May 29, 2009

Shepherd's afternoon

May 28, 2009

Pocket full of worms

The old man carried the worms in his pocket, while he puttered around, and sometimes he'd think of experiments for them. He'd stick his hand in his pocket, in the dirt there, and feel them, wiggling and waiting for experiments.

People worried about the old man, Mr. Darwin, the distinguished Victorian with the stately beard and reputation. He was acting strange. He was acting like a boy. He was always like that, a little, with the barnacles and the tests with the fermenting barrels of salt water, but those had been important. There had been a theory, a bid idea, something important, and this was just a ball of naked, wiggly worms. He kept them in his pocket.

He'd walk around with his worms and come up with silly, stupid tests. "Can worms hear?" he would wonder, and then he'd test it. He put them on top of a piano while his daughter was playing. She played, pounding away at her assigned scales, and he watched the worms closely, trying to see if they responded in any way. "Can you hear?" he would say, and his daughter would give him a look. He paid a kid from down the street to blow a whistle at the worms, and the little boy whistled and whistled as shrill as he could, wanting to earn his money, but the worms didn't seem to do anything. The old man put them under an upsidedown tub and paid the boy again to hit it with a spoon while he watched the worms. The boy was very excited by this, but he told the old man that the worms couldn't hear because they didn't have ears. But the old man said, "what if they have very small ears?" The boy never forgot that. He thought the old man was doddering, obviously, and everyone said so and worried about it, but the boy liked him a lot and always remembered that you didn't know if maybe the world is full of little tiny ears.

The old man did this for several years, and he even wrote a little book about worms. The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms: With Observations on their Habits. He just thought it was interesting. It wasn't a very important book, but a couple of people read it and were interested in worms and that made him happy. That was the last book he wrote before he died.

The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, by David Quammen

May 25, 2009

Left there

The cigarette sat smoking on the ground long after the bus had gone. It rolled into a crack and smoked on. There was no one on the corner, but the cigarette sent up spirals of smoke.

It smelled like someone was smoking, when the next crowd came and waited for the next bus, but no one had a cigarette and the smell seemed to come from nowhere. The cigarette burnt down to the filter, spiral of saltpeter carrying the burn all the way down, and then it scorched the filter, puffing out a final puff as the brown paper curled black.

It was like a clue no one cared about, to a mystery interesting no one.

May 22, 2009

The pity dollar

His nickname was ironic, in the humorless way big men are called Tiny, and angry, brawling men are Pinky. It wasn't funny, but a little cruel. He was called Hammer, but he was indecisive. He stuttered through decisions, second-guessing everything he did, always saying he didn't know, always hesitating, always a man who'd learned through long experience to bet against himself.

Hammer spent ten years in college, taking the deferments to avoid the draft. After ten years, he had a degree in art. He was a sculptor, creating modernist abstractions out of steel and melted plastic, but he never really believed it. He stopped soon after school, without really realizing he was stopping.

He got married. He had three sons. All of them were more confident than he was. He joined a Calvinist church, where men were manly men who believed in tough theology, in hell and cigars, and he was intimidated by this brawny God. His wife left him when he was 56, and he didn't know why, but he knew he had failed, and he often cried.

He had no skills, no trade, so he always worked for other men and for corporations. He was a shipping clerk for a warehouse, until the warehouse closed. He unloaded trucks, pulled weeds, and stocked Christmas toys from midnight to 8 while corporate-approved holiday music played on repeat every hour. He worked at Waffle House, at the grill, and listed that as management experience on job applications. He couldn't find work for six months, so his wife went to work for a financial planner. She made more money than he'd ever made and that's how she left him.

One of the men from the church gave him work pouring concrete. The men there drove oversized trucks and he had a 12-year-old Saturn. He made $13 an hour, which was one more than the kid who was working to save money for college. The kid was studying physics and he tried to read what the kid was reading, but he couldn't understand it. He said he went to college too and the kid said what did he do in college and he said he mostly dragged it out, for the deferments. He regretted it now. Maybe war would have been good for him. When he found out what the kid was making, only a dollar's difference, he went to his car and cried.
THE OLD MAN had the damnedest curl to his hat brim, a tight roll on the right where his doffing or donning hand gripped it and a wavering downslope on the left like a shed roof. You could recognize him two miles away. He wore it at the table listening to the woman's stories about Tin Head, steadily emptying his glass until he was nine-times-nine drunk, his ganstery face loosening, the crushed rodeo nose and scar-crossed eyebrows, the stub ear dissolving as he drank. Now he must be dead fifty years or more, buried in the mailman sweater.

