Plague christians and the Second Flogging of Christ—a Christmas Rant

JC Has Had it with You Assholes

Christ died for these weaponized clowns, too. Several years ago The New Yorker told a brief and darkly humorous tale of a bunch of angry “conservative” folks in Oracle, Arizona.  They had convened with cameras and signs and spleen to scream at and harangue a bus full of scared Central American kids, arriving that day on their way to a youth home in the area. This would have followed the kids’ 1100 mile escape from the abject terror, gunfire and sadness of home.

The fleeing kids, new to our loudmouthed Land of Promise, would have shelter and food until our courts decided how best to place and help them. The Arizona Republican State Legislator leading the angry mob that day excitedly tweeted to his followers the arrival of the yellow bus, and the gang of grown-up assholes lustily gathered to angrily descend on it, hollering and pumping fists and screaming at the rattled kids that they weren’t wanted here.

It turned out the Republican Conservative (anymore read ‘Christian’) State Senator and his posse had mistakenly charged instead a school bus full of local kids on their way to the YMCA. Our gifted public servant, the State Legislator, had earlier BOASTED to a news reporter present that he’d seen the fear in the kids’ eyes through the bus window. He was later deflated to learn he’d terrorized the wrong children. 

Christian Right. Jumbo Shrimp

While assayers of the political culture gently shake their heads in reproof at the unfortunate lack of general Christian Charity in the deeds of “Christian” dipshits and lawmakers, it’s necessary to be reminded that these dirt clods are not just faltering in the presentation of something as meaningless as a brand; they are lavishly and ruinously failing as men and women of Christ, the reported Savior of a good many of them.

These individuals, presumptive believers who know Christ as a personal savior but can’t themselves be bothered to be even passably impersonal saviors, Know that Christ is the King of Kings, Know that Christ was killed for All of Us with whips and nails and a final spear in the guts, Know that Christ awakened from Death in a Turin-sponsoring blaze of radiation, Know that Christ rolled an enormous boulder away from his own tomb, Know that St. Thomas, in one of the New Testament’s most movingly, weirdly human moments, jammed his skeptic’s hands into Christ’s ragged wounds and yelled in panic. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Old Jerusalem actually houses, in a sealed inner sanctum, Christ’s reported tomb. You can tour the Garden of Gethsemane in broad daylight now, and with very little chance of Roman guards barging in to violently and unwittingly fulfill a cryptic promise.

These stirring wonders are archaeological, historical, and actual—and are being sullied by the damaged Lilliputs who have kidnapped Christ, pilgrims who frequently board their own buses and are hauled around the holy land with their jaws open, their eyes misting, their hearts fluttering like open books, heads bowed in necessary and spiritually justified attitudes of humiliation. Whatever you and I believe, the Christian individual lives by a set of scriptural truths, moves easily in the realm of the improbable God-sanctified milieu of Christ’s Passion, is exalted and instructed by Christ’s recorded miracles, and by His self-abnegating mercy.

Christian Right and the Wrong Temple

How then to explain these pious jackasses coming home from their heart-instructing Holy Land junket to support the quashing of food stamps, the stripping away of health care, the “draw a dollar-sign in mid-air” veneration of Rand’s John Galt?  Our Christian Right are spoiled bitch christians (lower case) who see mercy as a marketing tool.  These pricks are no more believers in Christ’s resurrection than they are in Felix the Cat’s magic bag. If they’re not fakes they’re grand-scale morons.

There comes a time when dithering needs to be set aside and the wantonly stupid addressed in the indecorous language to which their bold, projectile inferiority obliges them. The christian right, and I’m talking about the rancid political label here, are neither. They are engaged in the sort of bullshit that used to so enrage Christ He would trash the money-changers’ tables in the Temple and churlishly send herds of bewildered pigs in their thousands charging over a cliff. Can you imagine being a flogged and bloody Jesus and having died for THESE FAKES?! I apologize on their behalf for the second flogging, Lord.

Dear Confused Public Servant/Phony Christian. Stop riffing on the Bible and go buy yourself one – or swipe one from the Gideons next time you’re hooking up with your buxom lobbyist pal.  It’ll be that white book with the zipper under the alarm clock on the bedside table. I recommend the red-letter edition, where your Lord’s words are helpfully highlighted for the benefit of you raging dumbasses who are evidently unfamiliar with His marching orders. If you profess fealty to the Son of God (that is, Jesus Christ, whom you solemnly invoke without blushing) DO AS HE SAYS.

Christ’s Woeful Ignorance of Tax Policy

Christ’s undiluted command to help the poor is not symbolic, is not hip culture-speak for situational compassion, doesn’t nod to the tax code, and couldn’t give a shit about GDP. Christ didn’t frame his commands in terms of tax policy. You venerate Christ for having allowed himself to be beaten, scourged and crucified to death. FOR YOU. Remember? You think that was easy? In Gethsemane He actually asked to be let off the hook. “Is there another way?” You don’t think there was another way, Christian public servant. Christ was enacting an unavoidable prophecy. There was only the impossibly painful way for Him. You believe that in His Glory, Christ gave Himself over to be horribly beaten up and maimed to save YOU. Right?

So what’s with all your foul bullshit?! Are you insane or stupid? WHO DO YOU THINK YOU’RE KIDDING, ASSHOLE? You’re not fooling Christ.  This is not a voting bloc issue, not a legal issue, not a tax issue, not a resources issue. It’s a New Testament issue. Conservative Christian politician, if you believe the poor in the U.S. have it too good, if your goal is doing away with social programs that help the disenfranchised, if your legislative goal is making it MORE difficult for a poor person to get medical treatment, if you think the bootstrap is more potent than the cross – tell your pastor you are leaving the Christian church, because in your ‘reading’ of the New Testament (red letter edition!) you made a mistake and hadn’t realized you would be asked to sacrifice convenience, tax monies, government resources and effort, and all this other worldly crap to help the needy. Christ spoke very plainly on these issues, very very plainly; WHAT IS THE ******* CONFUSION??!!

Fools, but not for Christ. [1 Corinthians 4:10]

These fools are not Christians, literally or colloquially. They are Tacticians. The conservative movement famously made Christ the hood ornament on their war wagon some years ago in order to wave into the tent those folks who would otherwise have seen no reason to join a party that nakedly put the individual above the community. Good Christian people signed on, many of them of that economic stratum the Republican Party anymore uses to clean the soles of its golf shoes. In an instance of Genetically Modified Politics the ‘Right’ have reverse-engineered Christ into a proselytizer for American success, known in some quarters as “prosperity theology”. This despite His straight-faced warning that a camel will squeeze through the eye of a needle with much less effort than it takes a rich lobbyist to enter Heaven (red letter!).

Look it up. Matthew 19:24. I say this not to slight the rich, who have what they or their forbears have rightfully earned, and that is as it should be. It does point up, though, the unusual fact that the Republican party’s spiritual leader had His own qualms about the monied citizenry to whom the Republicans owe their everything, and whose overweening liquidity fuels the Right’s lobbying efforts against the interests and well-being of Christ’s poor.  These lying (or stupid or both) revisionist Christians have formed their own Council of Nicea and are editing the Word on the fly to their own beige, simplistic, capitalized designs.

Capitalism, Libertarianism, the zero-sum primacy of the individual who aspires to a monied and exalted Self – these are arguable designs for social policy that merit discussion and come packaged with utilitarian pros and cons. But there is no Jesus there. You are simply a garden-variety moron if you really believe Christ was murdered so that you could take health care and food assistance away from the poor. And you’re the one who says He isn’t dead at all. Christ was flogged into the next world for YOU. Right? Act like it, “conservative” legislator. Take a page from His book and help the helpless. It’s not terribly complicated. 




Atheists and Pantheists and Little Lambs Eat Ivy. Again.


Druids, Wiccans, Zoroastrians, Nuwaubianists, Cthulhu acolytes and well-off Vatican habitués in ill-fitting silk: hello. And hi to you, herniated bronze-age nincompoops who assembled Stonehenge. Was it worth it? We don’t know what the hell it is.

Tanned, muscly Aztec priest with your heavy eyeliner, Marcel Marceau-anticipating pancake and over-serious tribal headdress: put down those sacrificial entrails and come down from your gore-littered ziggurat. Let’s have a word. Your worship has grown tiresome. How many still-beating virgin hearts can you gnaw in a week? You must be paying a fortune for floss. There is an easier way to venerate.

