Excerpt from my letter to K, 22 April 2008

...Such as it is, simply determining to do better carries a great store of promise for me right now. Against all the obstacles in my path, all the evidence of my shortcomings, and the manifest feebleness of my available means, to choose to do better--to believe in a world where it's possible to do better--seems to me to provide an unassailable font of strength, impervious to these personal indictments, these self-inflictions, the hatefulness of self-awareness, the unbearable heaviness of being.

It makes heartache palatable. It's what I hope to breathe in, whenever I take those long, deep-filling sighs (as I langorously gaze pensively through the lace curtains in my stately manor-house overlooking the moor). And thereby, as they say, hangs a tale.

Not that I enjoy many opportunities thus to languor, per se. From time to time I'll be lucky enough to look out a window at just the right moment, when the cloud cover thins, and then everything--leaves, windowpanes, faces, gutters, newspaper boxes--everything lights up as surely as if someone flipped a switch. But mostly I seem to be pretty well occupied with galloping apace like a fiery footed star to and from Phoebus' lodging. I'm lucky to know by now how important it is, purely for my own well-being, to spur myself to write to friends like you, from time to time...

...I want to pass on to you a haunting story I just read, from John McPhee's Pulitzer-winning "Annals of the Former World."

A Dutch colonist named Hendryk Van Allen landed in what is now New Jersey/Pennsylvania, roundabout 1650. The Dutch at that time believed the area was chock full of copper, and Van Allen was in charge of a prospecting and road building expedition, sent to exploit the Minisink Valley. The highway he built there was the first on this continent, supposedly largely intact to this day.

One day, Van Allen was hunting squirrels with his musket. Now, 17th-century musketry was an unwieldy, literally scattershot proposition, and hunting squirrels must have been about as easy and as necessary as whitewashing an igloo in a snowstorm. I have to think that Hendryk was particularly upset by this one squirrel, or that he was a particularly bull-headed colonial type, because he missed and reloaded his musket three times, crashing through the forest and making all kinds of noise, throwing away powder and shot he'd have to send to Rotterdam to replace.

At the third shot the squirrel dropped, but when Hendryk picked up the body, he found no trace of shot, but rather an arrow through its heart. He looked up to see Winona, daughter of Chief Wissinoming of the Lenape, smiling at him from a red canoe. They soon fell in love.

She told him, among other things, legends of their valley; how the entire vale was once an inland sea, and how the Great Spirit emptied the sea to make a home for the Lenape. At the Great Spirit's instance, the water rushed out through what is now known as the Delaware Water Gap.

Shortly thereafter, Peter Stuyvesant surrendered the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam to the English, with scarcely a murmur of protest. Calling in all their chips, the Dutch government ordered Hendryk back to Holland, perhaps to answer for his anaemic copper returns.

We can imagine Hendryk thinking of low, swaying fields of tulips stirring beneath the windmills. He did not have the heart to endure the calumny and ostracism that a young Indian princess bride would entail. She leapt from the peak of the Delaware Water Gap before he could finish explaining himself. Sorrowing, he quickly followed.

Believe it or not, McPhee's book is about geology. That story, which I've embroidered a bit for effect, is why he won a Pulitzer for it, I would surmise. There's a novel or a play in that...

Look to hear more soon. Know that your friendship is missed, as ever.

Love and Tulips,

paulmonster-water gap


Love and Dustbunnies

Being in love is like getting run over. Sometimes it kills you and sometimes it don't. --Tony Earley, The Blue Star

S. is a thin, sharp-eyed young man with bright red hair. He wears Carhartts dungarees and dark baseball caps pulled low over his brow, a thin attempt at covering some of that bursting red. He steps inside slowly, affecting nonchalance, absently picking at pens and loose papers on the desk, staring at old calendars.

We get to talking about weather, news, cars, weather, coffee. There's an undertow of sounding-each-other-out, of gruff-good-humor, the kind of thing two kids wanting to look and sound like grownups will look and sound like. After a good piece of this, we're both satisfied that the other is true and means well. We kick up our feet, we lean back, we come clean. We're two kids in the early morning, talking things out, talking in circles and back again, likely as not just to hear the sound of another voice.

He recently completed the program, meeting a baseline of requirements set by the Oregon Youth Authority: a couple thousand in the bank, a place lined up to move into, a wage job that he's been holding down for a period of time, no parole violations, paperwork and education completions.

S. is twenty years old. He's worked hard, he's paid his debts, he's struggled and succeeded, he's corralled his legendary temper, he's gotten a fair job in a tough hiring sector. He moved into his place, and his girlfriend of six months moved in with him. She's nineteen years old.

After three weeks, his bank account was empty, his parole officer was unhappy with him, the girlfriend's parents were pissed, and he was being ordered by the program to have his girlfriend move out until she could get a job and save enough money to split expenses before moving in again. She moved out and went back to her parents yesterday.

