Posted on December 18, 2016
Filed Under Journeyman Chronicles, Mundane | Comments Off on Legion

Out of nowhere, apropos of nothing in particular, talking to myself: “I’m going to blow your fucking brains out, motherfucker.”

Another voice, also internal, says “Yes, that’s right” – not as a jeer, but because it fits, it suits, it conforms; it feels like climbing under warm covers on a cold day. It feels like scratching an itch – ahhh, that’s it!

Still another voice, with some alarm: “No, that’s not right!”

And then I get up, and wash the dishes.


Before you say something: please – don’t. The last round to that dialogue is a murmur of different voices, some of them sarcastic, all of them ashamed: “Well, what was that all about?” “I guess you are the only one in the whole world with problems!” “Oh, for heaven’s sake, shake it off.” “Are you going to talk like that so you can be the center of attention, get everyone’s sympathy?”

This is a good day. This is not me asking for sympathy, this is me giving it. Somebody who will read this needs to read this – someone going through a similar experience, but who is not able to talk about it, as I can today – because they are not having a good day, as I am today.

I didn’t do too much yesterday. In the morning I went out for breakfast with my roommate and his fiancée. We went to the Blue Dot, two blocks from the apartment and always crowded on a Saturday morning.  Sometime in the afternoon I went back out and got a pot roast, a head of garlic, two parsnips and a rutabaga. Also some Brussels sprouts. I had promised, a week or two back, to bring pot roast to the church supper on Sunday. When I got home I salted and peppered the pot roast and seared it, with a little olive oil, in my InstantPot. When it was browned on all sides I set the roast aside and threw in the parsnips and rutabaga, along with carrots I already had in the house, tossing them until they had had mellowed a bit and picked up all the fond from the bottom of the pot. Then I poured them all into a bowl and threw in two onions and let them get golden and brown around the edges.

Time for broth. I dumped the onions out too, and deglazed the pot with a little balsamic vinegar. I used two teaspoons of “Better Than Bouillon” beef base in two cups of water, adding a bay leaf and rosemary. The head of garlic went in whole; some recipe on the internet made it sound like a cool way to add garlic to a roast. I also put in about maybe a cup of red wine; and then maybe a teaspoon of Kahlua left over from months ago when I made chocolate trifle, because I had it and it might do something interesting to the flavor. I prefer to cook with alcohol; drinking it tends to make me wake up in the middle of the night. I’ve never quite truly gotten used to the bitter flavor of alcohol, but I will drink socially, to keep whoever I’m with from feeling awkward having the only drink–I tell myself, although I have noticed that, as they say, a drink can take the edge off. Another reason I am shy of it. I have a deliberate propaganda campaign to tell myself I can drown my sorrows by drinking, but, specifically, caffeinated beverages.

The InstantPot directions suggested using the Meat setting for 30-35 minutes, so I set it for 25, deliberately wanting to finish off with slow cooking. Well, somewhere along the line I miscalculated; when I opened the lid it was clear the vegetables were far overcooked. I lifted the roast out and set it on the cutting board; perhaps it had been imbued with a rich blend of flavors? I tried to fork a bit off the corner, and it came away too easily; the meat had given up on all adhesion, and had become merely a collection of fibers, like some Andean mummy exposed to conditions so harsh that even Decay gave up and died. It was kind of a downer.

I tried some of the broth, a bit too hastily and, as a consequence, obliterating the surfaces of my mouth and tongue. But before going silent my taste buds confirmed that yes, there was flavor in the broth. That recipe on the internet had said to squeeze the garlic cloves out of their skins, but in my case the cloves no longer had the strength to pop through the skins and oozed into a mushy glob with the skins, so I just dropped the whole thing into the trash with the wordless regret befitting wasted garlic.

I sliced up the roast, in the process noticing signs that in the center of the cut there was a bit more firmness and cohesion, so perhaps the worst of the damage was only at the periphery. I ladled broth over the sliced meat to let it absorb back in. I stuck the inner pot of the InstantPot in a sink of cold water, to cool it down quickly so that I could put it in the fridge and go to sleep.

