Monday, November 29, 2010


The liturgical season known as Advent--the four weeks leading up to Christmas--has begun. In a season where we celebrate a God who assumed human flesh and came into the world as a baby--poor, in exile, surrounded by scandal--I'm thinking of the work of the Japanese writer Kenzaburō Ōe. In 1994,Ōe was awarded the Nobel Laureate in 1994 for creating an "an imagined world, where life and myth condense to form a disconcerting picture of the human predicament today."

Back in 1963, Ōe's wife, Yukari, was pregnant. Doctors advised the couple that the baby would be severely developmentally and physically disabled, and urged them to abort. They chose otherwise, and their son Hikari was born. He was visually impaired, epileptic, and possibly autistic. He did not speak.

For a writer, a more unpromising son that Hikari could scarcely have been imagined. This is no sentimental, faux-tender call to pretend we adore the handicapped. We would not adore them nearly so much if we had to live with and take care of them. Ōe has written of Hikari's abysmal oral hygeine, his bad breath, his immovable bulk, the years of laboriously accompanying him to the special school via bus and train--hours that could have been spent writing, producing--and then the same trip again in the afternoon to fetch him back.

And yet the most helpless, the least efficient, the most unlikely to carry on the family name--the Ōes went on to have two more children—became in some sense the unlikely “star” around whom the family constellated. In spite of terrible suffering and struggle, this developmentally disabled child, curiously, in unexpected ways, by virtue of a process that nobody could have imagined or willingly undergone even if they could have imagined it, became a perverse source of strength. Kenzaburō Ōe went on to write novels, essays, and memoirs around the central theme of his disabled son--this Great Fact, this "personal matter"--that has shaped his work, thought, and life. And though the story would have been just as "miraculous" otherwise, Hikari Ōe turned out to have an uncanny facility for music, and is now a successful classical composer.

Ecce homo--behold the man--said Pilate when Christ stood before him in solidarity with all the lonely, all the poor, all the unlucky, all the aged, the unborn, the deformed, the weak, the unwanted;  bloody, scourged, bound, wearing a crown of thorns, and above all, silent. It is Christianity's most central tenet: that the individual is to be treasured. That a single act of love can and does save the world. That the fate of all mankind can hinge upon the awakened consciousness of a single soul—and that every soul therefore matters.

Hikari's awakening began when he heard a bird in the woods. There's a silence around that moment, too:  the silence of indrawn breath, the silence beyond time and space in which we wait--for the next four weeks especially--without words:

Q: Your son became a composer. Your family—your wife, your children and yourself—in caring for him over time identified his ability to communicate. Tell us how that came out.

A: Until my son was four or five years old, he didn’t do anything to communicate with us. We thought that he cannot have any sense of the family. So he looked very, very isolated—a pebble in the grass. But one day, he was interested in the voice of a bird from the radio. So I bought disks of the wild birds of Japan. I made a tape of fifty specimens of birds—bird calls. There are the bird calls and a very flat voice, a woman announcer, says the names of the birds. “Tada-dada,” then: “Nightengale.” “Tada-da.” “Sparrow.” “This is nightengale; this is sparrow.” We continued to listen to that tape for three years. During those three years, when we played the birds’ songs, my son became very quiet. So it was needed to make him quiet. My wife must do her work, and I must do my work. So with the bird voices we three lived on.

In the summer when he was six years old, I went to our mountain house, and while my wife was cleaning our small house, I was in the small forest with my son on my shoulders. Nearby there is a small lake. A bird sang, [one of a pair]. Suddenly a clear, flat voice said, “It is a water rail.” Then I shook. Utter silence in the forest. We were silent for five minutes and I prayed for something, there on my head. I prayed, “Please, the next voice of that bird and please next the remarks of my son, if that was not my phantom or dream.” Then after five minutes, the wife of that bird sang. Then my son said “It’s a water rail.” Then I returned to my house with my son and talked to my wife.

--From an interview with Kenzaburō Ōe, 1994 Nobel Laureate in Literature

Listen to the water rail

Saturday, November 27, 2010


Last night I drove over to West Hollywood to meet two of my brothers: Allen and Joe. Joe has a punk band, The Queers, who’ve been around forever and were playing the Troubadour. The show didn’t start till 11, which is a tad late by my lights, so we’d arranged to meet before and grab a bite. We met in the alley behind the club, in the dark. It’s been cold for L.A. and after the band set up, the three of us walked down Santa Monica Boulevard, past the fancy joints—Dan Tana’s ("fifty bucks for a plate of spaghetti, I bet!"), The Palm—and found a pizza place. Allen treated. I had a slice of spinach and mushroom, Allen had spaghetti and sausage, and Joe, who doesn’t like to eat before a show, had a Pellegrino. 

Joe lives in Atlanta, Allen lives over on the Westside of L.A., and I live in Silver Lake, near downtown. Allen has a girlfriend in the Philippines and goes over to AsiaThailand, Vietnam—several times a year. The Queers have played, among many other places, Japan, Italy, and Brazil, and are booked next year for Russia. Right now, they’re on a U.S. tour: from here to San Francisco, Seattle, Spokane, Billings, and points east. “I don’t know how you do it,” I told Joe. “That five-day drive I made from West Virginia earlier in the year”… “Yeah, we were talking about that in the van,” he said. “We had to hand it to ya. I can drive forever if I have someone to talk to, but to do it alone…that’s a whole other thing.” That’s about as close as Joe will ever come to a compliment, and I took it as such, proudly.

So we all have a bit of wanderlust (there are five more of us, actually four since Jeanne died) but what we basically talked about for an hour and a half was the house at 108 Post Road in North Hampton, New Hampshire where we all grew up. “Remember when Mom tied Joe to the apple tree cause he kept wandering into the road?” “Remember the time that blind old Aunt Ned, who was she anyway, she wasn’t even related to us, ratted me out? I walked her right into the corner of that coffee table that night, the blind old crone.” “Remember when we climbed Mount Chocorua and we saw that poor shriveled up woman with her hands all clawed up?” “Remember that old Zenith you had to turn on and off with a pair of pliers?” “Remember the spaghetti sandwiches?...“Remember the fireplace?"…

We talked about our nephew Allen who lost his mother when he was 4 but for whom we have high hopes because—highest possible accolade and blue-skies-ahead sign in the King family—“he’s funny.”

