the Lesser

Things have changed. A lot has happened in the 7 years since last I was in the Philippines (recorded on this blog, too, see Feb-March 2005).

I think I'm both greater and lesser than I was.

In the Iliad and in the Gospels, there's this funny thing that happens with ancient, semi-mythical personages with the same name. There's Telamonian Ajax and Ajax the Lesser, both fighting at Troy. And there's James son of Zebedee and James the Lesser, both Apostles. In both traditions, it even splits into thirds.

Ajax has a brother/conscience figure, named Teucer, who is always fighting by his side. The English translation of "Ajax" is, strictly speaking, incorrect: the singular Greek is Aias, multiple Ajax. But whenever he was fighting, it was written Ajax, and closer scholarship assumed that meant both Telamonian and Ajax the Lesser always fought side by side, but now we think it means that Telamonian Ajax and Teucer were always side by side (Teucer was his shieldbearer, perhaps).

James son of Zebedee is the Santiago of Spain, to whom the Virgin appeared on a pillar (hence, Nuestra Senora de Pilar). His temper, and that of his brother John, earned them the nickname "Sons of Thunder." Tradition has it that he was the first of the Apostles to be martyred. James the Lesser, by contrast, is also identified with James the Just, the first Christian bishop of Jerusalem and one of the major authority figures of the early church, after Peter and Paul. James the Just is responsible for conceding to Paul's mission to the Gentiles, allowing them to become Christians without having to observe all the traditional strictures of Jewish law (i.e., circumcision). (Catholics equate James the Lesser with James the Just, because James the Lesser doesn't do anything in the New Testament, whereas James the Just figures in the letters a lot, and St. Jerome said they were the same guy, and Catholics do practically everything St. Jerome tells them to. Also, I think they felt bad for the guy stuck with the sobriquet "the Lesser." Orthodox and Protestants differentiate the Just and the Lesser, I think just for the sake of differentiating themselves from the Catholics.)

Myself, I was a greater man when last I was here in 2005, more hopeful, more stricken, feeling things with more impact. The sensory details, the overwhelm of people and heat. I had huge ambitions to write and create and perform on a brash scale.

Now, I plod. I sweat and watch. Maybe more shy. I'm Paul the lesser, or perhaps the Just.

Ajax the Lesser (also referred to as Locrian Ajax) was the calculating, wiry, wily counterpart to Telamonian Ajax's brute strength and massiveness. Where Telamonian Ajax had a shield as big as a tower and would heft massive boulders to crush Trojans, Locrian Ajax preferred to range against enemies with his bow and arrows, and was the fastest of the Greeks after Achilles. Tellingly, it was Locrian Ajax who raped Cassandra, stirring Athena's wrath, as the Greek fleet left the ruins of Troy, such that Athena scattered the fleet utterly. Locrian Ajax, as he clung to a rock after the wreck of his ship, boasted that he could survive whatever the immortals threw at him, and for this Poseidon split the rock with his trident, drowning him.

I still plot and scheme. I still have deep ambitions. I think I've learned deeper philosophy in these seven years. I definitely feel older, now. I'm in love with someone back home. I think my doings and my thinkings are more measured, more weighted, like literally heavier things that I heft like boulders, swinging them around, thoughts and actions with power to crush people.

I feel emptier. It takes me longer to work up a head of steam and get excited about things. It takes me longer to recover from feeling emotionally spent. When I feel joy, it feels more deeply rooted, more true, not the brash ephemeral thing it was 7 years ago.

A new world doesn't sparkle like it did; it's not new anymore.

Clearly, I also have less to say, or maybe more to say, in fewer words, over time.

Traveling through Luzon, I habitually see spreads of rice drying on pavement. I see shoots of rice ripening in the fields. Farmers picking weeds from the rice paddies in the blazing sun, or raking the spread grains, covered in rags from head to toe to shade themselves, even in spite of the tremendous heat. Every grain of rice involves so much effort, it's amazing to me that it's evolved into the staple food source that it is for so many.

I'm past the shock of insights like this (not that it's a particularly extraordinary or original insight, to begin with). I sit with it more, I soak in it, and it dries out of me, like I'm a grain of rice on the pavement.

more soon,

paulmonster-the just


First Manila Galleon

Dear E--,

I was moved by your kind reply to my mass e-mail. I want you to know that I'm grateful to maintain even a tenuous connection to you, and that I'm ever looking forward to when next our paths may cross.

