Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The Red-Monster

I certainly wasn't his best friend. And although I knew him for a long time and we stayed in touch as well as we could, I couldn't call him a close friend. But he saw me, in his wife's words, as "a good shit." I would have said the same, and for a lot of us, that's about as good as it gets.

We were in grad school together, his first time and my second. He was part of what another friend described as "the Raymond Carver crew," writers in the 90s who felt the power of the word lay in saying things plainly, without flowers, without elaboration. Back then he only wrote fiction, so that when I found out years later he'd published a chapbook, I wondered when he'd started writing poetry.

He married, had kids, found steady work that was meaningful and often frustrating. If I hadn't kept in touch with him on Facebook, I wouldn't have known him if I'd passed him on the street. He went from a Marky Ramone shaggy mullet to a hairline rivaling Patrick Stewart's for brevity. When he died a couple weeks ago, it was a shock. He hadn't been sick, had stopped drinking a long time before, didn't even smoke or eat much fried food. I heard it was his heart and I like to think it surprised him too, so he didn't feel anything more than the snap of an artery.

He was the kind of good shit that, when a lot of us got together last Saturday to remember him, the words said more often than any others were, "I'm gonna miss him." We told a lot of stories about him, and I wrote this one down for his wife and kids. He might have told them, but maybe it's mine to tell.

This was back before I knew him, back when he was still drinking and living the sort of life he would write about. "I was in jail in St. Peter, on a DUI charge. The judge gave me a choice, I could stay in my cell during the day or go to college. I chose school because I'd been in cells before. There was a school in St. Peter but I couldn't afford that, and Mankato is about 12 miles south, and they accepted me.

"They took away my license and my car, so I had to bike the distance. I took classes every day so I didn't have to stay in my cell. It was dead winter, and there I was biking there every morning and back every afternoon. I did that my whole sentence. I was about 7 weeks in when I realized I must be getting something out of it."

Saturday, March 30, 2019

#36 on the list


When the history of this incredible--and not in a good way--administration is written, this will be just one among a list of various acts trump somehow thought he could order. What an incredible present!

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

What will live on

For decades, since I was a child, I've thought of myself as a writer. It's the activity and craft I've practiced all my life. And I've always thought what I was meant to do was write an Important Work.

I don't know, that may still be ahead of me. But I've also always thought that was my way to make my mark on the future. I suppose we all think that in some way: I know I'll die but how do I live forever nonetheless? Parents, I think, have this uppermost in their minds as their children, and then their children's children, grow.

But I've come to realize that immortality is not immortal. I mean, I read things suggesting that civilization or even humanity as we recognize it may not survive our great-grandchildren, and I think that such an attempt on my part is so much ego, an investment it's not in my interest to make. My mark, instead, is meant to be in the mark I leave on other people's lives. This is what I do that will lie on. I mean, really live on.

What I do, gently shepherding people into death as best I can, is more important than anything I might otherwise do. Like writing, it is something I do well, but unlike writing it isn't subject on other people for its practice. I receive from my ministry a sense of contentment of my self I've never known before. It's much the same sensation I feel when one of my beasts, heretofore leery of me, suddenly lays its head on my arm and sleeps. I am at peace with the world and know what I do matters.

This takes a tremendous burden off me. I don't feel as if I'm cheating someone (if I'm honest it was this sense of ego gratification) by not writing regularly. I feel I have more time for reading, for walking, for enjoying things like coffee and music. Admittedly, I still squander that time shamelessly in surfing or watching TV, but I'm learning to curtail those.

None of this means I'll stop writing, especially here. In fact, I suspect it will clear up more time for me to blog, as meaningless as that may also be, given the vagaries of both audience and (electric) power, because I don't need to pay attention to what I think are important events or things to write on (although I will continue focusing on the corruption of the Trump administration and the frustrated anger of people on the wrong side of history recognizing their own irrelevance). And to salve my ego which, let's face it, is as demanding an urge as hunger or thirst. Besides, as Walter Miller, Jr long ago taught us, there's no telling what scrap from the past the future might discover is important. 

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Crossing the street

Here in the upper Midwest, the winter has seemed both fast and never-ending, with high temperatures and then bone-chilling wind and snow. It makes for a hard slog for some of us who are just keeping our heads down closer to our center of gravity and hoping we make it through the next whim of the cosmos.

"Whim" is an excellent term for what the past two years under Trump have been: We've been subjected repeatedly to his whims of how he theorizes a leader ought to act--that is, unilaterally--rather than the compromises that stable governments rely on to accomplish things. His supporters might decry compromise as "the swamp," but the truth is, like everyday life, it's full of the give-and-take suggested in crossing the street in traffic.

