Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Observations driving along routes 422, 6, and 2 through Cleveland and the Erie Shore

· If I didn’t know any better I’d swear there was a smoke outlet called “Cheap Tobacco” because there seems to be at least 1 store in every town with some variation of that phrase on its signs.

· On 422 there are dozens of out-of-business car dealerships situated next to empty, unmowed lots with one paved drive in and no way out.

· There are also a lot of empty malls any one of which could be the model for the setting of “Dawn of the Dead.”

· I try to live my life so people think to themselves, “There’s a satisfied, happy guy.”

· In Warren, Ohio, there’s a fellow on the corner carrying a sign and wearing a sandwichboard with the curlicue hand-lettering of the crazy all over it. I couldn’t read any of his writing except for the phrase “XXX” but I don’t know if he was for it or against it.

· I don’t think much beats listening to the blues and driving slow and purposeful with the window down during sundown on a summer night.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

alternatives to church, number 4

One of the nicest scenes was in the movie “Ray” when Ray Charles, when he’s visited in his apartment by Atom Egoyen to discuss a record deal, asks him to hurry up: “You see I’m in church.” It’s this notion of church being where you find it and being a state of mind rather than a building or even a congregation that appeals.

I’m considering this after a couple days at the Rainbow Gathering near Warren, Pennsylvania. There were more dogs and fewer naked people than I remember from the 80s and early 90s. The road to the Gathering, like much of life’s journey, is long and arduous and full of many sideroads that lead nowhere you want to go. But it was on just such a sideroad I met some other Family members equally lost—actually more lost than I was since they’d been over the same mountain roads for 3 hours while I’d only been over them for 1—and we teamed up since 10 eyes were better than 2. While they gassed up their truck I found a local and she gave me back way directions to the site. We knew within 10 minutes we were on the right road, found Welcome Home, parked and unloaded their kitchen, and I drove on to a more remote spot and settled in for the night.

I stayed a little over 36 hours, far less time than I used to spend but enough for this trip. I’ve decided it is my final one. I had a good time, probably better than the previous 2 I’d attended in the early and mid-90s, and decided it was a good way to say goodbye. I was disappointed because I’d come in the hope of seeing people I’d known or at least would recognize from 20 years before, but that didn’t happen. It was early of course—most folks don’t show until around July 2nd or the 3rd—although I did see 1 woman from Wisconsin, which surprised me as I hadn’t known her for Family. But most of the men my age fell into 2 camps: the pale, big-bellied, t-shirt riding high on their paunch, desperate types and the stringy, rough-ridden types who’d been on the road for decades and forgot where they’d lost their teeth, and I didn’t care to be associated with either one.

But what really sealed it for me was a comment I heard someone say yesterday about another brother he’d been discussing. This brother was “one of those corporate types who gets all his Rainbow lifestyle 1 week a year and then heads back to his corporate life.” And I realized, in my Guggenheim t-shirt and my cargo pants and my New Balance sneakers, he could have been talking about me. It is a lifestyle and a good one but it’s a lifestyle for people 30 years my junior. Not only were there fewer people my age and the ones who were there unappealing, but some accommodations had been made for a younger crowd—Main Circle is only a mile and a half from Welcome Home, the shortest hike I ever remember; there were dozens more busses at Bus Village than I’d ever seen this early; also, harder drugs were easier to get, while people seeking out hash and smoke were offered meth and crank. One couple I met trundled in 8 pounds of dip and they offered it up for free, which was kind, but snuff is better than tobacco in the way heroin is better than ditchweed. Similarly, there was a larger black and Hispanic contingent than I remember 25 or even 16 years ago—true, smaller than in proportion to the general population, but the Rainbow Family used to be whiteout central and now there are dots darker than the tan that comes from lying naked in the sun.

But in the key of church being where you find it, being out in the woods with the hundreds of hippies and freaks I choose to call family was like the best religious experiences: short, intense, intimate, frank, non-judgmental, and welcoming. When I sniff deep I can still smell woodsmoke and incense and sage and ganja on my skin as if I’d been in a temple where it doesn’t matter whether I was worshipping or being worshipped. In these spaces, it’s easy to smell stale beer on people’s breaths and so I avoid them—I like my beer as well as anyone, maybe more than most, but I go to Gatherings so I don’t need to drink. Despite the harder chemicals people managed to find a way to carry in, alcohol is still the dominant nastiness at the Gathering and it still wastes people’s ambition and commitment to anything other than themselves. This is why the revolution will not only fail to be televised but will not be well-attended. Some churches are too hard to get to.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

la plus ca meme chose

it's a small town. in the 3 weeks I've been here:

  • a hand-written cardboard sign advertising "small medium large" portions at the boy scout-sponsored breakfast (that happened in may) has remained duct-taped to a large tree in front of the fire department as have the "join cub scouts" signs on the lawn accompanying it;

