Saturday, June 24, 2006

A Freudian Moment

I, though nervous, was swaggering about. I was going to photograph the jazz concert. I had my camera, my camera bag, and three carefully chosen lenses: a 50mm f/1.8, a 35mm f/2 and a 14mm f/3.5, two fastish nikon primes and the Beast, an ancient, battered, exophthalmic ultrawide Sigma. I would shoot handheld with available light. I would be cool. If anyone approached me I would casually use the word "glass" in conversation.

My glass ? Oh, a couple of fast primes.

I entered the vestibule of the Arts Center. Two men were in line in front of me. One had a large, bulging kit bag with a tripod-of-substance proturuding from the back. The other had a smaller bag, still larger than mine, obviously crammed with camera gear.

I followed them into the hall, sat front and left, and unpacked my gear. They settled in front row center and did the same. After a few minutes I snuck a look at them. Tripod man had unpacked a major Canon digital, quite possibly the 16.7 megapixel, full sensor EOS-1Ds Mark II, and had affixed to it one of those big, white Canon telephoto lenses one sees crowding the periphery of sports fields. The other had an equally substantial camera with very serious-appearing glass, undoubtedly a fast, fixed aperture mid-range zoom. He got up and wandered over to a bari sax resting on a small table and took a close-up of it.

I sunk into my chair. Nearly weightless, my 6.2 megapixel Nikon D70 with it's button-like 50mm lens rested in my lap.

I was outdone.

I was a pretender, a mere wannabee.

I'd never be more than a dilletante, a neurotic with a serious, incurable case of glass envy.

Sunday, June 18, 2006


I wake too often lately cursing. Cursing the sun, the dirty dishes in the sink, the old catfood in the bowls, the upcoming workday. Then cursing the traffic, the potholes, the radio news, and any fellow human with the misfortune to cross my path. This is the bedrock of my speech. When all else fails, and it will, they will remain, the horrible words that, like linguistic cockroaches, can survive even the armageddon of a dominant hemisphere, middle cerebral artery embolus.

I've been cursing in the kitchen, in the car, in the clinic and even in the meadow as swarms of mosquitos take advantage of the time it takes to chose an aperture and focus to whine past my ear, settle on my skin and feast. I've been cursing the summer, the heat, the sweat, the bugs; I've been cursing the merry joggers with their spandex and their I-pods, and all their beachgoing, poolsiding, cook-out having, pina colada swilling, frisbee tossing compatriots.

I've been cursing all the swarms of summer -- gnats, flies, shoppers, motorists, moviegoers, vacationers, parishioners -- cursing all of them and their incessant humming, whining, buzzing, honking, guffawing, hymning and opining. Especially the opining --

Shy ? Well, newcomers often find the coffee hour difficult. Unless, of course, they're holding a baby. That seems to break the ice.

And we never call these meetings retreats; we call them advances, because we are always moving forward.

Empty armed, I retreat. I squat in the rag and bone shop of the spleen.

What am I really cursing ? Could it be time ? Ordinary, old time, intrinsic as a membrane ? That matrix in which one's parents become frail and one's child still can't find its way ? Time, which saps the flesh of will and hunger, leaving only apathy, weariness and, oh, yes, curses ?

Similis factus sum pellicano solitudinis,
factus sum sicut nycticorax in domicilio.
Vigilavi et factus sum sicut passer solitarius in tecto.

Pelican in the desert, nightowl in the ruins, lone sparrow on the housetop --

if only I could confine my words to the scriptures written on the wings of certain golden beetles ! Instead, from the dung brain, spurt curses, curses, curses, curses -- curses in the morning, curses at high noon, curses in the evening, curses at night, a whole diabolical office of curses.

Shall we try a prayer ?

Thank you, Lord, for this moment of reprieve. It is like the moment just after the panicked squirrel has dodged my car, and just before he falls under the wheels of the car in the next lane. It is like the interlude of silence before the dull, slapping thuds of whirled animal and my own screams, wordless now, vocalization more primitive than curses, the sonic stuff out of which all language is made, wind through tremulant taut bands, wind over the face of the deep, o fiat lux -- Mama, I love you, help me, O God, my God.