To paraphrase the Old Testament: it’s summertime, summertime, sum-sum-summertime in Santa Barbara California! Santa Barbara’s Summer Solstice Spiritual Heartwork and Drink Specials Celebration® has come staggering down the pike once more, and our relationship with Nature® is the better for it. First day of summer! The longest day (not to be confused with the 1944 coastal invasion of France) of the year! What the ancients used to call Midsummer and would celebrate with enormous bonfires and dances and chanting? You’re in! Gather up your healing bunches of St. John’s Wort, raise your arms to the stars and sun, embrace the season cycle and the circularity of it all. Let’s ring it in with a gaudy parade and send it packing with a terrific organic hangover. All that genuflecting before old-timey Titans in the clouds, multi-armed Vedantic yoga freaks, that laughing fat guy with the incense holes? So yesterday.

Santa Barbara at Solstice is the Way, The Truth, and The Lite. Paganism, venerable pre-Abrahamic obeisance to the natural order, is here thrown a party in which the celebrants are happy to raise a toast. To what they aren’t exactly sure. These are folks who think Wicca is the stuff lawn furniture is made of. No matter. Let us pray for two whole days and nights. This mammon-haunted burg shall become a New Church where the faithful feverishly worship the sun, the Earth and the trees, well drinks-two-for-one, Puff the Magic Whatnot, and the sun and the Earth. And the trees.

We Santa Barbarians have seen this before. Going on nearly 40 years now. What began as a gentle mime/artist/eccentric playfully celebrating his own birthday with pals by traipsing down State Street in a colorful show of self-congratulation (RIP, Michael Gonzales) has, in the well-meaning decades since, morphed into a self-loving juggernaut fraught with all the trappings of a metastasizing commercial enterprise.

On Solstice weekend, a reported 100,000 people pour in from all parts, nailing their lawn chairs to the Main Street curb in the wee hours before the big day, the better to be in the middle of the action when the parade comes broiling up the main drag with its balloon arches and scantily clad pan flute wielders and army of annoying bubble-blowing flower-children adults.

The parade’s terminus, beautiful Alameda Park, is so crowded with vendors that weekend you can barely make out the grass for all the electric cable. Stella and I were accosted in the early hours of vendor setup last year by a Goat’s Milk Soap purveyor intent on a sale. No, thank you, ma’am. If it squirts out of a goat, I won’t want to lather with it. Later in the day, the entrepreneurism was in full-flower at the park, Ra looking down in wonder. This in the midst of a Summer of Love mob of dancing, swirling babes in translucent rainbow-colored gauze, and the ingenious chameleon-like “Dockers and Izod” infiltrators who slipped unnoticed (they truly believe) into the melee, wearing confused grins and glad for once to be in Church.

And while the yearly parade themes change, the parade itself does not. Beverly Hillbillies theme! Peace theme! Sunshine theme! Affectionate Gargoyles theme! All the themes feature the same goldfish on bicycles and young ladies in chiffon batwings, flapping serenely down a main street thronged with the stoned, the stunned, the curious, and the hideously sunburned – our visitors from the Heartland who keep raising and then slowly lowering their cameras. Normally respectable orthopedic surgeons twirl down State street in papier-mâché tree outfits alongside besotted clerk-typists in loincloths, drill-teams of faux Amazons on roller skates, and kettle-drum beating, shirtless and worryingly crimson Hedge Fund managers in the first stages of heat-stroke dementia.

That tired-looking, older gentleman-hippie on stilts lumbers about ponderously for the umpteenth year in a row and is not yet pitched screaming into the roadside kiddies by stilt-loving termites. The high-priced DUI attorney (probably still on the clock) for once tipsily commingles with and does not attempt to prosecute the inebriated IT guy, both of them dressed ineptly as sunflowers: the Lion and the Lamb. Overtanned retirees, who fancy themselves “fit” and have the sort of hairy upper arms that make you throw away your ice cream cone, prance about in regrettable form-squeezing lycra – their sweaty, balding pates ringed with denuded wildflowers. It unnerves the children. Oh, the children, the children. They come for a parade and a little shower of tossed candy and instead have their innocence ripped from them by oldsters prancing in floral leggings, the septuagenarian’s unearthly, outthrust, collagen-plumped derrières looking like bargain styrofoam implants. Don’t look, baby! Turn your head to mommy, turn your head to mommy!

But then (speaking of Bringing Up the Rear) troubled hearts are made new again by the monstrously cheery, primary-colored, bobbling inflatable giants that more often than not signal the end of the Parade line every year, and which are invariably greeted with cheers and even more feverish, lumbar-tormenting gyrations. We have the brilliant and indefatigable wonder-worker Pali-X-Mano to thank for that; a lettered Hungarian artisan and Budapest’s gift to our twisted little Candyland for many many years now. His brilliant, happy creations have become emblematic of the very spirit of the celebration.

And it’s all for the love of Mother Earth, or Mother Nature, or that margarine in the 70s that used to invoke Mother Nature. There’s some Mother involved, okay? Flower-bedecked, bra-burning. We have come to worship Her. Gail? Sounds like Gail, I think. The communion wafer is a peyote button, the Blood of the Sacrament a hidden flask of warm Wild Turkey. The only sacrifice this religion requires is that of your pride as you toddle blindly into traffic owing to your sloppily aligned butterfly mask and the several pints of Guinness sloshing around in your happy, swollen thorax.

By the end of this two-day orgy of spiritual growth and graceless tipping over with painted arms a-waving for help, one can see the acolytes scattered about the twilit landscape like people dropped from a low-flying airplane; face-down, arms outstretched in a show-closing embrace of Gaea (that’s it!), supine, exalted. The fruits of faith.

Oh-How-We-Adore-It, this indescribable weekend of bedlam! Solstice in Santa Barbara! A freak! An anomaly! A disheveled clown cruising through your neighborhood at dusk on a Vespa! There are no truly apt analogies, and that’s as it should be. It is a yearly grand mal carnival that is wholly our own, completely SB, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. So, till next year, dear ones. Cast your bread upon the waters. Just aim away from my new shag carpet.


*Jeff  writes the column State Street Scribe for the Santa Barbara Sentinel – where a ravishing print version of this piece can be found.

SB Sentinel, Volume 3/Issue 12/June 14-28. Page 6


The House We Lived In

In this 10 minute 1945 Public Service Announcement, Frankie is enlisted to school a gang of nascent Bowery Bigots on the keynote of the American Experiment.

By 1945 the world had been hammered flat and smeared with offal. Our guys, our kids, had sprinted up beaches and into a spirit-breaking enfilade of artillery and machine-gun fire, ducked behind the toppled smoldering ruins of smashed European capitals, crept in abject, piss-yourself terror through cratered S. Pacific jungles, and fallen screaming from skies pockmarked with flak. Our Flying Fortresses were riveted together by our wives and girlfriends. It was a time. Kids from farms and towns and cities were hastily trained and awoke to find themselves running through flame. Major players of the period included Judy Garland, Erwin Rommel, Greer Garson, Tojo, Audie Murphy, Fred Astaire. All that instructive madness has long-since been shellacked in numbing amber. That WWII really happened, and just day before yesterday, is completely batshit, but not so’s you’d notice. Our public schools, per the contract, have sufficiently pasteurized the subject to transfigure it into lecture pablum delivered half-heartedly at a chalkboard, the dazed descendants of our once and future crusaders struggling to stay awake for the telling, doodling in their notebooks as the Normandy Invasion is sleepily explicated in the minutes before recess and the excited iPhone-comparing ritual.

WWII was also a refiner’s fire that resulted in the inadvertent shedding of Our National Shyness and lifted us to the largely unpopular pinnacle of power on Earth, to the utter chagrin of most, including our present allies. William Manchester, in his haunting and poetic memoir Goodbye Darkness, writes painfully and movingly of the way his terrified final wartime ascent up the blasted slope of Okinawa’s Sugar Loaf Hill is entangled inextricably with his own elegiac farewell to a U.S. he’d known as a kid, and which somehow the War put to bed for good.

Needless to say, all that fighting and confusion bred a jingoism here at home that spread like a toxic rash. Sinatra, 4F’d out of war service by dint of his forceps-torn eardrum and thus often greeted in his performances of the time by flying vegetables and invective, was advised to perform in an ameliorating Public Service Announcement wherein he schools a gang of Jew-hating bowery boys on the finer points of the American Mission Statement. It’s a scripted, otherwise exalting soliloquy on inclusivity and the Brotherhood of Man in which Frank yet manages to villify ‘Japs’ , setting them aside for the moment from the aforementioned Brotherhood and lauding them instead as targets of our airborne ire. It’s as sloppy a hymn to Freedom as one expects from a lumbering, puppy-crushing Lenny like the U.S. and our beloved blue-eyed bipolar jackass and National Symbol. Frank. A name and, from sea to shining sea, our collective adjective. I am powerfully endeared to the idea of the United States as a well-meaning, often murderous moron. Some of my friends blanch at this. Understandably.

I’ve always said that the penultimate wordless portrait of the USA is Gene Kelly’s swinging, choreography-free spin with the umbrella in Singin’ in the Rain. This flawed Sinatra PSA is of a like species. The picture above links to the vid. It’s a handful.