So there we sat, around a little round table, with the punk kids coming in who were headed for the club, and had a kind of second Thanksgiving, and  that’s what life, and family, is. You suit up and show up, and it is something rather than nothing, and you are glad you made the trek.

Out on Santa Monica, the Christmas lights shone in the dark. We walked Joe back to the Troubadour, hugged goodbye and one more time, went our separate ways. I tried to take a picture of the  marquee on my cell phone—"The Queers, Kepi Ghoulie, The Riptides, The Perverts!"—but the backglow was too bright. 

Friday, November 26, 2010


Happy Day After Thanksgiving, dear folks. I personally ended up partaking of not one but two feasts--thank you Julia and Aaron; thank you Maudie!--culminating in a plate of pumpkin cheesecake, butterscotch pie, apple bread pudding and a mountain of whipped cream, then came home, collapsed on the sofa, and watched part of The Days of Wine and Roses.

Still, I'm up with the dawn, as usual, me and the birds, pondering...

"We take a train to go to Tarascon or Rouen and we take death to go to a star. What is certainly true about this argument is that as long as we're alive we can't visit a star any more than when we are dead we can take a train. Anyway, I don't see why cholera, the stone, phthisis and cancer should not be heavenly modes of locomotion like ships, buses and trains here below, while if we die peacefully of old age we make the journey on foot."
--Vincent van Gogh, letter to his brother Theo

"[A] person who is 'ravished' has lost the calm security of self-possession, if only for a moment; he is, as we say, 'moved' by something else; he is passive. Plato repeatedly finds new ways to describe this state, in which one is deprived of self-possession and shaken out of one’s adjustment to the world. He speaks of wanting to fly up and being unable to; of being beside oneself and not knowing what is wrong; of ferment, unrest, helplessness…Lovers—we may read this in Aristophanes’ speech in the Symposium—do not know what they really want of one another; in fact it is evident that their two souls crave something else (something other than the pleasure of lovers’ intercourse); but the world cannot express what this other thing is, 'of which she has only a dark and doubtful presentiment.'” 
--Josef Pieper, Enthusiasm and Divine Madness

"One of my greatest experiences! Lord God, that beauty! They circled over me for a long time. Disappeared into the solar haze like a gleaming, silver ribbon…That this should have happened to me, who have been for so long an outsider"...
--from the diary of composer Jean Sibelius, after seeing sixteen swans flying in formation over Ainola, his Finnish home

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


MARCH 5, 1922-NOVEMBER 2, 1975

I had a conversation not long ago with a guy who had very little use for "church." "I go once a year, on Thanksgiving," he said. "That seems a logical day to go. And I notice the people who profess to believe in God and to be so grateful barely show up at all."

"Thanksgiving's a secular holiday," I finally stammered. "I think the idea is more or less to give thanks every day..."

Personally, I would like to give thanks this week for Pier Paolo Pasolini, the late Italian film-maker, because I just re-watched The Gospel According to Saint Matthew. Pasolini used real people in his film, including his own mother (with whom he lived for a time as an adult) as the older Virgin Mary. People with real emotions, ravaged faces, bad teeth. This is exactly what Christ would look like and act like. Intense but not fanatical. Fierce yet tender. On fire but contained. Possessed of absolute integrity but without the desire to retaliate, lord it over, or be vindicated.

Joseph discovers Mary is pregnant:

John baptizes Christ:

The music's incredible, too: Odetta's "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child." Bach's Mass in B Minor. The Missa Luba, a version of the Latin Mass based on traditional Congolese songs:

Pasolini was part intellectual, part peasant. Part Marxist, part ad hoc Catholic. Gay without making a campaign out of it. Critical of the student rebellions because they were too bourgeois, critical of the police and yet somehow also on the side of the police. Knew that power always tends to the right. Sold his books on the streets. Was arrested for lewd public acts, was a constant target for the tabloid press, and was murdered in 1975, run over multiple times by his own car in an incident that has never been solved and may have been connected to blackmail, a jealous lover, or Communist-haters. And made at least one movie for which alone he should be awarded the crown of stars.

"If you know that I am an unbeliever, then you know me better than I do myself. I may be an unbeliever, but I am an unbeliever who has a nostalgia for a belief." (1966)

"The mark which has dominated all my work is this longing for life, this sense of exclusion, which doesn't lessen but augments this love of life." (Interview in documentary, late 1960s)

From a New York Times interview, 1968: "I suffer from the nostalgia of a peasant-type religion, and that is why I am on the side of the servant. But I do not believe in a metaphysical god. I am religious because I have a natural identification between reality and God."

"One should never hope for anything. Hope is a thing invented by politicians to keep the electorate happy." 

