Letter to S--, 24 April 2012

Dear S,

I hope this finds you well and happy in Firenze.  Please say hello to Brunelleschi's dome for me, and to the stern ghost of Savonarola.

Portland is blooming right now.  Little false summers strip away our layers with delectable warmth, only to dissolve overnight into the familiar overcast pallor of Portland's perpetual no-season.

I'm super busy with on-call shifts, PlayWrite, dragonboats, tech stuff on the side, and building a solo show.  It would take far too much time and paper to convey a fair sense of each of these bits of me, so I choose one facet arbitrarily for you to share:

Yesterday was my first experience tilling (that is, steering) a dragon boat.  I'm part of a team, the No Teachers Left Behind team, which is a sweet collection of yoga-athletic and yoga-paunchy middle school teachers, a smattering of their partners, boyfriends or roommates, and then me.  Last year I painted their faces in Maori war-patterns, and we took 4th Place in the 4th Division (the last which qualifies for medals).

I'm a regular paddler, and I signed up to be a backup tiller.  Yesterday's practice I spent half paddling, and half tilling for the first time.  It was a perfect day on the Willamette, with some occasionally stiff breezes and currents, but otherwise warm, bright and everything buttery and splendid, like a Maxfield Parrish painting.

Steering a dragonboat requires surprisingly strenuous effort and cunning.  It's like being the puppeteer of a self-propelling runaway train, but on water.  There are 8 benches of paddlers, with 2 paddlers per bench, plus the caller who sets the pace, and the tiller.  And the boat itself, which is a plywood-laminate dragon, wayward and fussy to steer, liable to catch cross breezes on the elaborately sculpted head and tail.  All this translates into surprisingly profound motive power and momentum.  Turning this monster, while balancing on the exposed aft deck, using a big cartoonishly heavy steering-oar, requires poise, river-wide awareness, and the kind of physical strength that unites thighs, shoulders and arms in week-long soreness and stiffness.  All of this is ridiculously fun.

At one critical point, I was maneuvering us around a massive construction barge (which created an artificially narrow passage), when no less than 4 other dragonboats, two fishing boats, an outrigger kayak and a big stupid luxury boat all decided to converge on the same narrow passage, from different directions, all at the same time.

You'll be surprised to learn that I didn't sink anything, nor did I nor anyone else drown.  The paddlers pushed us through the treacherous wakes of all those bigger and faster boats.  The sea monsters dwelling in the deep sensed our collective valor, and chose to hide their gruesome heads even deeper in the murky ooze.  The mayor called, asking to decorate the bridges with spotlit portraits of our dragonboat team, but we modestly declined...

Come home soon, dear S.  There are gallons and gallons of chocolate milk just waiting for us to joyfully imbibe.




Letter to B.--

A very happy Easter to you, too!  Thanks so much for your letter!

I did in fact observe the vigil this year, for both the Western and the Eastern dates, but in both cases I was up all night for work here at the homeless youth shelter.

I'm sorry to hear of the physical obstacles you face; it's true that if you were in town, I'd be happy to make time to attend both our respective services with you.  Easter Vigil was always my favorite service when I was an acolyte, both for the spiritual magnitude, and for the unabashed theatricality of the ceremony.

This time of year, from just before Roman Easter to now, tends to be hard for me.  It's the anniversary of my beloved Grandpa's passing.  In my life, unlucky things have tended to cluster around this date--relationship problems, trouble at work, car accidents.  It always requires an effort on my part to remember to look for the good and the lighthearted, particularly at this time of year.

This year was no exception to the pattern: here at work, one of the youths staying at this shelter nearly overdosed on heroin while I was on shift about a week ago. We called an ambulance in time to keep him from dying, but it was a close call, and his addiction has made him extremely difficult to deal with, in the aftermath. In my one of work I've found that I have endless patience for those who have self-awareness and humility, even just a little bit.  I have absolutely no patience for smugness and obliviousness, even when that's due to their addiction itself.  It's definitely a problem I work on, both professionally and personally...