  • cooney hardware, the largest freestanding building in town and operated by the widow of the original owner on a sporadic and unposted time schedule, has remained closed (to be fair, the faded hand-printed card saying "back at 12:30" has disappeared but that's as likely to be the final deterioration of the cellophane tape holding it up as anyone removing it);

  • a torn green sweatshirt has been splayed across the bike rack outside the school, the only use I've seen that rack get;

  • the radar speedtracker set up on one of the backstreets has registered a quick "13" and then swiftly dropped to "7" each time I've walked past it (although why the radar is set up on that street, which is actually more an alley and has almost no traffic, I couldn't say);

  • and a wrapped condom has been sitting on a rock just off the paved trail leading to the school until I finally put it in my pocket this morning. hopefully I have not screwed up the life of some kid who cached it there, leaving him or her now to unprotected sex, although it could as well have been a sacrifice to the virginity gods and now it's gone its owner may think he has to make a move...

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

50 year old pasty godzilla wrecks family outing

the one thing austin is known for, if it's known for anything at all, is the tragedy of a dam bursting 99 years ago, killing nearly 1000 and destroying the town. the ruins of the dam are now a park and a cold fish-filled stream winds through it. I spent most of this afternoon there, completely alone and silent except for the cars on the state road a stone's throw away. it was hot and I saw no reason to get my swimsuit wet. I was there to sunbathe too, so skinny-dipping was a way of reliving some past good times, and I slathered myself with spf 30 and lay naked on the grass, reading. finally, about 330, I hopped in for a last dip and when I stepped out of the shallows 5 minutes later I heard voices. I didn't even have my glasses on, so I stepped to my towel and slid it around me while looking for my specs. when I put them on I saw a carload of about 5 older people, including one person I thought was a child but discovered was a small wizened old woman with unnaturally brown hair, had pulled up to the ruins and was videotaping them from about 20 feet away from where a 50 year old, paunchy, very white and very naked man stepped like a pasty godzilla up out of the creek. being a gentleman, I said "howdy." they politely ignored me while I leisurely dressed and picked up my book and towel and walked to the car. it was only when I'd been associated with a vehicle that they took notice of me and the oldest fellow muttered, "'lo." did we learn at some point that it was impolite to speak to the nude, or that people can't see you unless you've got clothes and a car? think of the havoc we could cause by stripping down and acting up.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

american women wearing the niqab

impressive article, well-researched and humanizing. I especially love the opening...

Monday, June 21, 2010

in christ there is no east or west

last week on my drive to olean I found a tiny out of the way mennonite church near port alleghany and decided I'd attend sunday service there. the birch grove mennonite church was sparsely attended--I counted 22 people--but they were 22 nice, friendly people. it's a newish building in the outback of the thick along a road called "two-mile." in conversation with some members afterward I found that their membership numbered about a hundred in the mid-90s, but when the majority opted to build the new building, the others left en masse, and death and moving away took care of the rest.

what I noticed immediately was the smell. it was the pleasant smell I've always associated with old abandoned farmhouses in this part of the country. the smell of old worn wood in a hot room takes on the odor of cinnamon and nutmeg--perhaps it's the resin leaching from it. the backs of the pews had been dark as the rest at one time, but were now bleached blond by generations of hands gripping and sliding along them. the walls were plain and whitewashed with a single brilliant stained glass window above the pulpit, the ubiquitous image of jesus praying over thorns in the garden at gethsemane. (interestingly, all examples of this image I've located online show jesus facing the left, while the example at birch grove shows him facing the right: perhaps it was installed for the benefit of people on the outside rather than in.)

the building had an east-west orientation so that the window caught the late morning sun and lent luster to the stained glass. jesus' robe was a deeper red, the greens of plants a denser green. there were plastic flowers on the alter and the organ and at each of the open windows. the pastor's message, an otherwise cliched and bland perfunctory sermon that was instantly forgetable--was punctuated by birdsong. the minister, an interim who'd been there he told me 7 years, was missing most of the fingers of his left hand but didn't hesitate to shake mine. the theology wasn't lacking a humanistic bent, except for the usual xian attribution of every event as "the lord working," and its point--that we are all 1--was something I could agree with.

