Twenty-nine people were "let go" from our company yesterday. Regular income, health insurance, friendships and projects now are gone. Dust.

I was told my position would not be affected. My position was not. But my position is not me. Two ladies I will miss especially. C and K managed the small cafeteria in our building. Some would not touch their fare deeming it too starchy or too common. I ate as much of it as I could afford. I work on the third floor and truck in words and sentences. They worked on the ground floor and created dishes out of Velveeta cheese and butter. My walk down to their area always seemed to ground me, remind me of first things: food, drink, breath, laughter, friends. Dust.

My little girl had an accident at school yesterday; she peed her pants. Why? I don't know. Why does anybody pee their pants? In the rush of after-school-do-your-homework-let's-get-ready-for-church, her story was I spilled my drink. The confession just before leaving the house left no time to change. She sat close beside me during the Ash Wednesday service, smelling of urine and little girl. Dust.

Her confession led to anger, frustration, sadness: Why didn't you tell the truth? Then tears, harsh words, several of the deadly sins. As I pulled out of the driveway with a vanload of people having the same last name as me, there was fury: Why in the name of God almighty are we going to church tonight? Huh? Somebody tell me. Dust.

The church was filled with people, many more than they'd anticipated. Before entering the sanctuary, I bent my six-foot frame to forty-one year old knees and felt the priest's thumb: Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. It was as if the ashes were still hot.

We all came from different places to have a spiked-hair priest tell us something we already knew. I'd had dust in my mouth all day. But the conclusion of the service surfaced another "remember": remember me when you come into your kingdom. The dust-pocked thief on the cross, hanging by tendons and a prayer. Me.

Almighty, remember us. Please, O God, do not forget us. We have lost our jobs, our way. We have peed and shit ourselves and lied about it, thinking, hoping no one would know. We have grown angry at those so fresh from you and the fruit was anger, wrath. We have spoken words like sticks and stones, words that hurt. We have wrapped ourselves in ourselves and told everybody else to kiss our ass. We've had black-thumbed priests press ashes into our alpha-hydroxy-ed skin and we've risen to then sit before one another, forced to see the marks. Thieves, one and all. Dust.

You hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent. You have put us in mind of the message of pardon and absolution. Remember us. Remember me. Amen.
To keep my mouth shut. To turn away my face. To walk back down the aisle. To slap the bishop back when he slapped me during Confirmation. To hold the word no in my mouth like a gold coin, something valued, something possible. To teach the no to our daughters. To value their no more than their compliant yes. To celebrate no. To grasp the word no in your fist and refuse to give it up. To support the boy who says no to violence, the girl who will not be violated, the woman who says no, no, I will not. To love the no, to cherish the no which is often our first word. No - the means to transformation.
- Louise Erdrich, The Blue Jay's Dance

Tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, begins the Lenten season. Maybe, possibly, you're even now making plans to give up something during this time. I usually hear of folks giving up the Starbucks drive-thru or going to the movies or dark chocolate or crazy, Kama Sutra sex; you know, common everyday stuff. I'm not always sure how I feel about giving up those kinds of things. The original communal Lent has devolved into almost private discipline; it used to be the whole gang was prescribed the same thing, but now I get to choose my own medicine.

Here's a thought, just a thought. What if you gave up saying yes during Lent? No, not the yes of did you brush your teeth? or did you pick up the kids? I'm talking about that compliant yes; you know of that I speak. It's saying yes to any and every old thing that comes our way. It's often hard for folks who want to be Christ-like to refuse much at all, us wanting to have a servant's heart and all. Yes, there are times we entertain angels unaware and then there are weeks on end we let devils wring our souls dry.

What if this Lent was a returning to what is often our first word? The beautiful No. I agree with Erdrich; it is possibly the means to transformation. And you'd get to keep the chocolate and sex.

It's just a thought.

