new kid on the block

Yes, I am here to officially "out" Desiree as a newly enfranchised blogger. Go to her page. This will be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.


it is accomplished!

For several months now, I have been slogging through Nikos Kazantzakis' The Last Temptation of Christ. It's a book that I've always wanted to read and the Scorsese movie version impacted me a lot when I saw it in college. Ben and Kyle both read and loved it. So last winter, just before Christmas time, I started the novel... and couldn't stand it.

It was weird because I had always assumed that it would be right up my alley. I had assumed that Kazantzakis's project was similar to what I did in my play Three Days in the Tomb (which is being officially given an "honorable mention," though not performed, in D.C. this week at the Catholic University of America as part of their Religious One-Act Play Festival). I thought he was re-dramatizing the life of Jesus as a human being, making his choices realer and more contemporary. I was immediately turned off by the "fruitiness" of the book (for lack of a better word), the weird mysticism, the florid metaphors, the fact that all of the characters (from Magdalene, to Judas, to Samuel) all seemed to have grown up with Jesus and to be some cousin of his. It was a weird book and I couldn't figure out what it was getting at. Rather than altering scripture it tended to reproduce many of the gospel stories almost exactly as the Bible depicts them. When things were altered, it was seemingly random. I could find no pattern to the madness but I'd invested so much time into reading it (I'd gotten through about 350 pages) that I refused to give up. I just put my reading on hold.

Since Christmas I refrained from reading other books because I had the last 150 pages of Last Temptation waiting for me. But every time I tried to pick it up I got confused, or bored, or lost in the story or I quickly fell asleep. My high school English teacher/drama coach, David W. Frank, was fanous for his arbitrary rules; one was, "If you've read less than 50 pages of a book and it doesn't interest you, you can set it aside with a clear mind. But if you've read past page 50, you owe it to yourself it finish it." (Which is a weird rule: surely the page count should be on a sliding scale!)

Anyway, today I finished it and I will conclude this much: it got better. The mysticism achieved more of a sustained power the closer you got to the crucifixion. There were some incredible, extra-Scriptural passages (like when the corpse-like resuscitated Lazarus is hanging out with the dsiciples or when Simon of Cyrene comes to scold them as they hide from the Jews). I didn't buy the psychological depiction of Jesus in the early part of the book; his mood swings seemed arbitrary and he didn't feel real. He still didn't feel "real" by the end, but I think I came to understand what Kazantzakis was trying to do: exploring the struggles between the Spirit and the Flesh, reconciling the truths that he (Kazantzakis) had discovered in Christianity, but also in Buddhism, Nietzsche, Marxism etc. His take on Christianity is fraught with a lot of hang-ups, but they're not necessarily the same hang-ups that I have, so I'm not immediately drawn into his thrashing out of them. It's a personal vision and a complelling one, but one that I would have preferred to get in a smaller dose.

There were two quotes from the last two chapters, though, that I liked:
  • The Apostle Paul addressing Jesus: "I create the truth, create it out of obstinacy and longing and faith. I don't struggle to find it--I build it. I build it taller than men and thus I make men grow. If the world is to be saved, it is necessary--do you hear--absolutely necessary for you to be crucified, and I shall crucify you, like it or not; it is necessary for you to be resurrected, and I shall resurrect you, like it or not."
  • Thomas: "A prophet is one who, when everyone else despairs, hopes. And when everyone else hopes, he despairs."

So, I got something out of the long ordeal. But mostly, I'm just happy to be able to move on! Next on my reading list: The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan & the Colony that Shaped America by Russell Shorto and Saturday by Ian McEwan.

And maybe someday I'll get around to watching that other famous dramatization of Christ that I've always assumed I'm going to love, Pasolini's film The Gospel According to St. Matthew. Word to the wise, though: Don't (always) believe the hype.



Devoted readers of this blog (Are there any of you still out there? No one's posting comments!) may have noticed that my entries have become decidedly more personal, focusing less and less on world events and social problems and more and more on me. Perhaps this is an inevitable degeneration. I'm not going to try and fight it by writing a post about the revolution in Kyrgyzstan or anything like that. After all, it's my birthday this week, so I deserve it! (I've been saying that a lot recently -- it's a wonderful rationalization.)

I love New York during the first days of spring. Specifically, I love the East Village at this time of year. There's nothing quite so enjoyable as walking down Avenue A on a sunny evening or afternoon and watching the street life. One should be wearing sandals or (preferably) flip-flops. One should have nowhere to go really. And one should walk with a particularly aimless gait.

