The Mary Jacket

Let me tell you a story about a jacket.

It’s not all my story, and in fact, it originates somewhere that I’ve never been: Portland, Oregon.

Before we get there, though, I need to back up to somewhere I’ve spent far too much time: my hometown.

Here I am trying to make my first escape.

We weren’t a happy family; perhaps not an unhappy one. We had our moments, to be sure, a series of explosions – laughter, anger, whichever broke us through. Before I’d even turned eight, we had already fractured once; a few years later, we’d do it all over again. Eventually, the whole damn thing fell apart. And we were fine.

The first fracture came when my oldest brother, Mike, abruptly left home when I was in second grade. The subsequent fracturing event came a few years later with the exit of my second oldest brother, Steve, who left home under acrimonious circumstances when I was maybe nine or ten. To be honest, the timeline of those early years has always been jumbled in my mind. The mixture of my sheltered youth and a familial tendency to talk around the issues has left me spending my adult life indolently piecing together family history, like someone absentmindedly scratching a bug bite.

I suppose it must seem strange that a writer would be this incurious about his own past, but the truth is, it isn’t my past. Everything happened around me; I was a background extra in my own life up until college, and even then, really only a featured player.

So, what I know of Steve’s exit: I was the last one to speak to him before he left the house that final time. There were five kids, so my parents had opted to get us a second landline phone just for us (just for them); it was even listed in the phone book as the separate Teens’ Line. That night, my parents had gone out and gave instructions that Steve was not to use the phone, he being on punishment for one infraction or another. Nothing new there.

I was watching TV in the living room when I heard the kids’ line ringing in the den. Since the phone was never for me, I instinctively ignored it until I remembered my parents’ instructions. I rushed to the den just in time to find Steve answering the phone.

“You’re not supposed to use the phone,” I dutifully bleated.

“I know!” Steve snapped back. “No one else was answering it!”

That was it. I skulked back to the living room, then, some minutes later, I heard  Steve leaving out the garage and that was the last I would see of him for years.

Kids Christmas
My siblings. Probably.

That could all be wrong. I don’t trust the details of my memory; I tend to conflate different events, sometimes years apart. It’s immaterial; this is how I remember it. The great irony – and power – of our past is that perception shapes memory, which then shapes perception. We’re all living a lie we told ourselves. This is mine.

My next memory of seeing Steve in person came many months later. He was standing on our porch, saying hello to my tearful mother who was welcoming him back home to Lawrence. He’d gotten heroin thin – emaciated, really – and was covered with piercings, a safety pin pincushion. 

I don’t remember if Steve was wearing the jacket, though I suspect not. This jacket, which came to represent all the mysteries and allure of my brother’s time away from home, was a plain brown, polyester gas station attendant’s jacket, an ugly thing made all the more unsightly by large rips and frayed edges. Like Steve’s eyebrows, the thing was pierced through with a phalanx of safety pins, some of them functional, most just for aesthetics. I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.

After leaving home, but before meeting up with Mike in Flagstaff, Arizona, Steve spent time in Portland, Oregon, living in a shithole (probably) and working in the kitchen of an Italian restaurant. Other than learning the basics of cooking from the restaurant’s chef, Steve’s main pastimes in Portland were poetry and drugs (I won’t pretend to know which ones; all of them?).

In Portland, where by law gas station attendants still pump your gas, Steve picked up the jacket. What really made this unassuming article of clothing pop, at least for me, was the one piece of personalization that my brother had attached: a yellow and orange fabric patch with the name “Mary” sewn in green letters over an orange heart. I had no idea who Mary was, but she was clearly perfect.

In fact, Mary was no one, but everyone. As Steve later explained, “Mary” was the stand-in name he used in his poetry when he was writing about a woman but didn’t want to use her real name. She was the all-encompassing focus of love and lust, hate and sorrow; she was all womankind.

So she came to represent to me.

My parents were permitting my brother to store some of his belongings at the family house, which is how I came to stumble across the Mary Jacket hanging up in a hallway closet. For a time, I would take it out just to put it on, and then slip it back on its hanger. As the months passed, though, and Steve made no indication that he intended to take it back, I began to wear the jacket out of the house, to my mother’s chagrin.

Steve didn’t mind me wearing it, but there was always an understanding that someday I’d return it to him. That never happened.

The jacket engulfed me. It must have been huge on Steve when he was at his thinnest, which is why I doubt he was actually wearing it that day he showed up on our porch. It didn’t matter, I loved it and wore it constantly. After losing a great deal of weight in a very short time as a teenager, I was slow to update my wardrobe so most of my clothes were baggy on me. The jacket fit my style (a term I use loosely).

People asked all the time who Mary was, or, sometimes with confusion regarding my long, feminine blond hair, if I was Mary. Some kids took to calling me Mary, presumably as an insult, but if it bothered me, it didn’t stop me from wearing the jacket every damn day.

Whatever reason Steve had for choosing Mary as his female catch-all, the name had an extra level of resonance for his youngest brother, a kid named Joseph who had been brought up in the Jesus in Wonderland orthodoxy of Evangelical Pentecostals. Everything was filtered through Bible stories and purported prophecy. Mary didn’t just represent some unknown love interest, she came to represent the unseen woman, the one that completed the equation: Joseph and Mary.

