Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Scene From "The Last Cafe"

Some of the scenes in my novel, “Wilderness”, happen to take place in the “The Last Café”. I’ve been working hard on the novel again, and will post several more completed chapters in the next few days. Check back to see if they’ve been posted. In the meantime, here is a small excerpt from the new chapters.

Part of Chapter Nineteen:

The new artwork that had been sitting on the floor near the storeroom in the back is now hanging on the walls of the café for our enjoyment. I say enjoyment because the work truly is enjoyable. Abstract dogs and cats. Acrylics, it looks like. Not portraits, like artists usually do with animals, but dogs and cats in natural movement, in motion, some in conceptual poses, with personalities and emotion; bodies stretched, arched, and twisted in mid-stride, like if you were to pause a Nature Channel DVD, and then paint the screen.

The only thing that’s not natural is the colors. No gray’s or brown’s, no white’s, no beige, no yellow labs. But lots of offbeat colors on offbeat cats and curious dogs. Reminds me of some of the creatures I’d see with the good acid we used to do back in the 60’s before they started cutting it with Meth, and other sinister additives.

These creatures are truly dancing off the canvass, engaged in full-body celebrations of animal life. Celeste, an artist whose name I’d never heard, is also an artist I will look for in the future. You know how every once in a while you’ll find an artist you’d really like to meet? You may not even know why, just that you’d like to meet him/her? Well, I’d like to meet Celeste. I won’t be trying to meet her. I’m just saying. But I will ask Darla about her tomorrow. I’m very curious. Very curious.

Darla’s got about ten or twelve pieces of her work hanging around the cafe. I’m struck by the strength of their attitude, casting a frivolous demeanor across an, otherwise, somber afternoon. Wall to wall brilliance, lifting me like a kind of telepathic elevator, raising me up, it seems, out of my psychic delirium.

There’s a bemused bloodhound hanging near me on the wall, Cerulean-blue belly to the sky, draped unceremoniously across an old chase-lounge on the lawn, blending with it, into it, one back foot on the ground, and three flopping free like a monkey might lay on his back across a branch, or an otter on a rock. A Fuchsia kitten on the sparkling wet ground, pink, tinged with purple, rear end in the air, two front paws having caught the dog’s one earthbound foot as if it were a mouse he’d cornered by the fence. A second colorful kitten, poking fun, her scarlet nose burrowed deep inside that big overgrown puppy’s ear. The hound’s other ear is draped soft across his own eyes, protecting them from the blinding glare of a merciless afternoon sun. There’s an elated look on the old dogs face, a look that anyone might like to wear were it accompanied, also, by the pleasurable feeling that would have inspired it in the first place.

Darla’s put John Prine’s ‘Souvenirs’ album on, and Mr. Prine has been serenading the clientele this afternoon. Hearing him is like listening to grandpa sitting on a stump outside the barn, telling stories about when life was a little slower, and people were a little more important to one another than they are now.
His songs put life, and the struggle for equanimity, in a dramatic, but embraceable, perspective. “Fish and Whistle,” for example.

“Father forgive us for what we must do.
You forgive us, and we’ll forgive you.
We’ll forgive each other till we both turn blue,
then we’ll whistle and go fishing in heaven.”

They are also the best photographic collection of the human condition that a man could ever hope to find. Snapshots, all of them. “Far From Me” gives an intimate glimpse of many of those humans, concluding that there is remarkable beauty in even the most callously disregarded among us.

“And the sky is black and still now
up on the hill where the angels sing.
Ain’t it funny how an old broken bottle
looks just like a diamond ring.”
But it’s far, far, from me.

Jessie and Collette are both behind the counter today. That always makes me happy. The soul of John Prine permeates the café, casting a subtle, subdued, truth across the room. People put their pencils down to listen. They eat their cake, and sip their coffee quietly. There are no utensils clanging on plates. There is no mindless chatter. There is no scuffing and shuffling of feet, just the sound of Prine’s solitary voice, . . . . Don’t let your baby down . . . . . . . ”), and his conspicuous acoustic guitar. Simple songs, sometimes with bass, accordion, or piano, but not complicated by pretentious arrangements, or unnecessary instruments. Some people are whispering quietly, but even then, you can tell they’re whispering about the songs, or maybe how they used to wake up every morning lying next to somebody they loved. Until Marty entered my, otherwise, innocuous life, it’d been about a thousand years since I woke up with somebody like that. And John Prine reminds me. He sings,
“. . . . Down on the beach the sandman sleeps, and time don’t fly, it bounds and leaps. . . . . . .”

