Monday, April 30, 2007

Hello There, Minnesota!

Many of you found Man of Many Words today through a link associated with an article I wrote for Minnesota Artists Online about street artists in my current home base of New Haven, Connecticut. To my fellow Minnesotans I say Welcome and Long Time No See. I lived in the Twin Cities from age 1 to age 24 (with breaks for world travel and a drive out to see the very exciting twine ball in Darwin, Minnesota.) I have occasional nostalgia pangs after three years of absence. I will return one day.

To those of you who did not find Many of Many Words via that article, I invite you to go over there and check out The weekly arts magazine is funded through the world-class Walker Art Center and the McKnight Foundation. Their editorial staff are deeply involved with the arts scene at all levels, from creation to organization to criticism and more. The magazine has become the epicenter of all things artistic in Minnesota. So get on over there and see what Minnesota artists, poets, musicians, spoken word artists, filmmakers, and arts movers and shakers are doing.

After that, come on back to Man of Many Words and get some more daily news embedded in personal narrative embedded in magic. While you're at it, please allow me to pimp the donation buttons located in the left sidebar. There they are. See them? Click, click. Your help is appreciated.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Saturday Afternoon Follies

My landlady, Faith, drove me to the train station this morning, from whence I rode down to Bridgeport, which is Connecticut’s most murderous city. Last year it clocked in at 30 murders, surpassing New Haven and Hartford. High five!

City Lights Gallery in Bridgeport was my destination.

City Lights is where I figure model on the occasional Saturday. This involves taking off my clothes and donning a robe. I lost my white robe last month in the Great Ides of March Stampede of One when my landlord, whom shall heretoforth be known as Ghetto Thunder, did away with our lease at fistpoint and I had to leave everything behind except for a suitcase and a backpack. My replacement robe – which was graciously provided by the sweet and saucy figure drawing moderator whom I shall here dub Annabelle Cash Money – turned out to be a very femmy, satiny, Asian-looking thing that barely covered my white ass. (The robe, not Annabelle Cash Money.) I wore it once a few weeks ago and immediately vowed never to wear it again. (Again, the robe, not Annabelle.) (Editor's note: we apologize for all the dangling modifiers. The author apparently knows no other sentence form, so to edit them would be to rewrite the entire article, and frankly we don't have that kind of patience. Besides, Man of Many Words is currently the only writer we have. We thank you for your patience as we figure out a way to fire his ass.) The robe made me feel soft and vulnerable. It made me want to talk about my needs. Annabelle Cash Money has a great sense of humor, don’t you think? So I left the robe at home and planned on just using my cargo pants and shirt as a robe. But when I got to City Lights, another model was already there. Annabelle Cash Money had accidentally booked two models, so she gave me a kill fee of $25 and let me off the hook for the day.

I decided to stick around and peruse the art and hang out with my friend, whom I hereby christen Spectacular Monster Lightning. He works at the gallery as a framer, salesman, and all-around gladhander. He's also an accomplished artist at a young age. The man is a master at everything he does. I really like him. He’s always digging on my hip hop lyric stylings. I launch a verse at him here and there. He nicknamed me Mister Unassuming today, because I generally don’t advertise my massive prowess as a passably cool white rapper. Spectacular Monster Lightning introduced me to a couple of the black guys who work next door at the restaurant as caterers, one of whom hit me up for a verse.

It’s always an especial pleasure to rap for black folks. They generally treat me politely when they first learn I can rap. They give me a chance. Then I rap, and then they’re smiling and telling me to go make a million bucks. Call me indulgent and self-serving, but I really do enjoy impressing black folks within their own genre, on their own terms. I don't know why. Maybe it assuages all my white guilt. Maybe I don't give a damn why. You can relax, you know.

One of the black guys today, Pee Wee is his real name, said he wanted to parade me around his turf and place bets on me in any battles we can hustle up. I guess that would be cool. I just don’t battle that well. My stuff is better when it’s written. Whatever. I’ll throw down anyhow. Not that I see Pee Wee’s plan ever getting off the ground. People of all colors and lacks thereof talk big. And frankly I just don’t have the interest in going around puffing up my peacock feathers when there’s probably not a lot of money in it.

Back inside, I perused every square inch of the gallery, except for the area beyond the partition where the figure drawing was in session. It’s bad form to walk in on a naked model. I rummaged through all the stacks of limited edition prints, some of which I really liked. There was an extremely well done and detailed painting of an old sailing ship, its sails at full billow and outrunning a storm, entitled “Homeward Bound”, with the sky all dark and blue and achingly beautiful. It made me want to cry for my good old pier on the New Haven Harbor. Made me want to boatjack a skiff from the Sound School and hit the high seas.

There were some figure drawings by Annabelle Cash Money, one of which I think I recognized as myself. I cost $100. Fair enough. Go buy me.

Spectacular Monster Lightning threw me a couple of freebie postcards that featured photographs of this one sculptor’s little tiny pencil carvings. The guy spent six months making this:

And two years making this:

That’s one pencil, pal. One piece of graphite there, my people. Each link moves freely. No glue was involved. You’ve got to wonder what kind of job this guy has. Security desk in an abandoned building? I mean that is some serious time to have on your hands. What patience! I am somewhat envious of that patience. Is he happy, I wonder? Anyway, his name is Dalton Ghetti. Look him up and go buy something from him. He can’t afford to keep his website up.

I hung out with Spectacular Monster Lightning awhile longer, sipping my Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, while he did up some frames. I looked at the invoice for the little tiny frames he was making. Hundred bucks apiece for ten of them. A grand. But he gave the customer a 30% discount “because she’s cool”. I think that’s cool. And now I think I should open a frame shop and get rich. Or Spec should. That’s more likely.
I hopped the 2:30 train back to New Haven.

And then everybody died. Laaaaaaaaaaaaaaa. Operatic!

Note: Some names were invented. Maybe all of them. You be the judge. And if you run into Marvel, tell them I've got some names to sell them. Thanks.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Bellissa and Faith

The following originally appeared on another blog on April 7th of this year.


I walked out of the shelter and hefted my suitcase into the back seat of Bellissa's truck. Together we rode towards Rudy's.

"I have to ask you this," Bellissa was saying. "Are you on any drugs?"

"Nicotine," I replied.

"OK. So, nothing? Because if you need any kind of counseling, any kind of treatment, I've got hookups in that department too. I just want to make sure you're taken care of in that regard too, if that's the case."

"No drugs, no nothing. Just me and my karma."