The Hero's Journey

I decided on breakfast at the Andiamo (Let's Go) restaurant. It was full of business travelers, as you'd expect at Chicago O'Hare's Hilton. The host seated me smack dab in the middle of suits and fruit, Blackberries that is. Not five minutes in my chair and I heard the word strategy, twice. Sweet lord, where am I? In moments like that, which happen occasionally, I need something to remind me of the ground of my being, the who of who I am. And suddenly, there it was, on the menu - corned beef hash, potatoes and onions. Excellent choice, sir. I'll have it right out.

Oh, and I'd like ketchup with that, please.

Catsup? Certainly. Andiamo.

Uh, yes...catsup. 10-4, good buddy.


I arrived at Gate K11 with thirty minutes before board-time. I thought it'd be an opportunity to read (Jim Harrison, The Woman Lit by Fireflies). And then they arrived, choosing seats on each side of me. I was then smack dab in the middle of two rather large ladies who'd been wheelchair-ed to the gate. The attendants locked the wheels and the ladies stood with much drama, took deep breaths, and then slowly stepped to their seats. The first of two wore sweat pants and a t-shirt: Eat More Chickin'. The second two-handed a tapestry carry-on while delicately balancing a 24 oz. smoothie between her breasts. Had I not seen it with my own two eyes, I would not have believed.

Any thoughts of semi-solitude with a woman lit by fireflies were quickly dispelled by two women grunting through life. I will refer to them, ever so briefly, as Chickin' and Smoothie. Chickin' had just experienced a knee replacement; the other to follow in a month. Smoothie's knees were both replaced last year, so they might as well've been two sisters, separated at birth, reunited in an airport.

: You know what bugs my doctor? He said it's that guy on House, the doctor who uses his cane on the wrong side.

Smoothie: That was the first thing I noticed about that show. I don't know why he does that; seems like the producers would know how wrong that is. That's Hollywood, I guess (sigh).

Chickin': You know, that attendant wheeled me all the way from the curb. Sweet girl. Said she never took breaks, just kept on working. I could tell she smoked though.

Smoothie: Well, I had to tell my helper every last thing to do. I guess if you want help, you've gotta ask for it (sigh).

It was then a strikingly handsome Hispanic lady in a white sweater dress and black knee-boots walked up and parked her rolling luggage right in front of me. She seemed truly lit by fireflies. Her dusky knees would not need replacing anytime soon. The relatively sweaty atmosphere evaporated as something like jasmine filled the air. Why in the name of all that's sane she chose to stand before me, I do not know. Maybe, sometimes, the prayers of a marginally righteous man availeth enough. She gently smiled at me, then answered a call on her cell phone.


My boarding pass had indicated my seat would be assigned at the gate.

Mr. Blase, are you o.k. to sit in the exit row?

Ah, the hero's seat. I said sure.

The flight attendant needed a verbal, so I had yet another chance to declare my intentions.

Are you willing and able to assist in case of an emergency?

The corned beef hash mingled with the vision of the lady in white to produce a hero's response: Yes, Ma'am, I am.

As she wiggled into the seat behind me, I knew there'd be trouble. She was all of eight and must've had a case of Red Bull for breakfast followed by a Mountain Dew pre-board snack. Her parents sat in the row behind her and promptly inserted iPods and closed their eyes. If she kicked my seat once, she kicked it twenty times from Chicago to Denver. Not gentle, white-sweatered kicks mind you, but hard so-you-wanna-be-a-hero-huh? kicks. After about kick ten of twenty, I turned to try and catch her eyes. As our gazes met, she stuck her tongue out at me. I did what any good hero would do; I stuck my tongue out right back at her. The last ten kicks of the trip felt harder, full of spite. Fireflies would stay the hell away from this girl.

A very anti-hero thought crossed my mind. If she keeps that stuff up, she's gonna have to have those knees replaced. I'm just sayin'.

Book Review

I don't read much non-fiction these days, at least not if I have the choice. It all seems so intent on making sure I "get it" that after about five pages I've "had it." But there is a short-list of non-fiction writers I'll shell out my hard earned greenbacks to read. Robert Benson is worth the day's wage.