And "thanksgiving," if invented by the state, I might add, is a pallid, tepid facsimile of true thanks, which is shot through with reality, longing, and thus pain. "[Thanksgiving] is the natural expression of those who are not so stupid and so rude as to have forgotten that they are guests. Those naïve, medieval people—and they exist always in every generation, usually obscure, unknown, and even ignorant—who begin and end each day in that most beautiful instinctive human attitude, the attitude of the sensitive, courteous guest of God, on their knees with the head bent down before an ever-present God toward whom their hearts open like drooping flowers or like radiant flowers—they are the only people who really understand admiration and gratitude."
--Katharine Butler Hathaway, The Little Locksmith (memoir of woman born with spinal tuberculosis who was strapped to a board and kept immobile for the first 10 years of her life)

Monday, November 22, 2010


Ever since I started this blog, I've spent a fair amount of time searching images on Google. You can find anything up there: pepper trees, the paintings of Matthias Grunewald, headshots of Camus. Helpful prompts appear and you know that other people have been looking for the same things you are. I'm not sure how it happened--I may have been searching for Van Gogh's "Wheat Field with Lark" and miskeyed--but the other day the first prompt that came up was: "What does a girls period look like?" Ha ha, I thought, the question of the ages, and moved on. But then I started musing on how instead of just typing "girls [sic] period," the person had posed a question. I thought, instead of simply searching for an image, maybe people were asking a whole slew of questions. Either that, or people were captioning their images with questions. Or both. So I went to and typed in "what" and the prompts that came up revealed a whole world. That is really, I have to say, in some sense my world. And I'd venture to say, in some small part, yours...

what does a girls period look like
what is love
what does my name mean
what does herpes look like
what does a miscarriage look like
what does lice look like
what does a trillion dollars look like
what does lady gaga really look like
what does a bed bug look like
what does a mucus plug look like
what does a positive TB test look like
what does a yeast infection look like
what does a girls private look like
what does a flea look like
what does a cavity look like
what does a brown recluse spider look like
what does a blood clot look like
what does a brazilian wax look like
what does a birth certificate look like
what does a condom look like on a guy


why does my mom turn me on
why does my eye twitch
why does kim zolciak wear a wig
why does my poop float
why does love hurt
why does sara palin wear thongs
why doesnt eminem smile
why does it always rain on me

why doesnt hello kitty have a mouth
why doesnt he love me
why doesnt alcohol freeze
why doesnt glue stick to the inside of the bottle
why doesnt she love me

why is there school
why is the rum gone
why is my poop green
why is a raven like a writing desk
why is lil wayne in jail
why is 6 afraid of 7
why is my poop white

why so serious
why fat people shouldn't bungee jump
why me
why did i get married
why can't i hold all these limes
why iranian women are so beautiful
why are men attracted to breasts
why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria
why are girls so hot
why are you wearing that stupid man suit
why did i get married too
why are we here
why are me

Saturday, November 20, 2010


A few years ago a friend turned me on to a radio series called Sound Portraits. There were shows on ghetto life, Bowery flophouses, and the guy who repairs the Cyclone on Coney Island. But the one that really gripped me was called Witness to an Execution.

Here's the intro from the Sound Portraits website:

"Witness to an Execution tells the stories of the men and women involved with the execution of deathrow inmates at the Walls Unit in Huntsville, Texas. Narrated by Warden Jim Willett, who oversees all Texas executions, Witness to an Execution documents, in minute-by-minute detail, the process of carrying out an execution by lethal injection. Most of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice employees interviewed have witnessed over one hundred inmates be put to death. One-third of all executions in the US have taken place in Texas, since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977.

The voices in Witness to an Execution tell a rare story. Major Kenneth Dean, a member of the "tie-down" team, describes the act of walking an inmate from his cell to the death chamber. Jim Brazzil, a death house chaplain who has witnessed 114 executions, remembers inmates' last words to him. Former corrections officer Fred Allen discusses his own mental breakdown, caused, he says, by participating in one too many executions.

Witness to an Execution won a Peabody Award in 2000."

Listen, weep, and tell me Fred Allen is not by far the sanest one of that bunch.

And if you've a mind to, check out as well Tolstoy's 1899 novel Resurrection, about the abysmal Russian prisons and man's (obviously continuing) injustice to man:

LEO TOLSTOY: 1828-1910
From Chapter XXX, "The Astonishing Institution Called Criminal Law"
[courtesy of]

He hoped to find an answer to this question in books, and bought all that referred to it. He got the works of Lombroso, Garofalo, Ferry, List, Maudsley, Tard, and read them carefully. But as he read he became more and more disappointed. It happened to him as it always happens to those who turn to science not in order to play a part in it, nor to write, nor to dispute, nor to teach, but simply for an answer to an every-day question of life. Science answered thousands of different very subtle and ingenious questions touching criminal law, but not the one he was trying to solve. He asked a very simple question: "Why, and with what right, do some people lock up, torment, exile, flog, and kill others, while they are themselves just like those whom they torment, flog, and kill?" And in answer he got deliberations as to whether human beings had free will or not. Whether signs of criminality could be detected by measuring the skulls or not. What part heredity played in crime. Whether immorality could be inherited. What madness is, what degeneration is, and what temperament is. How climate, food, ignorance, imitativeness, hypnotism, or passion act. What society is. What are its duties, etc., etc. 

These disquisitions reminded him of the answer he once got from a little boy whom he met coming home from school. Nekhludoff asked him if he had learned his spelling.

"I have," answered the boy.

"Well, then, tell me, how do you spell 'leg'?

"A dog's leg, or what kind of leg?" the boy answered, with a sly look.


Thursday, November 18, 2010


IN L.A. 
Sometimes I still dream of Merrimac Street, and the loft where I spent the darkest years of my alcoholic drinking, where I first experienced the deep, deep loneliness that formed me, where I got sober. The windows that gave upon the Lindemann Mental Health Center, a fortress-like nuthouse. The bathroom, with its bare hanging light bulb and communal sink, that served the whole welfare-hotel fifth floor. I slept on a mattress surrounded by bookcases filled with books owned by the gay couple who'd moved to Nashville--Matthew was an old friend--and bequeathed me the loft. Those books kept me company: Lawrence Durrell ("Somewhere between Calabria and Corfu, the blue really begins"...), Somerset Maugham ("Were the pearls real?" "If I had a pretty little wife I shouldn`t let her spend a year in New York while I stayed at Kobe"), W.B. Yeats ("When you are old and gray and full of sleep/And nodding by the fire, take down this book"....).  Frank O'Hara. Diane Arbus. Brassaï's The Secret Paris of the 30's and that photo of the "eccentric" woman in the bar I was afraid I'd someday become. Cavafy, with his theme of "fatalistic existential nostalgia."