We ordered our burgers and fish sandwiches (me the former, vegetarian-esque she the latter) and one Schaffer beer each. Bellissa paid. I was grateful. The Wednesday night Rudy's crowd was a decent size. We talked about moving me into her spare room for awhile, and about what I can do for her in exchange and for how long it should go on. I would move a gigantic pile of sticks and branches from one part of her backyard to another. I would crush and destroy the bamboo-like weeds that had taken over one corner of the yard. I would put together her new entertainment center, install "grippy tape" on the front steps to reduce the chance of someone slipping, and help to unpack a room full of boxes and distribute their contents around the house where they belong. The latter is the only one I never got around to, because it turned out I was out of there and into my own place in a week.

Meanwhile, Bellissa drove me around, bought me lunches and dinners, introduced me to her friends and brothers and her basement roommate, talked with and counseled me about my options for the immediate and near future, and took my thousand thanks gracefully, eventually asking me to stop thanking her. I couldn't help it. Although I was helping her out around the house, I still felt that yanking me out of the shelter and putting me up for a week was a true gift. She was, and continues to be, a true friend. We laughed, we hung out, we even drank and made merry one night around a bonfire in her backyard. The fire burned an invisible igloo of warmth in the still, cool air of the opening days of April as we sipped on Bud and nipped at a small bottle of Southern Comfort. I felt completely at ease in her presence, yet also oddly responsible and productive.

I continued the blog from her place and considered my plans. Ultimately the blog drew forth a number of Good Samaritans (much like paramedics to a crash site) who offered all measure of things helpful: money, jobs, housing, food and coffee outings for discussing life and its vicissitudes, kind sentiments and powerful words of encouragement. The blog also drew forth a some chastisement from old friends who I had wronged at one point and with whom I had not yet made amends. Even that was OK, as it just felt good to be reaching out and talking to everybody.

Two people expressed doubt that I had ever been homeless. I felt immensely complimented and encouraged to hear that I was just "a professional writer riding a trend" of homelessness and poverty in the literary and pop culture arenas.

Perhaps I never made myself sound desperate enough. Maybe my positive attitude in the face of hardship wasn't typical. Certainly I was not living in the shelter for very long, but now wait just one minute, fellas. I have known poverty all my life. I grew up on Section 8 housing and welfare checks and grossly early Social Security benefits. When I was little, my mother and I usually had enough money left over for a Friday night donut date at the kitchen table. Silently, gratefully, and full of mischievous giggling, we slurped our half a donut each by candlelight. Dunked into milk sopping wet dripping. This was our treat for the week. I'm grateful for the donut memories.

Welcome to the story of my life: not having much, being resourceful, trying not to think like a poor person, being a chronic spendthrift when you get a few extra bucks in your pocket, only to find yourself broke in a few days and having to pawn something or ration the milk. Fine. Not so bad. Have you ever heard me complain?

Bellissa related the story of how she once asked a poor old man, Rawls, a jazz saxophone player, why he would spend $200 out of his $300 monthly government cheese on a handheld DVD player.

"When you've been poor your entire life," explained Rawls, "you really are not interested in counting your pennies. If you get a little extra cash, you want to get something nice for yourself. You just want to feel normal, like other people." And then you're broke for days or weeks and you have to beg people for food. That's thinking like a poor person. Again: welcome to my world.

One of the Good Samaritans who responded to my blog, Faith is her name, offered to put me up in an efficiency apartment in her house in exchange for 20-30 hours a week of work around the house. I could choose the jobs as I find things that need doing - raking, picking up trash, doing dishes, general cleaning, painting the unfinished woodwork around the window sills - what-have-you. It would also include feeding the stray cat, Squeak is his name, "because I want you to learn how to take care of something other than yourself," Faith intoned in all seriousness. That sounded great, so I took the efficiency.

And that's where I am now. I have a cozy little room - not too little, but little - enough room for walking loose figure eights, a writerly pace of pondering - with my own bathroom and kitchen. This is more than I could have ever hoped for, especially on a work exchange basis. The house is situated right off the New Haven Harbor, which is an inlet off the Long Island Sound, which is an inlet off the Atlantic Ocean. I can open my side door and see saltwater. It comes in violently in big tumultuous waves when it rains all day, like it did three days ago, but when the weather is stiller sits patiently in the cold early April breeze, lapping the shore like a stray tabby cat to its stairway water dish.

Is this the place where I can write my Great American novel about how I am not Great at all, hardly even consider myself an American in the popular sense of the word? There is seclusion and solitude here; Faith, ever faithful, assures me the place is well protected by His divine love. I can write my life and my memories and my nows and forevers, and I can take a bus or walk an hour into town for a little social healing, a healing I need so badly.

But it's the solitude I love. No sirens can be heard. No nighttime ambulances in a steady procession towards the Yale New Haven Medical Center, almost on top of which I lived when I was over at George and Howe, before I was evicted on sincere threat of violence.

No. This place is peace, here in my “kingdom by the sea”. So I'm grateful, I'm not homeless, and I'm ready to move forward in life. Tell me, please: Is that so boring?

Note: Some names were changed to avoid drama.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

My Cat is a Dog

My cat is a dog. It's a tabby cat. Lives outdoors. So it's not my cat, really. Just a stray I inherited by dint of moving into the efficiency at Faith's house on Water Street here in New Haven. Whoever lives in this efficiency is charged with feeding Squeak. That's his name. He squeaks. For real. Holds his mouth open and squeaks like a squeaky toy when he's begging. The squeaking erupts most squeakily when I'm bringing out the bowl of cat food. I use Purina Cat Chow Complete Formula, an all-ages cat food, $5 at the local convenience store on Howard Avenue. I set the bowl down by my outside steps and Squeak wolfs down its contents like there was no tomorrow.

Squeak was most vociferous and sad during the Nor'easter that tore through here last week. He didn't seem to mind the rain itself. More just the dismal atmosphere. He plodded sadly up to me whenever I would step outside. He couldn't sit down because the ground was wet. Instead, he would climb up into my lap or my arms or sit on my shoulders like some furry landlubbing parrot. Now that it's beautiful outside (70s, slight breeze, plenty of sunshine) Squeak lounges and waits for me when I am indoors or away from the neighborhood.

Often when I take walks, such as to the end of the pier, Squeak follows me all the way out. His heads will turn this way and that, spotting unseen fauna, picking up on the scents of other strays, but otherwise he is completely domesticated. Like a dog, he will come when I call, and he always walks back home with me.

I made the mistake of feeding him three times a day for the first few days I was in my new efficiency. Faith then informed me that I'm only supposed to feed him once a day, or I'd have a beggar on my hands. Besides, other houses feed him too, so it's not like he's starving. I took the advice, but still Squeak has made me his new best friend.

He greeted me this morning and sat in my lap as the sun beat down its gorgeous rays. We both earned this nice weather.