Or a poem ?

Oh mayfly, green ephemeral, wide-eyed friend --
let's shelter here awhile under these leaves,
you with your day, me with my several years,
allotted goods, arguable and dear,
but hardly waterproof. The rain picks up.
Or is it aspen wind, the quaking sound
of texts and mimicries reminding us
to pull the world down with us when we drown ?

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Little Miseries

We used the last drop of the old shampoo last week, the kind that recently changed its formula to incorporate "amino acids" and perfume designed to evoke the experience of gorging on fruit cocktail in an overstocked florist shop. The old shampoo smelled like soap, and its scent faded within minutes. The new kind creates the impression that Pepe LePew is perched on on one's scalp all day.

Yesterday afternoon I took a shower. I put a few drops of the new Amino-laced stuff on my scalp and cringed as the aroma bloomed around me. I rinsed and rinsed and rinsed. No avail. I began to panic. I grabbed the first thing I spotted: an old bottle of green vegan shampoo that had been sitting in the shower stall half-used for several years. I worked a good dollop of the stuff into my hair and instantly remembered why the bottle had been so unused -- the green shampoo's scent -- a morose powdery, flowery bouquet redolant of over-deodorantized armpit -- was even more revolting than the fruit cocktail's, and even more impossible to rinse off. Now there were two competing stenches on my head, both equally impervious to rinsing. Desperate, I grabbed a third bottle, again from my vegan shampoo era. I rinsed off a thick coat of black dust, opened it, and sniffed. Peppermint. OK, I thought, this will do -- but, no, it had dried to a solid, minty sludge at the bottom of the bottle. Maybe it was for the best.

By this morning, the green shampoo had won out. The smell was, if anything, stronger. I peered into the mirror, expecting to see a green fog surrounding my head or, at the very least, some wavy green cartoon stink lines, then stepped into the shower. There was one bottle left to try -- the last in an ancient triumverate of ghastly vegan shampoos. I'd always mistrusted this one. The label boasted of being "animal free" but the ingredients listed "keratin amino acids," keratin, of course, being one of the components of HAIR. But since I'd long since despaired of finding a usable vegan shampoo and had been slathering myself willy nilly with cow ever since, I squirted some into my palm and began working it into my scalp.

The stuff was earnestly unperfumed: it smelled of the deep, secret, oily components of soap. It was an unnerving smell, reminding me of the big cake pans of yellow soap my Lithuanian grandmother used to make out of bacon drippings and beef fat. And it had the same consistency. It was like shampooing with Crisco. And, impossibly, it seemed to enhance the lingering odor of yesterday's green shampoo.

I gave up. I dumped a few can-equivalents of fruit cocktail on my head, and got out of the shower.

It was then that I noticed it. Two inches west and one inch north of my navel. A pudgy round black thing. With legs. Which it was waving in apparant delight. As it --- SUCKED MY BLOOD !!!!!

Competing waves of vertigo and panic struck me.

Omigod. A tick. Omigod. Omigod. I'm gonna die. Of endstage Lyme disease. I'll be crippled. Demented. But first I'll get heart block and bilateral facial paralysis ! Omigod I wonder if that penicillin left over from the root canal will help, I'll take a gram, maybe even two grams, yeah that'll kill those little spirochetes, omigod, omigod, calm down PT, you're a doctor for goodness sakes, gotta get the thing offa me --

A phrase from Harrison's Principles Of Internal Medicine bubbled up out of my medical brain and cut through my panic.

"Ticks should be removed with firm traction with a forceps placed near their point of attachment."

This is clearly a plan of attack devised by an ivory-tower dwelling academic white-coat who'd never confronted with the necessity of removing a tick from a hyperventilating patient. One might as well advise using gentle persuasion or earnest cajoling. Here ticky, ticky, ticky ! But if it was good enough for my patients, by God, it would be good enough for me.