Fatalistic existential nostalgia has always been a theme for me as well. For a long time, I thought I might have made a mistake moving to the West Coast. All these years later, I know I have two places to love.

And as St. Augustine said: "Keep going along the road, never satisified. If you stop, you die."


You said, “I will go to another land, I will go to another sea.
Another city will be found, a better one than this.
Every effort of mine is a condemnation of fate;
and my heart is--like a corpse--buried.
How long will my mind remain in this wasteland.
Wherever I turn my eyes, wherever I may look
I see black ruins of my life here,
where I spent so many years destroying and wasting.

You will find no new lands, you will find no other seas.
The city will follow you. You will roam the same
streets. And you will age in the same neighborhoods;
and you will grow gray in these same houses.
Always you will arrive in this city. Do not hope for any other--
There is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you have destroyed your life here
in this little corner, you have ruined it in the entire world.

--Constantine P. Cavafy

1863-1933, born and died in Alexandria, Egypt

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


I have never claimed to be a photographer. But the other morning I was combing my hair after the shower when suddenly I observed the sun shining through my right ear in such a way that I seemed to have a burning  ember attached to my skull! The rest of me was the same dull opaque bag of flesh and bones as always, but my ear! My ear was like a fragment of stained glass! My ear was on fire!  In my ear, blood blazed and flamed!

What mysteries we are, especially to ourselves! What other strange treasures had I been carrying around all these years, and never stopped to notice?...


I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made
marvelous are thy works;
and that my soul knoweth right well.

My substance was not hid from thee
when I was made in secret,
and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.

Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect;
and in thy book all my members were written,
which in continuance were fashioned,
when as yet there was none of them.

How precious also are thy thoughts unto me, O God!
How great is the sum of them!

--Psalm 139: 14-17

Sunday, November 14, 2010


Friday I went to Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale for a memorial of Andrew Rafferty. I'd seen Andrew around for years. We weren't close friends but we'd chat now and again, exchange pleasantries. When things got bad and he sat in front  of the Tropical Cafe panhandling, I'd give him a buck or two here and there, as many of us did. In and out of sobriety, he seemed caught in that shivering-denizen netherworld  that the rest of us knew we'd escaped--were escaping--for only a single day, a single second, at a time. You couldn't look at Andrew without being reminded of your own extremely precarious hold on sanity, on the way the difference between light and darkness, despair and hope, life and death hangs by a thread: a kind word; a mind that, lightning-quick, by the sheerest grace, opens just long enough to "hear." 

Cypresses stood sentinel.  The sun shone. The minister recited the 23rd Psalm. A childhood friend, Eric, sang a blues tune a cappella. Andrew's brother Richard, who you knew had been through hell, stood up and thanked everybody and said he wasn't really in any shape to tell stories about Andrew at the moment, and made your heart bleed for all brothers, especially the brothers of alcoholics. The mother was too sick to come so someone took a picture of us afterward, the green lawn a backdrop, some of us in dark suits, some of us in T-shirts and jeans, and some in 2-inch hemlines and 6-inch stilettoes because, after all, this is L.A. 

Andrew was so energetic, people said afterwards. He was witty. He was smart. "We all have our demons," the minister had said. "You have yours, I have mine." Everybody politely refrained from mentioning why we were there: Andrew had relapsed again and committed suicide by throwing himself in front of a train. 

For those of us who have grown up with, suffered from ourselves, and/or loved those who have suffered or are suffering from alcoholism, the pain sometimes seems infinite. Interesting that the antidote for pain seems to be not more booze and drugs, but surrender. Interesting that the "answer" is not an answer--but poetry. 


Under an umbrella of Brazilian pepper
my mother drinks and dreams
draws deep on her Phillip Morris
floats smoke rings above her head
while clouds of insects 
halo a citronella candle.

Wax drips down rippled glass,
withered olives drop
pocking the pavement
around her patio chair. 

My urgent questions
drift off with the smoke,
ice laughs in her glass.
She stirs her bourbon
Early Times 
her drink. 

I grab the candle 
to smell the lemon deeper.
The pads of my fingers burn
against the boiling glass.
Painprints code my panic--

My hand in a glass of cold water
I listen for the click, click, click
of fresh ice
Early Times
after midnight. 

--Anne Kennedy, from a collection entitled The Dog Kubla Dreams My Life. 
(Reprinted with permission of Salmon Publishing, Dublin, Ireland, 1994). 

Friday, November 12, 2010


Has anyone ever asked you that lame question,: Would you rather be happy or would you rather be right? To me, that's always been a giant a no-brainer. I would rather DIE IN HELL and be right. OBVIOUSLY. Thank you.

CIRCA 1470
The extreme suffering of repeatedly butting my head up against a brick wall, and perhaps age, are leading me to very slowly revise my view. It’s funny, I had lunch with my friend Rip (RIP IS A PSEUDONYM) last week (at some horrible Mexican place where the food...oh forget it). Anyway, after being clean for a time Rip has now become a total pothead, and he was mentioning how you spend a whole ton of energy making a decision to get clean and sober, and then you spend a whole ton of energy making a decision not to stay clean and sober, and that once you’ve made the decision not to, part of the reason you don’t want to get clean again is that you don’t want to “lose” or “waste” or “let go of” all that energy. (You may have to be an addict to follow this line of thinking but if you are, you’ll recognize it and relate to it instantly, as I did, and welcome aboard).

So I recognized that line of thinking but I also kind of thought, Oh dear. Because it’s obviously, on some level, insane.

And yet the very next day I realized that’s in some way what I’m doing with my book(s). I have one book my agent’s been trying to sell for months, and another book that’s been bought and, as happens, it's been difficult to get the full skinny on. And I have not in any way, shape, or form let these books go. I’ve done and am continuing to do all I can, but I’m not trusting that whatever is going to happen, or “supposed” to happen, will. Whatever is supposed to happen is what happens. My view is that agents, editors, the publishing world, the people who sell books, the people who buy books, and basically the whole universe and everything in it should all act according to my plan and if they don’t, I’m going to hold out till my dying breath till they do. Because I WORKED MY ASS OFF ON THOSE BOOKS. I OPENED MY VEINS FOR THOSE BOOKS. And what I’m seeing is: Good luck with that.