but what really impressed me was a man I spent most of my time there talking with. born and raised in port alleghany, neil has a day job with the borough operating machinery and side work as a volunteer prayer minister ("I specialize in healing and talking ministry"). his wife who substitutes at the local high school is from northern california, but neil has never spent appreciable time away from the area. he'd been a hippie and had even lived in a local commune--it started, he said, as a drug commune but the members eventually "accepted jesus" in one place or another and rejiggered the place as a vegetarian religious community. the place burned to the ground when he was 26 and he met and married his wife in the next year and had lived his life "like a regular guy" since then. they have 2 sons and a daughter--the younger son was at church with them and was obviously bored and humiliated at his parents' spirituality and willingness to talk about themselves, and so neil gave him the keys to the car and I offered to drive them home. on the drive we talked about the counterculture as it'd been experienced there and the way it ebbed and flowed over time--many of the local businessmen had at one time or another opened head shops and vegetarian restaurants and health food stores before moving on to tanning salons and video stores and computer repair--as if this little town in the thick was a microcosm of america.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

the story about scott and kevin

"you remember scott? classic textbook example of alcolism, that guy. his dad killed himself. went into the woods behind their place and put a pistol in his mouth. his mom won't sell the place. scott's still there. his dad prolly didn't want to live to see his son become him. anyway, I don't think you knew kevin. he coldcocked him, man. right in my place. this kevin, he's a motherfucker from the old school, one of the original new paltz lowlifes. they were here in town drinking and somehow scott left kevin at the bar and came back to my place and kevin walks all the way from bacchus to my place. 8 fuckin miles, man. he shows up to my place and they get into it. I dunno, they had something with each other all along, didn't get along, maybe saw too much of each other in the other one, I don't know. so they're gettin into it and scott's wantin to whale on kevin, he's all pissed at him. he's goin after him, sayin, 'lemme at im, lemme at im,' and he's so drunk he could shit himself. kevin's just sittin on the couch, watchin im. he's got his arms folded like this across his chest. I'm holdin scott back, sayin, 'ey, be cool, man, not in my place, man.' you know, cuz I'm wantin my place peaceful, you know, like an oasis of calm. I don't need that shit in my house. respect my house. but scott's after im, he's tuggin and sayin, 'I'm gonna git im, I'm gonna git im,' and I'm holding him back and then he, like, breaks free from me and he's all over kevin, man. kevin stands up and scott's, like, 'du du du du du,' y'know, like tryin to pull off one of those boxing moves like on the punching bag. 'du du du du du.' and kevin, he's got like these big carpenter's hands, his fist's like a hammer, he just unfolds his arms and POOM. one shot and fuckin scott's down, he's down on the floor. he's not movin, man. and I'm thinkin, 'oh no, not again. not another murder, right under my nose.' so he's not gettin up and I push kevin and I say, 'git outta my house, git out and don't never come back.' so he leaves and I'm thinkin scott's dead. he's bleedin like a motherfucker from his mouth, there's this pool of blood on the floor comin from his mouth, takes me days to get that outta the carpet. he's not movin and I'm thinkin he's dead, and then he goes into, like, convulsions, still bleeding out of his mouth but shakin so I know he's alive. eyes back up in his head, tongue out, the whole works. he was out, no lie, 20 minutes, man, and he gets up and he's all like, 'ubadah ubadah ubadah,' like in a cartoon. kevin split the outside of his lip from his right nostril to his mouth and then inside his mouth and up to his gumline. I git im cleaned up and I tell him, 'that's it, yer outta here,' and I drive im home. but he's never change, man, I hear he's still fuckin textbook alcoholic. I ain't seen neither one of em since."

Saturday, June 19, 2010

too good for beer

I'm sitting under a tree outside the bradford county library near tonawanda, pa. while I've been told I behave that way, I don't think of myself as dedicated, but there are certain things I do almost on a neurotic scale daily: shaving, brushing my teeth, making my bed and exercising. without exception, I've failed to keep those practices between thursday and today.

well, I take that back: I did get all of them in at some point, just not on a regular basis. I managed some excercise thursday afternoon by revisiting one of my old stomping grounds outside new paltz. when we lived there in the early 90s I often walked our dog gynnady on the new york city aqueduct trail along the shawangunk mountains and I wanted to see it again for nostalgia's sake. the water department has put a chain fence along the trail's perimeter but also left a gap of about 16 inches between the fence and gate. I pushed through that without difficulty and wandered for over an hour down the path we used to take on the eastern side of mohonk road. there were recent bike tracks and a few bootprints and a single truck track since the last rain, but otherwise the path hadn't been disturbed for a long time. trees had fallen across it in places and the grass and weeds were at my hips in others. critters scattered under the brush ahead of my feet and I startled a deer and a cat at different times. it was well worth the wander--at points I could almost imagine my good little black dog sniffing the dust ahead of me and that left me smiling.

I got together with friends for dinner and beers and as if it was 1987 all over slept on george and blanca's couch (though not the same one). early the next morning blanca made me espresso peruvian style and we talked for 2 hours, then she went to work and george made me espresso italian style and we talked longer. he caught me up on people whose names I hadn't heard in 15 years and we talked about what he called the epidemic of divorce among his friends. I pointed out it was better than the deaths we might have expected. he had spent nearly a year teaching english in italy and come back bitten by the bug so we went over his resume and I gave him what I hope were good pointers about applying at 2-year schools. at one point I showed him the photo of someone we used to know from decades back who teaches at marist and the light glowed in his eyes and he said, "if that bastard can do it, I can do it," which I think is the first time he realized that he really can.