Anyways, I should close this letter shortly, as my shift ends soon and I have rehearsals to prepare for...

Thanks again for your letter.  It's great to hear from you, and I wish you a joyous Easter season...




Letter to S, 13 April 2012

Dear S--

Hello! Thanks so much for your letter!

I appreciate the effort it takes to reach out, across time and space. I'm glad these last few years have done so much good for you. It's daunting to realize the thickening currents of change that have pushed these years through us both.

I was startled to realize, as I opened my trusty old PO Box, that it's actually been some years since we've exchanged letters, much less seen one another. It amazes me, frankly, that such time has passed, looking even just at myself. 2005-2007, for me, was an entire epoch, and yet the distance of time since 2007 feels like just a short season, certainly nowhere near as long as 'five years' sounds. I think of the debilitating, inexpressibly long and tumultuous stretches of time just six months represented, when I was in high school, and I'm at a loss to understand how this happens.

I'm doing alright, all things considered. I'm writing from the tail end of an awful, busy 12 hour overnight shift... The last 4 shifts in a row that I've worked here, I've had to send residents to the hospital, 4 different residents for 4 different reasons...

This job is better than my last, which was similar but working with juvenile sex offenders in a different residential program. Consistently for the last 5 years, and off-and-on for 5 years prior to that, I've worked these 'line staff' positions at a depressingly comprehensive number of Portland's social services agencies...

I struggle with feeling trapped in this world. I can do this work well--and, in crisis, particularly well. But it's a false idol. My adrenaline and my courage and my blood all get up, I feel the surge of emotion at DOING SOMETHING, being somehow engaged, in the profound, unending dispute with the voices of hopelessness and rage at large in the world. But this DOING is only illusory, or transient at best--rather like performance. Everything changes, but nothing is truly lost. Or gained. Except that, over the course of these long and terribly busy shifts, and years, I know that my emotional body grows knotted and scarred, and fraying the way paper frays after being creased over so many times that the fibers start to part.

Tonight I had a heroin addict who had relapsed and was OD'ing, curse and kick at me for calling him an ambulance, because he thought that meant that the police were coming to revoke his parole. Yesterday, as I was about to start teaching with PlayWrite, one of my writers picked a fight with another street youth, on the sidewalk immediately outside the building we were working in. I came out and split them up, which worked only long enough for them to mutually agree to meet up again two blocks away (the perimeter of staff competence, an utterly arbitrary perimeter), and continue the fight then. They refused medical attention repeatedly, though I could see already that they both needed it. After they strutted off, I had to go back inside to check in with my colleagues and document details for the all-important Incident Report. Too late, I was then sent off to find the writer and maybe bring him back to the workshop, in which quest I utterly failed...

...But I succeeded in finding about half a dozen other current and former writers, clients, residents, etc., of this and other programs I've worked, all the way back to a homeless man I recognized, in precisely the same apparent condition as when I first met him 20 years ago...

As I wandered the downtown core, soaking in the arm rain, footsore and tense, visited by all these ghosts of my recent past, it struck me that this is what Homer must have felt, and Virgil, and Ovid, on their lonely, unfinished, endless journeys...

...so conceited am I, that not only did I just compare myself to those three, but I am furthermore creating a solo piece built of my long experience with the Iliad, incident reports, sacrifices, and the aftermath of trauma and sex crimes. Dates and a venue have been secured at the end of July and the beginning of August...

Between now and then, I'm rehearsing and then performing in NW Children's Theater's production of "El Zorrito: The Legend of the Boy Zorro," a bilingual musical opening on 4 May. I play El Berserker, who is basically the matador/Mexican wrestler version of Tybalt. I'm so stoked.

I'm also in the running to join the staff at a wilderness/rehab/outdoor school for at-risk and recovering teens in central Oregon. They're hiring youth counselors who can tutor during the week, lead hikes and mountain climb on the weekends, and live in the cabin onsite with the students. Their schedule runs 8 days on, 6 days off. For the first time since when I worked for the Library, the pay scale is nominally enough for my expenses, plus medical coverage, too. In all this, and more, I live in hope...




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...