This morning I got the meat back out and flipped it over and ladled some more broth on the slices, and put the pan in the oven to warm it. I decided to give up on the vegetables; they looked gray and didn’t taste much better. Perfectly fine food if you are starving, but I am gradually learning that there is only a sad pride in pretending to be more impoverished than you are; nobody in Africa would prosper from my needless eating of horribly overcooked vegetables. But there was a skim of fat on the broth that I wanted to save with the broth, but wouldn’t go through the colander cold. So I drained some of the liquid and put the inner pot back into the InstantPot base and started it warming.

With about 2 1/2 tablespoons of butter and approximately as much flour I started a gravy base. I let the flour warm to just a slight brown shade and started adding the broth, slowly of course; or at least somewhat slowly. As usual, my impatience prompted me to add a little more than I thought I really should have, then panic and whisk frantically, and then relax as it blended together just fine after all.

It got about as thin as I care to serve gravy but I had not enough gravy and too much leftover broth.

It is almost a signature of my cooking style to change my mind about what pot I need to use halfway through, or somehow wind up using more pots and pans than I should have needed; so with a little shake of my head at the familiar and tiresome, I pulled out another pot and started a second base. When I had got it close to the same consistency I combined them.

I wasn’t quite sure how to keep the food warm, since I had to drive 40 minutes or so to the church and it would be an hour or so after that until we ate. I have not yet invested in one of the insulated wrappers for a pan, suspecting that it it is the sort of thing I would use once or maybe twice in a year while the rest of the time it would testify to unfulfilled ambitions; and anyway, people were bringing food to potlucks long before someone manufactured a new necessary thing. I had a plastic fitted lid for my bowl of gravy (part of a set that came home with me after the Christmas gift exchange), and I added a layer of foil over that to help conserve heat. The meat itself was in a 13 x 9 covered in foil. I swaddled it with a Raymond-branded blanket, the kind of cheap merchandise too tacky for any other use but actually perfect in just such a case. I was running low on time, so the dishes had to wait until I came back.

I set off – but first, a stop for coffee. I saw a parking spot that bordered a driveway and snagged it, sparing myself the humiliation of demonstrating, yet again, that I still can’t parallel park in less than three tries. Coffee – Starbucks or Peets? They face each other across the busiest intersection in town. As usual, Peet’s won, being in my mind the underdog, and also closer – literally on my side. I tried the Havana Dulce Cappuccino. I like it.

I arrived at church. Churches are, for me, an almost uncanny intersection between personal and social; whether I consider myself in a public space or in a private gathering depends upon my mood, and, being moody, I am often not sure which. It is hard to start a conversation, because I am not sure if I want to ask “So, what do you think of this weather?” or “How do you deal with the agony of existence?” Mostly, I shift around awkwardly until someone else says something and I can calibrate my dialogue to match.

One of the good things about this church is the practice of singing older, richer hymns, and always all the verses. There are I think four hymns every Sunday. The hymn of the month this month is “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” (see, another nice thing – they resisted the obvious temptation to choose a Christmas song).

After the service is a bustle of activity to set up for the meal. It’s a small church; I would say about 30 people in regular attendance, with seating for about 40. By moving the first pew back they can just squeeze in two folding tables to spread out the food. The space recalls a one-room schoolhouse. I am pretty sure my meat and gravy are too cold to be enjoyable, so a push my way to the tiny little “kitchen” (a corner with a few shelves) and slide the gravy into the microwave to heat it up some more. A vain effort – for me, at least, because by the time I get to it the gravy can be described most generously as lukewarm.

But the number of people who stop me to tell me what a good job I did! Five, six, maybe more, I don’t know. I wonder if I am moping obviously, and they are trying to cheer me up? But I think they mean it. There is just a bit of meat left, and as I am going to toss it in with the gravy and pack up someone claims it. By all means!

I have sometimes been to potlucks that feel like “white elephant” exchanges, perhaps for reasons only in my head, but this is a good potluck, what church should be like: it feels like a family reunion. People are happy to see me, but it’s not for something–it’s not for the men’s group or the single’s study or the church growth drive. We know each other, a little, and the familiarity is itself the entire purpose. Sharing food blends with sharing hugs.

