Toward a Unified Theory of Community

[Warning that unpleasant depictions of human and animal deaths follow.]

It is last weekend and my wife is asking me to kill a snake. A decent-sized garter snake has gotten bound up in netting we'd thrown over a volunteer blackberry vine she found in the backyard. It is cruelly contorted and mostly dead. Flies are gathering.

I take it into the side yard and fetch a shovel and a five-pound sledge. I lay it where it can feel the sun one last time. I pick up the shovel and recite the Five Remembrances of Buddhism:

I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.

I place the shovel tip directly behind its head. It isn’t moving much, just the occasional shake of the last two inches of its tail, the sum total of its body that is still free.

I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape having ill health.

I stomp down on the shovel as hard as I can. Its body convulses once and stops.

I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.

I worry that the job isn’t completed, so I use the sledge to drive the shovel deep into the ground to be sure.

All that I hold dear and everyone I love is of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.

I toss my tools aside and squat over the snake to be sure the job is done. It looks to be free of its pain.

My actions are my only true possessions. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand.

I tell the snake goodbye and apologize for such an ugly end.


It is the night before I will kill the snake. I am reading a 20th anniversary edition of Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh. Thây says this:

There is a deep malaise in society. We can send email and faxes anywhere in the world, we have pagers and cellular telephones, and yet in our families and neighborhoods we do not speak to each other. There is a kind of vacuum inside us, and we attempt to fill it by eating, reading, talking, smoking, drinking, watching TV, going to movies, and even overworking. We absorb so much violence and insecurity every day that we are like time bombs ready to explode. We need to find a cure for our illness.

For less than a year now, I have been studying and practicing Buddhism. It is a path I did not consciously choose. I appear to have tripped and fallen into the arms of its inevitability.

Like so:


It is barely 2014 and I am tired. I am tired of feeling wrung out. I am in a United Methodist Church I do not wish to belong to but continue to attend out of a sense of family duty.

I have been reading essays by writers like Kelly Sue DeConnick and Matt Fraction and Russell Brand and Roger Ebert. I have watched an opening monologue that Craig Ferguson gave after Britney Spears' public breakdown. These people are sharing their addiction recovery stories. I am paying attention.

Ebert knew a woman in his home group whose higher power was the radiator in her apartment. Brand writes of the experience of walking around every day with a voice in your head that wants you to die. I have been collecting their stories, turning them over and over in my hand like river rocks.

I am burned up and burned up and burned up and longing for it to end. But I am starting to feel less alone.

And it is here, in this church I don't want to be in, on this day. This is the final notice. Today the pastor shares her story. She tells the tale of how her father went from being a pillar of the community to eating out of garbage cans.

I am in the soundbooth at the back of the sanctuary, looking down at her from on high, and from my vantage I can see my path to those same garbage cans with clarity. I can see every step toward ruin, every tear. I am finally able to admit that I am an alcoholic. It will be a number of days before I will introduce myself to a roomful of strangers as such, but I now know that it will happen. And I am relieved and terrified.


It is February of 2014 and I have dragged myself through the door of my first recovery meeting. I am shaking and my eyeballs are dogpaddling. I sit next to Alfred. Alfred is wearing cufflinks, which I didn’t expect to see, but the cufflinks are less of a surprise than the laughter. I hear the laughter and I realize that I don’t know what is going on, but I want more.

Brent is the first person to give me his number. He will become my sponsor and lay a lot of the foundation for what is to come.


It is 2017. I have been sober for over three years and Patrick and his wife have invited us to dinner. Patrick is a fellow alcoholic and asks me if I'd like to tag along to eat dinner on Wednesday nights with his friends before going to the evening men's meeting. This question will come to touch every millimeter of my existence.


It is last spring and I am walking the dog with my wife. I tell her that I need exercise, but I want to do something I can incorporate into my spiritual practice. Something to help me practice mindfulness of body. She invites me to join her and the kids at Unity Martial Arts, a dojo that teaches Cuong Nhu, a Vietnamese martial art. Vietnam is the country that gave birth to Thich Nhat Hanh and nearly killed my father.

I start taking classes immediately and am sideswiped by a loving community of practice I had not had eyes to see during the years I had been driving my son there. My ritual had been to walk him in, sit at a table, and wait out his class while reading a book and listening to white noise through my earbuds.

Now I am standing in the dojo, wearing a gi that needs hemming and self-esteem that needs letting out. I learn one block, one hold, one correction at a time that this is a community largely built on touch. There is an intimacy to this place that has been lost to much of the modern world.


It is 1963 and the Bodhisattva Thich Quang Duc assumes the lotus position in the middle of a busy intersection in Saigon. Other monks pour gasoline over his body. He lights a match.

This is not an act of suicide. It is not even an act of protest. He is trying to turn the heart of Diem, South Vietnam's Catholic president, who has been persecuting the majority Buddhist population. If Thich Quang Duc cannot achieve this, he hopes to start a conversation about love and compassion and human rights.

He burns without moving or making a sound. He is dead within minutes. People prostrate themselves before his charred corpse, which has toppled backward into the street.


It is 1966. Thich Nhat Hanh has been exiled for trying to bring peace to Vietnam without taking sides. He will not be allowed to visit his home for 39 years.


It is 1967. My father has been drafted and will be sent to Vietnam. He marries my mother in a hurry.

He will later return home to a country that worships the gun and speak to me often of the heroes he served with who would not fire one. He will not often speak of the death he waded through.


It is 2018. I am sitting in the small room next door to where I normally attend recovery meetings. It is a dingy, badly lit room with a reminder on the whiteboard not to leave food out, because there is a rat problem. I have described this room to my wife as the sort of place where a person can get the DTs without worrying about bringing down the general aesthetic.

Patrick is there, and so is Lance. I have loved them for a year now. We are doing a step study, and we are recording our talks. There is urgency to our task, because Lance is leaving for Texas in the fall.