I finally shaved and showered and brushed my teeth at 4 and at 530 he and blanca and their teen son went with me to dinner in town. it was a fine meal, a middle eastern buffet housed in a place where there used to be a deli where we bought beer and ice cream after midnight 25 years ago. the food was so good I could not drink but had ginger beer because of the sharpness. and then I got in the car and drove back to my sister's place.

new paltz has changed of course, in some places for the better, in some places not so much. I still felt like a moth confronting a candle being there and each time I drove or walked on main street people stared at me because my smile was too big for my mouth.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

crazy in the thick

I'm on my way to see my sister and her family in monroe, new york, and to get there I've traveled about 150 miles through the thick before deciding that the scenery was simply not worth the sacrifice of driving 45 mph behind horse trailers. route 6 through the thick is full of ruined houses and barns, homes with doors that open onto the interstate, and grand, majestic buildings that probably once had panoramic sweeps of all the master owned but are now a mere driveway away from the abandoned trailer someone simply left by the side of the highway. it is full too of towns that appear suddenly in your windshield and hang for too long in your rear view mirror.

I've been thinking of things that have happened in and around austin since I arrived a week and a half ago that put the lie to everything one assumes--or at least that I do--about the dullness of a town in the thick. some local boy turned 21 and when the local bar refused to serve him, saying he was already too drunk, he drove down the street and backed his car into the town's cola machine, knocking it through one of the few unbroken plate glass windows of which austin could boast; this same boy led the local cop on a chase down multiple roads until he happened to misremember one was a dead-end, so if he was going he decided he was going big and switched back around to ram the cop head-on. apparently no one was injured. another boy, a 2-year, was air-lifted to the emergency rooms of one of the closer big cities, probably scranton, after being kicked in the head by a horse. my father says he remembers when such things didn't involve hospital visits. I came across a tabloid called the sovereign while in olean, an odd amalgamation of classic libertarian/right-wing paranoia and far-left resistence hackery that, for $4, promised to tell me what was Really Going On. I had more time than money so I sat in a comfy chair and read it cover to cover. there was not a single thing in there I hadn't read a hundred times and 20 years before only with the addition of "9/11" and "obama" where I remember "bilderberg" and "reagan." if I seem less than enthralled with the material, it was probably the comfortable chair that put me off. I might have appreciated it better if I'd been sitting in a straightback cane chair with my top collar button fastened. to get the full effect of how I'd put it if I could, as always, listen to james.

it's complicated in the thick

the woman who took my wife to the state college airport--a friend of one of my cousins--turned out to be the wife of john rigas' son who is also serving prison time, and so I received another edition of the exploits of st. john while we waited for her. regis and adelphia were the saviors of coudersport and the adelphia offices still sit vacant but immaculately groomed, like the bedroom of a child 10 years after her abduction.

he's the local boy made good, or bad, looking from another angle, and everyone has a story about him. he was the businessman who singlehandedly kept this part of the thick afloat while everywhere around it was submerged in recession and a wilted economy. my cousin, whose dad worked for rigas after retiring from maintenance at coudersport city hall, has nothing but good things to say of the man. he mentions that he lost everything he'd staked in adelphia, "but that was my fault. I could've sold when shares were $79 but I didn't want to leave john in the lurch." that john didn't have quite the same concern about leaving his investors that way is best not mentioned.

but it's all about complexity. I'm tempted to say money forgives all, to note that when the rich deign to notice the serfs it's taken by the poor as a mark of greatness in the man who does it, as if remembering the name of the man who drives you from meeting to meeting takes herculean effort.

despite my cynicism, which is deserved, the fact stubbornly remains: while he was in the middle of defending himself in court john rigas did things like visiting people in the hospital without pr flacks or cameras. it's true he was on the hospital board and such a visit likely did take his mind off his troubles, but he could more easily have gone golfing or skeet shooting. and I have been impressed by people remembering my name who had no personal stake in doing so.

my cousin's friend turned out to be a nice enough person in the few moments I spoke with her, although my wife, having spent 2+ hours in a small car with her on back roads may have additional information to say. but it's also true that these same relatives who genuflect to the rich who remember their names also disparage the locals on food stamps who frequent their store considerably more often than anyone surnamed rigas. no number of good deeds done or friendliness shown by these folks seems ever to deserve anything but my cousins' scorn. as everywhere else, it's complicated in the thick.