            -- Annie Proulx, The Half-Skinned Steer

Pun competition
Expat = creative
Faux photoshop
Pope a poor pilgrim
Drawing with creases
Bike cities in America
Dying to climb Mt. Everest
Wes Anderson's pantheon
The Wes Anderson problem
What we eat when we're alone
Conservatives should care about transit
Photographing the world economy
Annie Proulx is uncomfortable at home
Red desert breaks Annie Proulx's heart
The intersection of Christianity and anarchism
When the Berlin wall came down (personal narrative)
CA Conrad: Elvis caught my soul in the air like a rose between his teeth
Sid Laverents, master of homemade films, dies at 100. Rest in peace.
Robin Blaserr, New American Poet, dies at 83. Rest in peace.
Daniel Carasso, yogurt pioneer, dies at 103. Rest in peace.
Elmore Leonard, 83, on writing: It's working out. It's fun.
Indigenous cinema & visual langauges
The West, the photos & the myths
Rise of the black hipsters
Axe chic (for $550)
Death penalty map
China's new sex theme park
The terrorist who may not exist
Internet revolution in Guatemala
Video from the grave sends country into crisis
A NY apartment with a criminal past
Abandoned train tracks as new NY City park

May 20, 2009

Interruptions and acts of God

The water rolled down the hill from the hotel, blackening the gutter. Bits of burnt trash were carried along. The water ran past the rubber boots and rubber truck tires, down the pavement in sheets, down the hill past the people who cried, and the water was black with soot and burnt belongs.

After the preacher was finished preaching, but before the bodies were buried, the man stood up. He wore black and white, with a bow tie, and he was the first to the microphone. He was the first to testify, even though he didn't know the dead, and didn't know anyone there. He was the first to talk, even though he was a stranger, and hadn't said amen. He came with neither affirmations nor consolations, neither heaven proclamations nor Jesus deliverations. He didn't even speak in that style. Instead he stood up, went first, and said As-Salaam-Alaikum.

Leaves withered away from the flames, shrinking into themselves, twisting and turning yellow, then black. The heat made the air look like melting glass. The fire sucked in sound.

The muslim man said he brought the greetings of a God they knew, but did not recognize, a prophet they had heard of, but never heard. He was sorry to interrupt, he said, but he was there for the prophet and that God. He said he was there to tell them there was an answer to this emptiness. He said if they felt abandoned, if they felt the preacher's words were hollow, and if Jesus was gone now, lost now, if the church seemed meaningless and heaven was apparently empty, then he wanted them to know that the Nation of Islam was there.

The preacher didn't look at the muslim man while he talked and the congregation looked down, nobody meeting anybody's eyes, as if he was just somebody's aunt, expected to do this, harmless but always saying something hysterical. Outside, camera men talked about other TV stations they'd worked for and hearse drivers hid in back, sneaking cigarettes and being careful to look somber.

The hotel was left a heap, a slumping hulk on the hill, its burnt timbers in silhouette a broken, splintered spine. The trees smelled like smoke even after the smoke had all blown away. The smell stayed for days, until the people wondered if they only imagined it lingering, hanging there like resentment.

May 18, 2009

Steeples major and minor

"[W]ith such clarity as I have, I must say I am not a Christian. For the situation as I see it is that in spite of the abyss of nonsense in which we are caught, we shall all alike be saved."

                -- Soeren Kirkegaard, as quoted by John Updike in "The Fork"

"Is the Christian situation so desperate that the primary task of the contemporary theologian is one of creating a fortress of faith which is unapproachable by the world?"

                -- Thomas J.J. Altizer, in Towards a New Christianity

May 15, 2009

Leaving no mark

1. He disappeared down the canyon, into the desert one last time. He had taken the name of a sea captain, which was odd for someone who liked to get lost in places where there wasn't water, but he called himself NEMO and it is thought that he drowned in one of the floods that flushed the gorges that spring.

He left the name NEMO carved into the sandstone. He left it near the hieroglyphic panels of stories we can't read any more, near the old stone stairs which were cut a hundred years ago but are never used now. He left it even though he was searching for anonymity, was rejecting civilization and history and was trying to get lost. Even though he was looking for the unmarked face of the desert, that austere and beautiful place where the emptiness unfolds as peace, he put knife to stone and left his new name. He succumbed to the impulse of foxes pissing on fence posts, the obsession of Kilroy claiming his past presence, the desperation of past presidents writing memoirs. He tired to assert something against the absence that is always about to engulf us, and he left the name of a sea captain carved into a rock wall in the wilderness.