Lance is talking about his ego, his carefully constructed identity. I have a flash of insight that the idea that we call Lance, the ideas that we call Patrick and Matt, do not exist. They are mere concepts.

Later that night, I walk my dog and have an experience of emptiness of self. This experience is not hollow. It is not the emptiness of the void. It is a glimpse of who I am when I set aside the story of Matt. It is the emptiness of a room cleared in anticipation of a gathering, a party. It is an emptiness of warmth and light, an emptiness that is full. I do not know it, but it is the moment I become a Buddhist.

I have full awareness in this moment that this is only a glimpse, one given by grace. It exists to point the way. It fills me with the most curious mixture of longing and peace. Like a good addict, I will chase this feeling like yet another fix for quite a while before I realize that I've missed the point.


It is 2016 and I am discussing my spirituality with my wife. I am not yet a Buddhist, but I tell her that I haven't really been a western-style monotheist for a long time, that middle age has found me largely pantheist, maybe, or I don’t know what.

"Yeah, me too," she says.

"Wait, then why exactly do we go to church?" I ask.

"Can you name me one other community organization where people of different backgrounds and beliefs come together to discuss things that are really important, and to help each other out and hold each other up and learn from each other?"

"Yeah, sure," I say. "AA does that."

"Well, I'm not an alcoholic," she says. "What am I supposed to do?"


It is 1995, the year Living Buddha, Living Christ is published. The Dalai Lama has publicly identified the 11th incarnation of the Panchen Lama, the second-highest position in Tibetan Buddhism. He declares the new Panchen Lama to be a six-year-old Chinese boy named Gedhun Choekyi Nyima.

In three days, the Chinese government will arrest the boy and his parents. They will never be seen or heard from again.


It is I don't know what year, sometime before 2014, during the blur and blackout of it all. She is standing before me as I sit in my chair with my whiskey and my laptop. She is all but pleading for me to let her in. I am wishing that she would go to bed and leave me in peace.


It is 2017. 150 Tibetan Buddhists have self-immolated like the Bodhisattva Thich Quang Duc in the past 8 years. 86 monks and nuns have burned in 2012 alone.

The Chinese are not satisfied with taking Tibet’s land. They know that Tibet is a boundless community, so they have been striking at its heart. 150 people have burned themselves to death to try to stop it.


It is a Sunday and I am in a mostly empty sanctuary. Our church, which was already in decline, has been poleaxed by a scandal that wiped out a decent chunk of the ministerial staff and half the congregation.

This scandal, and the destruction left in its wake, have left me fully dedicated to a church for the first time in my life. My theology is not theirs, but I cast that aside as I later would that shovel and hammer. I know a community of the damaged when I see one. These are my people.

The UMC has assigned us a new minister. He is yet another older white man, and I have my doubts.

Two days before, I was reading a book by Sri Ramana Maharshi that Lance recommended. Sri Ramana told me that the language that the great Self speaks is silence.

Pastor Roy steps up to the pulpit for his first sermon. "The language of God is silence," he begins.


It is late 2014. I am nearly a year sober and finally understand how fully I had left my wife and children in the cold. I realize that I had everything I needed right in front of me, the whole time. More importantly, I realize how much they needed me.

My wife's heart is vast. Her back is strong, and so are her arms. And I couldn't see them.

I am gutted with shame. But it is not the shame of before. I don't whip myself with this shame. I make it into a vow. For her. For my children.

From now on, I am for them. I am them.

The shame will be my guide on this path. My sentence is to carry it, to learn how to transform it. For them. I begin looking for a way.

I am so sorry.


It is a few months ago and we are driving home from Unity Martial Arts. I tell my wife that I am thinking of dropping Sensei Paula's power class. She is surprised. I explain to her that I am the only man in the class, and I worry that the mere fact of my presence changes the dynamic. I worry that the women are less at ease with me there. She says this:

"You are a grown-ass heterosexual white man with a job and a family, and every Saturday people see you come to a class taught by a woman and a fourteen-year-old girl. They see you call that woman and that girl 'Sensei'. And that matters."


It is September and Lance is leaving for good. It is my wife's birthday. Patrick and his wife invite us all over for dinner.

I am mourning, and I am worried for him. Moving sometimes kills alcoholics. We've all heard stories or seen it ourselves.

We talk as I have learned to talk, as Lance and Patrick have taught me to talk. We talk about fears and resentments and love and compassion. We talk of surrounding ourselves with others. They have been teaching me how to transform my pain into love.

But the waves of this pain are big, and my anchors are my family and my recovery. My wife encourages me to keep putting myself out there. Patrick jokes that if I move away, he will stop making new friends.

Three months later, he tells me that he is moving to New Orleans.

It has taken me 15 years to make friends with whom I can speak like this. It is hard for me to get out of my own way. So I am not just mourning their loss. I am wondering if I will ever make a local connection like this again.


It is 2019 and Dean is taking me under his wing.

It is 2019 and I meet David, who is the only other Buddhist I know in this town, and the only Buddhist alcoholic I know on the planet other than Lance.

It is 2019 and I’m finally connecting with Marc, who is trying not to die of cancer.

It is 2019 and I am realizing that these people and countless more were already here.


It is four weeks ago and I am at Unity Martial Arts, and Sensei Paula is concerned at a lack of new white belts coming in. New people are not just important for business; they are also important for the life of the community. She is asking us for ideas.

I realize that I have an instinct for joining communities that are struggling to grow.

I am paired off with Terri. We have been told to do pushups face-to-face while complimenting each other.

"I love that you come to class with painted toes," she says.

"You have helped me feel at home here," I say.


It is one day after I began writing this essay. It is a Sunday. The sermon topic is "Our Oneness". The offertory hymn is "In Christ There Is No East or West."

I am beginning to have a deeper appreciation for the openness and subtlety of Pastor Roy.


It is the fourth of July, and I am at another early morning recovery meeting. I am looking at old text files on my phone.