Perhaps I have a genetic predisposition to symbolism, or it’s just a product of my religious upbringing, but early on I developed an obsession with poetic symmetry in life, always looking for surreptitious indicators of deeper meaning or direction in the innocuous happenstance of life: a song playing on the radio with an oddly fitting lyric; the crash of thunder in a moment of doubt; a girl named Mary.

I wanted – needed – there to be signs of something grand ahead, because in the now, life was pretty miserable. Certainly, I was.

As high school ceded to college, I left much of my old life behind, including church friends and my faith, but the Mary Jacket stayed with me. From wear, the tears had grown into fluttering gashes with loose threads hanging from the edges that I routinely had to cut off. I’d repurposed some of the extra safety pins to hold the entire left side together, which otherwise flung open like a gaping mouth.

If the jacket had arrived in Kansas looking like a holdover from the 80s hardcore scene, I had managed to turn it into a homemade Halloween costume assembled by a disinterested stepmother. It had long ago ceased to be a jacket in any functional sense, more of a rag to throw over my shoulders like a cape. So be it, it was my cape.

When I packed up everything I owned for the move to Charlotte that would launch 10 Cities/10 Years, I stuffed the Mary Jacket in my boxes. Eventually, I gained enough sense to stop wearing the thing, but for sentimental purposes, the jacket remained with me for many moves. After a few years, realizing that sentiment wasn’t worth the extra money and effort it required to move every year, I unceremoniously discarded the jacket along with many other artifacts of a life I no longer lived.

Before I tossed the jacket –there was no hope of donating it, the thing was mostly safety pins by that point – I removed the Mary patch. That I still have.

No words.


Writers love symbols. Fiction, in particular, is buoyed by their potential. Properly deployed, one symbol can say more than ten pages of exposition; even poor writing can be given the façade of depth with some hasty symbolism. Then there are the great writers, like Fitzgerald, whose symbolism could captivate so thoroughly, he redefined the prosaic truth of the image itself. A green light is never just a green light.

Even though I no longer believe in higher powers or spiritual intercession in the natural world, I’m still taken with the way coincidences can imbue day-to-day life with literary flair. From time to time, it’s fun to indulge a flight of fancy, to impose meaning on the meaningless. It’s utter rubbish, but what isn’t? A writer has to think in symbols.

Names will always hold deeper meaning, like how hearing a particular name brings a rush of memories about an ex or a friend I haven’t thought of in years. I’m always tickled by couples with famous name pairings or when someone’s moniker takes on an ironic double meaning. To this day, “Mary” is freighted with unrealistic meaning. It’s a connection to a past that’s mostly been forgotten or blurred into unreliable memory, and yet also a suggestion of a future that could have been, probably never will. I hear the name, it triggers visions of a specific type of life with a wife and a house, a family, a place; stability.

Before anyone thinks, “Awwww,” I haven’t lost anything, only come to understand myself better. Like that shredded gas attendant’s jacket, that existence wouldn’t fit me now. It’d only split and unravel. I held onto that vision of my future for a lot longer than I should have because I wanted so much for there to be a plan, a destination. Not anymore. I don’t need a prophecy to tell me about my future; I make my own.

Traveling has stripped me of much of my sentimentality. I’ve gotten much better at letting go of my relics. On the verge of another major move, my biggest yet, I’m examining my possessions with a plan to unload it all. Holding on to mementos from the past doesn’t actually prolong the past. Baggage is a burden, and a crutch. Minimalism is both a necessity and incredibly freeing.

Still, I like to imagine someone found that old jacket in the trash, took it home, and sewed it back together. Wouldn’t it be nice if all the things we abandoned came to have a second life with someone else? Well, the past is always being written and rewritten. May all we leave behind be remembered as fondly as a ripped polyester jacket.

A photo of Brooklyn Bridge in black and white

The Art of Jumping


[Names are whatever I want them to be]

I spent much of my youth with a group of boys, which explains why I was such a surly kid. Following church one Sunday afternoon, where the message had been “Good Ideas vs. God Ideas” (your wisdom or God’s wisdom), a group of us gathered at a buddy’s place to hang out and be teenage boys.

From a tall tree in that friend’s backyard, a zip line had been attached that shot across the yard to a patch of grass a dozen or so yards off. This bright summer day, the boys were taking turns riding, but there was a hold out: Dylan. No matter how much the other boys badgered him, Dylan wouldn’t ride the line.

“I don’t think it’s safe,” he protested.

“Well, maybe that’s a good idea,” a kid named Chet intoned, “but is it a God idea?”

It says something about Christian youth that, even as a joke, that line still worked: Dylan climbed the tree. I surmise the jumping off spot for the zip line must have been roughly three stories, though details are fuzzy: let’s say at least 25 feet. By the point Dylan was stepping up to the ledge, at least four or five other boys had already ridden the line.

Effectively goaded, Dylan stepped out of the tree, putting all of his faith in the strength of the line, and immediately dropped. The line snapped. He hit the ground like a rock.

There is an art to jumping out of a tree, and Dylan apparently had forgotten it: Instead of bending his legs and rolling with the momentum, he locked his knees and came straight down on his feet. Following that fall, Dylan spent the next few weeks in a wheelchair, though nothing was broken, only bruised.

When Dylan hit the ground, he went fetal, writhing in pain. The rest of us were frozen in a mixture of shock and awe until Chet broke the silence with the soundest theological statement I’ve ever heard:

“Maybe it was a God idea.”

