This was me in the car, at a light, stopped. I was on my way to class as a matter of fact. I have this thing that I do. Here it is. I like to watch people. Not in some creepy, peering-through-the-bushes sort of way; not after dark in the shadows. I am curious, just curious, about people and sometimes I will content myself for many minutes in a restaurant or in an airport with the simple act of watching I will imagine myself inside his or her skin. Imagine what it feels like to be that person over there in that seat, that old man, that tall woman, that angry teen. What are they thinking about with that look of secrets on their face? That’s what I wonder sometimes.

But that’s not really what I’m writing about here. Here I am writing about the Glance. Tonight, at the light. Remember? That’s where this started. Tonight I was waiting for the red to change to green, waiting much too long it seemed and I glanced out my window into the car next to me. This is an old habit. There in the window of the minivan in the next lane was a face, the face of a man, and he was looking straight at me! This was against all the rules of my game. What was I do? What a surprise there is sometimes in the unexpected closeness of a face, a shock really. I looked down, pretended to adjust my seatbelt and pressed hard on the gas as the light changed to green.


: foreign policy disaster :

: get together :


I was playing piano in the dark. I didn't know he was there sitting in the next room with a jar of pills in his hand. This went on for half an hour, late at night, with the streetlights shining in through the windows of the practice hall. I must have driven him crazy with my songs. He must have been thinking, "Can't you see I'm trying to kill myself here?" I didn't know. I was just playing and playing and playing.

Finally he came out, like Frankenstein in the dark, swaying from side to side. I am sure I jumped a little. What do you say when someone tells you that they have been taking pills one by one and hoping that death doesn't hurt too much? I can't remember what I said but it must have been okay because the last thing I heard he was still breathing and living in, of all places, Manitoba.

::DOC14.san miguel::

Something from the class...


Late in October, the fog lifts from San Miguel Island. Despite this fact, it remains a desolate place. Only a few people make the trip every year, usually a small sampling of biologists, fisherman, and intrepid campers. Not long ago I found myself there, drawn by the mystery and the remoteness and by a strange sense of promise. I was hoping to find something, I think, or to be found.

[read more...]

::DOC13.images.me and my big mouth::

If you are tired of hearing about my childhood, I am sorry. I am engaged in a writing class and we are rummaging about in the past. I'm hoping it pays off and becomes more than the selfish mumbling it sometimes seems to resemble.

::DOC12.images.the old man in the barn::

I was eight years old, imaginative, and motivated, much to my mother’s dismay. I would climb tall trees and yell for her to look up, grinning with secret pleasure at her fear. Action figures would fly from the third floor windows of the house accompanied by ferocious shouts of “Geronimo!” She was less than wholeheartedly appreciative of my true-to-life renditions.

If you have the good fortune to be an eight-year-old boy in a place wide enough and rough enough and mysterious enough to accommodate your voracious appetite for living, there is a good chance that the memory of those days will hold for you a certain sweetness. A crooked branch becomes a wizard’s staff, full of power. A shed miraculously becomes a fortress, attacked on all sides by roving tribes of thistle barbarians. If you’re really lucky and the stars smile on you, you’ll get a barn to play in and, for a young boy, a barn can become an entire kingdom in no time at all.

In my case, there were no less than five barns, the remnants of some past empire, filled to the rafters with a veritable king’s ransom of junk. We discovered old cars and kitchen utensils and inscrutable rusted objects. At night and before a thunderstorm, large black bats would swing out from under the eaves. They would flap big, erratic circles around the barn and we would throw rocks at them, never once hitting them.

These barns were a proving ground for the boys of the neighborhood. We would make jittery forays into the interior of one barn or another, hearts in our throats at every step, hardly daring to breathe. We whispered between us rumors of an old man who lived in there among the junk. These legends were confirmed when he appeared out of thin air one day to speak to one of our fathers, warning him to curb our stone throwing activities. Apparently he had still wanted those windows.