I find a suicide note that I don't remember writing. A suicide note composed in a blackout.

The pain is sudden and vast.

But when I regain my breath, I am grateful. Because I know what to do with it.

I am going to tell people about it.


It is last Saturday, and my father is helping me load Patrick's U-Haul truck so that his family can make their final journey south and leave Arkansas behind forever. Experience has given me faith that I will not lose touch with them, and so I am at peace. I am able to focus on what is best for them, rather than what is best for me.

Two members of my Wednesday night recovery group show up to help, Tim and James. James is my sponsee. He has nearly four times as much sobriety as I do, but he asked me to be his sponsor. This request has floored me.

I am glad that Dad gets to meet James and Tim. I love it when my family meets my family. We hug and laugh and share our stories of the week. Before we leave, Patrick holds me tight and asks me if I know that I am his brother. I tell him that I know, that I love him, that he will carry me with him to Louisiana.

Afterward, when we are back at my house, sweating and tired, Dad asks me if any non-alcoholics have ever joined the group.

"You mean like faking alcoholism to join?" I ask.

"Yes," he says.

"I've never witnessed it personally, but it does happen. Kurt Vonnegut had an uncle, I think, who faked alcoholism most of his adult life so he could be in the program."

My heart leaps at learning that my father has entertained such an idea. I would not wish my disease on him for anything, but I long for him to know this kind of fellowship almost as much as he does. He's hungry for it. Most men are. I start trying to figure out ways to make that happen.


It is now. I am reading Thich Nhat Hanh. I have been wondering what life as a monk would be like. I have already made vows, vows to my wife and children that I would never want to break, but I wonder if, in a different life, I would be making refuge vows.

On initiation into a monastery, a Buddhist monk or nun vows to take refuge in the Buddha, to take refuge in the Dharma, which is the teaching of the Buddha, and to take refuge in the Sangha, which is the monastery and the community of other Buddhists.

Thây says that practicing mindfulness in everything is nearly impossible outside of a traditional Sangha. The pull of the world and its practiced distraction is too much. He says that at home they have a saying, that when the tiger comes down from the mountain, the villagers will kill it. I think of the snake, twisted into a geometry of agony by a net whose only intention was to keep the birds off the blackberries.

But Thây also tells me that I am not to leave my existing community of faith. He tells me that this is my Sangha, my roots, and that I must never abandon my roots without cause. I have already come to this conclusion, but it is good to hear it from my teacher.

I know that I have at least three Sanghas now: My family, my recovery family, and my church. I wonder if the dojo is a fourth. Every step down the path of the bodhisattva, the path that chose me, has been one more blow of the sledge, driving me deeper into their soil. I know almost no other Buddhists in any of these places, but these are the places where I am needed. Lives are quite literally at stake.

I cannot become a refugee elsewhere. I have to build the refuge where I am.

I have no idea how. It is likely that I will fail.

I think that I am going to try.


I am disposing of the snake's body. Like a good alcoholic, I am second-guessing every choice I made. I am trying not to wonder how long it choked in that net.

I walk upstairs, forgetting Thây's instruction to practice mindfulness with every step up.

My son is in the dining room. He looks relieved. "Thank you for doing that,” he says. “I bet it wasn’t fun."

During my time in recovery, I have had a few moments of speaking without being conscious of what I was saying until it was done. This is to be the first time I experience one of those moments with my family. I think I say this:

"Actually, I'm grateful I got to be the one to do that. That snake could have been caught in a lot of people's yards. Most of them wouldn't have cared, or would have been disgusted. Some of them might even have been amused. But it got caught in our yard, and so I got to be the one to end its pain and wish it well. I think that that is a sacred duty, to let the living live and to help the dying die. Killing that snake was painful. But it filled my heart."

I am not surprised to be saying these words, but I do not recognize them as coming from the same man who wanted to be left alone all those years ago. I think of everyone who put those words into me, starting with Alfred and his cufflinks, and Brent and his business card.

My son is not yet twelve. I think he hears me.


It is two Sundays ago, and I am feeling very serene and fulfilled. I am grateful for the people in my life, for the places my path has taken me, for the communities that have taken me in. I am driving to Kroger to do the weekly shopping.

I pass a woman slumped on a bus stop bench, bags around her feet, soaking her t-shirt in the 90-degree heat. Her face is slack with exhaustion and dread. She is alone.

Pachydermatous Outer Melon Layer

Ricky Jay died this weekend. If you have the time, I strongly recommend you read this New Yorker profile of him from 25 years ago.

If you don’t have the time, I strongly recommend that you watch him throw playing cards at a watermelon.

If you want to learn how to do that, you will have to pay for it.

A delightful man, unsurpassed at his craft, who evidently hated kids. I never met him, but I will miss him.

Cleaning House

Took me awhile after leaving the place, but I finally got it done. Some of it was foot dragging, some of it was technical hurdles, but after a couple weeks of farting around and sending support emails, I've finally purged my Twitter history.

But, you ask, what will we do without your archive of shitposts? To this I say, if you love something, let it go.

I’ve covered the whys of my leaving before, and mostly inertia kept me from sweeping up after I left. Jack doubling down on the “we should let Nazis and other abusers have their say about whether people are people” horse hockey finally got me fired up to finish the job. Plus I’m not sad about erasing all evidence of my previous shitposting.

Part of me really is sorry to do it. Twitter circa 2008 was a delight. It was a kitchen conversation the whole world was invited to. The whole world showed up, sat at the table or hunkered down on the floor by the lazy Susan cabinet in the corner, and we all got to know each other. We gave each other a window into our lives. We made jokes. Dear god, did we go overboard with that part.

But, if you followed the right people, there was love in that room. This isn't nostalgia. If you've been around that long, go use advanced search and look at your timeline from 10 years ago. It's a different place. A place that brought daily delight.