Meet Cute

I met Sophie the way all New Yorkers meet: outside a Williamsburg coffee shop after attending an independent movie premiere. This short film, about the Manson Family, had been created by a friend and his theater troupe. At 30 minutes, it was an artfully shot re-enactment of rape and murder, a feel good romp if ever there was one.

Sophie, not part of the troupe but involved in theater, had a role in the film. The post-screening party was being hosted at a nearby Starbucks that also served alcohol. When the only two people I knew were otherwise engaged, I wound up outside conversing with a group that included Sophie and another woman, Amy.

With the party unwinding, Sophie, Amy, and I, joined by some guy named Stan, continued our night at Rosemary’s around the corner. As tends to happen with the male of the species, once in a booth, Stan brashly hijacked the conversation and soon the ladies and I were communicating telepathically to make our escape.

After telling Stan we were calling it a night, the three of us regrouped outside and Sophie suggested that we prolong the night back at her Greenpoint apartment. Though late, her place was just past McCarren Park, so we hoofed it. Along the way, spurred by the admission of my Kansas youth, we turned to the topic of climbing trees, as you do.

“Everyone climbs trees in Kansas,” I probably said, because this is factually accurate.

“I never have,” Sophie admitted. Since alcohol was involved, her confession became a challenge.

The London Planetrees lining the park weren’t as sturdy as the cottonwoods I had grown up with, but they’d do. Showing surprising dexterity, I scurried up one and straddled the lowest hanging limb. Proud that I could still get up a tree in my 30s, I jumped out with ease, a height of maybe eight feet. It was Sophie’s turn, now.

We selected a suitable option and with a little assistance from Amy and I, Sophie scampered up the tree’s white tree trunk. As she settled into the nook between its three branching limbs, her expression was a mixture of relief and mild terror.

Reveling in the glorious absurdity of our endeavor, I neglected to mention the most important part of climbing a tree: the dismount. Leaving Sophie in her perch, Amy and I chatted a few feet away when, in our peripheral, we saw Sophie come sailing down.

The art of jumping out of a tree is best learned when you’re a child and your body is made out of rubber. You might start by cautiously sliding your ass along the trunk until you’re on the ground with a scratched up back, or maybe you just take a haphazard leap and limp off the impact. Eventually, having done it enough times, you develop a second nature for it.

Having never climbed a tree in her youth, Sophie wasn’t practiced in this particular skill. Landing firmly on her ankles, she crumbled to the ground. Amy and I raced to her side and helped her up. Attempting to put weight on her right foot, Sophie yelped in pain.

“I think I broke my foot,” she fretted.

Imbued with the confidence of manhood and alcohol, I replied, “I doubt it. You probably just bruised your ankle.”

Though she was in evident pain – just how much, I didn’t realize at the time – we continued walking to Sophie’s apartment, she directing from the rear. Once there, we poured more drinks while Sophie elevated her leg. Removing her boot proved a struggle as her foot had ballooned inside. Now a discolored rainbow, I nonetheless surmised with my expert medical opinion that it was a minor injury. With enough ice, she’d be fine in a day or two.

A little later, I passed out on the couch while the two women talked. In the morning, Amy urged Sophie to see a doctor, but she was reluctant and I was still confident that it was unnecessary. However, since Sophie was struggling to walk and Amy had to go to work, I volunteered to hang out for the day. It was Friday morning, I didn’t work again until Saturday afternoon.

We whiled away the hours conversing and watching television on her couch. We ordered Chinese food for lunch. When the dog needed to go out, I walked him. There was such an easy, natural tempo to our conversation that we never hit a lull, whether we talked family, politics, or art. We delved into our pasts, those dark passages that few others ever saw. The sun rose and fell across her apartment’s bay windows.

It was almost dusk and the progression of the day had brought us together, our legs touching as I argued with myself whether or not I should kiss her. It seemed a foregone conclusion, but I’d been wrong before.

Glancing at me sideways, Sophie inquired, “So… is it wrong to fuck a cripple?”

I laughed.

Friday became Saturday. I made a few half-hearted efforts to exit throughout the morning, eventually leaving some time after noon to return to my Bed-Stuy apartment and get ready for work.

In my absence, a worried Amy returned and brought Sophie to urgent care. That night at work, I received a text:

My foot is broken.

I’d been in Brooklyn for eight months.

Jay Street Train


New York City couldn’t possibly live up to my fantasies, to the extended nine year tease I had put myself through; and yet, in many ways, it somehow did. Every free afternoon, I walked the borough, barely scratching Brooklyn’s 97 square miles. There was art and music and the quintessential melting pot of diverse residents. My first full weekend in the city, I saw Spoon play a rollicking concert in Central Park while the sun set over the treetops. Purely cinematic.

Shortly after my arrival, I attended a rooftop party at my apartment and met a young French photographer studying in the city for the semester. We had a brief, caustic affair and then she returned to Paris. Meanwhile, I served tables in Park Slope, one of the many neighborhoods in Brooklyn where the locals will proudly tell you how it had once been a much different, rougher neighborhood. Now, their dog walkers make six figures a year.

Naturally, New York tried to kick my ass. That’s what it does. It’s impatient and unkind, expensive and exclusive, unimpressed by anything you’ve ever done. The city doesn’t need you or want you, thank you very much; although, it’ll gladly have another meal.