Monday, April 23, 2007

The Urban Pedestrian

If I had a blog called The Urban Pedestrian, it would be a daily account of my walks through downtown New Haven and surrounding areas. I would talk about the buildings, the streets, the people in the streets, construction projects that are underway, and so on. I would report on what it's like to be a pedestrian in the attempt to "raise awareness" about the "issue" of being a pedestrian. I would complain a lot about the traffic signals and how they are awkwardly timed so that it is actually safer to jaywalk than to cross at the intersection. I would bitch and moan about motorists who never use their turn signals, and relate tales of how I yelled, "Nice turn signal!" as the car swerved blithely on by. Uplifting stories of Good Samaritanism would be included, as would sardonic tales of the street people asking for money.

Today, for example, I ran into a street lady with whom I am quite familiar. I don't know her name. It was a beautiful day out, in the 70s I believe, and she said, "Do you know me?" I said I did, and asked how she was doing. "I'm depressed. I've been walking around all day, crying like an asshole." I could see the tears in her eyes. I don't know nor do I care whether she was just running for Best Actress or what. I just said, "I'm sorry, sweetheart, I would give you some money, but I am fresh out." I gave her a hug instead. She kept on walking and panhandling in the gorgeous weather.

Now that's kind of sardonic, yes? Sad, but nice weather. Good combination. Then I would move onto how I ran into my buddy Gary from the old soup kitchens I used to attend, and how I spotted him today wearing a suit at a bus stop. He was coming back from a job interview at a temp agency to (hopefully) replace his job as a stock "boy" in a grocery store. His explosion of sandy white hair and handlebar goatee, juxtaposed with the old pinstriped suit, made him look a lot like Samuel Clemens, or Mark Twain depending on who you ask. Gary was reading a fantasy novel. He's always reading a fantasy novel. He opened the one he was holding and read me a passage from the introduction, which was basically a how-to guide to writing fantasy. Moral of the passage: you have to have a theology (pagan or Christian, pagans are better because "they have more fun"), a Hero, a Quest, and a "Magic Thingamajiggy" (Holy Grail, the One Ring, the Special Jewel). That's as far as we got. Gary's bus arrived.

That's The Urban Pedestrian. Lowbrow and blue collar and street. Then there's The Upscale Pedestrian.

The Upscale Pedestrian would be a blog about how to live the good life without having to buy a car or even a bicycle. It would include information about how to use the transit system in an efficient manner, reviews of nice restaurants and museums you can walk to, a guide to planning your days around a pedestrian-oriented way of life, and other material. It would break down the cost of being a pedestrian and weigh it against the cost of owning a car, and then compare the intrinsic benefits of each way of life. I would attempt to prove that you can muster any type of non-motorist lifestyle you want, whether you are young or old, rich or humble, single or married, with kids or without.

So why don't I start those blogs? Because I have too many ideas. That's why I have this multi-purpose blog, this trash compactor. I realize there is little to connect this blog to itself. There seems to be no pattern, other than the fact that it is written by myself. So I'll just stick to this one for now. My goal is to tell self-contained stories that do not require you to follow a thread or series. On the other hand, a lot of my life does connect; a lot of the stories do find relationships with each other. So if you are a reader of this blog, please just read as much or as little as you like. If you start to see a pattern, then you have your larger narrative. Reading and writing are therefore a symbiotic relationship. As a reader, you have just as many choices to make as does the writer. So we're kind of exactly alike. You're confused, I'm confused, let's all share our lives with each other.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Shakespeare Lady

The Shakespeare Lady is performing a passage from a play I do not recognize. I am the only patron in attendance. The admission price for the show is two dollars. The venue is a sidewalk.
"What feeble night bird overcome by misfortunes beats at my door?”

It’s a passage from the Robinson Jeffers version of Medea by Euripides – one of the Shakespeare Lady’s signature acts. We are standing outside an overpriced health food store. Customers are going in and out. Nobody stops to listen tonight.

“Can this be that great adventurer, the famous lord of the seas and delight of women, the heir of rich Corinth, this crying drunkard on the dark doorstep?”

The training she received at Bennington College in Vermont and the Yale School of Drama shines through. Her voice is strong and singsong, her physical gestures measured and effective yet sweeping. The lines from the passage seem to be directed at both herself and at the invisible character she is supposed to be addressing. At times, it feels as though she is addressing me. I feel included, somehow.

“Yet you've not had enough.”

No, I have not had enough. I am the feeble night bird. I am the boastful adventurer, the privileged middle class citizen, cut down to size. I hang on her every word. I know where this woman has been. I learned about her from first hand experience, word on the street, talking to the locals, and reading the news. She has a rare form of schizophrenia, an ailment she and someone at UCLA have described as “tactile demons”. She hears voices. They have been tormenting her since her days as a Yale student. Her Master’s Thesis was entitled “A Theatre of Hunger”.

In the early 1980s, she got into a physical argument with the voices and destroyed her apartment. She has been living on the streets and in mental hospitals, women’s shelters, and rooming houses ever since. The business owners around this neighborhood, which just so ironically happens to be the designated “arts district”, don’t like her much. She can get overly assertive. Sometimes she performs so close to the storefronts that the customers have to walk right by her, both coming and going. Apparently, people have complained, because the neighborhood business community is trying to put the kibosh on her performances. She has been arrested, thrown in jail, and tried for trespassing and disturbing the peace numerous times each.
Luckily, she is not all alone in the system. She has won allies through her performances. Many have advocated in the press for leniency for her minor “offenses”. Filmmakers and musicians have created documentaries and music videos in tribute to her. She even has a lawyer friend who defends her pro bono every time she goes to court. Even the mayor of New Haven likes her, and has been quoted as saying he admires the dignity she maintains despite her difficult lifestyle. Still, she continues living her own Theatre of Hunger.

“You have come to drink the last bitter drops. I'll pour them for you."

The rats took over her rooming house last June. The city condemned the place and kicked out all the tenants. I once saw what the place looked like when I myself was looking for a cheap place to live. It was frighteningly filthy. In an abandoned room I saw an open refrigerator, unplugged, with food still inside. The refrigerator was tilting, sadly, on broken feet. I didn’t dare look at the shared shower rooms.

The Shakespeare Lady still performs on the streets. Some say she smokes crack. I don’t judge it. Does your boss ask you what you’re going to spend your money on when he cuts your paychecks? The Shakespeare Lady’s performances are the best deal in town. Her eyes bulge from their sockets when performing, but rest easy and hooded when just walking. Her voice is natural and conversational as she again trots up the street towards me again:

“Hey baby, my name is the Shakespeare Lady,” goes the usual introductory line. “Mind if I read you a poem for a couple of dollars so I can get into a shelter?” By “poem” she means “theatrical performance”. She probably says “poem” because it’s quicker to say when you’re trying to hustle up a rush hour audience.
“Sure, Margaret, I remember you,” I reply, reaching into my pocket.