What a Deferens a Day Makes: A True Story

what deferense does it make

How does a vasectomy work? Where and how is the cutting done? Is there pain, or ‘discomfort’ as medical professionals call it? Are the feet hung in stirrups such as those the ladies are made to suffer? May I keep on my black Timberland Steel-Tip Blizzard Stalker® work boots in that case, the better to mitigate the gender assault and maintain a firm grasp on my manhood? Where does one buy such boots at sensible sale prices?

A friend’s halting and approximate description of the procedure made it clear he’d had his eyes squeezed shut and his fists clenched the whole time, his mouth likely a twisted Charles Nelson Reilly grimace before the doctor even entered the room. But I was determined. Judie and I had been talking about it for quite a little while. It was stupid to have her taking that scary chemical bomb whose possible side effects included Sudden Marsupial Pouch Syndrome and a little something called Dumbo Neck. I mean…Dumbo Neck? A quick little outpatient procedure would address the issue structurally and permanently and without any cryptic synthetic mischief. Downside; at a particular and inevitable moment in the foreseeable future a stranger would be lunging at my wiener with a knife. Once the appointment was made it hung like a cloud. The appointment, I mean. The friend offered assurances when I began to murmur my panic aloud one evening. Leaning in and draping his arm fraternally across the back of my chair, he gave it to me sotto voce.

“Hey, look. You’re in and out. It’s quick; an office visit. It’s a simple thing, doesn’t really hurt. A little discomfort is all.” Shit. Then he’d leaned in further with that prone, code-throwing man-face that in the old days used to precede a wink. “And after that? Anytime, anyplace.” This man-to-man would normally compel a reflexive high-five, but I’m not an ‘anytime, anyplace’. I need a bed, nice blankies, some walls, a locked door, a hallway motion detector dialed up to 11, maybe a candle or something? I’m not the hard-breathing tat yeti hurriedly nailing his Old Lady behind the funnel cake concession. My Old Lady and I had once done the hokey-pokey with ‘abandon’ in a ramshackle field next to a music festival in Belgium. I’d been in the host position, a jacket tossed over a puddle, my bare back abraded by several flesh-rending varieties of European fuck-sticklers. The whole time my distracted eyes were trained on a circling helicopter that was surely filming us for the Belgian evening news. This was Europe! As Eurythmics hammered out Sweet Dreams 100 yards away, I was having my back chewed to hell and my startled gingerbread man face filmed in telescopic close-up from above. When we got up to return to the concert and I managed to unfasten myself from the grasping, angry flora, the flesh of my back was aflame.  For the remainder of the afternoon and into the night I was madly trying to reach and scratch, windmilling my arms backward, my paws scrabbling at thin air, people staring. Anytime, Anyplace.

First meeting was the orientation. Five of us were shown to a dingy little hospital meeting room with AA type folding chairs. There was a pall of silence,  no chit-chat whatsoever. The sound of labored breathing and nothing else made the wait in the little room seem French and absurdist, doom-laden.  In a minute the doctor showed up in his long white coat-thing, a distinguished sixty-something with baggy eyes, an annoyingly full head of snowy white hair, and a nonchalant demeanor that he’d carelessly sculpted over years of otherwise frightening genital assault. The consultation itself had been weirdly glib. Big Cock and Little Cock jokes, of all things. He hastily and ineptly illustrated the procedure on a yellow pad with a ball point pen. We  were made to understand that the tubes he’d be tying off would stop the sperm from entering the cannonade, but that the Lovin Spoonful (10cc, Material Issue, Pearl Jam, etc.) would still spray unabated, to no purpose now but to keep the paper towel magnates in lobster bisque. That is, our mighty guns would still fire but the barrel would now pop out a silken little spring-loaded teal flag that said pow! in calligraphic lower case. I’m paraphrasing here.  Plus his presentation featured an unnerving quantity of jittery giggling and awkward, sighing silences during which he would look off into space with something like melancholy. He Who Would Be Incising Our Scrota was not putting us at our ease. We candidates for the snipping looked at each other uneasily. I tried to fixate on the stethoscope. It looked like the real thing and not a mail order fake.

The evening before the operation I’d gathered up the courage to research the procedure online, probably the most common mistake one can make, and the most horrific. What I saw on my computer screen caused my qwerty to curl back from the keyboard in a spasm of frank horror.  In panel one a scrotal thingamabob bulged obscenely through a slit in a hospital-green cotton sheet, looking like a sickly, roughed-up, newly-hatched chick tottering in panic toward the camera.  Seeing this I thought ‘no need for the operation; I will never have sex again’. In panel two the outraged chick has its throat neatly slit (the procedure relies heavily on slits) and the deferens is extruded like a delicate bloodied single strand of angel hair pasta. It’s a saddeningly mechanistic glyph, this one; to think of all the history owed to that pale little thread – the Spartan armies at the Battle of the Hot Gates, the banner-waving Crusaders descending on Jerusalem, the unstoppable Barbarian hordes who finally managed to bring mighty Rome to her knees; on the way to those glories they first had to shimmy like giddy little guppies through this tiny strand of tissue. Even Attila the Hun! Even Shatner!


My name was called and I put down my magazine, kissed Judie on the cheek and marched grandly down the little hall to the room on the right. A freckle-faced  Candy Striper greeted me cheerily with her clipboard, the Bic Medium Point held aloft and ready to record my responses.  The semi-inclined gurney awaited, just there, but I didn’t look at it yet. I sat in the plastic chair that was offered.

“Have you taken anything?” the Candy Striper wanted to know. What? Was something missing?


“Have you taken a sedative of any kind?”

“Oh. No, I haven’t.”

She nodded appraisingly and made an appreciative face to the floor.

“Allergies to any painkillers?”

“Not that I know of.”

“Is someone here to drive you home?”

“Yes.” I nodded.

“Okay.” She pivoted with some deliberation,  placed her clipboard on the counter. Turned to me. “Please remove your pants and underwear.”


“Please remove your pants and underwear?”

“Take off my pants?” I remember actually saying, already cooking up delaying tactics as the blood rushed straight out of my weiner and up into my furiously blushing head. I was suddenly so alarmed I could feel even the back and sides of my head blushing madly under my hair. Then she said the strangest thing, nodding and slowly blinking her eyes.

“It’s me.”

I knew these professionals were unflappable, even in the face of things with flaps. I’d been handled and probed and juggled and squeezed. What of it? I made a show of calmly removing my pants. She bade me lie down on the gurney, naked below what would have been the belt.

“Are you comfortable?”

“yyESS?” I heard myself chirp an octave too high.

“Are…you cold? Can I get you a blanket?”

“No, I’m fine,” I said, then looking down saw that my Doric Pillar of Manhood had been reduced to the little opaline snap that fastens the velveteen pajamas around a four-year-old’s neck. “Yeah, I guess I’m a little cold.” She opened a cabinet and withdrew a crisp, cold blue sheet and handed it to me. With a great slow show of nonchalance I unfolded it and drew it over the terrified little bump down there.

“The doctor will be with you, Shorty.”


“The doctor will be with you shortly,” she repeated, finally looking annoyed.

Five minutes later Dr. Baggy Eyes strode in with an air of impatience. He did not have his stethoscope.

“We all set?”

“Yes, I think so.”

He opened another cabinet and withdrew a silver tray with some horror instruments on it, then produced a sheet of some kind with the little aperture in it, through which he would tug my business until it looked like a trapped fetal bird.  He lifted away the sheet I’d been given, pulled up his rolling stool and sat down to stare frankly and intently at my genitals, which I could feel edging slowly away from the doctor and into my already crowded pubis where I imagined the various blood vessels and cartilaginous structures making room and complaining.

“Are you cold?”


“So let’s just take a — ” He paused, made a disgusted clucking sound and drew his device back. Very suddenly he was bellowing.


“JESUS!!  ssshhhh!!! ssshhhh!!”


“ssssshhh!! …what? Yeah, yeah, yeah, you….I…I did that –”


“yes, yes!”


What can one say to that?  He brushed quickly past the gurney and flung the office door open with great windy force. As I craned my neck I could see him making that clipped ‘c’mere, you!’ hand gesture that the powerful and monied use to summon those they are about to school.

“STEVE,” he called out, jabbing at the air like an asshole CEO summoning the new guy in accounting.  Then again. “STEVE!”

A stricken teenager in hospital baggies slunk slowly into the room, uncertain and tremulous as a seahorse. I saw him in my periphery but couldn’t look.