And this is the easy version of New York City. Most everyone will report with nostalgia how much harder – and better – this city used to be. Nothing will ever be greater than the past.


Sophie’s broken foot complicated matters. She could no longer continue her theater internship, her main reason for being in the city. A job was out of the question and she was essentially immobile, Brooklyn being hostile to the hobbled. When not working, I was invariably with her.

After a few weeks, we attempted a visit to my apartment, a fourth floor walk-up. Our collective restiveness induced Sophie to push herself – and her foot – sooner than she should have. Every time Sophie thought her cast could come off, a new complication extended her recovery. As the weeks turned into months, my guilt grew exponentially, her every grimace a reminder that I had played an active role in her agony.

Sophie was immensely frustrated by her lack of mobility and her inability to take advantage of New York City’s lucrative theater network. She sought other avenues for pursuing her artistic ambitions. Having no great affinity for the city, no reason to chain herself to New York, she figured “why not?” and applied to numerous graduate schools, most of them in England where she had spent much of her childhood.

Though we were simpatico on most every level, our nights occasionally flipped from romantic to adversarial seemingly on a dime. We shared ideals, but some conversational tangents could splinter us, as tends to happen with any two headstrong people. Scotch might have been a factor.

Everything between us felt emotionally charged, whether discussing our pasts or our ill-defined futures, during physical intimacy or a heated argument. She challenged me, as a writer, as a thinker, as a man. She could infuriate me – and I her – but conversations with her never ended without me questioning my assumptions, and that’s a rare talent.

She was just as talented as a writer. Every grad school she applied to, most of them prestigious, accepted her. She had her pick of the litter. She was to be in England by September.

At the end of July, not even three months after we met, and less than a week after having her cast removed, Sophie flew to Washington to spend time with family before her next journey.

I don’t suppose either one of us thought we were built for the long-term. We’d both been nomads. So much of the fire between us was in the immediacy, the sense that neither one of us had ever known permanence – maybe we never would – but at least for a few hours together the outside world’s beckoning wasn’t so loud.

I would have taken more time with her, but she couldn’t stay. New York City wasn’t where she belonged; it wasn’t where she was going to make her mark. And she’ll make her mark. She’s a resolute woman, audacious in her convictions. She was always going to jump; I can’t wait to see her land.

Like few others, Sophie’s voice continues to ring in my ears. It’s the voice of my conflicting internal monologue, challenging my opinions and making me step back from my preconceptions. It’s telling me to listen more, speak less. I’m still debating with Sophie in my head, and she’s still winning.

The Final Reel

Emily in SilhouetteFor the final week of 10 Cities/10 Years, as my first year in New York City came to an end, I hit the road with Emily. She was moving back west, from Boston to Los Angeles, after graduating from nursing school. Our route this time took us through Kansas where we spent a night with my family before continuing to see her brother in Flagstaff and on to Long Beach.

I stayed with Emily’s family for a couple days and revisited Costa Mesa where I met up with Selene who’d recently moved back home. After all the cities, all my experiences over the past decade, it felt like the pieces were being reset with the project’s conclusion. Maybe there would be nothing to show for the effort. No matter, that’s life.

On the last Saturday of August, I returned to New York to be alone.

There’s one detail I left out of Dylan’s story. Another kid didn’t ride the zip line that day: Me. I was just as scared as he was; more so, because not even God could get me up that tree. No one ever called me a particularly adventurous child, which is why I’m sure it surprised more than a few people when I embarked on this journey.

Ten years of constant uncertain, of impending financial ruin and personal angst – of being out on a limb – and I am no less afraid than when I set out. Anxiety still roils my gut when I enter an unfamiliar social situation, whether it be a new job or a packed bar. The self-doubts, the fear, it never abates.

I live with that fear every day, and I always will. It’s my main reason for climbing trees: so I’ll have to jump.

Read from the beginning

Change In America

The United States in the 21st Century is fundamentally different than when it was the preeminent, ascendant world power of the 20th century. It would be simple to point to one or two major events as the catalysts for this change (9/11, the Great Recession, Barack Obama’s election), but in reality the world is in a constant state of flux and the status quo never lasts long.

I have known conservative religious types to warn of the danger of Same Sex Marriage by claiming that ancient Rome’s embrace of homosexuality heralded their downfall. Besides nicely illustrating the causation/correlation conflation fallacy and showing a complete lack of historical literacy, this thinking also illustrates our most common myth about reality. People are prone to believe that their present moment in history is the default, and any deviation from their norm is an affront, when in fact it’s inevitable.

Change is the constant. One of the failings of the environmentalist movement is that in their urgency to warn of Global Warming-caused catastrophes, they initially fell back onto the easy, grabby language of World Ending Apocalypse. The world isn’t ending, but it is changing, a fate that means very little to the planet Earth, but should prove a real boon to Slip N’ Slide sales in Alaska.

We Need Change

The ideas which are holding back or actively dragging down society can be traced to one terrible piece of reasoning: “It’s what I’ve always believed.”