So I'm not angry. I'm sad. I'm sad to see yet another bunch of ostensibly well-meaning white men with money fuck things up for everyone. I'm sorry that that kitchen conversation devolved into becoming, as one friend so perfectly put it, the paper bag that we all scream into now.

My Facebook's gone, my Metafilter account's gone, and my toots are all purged (well, all but 175 that appear to be unfindable even from my archive). And I feel better now. More at peace. Less distracted from the people around me that need me now, today.

I made countless friends through those venues. Friends on nearly every continent. Friends who I’ve laughed and grieved with. Friends who have met me in, God, four countries outside of this one. I am sorry to shut the door on these places. But I'm not sorry to embrace what has come next. The next right thing. The next person who needs me. The next quiet moment, the next gift of boredom. Let us give thanks for having nothing to entertain us.

(Oh, for the record, I used TweetEraser to do the deed. No recurring monthly fee, no auto-posting to your timeline, and they patiently helped my dumb ass through multiple failed attempts when I didn't read the directions closely enough.)

Update: Scratch that. Now it’s 194 tweets. What the hell, Twitter.

Lost

The frogs were loud.

I was in the hammock last night, in the summer we stubbornly insist is still spring. Took me a minute to worry myself into my sweet spot for the night.

When I did, I noticed the frogs. I swayed there above the creek and listened to them call out for companionship and wondered if I could sleep in it. This high crickety lonesome. Like bubble wrap that somehow needs oiling.

There was that gnawing at the back of my head that so many of us word people feel, someone knocking on the other side of the basement door and saying "I have a gift for you. An idea. Use it now, or at least store it someplace safe until you can. Who knows when I'll come back."

So I reached up to the pouch that hung on the ridgeline above me, brushing past a book of Jane Yolen short stories, and I pulled out my phone as the sentence congealed. There was something to it, I thought, so I banged it out quick in my drafts app.

"The frogs were loud."

And then I said my prayer. I receive this gift with thanks, I acknowledge its heft, and I promise you that I will write it just as soon as I can. But I hope you will understand that I must sleep now.

And I did. It was deep and dreamless. I stirred only once when it had gotten cool enough to pull the blanket over me, maybe once more to worry over a pinched nerve. When I woke, I thought about my whiteboard.

Lance taught me about whiteboard meditation. You write something on your whiteboard and linger over it, see where it leads. I did my first one last week, and this is what I wrote:

YOU'RE LOOKING TO GET LOST

So many of my decisions, particularly the ones I've regretted, have been driven by what I believe is a fundamental need to lose myself. To be free of my own obsessions and fears and resentments and self-consciousness and, well, me.

I've found a healthy loss of me through helping others, through communing with that presence I reluctantly call "God", through immense suffering and loss. I never get it the right way when I chase it, yet chase it I have, in ways big and small. Through chemistry, through challenges to my endurance, through an addictive “faith” that was more like a dare, through women. And, I think, through stories and song too.

If you ask me to go to a party, I may say yes, but I will think no. If you ask me to be left alone with a story, to sit in a chair and read something that turns me, to sit in the dark and let a glowing screen change my feelings, I will leap at that chance.

I looked at that writing cue. The frogs were loud. And I thought about that smear of marker. You're looking to get lost. And I wondered. Should I write? Why?

Everyone who loves me will say yes, I should, because I have a gift. You have been given this, they tell me. It's a sin not to use it.

Okay, maybe, but for what?

Because what I want to do with it is get lost in it. Better if I can make you get lost too, because then you'll love me, won't you? Ask me what I wish I could do most of all, and I'd say I wish I could tell stories that delight. I want that for me, because I want that for me. That seems like a bad way to spend that gift, to feed it to my ego or use it as an escape pod.

It may be lucky that I've never really seen a story through. It may be the best thing for my health. Because the world is out there, people are out there, and if I'm going to get lost, shouldn't I get lost in them? In their stories? Shouldn't I be there to celebrate their triumphs, to hold them in their grief? Is that what the words are for?

The frogs were loud. My god, you wouldn't believe it if you haven't heard it. They knew nothing of anxiety or resentment or dread. They exulted in a natural compulsion: Tonight I must sing, because that is my nature.

And they sang, but not to me. Not for me, though it felt so. It felt as though I were in the center of it all, taking it in, letting it build in me until I could find the right means to grab your hand and tell you to listen, this matters, the frogs were loud and it changed me, it can change you too.

What is that for? Why is it?

What now?

I cannot find enlightenment or fulfillment by seeking it. I fail at the very first step because it is at odds with the very reason that I want it. I want it for me. And it isn't for me. Yet I have these words, and I am paralyzed because I don't know how to use them just for you. I don't know how to sing like the creekfrogs. They sing together. They sing to stay alive. They need not worry why because they cannot be corrupted as I am.

I want to lose that corruption. I want to lose me. I'm sick of me. And I know where to do it. I lose me in you. But I can twist even that into something it was not meant to be. So the words are a gift, yes, but they are also a burden. They put me at risk to be no longer useful to you. And without you, I go back to being something I've learned to fear.

I don't have a tidy bow for this. I have only the question of what now. I suppose it's time to shut up and listen. To find someone I can help, and trust that the words will eventually either show me what they are for, or else leave me alone.

Them Thar Hills

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The beauty of the Ozarks is nigh on to cubist. It is angle and protrusion, knot and jag. The Ozarks are a broken nose that didn't set quite straight, a tombstone worn illegible, a lover's lips blessing a c-section scar. Theirs is the beauty of use and meaning and scrabbling for a life lived hard.

When the fall comes, the trees go to the bone and the woods are a wake of tottering, knee-walking drunks swaying to a hiss and rattle danse macabre under a corpsewhite sky. Everything is contrast and vacancy.

But in the spring and summer, the hills will rain their life down on you. They will pack it in your nostrils, rub it into your eyes, grind out a shotgun-wedding waltz on the legs of crickets and the bellies of cicadas until you can hear the heat. The hills will not allow you to forget that life only comes in a surge of mess and scent and howling, that sweat is sometimes a wedding ring and walking is often climbing. They welcome you, and they dare you.