One reason this blog has been a giant relief/release/surprise blessing is that it is simply unbelievable to write a piece and more or less immediately send it out to the universe knowing that someone, if they've a mind to, will find and read it. Part of my angst over my work is ego-based, but another part is simply that I’ve worked hard on something and finished it and now I want to give the darn gift! I can’t wait to give the gift! Look!--here's a book! Look!--I want to show you my essay, my story, my post! The generosity of my fellow bloggers, all you thoughtful, careful readers, how and why and that people respond have already revealed themselves to be part of an unfolding mystery.  And somehow I feel that the blog, and whatever comes of it, is going to lead me closer to letting go of some of my most ancient, seemingly hard-wired ideas. That you have to work really, really hard and there's NO MONEY. That nothing ever works out FOR ME. That I can never, ever rely on ANYONE BUT MYSELF. (Again, you may have to be a driven-by-self-centered-fear addict to get this). Because for things to “work out,” whatever that means, isn't what I really want. I want to be released from bondage. I want to dare to accept the gift of reality. I want to live, as they did in medieval times, knowing that the most seemingly mundane moment is shot through with metaphysical significance and weight. 

“For us, then, circumstances are not neutral. They are not things that happen without any meaning; that is, they are not just things to put up with, to suffer stoically. They are part of our vocation, of the way in which God, the good Mystery, calls us, challenges us, educates us. For us, these circumstances have all the weight of a call, and thus are part of the dialogue of each one of us with the Mystery present.
            Life is a dialogue.
            ‘Life is not a tragedy. Tragedy is what makes everything amount to nothing. Yes, life is a drama. It is dramatic because it is the relationship between our I and the You of God, our I that must follow the steps which God indicates.’ (L[uigi] Guissani)…[P]recisely because this You exists, circumstances call us to him. It is he who calls us through them. It is he who calls us to destiny through everything that happens.”
--Father Julián Carron

My books aren’t in limbo, in other words, I’m in the midst of a dialogue! A drama! My destiny! I'm having a relationship with God (if only, just once, He'd speak!) So just for today, let me want to be happy more than I want to be right.

And let’s hope Rip puts down the weed.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


"My God hath sent his angel, 
and hath shut the lions’ mouths, that they have not hurt me."
It's high time for a short shout-out to just SOME of the people who have helped, supported, encouraged and served as exemplars for Shirt of Flame.

Jennifer Fulwiler, at that time an accomplished but I believe still fledging writer, first contacted me a couple of years ago. I dispensed some of my deep writerly wisdom after which she started a blog called Conversion Diary that promptly gained a huge following and now has zillions of readers. Seeing my own stumbling attempt to start my own blog, she recently got in touch, made time for a phone call (Jennifer has four children ranging in age from 18 months to 6 years), and gave me many extremely helpful pointers. She also very kindly linked me to her blog which I'm sure has been responsible for at least half my hits.

Deacon Greg Kandra of the faith-based cable TV show NET NY had me on his show and linked me to his also popular blog, The Deacon's Bench.

You may have noticed that my blog no longer looks like it was designed by a 5-year-old on crack. That's because someone besides me got his hand in. That would be photographer, web designer, writer, and runner extraordinaire Geoff Cordner (more on him later), who also designed a new homepage for my website.

My friend Ann Leary has been toiling away and writing scintillating posts for years. She was an inspiration, as was Mark Olmsted of The Trash Whisperer. And Amy Welborn, mother of five, with her Charlotte Was Both. And Kim Luisi, with Faith, Fiction, and Flannery. And the inimitable Barbara Nicolosi, with Church of the Masses.

But mostly I want to thank all of you who have read, written comments, anonymously checked in, and thereby encouraged me to disregard the roaring lions of melancholy and doubt who like to prowl about my own personal den and instead to proceed apace.

You may or may not want to plow through this hour-and-a-half long video of the November 1st panel for the USC Professional Writer's Program entitled "Faith and the Writer: Inspiration and Practice," but just in case, here it is.

The panelists were psychologist Justin Wood, a lovely man who studies chimps, the origins of knowledge, and Richard Dawkins; novelist and memoirist Mark Salzman (Iron and Silk, Lying Awake) (skeptic; was pleasantly surprised when he visited convent and Carmelite nun said her biggest struggle was doubt); Eric Lax (once had faith, now doesn't; Faith, Interrupted, biographies of Woody Allen and Paul Newman); and myself (tremulously asserting that in the end, "Love will reign").

More fun feel free to subscribe (that little doohickey on the upper right), tell ALL your friends, tweet, honk, bray, link and/or send large sums of cash. THANK YOU EVERYBODY.  

Monday, November 8, 2010


What is it with the people who are going around these days saying, “My life is FABulous. I have a BIG LIFE.” As my friend Josh says: "What are you, a foreign dignitary? Are you a shiek?" My friend Lisa has a slightly different take on such folks: "You have a BIG LIFE? Well, get away from me, then, cause you’re in the way of my teeny, cramped life of struggle, loneliness, and pain!"

I’m thinking a lot these days of my mother. Mom lives in a 12’ by 12’ room at an assisted living facility in Dover, New Hampshire, and even that’s too big for her. Some people hoard; my mother divests. Mom's the opposite of a clutterer. Give her a present and ten minutes later she would have given it away, or donated it to Goodwill, or wrapped it neatly in about ten layers of used grocery bag paper, labeled, taped, and indexed it, and put it in the garbage. Weeks after my father died, she’d disposed of his belongings, sold the house in which all eight of us kids had grown up, and moved into a condo that would have made the cell of a cloistered nun look baroque. “Oh I don’t need any of that malarkey,” she’d say, waving off the offer of a pair of slippers to replace the ones she'd been wearing since the Reagan era, or “I have notecards” (a pile of scrap-paper from the backsides of church programs and bills, torn into uniform size against the edge of a wooden ruler leftover from when we were in grade school).