In any case, he was never far from our thoughts as we poked and prodded and jumped at every whisper of sound, expecting the old miser to leap out from behind a barrel, raining curses on our heads. We feared his anger, but more than that we feared his age.

The barns themselves had faces and personalities and lives of their own. They seemed to slouch in strange, lifelike angles, watching us, biding their time. We all felt this although we didn’t speak it aloud. What else could explain a refrigerator, far from the door and the gracious daylight, containing a pair of brown leather shoes. And a pie. Obviously this was a trap. On that day we left quickly in a disorganized clump, tripping over the door frame, tumbling into the light.

All I ever kept from that treasury was a rusty, green handled hammer. I’m not sure that I built much with that hammer. I remember it mostly for the single act of cautious, experimental hooliganism that I performed with it -- one ear of corn nailed to the wooden frame of the flatbed farm truck. Most likely very few people ever noticed that particular product of my youthful rebellion. In truth, it was rather unobtrusive. But -- I’ll confess -- sometimes I like to imagine that for just a second it caught the perplexed eye of the old man in the barn.

He apparently died not too long ago. I heard this from someone who should know. Maybe it was from eating one too many stale pies. I had forgotten him, but I hadn’t forgotten the fear he instilled in me. There are plenty of things in the world that inspire dread. They even seem sometimes to work in league with each other, passing it along from hand to hand in a line that stretches from birth to death. But as time has passed I’ve had another thought. It’s a wish, I guess. Here it is: I wish I could meet him now. I would ask him about his life and his history. I’d ask him what he was planning to do with all that stuff. I would thank him for being the “old man in the barn.” And, maybe, just maybe, I’d ask him if he’d ever seen any corn cobs in strange places.

::DOC11.images.chasing chickens in the dark::

I can remember an evening, late in summer, the night full of the shouts of children. We are playing a game, "kick the can" maybe. Someone has disturbed the chicken coop and woken the sleeping birds. They are squawking, flapping about like sacks of flour with wings. Mistakenly the door is left ajar and the skinny hens make a break for it, all claws and feathers. Soon we are running in all directions, leaping into the tall grass, pinning their wings against their sides, squeezing tightly. Eventually the birds are back in the coop. It is a good thing for us that chickens do not hold grudges.


I don't really want this to become some political op-ed page. There are plenty of fine things to write about without dipping into that bitter well. But I must say something about this Iraq situation.

What I want to know is this: When every world leader (except the parrot Tony Blair) is telling our Man with a Plan Bush to calm down a bit, when seemingly every retired general and every expert on the Middle East and just about everyone who has a right to speak on the subject is saying that this is a bad idea, why is the Texas cowboy so ready to shoot off his gun? Is it because he doesn't have enough to keep him occupied? Because he can't find bin Laden? Because his daddy said so?

We seem dangerously close to getting into a war to save face and because we don't want to deal with the complexities of life in the global community. Doesn't anyone else think there's something wrong here?


Here's something:

We learn to praise God not by paying compliments but by paying attention. Watch how the trees exult when the wind is in them. Mark the utter stillness of the great blue heron in the swamp. Listen to the sound of the rain. Learn how to say hallelujah from the ones who say it right.

- Fredrick Buechner, Wishful Thinking


Send me hate mail. Call me nasty names. I don't care. I am completely over this national therapy session we're engaged in this month. Yes, the towers fell down. Yes, people were hurt and killed. This was a horrible thing. Yes, our carefully balanced and utterly groundless sense of security was knocked flat like the house of cards it really was. Okay. That was a bit of a shock. Now let's stand up, brush off the dust, act like adults, and face the day.

Some thoughts: 40000 people died in one earthquake in Iran a few years back. I don't think they're writing musicals to talk about the struggle of facing life "after the quake". 6300 people die of AIDS every day in Africa but you don't see the surviving family members suing for millions. The rain came down last week in South Asia and 1800 people died in the floods. As far as I know Bangladesh isn't lighting any "eternal flames" for any of them. Those who kept their heads above the water aren't saying much. They're busy rebuilding their houses.