“PLEASE SHAVE THIS GENTLEMAN’S BALLS,” Dr. Baggy Eyes hollered with contempt; one of those very particular utterances that only fit a very few occasions. He snapped off his rubber gloves in one fluid businesslike doctor’s gesture and swept out of the room like a man wearing an ermine cape. Very very strikingly then, it was just me and Steve and my ill-shaven packaged goods.  The woebegotten intern-trainee looked me briefly in the eye as one must look at a firing squad after having been refused the blindfold. This may have been the youngster’s very first shave, a perversion of that particular Right of Passage. He positioned himself at home plate and in an approximate catcher’s crouch. I looked at him down there between my legs and thought maybe  an ice-breaking chat was in order.

‘Hey, how’s it goin’?’


Stevie then scraped terribly away at my tropic zone while I stared at the wall in blank existential freefall somewhere between overpowering embarrassment and sheer terror as this jittery neophyte-with-razor timidly worked away.  Something in me knew this episode marked the end of whatever med school aspirations Steve’s parents had been boasting to the neighbors about. He finished and stood, looked to be pinching the razor and holding it aloft like a dead rat. He fairly dropped it on the counter.

“Thanks,” I said, and he looked at me with a haunted expression.

“‘..welcome..” and he shuffled out.

Dr. Baggy Eyes returned, snapped on a new set of rubber gloves, gave me a little crotch-deadening magic (hold your comment, reader) and snipped. There was discomfort, briefly, and of an otherworldly variety. When I flinched a little the doctor said, with an odd relish, “It’s a different kind of pain, isn’t it?”

“mm hmm.”

15 minutes later it was over, but for a tired-looking older man with sewing kit parked between my thighs, staring intently at the wounds and sutures,  his long smocked arm rising rhythmically with the length of thread; a strangely domestic scene. Put a smashed bonnet on his head and you’ve got Betsy Ross.

I stood, my privates feeling mildly kneed. We shook hands. The shaving misstep had soured him a little and he took his leave in something of a huff. When I turned to go I saw that the Candy Striper and Steve and three other youngsters in medical baggies were gathered in the doorway opposite, with bemused, expectant expressions, like the cast of One Day at a Time.

“Thanks…everybody,” I said, trying to be funny. I waved. They all sort of smiled, one or two half-raised their hands in response then thought better of it. It was clear that ‘Steve’s Close Shave’ had already made the office lightning rounds.  I saw too that Steve was smiling more expansively, like he’d summited something.  A testicular Sir Edmund Hillary.  Is there any other kind? Maybe he’d make med school after all.

The Greatest Discovery

E and B groter
clueless glory-teens stumble onto ark of the covenant. Bernie’s haircut notwithstanding.

G*d have mercy on me. Among the unlikeliest of songs in the rock n’ roll canon is a hair-raising little tune called The Greatest Discovery. One gets a throat cramp knowing that this scraggly early triumph preceded world domination, then reportedly a darkling period that featured a lot of John and Taupin crawling around on shag carpets sniffing pitifully for the leftover dregs of various coke bacchanals; stardom wiped its feet on the fledglings and they foundered willingly into the pit, for a while.  But the first meetings? Their mutual awakening to the power of songwriting? Jesus. This very early Elton song clenches my fists and inclines my head, sums up perfectly why Bernie Taupin is a teenage idyll, a marble statue of a Kid Before the Fall sitting in a desk chair by a tensor lamp.  Like all Taupin’s very early stuff this small, adolescent bit of dumb puffery reads like it was scribbled in a spiral notebook between math homework and parental orders to brush teeth and get jammies on.  The devastating, high schoolish little verse isn’t much to look at, really shouldn’t have been married to a chord progression, doesn’t properly earn the right to a melodic treatment, staggers forward ineptly with accidental rhymes, slant rhymes, sophomoric bits of Yeatsian pretension and all the clunkiness one gets from a hunched teen with a Ticonderoga # 2 behind a closed bedroom door. It is a detonation, though. A marvel of reaching, halting boyhood, this cloying Mother’s Day paean to a new life in the house, as explosive as Brian Wilson’s wrenchingly autobiographical primal scream ‘In My Room’, in it’s way. Elton J has spoken in interviews of why the early and mid-period John/Taupin songs sound the way they do. Taupin didn’t know meter from Peter. His unrestrained, heartfelt teen verse most often took the form of a-metrical narrative lines or hurried couplets meant to capture a feeling. Read the lyics to Grey Seal and know that Elton is the hardworking Lord of supple melodic reverse engineering. The Greatest Discovery seizes me every time I listen to it, heralding the early union of these two misfits and their powerful willingness to be uncool. There’s a great vid in studio of the song being performed on BBC in 1970, linked to the photo above, though E’s apparently nervous producer Paul Buckmaster hits some painful bum notes on the cello opening. if you can find the original track from the eponymous ‘Elton John’ album, that’s the one. This and many many other imperfectly articulated tunes from earlier epochs are an antidote to these end times of tinfoil pop tarts stamped out of metal like license plates.

Ascent of Man/A Vanished Smile

before the fall
When the seas are calm, all ships alike show mastery of floating

One evening in 1965 we were having a fried chicken dinner at the kitchen table in our house in Cheyenne, my newish little brother in a highchair. He suddenly screamed and raised his little arms like a guy being held up at gunpoint. A sharp chicken bone, yet another ill-fitting component of God’s perfect plan, had penetrated the roof of his mouth and stuck there. My mom shouted in a high terrified pitch that still rattles me in the remembrance.  I turned my head away in terror and she dislodged the bone. Then in 1982 my little brother’s car crossed the center line of a road near our house in Phoenix and plowed head-on into a pickup truck, breaking both his legs, severing nerves, slicing his neck, scrambling his insides and unfolding his map. We all know how difficult it is to refold a map. A young firefighter from the station house near Thomas Mall kept him alive by pinching his hemorrhaging jugular closed. At the very instant of the collision, it will be shown, that overpraised jackass Robert Frost arrived on the scene with his stupid plaid shirt, dangling forelock and sleepy staring eyes and ushered my brother down a Road he would not otherwise have traveled. I would much much rather he hadn’t had to travel it. This road has been corrosive. I can see why other routes are preferred by those in the know.  In the single lifetime we’re all granted this quantum path-foisting ate away much of his time on Earth. The crash left him badly damaged but he lived, terribly broken. On the crazed night my mom and I ran to the hospital we found him swaddled in tubes and surrounded by machines, his swollen, battered, terrible, unfamiliar face the bloodied living stillpoint at the center of a metal chrysalis from which he would later emerge, a changed brother, to begin an involuntary midnight voyage. A family member, in the midst of all the sorrow, reminded me that my brother’s own choices had brought this mayhem on, which was absolutely true, however powerless and empty a factoid at that moment.  He’d been playing a drinking game at a friend’s apartment, and his idiocy had dragged two other people into his F***ed-Up Mistake Orbit (FUMO).  The young guy in the pickup truck walked away without a scratch but was badly shaken up, of course.  My brother had a girl in the car with him that night, a casual friend. She would lay in a coma for 6 weeks, the recipient and later ungrateful benefactress of my feverish praying.  During that slumber her parents would successfully sue my parents and later buy a condo with the award money, we learned. When the young lady finally did awaken I remember running giddily around the living room of our house on Mulberry, assuring everyone that Christ, my boyfriend at the time, had heard my prayers and taken care of her, as he would take care of my broken brother.

The hospital that took him in that night absolutely saved his life, possibly in defiance of the natural order, and in the hurry to do so didn’t notice that they overlooked a break. He had two broken thighs and a broken shin and his guts were scrambled. Don’t miss that broken shin, doctors, please. And so they simply didn’t know to set his broken shin. Incredibly. In time he was moved out of Intensive Care, bedazzled and crushed by the full weight and reality of what had happened, and in near constant pain. My mom describes an intern/therapist coming into his room one afternoon a mere week after the crash, to readjust the system of ropes, pulleys and counterweights that held my brother’s badly broken legs aloft. P. reportedly tried desperately to talk the doctor-in-training out of moving his legs at all, when suddenly the young intern released something and my brother’s legs dropped to the bed like deadweights, his spontaneous screams filling the whole floor of the hospital, at which point my mom jumped up and hustled out of the room like a hurried somnambulist, then fled, running running running down the corridor with her hands over her ears. When he went home from the hospital my brother screamed as he moved about with his walker, cried out as he struggled to get out of bed, wept in anguish in the night. It didn’t occur to us to wonder if some broken piece of him hadn’t been seen to. We were idiots in hell. Maybe because he’d been drinking when he crashed we were the family he deserved. At any rate, this episode tested my faith, which had previously been in full flush, from Young Life meetings my sophomore year in high school to the darkling months after my brother’s ruin. Yes – his self-inflicted, choice-driven ruin. The abject failure of prayer in the coming period would change me, as idiotic a reason to surrender one’s faith as dumb luck and glowing new friendships are to find it in the first place.

