flesh and Spirit. I was reminded of the life of Nikos Kazantzakis author of Zorba the Greek, Report to Greco, and The Last Temptation of Christ to name a few of his titles. Kazantzakis lived a life of division, pulled toward contemplation, reflection, and writing yet longing for what he considered to be an active engagement with wine, with women, and with the world. So pronounced was this conflict within him that, living outside of Vienna and sequestered from a woman he loved, he impulsively left his retreat to find this woman, but was struck by a terrible, suppurating swelling of his face while searching for her.

The starkness of this apparent choice, so tortuous to Kazantzakis, made a great impression on me as a younger man. I dreamed, literally, of being a monk and taking some flavor of holy orders, but knew I could not tolerate the discipline. I was blessed with beautiful girlfriends, and refused to see them--or any other woman--as impediments to what was called a holy life.

I figured this conflict was without resolution, demanding allegiance to one or the other way of living. Then, probably twenty years ago, I heard something that at once expanded my understanding and collapsed duality; I heard the expression, coming from Buddhism, "Samsara is nirvana." This expansion of perspective united what appeared to be opposites. It leveled the playing field. No longer did the either/or conundrum perplex me.

And standing in the library today, these different DVD's in hand, I again realized that barflies and monks, hookers and the holy share a common endeavor called life, and that is sufficient to regard them as one.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

When the Living is Easy

In Minnesota summer is a brief yet thorough thaw from a near ever-present winter. As it approaches, tender green shoots poking through the earth, plans for this brief season tease my ambition.

There is the garden to ready and plant. Last year's bountiful crop of tomatoes and squash have inspired plans for expansion to include raspberries and carrots.

There is a themed-plan of study to undertake, recent interests leaning toward masculine archetypes and spirituality.

There are body-based meditative practices I've encountered and tried, and that provide me a settling-in-coming-home experience.

There are two writing projects. Both of these--one fiction, the other a memoir--have been fallow for some time and invite further effort.

Yet, with plenty to do I long for sun-soaked leisure, sun-light filtering through a glass of pinot-grigio, bird song in the bushes, and the company of friends of family.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Dead Dogs in Miami

"I can't take it anymore," is the refrain heard from the natives of Miami who are coping, or not coping, with cooler temperatures.

"So cold the fuckin' iguanas are dying; the manatees are struggling...
"Wait," I said, "The iguanas are dying?"
"You bet your ass. They're freezing and fallin' out of trees, frozen, four-legged popsicles." Fallin' out of trees and layin' dead in the streets. Dogs are eatin' 'em and dying. Fuckin' frozen iguanas are killing dogs! I can't take it anymore!"

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Some Heat in January

Last night, T and I went to see Estaire Godinez at the Dakota in Minneapolis. Backed by Serge Aku on bass, Peter Schimke on keyboards, Erik Leeds on saxophone, and Stokely Williams on drums, the fiery rhythms took the chill out of the arctic night.

Sunday, January 24, 2010


I've been drifting away from the Democratic Party in recent years, probably every since Bill Clinton cozied up to Big Business and sold out working people.

The tendency of the Party to cannibalize its older constituency of workers and unions to curry favor with its new corporate masters has reached levels to provoke revulsion in anyone who recalls the reputation of said Party as the "party of opposition."

The recent criticism of centrist democrats directed at progressives over the further dilution of health-care reform is but another example of behavior beyond the pale.

Sunday, January 10, 2010


She rails at him about his heart,
foretelling a constriction, a grave marker on the
course of his life.

He tries to coax enjoyment from this lean
And even as his waist shrinks
He loses his heart's content.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Friday, January 1, 2010

(Pre-) Historical Theology

My back into the New Year!

Walking home from a lovely dinner at Samba, a new Brazilian eatery in Hopkins, I stumbled on the uneven icy surface of the street and wretched my back. By the time I got home, shuffling through the frigid temperatures like an arctic Igor, grumbling and cursing, I collapsed into bed at 9:30 p.m. and fell into a restless sleep.

It is a new year, and there can be no birth without pain.