Which is good because I think I've about reached my quota for celebrity studded, nationally televised, carefully orchestrated, intimate moments of grief.

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I saw a rich woman in a car on the freeway today. I could tell because the car was big and black and had a strange "B" on it that looked like money. It turns out it looks like $350,000 when you look close. I checked.

Anyway, I looked at her closely too. She didn't look like someone with whom I would have anything in common, but still I found myself imagining myself in her place. She was talking on her cell phone and looking straight ahead and she had a diamond-studded watch on her expensive wrist. This is a little embarrassing but I will say it anyway -- my ridiculous first thought was "I wonder how many cell phone minutes per month she has." It was like the JC Penney Christmas catalog for a minute right there in lane number 3, visions of digital wireless sugarplums dancing in my head. Maybe 1000 minutes? Maybe 2000? She probably never accidently goes over and then looks at her bill surprised wondering why are they charging her such a fortune. And what kind of phone does she have? Passing her at 80 miles per hour, I couldn't tell but it looked like something much more expensive and much more advanced than mine. It would have to be to ride in a car like that.

I wondered what it was like for her to wake up this morning. Was her sock drawer messy or had the maid seen to it the day before, tiptoeing in and out of the room in the carefully-ordered silence of the torpid afternoon. Where was she going today? Some lunch or a hair appointment maybe? Tennis? Why do I assume that it's her husband that makes the money and she who spends it? Why do I assume her life is boring and stuffy and at the same time glamorous and exciting in an "I think I'll fly to Cannes for the weekend" sort of way. Why do I hate her? Why do I envy her? Why do I worry that I'm missing out on something? This took up a good six miles of my morning commute.

Not a day of my life has gone past when I have not had enough to eat. I have never been without clothing or shelter. When I flip the switch on my wall the lights go on. Turn the faucet and the water runs. Push on the gas pedal and the car drives fast. Faster even than a big black car with a "B" on it.

I eventually got to work today and stood gazing for a minute at the green, green grass outside my office window. "If this is how God clothes the grass of the field," wrote Matthew, "which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, o you of little faith?" This makes me feel a little better. But I admit I had another question, a small one (and again I am a little ashamed to tell you) but here it is: does that include cars?

I'm not sure of the answer. God mostly keeps quiet when it comes to questions like this, which is probably just as well for my sake. As a result, though, I've decided to try to stop worrying about the clothes. I do have a little faith, after all. I'm just not sure what to do about the phone bill.

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::DOC6.why i love the internet::

"We're still looking for either a naked man with huge eyes or an emu."

- Hamburg police spokesman quoted in Reuters story, 23 Aug 2002

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Destiny is what some people name it. Others think of it as calling. The idea that each one of us must make something significant of our lives, go for the gold, go down in history, be ambitious, make it big, seems deeply ingrained in us.

I am reading a book about Afghanistan. Forgetful of everything else, I spend my hours traveling through a land of people who are content to live small. They will die in the same village in which they were born. Also, they will give their lives without question for their homeland. This seems to hold relatively little fear for them and they seem to ask few questions, satisfied with their particular path through life.

The book of Thessalonians says, "We exhort you...to seek earnestly to be quiet and mind your own affairs, and work with your own hands." And in Matthew, "He that finds his life shall lose it." I'm having trouble getting all this to jive with "making it big."

Is it greed or maybe selfishness that makes me think this way, that the world is my stage? Turn the spotlight on me now, I say. Here are the things I want and I will demand satisfaction, waiting for you to leap to your feet in response.

Maybe it's my upbringing -- the way we do things in America, from John Wayne to "American Idol" -- that tells me I'm nothing until I hit the big screen. And, God help us, there's nothing worse than being nothing.

Sometimes I think it's the fear of being forgotten. In these days and in these parts I am not a fragment of a greater whole. I am just a fragment, with a beginning and an end. Will you remember me tomorrow? How can I be sure? I know how quickly I forget.

So I am caught like a mouse in a maze. Here is one dead end. There is another.

But there is something else that I am thinking in the back of my head, like a little whisper. The next line in Matthew says, "But he that loses his life for my sake shall find it."