By the time it became clear that he’d been sent home with a still-broken leg, it was too late. Eventually the unmended shin bone had gone ahead and reassembled itself according to both the crazy determinism inherent in living tissue and the rules of entropy and chaos. The natural mechanism makes the most out of the highly organized bedlam that is repeatedly shown to be at its center.  In the absence of surgical intervention the smashed living bone roused itself, the ragged halves finding each other in the dark to follow the deeply programmed imperatives of repair and survival. The result was a mess. Constant pain and fear, to state the results plainly. Later, one leg shorter than the other, so he wouldn’t be able to run anymore. The hospital offered to rebreak it and my brother demurred. Neither could he smile the way he’d been able to before the accident. The severing of nerves in his face saw to that. When in time he would be moved to reflexively smile the result was more a grimace. Eventually he stopped smiling altogether, the better to avoid being reminded of all the dumb little things he’d taken for granted before. So. My dear little brother went careering down the chute into the arms of a pharmaceutically informed, acute rolling misery that would leave him friendless, directionless, and finally homeless. A few days after the wreck a commiserating neighbor would tell my mom, “Just the sound of the collision was the most awful thing I’ve ever heard.” Through all this period I would lie awake in the dark, every every every night, and picture him in his high chair, his little arms swinging up and shaking with the pain of a chicken bone having speared his hard palate. Like a harbinger. To that nightly vision would later be added the scene, plainly described by my mother, of the intern dropping his legs on the hospital bed.

In 1969 my brother and I were living in Libya on an American air force base with my big lifeguarding, scuba diving sister and my parents. It was our last assignment as a service family. I’d personally arrived there by way of Louisiana, Nebraska, Texas, Wyoming, Florida, at what I later realized was the zenith of an air-base cloistered, crewcut existence of cuffed blue jeans, jug ears, occasional cowboy boots and every day the same species of oversized, horizontally striped Montgomery Ward pullover shirt with the floppy, outsized lapels. My largish 8-year old’s ass was made even more pronounced by the tiny nondescript beige bubble I wore for a head. Having just come from Cheyenne, Libya was a strange and unnerving new world for Little Jug-Ears, and my brother and I made the most of it. Just before daybreak every morning the skies and gardens and kitchen windows and parked fighter jets and barracks and Office’s Club and movie theater would reverberate to the disturbingly monotone, air-raid-siren-loud singsong of prayers being broadcast from the mosques just off base. Until someone explained the practice to me I assumed these early morning loudmouths were just yelling at everyone to wake up.

Patrick and I didn’t know we were in a Muslim country, couldn’t know our concrete and barbed-wire, wall-surmounted Air Base was an island of grudgingly accepted Western sovereignty in an ancient land of nomads, oases, sword-swinging Berbers, and sandstorms so weirdly fierce that after the event you would find sand from the Sahara at the bottom of what had been a factory sealed cereal box, a phenom I never had explained but at which my friends and I marveled. My brother and I accepted this occasionally jarring new world with the mildly grinning equanimity of the stupid. In a couple years Gadaffi would storm in with his henchmen, topple the buffoonish King Idris, and close the base.

Like good crusaders my brother and I dutifully walked the 5 blocks to Sunday school once a week to be reminded we’d been born in sin and that our salvation would only come at the behest of a gentleman whose framed portrait on the classroom wall made him look like a freshly shampooed gentile from Cleveland. On leaving our quarters Sunday morning I  would carry the lone family bible, an unread, threadbare, dust-streaked prop with a broken zipper, interestingly tissuey pages and red letters to indicate Jesus’ alleged speeches, murmurings and often ruinously indecipherable pronouncements. We’d lifted it from a hotel somewhere in our scant travels.  Patrick, not wanting to show up empty-handed, would carry a bright blue hardcover copy of The Treasury of Science Fiction Classics. True. Naturally the inclination in hindsight is to wonder which of us carried the more fabulist tome.

I can remember vividly that our Sunday school teacher, to my frustration, pronounced the word ‘hell’ as ‘hal’; an impediment that made her uniquely unsuited to threaten us with brimstone. She once asked our class where people who did not allow themselves to be saved from sin were destined to go. There was gravity in her voice and a sense of careful treading, I remember. We all bowed our heads in embarrassment. The name of the place in most of our households was itself a form of invective, a curse word; something mom yelled with conviction when the meatloaf fell apart. The teacher had singled out a little blond girl in the class who couldn’t help but raise her hand to half-mast in what looked like an almost unwilling Pavlovian response. She knew the answer but couldn’t say it.

“Yes, Audra?”

“I can’t say it.” Her blushing face was aimed squarely at the floor. No matter. Our teacher couldn’t say it either. She nodded in gentle commiseration as she spoke.

“It’s Hal, isn’t it?”

Some of my classmates’ heads bobbed up in mild curiosity. Hal?

Hal, I thought, doesn’t sound so bad.


My brother is recently happily married. He and his wife go to church and they’re studying the Bible, whose Old Testament is the story of a pissed off and impatient God who yells from the empty sky and grows more and more angry as his people continue to f**k up. Great numbers of livestock and desert tribespeople are consumed in cantankerous sheets of fire, men are ordered to put knives to their own kids’ throats in order to prove their fidelity to this Creationist Egomaniac. There are also dark warnings about eating shellfish. It’s a mad grab bag of amorality and eye-crossing gibberish. No publisher today would touch the thing. The New Testament God acquires a bold new brand, though. He is merciful and nice, wears a terrycloth robe and a beard that, in photographs, is neatly combed. He offers up His own Son for once, and makes frank, sweet, apologetic promises that as yet we’ve no way of fully trusting. It’s as if He wearied of murder, became embarrassed by it, and walked into His own light. So it is with my brother. The Fates are taking a breather. They’ve delivered their beating and their arms are tired. My brother’s turning to God may be standard operating procedure once you’ve come through a fire, or after having for years been consigned to sleeping on curbs, in alleyways, in shelters and in fleabag hotels. For years and years! Then through his own heroic efforts and bootstrap-yanking heartwork he finds himself on a mattress with a new best friend. Bigger than a PhD.

It must be said that I did the consigning.  When my dad passed away (“Don’t screw up,” he’d said levelly to P. when he’d sensed his own end was near; one of the few things he ever said to my brother or me) and my mom became P’s safety net and protector and constant companion, his ride to the courthouse downtown, his jailhouse advocate and sacrificial lamb, his inadvertent co-conspirator in the housing of stolen goods, the adventure took its toll over a decade or so. When a final straw appeared and was put in place my wife and I went out to Phoenix and moved my mom out here to SB. My brother, dismayed at the turn of events and terrified at his being cast out, had said to me in a private moment as we loaded the U-Haul, “Maybe I’ll just tag along?” To which I’d gestured emphatically. No.  “…but I don’t know how to take care of myself!” he’d hissed tearily, in a scene I’ll never shake.  It was a rare burst of openness and vulnerability that was too late in arriving. And I was an overwhelmed and intransigent son and brother, confusedly and ineptly trying to rescue his collapsing mother.

He was given $500 and instructions that amounted to “make a life and call us when you’ve done so.” At the end of that trip we’d hugged, and then he climbed into his battered Pontiac and drove away with a wave, the Valley of the Shadow of Shit awaiting with surprises and miseries none of us, even then, could foresee. When his car disappeared around the corner I sat down on the curb in front of the family homestead, put my head in my hands and sobbed like a guy in a movie, racked and comforted by the pretense of helplessness. My little little little brother, he of the rope swing behind our house in Cheyenne, the matchbox car collection, the Star Trek mural I’d painted on his bedroom wall to his unguarded delight, the daily attempts to smash his curling hair down before going to school, his tongue in the corner of his mouth with the effort. Driving away to a life I still can’t even imagine, a period of blunt survival among strangers in dimly lit, filthy surroundings, no mom or Jeff to hold onto. I see him in his bow tie beside our white picket fence, in Libya of all places, then his compliant sitting in Sunday School with an open book of Science Fiction Classics on his desk.  Note to self. Call him. Luv ya, Pat. You did it.

Ursa Major


My Aunt Bernadette thought everything was cute, and I do mean everything.  She was very vocal about it, and it was very strange.  It amounted to a mild form of madness, I’m pretty sure, though it was never actually diagnosed.  Cookie jars, the homeless.  Bolts of lightning.  Paint.  It endeared people to her, those on the periphery not personally afflicted by Bernadette’s chronic and obsessive vision of Life as something to ferociously nuzzle.  To us she was just an oddball, not entirely unpleasant, to whom our blood had chained us; a widow, a compulsive enthusiast, a gusher.  A hell-hound hyphenate, excuse me.  One couldn’t shut her up sometimes.  It’s fair to say that she had a lot of love to give, and at times one could not shut her up.