I've been told all my life, by everyone, that I walk fast. It's just natural to me -- I want to get where I'm going and I book it like a maniac. That's just the natural pace at which my legs move and sometimes I think it makes me appear prissy or uptight, like I'm running around with a stick up my ass. But on a walk like the one I took yesterday -- walking for no reason past Tompkins Square Park and all the funky little sidewalk cafes, the boutiques and bars, picking up a pineapple-papaya-mango smoothie -- I just SLOW THE FUCK DOWN. Naturally, without even trying.

My walk was not completely without purpose. It was a sort of fact-finding mission. I popped into a few East Village tattoo parlors because I've decided to get an image inscribed on my skin. Yes, that's right. I'm going to pay to have myself scarred. (I read this website called something like "Tips for Teens: Should You Get a Tattoo?" that was very insistent on letting the teens know that a tattoo was actually a scar.)

Why am I doing this, you might ask. Sadly (and I did confess that this blog has degenerated), I think the primary reason may be because I've hooked up with a couple of guys who have tattoos and I think it's really hot. Or, more frankly, I have some crazy idea that getting one will make me hotter. And I know that that's not true, of course. But whenever I do think of what it will be like to have one, my mind jumps to me waking up in bed with someone looking at it, both of us naked and loving each other. My crazy logic could be reduced to: "tattoo on skin = boyfriend in bed." Which is absurd.

But I'm gonna get it anyway. Some people are for it, some totally against. Almost everyone seems surprised, though. One person said to me, "I think you should definitely do it. It's so out of character." He was both right and wrong.

A tattoo is (literally) a character imprinted on your skin. If it seems out of character for me to have one, that's only because looking at me from the outside you don't see my innermost character -- my desire, my vulnerability, my sensuousness. All of those lusts and insecurities that drive me and make me think about skin and touch and nakedness. All of that's buttoned up.

Tattoos are externalizations of desire. They're like journal entries or creative writing assignments or blog entries that you wear on yourself. That's probably what makes them somewhat inappropriate for polite company. Some people don't want to see the internal externalized. It's a bit unseemly.

Getting a tattoo -- whatever the image may turn out to be -- is, for me at least, another form of "coming out." Acknowledging my sexual desire seemed unseemly, too. My rationalization for that was always, "Well, I admit -- to myself -- that I have those feelings but I don't have to act on them." Just speaking about your sexuality -- bringing it out into the open -- completes you, unifies you, makes you whole. (I sound like Lynn Redgrave at the end of Kinsey!) It breaks down internal barriers and creates a healthy kind of transparency between different parts of oneself. So why not put a picture on my skin? There's more than a bit of edginess, of sensuality inside of me. Why not be more transparent? Why not wear my insides like a new set of clothes?

I don't want to over-analyze the significance of this image I'm planning to get. Because I don't think the picture itself, the character, has to define me. I also am not saying that everyone in the world needs to get a tatoo in order to self-actualize. But I sort of feel like I do. At least, I do right now. And it almost doesn't matter what the image is (within reason). It's more about the choice, the risk, the confidence, the willingness to display. It's the physical imprint of a year and a half of changes going on in me. It's a scar from all of those growing pains, but a healthy scar. Scars are reminders, too.

So, what's it going to be? And where? I'll get back to you on the second question, though I'm now thinking it'll be somewhere on my back. As for the image, I've been playing around with the idea of an olive branch, which seems simple, classy, and in-line with my philosophical outlook. But I've also been thinking of this image and I can't quite shake it.

It's a little bit weird and embarrassing maybe to have a medieval pelican tattooed on one's body. Bur it's also distinctive. There's a whole history to the medieval conception of the pelican as a symbol of Christ.

Of all the images I've considered getting, it's probably the one that tells you the most about who I am and the kinds of things I think about. It tells you a lot more than just "I think it's hot to have a tattoo," which is unseemly enough in and of itself. For all those reasons, it may be too revelatory to wear around, to have exposed on me for the rest of my life (barring laser surgery, of course). But, then again, maybe that's what I need to reveal.



You don't know it, but you've been deprived.

That's right, dear readers (assuming there are any of you left out there), I wrote two lengthy, lovely blog postings last week that got chewed up by the software and are gone forever into the ether. I felt like blaming the Vatican -- perhaps they were conspiring to make sure that my (relatively) laudatory blog entry about the late Pope would remain as the most recent posting on my blog forever! As time went by and I hadn't posted anything, I began to worry:
  • Did I really like John Paul II all that much? Had I gone a bit over the top?
  • Would people who happened upon the blog be immediately turned off and think I was a member of Opus Dei?
  • Was there anything other than Catholicism I found it worthwhile to comment on?

