31 July, 2011

Daguerreotypes II

Small town laundromat Saturday morning:
me and the one sober resident
of a depopulated 300 resident town
who, undoubtedly, just got off work
an hour or so ago and is completing
one more unpleasant chore
so he can fall asleep
unencumbered by Protestant Guilt.

He looks as tired as I have felt.
He will feel the same way

He carries in the bachelor's load--
two pairs of jeans (he's wearing his third pair)
four shirts, four stained once-white t-shirts,
socks, underwear. I caught him
looking amused
as I hung my wife's dress clothes
(she hates wrinkles) and I wonder

if he wonders
why she isn't doing laundry. Maybe
he wonders what's it's like
to have to figure out
who has more time to kill
sitting in an unair-conditioned laundromat
on a Saturday morning
as the humid summer weather
is settling in.

22 July, 2011

The Transfiguration of Rufus Skeen I: Rufus Recalls His First Baptism

Rufus recalled his baptism. He had been 9 years old.

It felt like the right thing to do – to stand up in front of his father, his mother, his sister Selma, and the entire congregation to proclaim that he believed and that he wished to be saved.

He had watched people go through the ceremony before; the petitioner stood during the Call, which usually came after the sermon. Mr. Lancette, the preacher, stood in front of the alter, leading the congregation in the call hymn. Behind him on the alter, the communion service sat, shining gold and glimmering in the sunlight that shone through the stained glass windows. The whole of the sanctuary was washed in this light, and the gold plating of the communion service glowed like a new sun, infinite, ethereal, and eternal.

When Rufus was 9, he believed in God because his father told him that God existed, that Jesus lived, died, and rose again. Rufus could never imagine what God looked like, or sounded like, so he imagined that God looked and sounded like his Dad. Rufus couldn't imagine heaven, either, despite all the talk about houses with many rooms and streets paved in gold with pearl gates and jewel encrusted walls; he had never seen gold, except for the communion service, and the only thing he knew about pearls was that they were found in oysters, deep in the ocean. He learned that in school. Since he couldn't imagine heaven, he imagined that God – the God who looked and talked like his dad – lived in the space above the sanctuary. Heaven was a crawl space. He knew about crawl spaces because his house had a crawl space where his mother kept all the Christmas decorations, boxes full of old pictures that were too fragile to hang on the walls, and miscellaneous junk no one wanted to throw away. To Rufus, Heaven was that place people put things they didn't need very often or didn't know what to do with, and God was the guy on the ladder who brought the decorations down the day after Thanksgiving.

What Rufus did know, and did understand, and didn't need to visualize, was how his father felt about religion. The only thing his father read besides the newspaper was the family bible. When Rufus was small and learning to read, his mother read to him from the Old Testament. Genesis. Joseph and the coat of many colors; David and Goliath. He didn't understand how God could be a burning bush, a column of fire, and a column of smoke, but he understood that his father would be proud of him if he decided to be baptized, to be saved, to take Jesus into his heart.

Rufus did it without warning. He made sure he sat on the end of the pew before church started, so he wouldn't have to ask permission to get by anybody. When the Call came, Rufus closed his hymnal and, while his sister, mother, and father looked on, shocked, he walked with what he thought was determination and maturity up to the front of the sanctuary, where Mr. Lancette was bellowing out the first verse of He Walks with Me. Everyone was surprised to see him up there, people muttered and pointed. Rufus didn't look back to see the look on his dad's face, but he imagined that his father was smiling the smile he generally reserved for when Selma did something cute, or when she acted in the Christmas pageant, or when she got good grades, which she always did.

After the call, the preacher took Rufus's hand and shook it. It was a hearty, adult handshake. Then, like all the people who had come before him, like he had seen countless times, Rufus was asked to confirm what he believed.

"I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God."

The congregation collectively intoned, "Amen!"

Then two women, wives of two of the elders, came up to take Rufus in the back, to show him where to prepare for baptism. One of the women led him by the shoulders, behind the organ, back into the hallway behind the sanctuary. There were stalls there, like the ones in department stores to try on clothes in. The women showed him where the white baptismal gowns were, and picked one out that would fit him fine. They also showed him where to put his church clothes, where the underwear was, (so the petitioner wouldn't get their own underwear wet; Rufus thought this was a particularly well thought out idea) and where to put the wet underwear after it was over. He changed into the gown the women gave him; it was long and white, like the ones angels wore in the pictures he had seen in Sunday School. After he changed, one of the women, smiling, proud, told him where to stand.

The communion service was over. The curtains in front of the baptismal pool were drawn. The familiar organ music began, and he saw the preacher come around the other side wearing on along white coat and wading boots like his father used for fly fishing. He went up the steps on the right side of the pool while Rufus waited on the left side. He wasn't thinking about anything. Time was agonizingly slow.