Monday, June 14, 2010

not drowning but waving

it's important to my dad to live in a place where people wave to him and he waves back. I don't think I'd realized this about him when I was younger, since we often lived in the country and when he went walking the only people who returned his waves were his immediate neighbors. but here in the thick to walk down the street with him or even to stop at the local cemetary to wander among the headstones is to see him constantly throw up one arm as a vehicle passes and to see the same response from the driver and passengers. I've met dozens of new people in passing who treat him as if he was a long-known beloved relative and I'm often regaled with the stories of kids and some adults who referred to my folks as aunt and uncle. I know that's a special comment on them but it's only recently that I've come to see how much it means to him.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

my old man

in anticipation of father's day in a week, here's an essay I published 13 years ago. I was thinking about it this morning and thought it was time to trot it out.

My Old Man
by R.T. Bledsoe

I could kick him. Just a quick one to the shin would do it. Then a fast jab in
his ribs, and when he doubled over an elbow to the kidneys, and he'd be

It'd be absurdly simple. There's no doubt I'm more imposing physically. My
old man portrays tall very well, and until my growth spurt last year I thought
him the tallest man in the world. But at twelve I'm taller and broader. In a
few years I'll play an undistinguished defensive position for the Taconic Hills Titans and
years after that I'll run distance races just for the love of motion.

There's an oak in the front yard next to the road, and it looks like the three of us are
lined up tallest to smallest for the bus: the oak, me and the old man. I could leave him
behind the oak and nobody'd be any the wiser.

It's hard to be cool when your father loves you. It isn't even some sick, incestuous
thing. Nothing that good. My old man loves me. He took me shopping for school at the
Government Exchange this year. I figure, here I'm twelve now, practically a teen, I think
I can choose my own clothes, just pay for them, thanks. But while I'm eyeing Levis and
fantasizing Laurie Gallop will take the hint and start calling me "stud," here he comes
with an extra large pair of Dickies, saying "These should fit, honey."

The bat at the counter looks to think that's the darlingest thing she's ever heard. I could
belt them both.

Other kids are lucky. My pal Pfeiffer doesn't even know where his old man is. He took
off after Pfeiffer was born. Bone is even luckier. Every couple weeks he gets on the bus
sporting a new shiner the size and color of an eggplant heel. Once he showed me a
cigarette burn on his shoulder.

"Wow," I breathed. "Did your old man really do that?"

"Yeah," he says. He's wearing the shirt with the burn hole still in it. He centers the burn
with the hole so it looks fresh. "We were watching SWAT and he tipped over to put out
his smoke. He was tanked and I was asleep leaning on the couch and he missed the
ashtray and got my shoulder."

Bone's old man works at the tire shop. His fingers are the shape of Oscar Meyer
weiners. I imagine they operate as individual hydraulic lifts. "How'd it feel?"

"It didn't hurt too much. It was kind of like when you get that booster shot with all the
pins. Only it burned after and it smelled funny. My old man put this stuff on it and kept
saying he was sorry." He rubbed the shoulder to put a red burnish around the wound
and then ripped the hole a little wider. "Don't tell anybody that last part, okay."

My old man is a banker. He might as well be an accountant. He wears ties and suits
and a too-large black coat when it rains or snows and a plaid fedora with a yellow
feather. He and Mother are teetotalers and most of their meals come out of boxes or
cans. They go to church sometimes but don't make a religion of it. About the only thing
my old man has in common with the fathers of my friends is that his old man used to
get tanked and beat the snot out of him too.

Lucky bastard.

The bus comes down the road. It stops at Russel's a half mile off. The old man says
"Have a good day, honey," and leans up to kiss my cheek.

On mornings like this I praise this oak to the skies. For two years it sheltered me while I
watched Kim Russel tanning. Last summer my old man caught me with his binoculars.
He didn't even bawl me out, just chuckled and said "well now."

I haven't been able to look at Kim since without blushing. Bone says she thinks I like
her but what could I do with a fourteen year old girlfriend? She's just watching material.

The old man runs into the house to lock up before he heads to work. In another two
years, when I have my ulcer and Dr. Bardwell, bless him, explains to my parents it's
caused by riding the bus, these goodbyes will be tendered in the privacy of his car after
he drives me to school. The old man will make himself ten minutes late every morning
in order that my ulcer doesn't worsen. Later, when my stomach gets better, it'll turn out
it really is from riding the bus. But for now Mother swears it's the horror comics the old
man buys for me.

I get on the bus. The coolest place to sit is on the back bench and Pfeiffer saved me a
spot. We trade comics weekly and today he's got a Swamp Thing to exchange for a
Tomb of Dracula. I hold out. Swamp Thing's lame. He throws in The Demon and I say

The bus rumbles on and maybe it's because I called his first offer lame that Pfeiffer
says, loud enough so everyone in the bus hears, "Hey, is that your dad following us?"
I turn around and sure enough there he is, less than five feet from the bumper. His
Monte Carlo looks like a Chihuahua sniffing a Doberman. It's winter and my old man is
a black crumple at the wheel. He's a plaid-topped nightmare.

I turn around. "No, man" I mumble. "That's not my dad, I don't even know where my
dad is, we think he's in Indiana somewhere, I don't know who that guy is--"

"Hey, he's blowing kisses, man!"