Within a few years it had washed away.

2. She would say she was married 12 times. She would say she had had 22 children by those men and by her several lovers. She didn't even try to make the stories believable. She said she lived on a boat, in a tree house, in a teepee, with a gun collector, a bomb maker, and an owl and a goose and a judge. Her story was different every time.

She taught in the prison where the men were sent for violent crimes. She taught reading, and writing stories, and the men would ask her for her stories and so she made up fake ones. She said she was a lumber jack, before she was a prison teacher, and a whaler, a welder, and a sewage treatment technician. She made herself into a mother or a man, but never into anything which might be even slightly sexual. She didn't want to give them anything that they could use against her, or anything they could use to threaten her. She didn't want them to find her, or know how to find her, or even be able to look her up in a phonebook when they got out. These were violent men and she wanted to teach them, but didn't want to be known. So she gave them stories which were inconsistent and contradictory, cover stories which were obviously lies, but which which worked anyway.

Sometimes, when the men got out, they would think about her, and realize they couldn't even remember her name.

3. We learned to skip rocks at the Russian River. I think we were there for a long weekend, but the circumstances seem vague to me now. We were throwing the rocks into the water under the bridge, my younger brother and sister and me, and we were competing for the farthest throw and biggest splash. We lobbed them in, like pop flies, and threw them overhand as far as we could into the current.

It was idle. And aggressive. And every time I threw a rock it would hit, and splash, but then the splash was over and I needed to do it again.

Down the bank, where it was sandy, teenagers in bathing suits were swimming and flirting. There was a line at the concessions stand, and ice coolers and castles were spread out across the sand, little kids screaming and running and adults sitting and tanning on towels in the sun. There was an evangelistic skit where a woman in jean cutoffs got down on her knees to pray to Jesus, but no one watched except the little kids and all of them stayed back a little so they could run away if things got weird. We moved away from the people, though, into the shade of the bridge. We were antisocial siblings, silently bonded and bombing the river with rocks.

Our mom asked what we were doing and then she showed us how to skip stones. You throw it sideways, she said, you find a flat rock and you spin it so it skips. It doesn't splash. And somehow that more satisfying. I did this the rest of the day, even after my brother and sister went away down the beach, practicing this skill. I found flat rocks and I threw them this way, letting the stones slip, spinning, skipping without making a mark, each one almost silent, one, two, three and four, even five skips out into the water. They barely touched the surface and then they disappeared.
Disney bird

Can Cy Twombly be trusted?
The end of East Germany
JJ Abrams and the magic of mystery
Obama's culture war strategy
Foreign policy in film
Palestinian literature festival
Theory, practice & poor philosophy
Interrogating torture & crimes of state
The light at the end of religion's dark tunnel
Communities w/o cars in Germany
Perry Coarlsby: The end of things
Frank Film & videopoetry
Cubist spaces & the art of eyes
Biography isn't history
Baseball in 150 words
Bonnie & Clyde still big
Talking to Palahuniuk
Blind photographers
McDonalds' Murders
The new nuke porn
Newspaper guilt
Lost letters

May 13, 2009

The first time I met my wife

I met my wife three years ago. I did not know her name until later. I don't think she introduced herself, but maybe she did. I did not know her name until after, when I asked, Who was that? and was told that's Beth, and she reads.

When I first met her she was wearing an apron with funny frills, which I didn't know were meant to be funny. I didn't see it was a joke. She had short curly hair and a new tattoo. The tattoo said: simple. She was happy and she was making bread. She was smiling and she was leaving.

She was leaving for seminary, leaving the house where I met her and also leaving the state, but she didn't leave immediately. Two days later she was back and she was sitting on the porch with a Thomas Merton book and an open journal and I said hello, which was pointless because she was leaving. But I did anyway. I said do you mind? and she said she didn't.

Latter, when we were engaged, when I would kiss that tattoo and she would try to get me to say when I first knew that I loved her, she'd say she wasn't really writing in her journal that day. She'd say she was drawing a little picture of a bug.

You should have told me, I'd say, then I would have known I loved you right then.
Window box

May 11, 2009

Yodeling in a fantasy

He had a cheap blonde guitar and a big jug of pulpy wine. He sang Italian love songs. It was supposed to be a student party, but he was singing these songs in his yodely voice and the students came up the stairs, and saw him, and milled around, nervous in the kitchen, confused by the door, and then they left, going out into the night again, going to other parties in other living rooms and saying, What the hell? and, What the fuck?