She readies herself by closing her eyes for a moment. She seems to be crouching internally, as if a cat before the pounce. She launches into the “To be or not to be” monolog from Hamlet. The cat has pounced, and she is clawing. A few lines go by before she is suddenly doing the “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. Suddenly the speech has morphed to become the Emancipation Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln. I can’t tell where she made the switches. Is she twisting her lines on purpose, or is this some manifestation of the schizophrenia? Is she confused? And does it even matter? The “mash-up”, if you will, is seamless. A DJ or collage artist should be so proficient at blending the arts of completely many different epochs of human history into one cohesive narrative. The result is a timeless wailing of the soul. A longing, a yearning, a sadness and a strength. For my two bucks, the Shakespeare Lady ain’t holding back.
I, for one, appreciate her performances.

“Thank you, Shakespeare Lady, for throwing a wrench into my day,” I should say. “For making me stop and look somewhere besides straight forward. For making me look up at the sky, where you are looking, Shakespeare Lady. Thank you for speaking loudly, for not being ashamed of yourself, and for being a human being and an actor and alive. Thank you for reminding ‘sane’ people of the raw underbelly of their own psyche. Thank you for all the debts you’ve paid so that I can have this moment with you.”

I never say all that. Instead, it’s just, “Thank you, Margaret.” I look her in the eye, clasp her hand in my two hands when I give her the money, and figure she understands.

“Thanks, baby, you have a good night now.”

Friday, April 20, 2007

On Anger and Rage

My mother smoked a pack of cigarettes and washed down the tar with a pot of coffee every single day of her pregnancy with me.

My eighth birthday party ended when I ran around screaming into all of my guests' faces freaking everybody out and crying for absolutely no apparent reason.

Are these two facts connected?

According to my dad, William Fleeman, the founder and CEO of Pathways to Peace, Inc., a not-for-profit education and training corporation on anger management:
People with anger problems use anger like a drug, to change feelings of powerlessness into feelings of power.
That belief of his comes from experience. From the Pathways to Peace Founder's Story (available in its entirety here) :
I got in my first fistfight when I was eight. It happened at school. Another kid made fun of me because he knew I didn’t have a father. From early childhood I felt worthless and alone, powerless and afraid. That’s how kids feel when their fathers abandon them. The kid’s remarks hooked my feelings of abandonment and pushed my self-esteem even lower. I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach; then I shoved the kid down the school steps.
Watching the kid tumble down the steps, I felt my first “anger high.” The other kids who cheered me on added to the high. The high lasted only an instant, but for that instant I felt a sense of power I had never felt before. I felt confident instead of afraid, accepted instead of rejected, strong instead of weak. What I felt, felt good. The kid was not hurt. Neither of us suffered bad results. The teacher who broke up the fight merely talked to us.
Later that day the high went away, and all of the negative feelings I felt about myself came back. But that fight on the school steps changed me. The change lasted most of the rest of my life. A new part was added to my character: a part I could not seem to control, a part I was not even aware of, a part that would continue to seek the rush of power I felt when I shoved that kid down the stairs. Over time that part would grow big and strong. Finally it would run my life. Later I would find out what it was. It was anger and rage.
That fight on the school steps caused me to form another new belief: anger is power. That belief influenced my behavior for the next 35 years.
I can relate, of course. He's had more time to calm down, also of course. I'm 27. I still get these rushes of adrenaline once in awhile for no apparent reason. I generally don't freak out anymore. Instead, my voice takes on a new tone, though I don't scream and yell. My eyes start smoking, and I have to look away from the person I'm with, or else I'll give them a look they won't quickly forget. I've been told I have an expressive face, which doesn't make it any easier to conceal my anger.
It's rare. I'm glad I've calmed down. I look forward to calming down more every day. Whether the problem is genetic or learned, I still think the only way to deal with it is to get to know it, and then to sincerely try to solve it. The following workbook might help you if you have anger problems of your own:

Things That Shoot Up

I wrote these two poems in the summer of 2001.  
"Things That Shoot Up"

heroine addicts, weeds; skyrockets, fireworks, bombs
bursting in air, oh-oh say can



all the things shooting up? billions of lasers climbing, shot from the
billions of fingers in the great wide open nothingness?
like the rain dreams of upside-down androids; a
computer-generated chaos that just can't stop organizing

no floating feathers, or gentle bobbing ships on waves that
elbow each other in jest in the ribs. just

BWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA! ribboning cyclones, a barber
snipping himself to the piling end, the cocaine sniff that
lasts a whole gracious slicing lifetime, the weed-infested
field plucked and plucked by children with A.D.D. forever,


Um. What just happened? One more poem now. Or whatever these things are.

"What the Bar Looks Like After Ten Drinks"
advancing and retreating
bobbing and swiveling amongst
globes of gaseous gold and
planes of cloudy black.

human-made objects
in eerily recurrent complex
patterns: rectangles re-
ceding, circles
mushrooming in unharvested rows

a silent rainfall of heartbeats

a rolling murmur in the shape of a giant cube

cosmic calculus.


Okay, I lied. One more. From that same era.


"On Time"

Today, by its very length,
weighs twice as much as yesterday.

Each breath
(another debt to pay)
metes away the seconds slipping slowly,
slower, up




(finally) my sleep away;
to resume,
too willingly,
the morning, scrrraping across my back,
and I am stuck between the doubled day
and its Siamese twin


Apparently, I was on some kind of mysticism/perception/experience kick back then.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Tough Questions for Artists

Hey artist, I got a few questions for you. Yeah, you. Are you an artist? Then read on.

People like us, artists I mean, are always sticking our neck on the public chopping block. Through the morbid ritual of bearing our souls to strangers, we learned that our heads are unseverable. Dizzyable, certainly, but bolted securely to our necks. We create almost as if making things were an involuntary tick. We capture that tick and replay it for the world over and over and over, often to our own undoing. The unmistakable scent of spontaneity that we exude belies that sulfuric compulsion of ours that wells up from our very marrow and explodes as “painting, writing, drama, dance, photography, carpentry, crafts, love, and love”, to quote the poet Saul Williams. In short, experience is what we are interested in here. All else is negotiable. Am I right or am I wrong? Eh?

Looks like the interview has begun.

My main question to you, artist, is this: how important is your creativity to you? Is it right up there with food and shelter? If suddenly you were stripped of all ability to create anything artistic ever again, could you even go on living?