I am forty minutes from home and roughly half way to Mountain View, where Dan lives, so I text him and ask if we can meet up. It’s always at Starbucks (Peppermint Mocha; it’s the third cup of the day, since I got one in at church as well). Dan offers to pay. Dan is a one-armed man, one of the last surviving cases of polio in the country; his wife works in the school system. I know how much some people hate to feel patronized, but it is hard, too, to let him buy me coffee. Today he hasn’t got his Starbucks card pulled out until I’ve already stepped away to the counter to order, and I pretend not to hear his offer.

I speak frankly with Dan. It is hard talking to him because he keeps trying to cure things that can’t be cured; but I think it is like rehab or therapy, it helps even if it does hurt and even if it doesn’t cure. He says he felt the same way I do, when he was eight years younger than me. But it is hard, too, to tell him I have it worse than he ever did. He spends most of his days bedridden in pain, often cancelling planned meet-ups. And I see the pain come back – at the corners of his mouth, his eyes; almost like a halo, if you will. We have talked for an hour and a half. I let him go home.

I am accelerating aggressively and changing lanes like one of the bros in a BMW. I should get one. Or a motorcycle. But I won’t. Because.

I turn on music, then turn it up loud enough that it will force its way into my mind, like a massage into knotted muscles.

I remember not to get off at the first exit, to keep going to the further end of island because I want to stop in at Target and pick up something I forgot to get last time I was there, a little notebook. There is a homeless guy at the bottom of the exit ramp. I have very strong and very divided feelings about beggars. I feel like charity would be to give them tens of thousands of dollars so they could actually get established, and anything else, what’s the point? Also I wonder about them. A friend of mine showed me a list of like fifty places in the area all serving the homeless. He had them all on a piece of paper. He keeps a stack in his car and hands them out. But occasionally, if I have enough time to argue with myself, I give them money anyway, to be ironic at the least. Here, man, here’s five bucks. Have a Starbucks. Or Peet’s; try their Havana Dulce. Peace, bro.

The notebook is to do this idea where I will write in it, perhaps before bed, something to be grateful for. I will practice focusing on the good things. Like all practices it will take time to make a difference; like exercise, like playing piano, or drawing. Like all practice, you can’t ever really finish, but you can start. And so I do, when I get home; I start.

Now then; should I e-mail Warren the talk I gave in 2013? I think he would like it. Or should I wash all those dishes?


What shall I answer?

Posted on March 22, 2016
Filed Under Journeyman Chronicles | Comments Off on What shall I answer?

“Behold, I am vile;
What shall I answer You?
I lay my hand over my mouth.
Once I have spoken, but I will not answer;
Yes, twice, but I will proceed no further.”

If you look at the span between the two posts preceding, it is nearly a year; January to November. The longest gap of any since this chronicle started.  It is difficult to find a new thing to say. How’s the weather in London? Well… foggy, I suppose.

We read Scripture as tidy, complete stories. Read another verse, or maybe a chapter, and the situation changes. There are ellipses of years buried in there that we happily conclude, “And then God saved them out of their distress.”

If I paraphrase as Scripture does (and yet not even as much as that), these years have been a dialogue between me and God, thus:

Me: “I wish to be pleased. Please me now.”

God: “No; and in fact it may be that you are never satisfied until the kingdom of my son is revealed on earth as it is in heaven.”

Me: “But I am a man; I live in breaths, not eternity. Please me now, or I perish.”

God: “He who believes in me shall not die, but have everlasting life.”

Me: “That’s eternity! There they do not eat, but from the tree of life! They do not drink, but from rivers of living water! They do not marry, they do not die! Feed me now, or take my life!”

God: “Are you the first to wait upon the Lord?”

Me: “You have secured the Alpha and Omega of all things. If you will not give any care to the middle, I will see to it myself!”


And God, in his mercy, does not answer that.

I know it is wrong; I can explain why it is wrong in a heartbeat. But explaining how mankind got to the moon does not get one there. The heart beats in two stages, wa-woosh, wa-woosh, and if the first stroke is an answer, a reason in half a hearbeat, than the other half is a reply without a reason: So what? I don’t care!

It is the stronger half of the heartbeat, the stroke that moves the blood through the whole body.