He didn't hear them, though, because his eyes were closed and he was singing. He had the guitar and the strings stuck out wild out of the tuning keys. He had the jug, next to his foot, and he drank deeply from the purple, pulpy wine. His white beard was dyed black and he was wearing black and his finger nails were painted black too. The day before he'd been dressed normal, a little tweedy and a little lecherous, but looking like a professor. But now he was at the bottom of a binge of feeling sorry for himself. Ordered off the campus for violating the morality clause in his contract, he showed up at a student party and wallowed with his guitar.

What the hell? the students said. What the fuck? One student would later name his punk band after the feeling that night: This is so weird, he said. It was the feeling of watching someone swept into their own fantasy of sappy angst, believing and badly acting out this idea of a lovelorn man of letters, this fantasy of the persecuted romantic. It was the narcissism of Roth and Coetzee, Mailer and all these men, this generation of leching professors who confused virility with derring-do, who thought obscenity and freedom were the same thing. But this was the reality: No one even believed him and his act, except to believe maybe he believed it himself. But the guitar was sadder than the songs, his dye job made him look like Rasputin, and the girl he slept with was depressed and overweight, with a wandering eye.

But he squeezed his ears shut, concentrating on this crisis he created, and he sang sad Italian songs and weirded everyone out.

The girls who owned the apartment at the top of the stairs stood in the kitchen, silent and awkward. In response to the silent questions they just looked helpless. They looked like they hoped he'd just go away is they were very quiet. He yodeled on in the living room alone.

May 8, 2009

Straw Gods
Some theological thoughts

1) It is a confusion of monotheistic society, encouraged by secularization, that we think we all means the same thing by "God." But there are many gods, many Gods, many versions of the Christian God, many many Jesuses, and all sorts of atheisms.

We are, in fact, all atheists. Each of us disregards and disbelieves slates of deities.

So when someone finds God, we might do well to ask for more detail. Ask, following Aquinas, what is this which you call God? Ask, as Augustine asked, what do you love when you love your God? Likewise, when someone blasphemes God, or defies Gods, or rejects God, the same questions should apply. Because maybe we're not speaking of the same deity. Maybe we get distracted, sometimes, attacking and supporting straw Gods.

2) Kenosis: an emptying, such as in the incarnation; the doctrine that Christ voluntarily divested himself of divinity, and dominion and power, making himself a servant, becoming a reject and an outcast, even unto death, where he was hailed "king of the those who always lose, who are despised the world over"; the doctrine of Christ the loser.

3) There is an effort, by some Christians, from creationists opposing evolution to Radical Orthodoxy's idea of an ontological priority of peace, to save "order," "meaning," and "reason" in the past. But why? Why is an idea of Eden, or an original peace or pre-fallen order, important to the idea of Christ's salvation?

Couldn't Christians accept evolution's vast history of original meaninglessness and postmodernism's ontological violence and work with an idea that "the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep" but then "light shineth in darkness" and the creative word, made flesh, was spoken into the disorder?

What is important about the idea of a perfect past?

4) To say that postmodernism "took God out of the world," is to identify God with dominion, power, phallocentric hegemony and the sort of totalitarianism which allows neither deviation nor minority except as a sickness which ought to be cured, a queerness which ought to be eliminated. God becomes a puppet of Kim Jong Il.

5) The doctrine of the Trinity preserves the sovereignty of God by putting God in definitional relationship with God. It also, though, puts God into community, giving us not a supreme leader, not a God who speaks ex cathedra from some singularity, from some lonely, autonomous place, but rather a God in mutual submission.

Christ, who abdicates the kingships which were rightfully his, and who accepts neither the Satanic means nor ends of possessing power, is possible because of the Trinity. Because of the Trinity, God is not a hegemonic God, but includes variation and minority and involves kenosis.

6) In the apocalyptic vision of John, the saints are those who throw away their crowns.

Type nesting
Type terms explained as wrestling
Homeless soccer
Wither leftist France?
Pete Seeger @ 90
Seeger: an American original
The immigration fallacy
Scalia's privacy 1 & 2
High church conservatism
Roosevelt and the Jews
Obama and the court
Redesigning the NYC sky
Israeli fantasies, left and right
The inner beauty of kitsch
6 types of White Supremicists
How to win the war on crime
Church-goers support torture
Tom Waits' deal with the angels
Armored cars big sellers in Brazil
Love poem at center of murder trial
What Zizek knows about architecture
John Milbank vs. Slovoj Zizek on Christianity
Zizek on Jesus Christ, Hegel and Wagner
Christ's penal substitution, 900 years after Anselm
Bulgarian gangster pulp and the bureaucracy of death
Searching for the "truth" of the American west

May 6, 2009

Expletive ewe

In the story, the sheep, gunshot in the head, gets up and walks off.