The country I have come to know intimately is one that can be hard to love at times. Overt anti-science, anti-intellectual, sexist and homophobic public policies and talking points are easy targets for Jon Stewart or John Oliver to lampoon, but far subtler, less political strands of these worldviews inhabit average people in ways that are harder to extract from their, otherwise, fundamental decency. Good people can have lousy beliefs, especially if they’ve never had a reason to question them. It’s simple to think that everyone protesting against same sex marriage or outside Planned Parenthood is just a religious fanatic, but I was maybe five or six the first time I carried a sign in a “Pro-life” march. I didn’t know what I opposed (or supported), and it wasn’t until I was well into my 20s that I thought back on those days with any embarrassment.

Some people never examine their beliefs. That is a shame and the reason why ignorant, hateful people are so prominent in our society (well, that and because controversial statements make nice headlines). We of the “educated, liberal” persuasion shake our heads at others for their backwards beliefs, and yet it’s among liberal enclaves that pseudo-scientific (not scientific at all, actually) idiocy runs most rampant, from the Anti-Vaccine movement to whatever miracle vitamin Dr. Oz is peddling this week. No political, religious or social group holds a monopoly on bad ideas and ignorance.

The oft-ignored extension of the “some people don’t examine their beliefs” rule is that nobody examines all of their beliefs. When Descartes famously stated “I think, therefore I am,” he coined the definitive statement of Rationalism, but his hyperbolic doubt remained credulous about one central belief: God. Even the forefather of rational skepticism had his blind spots, is it any surprise that the rest of us are no better at scrutinizing our beliefs? Another great philosopher, Dr. Gregory House, once bellowed, “Climb out of your holes people!” but we live in holes and nobody wants to be homeless.

We Hate Change

It is quite possible that people seem angrier and more miserable today because the internet allows us to vent more freely and, thus, the dickish thoughts that we always had but kept to ourselves are now coming into the open. This view suggests that humanity isn’t growing shittier, we’re just more open about our fecal tendencies. I like this interpretation because it jives with the underlying optimism I hold for the human race (even if I’m pessimistic about individuals).

However, it’s hard to ignore the police killings of innocent teenagers and the increased mass shootings, along with the corruption at every level of power, both political and financial. The world may be less violent over all than at any other time in human history, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t still acting like savages.

I would argue that if there is one underlying cause for so much of the malignant behavior in our society, it’s change. Rapid, unstoppable change. The last 50 years has produced more social upheaval than almost all of human history before it. For 20 years, we have been in a technological explosion like no one’s ever seen. When Gene Roddenberry envisioned the 23rd century in the original Star Trek, it didn’t look all that much different from the world we inhabit in the second decade of the 21st century (minus the space travel; though that may not be far off). In our time, cultural revolution is more pronounced in one year than it was in entire decades of the previous century.

As the old axiom goes, nobody likes change. Sure, some people embrace new things more readily than others, but even for a guy who has made a life of moving from city to city, I’m not always receptive to shifting sands. We are especially unhappy when a change occurs without our input or permission.

I don’t mean to deny individual autonomy because we are all ultimately responsible for our actions, but I think the depletion of civility and society’s rapid transformation are more than casually linked. I don’t have any studies to support that hypothesis (better minds than mine would have to devise ways to test it), but it’s no stretch to suggest that big changes often have unexpected consequences. If the Civil Rights movement of the 60s was met with fierce opposition, is it any wonder that there is so much turmoil in the wake of social changes that include race, gender and sexual orientation in one massive tsunami? The United States isn’t so much a melting pot as a churning caldron.

There’s no returning to the status quo. Which status quo would that even be?

We Has Change

Will our society continue to evolve this dramatically and this abruptly from here on out? Most experts predict a technological plateau at some point, but since we’re experiencing a period like none other in human history, it’s really anybody’s guess. The concept of the ‘Technological Singularity’ suggests that there’s an endpoint for both human and technological evolution, but how far off is that? Could there be a ‘Societal Singularity’?

Whatever comes next for America, we should expect it to be met with challenges. It’s easy to get frustrated if you’re fighting for civil rights and facing backlash. It can be just as frustrating to be passionate about something, anything, and find nothing but hate and abuse thrown back at you. But take solace: if the world seems especially brutish to you, consider that these may be the growing pains of a society rapidly exploding through puberty. Awkward, ugly puberty.

And if that’s the case, maybe a stable, humane adulthood is still ahead of us.

1 World Trade Center 2

Trivial Pursuits

Trivial Pursuit

As I age, I’m dealing with the inevitable realities of diminished mental capacity. Neuroscientists have suggested that our minds peak at 22 and start deteriorating around 27. Based on personal experience, that sounds about right. That’s not to say that I’m getting dumber. In fact, there is no age at which we can’t still learn new things, no matter what they say about old dogs.

It’s just that my ability to retain and process new information is definitely not what it was when I was younger. I’ve never thought of myself as having a great memory. In my silly teenage years when I thought I might be an actor, memorizing dialogue was always a struggle. I always wished I had a photographic memory (almost certainly a myth) so I could be one of those geniuses who seemingly had an endless wealth of information, but alas, I was burdened with a very mortal memory.

Which is why recent games of trivia at work have started to make me angry. I’m not angry because I don’t know the answers, I’m angry because I do know the answers. You see, I work in a restaurant and there are periods of downtime where some of us pass the time with games of trivia. Initially this started out with food trivia, obviously, which is not my strong suit, but the topics expanded to include presidential and music trivia (more my speed) and in recent days, Bible trivia.

Now we’re talking.