There's no way around it, S. is heartbroken, lonely, misses her terribly. He'd be pissed with the program, except that he sees the sense of it, which is more than a great many men many times his age can say. He loves her the way a litter of puppies loves their mother. Without her, he's all tangled and floppy, hungry and panicky. If he smoked, he'd be burning up whole cartons. As it is, he's twirling capless pens in his fingers, he's thumbing the brim of his cap, he's laughing nervously and talking a lot.


My half-brother's girlfriend of four years left him about two months ago. My brother has four kids from a previous marriage; all four of them are less than 12 years old. The last four years have been important ones for each of them; she was a mother in all but name to them. That their relationship ended abruptly and sadly is tearing my brother apart. The fact that he still loves her isn't easy, either.

My half-brother is 34, pale, with bags under his eyes, a thin shadowy bristle of a beard, and a tired, forced smile that doesn't hide much.

Because I was dropping off his car that I'd borrowed, we met in a parking lot today, like mobsters avoiding tapped phones, keeping an eye out on whomever might be following us. Under a clear, cold blue sky we tilled over the same territory S. ploughed up the night before:

What is it with women?

Why are we so helpless with them?

How do I figure out how to survive this?

How can I make it better?


S. is a bright guy. He picks up on things quickly. He's affectionate, resourceful, he doesn't give up.

My brother is a good man. He's a loving, capable father. His kids love him to bits. In the broader story of my Family, my brother is ten times the son and grandson I can ever be, and that's not to denigrate my abilities.

Myself, I don't pretend to have any more answers than either of these two. Strange to say it, but, for different reasons, both came to me looking for guidance and comfort, whenas I have as much cause to seek as much. I've been asking those questions since high school, and look where it's got me.

The three of us are living very different lives, heading for very different places. But then again, S. dresses like me, my brother looks like my Dad, and I share a house with dustbunnies and drifts of junk mail. We had very different relationships; they're recovering from something immediate, while mine, I'm only now realizing, comes from awhile ago and isn't quite something I know how to articulate here. But all three of us can talk long, meandering circles around this thing, and feel better about it for now, but that doesn't change what it is. Wisdom comes only after much tiresome rambling, and more false starts than I care to remember, and even then, wisdom won't necessarily mend anything.

After a while, my brother and I sagely nodded to each other, to our shared loneliness, to the great blooming clouds overhead. S. drummed his fingers, yawned widely and turned for home. I waited for the sun to come up again. Then I saddled up my bike, wrote this blogpost, and went to bed.




Lists are our Friends

Roughly Annotated Ideas for Performances That I Need to Flesh Out.

  • The Odyssey, with Odysseus played by a human, and everyone and everything else as puppets. Perhaps a series.
    • The Illiad as a prologue to this. With a core of several humans. Puppets erupting from the Trojan Horse.
  • The Work Song Project, a perennial familiar.
  • The Vallodolid Debate. Spanish Dominican friar and bishop Bartolome de Las Casas, at the request of Emporer Charles V (in his capacity as King of Spain), debated the celebrated humanist Gines Sepulveda on the moral, theological and ethical injustice of the Spanish colonies in the New World. Sepulveda defended the infamous encomiendas, Las Casas introduced the revolutionary idea that the "Indians" were human beings worthy of respect and dignity. Forerunner of modern Liberation Theology.
  • Untitled. Five homeless men and women living in an abandoned train station are driven out by a flood. The station is alive. Puppies, empties, plywood shacks, glistening rails. Place vs. Space.
  • The Anabasis. Xenophon's account of a small, "elite" Western military force that got hoodwinked into invading Mesopotamia by monied interests, then betrayed and abandoned in-country, surrounded by hostile, armed populations that they don't understand. Survival through superior military force and dumb luck, and a long march up-country to the Black Sea. To be told as a story of loss, dressed in manufactured glory, desperate to obtain meaning.
Common Themes:

Animating Objects




College Cont'd

In typical polyform fashion, I unwittingly signed up for a 400-level and a 500-level course at PSU. Both classes--Politics of Poverty in Women's Studies and Urban and Community Health in Public Health, respectively--are small, challenging, intimate seminar settings filled with intelligent, articulate, accomplished people with alphabet soups' worth of degrees to their names. How did this happen? Well, the PSU computerized Quick Entry admissions process delightfully does not distinguish the lowly undergrad from the PhD candidate. I'm a little dismayed and a lot pleased by this egalitarian turn of things, which I highly doubt would have been possible a handful of years ago. However, compared to my classmates, I'm like a marsupial that somehow bounced into the jungle cats exhibit. "One of these things is not like the other." I'm a coconut in a basketful of avocados. I'm the dirty Cunningham in Scout's class in "To Kill A Mockingbird." Thankfully, the last 26 years of my existence lends some limited but relevant experience to this predicament.