That was 11 years ago. Three years ago, she moved into assisted living and, as the Alzheimer’s progresses,  so far she gets more herself, not less. She’d already gotten rid of her piano and then she got rid of her books and then she kept losing the remote so now she’s gotten rid of her TV. I talked to the people at the nursing home last week and, at her request, they were in her room removing “the wires.” I get the feeling she’s beginning to eye the walls and floor, figuring out how she can lose them, too. Yet when I talk to her, she still sounds upbeat and absorbed. She reports on the walk she takes every day around the perimeter of the hospital next door. She’s grateful, as she always has been, for the tiniest thing. “Well thank you so much for calling!” she'll say, or “You didn’t have to send all that!” (a birthday card).

Far away, she seems ever closer. As she moves toward the future, my own memory telescopes more and more toward the past. "The sky is so BLUE today!" The time we walked through the woods behind the house and she showed me the pink ladyslipper. "Boy is it GREEN this spring!" The purple velvet dress she sewed for my baptismal day. "I’ve never SEEN the stars so bright!"…The way, when all the other girls were wearing makeup, she told me: “Let your light shine through”…


Is time short or is it long? Is a life big or is it deep?

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside—

The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
As Sponges—Buckets—do—

The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do---
As syllable from sound—

--Emily Dickinson


Saturday, November 6, 2010


Lately I've found myself, apropos of nothing much, using the phrase "loose garment." Maybe because I have worn the world like a straitjacket for much of my life, the whole concept strikes me as carefree and expansive and new. Yesterday I found myself wondering what exactly a loose garment looks like. What image did "loose garment" conjure up in my mind? What style of loose garment might people actually don for various occasions that call for wearing the world like a loose garment?

Here, for instance, is a number you might want to slip into just before the mechanic reports that your car failed the smog test.

This might be something to throw on in the next minute or so after your computer crashes.

Suppose you inadvertently drop your cell phone in the toilet. You might want to rush to your sewing machine and whip yourself up one of these.

Or say the cops call to say your kid's in jail (again) for shoplifting. This might be something nice for when you go down to the station to bail her out:

You're on the tarmac when the pilot announces a mechanical glitch that will take hours to repair. Before deplaning, you'll probably want to leap to your feet, yank open the overhead bin, and prise this item from your suitcase:

Then there are the really heavy-duty crises: the dog dies, your husband loses his job.

And finally, the devastating, ghastly, hideous day when your agent calls and says the publisher rejected your manuscript. In that case, only one loose garment will do:

What kind of loose garment(s) do YOU wear?!

Thursday, November 4, 2010


Last post, I wrote (at somewhat insane length) about my quibble(s) with Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. And here, good people, is the coda!

One of the people Gladwell profiles in his book is a man named Chris Langan, who supposedly has the highest IQ in the world. Langan grew up poor, had an abusive stepfather, and even after educating himself to the skies in philosophy, physics, mathematics and linguistics, has been unable to achieve mainstream success. Here was a man “with a one-in-a-million mind, and he had yet to have any impact on the world,” notes Gladwell. Langan wasn’t holding forth at scientific conferences or prestigious universities. He'd never learned to “play the game.” He’d worked for years as a bouncer. If anything, that raised Langan in my estimation, as did the fact that he'd dropped out of college rather than kowtow to the Pharisee dean, as did the fact that he now lived on a  horse farm in Missouri, “seemed content,” “had farm animals to take care of, and books to read, and a wife he loved.”  

But then I watched a youtube clip of Langan in which he suggested implanting all children above the age of 10 with a birth control chip, selectively breeding out human imperfection, and basically making himself head of the world. "Faith is dead," he declared. "We need a church based on logic and mathematics." The point being that Langan’s tragedy isn’t that he's failed to parlay his ideas into a lucrative corporate or governmental or academic career, but that he espouses anti-human ideas and thinks he's on a par with God. The point being that what makes for true intelligence is the inner life. The point being that the most intelligent person who ever lived was Christ.

With an off-the-charts IQ of between 195 and 210, Langan has gotten as far as figuring out, for example, that we’re all part of each other. So far, so good, but you don’t need to be a physicist to reach that conclusion. (By the way, I spent a good two hours trying to solve that puzzle from the Raven’s Progressive Matrices test on page 78 of Outliers, which Langan could no doubt crack in seconds, and made zero headway). You reach that conclusion in your heart. You reach it by looking at flowers and birds and trees. You reach it by observing your own life: your interactions with people, your shame, guilt, anger, joy, sorrow, regrets, hope and sympathy, your slow, painful spiritual transformation. If you try to come at life any other way—without your moral and emotional intelligence as well as your ability to reason and compute—you reach the same conclusion Langan did, the conclusion Hitler did: to annihilate all that you are afraid of, that challenges you, that doesn’t fit in with your sanitized, straight-ahead plan.

True intelligence doesn’t seek to get rid of the imperfect. True intelligence embraces and encompasses the imperfect: the blind, the lame, the leper. True intelligence sees its own imperfection, and grasps, however dimly, that its imperfections save it from becoming monstrous. True intelligence asks not: How can I kill the parts I don’t like? It asks: How can I give my whole heart, mind, strength toward carrying life on?

The most intelligent man who ever lived didn’t need to develop a theory called the Cognitive-Theoretic Model of the Universe (CTMU), as Langan has. The most intelligent man who ever lived more or less summed up all scientific, philosophical and theological thought in twelve words: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s.” Words that both the simplest and the most complex mind can get a hold of, wrestle with, ponder. Words that are “understood” not by, or only by, keen intellect but by purity of heart.