I have always been one of the best, if not the best at Bible trivia in almost any group. Even back in my youth when everyone I grew up was a Christian, I still could run circles around most of my friends with my depth of knowledge on the old stories and minutia littering the pages of God’s ol’ diary.

As we’ve been playing Bible trivia at work in a city where a large majority of the residents went to Catholic school yet barely know the Old Testament from the New, I’ve been amazed by just how much of the obscure details of the Bible I still remember.

And this is why I’m angry. As a kid going to a private Christian school, we were made to memorize whole passages of the Bible. I had read the entire tome (including all the really boring books) by the age of 10, and that wasn’t the last time. I heard and heard (and heard) the various stories so often that the details were as real to me as any movie or TV show I watched. My young mind, essentially a sponge capable of soaking up untold amounts of new information, was consumed with memorizing the myths of sheepherders and zealots.

At that age, I was a black hole for information. I read all the time, I did my older sister’s algebra homework just for the thrill of it and school was actually fun (that would change). If, at that period in my life, my inexhaustible thirst for knowledge had been driven towards science instead of books of the Bible, I have to wonder where I would be today.

I’m not saying I regret doing what I’m doing or that I don’t enjoy being a writer. At a young age, I always figured my love of math would translate into a career in the field, but then I discovered writing (and girls) in the sixth grade and my path was set.

I can’t help but think, though, that if the nooks in my memory that are filled up with the stories of Samson and Job had instead been left open for biology and physics, I could have achieved something truly great in one or both of those fields. I’m fascinated by the sciences and since graduating from college have read dozens of books on a variety of subjects from evolution to particle physics, but while I can discuss the topics with better authority than most people with degrees in Creative Writing, the details and specifics of the subjects slip out of my mind almost as soon as I read them.

This is why I would never raise a child in religion. It’s not because I want to shelter them from it or force them to be an atheist, it’s because I would rather their mind be filled with knowledge that could truly benefit them. Even if you are a person of faith, you must admit that a child would be far more successful in life if they were taught the basics of biology at a young age rather than reading the story of David and Goliath.

I realize that there is room for both in a child’s upbringing, but unfortunately when children are raised in religion the sciences are either completely ignored or taught in a way that is utterly wrong.

If I had a child and she wanted to read the Bible, I wouldn’t discourage it at all. Having read the Bible as often as I have (and continue to do) is a large part of why I believe (or rather, don’t believe) what I do.

While being able to rattle off the first 5 books of the Bible, the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) is all fine and good, I’d much rather be able to effortlessly list off the eight major taxonomical ranks of life (Domain, Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species). The former I knew offhand, the latter I had to look up.

Both might be largely symbolic trivia, but I’ll take scientific symbolism over religious symbolism any day of the week.

They do not move

ESTRAGON:Wait! (He moves away from Vladimir.) I sometimes wonder if we wouldn’t have been better off alone, each one for himself. (He crosses the stage and sits down on the mound.) We weren’t made for the same road.
(without anger.) It’s not certain.
No, nothing is certain. Vladimir slowly crosses the stage and sits down beside Estragon.

VLADIMIR:We can still part, if you think it would be better.
It’s not worthwhile now. Silence.
No, it’s not worthwhile now. Silence.
Well, shall we go?
Yes, let’s go.
They do not move.

Waiting for Godot, Act 1, by Samuel Beckett

“They do not move” is my twelfth tattoo, all but two of which I have gotten since beginning 10 Cities/10 Years. With each new piece of ink, I try to incorporate a message that speaks both broadly to the project as a whole and specifically to the previous year of my life.

The phrase ‘They do not move’ is the final stage direction in both acts of Beckett’s seminal work of absurdity, Waiting for Godot. The play is repetitive, both in the repeated dialogue and in the way nothing really changes from the first act to the second. This is one of those plays that absolutely invites interpretation and pretty much rewards anyone’s personal take with intentionally ambiguous lines and phrases that go in a hundred different directions.

Probably the most common reading of the play is to assume that “Godot” is a reference to God, and the fact that Godot never arrives and the characters don’t really seem to know who Godot is (though they’re pretty sure they know who he isn’t) gives weight to the idea that this work is Beckett’s criticism of religion and faith. However, Beckett has denied that he intended Godot to represent God, while still admitting that it could have been an unconscious choice. Beckett never gave a definitive interpretation, which means we readers are left to read into the work what we want. It is a literary Rorschach test.

Personally, I think the God-centric reading of the play makes a lot of sense and certainly jives with the frequent references to Jesus and the Bible throughout the play.

Who or whatever ‘Godot’ represents, though, I take the larger message of the play to be a pointed criticism of people who waste away their lives waiting for something, anything, to give them direction, instead of just picking a path and going. The absent instigator could be God, or a career, or a romantic partner or just any sort of passion that never arrives.

I think we all know people who talk about what they’re going to do, someday. They’ve got a lot of dreams, a lot of plans, maybe even genuine ambition, but what they don’t possess is will and self-actualization.  They’ll bitch about their job and tell you what they’re going to be doing in 5 years, but 5 years later they’re still bitching about the same job. They do not move.

Over the last year, I’ve received a lot of support from both friends and strangers who have encouraged me through this project and have offered their support.

But I’ve also received a fair amount of criticism from people who think my life is irresponsible, that because I’m not securing a financial future I’m somehow harming myself and, apparently, them, too. I need health insurance, they’ve admonished. I’m never going to have a career, they’ve warned.  I’m going to end up mooching off the government, they’ve fumed.