I left the Ozarks 16 years ago, but my heart is still buried in their clay, stained orange and still beating, somewhere deep in a bootlegger's cave.

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How do we write now?

You are completely at its mercy and it is your kingdom. The apples are all the things you have ever compared to apples. The stars are all the ways you have tried to describe the stars. Paradise is not just the day when the poem pours down like Niagara with the hottest couple in the world kissing steamily behind it, it is also the day that you spend changing the word A to THE and back again. That concentration is reverence. You are passing the beads of things through your fingertips and your head is bowed and your mouth is moving and the preexisting rhythm has found its place in you.

I’m not saying you’re lucky to be there. I’m saying as long as you live there you are in opposition to the powers that rule the world. You are the opposite of money. You are against presidents, oil spills, slaughterhouses, Young Sheldon. You’re the opposite of the red button under Matt Lauer’s desk. You’re the opposite of the red button that ends it all. You have never been so hard in your own name. Nobody has you.

Patricia Lockwood reminds me that the world still is, that llamas matter, that the place where I burn is always open.

I wanted to quote pretty much all of this, but I thought I’d focus on the promise, the target we forget to aim at. You are the opposite of money. You have never been so hard in your own name.

God damn.

I have named it the Maker of Orphans

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Though its flint rod can make fire, it also wreaks darkness.

Though it was built to bring sustenance, it heralds the famine of winter.

Though its serrated butter blade be polished to a high sheen, it reflects only the futility of your existence and the bottomless void of being.

Prepare yourselves. You behold not just a mere spork, but your very doom.

You behold the MUNCHER.

Rest in Peace, Bub

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Len Wein is a name you don't know if you aren't a comics nerd. He died today.

You may not know Len's name, but he probably touched your life. He co-created the modern era of the X-Men, including Wolverine and Storm. All those X-movies people paid billions to see came from his work. He co-created Swamp Thing with Bernie Wrightson, who also died during this evil shitheap of a year. That's just the start of what Len did.

The horrible thing about working in comics is that you can have an era-defining impact on Western culture, then sit back and watch everyone else but you get rich off your work. And you labor on, for love of the game, until you die in relative obscurity. That was Len, that was Bernie. And scores more before and yet to come.

It is cruel to behold, crueler still that he should die in an era with robber barons and granny-starvers and literal Nazis taking the wheel. Len wrought heroism and optimism for a living. He deserved to die at least in sight of that promised land.

May he return to the Green.

Good boy

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We found out today that Mugsy has heartworms. It was supposed to be a quick run for immunizations before we leave town to go visit my parents for Labor Day weekend. A sentence from the vet rather changed the tone of my day and the next couple hundred days to come.

I am restraining the urge to get sloppy here. I have written about what he means to us before, so I won't retread that here. Suffice it to say that my mind is currently churning on the topics of fragility and emotional need.

This goddamn dog that I almost didn't want to adopt because I would have preferred a rescue who was house trained, yet here I am prepared to burn your house down to save his life.

We'll soldier through. But today is for spoiling him (more).

Not with a bang

I have a friend who's dying. I can't save him. He may not see fifty and he's probably going to die alone because he won't reach out. Probably thinks he can't.

I know what this friend needs to do, and what he needs to do will be painful and difficult. It will require a faith on the level of abdicating his sovereign right to make his own decisions, at least for a while. It will require him to tell uncomfortable truths. The odds of that are...well.

I watched another man I love wither into a frail husk in front of me when his wife passed. He got lonely. He rattled around his house with little to do but mow the lawn. He stooped. He met his golfing buddies once a week and talked sports and weather and lawn care, until that ended. He stopped putting sheets on his bed. His mind started to go until he'd moved from forgetting the date to not comprehending how a day could have a number.

Then he met a woman. He dated again. And he has returned to us, to life.

These men are like most men. They've each only got one really close friend: the women they love. They have no one else to burn for. Without those women, or with the wrong one, they start to die. Slowly.

My wife tagged me on this essay that's making the rounds. I've been chewing on it for a while now. And I hesitate to speak up at all, because "what about [white] men" is a disproportional analysis. But then again this is a pretty solid episode of the hit series Patriarchy Hurts Everyone, so here I go.

I'll tell one on me too.

I had a job half my life ago selling jewelry. We had a fairly tightly-knit staff. Someone, not sure who, got in the habit of ending conversations with a little musical "love yoooouuuuu..."

It caught on. Should this ring shank be replaced? Yes, and add an unset/reset charge for the emerald. Okay, love yoooouuuuu. Love yooouuuuuuu.

Months went by and those love-yous got a little less drawn out and musical. One day someone pre-pended the earnest pronoun "I".

Can I have Saturday off? No, sorry, Josh is off. Okay, I love you. I love you too.

This was my twenties. Three other salesmen on that staff with me, and another man I connected with by chance. All stood with me on my wedding day. We're now scattered across four states and two time zones. We still stay in touch. We still proclaim our love. One day I kissed one of them on the cheek when we hugged hello. I surprised myself; I don't kiss anyone who isn't family. But it felt like breathing, so I kept it up.

Didn't always have that, though. I've had years of mere existence, staring every evening at a screen in my living room, reaching out to strangers there in the aether and wishing everyone in my physical proximity would leave me to live in my own idiot head. I was starving myself.

One day I stood before my wife, nearly in tears, saying "I miss my friend." A week later she was pressing a plane ticket into my hand. I did not deserve that or her. I'm trying to make up for that now.

Now I have another, local group of friends. We have a regular dinner thing. We talk. About sports, about lawn care. About our terror and shame and hope and love. I recently told one of them that I love him. The others are on deck.

Let me tell you about my boy.

My boy burns hot. My boy feels every drop of his feelings. You are his friend, even if you haven't yet met.