“Change your attitude,” they say. Who? Oh, everyone, I suppose; they say it even on Facebook. Halfpenny theology. “You control your attitude. ONLY you can control your attitude. You can’t control how THEY ACT, but it’s YOUR CHOICE how you REACT.” All that stuff. Need some advice? Penny a bushel, right there on Facebook. Grab some.

They’re teaching people to commit suicide. I don’t think they realize that, but they are. By adamantly insisting that you have the capacity to forge your own happiness on the private anvil of your own heart, and not only the capacity but the responsibility, they raise a mighty chant: You can do it! You can do it! YOU CAN DO IT!

That’s what they hear themselves saying, but to the one who has tried a hundred means a hundred times, it sounds like: Jump! Jump! Jump! JUMP!

One thing is certain: the dead do not feel mortal pains.

Some say they have immortal pains, which are worse. Some say they have no pains, which is better. Some say that having no pains is worse, because “‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Oh, poetical. But no more reliable than that idiotic slogan that “Pain is weakness leaving your body.” Sometimes it is. Sometimes it is your soul leaving your body. Same thing both ways? O weak soul, begone!

You can’t ever say you’ve “tried everything,” because only God has everything. God always has a way. Yes; yes! But he has not made all his ways available to all men at all times. Some prophets are fed by the ravens; others are killed by kings. They all wind up in heaven, I guess. But God is not very careful about the middle parts of the alphabet. There can be more or less letters, in different orders. And sometimes repeated.

When Joseph was thrown into Potiphar’s prison, he had already been delivered. He’d been thrown into a pit by his own brothers, then pulled out and sold off. He overcame this great adversity and rose to prominence in Potiphar’s house. He was faithful, even under extreme temptation, and his faithfulness was rewarded – with prison. Two years in prison, and God gave him miraculous insight into the meaning of dreams, and with it, an avenue for escape: plead my case to Pharaoh! But he was forgotten.

How does a man bear up under that? What does a man say to God after that – after having a holy vision and credible way out, only to have it closed up again? “That’s okay, God, I guess I didn’t really want to get out of prison right now anyway. Go ahead and rescue that guy that had to spend the weekend in jail. I’ll just stay here. Maybe I’ll reorganize the pencils in the desk drawer one more time.”

Theology is a tricky thing to lean on, a staff that turns into a serpent. Is God faithful to save his own? Then it doesn’t really matter; do what you want, it will all turn out right in the end! Are we responsible to work out our salvation with fear and trembling? So much the better — then you are already damned! Do what you want, it doesn’t matter! Does God reward those who faithfully wait on him? Not so far – and you’ll be dead by the time he does! Live it up while you can!

Feeling stuck, trapped? Throw yourself from the temple roof! Will not God bear you up on angel’s wings, even to heaven itself?

I moved to California. I took a job in Silicon Valley. Did I hope to find happiness? Yes. Did I not think that I would bring all my unhappiness with me, plus the pain of being far from everyone I love? I did think that. Did I run away from Nineveh? Yes. Did I choose to dwell in the cities of the sons of Cain rather than the tents of the sons of Israel? Yes. Did I exile myself to the wilderness, to spend 40 days and 40 nights in the purifying wilderness? Yes. Was it to hide from God? Yes. Was it to seek God? Yes. All of those reasons, whether a proud pursuit of self-righteousness or a greedy pursuit of sin; I carried all of them with me, knowingly.

When it came time that I was supposed to say, “No, thanks, I am going to stay here, where my family lives (because that’s where God has put me, because he has shown me a better way, that those ordinary moments spent faithfully in ordinary places are true treasure, and I forsake vain pursuit of worldly rewards),” the words died on my lips, because they tasted like a lie. Like they could be true, but it was a borrowed gospel: In the name of this Jesus, whom Paul preaches! And how he does preach!

“But who do you say that I am?”

Wretched man that I am! Who will free me from this body of sin?


Chirrup, chirrup. Crickets. Gethsemane’s crickets, locusts of the apocalypse, unblinking bronze-faced cherubim of Ezekiel’s Armageddon.