There's a blur and sixty kids pile into the back seat. My head sinks and it would hit the
floor if my hands weren't there to catch it.

I have to look.

Bone asks "Is your dad a fag, man?"

Because there's my old man in his feathered fedora puckering up and popping off a
couple good ones. I wonder if there's a shelter for kids who are too-loved. He smiles
and it makes him look like one of those insipid felt-covered dogs that sit in the rear
window of old people's cars and nod at anything. I hate him. I hate him the way
magnets hate each other, juttering away when you put the wrong end near them. I hate
him and he loves me as absolutely as metal filings love static.

Just before the bus turns left and he turns right, my old man waggles his fingers at me.
One hundred twenty two eyes look at me.

I wave back. What else can I do.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

the emblematic figure of the contemporary age

"Islamic fundamentalist groups have long terrorized many Muslim countries, especially those, such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, that were ravaged by blowback from the Cold War and the war on terror. These extremists, who now assault the West as well, have always lacked popular support within their own countries. The anarchic vivacity of contemporary Muslim societies--featuring such figures as Ali Saleem, Pakistan's own cross-dressing television host, and Cairo's hijab-wearing sex therapist Heba Kotb, whose talk show is beamed across the Arab world--does not quite match [Ayaan] Hirsi Ali's description of an incurably medieval people busy devising ever-harsher laws for themselves while plotting mayhem for the infidels...Nor do Hirsi Ali's simple oppositions--traditional societies versus democracy, Islma versus Western secularism--sum up the experiences of Muslims in Europe, who are the Continent's most globalized minority, with multilayered identities that are usually influenced less by the Koran or Sharia than by the politics, culture, and economy of various nations and transnational networks...[When] she writes that a Muslim can be 'an American patriot' only if he doesn't 'care very much about being a Muslim,' she seems suspicious of the [US's] un-European traditions of cultural and religious pluralism. Eager to reeducate her 'fellow nomads' in 'the ways of the infidel,' Hirsi Ali is convinced that 'lingering between the two value systems...stunts the process of becoming one's own person.' But those privileged enough to find refuge in the West rarely find it easy or desirable to abandon their ancestral culture and convert to the Randian individualism that she appears to uphold as the noblest form of human existence. The fate of the truly modern nomad is, rather, a ceaseless inner conflict between ways of life and value systems; this very quality has made the nomad an emblematic figure of the contemporary age."

--from "Islamismism: How Should Western Intellectuals Respond to Muslim Scholars?" by Pankaj Mishra in The New Yorker, June 7, 2010.
(image solely owned by

pennsylvania has a state smell

I've already come to the conclusion that my best strategy to make it through my time here is to treat it like jack kerouac did his stint on desolation mountain: simply to be here and take each day as it comes without noticing it much. as with every state, pennsylvania has a state bird and state flower and so on, but it also has a state smell, and on this edge of the thick it's burning garbage. fire regulations are laxer here--when we took my mother's leftover medications, several bags of prescriptions and vitamins and over-the-counter meds, to the pharmacy to have them disposed of they simply said, "burn 'em"--and it seems everyone takes a shift to burn something nettling. the smell too is thick here.

I'd forgotten my father's syntax which has also gotten thicker as he's aged: nearly every sentence has some variation of the king james phrase "took and went." "I took and went to the store." "I'll take and bring this over." "we'll take and send this in the mail." also, his use of the word "thing" as a synonym for any noun. "your sister and ken went to the thing." "jayne is in the bathroom cleaning the things." "I'll take and walk this thing over to my sister's for the thing." these may be symptoms of alzheimer's or they may simply be an extension of the way he's always talked.

my mother collected cherub paraphenalia and it's hard to turn around without bumping into a plaster statue or wall hanging or photo holder. her theology was simple--one acted in accordance with the wishes of god, although telling what those wishes are might be hard to decipher, and then one went to heaven where one spent eternity doing pleasurable things--and it was understood there was a heaven and a hell (although like universalists she didn't think god was much of one to actually damn anyone for eternity, just until he or she shaped up) and there was a god who could be known through christ and who operated supernaturally. she was a big one for the supernatural, both religious and secular. cherubs, angels, ghosts, poltergeists, spirits, premonitions, dreams, messages, visitations--all were on equal footing to her. she was an early and enthusiastic subscriber to fate magazine and read everything about edgar cayce as well as being a believer in whatever the weekly world news printed. what she was in addition to gullible was a beleiver in believing, and to the extent that belivers are also people who hope, we have that in common.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

in the thick

my mother died in austin, pennsylvania, a place that almost isn't on the map. it seems that from the time she was born in the mid-1920s in shinglehouse, pa, she lived in places that were less and less visible from the interstates: whitesville, columbiaville, stottville, martindale, east taghkanic, and livingston, with a few exceptional bigger towns like mansfield and wellsville and hudson. she was a small town woman who spent all her life in places where, if they had a main street, people rode 4-wheelers up and down them all day, and the bar opened at 7 in the morning and stayed hopping until midnight. everybody tries to go home then cuz only the unemployed drink at the bar after midnight.