It's kind of fitting, I guess, that my Pope posting remained up there for so long. It certainly mirrored the fixation of the rest of the media for the past week. You have to hand it to the Catholics; what other religion (especially one that is frequently being described as moribund) could command such attention for so many days straight? I mean, nothing was happening after the death had been announced. There was no news to the story of the Pope's funeral, except the documentation of the amazing outpouring of feeling.

Recently, my life has felt like CNN. I don't watch CNN or MSNBC or any other television network really. But I have a vague sense of how the news media coagulates around certain stories for days at a time (funerals, conventions, Terri Schiavo, the invasion of Iraq), offering viewers special graphics and theme songs, with an endless rotation of pundits wringing every last drop of significance from the event. The "news cycle."

The phenomenon seems similar to the way I sometimes experience my life: for a succession of days, everything seems like it ought to have special theme music with graphics that read something like "Busy Because It's the End of the Month" or "Feeling Like He Should Get Back Into Dating Again."

What's the theme these days? It might well be "Birthday 2005: The Countdown." It's coming up in less than two weeks and its impendingness has prompted a lot of different feelings. It seems like it will be simultaneously super-important and relatively uneventful. Last year (I recall with bemused nostalgia), I was very, very concerned that the party be a bug success. I pinned a lot of hopes on a particular young man attending and coming home with me (the first happened, but not the latter).

This year, there may well be four or so past and potential sexual partners in attendance and yet the suspense of whom I might sleep with doesn't seem especially tense. Maybe it'll happen with one or the other of them, but none of that really matters. It doesn't matter like the bigger questions do. I can sense them distantly imposing themselves on the horizon: Where am I going to live next? How long am I going to stay in my job? These are the biggies. The birthday is a signpost that one passes without necessarily getting a better sense of your bearings (like most towns and cities in Connecticut on your way to Boston from New York).

I'm in a funny place these days. I'm balanced and contented about most of the major things -- work, art, sex. Not that everything's perfect, but I guess I've stopped expecting that. I'll settle for "good with the prospect of getting better." I don't feel like I get things done, though. I get all the important things done eventually, things for work, for the shows I'm working on and for the classes I'm teaching. I have time to see my friends and meet up with them. It's the mundane things that seem impossible to accomplish -- like a haircut, or a teeth cleaning or even reading all the sections of the paper read that I would like to read. I never get a chance to shop for groceries. Maybe I've filled up my life with so many satisfying projects and vocational activities that I've no time left for the basic human functions. I have been eating less. At first it was just that I didn't have time to cook, but now I have much less appetite.

Hmmm. It's hard to know when this cycle will be over. When will the graphics and the theme music announce "Operation: Time to Smell the Roses" or even "Get All That Annoying Shit Done on Your To-Do List." Maybe not anytime soon.


may perpetual light shine

Why do I feel differently about the passing of John Paul II than I did about Ronald Reagan's? In many ways, they had parallel public lives -- they were conservatives whose world views were shaped by the Cold War, and they were beloved by many of the same people. When Reagan died I had to acknowledge the profound impact that he had on American (and world) history -- but still, the headline that seemed to sum it up best for me was the one in the Village Voice: "Death of a Salesman." Ronald Reagan, I insisted on telling people, was indeed an "optimist" and he successfully sold Americans that optimism, but his optimistic vision of America was, to a great extent, illusionary (delusionary?) and the disconnect between his rhetoric and the reality of life for the working poor, AIDS patients and other forgotten people amounted to a scandal.

One might offer the same critique of this Pope, and I'm sure that many people (Catholics and non-Catholics) will. I've listened to some denounce this Pope in the past as "evil" for the negative impact that his positions on social issues like birth control and abortion have had on women around the world, for the way they've contributed to overpopulation and to the spread of AIDS. I can't deny it. It's a common claim that he's "stacked the ranks" with conservative bishops. He's stagnated any progress on Church reform issues like ordaining married men or women. He was curiously absent from the official response to the sexual abuse crisis in the American Church, almost as if he did not grasp its foundation-shaking impact. And one of his last public statements was to rail against the pernicious ideology of the homosexual agenda.

But still, I think the man may have been a saint.

It seems odd even for me to say that, but then I guess we might need to stop and think a bit about what it means to be a "saint." Saints are not always right, nor do they always make the right choices (or, rather, they're not out to please people). But they are imbued with a holy fire, they are filled to the brim with faith -- and it's hard to argue that this Pope was anything short of that. The manner of his death was the summation of it all. He remained a servant of God to the end, expending every last breath for what he saw as his calling, for the propagation of the faith. He accepted his suffering and turned it into a type of spiritual purification. He was both a mystic and an intellectual; a playwright in his youth and a poet even into his last years. He contained multitudes and the binary categories of "liberal" and "conservative" are insufficient when applied to him.