I also want to ask you about your "hopes and dreams", if I may use the cliché as a placeholder for now. What types of projects would you like to undertake next? Is money an object in this regard? I am always interested in what holds artists back, so let me ask this as well, if it's not too personal: what's holding you back from achieving the next level or accomplishing your next artistic mission? I ask this out of a basic assumption that most artists have a backlog of ideas with which they can never keep up. Finally, is it the knowledge that there is always some new creative endeavor waiting for you over the horizon that keeps you alive?

I ain’t done with you yet.

Bear in mind that none of these are yes-or-no answers, per se, just conversation starters. Look at all your art. Every last thing. Look at it all. Are you impressed with your breadth of experimentation? Are there any recurring themes? Have you ever tried humor? Art should be fun. Look in the mirror. Just to get a sense of your own humanity. Be grateful you’re there to see yourself. You could have been somewhere else.

Sorry, not all of these are questions. Some of them are just do what I say. Whatever. I’ve got a lot of things on my mind. Some of the things are advice.

Moving right along, tell me something. I mean just for the hellavitt. Does your hometown rock? Or does it suck? Actually, that's not a fair question, is it. It both rocks and sucks, doesn't it. A tale of two cities, yadda yadda. So let me ask you this: in your opinion, in which ways does your town rock? In which ways does it suck? What are some crappy experiences you've gone through there? And what are some really special and personal moments of happiness you've had there?

Tell me your thoughts about life, the universe, and everything, especially in the context of your personal struggle, and put a lot of talk about art in there, obviously. Make me care more about you than I already do. I want exclusive info! New info is always the best. I find that, as artists, we tend to repeat the same old credentials and accomplishments, when in fact the real accomplishments are getting out of bed in the morning, being able to afford new batteries for your camcorder – you, not me, for I own neither a camcorder nor a camera nor a wristwatch – falling in love, healing old wounds…you know, the human stuff. Not the resumé stuff. On the other hand, resumé stuff is cool too, just as long as you feel proud of it.

All that. Talk. Don't worry about formulating your sentences too hard. Just rattle off your thoughts. Freewrite. It’ll be good for you, and besides, I'm sincerely dying to know. Give me a sense of your whole person, the themes in your life, and the texture of your days.

That is, if you’re not too busy playing chicken with a guillotine.

Must Have Been the Pier Talking

Part 1, as written to a lover:

So I took a walk to the pier just before sunrise. It was absolutely incredible. I don't think I've seen anything like it. As I approached the rock-surrounded pier, the half-ish moon against the deep blue darkness was on my right, leaving its glowing fractured trail in the wavelets on the black Harbor. On my left, the horizon glowed warmly reddish purple. I bounced up and down on the end of the pier to get the blood flowing so I could warm up, then started rotating in circles so I could see the pageant of westward darkness and eastward flabbergasted light. Birds were flying towards the sun before it rose! The terns or gulls wheeled overhead, one of them playing shepherd to the other gulls wheeling and gathering directly over my head. The call of the gull is German. A pack of ravens or crows passed right through the gathering of gulls; the ravens were more purposeful in their eastward trek, and disappeared, calling in Italian. Two ducks, mute, paddled about in the water below me. Rush hour traffic was beginning to flow westward, which I could see from where I stood. Their headlights pierced the purple air. In another direction, in the darkness, the masts of the moored sailboats by the Sound School for aquatic studies stood still, some of them leaning, some of them straight up in the air, like a snapshot of the moment when the child's hand lets go of the upended pick-up sticks; the two spires of the massive boat lift towered above the surrounding masts. All down the edge of the shore, lights were still turned on in the death throes of night - street lamps, kitchen windows, what-have-you. And the birds just kept flying east towards the light as it brightened and brightened. I called to some of the birds, smiling, saying out loud for the benefit of my credulity, "This is impossible. This is beautiful," and such. After about a half hour I was getting a bit chilly so I went inside before the top edge of the sun disc would slice the horizon. Maybe I'll see that tomorrow.

Part 2, in a later letter:

On my daily walk past the Sound School Regional Vocational Aquaculture Center (a high school known locally as the Sound School), which is situated on right on the water and located across the street from my house on South Water Street (I finally learned the name of my street!) I saw a high school kid in a knit cap shaking a pair of sticks that went clackety-clackety-clack! clacky-clack! sound. I approached him, we said our what-ups, and I asked him what those things were.

"They're called bones, although these are made of teak. They come from Ireland." He held them in one hand, one finger between the sticks, showing me. Imagine something akin to your standard flat incense burner, with the curved end, but now imagine two of them held together with their curved parts facing outward. That's what the bones looked like.

"You're good at those," I said.

"Thanks. Most people find them annoying."

"I think it's cool."


I continued my walk to the pier, passing a couple of high school kids leaning against a low brick wall, leaning into each other, a boy and a girl. All decked out in whatever the kids are wearing these days, with their funky coifs and and sunglasses on heads and silver necklaces. I walked to the end of the pier and stood looking at the four swans that were sailing slowly about bobbing for apples or whatever they were bobbing for. I sipped the last of my coffee and pondered how cool it would be if you could just swim around and have that be your home and everywhere you looked there was food right beneath your webbed feet. And then if you got too far from wherever you wanted to be you could just jump out of the water and fly there and then keep sailing slowly.

I didn't tell you what I thought about yesterday morning as I experienced the whole sunrise spectacle of dark blue sky and half moon and flocks of different types of birds and boats moored a couple hundred yards from shore and the big rocks and the rippling water gently lapping at the side of New Haven's shores and the lights of rush hour along the far edge of the harbor on the ground like a string of Christmas tree lights dragged by a cat and the masts and boat lifts perked up in darkness and the whole phantasmagoria of chalky cloud spread like rent gauze above the masts. It was the birds that got me to thinking ontologically about the nature of time and space.

As the birds were flying toward the dawning light, it occurred too me that there was a possibility that the birds - the ravens especially, who flew together with a great sense of purpose all in one direction in orderly fashion - always go where the light is. If the sun is rising, they fly towards it. If the sun is setting, they fly towards it. If the sun is high in the sky, they generally stick where they are. This maximizes the length of their day, if only by a few seconds. Some genetic thing. So if this is true, then that means they spend the morning flying east, the evening flying west, and the middle part of the day comparatively chilling out. This got me thinking about their range, their territory. It got me wondering if that's how they do life. And then as the seasons change, they fly north or south accordingly. Just seeing them make these almost worshipful mad dashes towards the sun got me wondering about all this. And then there's the nature of time. It is based on the sun for the birds. And if they make a really strong habit of sticking to the sun, flying this way and that, then that means time and space are, in practice, the exact same thing to these birds. Each point on the sky represents a certain time of day. I was looking at the sky and the birds and the ocean and thinking about all this, and it just felt really extra true to me then. The sky felt so close and personal, like it was hugging me, and that all was quite so very small. The world was my oyster. Very cozy.