I'm loving the work--scholarly journal articles and readings from expensive university publications, with weekly written reviews and some field work coming down the pike. But it is challenging, no mistake about it, humbling and exciting both at once. I suspect that, in the time to come, I'll come to appreciate the work it takes to get to this level of the game through more conventional paths. But I also know that I would not have had the patience, 8 years ago, to work through the cattle-call process, and I scarcely know that I have that patience even now, where my largest class is only 14 people.

Usually, I'm the guy in the room who says the first couple of starter responses after the prof asks us to talk about something and then an awkward pause ensues. Thanks to my theatre training, when I see a gap in the flow, I jump in with both feet and hope for the best, and resort to self-deprecation when I sense myself sounding silly, which is always. I think I've won some respect and affection for this, but it's tricky, because everyone else in the room has a formal mastery of established fields that I can at best only be conversant with.

To top it off, I was very surprised to see that I'm the only male in the Politics of Poverty class. Due respect to the Sisterhood: gentlemen, haven't we collectively learned by now that the loveliest, most provocative, most intelligent and captivating women are to be found in the Women's Studies dept? Dudes, systematically subverting an entire gender through outmoded power structures doesn't turn them on anymore.

Sigh. Someone has to collectively represent and apologize for his gender, and, as usual, I guess it's just my turn.




Excerpt from my Letter to Bob, 3 April 2008

...Look at this. Yet another long tale of months gone scurrying by. Time and events conspire very quickly to depose any sense of control I can ever begin to pretend. My letter-book is filled with half-started letters to you, every one laid waste by the phenomenal pace of things.

Fortunately, as forbidding as such obstacles are for me, it takes but one instance to break a self-imposed cycle of frustration. Begging your patience, this letter is largely going to be about achieving that instance for my own purposes.

I hope things go very well for you in the North Country. Recently I've been reading and re-reading some very moving and lovely books that have reminded me of you--specifically, your sense of character, your gentleness, a kind of hapless wisdom, that sort of thing. The books are: "Jim the Boy," by Tony Earley; "Gilead," by Marilynne Robinson; "No Country for Old Men," by Cormac McCarthy; and "In Dubious Battle," by John Steinbeck.

On the face of it, these are all 'rural' books, taking as their settings primarily country settings and issues, but they are also all very heartelt books, in my opinion. Each of them carry characters who are etched with knowing or witnessing fatal things, and each of these characters cope with the fatality of the world by casting themselves as these clear, vast reflecting pools, in which they can turn inward to see the world reflected, remembered, almost re-ordered and rebuilt, and their parts in it reprised or redacted. They are creatures of memory, missionaries of slaughtered traditions, transmitting hoards of affection and responsibility along to the rest of their respective books.

Perhaps I'm reading too much into it, but my sense is that there are parallels between the bits of yourself you've shared with me, and the knowing, introspective, beleaguered and loving qualities--set amidst a violently traumatic backdrop of other strange and beautiful people--all to be found in those titles.

I should point out, though, that it's also pretty clear to me how prone I am to seeing what I've just finished reading wherever I look next, as often with reason as not. "Julius Caesar?" --There goes Cassius walking right by me, lean and hungry. "Middlesex?" --Loose threads on my sleeve, floating in the wind, as from Smyrna. "The Odyssey?" --Oh look, that lovely woman is waiting for me, just like Penelope.

Further, it seems to me that the Natural World spurs these dubious connections: insight is whimsy made respectable, and there are few things I can think of so whimsical, and yet equally respectable, as when whole trees suddenly explode with cherry blossoms. The World demands to be seen anew, and when our eyes are willingly seeing what we could not see before, the insights do not end with the confines of the physical world. Sleep is even richer. Women are somehow lovelier. Coffee is sharper. Everything old is new again.

I open "Long Christmas Ride Home" on the 18th of this month, in which I'm puppeteering a variety of shadow and bunraku puppets, plus a cameo live appearance as Baby Jesus in a Nativity sequence. Which Is. Going to Be. Awesome....

Write as you can. Know that you're much missed. Look to hear more soon,



College (Gaaah!)

After years and years of threatening to do it, it's finally getting done.

I am now.


Attending University. (a little piece of me died just now.)

I'm a Quick Entry Student in the School of Community Health at Portland State University, dutifully plodding towards a bachelors' degree. My first class was today, Urban and Community Health, PH 543, populated mainly with grad students. I am one of maybe three people not currently seeking a graduate degree in a class of 14.

I'm clearly out of my element as far as credentials, but the class is designed rather nicely, has an engaging group at the table, all seem rather accepting of me (no one's laughed me out of the room. Yet). Everyone appreciatively ooh'd and aah'd when I cited my EMT experience and my various jobs in the field.

The assignments are going to be rather fun: tracking health issues in the media for a given urban community, constructing a public health profile of a Portland neighborhood, and writing a half dozen essays.

We meet in a beautiful sky-washed room on the fourth floor of the new Urban Studies Center, overlooking the streetcar and the skybridges to the other buildings. It's the glass-and-brick version of an ivory tower, high above the dross. Privilege incarnate.