I remember decades ago, when I was a participant in the cult Direct Centering, I was at a weekend seminar and decided to put to the test the guide that "You are powerful, you make it happen," in this case by making traffic stop in Times Square as I crossed the street. I stood about mid-block and stepped out without looking up and got maybe four feet into the street when someone honked. I looked that way reflexively (though I'd told myself before I wouldn't, fearing that would dissolve my resolve), and there was a car with someone in it about thirty yards away and bearing down in my direction. He or she wasn't aiming for me, of course, but was turning and that's what the lane was for I stepped into. The honking was a not-unfriendly warning to me that I was otherwise going to be hurt.

I jumped back. The car passed by. I don't think the driver even glanced my way.

I decided to cross at the walk and make traffic stop there. I stood in the apron all New Yorkers stake out where the street and the sidewalk merge and was ready to step out, when I realized something: I didn't need to do this. Despite what I had been told, that I was powerful and I could make things happen in my favor, this was a pretty foolish way to do that. Even if I did do it, stop cars mid-drive as I strode across four lanes, what would that do? Prove perhaps that at that moment I had forced multiple drivers to acknowledge my ability to bully my way across the street without taking into account their need to get somewhere, and, more importantly, their ability to hurt me. Was that really a good use of the power I'd been told I had?

I decided I was so powerful that I didn't need to stop traffic so I could cross. Traffic, by obeying the rules, would do that for me. There wouldn't be much chance of getting hurt, no one would be mad at being inconvenienced (well, some drivers might, but to put it in DC terms, that was their attachment), and everyone would go on smoothly.

I look back on that chutzpah and laugh at myself. It wasn't power that did that, or if it was it was the power inherent in accepting the method that had been worked out before and smoothed the way for both drivers and pedestrians. By waiting at the crosswalk for the traffic to stop of itself when the lights changed I wasn't giving in, I was accepting the wisdom of the street. If I wanted some sense of having thwarted the system, I could use the good old New Yorker method of waiting until the traffic thinned enough to cross one lane at a time, stopping for each coming car to pass before walking calmly (or running) across the next lane. I'd piss off a couple drivers, but they were unlikely to do more than swear at me, the New York equivalent of "Hi, there."

We'd all accomplish our objective, they'd end up wherever they were driving to and I would get across the street without doing it from the back of an ambulance. The power lies not in the individual forcing his will but in the people moving as one.


Friday, January 18, 2019

Dick's Trump

I'll admit it, I've been overwhelmed by events to the point where it's nearly impossible to keep up. The speed with which the Trump administration is unraveling is dizzying. Every day brings with it another eye-opening, jaw-dropping revelation that the citizens of the United States actively brought ourselves under a would-be oligarchy's diktat. Our only saving grace is that it was unprepared and is led by an undisciplined sufferer of affluenza.

Make no mistake: I'm glad for that. It's to our advantage that Trump is more Berlusconi than Putin. That it will implode is a given. It may not end in the bloodless coup in which the entire crony crew and family depart on Air Force One for asylum in the Ukraine in the middle of the night with only the clothes on their backs that I hope for, but that it will end ignominiously is certain. America doesn't imprison our wealthy so we won't see that. But oh how satisfying that would be.

The end of the last year saw me reading Philip K. Dick. That Dick is a writer for the paranoid is a truism that's reached the point of pointlessness. But it's still worth remembering that, while he saw filaments of his own chaotic anger and mistook them for the culture's, they were nonetheless wide-ranging enough to be understood as cultural as well as personal.

Radio Free Albemuth is, I think, the fourth Dick novel I've read, and fits so snugly into the narrative of a President Trump to fuel suggestions not only of Dick's paranoia but his prescience. I'm hardly the first to note the similarities between Ferris Fremont, his version of Richard Nixon, and Trump, and frankly the differences are more disturbing because of what it says about the American people. While Trump's ascendence to the presidency is not as planned or controlled as Fremont's--he didn't arrive in the wake of a mandate, for instance, although his supporters were and are seeking something outside the political norm, which is a kind of unifying position (but not capable of being acted on, the equivalent of rallying behind someone holding a sign that says "Follow Me!")--the effects after he takes office are as disturbing.

No one had put a pistol to Ferris Fremont’s head. He was the pistol itself, pointed at our head. Pointed at the people who had elected him.

Is there a better descriptor for Trump than a pistol held to the brows of his own supporters?