That is all about that.

My Other One Political Opinion

I will let you guess as to whom the following refers:

He’s not so much a conservative as he is just a one-man circus in which the lion cage is open, the man got shot while still in the cannon, the clowns are all created by Stephen King, the trapeze artists are splattered all among the audience, and Lucy the dancing bear is actually just a retarded kid in a suit.

My One Political Opinion

I wrote this somewhere else first:

It’s a fundamental concept in Greek mythology: cut one of the heads off the infinitely-headed Lernaean Hydra, another head takes its place. Same goes for geopolitics. The question of whether Saddam Hussein was a threat is completely irrelevant. If you want to change the world for the better, then assassinating or executing or otherwise doing away with a “bad guy” is not only pointless, but dangerous, as doing so will only anger the beast. (The beast, in this case, is death and destruction and pain and misery on a mass scale for men and women and children.) So you can pretty much stop arguing over whether there is any connection between Sadaam Hussein and Osama bin Laden or Adolf Hitler or Donald Rumsfeld or or or or or. Here’s your answer: yes, they’re all connected, and they all either love each other or hate each other. If they love each other, they cooperate to kill and maim and otherwise inflict chaos and dread in the populi of all countries; if they hate each other, they compete for the right to be the foremost head on the Hydra of madness and blood and death and death and death. Whaddya gonna do. How do your solve it. Here’s an ice cream cone. Smile. Drop off a care package for your new neighbor. Stop beating your wife and kids, when in Rome don’t spit on the locals, sit up straight, and start acting like a decent human being. Or, just keep feeling like you’re “helping” by cheering the death of another human being. Whatever blows your skirt up, baby.

Erotic Poem

I am right next to you
Just talking
Intoning colors
Chanting incense
Switch to the other ear
You in darkness
Sitting on hands
So you won't touch

All Hail Ra

The sun is out.

During and After the Storm

The Nor’easter is over. The flood had almost made waterfront property of the house where I'm living. We're talking a 10- to 15-foot difference in the usual sea level. A huge log of abandoned dock mooring had floated out onto Water Street and cruised on down like some bargain basement gondolier ride. It’s a good thing all the cars had been parked a block away on Sea Street due to the general alert issued by the city.

It's too bad I didn't have the stomach to walk out to the pier during the Nor’easter. It would have been deliciously tempestuous. The wind and the clouds were incessant, without the relief of lightning and thunder. Just that 60 mph wind ramming through the neighborhood and the entire coast. The trees made a wooshing sound that didn't quit. Longest avante garde wind symphony in history. The Sound School Regional Vocational Aquaculture Center got flooded. Their boat masts, docked opposite my house, are a whistling mechanism for the wind. The damn things screamed like banshees for 24 hours. The clanging of the lanyards on the masts added to the annoyance factor. And me without a car or frequent-enough buses to escape into downtown, away from shore by a couple miles. I holed up in my room and wrote and wrote and read some, and talked with my girlfriend on the phone.

Now: puddles and leaves and garbage everywhere. It is still heavily overcast but the wind has finally died down to about 15 mph, and the maddening drizzle is only intermittent. A few lone birds are back out flying around and sitting on their power lines. The whole world seems exhausted from the rain and the incessant wind. The sidewalk outside my door looks positively spent.

If I could remember everything about my life at every moment, it would be too much to bear. Please, one thing at a time. I have to step back from time to time and just walk out to the pier and get surrounded by water.

The sea level was all the way up to the boards. I could feel the waves thumping the bottom of the deck upon which I was standing and splashing up through the spaces between the planks. Water was lapping over the edges.

On my return walk from the pier, I spied my landlady's cat rolling around on the sidewalk outside my door. She is in heat (the cat, not my landlady) and had been missing for two days. Out getting some tail from the grey cat that I've seen around, no doubt. I took the opportunity to lure the skittish kitty towards the door with a bowl of the cat food I had bought for Squeak, the stray. I had to rattle the food around in one hand, tapping the plastic bowl on the steps, calling the kitty, holding the door open with the other hand.

Once inside, she had to actually be coaxed to approach her food and water dishes. As soon as she remembered she was starving she cleaned the bowl. Now she is meowing outside my bedroom door, begging to be let back out into the cold so she can find the gray cat. Poor dumb thing. Rolling around on the floor, rubbing its muzzle on everything.

Cats are insane. Sophisticated, yes, but also daft. Then you get a cat that's in heat, and they'll risk life and limb to get some sex. They'll lose their appetite and not eat for days. I remember when my childhood cat Mary would go into heat. The yowling and the sex starvation. Mary never got laid in her entire life. It's sad, really.

Now that high tide has come and gone, and low tide has reach its lowest point and started its climb, I can see all kinds of garbage washed up on the mud flats with their marshy weeds of bamboo proportions. Who knows what relics lie in wait for someone to discover them, or not discover them, in which case they might get washed back out to sea someday. Maybe I'll go hunting for archaeological finds tomorrow in the daylight. Tonight, I'm walking into town. The weather is still cold, overcast, drizzly, miserable and depressing, but it's at least navigable. I won't freeze.

After the Nor'easter

I walked down to the mud flats this evening not long before nightfall. Description: big, huge, wet, black rocks. These surrounded the pier, mostly, but also strayed from the herd, out along the mud flats. Smaller rocks, no doubt hemmed by tides from the bigger ones and chunked piecemeal, all edged and blunt-pointed. A sheer blanket of clamshells, acres of them in total, often whole but more often minced! So that the ground was covered in little tiny bits of clamshell, all up along the edges of the marshy bamboo things that line Water Street. You walk on them thinking, "Graveyard, holocaust of clams, ground of calcium." Crunch, crunch, crunch. Hundreds of thousands of clams' worth of little tiny bits.

Also: big huge rotted-out logs, all jutting on the ground parallel towards the sea, as if an old dock of gigantic proportions, disassembled and its foundations abandoned. One big log that had broken away and swung back to lay along the shore, much of it embedded deep into the sand-mud. Grassy bits where it is slippery and still waterlogged. Everything waterlogged, really. And garbage! Wrappers, plastic bottles.

I found three glass bottles - one green, one clear with the cognac label still on, and one clear with interesting little floral textures. I decided to keep them as decorations. I also found two fishing bobbers of the red-and-white variety, plastic, the line pinching mechanisms too rusted for use. I kept one of the bobbers as part of my hypothetical Harbor Shrine that I will erect somewhere in my room. How 'bout that. Interesting stuff. What else.