On a camping trip once, she made as if to caress a cute bear that had ambled into camp in search of something to eat, a hind legged T.V. walkabout bear with cuddly ears, buttons for eyes and a cute false looking nose like wet black velvet.  Bernadette approached the bear, I screamed momentously, and with one elegant swipe the bear moved her entire face, intact, to a different part of her head.  In the film I can’t stop running she falls slowly backward, one hand raised, as in a swoon.  And she’s laughing gently.  She sounds amused.  Everybody screamed, but I screamed first.  I haven’t forgotten.

Now she’s on her way over for the Brunch.  I am freaking petrified, per the norm.  This is a ritual.  Tribal, inescapable.  Not exactly archetypal, as it involves an affronted brown bear and a spinster in high tops.  But it is destiny being spun out in its nattiest, most household form.  The lifeline and loveline stymied, finally, by a callus.  My disfigured aunt with her nightmare face, her terse demands, her impeccable aura of doom is coming to order us around, compound our misgivings, crystallize our regret into guilt.  It will work, as always, like a charm.  Contrition so thick you could hang a coat on it.  My mother’s sister has been ruined by a bear, and she hates us for it.  Me in particular.

Dear God, why did I have to scream like that?  An eight-year-old screaming bloody murder at the sight of his mother’s sun-dappled older sister in a fragrant clearing of pines.  That’s it.  An eight-year-old boy, already aware enough to know the lethal distinction between a wild bear and its zippered Saturday morning counterpart, the difference between a cartoon and a contusion.  And there is the eight-year-old’s funny, dandified aunt in her lumberjack shirt, new dark blue jeans, brilliant white sneakers; a city slicker in neon.  And there is the bear, lumbering, dusty, blank of expression but certainly not smiling.  A hungry bear, a sad looking older woman with hair in a ragged bun.  Snow white tennis shoes.

Surgeries. One of the more awkward plurals in our language.  That single unadorned  word connotes such misery; endless antiseptic hours and days of soaking red gauze, sterile rags and steel, hinges, tubules, pinging robots. In the surgical aftermath of this gruesome bear hug gone wrong, Bernadette began, apropos of nothing but her own hunger for a design in all this, herself to point the finger of blame at her sister, my mother, for reasons neither we nor a cadre of increasingly pricey professionals could ever quite ascertain. And so once the half-baked therapeutic decision was taken, mom quickly and agreeably gathered around her trembling shoulders the thorny shawl of a tactical penitence that would rewrite our history, take the edge off the frank horror of it by putting us in approximate possession of the storyline. Mom thus draped herself in the fact of her own involvement in Bernadette’s physical and, it must be noted, spiritual ruin; for what faith in the loveliness of the tactile world can survive a mauling? Our bewildered, grieving mother adopted and lived this role with the zeal of a hopeful Hollywood starlet until after some time she began to shrink into it. When after two scarifying years of this her battered id showed signs of architectural collapse, it was suggested that a transference (if not an outright transplant) was needed in order to save mom. The blame-laying would be removed from my mother like the infected lobe of an offending toxic organ and bequeathed to one whose spiritual elasticity would more successfully tolerate the howling and unquenchable umbrage of our Bernadette.

She’s deranged. Yes. And who but a dimwit would try to hug a wild bear? But more to the point, one does not suffer lightly the scraping of one’s countenance nearly halfway round the head. Bernadette’s ongoing confusion of cause with effect has become the deal breaker of late, and for twenty years my boyish resilience has been put to the test. Now Bernadette hears a scream, the girlish piercing scream of an eight-year-old boy, she lands on her ass and life will never be the same.


The last Sunday of every month she strides in with the picnic basket, the hair in the bun, the sneakers, the jeans, the face like a big budget special effect –

Here she comes now.  Hear that?  Wait.  Hear it?  I can just hear the whistling; a velvet-capped dwarf homeward bound after a day in the mines.  Listen to that!  Hearing that gay and lilting melody you form a picture.  Well, don’t bother.

“Paul, here comes Bernadette.”

“You don’t say.”

“Don’t start in, Paulie,”

Penance.  Stage penance, the sourest kind.  I hear the whistle and don the gaudy garb of the penitent.  Always the whistling first, though.  It’s like the old radio show.  The Whistler?  Who Knows What Evil etc.  Bernadette is changing me, and not for the better.

Oh, we all have our parts to play.  Mom is the heartbroken little tagalong who will never escape the fact of her older sister’s mauling and her tacit responsibility for it.  Had mom not invoked the velveteen huggability of the natural world in her pitch to pry her eccentric and creepingly agoraphobic sibling out of the lavishly appointed hothouse of her studio apartment in town, we wouldn’t be trapped in this meat grinder today. Yep. Dad is the catskillian wiseacre from hell, spewing his litany of ostensible tension-busters; Faust meets Henny Youngman.  Stephanie, my kid sister, a finger-popping brick-wall poet and dime store nihilist becomes uncharacteristically quiescent in the presence of the shocking Bernadette; Stephanie of the jauntily cocked black beanie, rebellious black bangs and angry coffee-house ennui, her hunched little wall-eyed Frenchman whispering his bleak encouragements in her ear. Even Sartre’s trash-talking carp mouth would fall open at the sight of Bernadette. Stephanie senses this.

We can’t upset Poor Bernadette, no no no no no.  Upset Bernadette?  Huh uh.  The poor woman has suffered enough.  She’s not so far gone she doesn’t suffer, not so far gone she can’t dispense suffering.  She is not in a vegetative state.  No, Bernadette distributes angst freely, incautiously.  She sprays angst.  She is a Rainbird Sprinkler of angst.

“Paulie, answer the door.”

“Ma, no.”

“I’m sorry, sweetheart, but it’s time.  I mean it.”

“Oh, you mean it, you mean it.  I know you mean it.  For God’s sake, ma, what can you threaten me with?”  She looks away, shamefaced.  The script is getting dog-eared.

Twenty years.  Every last Sunday, a lifetime of Sundays, my entire adult life a corruption of the Sabbath.  A bandage, they called it at first.  Let her lay blame, it’ll help assuage her sense of despair.  Make it clear to the boy – what’s his name?


– Make it clear to Paul it’s a game, that’s all.  There is no real blame.  By pretending, he can help his aunt.  He can help her.  This will all be over before it can hurt little Paul.  You like games, don’t you, Paulie?


Well, play this one for a while.  It’ll help your Aunt Bernadette.  It’ll help your Aunt Bernadette.  It’ll help –


“The door, Paulie,” Stephanie says, turning somber.  The three of them are all somber now, hands folded in front, heads bent.  The curtain’s about to rise.

What a pleasant surprise.  A sixty year old woman in button fly jeans and SWEET JESUS, HER FACE IS ON THE SIDE OF HER HEAD spanking clean sneakers, perfectly laced THE FACE, THE FACE, THE FACE and unnaturally spotless.  Hmm, hmm, she’s got her hair in a bun, now that’s a switch.  What a lovely hairpin.  God help me, I’m seeing right angles.

“Paulie prepared brunch today, Bernadette,” mom warbles to her monstrous sister.  I’m grinning like a statue of an idiot.  We all are now.  We can’t help but be stunned by the scene as it starts to play out; the B-horror epiphany which features, again and again, the putrid Family Shame, the hairy rag-swaddled secret torn loose from its shackles to descend the attic stairs and shock the screaming daylights out of the dinner guests.  The kind of revelation that can spoil dessert absolutely, and for all time.

“Bernadette, Paulie’s prepared something special.”

“I made enchiladas,” I inform genially.  Aunt Bernadette turns away to regard me with The Face.  What a treat.  She’s not happy.  My scalp twiddles and I nearly blanch.

“Enchiladas for brunch,” the cockeyed mouth repeats, the vibrantly lipsticked yap slipping outlandishly around crowned molars.

“We’re going south of the border,” I nod.  I show her my lowered palms in a kind of supplication.  The Face curls up.  She’s smiling.

“Give us a kiss,” she says.


Lunch is all over the table.  It’s a Mexican jamboree.  Lots of orange and earth tones, plenty of gray paste.  Arms ratchet in quiet confusion over the runny foodstuffs.  According to tradition I prepare Bernadette’s plate.  I always prepare her plate, whether she brings the food or we cook at home.  This is but a tawdry fragment of the atonement I play out once a month.  There is much forgiving to be done.  I serve the enchilada and bow in retreat.

“There you are,” I sing.  An enchilada, rice, pasty beans.  By now I can almost imagine myself guilty of something.  That’s the nature of the song and dance.  Aunt Bernadette aims her head at the hallway and faces the plate before her.  Stephanie gasps.  Will we ever get used to this?

“Water,” Bernadette says.

In the kitchen, knives and grand looking pronged things glitter invitingly, all parallel and held conveniently fast by magnet.  I fill a glass with tap water and return to the others.

“Lukewarm,” Bernadette says.