Monday, December 10, 2018

A new hymn



Yesterday I attended services at the congregation I frequent (I also do several services a year for them), and we had a couple discuss the "Life of a Peacemaker." It was an interesting message, although frankly not as deep or informational as I could have wished. Still, I can't fault it for what I expected it to be. 

But what I want to talk about is a song. The service's second hymn was John Lennon's "Imagine." The lyrics were printed out and passed around with our hymnals. I've discussed in the past my firm belief that, as churches and services grow and change, one of the likeliest changes will be the co-opting of seminal, probably secular songs into our hymnals to take the place of songs that either don't connect with our theology (we already see this with the dropping from many denominations of such aggressive, warlike songs as "Onward, Christian Soldiers") or that have greater resonance with our congregations (in my own UU faith, we see this in the inclusion of the song popularized by Cat Stevens, "Morning Has Broken"). I suspect "Imagine" could be the bridge between every faith by its inclusion as a hymn.

If this is the case, it'll be helped along by its simple tune and rhyme scheme, its ubiquity in mass culture, and the simple fact that, as I looked around, I noticed that nearly everyone my age was singing from beginning to end without looking at the lyrics. We have already taken it in as our own.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Making Judea Great Again

This is the text of a sermon I wrote and read this morning when I led worship for a friend who was on vacation. It is a different topic than I would normally write about, or is aimed differently, because she is minister of a Christian church and follows the lectionary. Today was Christ the King Sunday, so a reading from John 18:33-7 is my reference.