A broken mind

Posted on May 13, 2014
Filed Under Elsewhere, Journeyman Chronicles, Mundane | Comments Off on A broken mind

I started living with my grandparents in autumn of 2002 when I began attending the nearby university. When I got there Grandpa was an independent man who could drive us down back country roads that would turn out in some small town where the Methodists were having a $6 supper. During the course of my college education Grandpa developed symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease: unable to use the TV remote. Unable to drive. My brother came to provide around the clock care until, in 2009, Grandpa became unable (or unwilling, really) to live.

Alzheimer’s disease can progress fitfully, seeming to recede as the brain tries to adapt to its own impairment. You can hear from a person suffering from Alzheimer’s what it is like to lose your mind. With time and empathy and attention you might learn as much as my brother did. I provided some weekend relief for my brother in care-taking, and between his observations and my own I am convinced that you can be alive even if your brain doesn’t work. It is, after all, only an organ. You can be alive without an arm or a kidney. You can even be in some sense conscious and aware that your brain is not working.

So how do you give up on your own mind? If you were aware that you were losing your cognitive abilities, how do you reconcile to that truth? How much courage does it take to admit that some of what you “see” and “know” is false? When, in those earlier days when you sometimes are still right–when you are right more often than you are wrong–should you admit that your mind is flawed and you need someone else to think about every important action you could take? Now my mother’s father is also in mental decline, and we talk about what he ought to do. O physician, take your own dose! Would you today give up all your right to make decisions?

I am decades away from my struggle with Alzheimer’s, should it come to me in the way it is most known. But Alzheimer’s is not the only disease that wrecks your brain. Almost anything you do is directed by your brain, so almost anything can be affected by a malady of the brain. But the brain is an ocean, with layers and currents and moods and no real boundaries. Like the geyser of a broken derrick, the presence of pollution in the mind is easier to identify than it is to define. Here there is a problem; there, not; but so much of elsewhere there is a trace of corruption that is only apparent over time.

Grandpa dies of Alzheimer’s, but his father killed himself. The “Purdy temper” is moody with a cynical bent, given to depression and quick to conclude that all is vanity. Maybe that’s treatable, like heartburn, or high blood cholesterol. Maybe one little pill can fix up our warped minds. Maybe it is just Tylenol. Maybe that’s not a bad thing.

You would think that’s a hopeful thought. It’s not. It’s terrifying.

Think of a happy day. Maybe it was a birthday party. Maybe a loved one came home after a long time away. Maybe you graduated, or were accepted into school, or maybe that was the day your wife said yes.

Think of an ordinary day. Last Tuesday, say, unless that was a special day. Think of some just plain ordinary day. I don’t know how you can think of an ordinary day because ordinary days are pretty much forgettable, but if today was an ordinary day just review it in your mind and hold it there.

Now bottle it up. In fact, squeeze it down to a pill.

Take your ordinary day experience – the feelings, the memories, the conversations – and put it into a pill. Would you take that pill?

Put that pill side by side with the happy day that you thought of earlier, in another pill. Put the happy pill right there by the ordinary pill. And now put an unhappy pill next to the other two.

Would you chose your truth? Is the truth even true if it is just something you choose? Which truth would you choose, if you could choose your own truth?

Let’s leave the question of dependency on mind-altering drugs out of it. If you can take a pill and change your perception of reality, is it even real? If you could take a pill when it was literally raining, and the sun would literally come out, is that real?

What if I offered you eye surgery: remove one of your eyes and I’ll replace it with one that can see colors you have never seen before – color no person has ever seen before. Maybe it’s real but maybe it’s a hoax. Would you agree? You’ll tell me that taking a pill isn’t the same as removing an eye, a pill is not a lobotomy. But then again an eye isn’t your brain. An eye is only your lens to the visible world. Your brain is the lens to the entire world. Once you start playing with the dial you can no longer talk about the “natural color,” as it were. Maybe you oversaturated red tones. Maybe you amped up the contrast. Maybe you did dial the colors in “right,” too, but who’s to say? Do even the “normal” people all see colors the same way?

To take a pill for your brain is to call yourself a liar. Not just an occasional liar but a habitual, pathological liar who simply can’t be trusted, but the person you are lying to is yourself.