I grabbed my tweezers from the medicine cabinet, tweezed the thing near its point of attachment and pulled. Firmly.

And what often happens with the "firm traction" method happened. The body popped off the head. I looked at my tweezers -- a headless tick torso with a ruby red drop of MY BLOOD oozing out the end.


I flung the thing into the toilet, grabbed the nearest implement (a rusty safety pin), rinsed it off and jabbed it in a cake of soap (Ignatius Semmelweiss be damned), and cored the little bugger's head right out of my flesh. Violating just about every tenet of medical commonsense. Doing things that, if a patient did them, would earn them a firm, physicianly, tut tut.

What would I do next -- Q-tip my ears ?

Omigod, omigod I thought, staring at the little hole I'd gouged in my skin I'll probably die of flesh eating bacteria before the Lyme disease can even set in --

But, for a few moments at least, I forgot how bad my hair smelled.

Sunday, June 04, 2006


Fourth are the gyratory monks. All their lives they wander in different countries staying at various monasteries for thee or four days at a time. They are restless, servants to the seduction of their own will and appetites...It is better to be silent as to their wretched lifestyle than to speak.

St. Benedict has harsh words for the gyrovagues. They are restless, willful, appetitive. They flit from spiritual perch to spiritual perch, stopping just long enough to nibble before they're off looking for a more splendid table. They are, in a word, wretched. I can't help taking his critique personally. I have been, I fear, a gyrovague. A pinch from the west, a pinch from the east; leaven with art, interleaf with world -- voila and amen, loudly sing Goddamn.

Of course, there are also the Sabaraites. These monks are, according to St. Benedict, unschooled by any rule, untested, as gold is by fire, but soft as lead, living in and of the world, openly lying to God through their tonsure. They live together in twos or threes, more often alone, without a shepherd in their own fold, not the Lord's. Their only law is the pleasure of their own desires, and whatever they wish or chose they call holy. They consider whatever they dislike unlawful.

He calls the Sarabaite the worst kind of monk. Then he gets going on the gyrovagues and pronounces them much worse in all things than the Sarabaites.

AND, he sputters, turning to face me, his eyes blazing THE TWO ARE NOT MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE.

Of course, I'm not a monk. But I can't help feeling these minatory words from St. Benedict's Monastic Rule have a wider application and pertain to anyone -- how can I say this ? -- pursuing matters of transcendence. I have been too long

flitting from flower to flower; coated with luscious, heavy pollen, I must now return to the hive. What does St. Benedict advise ?

Cenobites, monks who live together under a rule and an abbot are, according to Benedict, the best kind of monks.

Abbot. Rule. Together.

A simple prescription. With overtones of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. There must be some common wisdom afoot -- teacher, teachings, class.

A gyrovague, if nothing else, is good at translation. At reading between and behind the lines.

Its an appropriate skill -- dare I say gift ? -- for this day, Pentecost, the day of speech intelligible to all ears.

I walked by the river this afternoon. It had rained and, intermittantly, a fitful mist bloomed in the air, half water, half wind. I took shelter under some branches. Insects, I discovered, were sheltering under the leaves. What comes after water ? Birth ?

And after birth ?

Breath ?

(The Rule of Saint Benedict, Chapter 1, trans. Meisel and delMastro)

Thursday, June 01, 2006


Inspired, perhaps, by the merciless river path grim reaper, today I deleted an old blog post, the one that has drawn the most search engine traffic to the House of Toast.

It was the post entitled "How To Become ________" -- ah, but I can't say that, can I, or it will start all over again, the googling, the clicking, the arriving , the reading, the commenting, partly in text-message-speak, with all its juvenile abusiveness, its despair and its neuroglucopenic incoherence. It broke my heart how, day in and day out, people from all over the globe, men and women, old and young, and, dare I say it, fat and thin, were attempting to learn "how to become______," something no one should ever aspire to be.

Finally, I couldn't stand it.

So I hit delete. Purged the whole effing thing. Upchucked it, as it were.

And felt better immediately.