Now, tell me, what does that mean?

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::DOC04.what i know::

A week ago I was driving on the freeway late at night, heading toward home. All my windows were open and the air was swirling around the interior of the car like something alive. Along that particular stretch of freeway there is a miraculously dark and somewhat secluded section which runs for about a mile at most. I say miraculously because this area is only a short distance from the sprawling center of downtown Los Angeles. A bit of darkness makes a big impression in this city that glows orange in the night sky for hundreds of miles in every direction.

If darkness and quietness is remarkable in a place like this, imagine the shock that accompanies the sudden earthy scent of soil, grass, and water. We here in L.A. believe that the only good empty space is a paved one, preferrably with nice painted lines so that we can park our multitudinous cars without banging them into each other. This is why we bake in the summertime and why when it rains in the so-called "winter" we get washed right down to the ocean, shouting for help and for our requisite 45 seconds on the evening news.

So, on this particular evening, with my windows wide open, I suddenly sat bolt upright in my seat and nearly drove off the road in surprise. Anyone seeing me swerving in my lane would not have given it a second thought, assuming I was simply having a particularly passionate cell phone conversation, or perhaps having dinner, or reloading my CD player. These are some of the things we do while driving here in Los Angeles.

But, in fact, I was reacting to the long-missed smell of green things, the smell of dirt, the particular and reviving sense of life in the warm summer air. I'm not sure that this is something that everyone feels. Probably not, as I think about i, but it cut through my brain like lightning in August and made me suddenly and sadly aware of the shortness of time and of our days. I don't know why I'm like this.

There are many things I don't know or understand at all. There are some things I hope for and believe in. I hope for a heaven, a life after this one and I hope and have faith that the things I believe about it are true. But this I know: who can bear to leave this life, the evening sun through the window, the wind in the sail, the scent of water in the night?

Not me.

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todayiamhavingahardtimedistinguishing betweendreamsandreality ifyouhappentoseemewalkingaboutasifinadaze placeyourhand onmyshoulderandgentlyshakeme thiswillhelpmetorecognizethepresent andkeepmefromsaying strangethings at strangetimes andalsoitwillkeepmefromleaving

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I sometimes fantasize about opening my back door and pushing the entire contents of my apartment down the stairs, out the driveway, onto the street. I will keep a bed, a chair, and a table. I will also keep one precious camera and a few pencils. Maybe I will stretch myself and keep a towel and a toothbrush. A good towel can come in handy; a good toothbrush goes a long way toward keeping your friends around.

I could live in an apartment with just these things and be pretty happy I think. Do you think there's something wrong with me?

I sometimes fantasize about taking my cell phone and letting it play in traffic. Like, for example, the intersection of Lake and Colorado. The little Nokia would have no choice but be quiet and make itself as small as possible.

I would be quite happy never to hear that little mosquito ring again. While we're on this subject, does anyone know where I can get a real phone with a real bell? I think this might help.

I sometimes fantasize about going an entire week only eating food that was cooked in my own kitchen. Imagine that! For one thing, the countless trips to the trash dumpster outside my apartment would be eliminated. Styrofoam and burrito wrappers would become a thing of the past. Less cholesterol and saturated fats in the diet. I'd feel more alert and friendly. I might even greet passersby with a smile and a wave once in awhile.

I really, actually, for real, like broccoli. Why is this so counter-cultural?

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This is an experiment. I question whether I am disciplined enough (or nocturnal enough) to write here very often. There doesn't seem to be much of a payoff as I see it. And then there's the question of whether or not anyone else even cares (I'm going to assume just for my own self-esteem's sake that they do.)

In any case, as I think it over, it seems that it might be decent fun for me and enjoyable to those who know me. Maybe this is reason enough to spend my time writing little notes to the universe. And if on occasion a little light is serendipitously shed then perhaps someone will be a little better for it. That would be good, right?

While I'm at it I'm going to wish for world peace too, right here and now. You have to start somewhere, you know.



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