My boy loves. Profoundly. So much that it's hard to get him to tell me his darker thoughts. I can see the wall of embarrassment: what if Dad loves me less if I tell him? And I will own that sometimes the messiness of his feelings inconveniences me, that I reach to contain it and keep us on schedule, rather than guide him through.

I know that the world is going to do its damndest to beat his love and affection out of him. I know that I have to be vigilant, or I will help it. I have to protect him from me.

What I have seen, time and again, is that men are starving as I have starved. And we have to dress up our love and need in no-homo bullshit to justify it to each other. Iron John forest howling. Promise Keepers. White men doing hakas. Hugging that inexplicably involves hitting. Love yoooouuuuuu.

Yet I tell my son: Enough. Could you just calm down. Breathe, buddy, it's not that big of a deal. Every blow tempers him. I do not tell him enough that we feed each other with handfuls of our insides. That making a feast of our hearts makes them beat more loudly.

We are obsessed with masculinity. Masculinity is cosplay and individualism a cancer. We smother the best parts of us in the name of some facile made-up John McClane bullshit. We chase the myth of the self, as if the self exists. So now it's hard for us to turn the the person next to us and say "I'm really happy right now," much less admitting out loud that we're absolutely fuckin' terrified. And so we die.

I learned emotional labor and emotional nourishment relatively late in life. But there is my boy, and there are these men, this boy and these men for whom I burn. I look into the eyes of men who have found what I found and sometimes I see the wild and exultant desperation that I feel, the fear that this can't go away, not ever, or I'll die. It lashes my heart to the earth.

I was alone when I spilled my blood into the walls of my house. I was alone when I shook the soil of my home out of my shoes and onto an island in the Danube. I was alone when I forded a creek in search of my son, trying not to scream.

These stories, you need to hear them so that you know that we are here, you and I. If I do not tell you them, I will die, and if you do not hear them, then I never will have lived.

Listen:

Why We Camp

It's an hour past dark and we have a decent fire going. For which we are grateful, because the temperature's probably going to drop around forty. I am shod in a beatdown pair of Merrill slip-ons, which I have propped up on one of the rocks ringing the fire. I am so entranced by the flames that it's awhile before the nerve endings in my feet report that my soles are melting. I jerk my shoes away and some of them stays on the rock.

People with guitars at campfires are irritating. They only know old hits. Playing old hits around a campfire is like farting during a funeral.

It's September two (three? I am losing time) years ago and we are around a fire at Lake Ouachita. I am reading aloud to my children from my Father's Day gift. Its best story begins with a woman killing her stepson, tricking her daughter into thinking she had killed him, then cutting him up into stew meat and serving him to his father. From there the story builds into something lyrical and lovely and hopeful, and ends in happy tears. I feel grateful to read this while the smoke of the fire saturates everything. I note that my children don't so much as flinch at the horror of it.

The smoke. The smoke always gets in the hair on my hands, in the knees of my jeans. This is a dad thing to say, but the smoke smells honest to me, as do gasoline and lawn clippings and puppy breath. These things smell only of what they are, as if odors could be onomatopoeia.

It is two days ago and I am soaked through with rain and sweat. I am sick of the wet and squelch. I and my son have hung hammock tents between the trees and among the chiggers. We are using the reserved campsite tent, which has cots and a concrete floor, only to store gear. I have done this to pretend that I am still young, because thumbing my nose at the coming squall is surely going to make me feel young.

Instead I lose half a night's sleep to worrying about my boy every time the storm wakes me. This does not make me feel young. Is it bad enough yet to grab him and run for the cots? What if he's afraid to say that he's afraid? But we wake not long after dawn, bone dry and cozy. I let him sit in the shelter tent while I break his gear down in the rain as penance.

I have perfected my chigger bite remedy. It involves scratching the bites until they bleed, then swabbing them with alcohol and swearing. After that, clear fluid rises out of them, and I swab and swear some more.

It is over a quarter of a century ago and I am at a Church of Christ retreat. They are too polite to let me know that they think I am hellbound. I slide out of my top bunk in the middle of the night and land headfirst onto the concrete cabin floor. I vomit several times, am rushed to the ER and diagnosed with a concussion. They pray over my head. Two days later, I pull a groin muscle during capture the flag. They pray over my dick. It will be years before I realize how funny this is.

I do not remember the first time I felt wind on my dick. But I remember vividly how it felt.

It is early winter and we have gone on a campout with older scouts. We are a thirty-minute drive from the city, but we have gone down what feels like America's longest gravel road. We have pissed off the deer hunters by filling a prized spot with hollering children. We camp in freezing weather, our pack huddling around a log fire whose heat is reflected and amplified by a shallow cave wall. I keep my feet near the fire but remember my Merrills. I will be awakened several times by sore hips and cold and will go home rejuvenated.

It is sometime in the 1980s. I am sleeping on the front bench seat of a pontoon boat in the middle of Truman Lake. I fall onto the floor as I would do in that churchy cabin years later, but the fall is only hard enough to wake me. I sit up and watch the moonlight go hilltopping on the water. I imagine I am a sailor on my first of many nights at sea. Tomorrow we will get soft-serve at the Estes Drive-In on the way back.

It is 1991 and I am eating runny eggs and burned bacon on the side of a Colorado mountain at five in the morning. I am watching goats chase each other over the rocks. My horse has tried to bite me three times. I realize I will remember this meal on my deathbed and pour more gritty coffee into my mouth.

It is last spring and my daughter and I are hammock camping in the backyard. Dogs are barking. Some asshole neighbor is playing country music from a car stereo. The breeze is steady and it's cooling off. It is her first time solo in a tent and I am worried that she will get tangled up in her sleeping bag. I am worried that she will be cold or afraid. She shows me what she is made of.

Later I ask her if she and I could go on a real one sometime, just us, maybe to Pinnacle Mountain, and she jumps. She jumps.