this is the kind of place I escaped from early on and have avoided ever since. I've been back here to visit at least once a year since they moved back 6 years ago, and when I got the telephone call from my dad at 5 o'clock this past sunday morning, I knew I'd be coming back for a while. the place is easy pickings to make light of: even the dogs here sport homemade tattoos and roll up packs of heaters in their shirtsleeves. we aren't on the rim of anything but in the thick of it all: thick air, thick trees, thick rocks, thick people. but my mom loved it and I love my mom.

but that's not why I'm here or not why I'm still here. I'm here because I love my dad too and these are his people now. they have taken him in like a lost starling. I could give a report of the trip out and the visitations and the funeral, but they were the same everyone experiences and there's nothing I could tell you that would be different than what you experience except with other people's faces. my mom's death was not tragic or unexpected. the rote comment I pair with handshakes is that it was "sudden but not surprising." my dad says he's lived with the notion for 14 years, ever since she was diagnosed with breast cancer. she's had at least 2 near calls in the ensuing years and we've all come to know what to expect.

here is what we've come to figure is what happened: she got up in the middle of the night to sit in a living room chair--a common event for her--and at some point stood and had a heart attack and died before landing on the floor. as these things go, it was a quick, painless death, the kind many of us, me included, could hope for.

so I am here for some weeks, in the thick of life, because this is what we do. we grow up, we move away, we start the life we want and we need, and then we find ourselves woken rudely by the news of death and we pack stupidly and rush back because no matter what we tell ourselves otherwise these are the people we really are. I am here for the immediate future because this is where I am.

Friday, June 4, 2010

"this is your time to do what you will do"

stick with me on this for a minute. last night, for reasons I'm still not clear on, I watched five hours of clips from the tv show scrubs, and the comedian tom cavanagh was in several of them. this got me to thinking about his series ed whose theme song was "your life is now" by john mellencamp, which led to my watching a number of mellencamp videos this morning.

I remember when he was john cougar, and to show I am even older, I remember his guest appearance on sctv in the early 80s in which martin short's ed grimley turned into him in a pastiche of dr. jekyll and mr. hyde. I didn't care much for his early work until around the time of "pink houses" and "jack and diane." some songs from his scarecrow and lonesome jubilee albums give me goosebumps, as do his later key west-inspired tunes. it's probably that his take on aging--"I'm not that young kid that I used to be so I pushed the hair back outta my face"--is similar to mine.

but this isn't about my enjoyment of mellencamp, or not just about it. the soaring trills of his infusion of underground rock n roll into traditional country and blues melodies thrills me, as does his find in lisa germano, his use of accordian (can anything equal john cascella's and germano's mingled highs in the middle of "check it out"? I don't think so), and even the fact his drummer kenny aronoff looks like someone's painfully unhip dad. what appeals to me even more is the background world of his videos.

mellancamp's vids posit a world in which mixed race couples, same sex couples, and punk and transgressive couples are the norm. these relationships stand out for their assumption--their legitimate assumption--that this is how the world is made up or how a part of it is composed. this is thrilling. it is a reflection of both contemporary inclusiveness and tribal reality. it is both a target to aim for and how some of us live now.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

why the pentacostals won't have me

there are several reasons I can't be a pentacostal but this is one of the major ones. my sense of timing is about at the level of this fellow's and I'd look pretty similar doing the st. vitus dance. on the other hand I faint about as well.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

I am a little eichmann

"When human beings are in [codependent] relationships with a huge corporation, the corporation can cause immense harm, far more than could be caused by individual human beings. Individuals have been 'caught in something larger than themselves.' This fosters a collective mindset...'People are relieved of their individuality, along with their sense of judgement and choice.' Knowingly or unknowingly, those who serve a corporation without questioning its effects in the world adopt the corporation's collective ideology and values. Willingly or unwillingly, they work to serve its purpose and extend its power. They are complicit in what the corporation does."