There was no moral to that, just amazement.

Shit, the men said to each other. He turned around and she was just gone.

The sheep was shot, and bleeding. She was dazed and she would die, shaved for one last coat of wool and killed and cut up for meat, but she got up and walked out of the dank barn and into the light one last time.

She stood there, a stunned look in her ewe eyes, and she wasn’t going anywhere or running, wasn’t fighting death, but just standing in the sun before she died.

There was no point to the story, just surprise. It wasn’t a story about work and doing good work, wasn’t a story about eating and meat and the violence we all have to live with to live. It wasn’t a story about humans as sheep and there weren’t any bible quotes, Christ allusions or deeper meanings. The story just stood there, like an expletive, like a one word explanation of everything. Just that. Just the story. Just damn!

She was shot in the head, assumed dead and bleeding, but she got up and went off into the green grass and stood for a moment in peace.

May 4, 2009

The objects abandoned in the suite in the strip mall

The picked flowers, purple in the vase on the table, said this was not just what they thought it was, but also a home.

The deputies didn't look at the flowers. They didn't look at the books or the papers on the table. They didn't look at the Grisham paperback or the Gideon's bible, the American history written in Korean or the letters with pictures of children. They looked for evidence. They looked for towels stained with semen and they scowled at the frowning woman in sandals, calling her mama-san.

The sheriff said he was shutting down the massage parlors. He had stars sewn onto each uniform shoulder and this makes great TV: the women walked out past the cameras while the sirens flashed for mood and the voice over said the sheriff said this is a crusade.

Inside the massage parlor, the kitchen smelled like hot rice. The table was set with plates. The plates were arranged in a circle around the flowers, even though no one would eat here again.

In the arrest reports, filed faithfully in the basement of the court, the undercover officers never quite said they said no to the blow jobs. It didn't matter though. In a week the women were free, forgotten and scattering up the interstate to other places of prostitution. Everything was forgotten, lost in the cycles of news and elections, economics and memory. Even after a few days, after a week or 10 days, there was nothing left but a few pages of procedural paperwork, b-rolls of women with their faces flashing red and flashing blue, a story in a paper in a stack of papers, and the objects abandoned in the suite in the strip mall, the detritus of life lived by aliens in America.

Some of these things were packed into boxes, stacked in dark warehouses, and given a number no one would ever look up again. And some of them were left there, when the deputies put plywood over the door and put up posters saying "vice squad," and they were left to rot in the heat in the dark. This is what happens to the artifacts of prostitutes in massage parlors in run-down suburbs. This is what's left when it's over: the plates there, and some books, some pictures, pairs of sandals and a vase of purple flowers. They were seen for a moment, and then they were unseen again.
Writing on a train

May 1, 2009

Explaining the world

The man had a skinny little mustache and a voice of corroded brass. He said that's right, said, that's right, and he talked and kept talking.

He said elephants are the hardest to hunt, not like lions like he thought. He said elephants know fear and rage and they rage like gods that've been forgot, all flashes of trumpet and clashes too wild to hear and here he said, here they fear with their eyes and scream through the nose. Not like lions who sleep in the sun like lizards. He said elephants age to old age and the oldest elephants were baby elephants when Uylsses Grant was president. He said Grant was a good man but he got brought down by his friends and he drown in tea. Tee-tee-teapot tea. He drown in tea and he couldn't see and he didn't know it was his friends. When he was a boy and the old elephants were babies he rode a mule backwards and he hung on but he couldn't see and you have to see, but he hung on and you have to hang on to get old.

The people passed the old man like they couldn't hear him. They passed the him like he was asking for money. They bunched up under their umbrellas, moving quickly through the spotty rain, quickly through the falling evening, quickly past the funny-looking man who talked like a flag flap-flapping without color.

He sat on the bench by the bus stop and said that's right, said, that's right all right and he just talked and kept talking. He said Mozart meant it and Gene Debbs was Jesus and Bugs Bunny laughed and the trash at Disney is all underground. He said hurricanes don't answer to names and neither do places on maps or things in the past or lovers who don't love any more.

He said, that's right, and said, that's right, and he nodded and nodded at the potted plant in his lap and he kept on explaining the world.
Well I'm moving after midnight,
down boulevards of broken cars.
Don't know what I'd do without it,
without this love that we call ours.
Beyond here lies nothing.
Nothing but the moon and stars.

            -- Bob Dylan & Robert Hunter in Together Through Life.

Listen to the album @ Paste.