What I’ve taken from this critique is that there will always be people whose imagination is only as big as their wallets. They are afraid of the world and taking risks, and they want others to share their fears because that will validate their inertia. How many of these people who would deem to tell me how to live my life are actually satisfied with their own?  In my experience, the people who actually enjoy their lives rarely spend time criticizing others.

I have no patience for people who bitch about their lives but won’t take action to change it. If you’re waiting for the Deus ex machina to come fix your life, be prepared to wait a long, long time.

I move. And I commend the people I meet in my travels that are making moves of their own. That might mean relocating to a new city, but it just as well could mean taking the plunge with a serious relationship or going back to school or finding a new career. A change is a change, and sometimes all life needs is a catalyst.

In Beckett’s hand, an immobile life is an absurdist comedy, but in the real world it’s nothing short of tragedy.

ESTRAGON:Well? Shall we go?
Pull on your trousers.

Pull on your trousers.
You want me to pull off my trousers?
Pull ON your trousers.
(realizing his trousers are down). True. He pulls up his trousers.
Well? Shall we go?
Yes, let’s go.

Faith in Capitalism

As the debate over the economy rages, one common dichotomy keeps resurfacing to frame the whole topic in drastic shades of good vs. evil.  The opposing forces are Capitalism (good) and Socialism (evil).  Complex narratives often get reduced to such simplistic terms, and we prefer it that way.  “Economics is complicated,” we say, “just give us a good guy and a bad guy.”

This narrative sustained us throughout the Cold War, so it should be no surprise that we would return to that well to provide a sense of normality in uncertain times.  Now, though, the enemy isn’t a foreign nation with a maniacal goal to undermine God’s very own United States of America.  No, now the enemy is within.  Within our cities.  Within our government.  Within our White House.

Outside of the rabid, hyperbolic ravings of the media, though, most any economist will rationally explain that Obama and the Democratic leaders are about as close to Socialists as Wiley E. Coyote is to eating the Roadrunner.  Taxation has been part of our government (and governments from the beginning) for a lot longer than Marxist theory has existed.  Paying taxes in order to provide for societal services isn’t socialism, it’s democracy.  If it was socialism, then the US has always been a Socialist nation.*

What has really come to light in all this rhetorical nonsense is that America is no longer a Christian Nation.**  It’s a Capitalist Nation.

One Nation Under Mammon

Capitalism isn’t an economic theory, it’s a religion.  Within Capitalism, there are tenets of faith, holy books, priests and prophets and a heaven and a hell (on earth).  Other economic theories are the false religions.  To maintain the religion analogy, Socialism can be thought of Islam to Capitalism’s Christianity (though, as I’ll point out later, Christianity and Capitalism are not compatible bedfellows).  I’d argue that Communism, in this analogy, is Atheism.  But I’ll get to that.

Capitalism is a religion of greed.  It rewards it and teaches, as Gordon Gekko famously said, that “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”  The central tenet of Capitalism is that the accumulation of wealth is all that matters.  Just as Christianity can be reduced to, “Jesus died for your sins,” once you accept the central importance of moneymaking, everything else is just details.  Free Trade versus Fair Trade might as well be Calvinism versus Arminianism.  It’s all just a means to the end.

Capitalism as a religion has some rather ominous parallels to Christianity.  Both teach that everybody is equal in the eyes of their deity, yet reality shows us this is not true.  Both put a great deal of trust in authority figures (Bankers and CEOs; Priests and Pastors), but that trust is frequently and routinely abused.  When that trust is broken, there is public contrition and promises of penance and change.  Then a few months pass, and it happens all over again.

What truly makes Capitalism a religion, though, is that despite these broken promises and abuses of authority, the laity remains faithful.  For devout Catholics, it doesn’t seem to matter how many children are abused by priests.  And after the years of being told that hard work and determination will earn them a place in millionaire’s heaven have proven false, the poor and middle class still hold fast to the belief that their stairway is near.

The promise of Capitalism is not completely empty.  It wouldn’t last if it were.  Some people do rise up in Capitalism out of the depths.  We have our great parables and legends of men (yes, men) whose ingenuity and business acumen led them out of the wilderness of proletarianism.   These are fine stories, based largely in reality, though some of the rougher edges have been smoothed over through the years of retelling.  But the most important facet of these stories is the promise they sell.  These people’s faith in Capitalism was rewarded, and so will yours.

Like Christianity, there is no question that Capitalism can work.  The question is whether the religion’s promises are being fulfilled, or if it’s merely a happy confluence of self-fulfilling faith and good luck.  After all, there is a chance that a cancer patient who was praying for miraculous healing is going to go into remission.  It could be God.  It could also just be odds.  Religions always urge us to look at the examples of the promises fulfilled and ignore the far greater instances of promises unfulfilled.

The top 1% are Capitalism’s success stories, the saints and revered luminaries of the faith.  And as long as we focus on them and their roughly 40% of the wealth, it sure looks like a religion of winners.  There are also a great manye who have made a good living in our capitalist society.  They might not be millionaires, but they worked hard (or smart) within the system and now they make $200,000 a year.  Maybe their parents were immigrants, or poor farmers or maybe they were orphans.  They lived by the tenets of Capitalism and they have been rewarded for their faithfulness.