“Get your aunt a cold glass of water and make it snappy,” mom says with nary a wink of secret conciliation.  I take up the glass and head back to the kitchen.  Behind me, I can hear Bernadette berating.

“You people twist my face and break my goddamned heart, and still you refuse to teach that bear-loving nitwit son of yours the simplest tenets of courtesy.  Tap water, for God’s sake!”

She then calls out to me.

“Say, kiddo,” she barks in an endearing Bette Davis staccato, “this food looks like an injury; your Mexican feast looks like something burst from a wound.”  I scarcely break stride. I pour out the offending water and fill the glass to the brim with dad’s vodka.

“You’d better hurry, son,” dad calls from the next room.

“My friggin’ mouth is on fire!” Bernadette concurs with a ranchera sauce-muffled shriek.  I count ten and hurriedly reenter the dining room.  Everyone is alarmed at my tardiness.  Bernadette grabs the glass before I can hand it to her, guzzling the vodka; an eight ounce glass of vodka and she gulps it down like spring water on a hot day, she throws the vodka back with urgency, throat pulsating, eyes closed, the very picture of refreshment.  Only when the glass is completely drained do alarms appear to go off.

She sets the glass down, carefully, and presses her palms flat against the table top.  Her head cocks back, her lips and jaw working, eyeballs dancing an Eddie Cantor jig, her immediate response positively vaudevillian; Jerry Lewis tasting caviar.  Then suddenly the Face becomes ingenious, gear-driven, prosthetic.  It metamorphically wads itself into contortions I would not have thought possible, as if the sutures of her skull are pulling apart to set the cranial components adrift.  The eyebrows begin a palsic rollick of their own.  Her neck flushes the color of sprayed blood.

“Assholes,” Bernadette rasps in a strangled whisper reminiscent of small-budget exorcism.  Family is stunned, and gaping.  Bernadette, her hands still flat on the table at either side of her plate, throws her head back in a twitching arc, a roaring stegosaurus in a late night claymation epic, gagging, gurgling.  “Assholes.  You’re all… assholes.”  She makes fists and bangs the table, Soviet Premier style, sputtering, choking, eyes running like taps.  The scene, as it is playing out, is hideous to behold.  I notice dad’s nose working the air.  He smells the vodka.

“Good Christ, Paul!”

But I see the mirth.  He’s hopeful.  And as my own respondent hope begins to unfold in kind, Bernadette brings her hands to her ‘cheeks‘ and launches a brilliant jet of vomit which leaps like a solid tentacle across the table to smite dad’s off-white Nicklaus V-neck square in the sternum.  The figure and ground contrast is electrifying.  Dad’s jaw clenches.  There is the sudden and spectacular odor of vodka enchilada.

“Assholes!” Bernadette gasps, wiping her mouth, reaching out instinctively, bunching my shirt-front in her shaking fist.  “Your little JOKE.  No RESPECT,” she hisses at the lot of us.  “And you,” she breathes all over my face, the unholy stink a damburst of sensate misery, “You are no doubt the perpetrator, you little shit.”  She grasps my ears with both hands and pulls.  “WHEN-WILL-YOU-STOP-HURTING-ME?  WHEN?  WHEN?”  She jerks my head around, I think she may tear my ears off.  Nobody moves, nobody speaks.  My own arms are slack.

Oh, look what’s coming over the levee.

The E string snaps with a cochlea-rending shriek.  The screaming bridge cracks explosively down the middle and spills traffic into the turgid river below.  The camel brays in a final blood-seizing malediction as the last blade of hay settles into place and heartily rips his spine.  My inhibitors give like so many tissue paper bulwarks before an onrush of superheated steam.

“Hands off,” I hazard in a HAL 9000 monotone. “Off, off, off.”

“Guy walks into a shrink’s office, says, ‘Doc, nobody talks to me.’  Shrink says, ‘NEXT!'”

“No, dad!”

“Guy walks into a nunnery in an ape suit -”

Bernadette rises from her chair, yanking my ears.  I’ve got her by the wrists, trying to pry her loose, and in this manner we waltz about the room like epileptic prizefighters in a technically baffling clinch.

“This guy!” dad barks, wild eyed, thinning hair flung akimbo, newly vivid sweater dripping, arms launching like peacekeepers as he rises from his seat in haste.  “THIS GUY, THIS GUY!”

“No, THIS guy,” I rant, hurling Bernadette away, changing the emphasis, all righteous theater now.  “THIS guy, goddammit.”

Mom is fixated on the plate under her chin, she’s inspecting the food there in a clinical fashion.  Stephanie cowers behind her bangs. Dad has cut himself off mid-punchline, which in itself is somewhat momentous.  My glasses are on the floor.  I believe I’ve stepped on them.  My hair is splayed all over my face, and I push it back in a gesture of restraint.  I feel like Bob DeNiro.  Bernadette is breathing hard.

In the den I retrieve the bearskin rug we group-ditched all those years ago, a very expensive item given as a gift to my parents the day they married.  It’s bunched up in the closet behind two sets of golf clubs, a mouldering box of lawn darts, various photo albums stacked as high as a four year old child, mom’s wedding dress.  The rug is crammed into the corner, I can just see it in the dimness, feel it with my groping hand, all that luxuriant fur, wadded up like some cheap souvenir.  We are all held prisoner to a wholly fabricated shame while our mementos of love rot in the dark.

UNH!  Heavy.  Jesus, what a smell!!  God knows how many mites and their ilk are crawling happily onto my scalp right now.  Let’s have a look in the mirror. Oh.  Wow.

“Grrrrr!  Grrrrr!  Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!”

Lurching, head bobbing.  I have to lean forward to keep the flea-bitten thing from sliding off my back.  I can just barely see through the teeth, a certifiably bizarre domestic scene framed by long dead canines; a Picasso-face in vibrant denim, a shivering former nihilist in Grace Slick bangs, a vomit covered golf enthusiast, a sacrificial lamb.  The Picasso is massaging her throat.  In the midst of all this some two dozen glittering enchiladas.  The scene comes slowly alive.  Those seated rise, but very slowly.  Bernadette has yet to take notice.

I scoot into the room a little more without growling, feeling marginally silly already, the original adrenal impulse now a memory, a faint buzz.  When dad hisses, “Mother of God!”, I see that I’m quite alone in this.  There’s none of the mild celebratory chuckling I’d counted on as my reward, none of the keen camaraderie of close knit family members guffawing in the face of rude tragedy.  It seems, of a sudden, I stand alone.  In a rancid bearskin rug.

Bernadette sees me, rushes to and flattens herself against the wall.  Her jaw cranks open in a silent scream, and the silence hushes the room. I can see her now like a framed portrait, shoulder raised, screaming mouth.  Her position in the corner prevents her from averting her eyes.  She turns her head away and all she can see is me.

My mother takes her seat and passes a hand over her face, shoulders shaking.  Laughter?  She rises, walks over. Her eyes are bloody red, her face is wet all over.  If one didn’t know these things, it would be hard to say where all that water came from, her face is so wet.  My bear head nods, I don’t know what to do with my paws, but I’ve got to do something, I’ve got to do something.  Her shoulders slump, her left eyebrow arches and I gasp. My grin blossoms like a spasm within the gutless, donned head of this former animal.  Mom is very small, diminished but aflame, sighing, and in a gust of admiration I love her with all my sinking heart.  She launches her veiny little fist through the taxidermist’s generous gape.

God bless us, every one.

Plurality of Christs. Implausible Singularity. Wet Cement. Ghastly Wind-Tossed Void.

Eagle Water Stain

I’m the sort of shunned Unfortunate who will do a double-take at a patch of wet sidewalk on the way in to the office and spin off into a cosmological reverie. This morning as I crossed the mighty University Campus en route to my fabric-covered veal stall (office) I found myself brought up short.  Like Richard Dreyfuss mesmerized at dinner by a meaning-laden pile of mashed potatoes, I was momentarily stupefied by this patch of moistened cement before I realized what it called to mind and snapped a picture with my battered Dumbphone.


Is our Beloved Father a kindly giant on a cloud or a toothy Lovecraftian squid-thing tearing horrifically through a hole in space-time? This may not be the Question for our Age but it ought to be. Here’s another; does Love have anything to do with this mess at all? Opinions abound and many of them bore.  Bromides are everywhere and God is said to be synonymous with birds, trees, flowers, and people who overpay at yard sales.