Wexstan's Son

This is from a friend of mine, a man who's probably the best writer I've ever shaken hands with. It's an off-the-cuff thing he shared with his friends and is allowing me to reproduce on condition that I keep him anonymous. This is a good'un:

I tell people from time to time that I am Wexstan's Son. I don't have any tattoos, but when I do, and soon, it will be that—"Wexstan's Son"—in beautiful script on my shoulder or over my heart.

It comes from the epic poem "Beowulf", which is the oldest written artifact in the English language, surviving in only one copy and damn near lost to mankind. It's the story of a hero. Starts out with Beowulf as a young man, heading off to assist a neighboring kingdom with a big problem: namely, a kinda-human monster named Grendel, who keeps busting up in their mead hall in the night and eating them.

Beowulf, a demigod with the might of thirty men in his handgrip, sails stormy seas. He lands on the shore in his longboat. He and his magnificent, battle-hardened cadre of warriors march to the great mead hall there, where they lay down and feign sleep. Long after midnight, Grendel busts in, and a great battle ensues, shaking the hall until it nearly falls. Beowulf eventually rips off Grendel's scaly claw, killing him and winning eternal fame and glory for besting the monster.

The end of "Beowulf", however, is a very different story. Beowulf by then is old. He's fat. He is not the man he once was. His reputation has helped him reign for fifty winters in peace. But now he's got his own big problem: A dragon has arisen from a cave and started burning the countryside, killing scores of Beowulf's people.

When I say a dragon, I mean it. Scandinavia is where our idea of sorta "Game of Thrones" dragons comes from. Tolkein, the guy who really saved the poem from obscurity as a scholar, got his image of Smaug from there too. So this one is a real monster: scaly, horns, flies, breathes fire, the works.

Nonetheless, Beowulf, who is old and fat, lets out the straps on his armor, then saddles up to go out to do battle with the dragon. Knowing his fame as a warrior is on the line, he tells his men that he will go out to face the monster alone. And so the king draws onto the field of combat, before the dragon's lair. Beowulf stands there, grey beard flowing in the wind, still majestic in his armor and with his ancient, ring-patterned sword. Then he shouts in his mighty voice for the dragon to come out, if he dares.

And out he comes, churning smoke like a locomotive, hide like iron, tail covered in deadly spikes, fangs dripping with venom, the bringer of nightmares and the handmaiden of chaos. The battle commences, and Beowulf is holding his own.

But as he brings his sword down on the monster's head, the ancient blade of the king shatters like glass and suddenly Beowulf is defenseless. The dragon turns, draws breath, and roasts him. Beowulf is down behind his shield, being burned alive, wrapped in swirling flame.

Seeing the king fall, his great and majestic cadre of warriors—men he had called friends, men who had sworn oaths in times of peace to stand by their king in good or bad—turn and haul ass, fleeing like cowards deep into a nearby stand of trees to huddle there in fear. All of them.

Except one...this one guy, who we as readers didn't even know existed until that exact moment because he was not famous or important enough to mention. This one nobody.

"His name was Wiglaf," the poet says in the Burton Raffel translation. "He was Wexstan's son, and a good soldier."

He's not a god. He's not even a demigod like Beowulf, with the might of thirty men in his handgrip. He has no majestic armor, inlaid with silver and gold. He has no title. He has no ring-patterned sword. He's just a dude who decides that he will not run, even if it means his death.

And so he draws his sword, squares up his shoulders, and rushes into the flames to save his friend and the man he swore oaths to protect. And thus, the dragon was slain.

I'm a tough nut, but that moment, when I read it, always gets me a little choked up. Because it is the poet saying that all of us, every one, even a nobody like me, has the capacity to slay dragons if only we can convince ourselves that any cost, even death, is preferable to living in fear.

And so, I am Wexstan's Son.

In the years to come, there may come a time when you see one of your sisters or brothers kneeling alone, wrapped in the swirling flames of racism, or homophobia, or religious persecution, or sexism. Then it will be up to you to decide, my friend: Which would I rather be? An unruffled coward or Wexstan's child? I know which I would rather be. And in that moment, it will not be me who fears the dragon. It should be the dragon who fears me.

If you will stand, my friend, I will stand with you. No matter what comes.

It's two and a half minutes to midnight

This is not a clock I want to hear ticking. Everything old is new again, except worse.

The state department is in turmoil. Our allies are announcing that they can't depend on us anymore. The national parks service is only one department in damn near open revolt. Scientists are being ordered to put their work through political review.

It's been six days.

This is not normal or defensible. If you think it is, go find the fractured dystopian police state hellscape you think will keep you safe elsewhere. You can't build it here.

It's time we acknowledge it. We have a national mental illness. I wish that were hyperbole.

End of an Era

I awoke this morning and put on an old mechanical watch I hadn't worn in days. It had run down, so I needed to reset the calendar. That was how I realized that today was January 19th, 2017. The last day.

It felt like the last day, too, though I fought that. Today my professional life was filled with people discovering broken things that nobody knew how to fix. And I resisted it, I tried not to lapse into lazy cynicism and confirmation bias, but I could not help but think it a metaphor for what is to come.

The man who is to come is quite a piece of work. He is loud and brutish and vindictive. He is possessed of that particularly deadly strain of ignorance and intellectual laziness that is convinced of its own brilliance. He seems eager to sow conflict, a foie gras goose gavaged with hot takes and contempt, then pointed at the country and squeezed like a bagpipe. It is good that he does not drink, because he is the clearest, most shining example of alcoholic psychology run amok that I have ever witnessed. I am, in short, afraid of him.

The man who is leaving, he is also a piece of work. He is studied and careful. He listens. He is a scholar, but he is not content to cloister himself off with books. He made a life out of helping, and it appears he's just getting started.

Don't get me wrong, he's pissed me off plenty. He is not everything I could want in a leader. He has broken my heart a time or two.