Mr. Benson (he's a little older than I am, so I'll be respectful and all) has written more than a dozen books about the discovery of the sacred in the midst of our ordinary lives; titles such as Between the Dreaming and the Coming True and Digging In. January of this fine year witnessed the release of The Echo Within: Finding Your True Calling, published by the folks at Waterbrook Press, a division of Random House, Inc.

When I received a copy to review, I immediately turned to the table of contents. If you were to purchase this book and begin in the same way, which I heartily recommend, you would find ten chapter titles, words like Listening and Walking and Dreaming. All of these words are gerunds, from the Latin gerundus meaning "to bear" or "carry on." These titles seem fitting for this book as Mr. Benson's intent is to help us bear with who we've been called to be and carry on toward the reason we're here. Lofty intent, huh? It's a good thing Mr. Benson is our amicus, from the Latin for "friend."

My review of Mr. Benson's book will follow the old sweaty sermon structure of three points and a poem.

1. The words contained in these 192 pages seek to illumine rather than instruct. I believe when it comes to this thing known as "calling" that each person has to ask, seek, and knock for themselves. Mr. Benson agrees; his own has been a crooked, little path. Rather than giving us steps to ascend or boxes to check, Benson drops hints like Perhaps you should listen to that voice within that sounds so much like your own and Calling is not always static; it is not always a one-time event. If koans like these have a tendency to frustrate you, then so will this book. However, if you've the mettle to endure a little frustration, you might just start hearing a still, small Voice... that may sound a lot like your own.

2. Martin Luther King reminded us that "we all live in the red." In other words, each and every one of us are indebted to those who give encouragement in due season, words that help us see the person we could be and maybe the next step to take. Benson lives humbly in such a hue. He gives credit where it's due to such influential characters as Mac and Ben and Phyllis and Fred. Probably most of all, and rightly so, Benson obeys the fifth commandment by honoring his father, a rather colorful character in his own right. We are surrounded by mentors in our lives if we've the ears to hear and eyes to see and heart to trust.

3. Although he doesn't use the exact wording, Mr. Benson is an advocate of the arrogance of belonging, that belief that we, all of us, are something. And as such, we, all of us, are given the chance to dream. He poses the last-chapter question - Can we become something or another simply by dreaming it and believing in the dream hard enough and long enough? There is white space on the page after that question. A new paragraph follows it, with the grammatically correct indented spaces. Those combined spaces are enough for me to see the bearded face of this amicus, grinning a maybe...yes, maybe so...

Three points. Oh yes, the poem. Near the end of this book, Mr. Benson gently invokes the name of Rod McKuen. My own father spun McKuen love songs on the phonograph when I was young. That same father later gifted me with several books that housed his poems. I, like Benson, always knew many thought McKuen to be nothing but sappy. But there is a nuance between syrupy and sweet. The former will rot your teeth and mind. The later, if well-crafted, can rekindle something that we lost somehow, somewhere along the way in that region known as the cordis, from the Latin for "heart." The Echo Within hits the sweet spot.

For if you don't know where
It is you came from it's hard
to ascertain just where you might be
heading -in life or down the block.
A friend can help you sort that out
and will.
-Rod McKuen, "Nightwalker"

A Few Good Men

"Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?" Grandpa said, "No... but I served in a company of heroes..."

My son will turn 12yrs old on Tuesday. And so begins his first steps into the difficult splendor: becoming a man. We will celebrate his life on Tuesday with cards and gifts and his meal of choice - pot roast and potatoes. But I wanted to do something with him this weekend, just the two of us, to mark time; to begin the days.

A good man offered the use of his cabin nearby, so Will and I kissed the girls on Friday evening and drove away. We stopped at a local place and ordered a twenty-pack of wings and "killer seasoned fries." Then we snaked up hills until coming to our destination. It seemed a fitting place for us, as my friends use this cabin for their program of initiating boys into men - Training Ground.

After the meal which would leave us farting all night, we went upstairs and sat down for the main event - HBO's Band of Brothers, all of it.