It’s easy to say what to do if your brain disease is bad enough. If your Alzheimer’s disease is so bad that you actually can’t figure out how to start a car, it’s easy enough to say that someone else should drive you. It might not be a fun thing to say but the necessity is pretty clear. But what if you just missed a turn? Everybody does that. What if you just couldn’t find your way home for a bit? You made it eventually. I have never curled up in the tub screaming silently at the horror of existence. Indeed that is so far beyond my fits of melancholy that I have trouble conceiving of it as more than a fantasy. Surely under that great a strain the non-physical part of your mind just… explodes. Surely reality can’t include visions of nothing more than horror.

How do you know if your mind is broken when you live in a broken world?


Posted on February 10, 2013
Filed Under Journeyman Chronicles, Mundane | Comments Off on Parcel

We have an unhappy-seeming wood. At the old place the paths ran like rivers through the wood, and you could follow them without tearing through brush or stepping over more than the occasional tree. Here, riotous brush packs the space between snarled trees that have drowned in the inch of mud that holds pools of water all over the rocky hill. Some of the dead trees still stand, but others have toppled, the thin plate of earth and rock that was not enough to anchor them still clutched in their roots. Snarling thorns patrol the wood, lashing out and latching on.

The paths from years gone by have turned into soupy channels unwelcoming to even careful footsteps. Although animals track through the forest in abundance, they thread their way through narrow gaps and low overhangs, narrower and lower than a clumsy human in boot and coat can go. The deer and rabbit endure the scrub of the close brush and the sop of the inescapable water, and pick footholds through layers of collapsed, defeated trees.

None of the paths, animal or human, can be followed well, for the property lines now laid down were drawn by people divorced from the land who did not know or did not care for its lines. We are parked on a chip of land laced by nature’s many lines – elevation, streams, rays of sunlight, animal paths, the ranks of various shrubs in their kind  – but our allotment slices across all those lines, and the only place to go within its boundaries is across. Splash through the swamps, crash through the brush, force your way into the land.

It is a sad piece of land: abused pasture, forgotten farm, parceled up and sold out. The house had roots throughout the land once, still visible in the skeletons of old foundations scattered across the hill and found only by accident. People lived here once who expected and depended on what the land could provide. Now it is a parking spot, a recumbence for an creature that must go Elsewhere to Do anything.

We have already started to change the place, of course. The woodshed ties us a little more to the land even if the wood is trucked in from Elsewhere. The garden laid in on the bank of the stream does not know yet what it will be, but it is more already than it was. More than anything else, the animals we keep relentlessly reclaim the land. For ducks, Here is the best place for mud; for chickens, Everywhere is the best place to explore.

But we are confined and constrained, not by the land but by the lines that men draw on it. The best place to keep ducks is on a pond. The stream would readily support  pond but it is designated a protected trout stream. Here, although it is not definitely a stream at all as it spreads wide and shallow through a thick stand of brush, we cannot gather the water up into a pond to keep the ducks safe from the fox and the bear and the weasel, because some unobservant building-bound functionary was told that fish live in water.

The same dam might give us a way up onto the hill; without it, the best path is on the neighbor’s land, land parceled off as needless by some former owner for whom the hill was only a backdrop  for the house, an then parceled off again as a road–gated, now–to access the steel tower that dominates the hill and saturates us with radio waves to keep our plastic devices alive. It is the best use for a hill known to modern man. In former days it was pasture.

Just past our current property line the forest relaxes into something more stable and mature. The trees are more upright and there is space between them. This, too, was parceled off, sold to someone who cut a way for his four wheeler and left many of the trees where they fell. This part of the land is now used as a hunting ground, if you can call hunting what amounts to drive, sit, shoot, drive. It is not a real source of food and it is not a sport, if by sport you imply the exercise of some skill. It is a spectacle, a great deal of sitting and waiting until the glorious bang followed by blood and death. The four-wheeler path marks the boundary of the colosseum and defines the purpose of everything within it. He gets a tax break for being such a diligent farmer of trees.

You cannot follow the lines of the land here because, in one way or another, the lines of the law prevent you. I wonder, house-dweller, car-parker, nature-lover: how would you like a list of rules from the government on how you may love your lover?



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