Brad and Angelina are here today as well. They’re usually pretty over-the- top demonstrative with each other, but a couple of songs ago “Far From Me” turned even them inward for the time being. Some people are looking up at the speakers hanging just below the ceiling in the corners of the room. It’s like people want to see the voice they’re hearing. I can totally understand that. And I can almost see his voice when I close my eyes, if you know what I mean.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Snow Falling On Life

A steady snowfall for the past several days.
The corporate power has been out, and we’ve been running on generator.
The steady hum of reassurance that all will not be dark, or cold, or left undone.
But life will take a back seat to living for now,
and living will pace itself according to how living use to be.

It’s been a time of sitting back, and settling in. A time of reflection, of catching up even; not on chores, or busy work, or obligation, but on rest and regeneration. Hours spent in reflection as nature plays itself out just beyond our window. Trees clothed heavy with blankets of fresh wet snow clinging like sweaters to the trunks, like sleeves to the limbs, but eventually letting go as branches reach their limit, unable to bear more weight. That accumulated snow, ultimately continuing on its downward path, falling once again, the rest of the way to the ground, piling up there like a mound of freshly raked leaves in early Autumn.

And like the cycle of life, new snow begins to accumulate like sweaters, just like the old snow did, just outside my window, on the trunks and branches of those very same trees.

Daily walks over trails carved with our own hands, unrecognizable now from even just a few days ago. Snow, knee-high where we step, snowflakes kissing our faces like silk confetti, tickling our lips like feathers, sticking to our winter hats like decoupage.
A shroud of wet fog settling soft around us, obscuring our vision like squinting in the wind, but, even then, enhancing the distinctive pleasure of the hike.

Oh yes, and our dog, Chica; the decathlete mutt, the canine deer with floppy ears, the Maserati on four legs; running, jumping, loping, prancing, dancing, flopping in the powder, playing chasing games with imaginary critters, or the real-life kind who left their lingering scent, knowing it was bound to drive her nutty, her busy nose burrowing through the snow like a young child’s face might plow its way through a bowl of vanilla pudding.

Snow Falling On Life:
While enjoying the beauty of fresh snow, the stolen moments of pleasure and introspection, the privilege of living amid the grandeur of God’s design, I can’t help but to also think of those in Japan whose lives have been upended, whose days and nights are a continuing struggle against the cold, against the elements, and against the ravages of hunger, thirst, grief, fear, and heartbreak.

If you would, raise a hand to the heavens with me, and ask the Creator to shower our brothers and sisters in Japan with mercy, with grace, and with a miraculous means of recovery.
And contribute whatever you can, in whatever way you can, of yourself, and of your resources, for the raising up of those whose lives have fallen so tragically beneath the rubble of unexpected circumstance.

Monday, March 14, 2011

I Get Kind Of Numb

I don’t know about you, but I get kind of numb to all the wars and natural devastation we have been experiencing across the globe over these past years. Just going back to the early 90’s there was Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, and the American response to it, then the succeeding Gulf war (Iraq), not to mention Afghanistan. There have been, and are, wars all around the world, it seems. There has been the continuing Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the Somali Civil War, The Chechen conflict, Kosovo, the Croatian war of Independence, Bosnia. There has been the war in North-West Pakistan, the Shiite Insurgency in Yemen, the Darfur/Sudan, and Rwandan genocides, the Cambodia/Thailand border conflicts, and now the Egyptian, and Libyan uprisings.
And these are to name just a few. It seems as if much of the planet is continually on the brink of, if not already involved in, war.

There are the Al Qaeda attacks that have been going on all around the world (New York, London, Madrid, Germany, Yemen, and many others too numerous to mention.) The continuing drug cartel, and gang wars in Mexico and South America, and in the United States. The world has become a battleground.

And then to make matters worse, there are the natural disasters.
The recent devastation in Japan, the New Zealand quake, the 8.8 in Chile in 2010, the Myanmar cyclone, the Haiti earthquake, the Indonesia Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina in the U.S., flooding and landslides in India, China, Brazil, Peru, Mexico, Romania, Poland, Portugal, and in many other countries of Europe.

There are countless millions of people who have been, and are, being killed by these Geo-Political conflicts and Natural Disasters, not even to mention the untold millions who are impacted by the fallout. We watch the ‘highlights’ on our televisions and computers. We feel bad for the nameless/faceless victims of the devastation. We measure our own humanity by our internal response to the horror. We measure our sensitivity by the same standard. We might pray for those affected, the families of the deceased. We might even send money. We might be depressed for a little while, and we might feel fortunate that it wasn’t us. But we quickly return to the comfort and safety of our daily routine. Work, Facebook, sports, Judge Judy, fast food, movies and shopping.

Now, I’m not judging, or condemning, you for how you deal with these kinds of tragedies. I’m smart enough to know that most people are compassionate and well meaning. I can only assume that to be the case with you as well. But I know that when I get numb to all of the misfortune in the world that there are many others who are affected by it in the same way. I’m not saying that it’s not a natural thing to kind of freeze up inside at such an inundation of mayhem and tragedy. I’m just saying that I don’t like it when I do. It goes against all that I’d like to be as a human being.