Finally, it was his turn. One of the church wives helped him up the first step, then disappeared – probably to go back around and watch with the rest of congregation and his family.

The pool was nothing more than an extra large bathtub. The floor and sides were covered with small square tiles – the kind found in locker room showers and public restrooms. The water in the baptismal pool was clear and smelled like chlorine. It was also was warm – warm like spit, or urine.

He took the minister's hand, and waited for him to finish talking. "Rufus Aloysius Skeen, in as much as you have confirmed your belief, and in as much as you seek the forgiveness of Jesus Christ and the redemption of your sins, I now baptize you…"

Rufus was underwater for only an instant, and when Mr. Lancette brought him back up, the water left a weird film all over him. The congregation started singing a hymn of praise, and the preacher led Rufus out of the water. As he started up the stairs, Rufus looked out to where his father sat, expecting to see him smiling, see him proud.

Instead, his father sat stone-faced and silent as everyone else sang.

21 July, 2011

By and By

I wish I believed.
I know the songs
the ones that sound
so so wrong
when I sing them.
How great thou love lifted
me in the garden by
and by. Drinking
another cup of coffee
staring into the blackness –
communion with a bean –
which is as close to god
as I feel most days,
not being a farmer
or a builder of mighty things
The book it says
Jesus was a carpenter
and Peter was a fisherman,
and I find myself wondering
whether the apostles drank
import or domestic beer
while they threw out their nets
the way I did
when I first believed.

I wish the stories spoke
the same way silence does
first thing in the morning
or late into the night
when insomnia or bad dreams
strike. God, I suppose, exists
between the tick tocks
of a grandfather clock.
The ghost of the old man
who shuffles on the porch
smoking his restless pipe
knows this and together
we commune between
the sweeping of the second hand
pacing the same creaky floorboards
and scratching pen to paper
lines and endless groans
and poems no one will hear
and no one will read.

10 July, 2011

Hack Life

[This bit has two very different dedications: to my wife, who believes I am brilliant in spite of me. And to the bozos, without whom my current ire would not exist].

Part of me is having trouble simply focusing today; I have moods like this, and they seem to be more frequent in the summer months than during any other time of the year. The dead of winter presents its own problems, of course. The winter wonderland is, after a point, not so wonderful. That's not to say there isn't beauty to be found here in the Driftless Zone; there is a lot beauty to be found in the rivers, streams, and lakes; around the Mississippi River, the great compass and latitudinal divider of this land called the United States. I call it that because any place I have traveled I tend to map it in my mind from two distinct points – the Mississippi River and the place I grew up, Bethel, Ohio. The river is a fixed point in my mind... an embodiment of all the romance, all the commerce, all the good and all the evil that goes on within the borders of this country. Bethel is less fixed in my mind; yes, it's the place I grew up, but other than that, it holds no real nostalgia or affection. I don't hate the place as much as I used to; but I don't really miss it much either; and I'm sure it can say the same about me.

I have stories to write, and I will write them. Articles for the paper. I enjoy my new role as a freelance journalist primarily because it's the sort of job that suits my temperament. I hate alarm clocks, I despise offices, and the only routines I put any energy into are my own. Straight work – that is, 9 to 5 (or 6-3:30, or 3:30 to 11:30) wage slavery – is full of routine. Dull, dull routine. That most people grow accustomed to routine doesn't make it any less vulgar.

As a freelance journalist, my schedule is determined by the story; and it's true that the schedule can, at times, be horribly predictable... politicians are hobgoblins for their officiousness and OCD consistency when it comes to meetings. Sometimes they meet simply because they have nothing better to do, because they nothing else to justify their existence on Earth, and because there's nothing worth watching on television. But dragging myself to public meetings is nothing compared to dragging myself to an office or a cubicle or an assembly line station. And yes, I've done those, too. The horrors that people subject themselves to for a paycheck are staggering when one begins to notice.

So why the problem focusing? I have notes for three articles, all of which will get written this week. I have notes for articles to come. This isn't the sort of occupation that really allows for days without focus; it's always jumping ahead, jumping ahead. I get one deadline down and the next is looming. And because I'm freelance, when I don't write, I don't get paid. That's the life of a hack, the life I've chosen. And I would not choose another, except to get paid for the books and poetry I write. Sadly, though, no one reads books, and only poets read poetry – and while I am college educated, I lack the appropriate pedigree to be taken seriously by academic journals. They like craft over style and substance. Then there's a whole cadre of non-academic journals and presses, but they prefer style over craft and substance. Editors are a notorious lot, and few of them deserve the title – which is, of course, why they have it. At least in journalism – another one of those dying businesses, like education and DVD rental stores – I get to see something of the life around me, put it into words – some of them falling on the profoundly and purposely illiterate – and get a little scratch to pay my penance for life in the aftermath of the American Dream... rent, utilities, and the various bills one is expected to pay is one is to be welcomed as an adult.