But he did the job well. He did it with dignity and class and grace. He continued to reach across the aisle no matter how many times the Party of No slapped his hand away, no matter how many of us counseled him to stop what proved to be a mostly futile gesture. Futile, maybe, but he left the country better than he found it, and it is by their fruits that you shall know them.

People have tried to dismiss my current slurry of dread and sorrow as a loser's sour grapes. These people do not grasp that I am a Southern Liberal. Losing elections is common and familiar to me. It is practically my god damned raison d'être. So, no. This is different.

So I'm hammering this out before I end a very long day. I am pondering a very long four years in which a lot of people I love are going to get hurt while forty percent of my country cheers. This leaves me sad and angry a lot of the time.

I am told that that's a glimmer of what it's like to be black or gay or trans or Muslim in this country, but I don't dare believe it. I lose nothing tomorrow.

I am tempted to put a rather shiny bow of optimism on this, end with something hopeful about following the example of the one who is leaving. But I know that tomorrow I will likely not muster more than grim determination. I may snap at my coworkers or family. I will waste at least an hour's worth of minutes wondering what the first international incident will be (I'm not counting the two he's already managed).

But the children have school. I have work. I am needed. There are things to be done that I can control, in some small measure.

One of those things: I am pointing to the loud ones and asking my children, do you hear them? Do you hear God in that racket? Do you hear love? And they tell me no, and they appear to mean it. There's at least something to that.

This weekend we march.

Christmas 2016

Dear Everyone,

We got a dog this year. Most of you know we got a dog this year, and half of you are expecting me to say "we got a dog", so guess what, I don't want to disappoint: We got a dog.

He is small, bearded, not-un-Morgan-Freemanish in appearance, if not demeanor. He does not have the bearing of a person who might narrate a jailbreak or try to keep Brad Pitt from opening a box. He prefers a bouncier insouciance and general love of eating poop, two things Morgan Freeman is not known for.

Mugsy has upended things in the best way possible. He forces me out for exercise at least once daily. He demands that we take time to play, that we remember to lay hands on each other as much as we can. And he's a walking object lesson in the fragility of our circumstances.

Let me explain. Yesterday, my son asked me if I thought he would make a difference in the world. "Sure", I said. "Any time you touch a life, you make a difference in the world." I knew what he meant, but I wanted to make him push toward his real question, which was this: Will I be important?

That's an echoing hallway of a question. So I pointed to Mugsy, and I told my son a story he already knew, the story of a bearded baby pup who wandered a graveyard looking for food. Covered in bug bites, gut full of parasites. Someone saw him there, a woman saw him. A woman who cared.

That woman took him home and cleaned him up and fed him and took pictures of him with a ball and a sombrero. She put those pictures on a rescue website. I found those pictures. I texted them to my wife with a photoshopped speech bubble that said "i love u jennifer" in tiny letters, knowing that this was the most reprehensible kind of manipulation. And only because all of those things happened, because that manipulation worked, we brought him home.

"That dog", I said to my son, "lives better than half the people in the world now. Because somebody cared." Then, because everyone loves dad lectures, I pushed on.

I reminded him of Mr. MIchael, his Cubmaster. Mr. Michael got into an argument with a friend on Facebook over Syrian refugees, an argument that led him to get on a plane and fly to Greece. There he met children who had seen their parents beheaded. He raised money to build them a school. Now he's trying to get their camp better sanitation.

People stand on the sidelines and lob lazy criticisms at him for doing this. They want him to stop, but he keeps at it. Because he cares.

That, I said to my son. That is what making a difference means. You pull a puppy out of a culvert. You feed a kid. You touch a life, and you change a life. You change a life, and you hope that that change will be fruitful and multiply. No one will erect a statue of you for this. But many will bear witness to you.

I've tried to tell my children that Important is a pretty coat and Useful is what we reach for when we need to be warm, but I know how well I would have listened to that at their age. Why should they listen to me? I barely do. So I touch their lives, and I hope. Sometimes we parents cling to that.

And then there's that dog. The bug bites are gone, the gut situation mostly rectified. He's gotten comfortable with leaving exuberant chaos in his wake like so many crayon-studded dog flops, as if his own usefulness is to remind us that the current moment is all we have in this world. That the only question worth worrying over is this: What can I do today?

We joke about how lucky that stupid dog is, how well he landed. I've called him Little Arfin' Annie. But I'll tell you a thing: that little dude pulled a third-act Grinch on our respective heart sizes, so he's earned his place. He's a living reminder that there are plenty of others out there, others on four legs and two who haven't had a kind lady happen across whatever cemetery they're foraging in. We can't give them all sombreros, but we can keep our eyes open for opportunities.

We can ask: What can I do today? When we find out, the answer transforms us.

There's a song I can't let my kids hear until they're a bit older. It's full of cussin', which I enjoy. I listen to it at least once a week, and it ends like this:

There is no chosen one
No destiny
No fate
There's no such thing as magic
There is no light at the end of this tunnel
So it's a good thing we brought matches

We got a lot of matches around our place. More than we need. If you need a few, or even just a word, I'll repeat what I told you last year.

We are here.

Tomb to Table

Holiday recipes from the dead. Includes a recipe for my wife's grandmother's chocolate pie and a meditation on the tradition of learning through failure:

I wish I could say I learned how to make chocolate pie at my mom's side, but the truth is I learned the same way she did — by screwing it up the first time I tried to make it, calling her from my in-laws' house on my first married Thanksgiving so she could talk me through what I'd done wrong. (My problem: I always forget to add the butter and vanilla at the end. After hearing me dog-cuss myself at his parents' house for five straight Thanksgivings, my husband started leaving Post-Its on the piecrusts while I wasn't looking. "Add the $%#@ing vanilla," he'd stick on one crust, "And the $&#!ing butter, too" on the second. It's our own little holiday tradition now.)

The end of that story is as bittersweet as the pie.

My wife's pretty goddamn great.