Several months ago, I'd felt that we, my son and I, would need a common language or story to use as a foundation for his days ahead. I grew up watching westerns with my dad; it is our common story: Monte Walsh, the Cowboys, Lonesome Dove. At my father-in-law's house, over Christmas, Will saw one episode of Band of Brothers on the History channel; he sat transfixed. In that moment, I knew what our story needed to be.

A part of me is sad that my son has not warmed to westerns. I realize he may yet, but that genre does not stir him, not now. But I remind myself that the intent is not to help him become a cowboy or a soldier, but a man. The hero's journey is the same, whether it's hats or helmets. So off to Normandy we went.

I wanted the evening to be as natural as possible. I firmly believe that the soul of a boy, much like the soul of a man, is shy. You can slowly draw it out into the open and a jerky move can send it skittering back into the shadows. I fear our sometimes overt actions to help a boy "get it" do just that. That's what I'm interested in, my son's soul, that deepest part of his life. And, my son and I do a lot together, so it's not like an absent father coming in on furlough and trying to give him the goods before shipping off again. No, ours is as we go.

So we watched a little, talked a little, laughed a little, and cringed a little.

I watched to see what character he would be drawn to; just my luck, "Wild Bill" Guarnere, the toughass from Philly with a mouth to make even Southern Baptist mothers pray the rosary. Oh, he liked some of the others as well, but "Wild Bill" made his soul peek out. After a few episodes, I asked why he liked this character. He's a good man, dad. And I cried, just a little, and thanked the Grace that keeps this world for a moment when things seemed right. There aren't too many of those in this life; men know that.

And so we have our benchmark: a good man. That's what, in my better moments, I hope I am and that's what I pray my son will become. That's what my dad is. And it's what Will Bill was. I have heard, especially in the christian community, that it's not enough to just be a good man; that you've gotta be God's man or something like that. This grieves me; it's why I believe most of the loud male christian voices know little about the soul of a man. If you bristle at that statement, well, so be it.

There was a time when the world asked ordinary men to do extraordinary things. I believe we are still in that time. The world needs good men. And so we carry on, a little at a time, toward the mark.

This story shall the good man teach his son...
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers...

- Shakespeare, Henry V

Mind Blood

"Every year at this time it's as if I can taste faintly my mind's blood..."
- Jim Harrison, The Road Home

I swear I've tasted my mind's blood this week. I am familiar with this vaguely acrid taint. It is a flavor that arises when I speak my mind or entertain a thought and the witnesses simply will not have it. A bow is strung, an arrow flies, and thoughts and dreams are pierced; the aim is never to kill, just maim. Then the wounded limp and drag through the valleys of my mind, leaving the bright red trail. I track them and pause and kneel to finger the red. I taste and know. Mind blood.

Do you know this experience, this taste?

If you think this an occasion for sadness, then you judge too quickly. It is never pleasant, but it is good; a returning to myself. And for that, I am always grateful. It is then a quest to find and care for these fragments, these pieces of who I am, and bind them, tend them, nurse them back possibly stronger than before. To not search for the bleeding, to leave them to slowly cease because of some navy-blue shame, is to permit the gradual extinction of me. And so I leave the ninety and nine and search for the ones, such is their worth.

The taste of mind blood always brings clarity, differentiation. Yes, we are more alike than we know. We are also, at times, more different than we'd wish. Before the first person plural, there must come the first person singular; I before we. If the plural is truly comprised of singulars, then something tapestry-like exists; maybe the ragged old flag. The alternative is the melting pot, a gradual simmering away of character until the earth and all that is in it can be ladled into a bowl for public consumption; a mess of pottage for our birthrights.

I realize these thoughts are scattered from hell to breakfast; off the path, off the trail. It's alright. So am I right now. If you see the red on my lips, you needn't be afraid. To some, blood indicates death. To others, it is the taste of life.

Saint for a Day

A good friend reminded me that today is Saint Blase day. I kid you not...St. Blase. Here's a little info on the man.