Sometimes the articles are less than interesting, and it's difficult for me to move myself forward into the writing. That's not so much the case today; two of them are good, one a potential barn burner. The other is little more than a re-editing of copiously written meeting minutes written by someone else. So it's not really the content of the articles themselves that are driving me to distraction.

But recently, I've been besieged by bozos.

Or, to be more specific, I've been preoccupied with them more lately. I've always known they were there. I first noticed them when I was very young. Bozos always always seem to have or presume to have power over other people. The sole purpose bozos have for living, the occupation that justifies the precious oxygen they use up, is to maintain to maintain this illusion of control. They've built their entire lives on it, this illusion. This illusion is the thing that gets bozos out of bed in the morning; they feed off the compliments of others, they exist only if they are recognized as “being in charge.” They live their lives thinking only about how their obituaries will read. And in the process, they actively work to destroy all that is good and noble in the world, simply to maintain a ridiculous point of view... because they can't suffer honesty, and they can't cope with their own fear and mediocrity. Because fear breeds mediocrity, kids. That's as true as true can get.

My problem with bozos has been that they are not attacking me. When bozos attack me, I dispatch them quickly, and without much thought. Life and energy are too precious to spend on them, and I do not believe in wasting either of mine. But lately, the bozos have been after my wife... one of the rare souls who is good and true and noble in a world that has gone to hell. She loves with her all, and she loves honestly, and she gives more of herself than most people are able to give. And while some might think me biased, keep in mind that I have, in my time, been in company of saints, sinners, murderers and angels. I have met and continue to meet the best minds of this generation. I have a basis for comparisons, and I tell you all quite honestly, most … including myself … don't measure up to her. I wake up every day knowing I don't deserve her, and the days when I don't measure up in some sense leave me feeling miserable. She is one of those rare people who loves unconditionally. She puts all of herself into the things that matter and into the things she cares about.

And then... and then... there are the bozos. The mediocre middle-managers of the world. The forgotten and disgraced (justifiably) idjits of history. I would name some of them, but she would prefer that I not. The truth... another truth that is as true as truth can be... is that she and I walk through the world differently. I can only be myself when I am brutally honest, and she... she knows how to temper her anger with love and with laughter. She is peaceful by nature, whereas I am peaceful by choice. People that meet her first are often surprised that she is married to me. I have given up disabusing people of their ridiculous notions; the only thing that matters is that the life she and I lead is not defined by the shortcomings of others.

Fear leads to mediocrity.

05 July, 2011



Neighborhood kids shooting off fireworks
illuminating the tired smiling faces of distracted elders
casting long shadows that pop, sparkle and fizzle.
Dull fire. Vast dreams. The colors fade like
old flag fabric – the flag of our fathers' forefathers,
buried a top their sons and daughters.
In the humid, moonless, starless night,
blood shines black
like obsessively polished dress shoes.

Huddling 'round the campfire,
drinking beer as warm as tears,
old men and women recount stories of their America:
the one fed to us in digestible textbook morsels
long amputated from the The Long Memory. Stories
cast off like moldy bread on forgotten trails that have
long since been widened, flattened and paved over
in the name of progress.
                                      These narratives
are not told in video games
or on standardized tests; not mentioned
in hyper-real 3D movies
meant to titillate and to tax and to strangle
the imagination, to erase the collective unconscious.
They are not found in the long shadows
and short light of sparklers,
nor in the ghosts living the cellars
and sleeping porches of houses
older than the dirt under a
gravedigger's fingernails.

When the beer is gone and the stories 
are finished and the sparklers
are spent abandoned sticks in the neighbor's lawn
we will not remember them and will not be aware
that something sacred, something soul-tied
has been stolen and forever lost.

02 July, 2011

Where We Left Off

This conversation has strung itself out
over months, over years, over centuries.

Echoes of eons in every word,
the cadence of memory buried

in each and every syllable. In spite of myself
you make my words vibrate and sing;

in spite of yourself, you still find
the soft heart that has driven this world

from it's primordial birthing to date;
it beats within your chest, heaves

like oceans under a quixotic moon,
reverberates in your bones and exits

with just the faintest smile. We speak
like old soldiers. We dream like lovers.

We live and we talk, and it is in talking
that we will live on. You and I,

we will duel on like this.