Intelligence backed by purity of heart leads always to the poor. Because only with the poor do you retain the freedom to say yes when you mean yes and no when you mean no. Only when you’re poor yourself can you afford to see that you owe nothing to Caesar and everything to God. That’s why, after Christ, the next most intelligent people are the saints. Only the mind of the saint takes in the whole picture. Science—wondrous! Mathematics: sheer beauty, to be studied in depth if that’s your thing. Physics! Devote every waking and sleeping hour to its mysteries if you’re so moved—but all to be seen through the lens and put at the disposal of love. Mother Teresa thus saw that the truly intelligent way to be a doctor is to tend to the dying untouchables on the streets of Calcutta. St. Francis saw that the truly intelligent way to follow Christ is to take him literally.

True intelligence regards itself and asks: Why do I suffer? Why must I die? Intelligence regards the suffering of the rest of the world and realizes, I’m complicit in it. Intelligence has a conscience and the hunger to know: How can I help? Intelligence, after years on the rock-strewn spiritual path, comes to the notions of self-renunciation and sacrifice. 

“Have you ever met someone smarter than yourself?” the interviewer asks near the end of the clip.
“As near as I can tell, no,” Langan responds. “And if someone walked up to me right now and claimed to be smarter than me, I’d put him through his paces. I’d try to find out how sophisticated a picture of reality he’d evolved. Try to see what he was holding in his mind simultaneously and what he could do.”

I wanted to take Langan by the hand (he still feels bad about himself for working as a bouncer) and say: This is what a truly sophisticated picture of reality looks like. This is what it looks like to simultaneously hold in your mind every  idea in the world. This is what the most intelligent man who ever lived or ever will live can “do.”

Because only a Man who was sinless could have taken on the sin of the world: the abusive stepfathers, the feckless mothers, the college dean who failed to foster a beyond-brilliant student, the human heart that even though it's connected to the smartest brain in the world, still grieves, as it must, its own limitations. Only a Mind illuminated by the nuclear light of pure love could have seen that the way to vanquish death was to offer up his own life.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


At the recommendation of a friend, and in my usual two-years-(at least)-behind-the-curve way, I've been reading Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Success.

I've never been a Gladwell fan, possibly because I first read him in a 2000 New Yorker piece entitled “John Rock’s Error: What the co-inventor of the pill didn’t know about menstruation can endanger women’s health.” The article was about how the Pill had been developed by a supposedly staunch Catholic who, to appease the Church hierarchy and cater to what he perceived to be the desires of women, had touted the Pill as “natural” and had unnecessarily “built in” menstrual periods to its cycle.

The Church had seen through the ruse and refused to condone the Pill; John Rock had died in obscurity, bitterly lapsed. And Gladwell's whole thesis was this: Rock's fatal error had been not cavalierly experimenting with women's reproductive systems, not furtively trying to circumvent the Church, but designing the Pill so as to "allow" women to continue menstruating. Gladwell’s idea was that if only women had taken the Pill and also had their periods pharmaceutically shut down, everything would have been great: they would have been free from the pesky risk of unwanted pregnancy and, because their estrogen levels would have been kept low, they wouldn’t have been getting breast cancer (the link had been established) either. His solution was to develop another, stronger pill that would manipulate women's hormonal systems to the point where they'd stop menstruating altogether.

I could hardly believe that the entire reading public, and in particular women, hadn't risen up to protest such a corrupt, hateful idea. This was where our so-called revolutionary "movement" had brought us; this was what passed in contemporary culture for progress. We were getting breast cancer from the pill they told us was going to set us free (I actually had breast cancer at the time), and to set us free from the fear of breast cancer, we were going to take another pill; we were poised to blindly welcome yet another anonymous technological/pharmaceutical invasion--proposed by a man, of course--into the most sacred, private part of our lives.

But I was talking about Outliers. One thing I saw right away: Gladwell's book isn't about outliers, defined as  “something that is situated away from or classed differently from a main or related body.” His book is about the opposite of outliers: people who've managed to parlay their talents into utterly mainstream, predictable and garden-variety money, property and/or prestige. For the most part, he doesn't mean outliers: he means the extra rich, extra famous, extra lucky, and/or extra smug.

Okay, then, how do they do it? Surprise: hard work. Surprise: right place at the right time. Surprise: people help them. But then Gladwell sets forth his own unique, original discovery: the way to turn yourself into an "outlier" is to start early, push to get your own way, and above all not to be--or at least not to act like--one of "the poor." Citing a study of third-graders by sociologist Annette Lareau that found there are only two parenting philosophies--rich-people parenting and poor-people parenting--Gladwell sadly notes that poor third-graders have an ineffective and extremely unbecoming manner toward their elders characterized by what he calls “constraint” and "distrust" and what others might call respect or courtesy. Poor kids "didn’t know how to get their way, or how to 'customize'--using Lareau’s wonderful term--whatever environment they were in, for their best purposes." By contrast, even in fourth grade, middle or upper-class children already "knew the rules." Already, they were (quoting Lareau) "acting on their own behalf to gain advantages." Already, they were making "special requests of teachers and doctors to adjust procedures to accommodate their desires.” This “sense of entitlement," Gladwell approvingly observes, "is an attitude perfectly suited to succeeding in a modern world.” “[A] lesson crucial to those who wanted to tackle the upper reaches of a profession like law or medicine: if you work hard enough and assert yourself, and use your mind and imagination, you can shape the world to your desires.” [italics mine]

One person who learned to "shape the world to his desires," and whom Gladwell gushingly profiles, is Robert J. Oppenheimer, who was raised by wealthy, adoring parents, overcame by sheer charm an incident in his youth where he tried to poison his tutor, and used his own "knowledge of the rules" to develop an atomic bomb that--Gladwell leaves out this part--was used to incinerate hundreds of thousands of innocent people at Nagasaki and Hiroshima. He also by all accounts (the two seem somehow related) cheated on his wife the whole time they were married.