He made the papacy global, traveling more than any other pope -- and right up to the end. He reached out to the third world and to other faiths, notably Judaism. He opposed war and the taking of human life in any form, whether by an abortionist or by a government in the name of punishing crime. He was a world figure of immense stature and yet he was not a political leader. His concerns were not temporal (ostensibly) but transcendant, eternal. At his best, he was a strong and consistent countervoice to so much in our society that advances a militarist-consumerist-individualist agenda.

It was that anti-individualism that was both the most important and often the most troubling aspect of his mission. Americans are defined more than anything else by our strong sense of individualism (even liberal ones -- look at the ACLU) and he stood for a different ethic. We tend to think favorably about those instances in which he encouraged the world to think communally, as in arguing for debt relief, but many of his more conservative stances were based on similar reasoning. To place individual rights first, including the right to decide when you're going to get pregnant or the right to have sex with anyone you want whenever you want, was never something he cared much for. You subjected your own desires to some greater authority -- whether that was justice or God or simply the authority of Church teaching.

Even as I type those words, I begin to frame my own critique of that philosophy, but at the same time I find it hard to criticize the Pope. Devoted secularists would say that my faith muddies my thinking, that I give the Pope the benefit of the doubt because I've been raised to (irrationally) revere his authority. There is a strong element of loyalty in my respect for John Paul II. I tend to agree with Dorothy Day's saying about staying faithful to the Church despite its failings: "Even if your mother's a whore, she's still your mother."

The papacy is an outdated institution. It has nothing to do with democracy. Yet, though I agree with liberal Catholics that JPII never advanced the Church far enough along progressive lines, I don't understand the point of nit-picking and second-guessing when it comes to the papacy. I'm uneasy with "telling a pope what he should do." A pope is not a president (which is perhaps why I hold him to different standards than Reagan). He's not really my "employee" in the same way that George W. Bush is meant to be. By saying that, am I at some fundamental level saying that I'm happy to remain nothing more than a sheep as far as Church teaching is concerned? Perhaps.

But the pope is not the Church. The Church, as the Second Vatican Council attested, is made up of everyone, the clergy and the people. Both saints and sinners have been popes. And some of the most beloved saints, including Francis of Assissi, have challenged Church authority. The Church has changed (dramatically) over the centuries and now it is undergoing another time of change. It will not just be the new pope alone who will determine the Church's new mission, but rather the clergy and the laity, together and in tension with one another. God's will is never very simple.


getting my monthlies

Ever since the demise of Julius Caesar, March has seemed a somewhat forbidding month. One can have a certain degree of affection for it, but it seems always out of your control. It is regal in its implacable power. Will the blustery March wind blow in or will it bring us a comfortable spring thaw? We do not know nor can we.

In contrast, April -- no matter what its deficiencies in any given year -- seems downright genial. It may rain and rain and rain throughout the month (as it's doing now outside my New York City window) but still we welcome April. We root for it. Sure, May is famous for its flowers, but by May spring is already in full bloom. It's in the month of April that we start to feel that glorious sense of anticipation. Sometimes the only thing better than feeling good is the consciousness that one is about to feel good very soon.

I'm a biased observer, of course. Like so many auspicious individuals (including Shakespeare, Queen Elizabeth II, and Adolf Hitler), I was born in the month of April and it's always been good to me. Somehow April always seems like the real start of the year -- it has more of a claim to that feeling, I think, than January. The artificial beginning of the calendar was established in January, I suspect, because that is the darkest time of year (at least in the Northern hemisphere, which is where these things got set). People wanted to place some kind of signpost there to say, "Well, at least we're making progress. We're moving out of this."

But it's in April usually that I start to feel new again and I suspect that many of you out there have had the same experience. As March wound down to a close this week, I was conscious of a remarkable degree of sychronicity in the world around me. On Wednesday evening, as I walked from Houston to 14th St. (which took probably 10 minutes or less) I passed no fewer than four acquaintances -- two tenants who live in the building where I work, one woman who works for a non-profit we collaborate with, and a college classmate I hardly know. I didn't really stop to talk to any of them, but somehow as I made the journey uptown it seemed to say that something was brewing...

Could be...
Who knows?
There's somethin' due any day,
And I'll know right away,
Soon as it shows....

Perhaps April doesn't seem as significant to you. Well, then, answer me this: Why does no one name their child "March"?

And, come to think of it, why not "July" either?