Bishop Blase was martyred in his episcopal city of Sebastea, Armenia, in 316. The legendary Acts of St. Blase were written 400 years later. Blase was known to be a good bishop, working hard to encourage the spiritual and physical health of his people; in other words, "a good man." Although the Edict of Toleration (311), granting freedom of worship in the Roman Empire, was already five years old, persecution still raged in Armenia. Now I really like this next part.

Blase was apparently forced to flee to the back country. There he lived as a hermit in solitude and prayer, but made friends with the wild animals. One day a group of hunters seeking wild animals for the amphitheater stumbled upon Blase’s cave (possibly an early version of The Dirty Shame?). They were first surprised and then frightened (I'd bet the biblical "fear and wonder"). The bishop was kneeling in prayer surrounded by patiently waiting wolves, lions and bears. Yes, give sweet St. Francis the squirrels, lambs and turtle doves; my namesake prays alongside those big enough to eat you, my dear.

As the hunters hauled Blase off to prison (why must the wild man always be locked up?), the legend has it, a mother came with her young son who had a fish bone lodged in his throat. At Blase’s command the child was able to cough up the bone. And so, St. Blase's gift is the blessing of the throat.

Agricolaus, governor of Cappadocia, tried to persuade Blase to sacrifice to pagan idols. The first time Blase refused, he was beaten. The next time he was suspended from a tree and his flesh torn with iron combs or rakes. Finally he was beheaded. The wolves, lions and bears watched from the margins and wept and vowed to be even wilder in his memory (I added this last sentence, but it reads well, don't you think?).

There you have it. Quite a legend, huh? My pastoral credentials are quite cattywampus these days, but with what powers I still have, well, here goes:
We've eaten the food of the empire and it's choking us. May the bones in our throats be coughed up, out and away. May we strive to be good men and women. May we sing once more like young sons who still walk with their mothers. May we pray yet again with the patiently waiting wolves, lions and bears. May our voices ring true in a tame world, wild but good, eliciting fear and wonder. They can have our heads, but not our hearts. Blessings on the throats of all. Over and out. Amen and amen.

Beautiful Due

...to give the mundane its beautiful due.
- John Updike on the task of a writer

It is staying light a little longer in the evenings. We noticed that last night, my daughter and I did. She was finishing up her homework, a spelling vocabulary assignment. One of her words was "pseudonym" - she had to define it, then choose one for herself. Dad, I'm going to choose Penny Brown because pennies are simple and pennies are brown. What would yours be, Dad? I thought a moment. I kinda like Luciano Sauvignon.

My son was laying on the couch, reading. He was able to do it sans lamps as the setting sun was brilliantly bright. I'd asked him to read a couple of fantasy books from an author I'd like my company to acquire. We compared notes on the first one. Did you get confused at the end? I got confused, there was a lot going on. He looked at me a moment, then answered. Sorta, but not really. The second one's a little easier to follow; I like it better, but they're both good.

In the lingering light of studious older siblings, my youngest was compelled to do something homeworky. She gathered up some paper and a black colored pencil. Dad, I'm going to do some math problems and you check them, alright? My southpaw wrote:
+98 = 186
- is that right, Dad? I accepted the black pencil and gingerly pointed out she'd forgotten to carry the one. She opted out of erasing and just wrote a 9 over the 8 really bold and black. She did a few more addition problems until Penny Brown finished her homework, then Polly Pockets replaced pseudonyms and carrying ones.

My fantasy co-reviewer finished book two just in time to see Faith Hill usher the planet into the pursuit of Lombardi. Faith looked like Catwoman in her NBC black leather, so his jump from one fantasy to another may have been microscopic.

The Beagle and my girlfriend were roused from their afternoon naps. He stretched and scratched to go outside to pee. She stretched and said Kurt Warner sure is cute. I waited for Penny Brown to reply yes, but he doesn't hold a candle to Luciano Sauvignon. But she didn't. Sometimes, in the lingering sunlight, it's easy to forget to carry the one.