But I am also aware of my limitations, and that I cannot afford to personalize all of the suffering in the world. I cannot hold it all, and I know I’d not be able to find a place to put it if I were to take it on, consciously, or unintended even.

Recognizing this, I find myself grateful that I don’t need to embrace the misery. It would do the world not one bit of good to add even another person to that number. The best I can do is to hold sacred those who have survived, that they may eventually find healing from the pain. That they may make the most of what remains of their own lives.

Regarding my own personal impasse, and possibly yours, I guess ‘numb’ might not be such an inappropriate condition considering that it is, most assuredly, a protective, and temporary state of being.

Say a prayer for those left suffering.
And be thankful that you are not being counted among them.

Thursday, March 10, 2011


“One life is all we have, and we live it as we believe in living it. But to sacrifice what you are, and to live without belief, that is a fate more terrible than dying.”
(Joan of Arc, 1412-1431)

Not my words, and not really even uncommon sentiment. Call it philosophy, or theology, if you will. I’ve expressed similar thoughts through the years, in various ways, but so have many people over the coarse of time, even before Joan of Arc, I’m sure.
But what is it about this concept?
Maybe these people know something.

There are three implications contained in Joan of Arc’s brief statement. 1.) The idea that we are free to live life as we believe, 2.) That there is truly someone, a person, that ‘you are’, and, 3.) To live without belief is an affront to the person that you are.
Perhaps the most important of the three is that there is a person that ‘you are’.
It is the acquiescence to this belief that the fullness of life depends.

There are, unfortunately, many people that we masquerade as, sometimes consciously, sometimes unaware. We put on different acts and faces as we move through different segments of our lives. We take on different behaviors to fit different social expectations, and different belief systems to please those who wield power or influence over us. Or to ingratiate ourselves with those we want to be like. But in moving so smoothly, and so effortlessly, through these various personas we actually become strangers to ourselves, losing touch with our very essence. We end up not really knowing who we are. We make initial compromises, and ultimately engage in the compromising, even, of our compromises.
It gets easy to lose one’s self.

But there is a ‘who’ that we are, an intrinsic ‘who’, a basic ‘who’. It is the person that we actually are, and it is the person we must protect from getting lost beneath the masquerade. That person is born with a purity of soul, since corroded, unfortunately, by profane imposition and clumsy choices. The initial clarity, and transparency, is spiritual in nature, it is embedded in our DNA, and is a direct connection to the source of who we are. It is who we were before we took on the complex, and complicated, baggage of life. That person still exists within us.

With the complexity of modern life, self-assessment is not a practice that too many people engage in these days, except maybe in the context of self-actualization workshops of some kind or another. And even then, the self-assessment is done in the framework of participation in, and measuring oneself against, that narrow modality with its accompanying agenda, rather than in the context of one’s intimacy with one’s own inner self, and one’s creator. But it is the validation, and self-validation, seekers who participate in such fruit salad endeavors. They are not the Joan of Arc’s.

Joan of Arc was martyred (murdered, really) because she lived her belief. She did not compromise who she was. She did not seek validation, or a happiness quotient to be OK with herself. She sought an honesty beyond even the apparent.
And she did not live a slow death, as some of us do. It’s true, she lived a short life, only nineteen years, but she died living honestly.

We are not asked to die for our authenticity.
We are only asked to live it.

Sunday, March 6, 2011


We used to hold them, like a woman might grip a ticket to Maui, or a man a winning lottery pick. We used to take them with us in our backpacks, our pockets, and our purses. We used to look forward to a few stolen moments between their pages, or a lazy afternoon lost in a remarkable story somewhere between the front cover of the book and the back.

They used to be the first thing we’d be sure we had with us when packing for a trip, or the last thing we’d buy before boarding a train, or a plane at the airport. We used to relish a coast-to-coast flight for the downtime it afforded us to shut out everything else but a good read. Books were always a very personal thing, organic in nature, from the mind of a writer, from the wood of a tree; pages that would, ultimately, reflect our handling of them. Some of us were respectfully careful with them, and some of us would handle a book like a father might wrestle with his son. Don’t beat the kid up, but don’t baby him too much either. Books would take on the collective nature of their readers. Every reader would leave his own imprint. It was part of what the book became. When finished, some books still looked unread, and some as if they’d been devoured by ravenous hands, curious eyes, inquisitive minds, insatiable imaginations.

But you could always find a good story, a well-thought-out philosophy, an indulgent autobiography, a clever twist of a mystery. You could re-live history from the point of view of a lone voice in a lonely room, a weathered recluse whose cramped fingers felt compelled to pound out his meager thoughts on an old Royal typewriter.
Books were written, and fashioned in stages.
They were read sometimes in one sitting.