Certainly this substantiates the religious claims of Capitalism, right?

Well, there are wealthy people in Socialist China, too.

The fact that people can succeed through Capitalism doesn’t prove its infallibility anymore than the fact that some members of AA successfully recover from alcoholism proves there is a higher power.  We must never forget the power of positive thinking.

Even before a single economist existed, there were people getting wealthy and people staying poor.  This is the natural way.


The Root of All Evil

The irony of Capitalism and Christianity co-existing as the dominant religions of America is that at heart, they are diametrically opposed.

For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” 

That’s a Bible verse.  And not from the ridiculous Old Testament that you don’t have to care about anymore because of the “New Covenant.”  This is in 1 Timothy, an epistle of Paul.  So it’s not even from that crazy commie Jesus.  This is Paul, the guy who is quoted when Christians want to condemn homosexuality.  And he’s being pretty straightforward here.  Love of money = Root of all evil.  There isn’t a lot of room for interpretation.

I feel obligated to bring up the fact that Jesus frequently speaks of taking care of the poor and says that the rich pretty much have no chance of getting into heaven and tells a rich man that the only way to be perfect is to sell all he possesses.  I realize that the teachings of Jesus are all but ignored by modern Christians (conveniently they’re marked in red so you know what to skip), so I’m sure this paragraph won’t mean a thing.

It takes a daft bit of theological acrobatics to somehow erase all of Jesus’ anti-wealth teachings and portray him as a Capitalist.  But don’t worry, there are some theologians out there willing to put in the work.

The problem with Christianity is that, if you actually know the Bible, it’s a pretty hard religion to live up to.  It asks a lot of its faithful.  Capitalism, on the other hand, pretty much just asks you to be greedy and self-interested, which explains its appeal.

Communism: Godless Economics

One of the greatest strikes against the theory of Communism as conceived by Marx (which, opposed to Socialism, is not state-sanctioned, but rather exists without a state) is its lack of God.  Despite it being the standard practice of the early church, Communism as an economic theory is seen as atheistic, and thus opposed to America’s values.

While I know that Communism can certainly exist within the framework of religion (as is  easy to see), I think that atheism is an apt point of reference in light of the Capitalism/Christianity paradigm.

True Communism is a utopia.  It simply will not succeed as long as there are other economic systems in place.  It also cannot succeed as long as humanity’s greedier nature runs rampant.  Communism (in the true Marxist sense) only exists once other economic systems have created such an overabundance that the need for personal ownership is moot.  Instead of thinking of Communism as a contrast to Capitalism or Socialism, Marx conceived it as the natural end of economic evolution.

Marxist theory is rightly criticized for being unrealistic in our world.  Human nature may never evolve out of its state of possessiveness, but that doesn’t mean that Communism, as an ideal, isn’t worthy of consideration.  I can’t imagine anyone would argue against living in a world where anything you could possibly want was available to you just so long as you put in your fair share of work.  You might doubt such a world could exist, but that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t enjoy it if it did.

In the same way, I believe a world without any religion or faith in god would be utopia.  I believe that atheism is the highest form of thought and peace.  Imagine a world where your purpose and meaning was completely self-actualized, where you didn’t fear eternal punishment or have to figure out the laws of some inscrutable being.  Instead, the only laws were humanist by design and people did not seek to destroy other people in the name of religion or personal gain.

Again, you very well could say that such a world will never exist.  “It’s a pipe dream.”  Perhaps you’re right.  But that doesn’t make it any less appealing as an ideal.  Especially when you consider how crummy the world is in the wake of religion.

Forcing everyone to be an atheist would not suddenly bring about utopia.  Religion exists as a way to subvert humanity’s basest propensity for selfishness, greed and evil.  It doesn’t always work, and sometimes it makes things worse, but over the course of human nature, religion has generally helped enforce a social ethics that has maintained our species.  If we were to suddenly be rid of religion, we’d certainly see a sudden surge of criminality and antisocial behavior.***

In the same way, Communism can’t simply replace Capitalism.  As much as I detest many facets of it, I recognize that Capitalism is necessary, like duct tape on a broken pipe.  Communism can’t be implemented, it must come about naturally of communal understanding and overabundance of production, just as Atheism comes most naturally of study and reason.

Religion is a powerful force, though, and even those most harmed by it are hard to deconvert.  In fact, they are usually the hardest to pull away because cognitive dissonance won’t allow them to believe that they have devoted themselves to something so detrimental to themselves.  They double down their faith.

Right now, I believe we are seeing that doubling down.  Generation upon generation of Americans have been faithfully following the tenets of Capitalism without reward.  While the Wall Street protests represent a portion of America growing fed up with Capitalism and turning away (maybe not to economic atheism, but at least agnosticism), the majority of America is simply doubling down with Capitalism and, counter-intuitively, siding with the Corporations even in the wake of so much fraud and malfeasance.

Just as more people turn to faith in God in tough times, this recession has people seeking comfort in the promises of Capitalism.  And even though those promises are proving to be largely empty, they want to believe.

Sometimes, that’s all any of us want.

*Obama’s detractors seem to have gotten confused about what Socialism is, actually, which is no surprise.  The closest Obama’s policies have gotten to Socialism was the “take over” of the auto industry, which turned out to be a success.

**Not that it ever was.  But for the sake of argument.

***But it wouldn’t be the atheists to blame.