I hope things go well with you; congratulations on the Metro victory (or was it the County? I'm not so up to date as I ought to be, I'm ashamed to say). I grow more and more convinced that this city's salvation rests with a small circle of you able, determined, oracular reference librarians, and I live in fear that you might choose to use your powers for evil, and not for good.


Recently I've been working as a stagehand for BodyVox, up on NW 17th and Northrup. Their latest is a quartet of performances, set to Haydn's and Arvo Part's music, among others. It's modern dance in the best sense, with thorough and skillful use of balletic forms, as well as trapeze, and other more experimental stuff. I adore Arvo Part, I adore Haydn, and these are marvelous dancers; every night it's a conscious effort, on my part, to keep focused, keep composure: because, when they're on form with one another, these dancers are deeply moving, and I'm almost in tears at the sad, exultant wonder of it all.

I'm also teaching, during the day, at Rosemont School for Girls, a women's teen rehab in outer SE, teaching through PlayWrite. It's strange to say, but I feel most satisfyingly engaged when I'm working with adolescent women-in-crises. The equivalent male cohort, in my experience, are a simplistic, brutalizing assemblage of bullies, by comparison. (I'm generalizing terribly, but the point still carries, for me.) When confronted with analogous traumas and worse, I generally see teen girls respond with a deepening of their character, and emotionally rich and wholehearted choices--particularly as creatives

Now, I don't take naturally to teaching, particularly within conventional modes. At a very basic level, I'm far too prone to the subversive instinct, that which challenges and despises received authority. It may be that there's a connection here, between the adolescent male's fundamental regard for authority, being as based on a broader, stereotypically masculine acceptance of force as a legitimizing process: for even in adolescent rebellion, we males train ourselves to conform our ideas and actions around a coercive principle, whether it's disciplining ourselves into submission, or breaking our way through to the other side...

By contrast, as a teacher I'm rooted in what I claim to be an essentially inverted educational experience, wherein all the seminal, formative "lessons" I continue to learn, happen in spite of, and outside of the sanctioned confines of the educational establishment. Confines that for so long functioned so efficiently in excluding women.

Thus, even as I'm emphatically rooted in that stereotypically male narrative of submission and breakthrough, from time to time true insight comes through to me from outside; and it's in this recognition of a similar dynamic at work among young women, that my affinity for them as students springs from.


By now, most of this letter has been written from the plane en route to Manila. I'm traveling with my Grandma and two of my Aunts, acting as my father's surrogate in caring for Grandma and shepherding the trip along. My Grandma is quite frail, and she inexplicably listens to me in ways that she wouldn't listen even to my father.

In fact, it hurts me, a little bit, when I realize how strange I am, what a strange place I inhabit within my massive family. Of my 40+ cousins, I am perhaps the most assimilated, the most articulate, both accomplished, in some ways, and surprisingly not. And ever since I was very little, my Mom held me apart from my father's clan, enough to alienate me to this day. And finally, I helped my Grandpa die, nearly 8 years ago, while I was training as an EMT. That experience, which I have yet to fully resolve within myself, has created for me the parameters of this insider-outsider role, both of profound affection and of permanent alienation. And this is all to say nothing of my self-conceived status as a working, conscientious artist and teacher/social worker, worlds that are that much farther removed from the rice paddy my father grew up on...

So this fully immersive trip, which demands the fullest caregiver skills, and physical stamina, and bureaucratic cunning, and composure, all has me at my most introspective, and, in some ways, at my most vulnerable. Here on this endless flight, crammed with children, and grandmothers, and awful movies, as my aunts gossip, and my Grandma dozes, and I fret over my responsibilities, and this exhausting feeling of pervasive other-ness...

...it was like an emotional tethering, for me, to recount Rosemont, and remember myself, even as I literally fly as far away from that world as I can conceive.

The air thickens with heat and humidity. I find myself weighted with customs documents, passports, baggage claims. I am inevitably excited and curious to travel through my origins, even as I'm equally anxious and saddened so to do. And I am also looking forward to feeling weightless, coming home, and perhaps catching a drink with you someday...