The mud flats smell like fish and clam and dirt and mud and brown grass and rotting wood everywhere, lovely, permeating everything. I discovered that underneath the pier, if you walk next to it, you can see a wide space, about three feet tall, between the layer of concrete underneath and the wooden planks up top. A great place to hide something, if you ever need to hide something. Do you need to hide anything? I've got the spot. Of course, it will get washed away at high tide. So it's a really good place to hide something. Or lose it. However you choose to see it.

Roberto Benigni's Sky

Hardship, real hardship (the kind where you don't even have to think about your plight and idealize your misery so that it becomes worse than it seems) is one helluvan efficient way to develop gratitude. You just get filled with joy as the world burns, burns, burns, crashes down all around you, showering your head with the debris of a million generations of pain and upheaval, and you just look up into Roberto Benigni's sky and say, "Thank you for my life." Here we stand, still alive, despite, and despite, and despite. We are humans, greater than gods in our own human way. We defy the logic of hardship. Our irrationality, our fantasies, our imaginings and creations, lift us like wings above the clouds. Up there it's always sunny. And then we come to a point at which we are in both worlds, the good and the ugly, both on the ground and up in the air, simultaneously, and we hold the palms of our hands up so that we can see the lines in them, and we trace our past to this very moment, marveling at the mundane miracle of being alive.


February 29th, 1980, and my dad is pacing. Leap Year. Year of the Monkey. Out of the jungle and into the shopping mall. Pisces. Still wet. Both unnatural and natural, nature and nurture. A bionic organism born to human parents. My dad draws a tense breath, exhales.

You could smoke in waiting rooms back then. But the dad was discouraged from entering the birthing room. Germs and things, probably. Or dads make for bad midwives. Female nurses and male doctors only. It wasn't an official rule any longer, it was a deep-seated prejudice, I suppose, and perhaps not without value. My dad, for one, was all nerves and tendons. With 100 pounds of muscle that could move 350 straight upwards. Leave the delicate work to the female nurses and male doctor.

Yet here he is, holding me up to his cheek, me sound asleep, no idea just how secure these arms are, just sleeping like the days-old baby I am. Drooling and dreaming of the womb. It was warm in there, the womb.

That's why I started hollering before the rest of my body was born. "No deal," I skillfully argued. "This contract is null and void. Put my head back in that womb or you'll hear from my lawyer." I paused for effect, drooling my first drool, ordered my abductors to "cease and desist," and ultimately lost the case. The verdict was unanimous. I was guilty of being born, the minimum sentence for which was 27 years of Life, with an upward limit of 120 years for good behavior.

Yes, it all seems backwards, even today. I tried protesting and all I got was ignored and beat up. Me and reality don't get along too well. It's just so illogical.

Culture Sketch: New Haven

Almost three years ago I left Minneapolis and ultimately landed in New Haven, Connecticut. This is what I've learned.

On the surface and in its depths, New Haven is a typical lost-and-found American city. She is always in search of both past and future. Many roads lead here. Some proceed no further. People "get stuck" here.
One local myth is that New Haven is the sixth borough of New York City. This notion may or may not hold sway with the map carvers, but it is nonetheless a distinct oral tradition, sleepily yearning for a truncated dream of the past. We wear the Yankees insignia on our hats. We mention The City in our hip-hop songs. We came from New York. Historically, this may be true.

We also caravanned from Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. Our food is soul. Our spareribs fall off the bone. Our homes are clean.

We came from the Midwest. I myself came from Minnesota almost three years ago. I moved into a bedroom on Pleasant Street in the Grad Ghetto, a large, quiet enclave comprised mostly of studious Yalies. My roommate and subletter was a humble and responsible carpenter from Ohio named Mike. He built sets for the Long Wharf Theater, the only successful New Haven theater not affiliated with Yale. I took a job at a locally owned coffee shop called Koffee?. Such a simple name bespeaks the city’s smallness, its one-of-everything brand of cosmopolitanism.

I later lived in the Hill. I was the only white person in the neighborhood. Although most white New Havenites speak of the Hill in hushed tones of foreboding, I only ran into one problem in my three months there. One midnight walk home, a man followed me, shouting that he knows me, which I know he did not, because I looked. Should I have flashed my knife in the light of the street lamp, as I did, so that he could see it from ten feet away? Perhaps there was never anything to fear but annoyance, and it was my fear that was out of place, not my color. In fact, I once got the crud beat out of me by a bunch of cracked-out white boys on Ellsworth Avenue.

I moved in with my then-girlfriend, who had traveled from Portland, Maine in search of a husband according to the literalist directives of her lucid dreams. We shared that small City Point apartment on Sea Street with a born-again Christian man from rural Connecticut (I was a pantheist, she was pagan, but we all got along well enough). From our living room window, we witnessed the sun and the storms over New Haven Harbor. Down the street was the Sound School Regional Vocational Aquaculture Center. Docked boats, a long pier, and Sage, a classy burger-and-jazz joint overhanging the water, were some of the neighborhood's other hallmarks.

My girlfriend and I re-located to George and Howe, near the YMCA and almost adjacent to a pawnshop. On that corner, you can buy the New Haven Register from Steve in his orange blazer any day of the week. Steve rode into town on a Greyhound bus from Providence, Rhode Island many years ago. His uncles and aunts and cousins still live there.

When juxtaposed with my Midwestern memories, the “black” and “white” cultures blend together with comparatively little effort here in New Haven. This speaks highly of the community’s ability to transcend institutional racism. Not that racism is dead here. Puerto Rican people, who usually arrive in New Haven via Miami, are the community’s most stigmatized and isolated minority - more so even than the Mexican and South American Diaspora. North African, Arabic, and Indian peoples tend to man the hospitals and gas stations. Many other Asian peoples, such as Japanese and Chinese, can be found in the Universities. 

Obviously, these tendencies are bendable, but you see patterns.

The Yale campus, peopled by students and faculty from all over the world, is one of two pillars of the New Haven economy. Its presence has created many jobs for young non-students such as myself. Long-time locals tell me that the last fifteen years have been a time of growth and gentrification.

New Haven's other economic pillar is the social services. In the Downtown Evening Soup kitchen, I met a young middle-aged woman - hunched shoulders, sweet smile - filling plastic containers with second and third servings to keep herself alive. She told me she came from Iowa. I paused mid-bite and said, "Fellow Midwesterner." I learned her son is a philosophy student at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities campus. “My alma mater,” I smiled. Auld lang syne.

New Haven is a community both rotting and growing, staying put and just passing through. Our identity is not so much a melting pot, but a sand painting in progress, ebbing and flowing under the gentle breath of time.