--from Shaking the Gates of Hell: Faith-Led Resistance to Corporate Globalization by Sharon Delgado

on the whole I'm impressed by delgado's book but I'm uncomfortable with a tendency I sense throughout it, probably because I'm prone to it myself: confusing the employees of a place and their values with the values of their organization. in several places she covers her ass by noting that people involved with corporations are "not exceptionally immoral: they are, on the contrary, quite ordinarily moral." but she leaves the morally offended employee with only one presumed way out: sever the relationship.

twenty years ago, that was my answer to such a conflict. if you don't like what your job entails or the impact your company has on the world, starve the beast by leaving it. someone will take your place but the evil will be his and not yours. but even then I knew the situation was more complicated than that: my mother taught school and my father retired a bank vice president and people I knew worked for mcdonald's and ibm and even I knew I would eventually end up making money the only way I knew how, by being a faceless prole at the business end of some implement.

the term "little eichmanns" came into public use in 2001 when former professor ward churchill infamously wrote "If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers [than flying planes into them], I'd really be interested in hearing about it" (although the epithet "eichamann" had been used previously in the same way by public intellectuals lewis mumford and john zerzan).

it's to my credit I recognize the little eichmann in myself but it doesn't excuse me or my eichmann. many of us should consider ourselves damned by churchill's articulation that we are a part of "a technocratic corps at the very heart of America's global financial empire...and [do] so both willingly and knowingly. Recourse to 'ignorance' – a derivative, after all, of the word 'ignore' – counts as less than an excuse among this relatively well-educated elite. To the extent that any of them were unaware of the costs and consequences to others of what they were involved in – and in many cases excelling at – it was because of their absolute refusal to see." it's true, the beast I feed is a comparatively benign one--the college where I teach has no defense programs, say--but I am teaching corporate behavior and goals at the same time as I'm teaching writing. and my calling as a minister is no different: it might seem easier as I'm not a xian not to have the example of jesus before me all the time, but it's actually worse since I've also the words of buddha and allah and zoroaster and krishna to contend with. all of them point in the same direction. if you help to do evil, you are evil.

-what hope then is there for a little eichmann like me? delgado is silent on this issue. we are in the position of the walmart customer who hates everything about walmart, and whose only store in town is walmart. do we give up eating? we could--we could grow and kill everything on our own. do we also make our own clothes and utensils and sunscreen? what time is left to do good work? also, that seems counter to making the beloved community--we would leave it to be less contaminated by the evil choices others make.

if there is a mark of mature faith it is this. it recognizes the little eichmann in us and refuses to allow him to give a pat answer.

faith in mammon

"Market Fundamentalism has its own economic orthodoxy that, for the most part, is unquestioningly accepted. It is an idolatrous religion, because it makes a god out of the Market. It puts money above all else. This religion has its own high priests, those economic advisors, corporate executives, and government officials who make the rules and oversee the functioning of the economic system as a whole. It has its own saints, people who have attained the success that the system promises...people who make it all seem possible, people upon whom we can pin our hopes. It has its own symbols, corporate logos such as the Golden Arches and the Nike swoosh that can be seen everywhere. This religion prepares children as candidates for confirmation through corporate links to schools and universities and the privatization of public schools. The religion of Mammon has its own sacraments: you have to be baptized with at least some of the money upon which the religion is built in order to partake of the 'means of grace,' the fast foods or caviar, depending upon what level of success you have attained. This religion encourages the use of its rituals, such as investing in the stock market and shopping, whether you have a lot of money or only a little to invest and spend...This religion has its own preachers, whose message is carried by commercials that promote its sacraments and rituals, by news programs that carry its official ideology, and by sitcoms and other programs that are steeped in its milieu."

--from Shaking the Gates of Hell: Faith-Led Resistance to Corporate Globalization by Sharon Delgado

shaking the gates of hell

"People create institutions for a variety of reasons: to nurture life and serve the common good, to advance their own self-interested goals, sometimes to accomplish both. People create institutions to promote agendas that may either help or harm human beings or the earth. They invest their energy and resources...serve them, become loyal to them, and promote and defend them...When an institution invested with authority assumes this degree of importance in people's lives, the survival and growth of the institution itself may become paramount...

"What many people do not realize is that institutions are not simply groups of individuals working together. Invested by humans with authority, institutions tend to take on a life of their own, to develop their own personality, goals, ethos, culture, milieu. As an institution becomes larger, wealthier, and more powerful, individual human beings within the institution have relatively less control over what it does...

"In other words, an institution is more than the sum of the human beings who make it up. It is an actor, a protagonist, an agent, interacting for better or for worse with human beings, with other institutions, and with the nonhuman parts of creation. It is a Power. In a very real sense, through the people who make it up, it takes on a life of its own.

"In theological terms, one could say that the Powers are primarily concerned with their own survival and growth, even at the expense of mortal human beings. An institution demands loyalty from those who identify themselves as part of the institution and have an interest in furthering its goals...When this happens, people end up serving the institution, instead of the institution serving life..."

--from Shaking the Gates of Hell: Faith-Led Resistance to Corporate Globalization by Sharon Delgado

if this is so--and I submit it is at least partly so--then theargument can be used in at least 2 ways: to further the legal argument that corporations become citizens, with rights and responsibilties, because they act in society's interest (or against it); and to argue that opposition to corporations and institutions is a holy act that religiously-inclined individuals are obligated to be a part of, even if it conflicts with their role as part of the institution.