They have theses places called Libraries where they collect books to loan to people who like to read. Think about it; being able to select anything you want from thousands, or hundreds of thousands of titles, depending on the size of the particular library. I don’t know for sure, but whoever thought of the first library could be the single most important, and benevolent, person in the history of civilization. The wisdom, the knowledge, the motivation, the inspiration that has been imparted to so many millions of people through his vision is not only immeasurable, but incomprehensible as well. I’d go as far as to say that it was the library that gave birth to the Internet.

Moving through the world, I get feeling pretty sad when I see that the upcoming generation, the Facebook generation, if you will, never seems to have a book in their hands. I see them waiting in places, filling time (more appropriately, ‘killing time’) with Blackberries, and IPhones, and Laptops and IPads. I see them texting, and researching directions, watching streaming video, playing internet games, and keeping in constant touch with ‘friends’. I see them Googling topics germane to the moment, but germane only to the moment. I see them accessing information, constantly, but I never see them reading. I never see them with a book. There are no stolen moments between the pages, there is no getting lost in a remarkable story, or enlightened by a people’s early history. History, for this generation, is being reduced to the accounting of their on-line searches, and the number of hits on their social networking pages.
I would guess it safe to say that very few of this generation would even know where the library is in their own hometown. I don’t think these young people are reading books on line, I’m fairly confident that they are just accessing information. Information. Information. And more Information.

I’ve read some great books along the way. Books these kids are missing out on.

‘The Catcher In The Rye’, ‘The Little Prince’, Thoreau’s ‘Walden’, ‘Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee’, ‘The Bible’, ‘Animal Farm’, ‘Moby Dick’, ‘The Sun Also Rises’, ‘Cannery Row’, ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’, ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, ‘Call Of The Wild’, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’, ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ ‘The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn’, ‘Don Quixote’, ‘Robinson Crusoe’, ‘Lord Of The Flies’, ‘Brave New World’, ‘A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man’, ‘Roots’, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, ‘All Quiet On The Western Front’, ‘Siddhartha’, ‘Great Expectations’, ‘Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland’, ‘1984’

And these are only a few of the classics. Include some of the more remarkable contemporary novels and there are just way too many to mention.
I still read books as often as I can. A mouse in the hand, or a thumb scan across a smart phone just doesn’t quite get it for me.

“Books. We used to hold them, like a woman might grip a ticket to Maui, or a man a winning lottery pick.”

You can call me old if you want.
I’m just saying, I don’t ever see anybody sitting, enjoying a good book anymore.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Beggars Banquet

Life is a banquet of sorts, as indulgent of us as we are of it. But more frequently, it seems, a beggars banquet at best. Just being alive on this earth can make beggars of the best of us while it spins of it’s own accord, by it’s own energy, much faster even than our ability to keep up, or catch up for that matter. “Let me off, please. Just slow down and let me off.” Some folks jump, and some ride it out till the bitter end. It really happens, you know it does, that things get out of control even before we understand the difference between what’s still in control and what’s already too far gone. It happens to all of us at times, too often, and frequently without even minimal recognition. Eventually it all gets to feeling out of hand, out of sync, out of sight, out of whack, if you will.

Yes, we fail to recognize the signs, or the obvious hints we find, but, interestingly enough, we never seem to miss a day bowing at the prefab plastic temples on our way to the proverbial spa. The figurative spa. Mecca for the disconsolate, for the discontent. Majagori for the gluttonous, and the self-indulgent. A place of great expectation where we soak up our share of validation, our necessary dose of affirmation from quiet strangers, casual acquaintances, and the pretend friends who are actually bent on our eventual demise. The kind of affirmation we never actually get from one another.

A little knowledge of someone can be very dangerous. Transparency puts relationships at risk. We are so afraid of scaring ourselves, and others, so we seldom let ourselves be known, leaving very little, really, for someone else to be afraid of?
The comfort of the spa remains our cuddle buddy, and the temples our delusional mirrors, the ones that we help erect almost daily with pretentious intentions and self-adoration in spades.

The social routine gives each of us the opportunity to wallow in vague elation, psychic adoration, pleasantries and platitudes. Like Narcissus by the pond, we collect steaming hors-d’oeuvres from the ‘Members Only’ bar, wishing they’d release a list of do’s and don’ts, an instruction manual we could give to those unlike ourselves who, we suspect, might be lacking in even the most basic elements of social grace. Or Stepford protocol.
There should be one of those lists, as they say, to keep the riff-raff out.

Social grace, and Stepford protocol, the requisite down payment for admission to the dance, the mandatory contribution for the fruit salad.
Yes, life is a banquet of sorts, as indulgent of us as we are of it.
But more frequently, it seems, a beggars banquet at best