Dreams of the East

The following is an art review I wrote for Art New England. The show I reviewed was called Dreams of the East. The artist's name is David Shapiro (view his website here), who operates out of Brooklyn, New York City. The New Haven, CT venue in which the show appeared is an upscale backyard garage operation called Grand Projects (view their website here).


Dreams of the East is a unique eight-painting installation incorporating Orientalist themes culled from the contemporary mass media. The images were rendered in fluorescent paint on canvas, and brought to life under black light. (To this reviewer’s knowledge, the technique has never been used.) The black light is flipped on and off at five-minute intervals, illustrating how the West selectively tunes in and tunes out the Pantheons of fame and the Underworlds of otherness.

When the black lights are off, the paintings are dull red or violet silhouettes. When the black light flips on, the paintings take on an eerie glow similar to television screens. They are freeze frames of famous white women in Arab harems; masked revolutionaries running towards the screen; celebrities like Whitney Houston, Angelina Jolie, and Brad Pitt visiting downtrodden peoples; and early Danish Internet pornography. Some of the images were faked on many levels, such as Anna Kournikova: Hot! Fake! Pic!, which is a photo of the tennis star’s face superimposed on the body of an anonymous porn star posing in a harem. Therefore, the image is triply or even quaternarily removed from reality.

The contemporary images in Dreams were culled from the Internet and television, yet the subjects recapitulate the works of such masters as Duccio, Gros, and Delacroix. Nobody Leading the People, for example, is a twist on Delecroix’s Liberty Leading the People. While Liberty depicts a violent revolutionary charge led by an ideal manifested as a common woman, Nobody depicts Haitian rebels charging towards the camera, storming the viewer.

Dreams of the East is a veritable catacombs of ideas, themes, subtexts, tropes, and theories. There are multitudes of access points into the catacombs, and every turn yields another series of choices. The intensity and thoroughness of both technique and concept make this installation a true original.

Mamzer Loshen

The following is an art review I wrote for the print edition of Art New England. The show I reviewed was called Mamzer Loshen/Bastard Tongue, named for the traditionalist Yiddish pejorative term for the English language. The artist's name is Johanna Bresnick (view her website here), who operates out of New Haven, Connecticut. The venue in which the show appeared is an upscale backyard garage operation called Grand Projects (view their website here).


Mamzer Loshen/Bastard Tongue is a freewheeling exploration of the tumultuous Jewish identities of Johanna Bresnick and Mike Cloud. Its inspiration was found in a recent standoff between an illegal Israeli settlement and the Israeli Army. As both parties had eschewed using guns against kinsmen, the settlers resorted to some rather comical battle tactics, as commemorated in The Upsetters (Set it off). Here, surrounded by an oil slick and draped in razorwire, a drywall barricade is found stocked with an arsenal of harmless but potentially annoying projectiles: paint-filled light bulbs, plastic bottles full of colored water, spray foam, and small rocks.

The installation turns satirical in Tigers of Long Island (Plagues). When viewed from above, the top edges of this elegant paper structure spell out the Ten Plagues in script. Frogs, hail, death of the firstborn, and the other plagues are all duly cited, along with some new ones: gas, migraine, gingivitis, ulcer, and so on.

Elevating satire to outright rebuke, From Mouth to Mouth brazenly flouts a Tanakh, the sacred book of Judaism, rent to pieces and stuffed into gel caps for easy consumption.

The structurally inventive Divine Image (Cosmic Tree Remix) seamlessly integrates the Burning Bush with the Kabbalah Tree of Life as a crimson wax candle with many wicks. The fallen leaves beneath the bush resemble tongues – the Bastard Tongues of semi-estranged Jews.

The most deeply layered – and funniest – component of Mamzer Loshen is a bedsheet emblazoned with a small image of Russian figure skating champion Oksana Baiul, and punctured to create a hole with the width of a phallus. This constellation of symbols cleverly re-contextualizes various sexual fetishes and myths.

Mamzer Loshen is jarring. It alternately antagonizes and cracks wise, restates questions and dismisses answers – and ultimately transmits the essential tumult of a modern Jewish-American heart.

Northern Lights

My mother woke me up before dawn.

“Come quick,” she intoned as I rubbed my bewildered eyes. There was excitement and urgency in her voice. “This is very important.”

We stood on the balcony of our third-story apartment and looked out beyond the playgrounds of my elementary school, over the trees huddled on the horizon, and witnessed the Northern Lights.

Aurora borealis! There in the sky it flashed! Green and blue and purple and others, a whole mess of colors flashing madly, off there in the distance, just above the trees and reflected in the lumpy blanket of clouds that kept us all warm that night. It looked like what concert bells sound like.


I believe in the simple magic of saying the words Nam Myoho Renge Kyo.
I was homeless for a while. I spent the first week of my homelessness with my girlfriend, who had flown in from New Mexico to Connecticut to see me. I took a bus up from New Haven and met her in Hartford. We stayed in an international youth hostel called America House, which was run by an old Taiwanese couple, Grace and David.

Grace enthusiastically regaled us with her descriptions of a Buddhist group she belongs to called Soka Gakai, the mission of which is to get people together and chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo. “When you chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo,” Grace would intone, smiling at us through that cute accent of hers, “you get good things coming to you.” My girlfriend and I smiled back at the anthropological curiosity of a real live Buddhist.

At the end of the week, as I was kissing my girlfriend goodbye, I realized my wallet was missing. I patted myself down and ransacked my suitcase. The bus came, my girlfriend went. I was utterly alone and penniless and homeless and adrift in a town I knew nothing about. I returned to the hostel to scan the room in which we had stayed. No wallet. No ID card, no Social Security card, no nothing. No money to get back to New Haven. I screwed up my courage to leave, and said goodbye to Grace for the second time.

“You wait,” Grace said, disappearing into the hostel. She emerged with three dollars and a baggy full of change. Suddenly a cloud lifted from the woman’s face, which took on an otherworldly gravity and locked eyes with me. This serious side of Grace was new to me. I froze. She spoke.

“I am old woman. I have seen a lot. You are young. You are strong and you are smart. You get yourself good job. You have to be good man for your girlfriend. You get yourself good job and live good life. Chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo every day. When you chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, you get good things coming to you. You are going to be okay.”

Her sternness melted to a sad smile. I looked at her and bit back tears, cupping the money she had given me between my hands, involuntarily holding them chest high and bowing my head as if in prayer. “Thank you. Thank you.” I walked away chanting Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, not because I believed, but because I was too afraid to think.

I found the wallet ten minutes later. It was sitting undisturbed in a restaurant booth where my girlfriend and I had sat the night before. I made a mental note to phone Grace with the good news. She would be sweet and kind and terse and prescriptive and brief and busy and beautiful like an old woman who has seen a lot in her long life.