Well. My daughter flirts with your son and my squeezed heart spins on its axis. In 1955 my mother exits the house in a Donna Reed skirt and Rosalind Russell shades, inclining her head and offering a smirk of happy reproof to the besotted cameraman (now vanished) as she walks briskly to a Pontiac the size of a speedboat. Emily waves riotously to me from the open window of her passing car on the way to the sun-dappled senior parking lot (goodbye little girl!), my dying grandfather, in 1968, bobs his long hand and wrist at me from under the sheet and says “Billy”. Which Billy? In my 8-year-old frame did he see my older brother Bill (the apple of his eye) or his own son, my uncle Bill? Little Nicky averts his beautiful eyes and looks at the floor with his bashful secret smile of yet-undefinable love. Sammy awkwardly doffs his handsome head in greeting a stranger. My father-in-law bursts without warning into hot tears and rough embraces when we tell him we’ll marry.  Why all this glory? There must be a dynamo somewhere. Our stammering and groping for sense and meaning would seem to rise above mere evolutionary expedience.

The calming pastoral approach to apprehending the ‘Mind of God’ is a counter-intuitive non-starter, though persons I adore, with intellects more varied and robust than my own, adopt and proselytize that view with inarguable and lovingly turned outreach.  I respect but can’t personally feel it. I wish I could. The Universe is a cool 455 degrees below zero (we’re assured), is opening with increasing speed like an untellably monstrous umbrella, and is thought to have burst with instantaneous, reality-filling fire and mayhem from an infinitesimally tiny pinprick whose predecessor was literally Nothing At All.  This mad batshit does not, to my mind, conjure a prose poet dreamily contemplating a daffodil. God may indeed dwell in a blade of grass, but in that case He is a disappointing minimum-wage God with a winged heart stamped just above His ass. These earthbound Hallmark cards we send to ourselves are confounding, our utter inability to contain our surroundings manifesting as teddy bears and slippers.  We make of our insane and gorgeous and inexplicable Reality a model of demure comfort as frail and without imagination as a Kajagoogoo song. God is in the sunlight and trees.  Be Nice to the Neighbors and by the way Stop Enviably Gawping at their New Lawn Mower (suitably, the very last Commandment). Really? The sacred penetrating mystery message from the vast gusty reaches of endless time has arrived and might as well have come from the corner grocer; an adorably handmade, curiously human, impossibly convenient and stultifyingly flat message from space.

The nightmare of rotating machinery, boiling nebulous bedlam and flesh-annihilating Absolute Zero of space is an unlikely crucible for the sort of summer-lawn gazing spirituality it is thought to have engendered.  And neither does all the fiery galactic mayhem dovetail with the ministrations of a gentle, parable-murmuring woodworker in burlap, spreading his warm-milk message of neighborly love. Though He did pique my interest when He sent that gang of pigs over the cliff.  I don’t need lightning and thunder but I do need something that is at least vaguely commensurate with the scalding strangeness of the inner and outer worlds. The idea of 5,000 years worth of sages exhorting us to be nice to each other? It sort of enrages me.

A dear and enlightened friend recently went on a pilgrimage to India, the better to apprehend, in that milieu of spiritual antiquity and very relaxed cows, an ancient animating principle.  In the midst of a maddened throng of celebrants and pilgrims bathing in the sacred Ganges river he immersed himself in the reportedly putrid waters, partaking laudably of a very old ritual. The Ganges is considered sacred all along its considerable length and is incidentally a terribly polluted cesspool into which bodies and other dissolving whatnot are dumped on their way to the hereafter. He had moments before seen an infant corpse drift by on the currents.  But he was determined to have the experience. At the moment of sacred dunking he plugged all the facial and cranial orifi he could reasonably manage in order to prevent what a westerner might call sewage from entering his body.  Later his forensically imaginative sibling pointed out that even with the head-holes plugged, intrepid Hindu gut-igniting paramecia would surely attempt to crawl like union miners up the pee hole and thence into the previously complacent First World innards. This fear has by now been put to rest. One can only admire such brave and far-flung baptismal efforts to understand the bigger picture.  It’s also good to be reminded that while we higher beings strive to see the face of God, His mischief-making Creation can usually be found trying to burrow into and sicken us. Life is a many-splendored thing.

Something is out there. We huddle with friends by lamplight, raise toasts and laugh to the murmur of nearby traffic.  In warm company on the hallowed Matt and Viv sundeck we stare breezily at the evening stars, the nearby lighthouse sweeping the cliff-hugging mansions with its nimble little beam, and we wonder by what odd accident, in the middle of all this cold vacuum, we have earned the moment. We blaze with Love, but is love what we’re for?

Memorial Days

Oldsters Puttering around the Moon

The young couple walks stooped into the retirement home
in a veil of embarrassment.
They are aglow with pity and shame
for the wilting figure to whom they
are obliged to pay
occasional blushing obeisance.
They greet me with a dour nod
as we near each other,
and they regard my mother’s
plastic shower bench with
still more feverish embarrassment,
these perfumed raging idiots.

We enter the Hallowed House of the Aged.
In these hushed halls
the infirm shuffle along
bathed in our consensual pity and fear,
brittle whispering specters with flyaway hair,
scarcely clad in thinning spotted papyrus,
passing gas without compunction and murmuring loudly;
a secret cabal of once and future martini enthusiasts
screwing in the sleeper car on the night train to Boston,
doing a thronged, gin-fueled Lindy Hop before a blaring bandstand,
scrambling up the vertical bullet-riddled cliffs of Omaha Beach,
sprinting down the shattered streets of London
amid a mad fall of rockets,
bicycling 50 km to bring back a loaf of wormy Dutch bread
and thus vanquishing an armored Zarathustra.
They thanked their airborne allies in tulips
when all else had been burned away.

The German children made from the downed pilot’s life vest
flotation devices to hand around
and so taught themselves to swim that summer,
sheltering and feeding the frightened flier in the family home
until he was well enough
to be spirited out from behind enemy lines
by new friends he’d been trained to bomb.
If the pilot yet lives he is a dried leaf and repulses the visitor.
Die deutschen Kinder sind erwachsen
and revel casually in the childhood memory,
beatific to those who are privileged to hear.

Our wrecked nursing home set-asides
once boozily toasted each other by lamplight in embrace-crushed neckties.
They walked around on the fucking moon,
swung a Wilson six-iron there, of course,
lustily ran amok,
lustily handed us everything,
lustily reworked a world
in their own reckless excited image.
We pampered dipshits
dare regard them with downcast eyes
dare feel embarrassment for them.
We’re coherent and clean,
but have little else to recommend us;
pitiable, mouselike, untried and cocksure.
The fragrant incandescent oldsters will be fine.
They’ve already completed with a flourish
what we would never ourselves have the balls to begin.



Magnet Opus

whirlyWorldThis wrecked world is haunted by questions. None of the good ones are rhetorical: if we’re native to this solar system, why is our star such a potent carcinogen? Do Steve and Eydie now and again lean back in sumptuous, vermouth-informed reverie and actually discuss their triumphs, regard their trophies and show-business honorifics by late-afternoon desert light, or do they merely reconnoiter in a now somber, common silence? How do bustlingly crowded churches and pediatric cancers share the same room? Whence the friendly hand-holding Ghost? It’s a fact that Life is fluorescing around us in a cyclonic rage of unapprehended sounds and furies; the grasses bursting upward, the birds yelling, airplanes spitting fire and heat, snails crunching noisily along littered forest floors, their stupid eyestalks waving around to no apparent avail. Cars collide and carom all over the world, quantum whatnots doing much the same thing but with less visibly dramatic effect. You wouldn’t ordinarily guess at the presence of the roiling mushroom cloud we inhabit in our quietude. In this doozy of an astral plane you can be making love to the accompaniment of birdsong one hour, and in the next be screaming madly as your head is ineptly sawed off by a disgruntled scarved theist. Yeah, it’s a pageant.

But, oh my Word, also this. Two nights ago at the red naugahyde-booth restaurant, so reminiscent of the Officer’s Clubs of my AFB youth; the restaurant’s nattily costumed proprietor, in his superfluous, ceremonial red vest, stopped along a highball-and-plate-littered table to speak to a man dining gingerly, and somewhat awkwardly, with his elderly mother, several tables distant from my own rust-freckled naugahyde perch. In the sepia bath of the beveled faux-chandeliers, the scene was without sound but not without effect. The proprietor engaged the man’s mother in conversation, placing his hand on her shoulder as would a congenial confidant. She tilted her beautiful face to receive him and I saw that her expression was alight, suddenly. Her lovely eyes blazed at this sincere businessman, blazed with utter, unshielded delight. Not with a simple explicable smile, but with a clear, radiant and eternal expression of bliss, an absolute incandescence, a contagion. Then her grown son’s own face, as he watched the proprietor lean into his brittle and ecstatic old mom, became beatific. It was a circuit. He saw our god, such as He is. In the restaurants and restrooms and parlors and living rooms and on the graying daylit street corners of this sometimes crummy burst of color and feeling, He roams in His approximate loving beauty. God! Walking along, and probably a little above, a covertly beer-stained carpet. Edifying the unstubborn. Full stop.