Another member of Gladwell's pantheon is New York lawyer Joe Flom. No-one could accuse Flom of failing to sufficiently develop his sense of entitlement. Coming up, “Flom was fat (a hundred pounds overweight then, one lawyer said…), physically unattractive (to a partner, he resembled a frog), and was indifferent to social niceties (he would fart in public or jab a cigar close to the face of someone he was talking to, without apology). But in the judgment of his colleagues and some adversaries, his will to win was unsurpassed and was often masterful.” Flom became an expert at the "hostile takeover," cases more fastidious lawyers for years wouldn't touch, and thus when greed, aggression, and ungentlemanliness became socially acceptable in the '80's, was fortuitously "primed" to shoot to the top of the heap that we're all presumably eager to reach, too.

A third Gladwell hero is Mort Janklow, also a lawyer. “Janklow has an office high above Park Avenue filled with gorgeous works of modern art—a Dubuffet, an Anselm Kiefer. He tells hilarious stories.”  He has his own plane. He runs a literary agency that "is today one of the most prestigious in the world." (In a footnote, Gladwell adds modestly, that it is, "in fact, my literary agency.") This is in contrast to Mort's (subtext: loser) father, Maurice Janklow, who had the bad fortune to be born in 1903 instead of the early 1930’s (optimal years, according to Gladwell, for the making of the "perfect" Jewish lawyer), was reduced during the Depression to closing real estate titles for 25 bucks apiece, and had a wife--Mort's mother--who, in the delirium of the last five or six months of her life, “shed tears over her friends dying in the 1918 flu epidemic. That generation--my parents’ generation--lived through a lot," Mort notes. "They lived through that epidemic, which took, what? ten percent of the world’s population. Panic in the streets. Friends dying. And the the First World War, and then the Depression, and then the Second World War. They didn’t have much of a chance. That was a very tough period. My father would have been much more successful in a different kind of world.” [italics mine].

I’m thinking of Victor Hugo who, in Les Misérables, wrote: “We may say, by the way, that success is a hideous thing. It’s counterfeit of merit deceives men. To the mass, success has almost the same appearance as supremacy.”

I’m thinking of François Mauriac, who observed: “We do not know the worth of one single drop of blood, one single tear.”

I’m thinking that maybe the most annoying facet of Gladwell's book is that he uses a quote from Christ to buttress his thesis: “For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance. But from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” (Matthew 25: 29].

The passage comes from “the parable of the talents” (go ahead, read it!), which I myself have wrestled with for years. Not only because I tend to be fearful and hoarding, like the faithless servant, but because I'm confused that the master, presumably God, is portrayed as unfair: reaping where he did not sow, driving a hard, mean bargain, and demanding back what he'd given. Also, I simply can't imagine that Christ, who sent out his disciples without even an extra pair of sandals, would have had any particular interest in promoting the banking industry. I've never bought that the Man who asked, "What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his soul?" could have also uttered a conventional platitude of any kind, much less "Work hard, be thrifty, and you'll have your reward." It's never sat right with me that the Teacher who advised, “Consider the lilies of the field” could have also said: "Yeah, yeah, yeah, but this is how you have to be in the real world: crafty, cunning, fawning to your corrupt employers." (Btw, like Flom and Janklow, I also worked for a time as a lawyer).

But maybe most to the point, the Man who said, "Blessed are the poor" could not possibly have also said in so many words: "Born a loser, die a loser, sucker." We’re all called to be good stewards of our talents. We're all called to hard work, patient endurance, and the creative formation of community. But maybe the question the parable really asks is: What, to you, is reward? What or whom are you working for? What exactly does it mean to "live a life of fulfillment, in a beautiful house high on a hill," as Gladwell asserts his hard-working, lucky, beautiful, clever, adversity-overcoming, well-educated parents do?  Maybe Christ was saying that if you see God as an adversary, reaping where he did not sow, the best you can hope for is Gladwell’s version of success: to base your life on a concept known as the "hostile takeover"; to grieve over your parents not so much because they suffered but because they didn’t make it as entrepreneurs. Maybe when Christ said "To he who has will be given, and to him that hath not shall be taken away" he meant not necessarily money--though there's nothing wrong with money--but an abundance of the ability to enter into the suffering of others, an abundance of humility, an abundance of courage, an abundance of compassion. Christ stood up to his elders as a youth as well: not as a career move, but because his passion even then was to seek and live the truth, no matter what the cost.
Christ subverted for all time every worldly notion of power, property, prestige, wealth, hard work, cultural legacy, luck, and success. The true outlier is thus not the tech czar but the anonymous husband who struggles his whole life to stay faithful to his wife. The outlier is not the hockey prodigy, but the person who gets up before dawn 360 days a year and prays before going to the rice paddy, or the rink, or the kitchen to cook the umpteenth breakfast for the kids. The outlier isn't the hotshot lawyer in a Park Avenue penthouse but the man who kneels down on the floor and washes the feet of his friends.

Gladwell does have one interesting chapter in his book: the introduction. Here, he writes of the people of the small town of Roseto, Pennsylvania; descendants of 19th-century immigrants from a town of the same name in Italy. These folks eat a diet laughably high in sugar and lard. They scarf down sausuage, pepperoni, salami, and ham. Nobody much exercises. Many smoke; many are fat. Yet they have a death rate from heart disease roughly half that of the United States as a whole. They have no suicide, no alcoholism, no drug addiction and very little crime. Baffled doctors, sociology students, and statisticians descend on Roseto to study this strange phenomenon. They find “that the secret to Roseto wasn’t diet or exercise or genes or location.” They find extended families living under one roof, people visiting, chatting, cooking in each other’s backyards. “They went to mass at Our Lady of Mount Carmel and saw the unifying and calming effect of the church.”

They find an “egalitarian ethos” that “discouraged the wealthy from flaunting their success and helped the unsuccessful obscure their failures.”

Now those folks are outliers. Too bad Gladwell didn't make his whole book about them.


Next up: Outliers, Part II: The Smartest Man On Earth!