Making Judea Great Again
          A couple decades ago, when we were first married, my wife and I developed the habit of describing anything that was garishly colored—cerulean, aquamarine, taupe, copper, any neon hue—as a prom dress. As in, “That’s not a whatever, that’s a prom dress.”
          I was working at a group home for adults with emotional and developmental disabilities back then. One day, one of the residents had the day off from work and I took him shopping. When we parked in the mall parking lot, we were a couple yards from a small car that was colored a lurid lilac color. My passenger, who loved cars, pointed it out to me. “Look at that car!”
          Instinctively I said, “That’s not a car, that’s a prom dress.”
          He looked at me, he looked at the car, looked back at me, looked back at the car. Then he said, in exactly the same slow, deliberate cadence I’m sure had been used more than once on him, “That’s a car.”
          Words mean. They make solid the ephemeral world around us. They can hurt and they can heal. Before I became a full time preacher I was a full time writing teacher so you can perhaps imagine how important getting the right word or choosing the right interpretation of a word can be for me. When I taught technical writing, I had an exercise asking students to imagine I was a knight from the Middle Ages and they had to explain how a car worked to me.
          One of the most important elements of communication, whether written or oral, is to meet the audience where he or she is. To use the language that makes someone’s world real. This means using the terminology or words and phrases that the person you want to communicate with uses to make them mean roughly the same idea you want to get across. In my exercise, this meant using terms like “horse,” “spark,” and “chain,” and avoiding words like “gas”, “combustion”, “engine”, not necessarily because the words were unfamiliar but because their meanings had changed so dramatically from how someone a millennium ago would have understood them.
          The original speaker of what came to us as the Book of John may have used some word or phrase his audience had long since come to understand by virtue of its repetition. But a century later, the writer of John’s gospel, in trying to get across the newness of God’s community without bogging down his readers with questions about what exactly an unfamiliar word means, used words they had heard and understood all their lives. Hence, we get a God who is king, a Jesus who is Lord, and a place below them for the rest of us we comfortably understand.
          “Are you the king of the Jews?” “My kingdom is not from this world.” “So you are a king?” “You say that I am a king.” Why king? The John writer’s Jesus, who’s speaking Aramaic, a now nearly-extinct Semitic language related to Hebrew and Syriac, being supplanted by Arabic eventually in most places a few centuries into the Common Era, uses a word that seems, in nearly everything we understand about his theology, contrary to the freedom he otherwise espouses. If Jesus were to preach this message today, he would use a different terminology. We might get instead a God who is Chief Executive Officer, a Jesus who is our Supervisor. “Thy corporation come, thy will be done.”
To understand this, and why the John writer makes a lot about it, we need to read ahead. In seminary, I was taught two important rules in interpreting selections from the Bible: read the chapters before and after the selection and place yourself in the position of the original hearers of the selection.
          We know the books that comprise the Bible, like all ancient literature, were initially oral recitation for small audiences of believers meeting to hear the Word. These were eventually written down over the course of several hundred years. The oldest scrap of the Gospel of John has been dated to the Second Century Common Era, at least a hundred years after the death of anyone who would actually have laid eyes on the historical Jesus So to make sense of what is said, to hear it fully, we have to place ourselves in the minds of men and women who have heard scraps of the teachings of this peasant killed by an imperial force which was still very much in charge.  
It’s in chapter 19 we are given the ultimate rejection of Jesus by the people he came to Jerusalem to save. Having had Jesus whipped, Pilate presents him to the crowd gathered for Passover, saying “Here is your King!” But the crowd refuses to accept responsibility for Jesus, crying for his execution. Pilate, in John’s account, tries one last time, asking incredulously, “Shall I crucify your King?” Caiaphas and his cohorts answer him, “We have no king but Caesar.”
          The initial listeners of John’s gospel would have heard something very different. At the time of its telling, a common hymn sung during Passover contained the declaration, “We have no king but you [God].” Caiaphas and the high priests’ words make explicit their rejection not only of Jesus but of God. As followers of the Scriptures, intimately familiar with the story known to us as Exodus, the first century listeners would have heard something familiar and frightening.
Caesar is a Latin word, and in Greek is Kaiser, a word we still use. But there is no word for Caesar in Aramaic or in Hebrew, the languages the original hearers might have heard. They would have heard the word malik or king in close relation to Caesar, just as in Exodus they had heard the word Pharaoh. What they hear is a demand to return to the slavery their ancestors had escaped. 
It would be a return to, well, better the devil you know. God may have brought them out of slavery, but the people are electing to return, metaphorically, to Egypt. Knowing full well how badly most of them had it during that period, they wanted to return to that semblance of comfort. Making Judea Great Again, as it were.  
A jaded, servile Pilate famously mocks what Jesus said, that his purpose is to testify to the truth of the new community God will bring about. “What is truth?” Truth is just as malleable today as it was when Pilate said this. We live in an age of “fake news,” of “alternative facts.” We watch a video of a fight and we’re certain we understand who started it and who ended it. But then someone points out that it’s filmed from a perspective ignoring this guy over here, or that the video starts just after the first punch is thrown so we don’t hear what the other guy said. Or it’s been cropped, or speeded up or slowed down, or that the person recording is friends with one of the combatants and shows him in a better light.
Or we listen to a speech and we hear, quite clearly, the speaker make a racist comment. We are certain of what we’ve heard. But when the Pilates who work for Caesar go on TV or the Internet, saying, “That’s not what he said, or it’s not what he meant, or he was clearly joking. You are the real racist for having thought you heard him say something racist,” what are we to believe? When we’re told our eyes or our ears or our intellect is suspect, that our news sources and our schools and history books, the organizations whose intent are to collect what was said and done and tell others, are purveyors of “fake news”, then we have to admit Pilate’s mockery is justified. If Jesus’ intent is to testify to the truth, and the truth is subject to alternative facts, where does the truth lie? Does the truth lie? Scholars have discovered a Gospel of Judas. Will we someday unearth a Gospel of Pilate? 
This is a problem inherent to continuing to use, thousands of years after the event, words that were at the time an approximation of what the writer meant. Pharaohs built monuments to themselves, Caesars named conquered cities and nations after themselves, kings and princes kill people on a whim and declare themselves innocent. They aggrandize themselves, not God.
What’s needed is a different way of looking at the words we bring the world around us to life. Instead of the kingdom of God, perhaps what is to come is the community of beloveds, a phrase popularized by Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. The beloved community, however, I tell you already exists. Like the John Gospel’s kingdom of god, it is not a place but an agreement between people to care for one another, to help one another, feed one another, keep one another warm and safe. The beloved community is one of radical inclusivity, where someone looks out not for himself but for everyone, knowing that in their humanity they are all him. “My kingdom is of another place,” Jesus says, locating it not in the world of then or now but to come. It requires a lot of work, and 2 millennia after Jesus, we have barely begun.
But examples of the work of the beloved community are all around us. Last month Milwaukee bus driver Natalie Barnes was on her regular route when a stranger came up to her, told her his house had been condemned, and that he was homeless and asked if he could ride the bus all night to stay warm. She did so, and when she stopped for dinner, she bought him some hot food too. When her shift was over, she bought him clothes and supplies, then dropped him off at a homeless shelter where a friend works.
Will there be a happy ending? Well, I hope so. Barnes says she speaks to him every couple days to let him know someone cares. He was a stranger in need asking for a kindness and rewarded with more than he could have hope for. As that prolific speaker, Anonymous, has it, if you have been blessed by God, build a longer table, not a taller fence.