Dear Reader—No Decisions Required.

Everyday I come home from work, open up the front door and pick up a pile of junk mail, bills, maybe a parcel that I’ve sent to myself. Maybe it’s a book that someone recommended. Maybe I’ll read the first half of it. We’ll see.

Super MoonBut there is the blue moon.

I have a handful of friends who send a real letter from time to time. I imagine that the more I send, the more I might also receive. It’s one of those tragedies that need not exist.

I studied theater in college. I never turned it into a career of writing and directing movies as an aimless 18 year old, I had half-dreamed. I did however learn the anatomy of a story, how to hang an ellipsoidal, become a character, and perhaps most importantly that memorizing lines is not where my creative strengths flourish.

The theater is full of characters. The ingenues and would-be-ingenues are everywhere. There are the techies, who all hang out with the English and Philosophy majors and spend time complaining about the actors. There are the divas and musical-theater crowd who are ready to offer you their full performance of the Rent soundtrack while driving a rusty Oldsmobile to McDonald’s for a double cheeseburger after rehearsal, just before they close. Then there is the fight club. These are the guys who love ninjas, attend their biology 101 in partial ninja attire, and have a bigger reaction to video games and swordplay than the ingenue throwing themselves at them.

Then there are the writers and directors. Having pitched their tents in every theater camp, these are the goofs I like the best. They brood. They emote. They are the comedians and the wits.

One such fellow is my dear friend Tony. With a cluster of socially awkward tendencies, he could have easily sat outside of anything resembling a community.

The small Catholic liberal arts university we attended was all beautiful old brick buildings in the old tradition. Tony, was the only person I’d ever known with an honest to goodness case of OCD. I didn’t know it right away, but years later he told me of his routines of finding all of the ways to navigate the campus only using staircases with even numbers of steps. While most of us theater majors were half-hearted academics more dedicated to the grueling joy of rehearsals every night for months, Tony was a secret force in every sphere. He ached with self-doubt, but wrote the best fucking plays, poems, screenplays, and would then end up holding down lead roles in all of the plays of Shakespeare and Arthur Miller. But in-between each of the incredible things he did, he wandered around campus like Winnie the Pooh.

Just before Christmas break, Tony who was just as broke as the rest of the thespian crew, wandered the halls, giving each person a gift he’d picked up from one of the many dollar stores. Each one was perfectly chosen. Tony the Pooh, didn’t think about Divas, Oldsmobiles, ninjas or ingenues. He saw Bridget, and Emily, Jason, Mark, Doug, Christian, the other Emily, Don, Rick, Lisa, Michael, Trudy, Drew, and Chris. There were many more, but he saw much further than me. My best guess would fall short of whatever his actual even numbered flight pattern had been.

That year I received a plastic chess board from Tony. “I don’t know if you know how to play” he said pulling the box from one of several plastic bags hanging from around his arms, “but if not, you should. You’ve got a mind for it.” And off he went on his merry way.

Tony and I would get together from time to time in summers to see an art film that wouldn’t show in any of the multiplexes. Tony was and is a Francophile of the first degree, so something with languages—which one didn’t matter—was an added layer of delight. Tony loves to read as much as he loves movies. When you’re watching a foreign film you can do both! No decisions required. We would also get together to write. Playful writing. Someone would name a challenge or a genre, and everyone would give it a go. Read it out loud, and enjoy what each other had made. Penultimate good time.

Our friendship has spanned over many moves across many cities and states. He’s been in New York City for the better part of his post college life. Some eight and a half years ago now, I was on my way out to work with him on his latest Theater project. I would flip Midtown burgers by day, and direct his plays by night.

But it didn’t happen.

I got a professional job in Michigan, and didn’t make the move to the city. Tony treated me with no less kindness than on the day he shoved a plastic chessboard into my hands. I felt like a son of a bitch letting him down. And despite whatever disappointment I’d brought to him, he cheered me on.

We went a long while without seeing one another. But there is the blue moon day when I come home, and I have a letter typed on an old manual typewriter, or 10 or 12 pages written on either carefully chosen stationary or scrap paper. Each letter is a concentrated burst of deep thought, play with language, smattered with strange and wonderful facts and updates.

This past Christmas, sometime around the 20th of December, I arrived home to carefully packed homemade sheet of sweet Hungarian bread, with a note apologizing for not glazing it for fear of it getting ruined in the mail. He lives in New York City. I live in Seattle. Are you kidding me?

For a while there, I saw Tony a lot. My professional job carried me to New York several times a year, and I’d often sleep a night or two on an inflatable mattress in the studio apartment that he and his DOPA Larry share. New York space is small. If you don’t think there is way to extend Tony’s ridiculous doting courtesy any further, try adding Larry and his thick cut bacon quiche, and a view all the way up 8th and 9th avenue.

I haven’t seen Tony in a few years now. He’s been meticulously composing and editing draft after draft of his novel. The most recent draft numbers in the 20’s. I read his masterwork of a poetry book “Subway Down” which may never ever see the finish of a Barnes and Noble bookshelf. It pains me to inform you, that your life is lacking for your lack of access. The draft of his novel that I laid eyes on is even better.

The prompt I received in my email today that has brought me to the keyboard suggested that I consider keeping a specific reader in mind to focus my  thoughts as a writer and a blogger.  No Decisions Required. Tony. Of course, Tony.


Going Backwards, Going Forwards: Peacemaking with Vonnegut’s Slippery Time

Today is the Anniversary of September 11th, 2001 tragedies. Last night President Obama spoke of the military operations to be carried out in Iraq and Syria. My heart sank. I know that there is immense suffering, and immense hatred and cruelty. While his presentation is more palatable than when we heard something similar over a decade ago, it also seems very much the same.

I don’t know what the answer is.

I think of the Dominican Sisters in Iraq who fear for their lives. I especially think of my friend Diana. I want them all protected, safe, and free to tend to their peoples’ joys and sorrows. “Violence begets violence” seems both true and an oversimplification. A military approach to “degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as ISIL” seems like an incredibly aggressive position. But I also don’t want the people slaughtered.

I don’t know what the answer is.

I think of the term “Post 9/11 mentality.” Certainly every side bares its affects. What would be different with a “Pre 9/11 mentality?”

Kurt Vonnegut, one of my favorite writers, has taken on such an experiment. He was a prisoner of war in World War II. He was in Dresden when the allies firebombed it, leveling it to the ground. While considered a science-fiction writer, his style is not the usual flavor for the genre. He writes with humor about very serious things, and emphasizes the importance of our humanity, peacemaking and kindness. In Slaughter House Five, Billy Pilgrim is a fictional stand-in for Vonnegut. Pilgrim—and perhaps Vonnegut as well—very likely has what today we call PTSD. In this scene from Slaughter House Five, Billy is experiencing “detachment from time.” His thoughts extend backward, forward, and sideways. Time for Billy is slippery at best.

Billy looked at the clock on the gas stove. He had an hour to kill before the saucer came. He went into the living room, swinging the bottle like a dinner bell, turned on the television. He came slightly unstuck in time, saw the late movie backwards, then forwards again. It was a movie about American bombers in the Second World War and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this:

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.

The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals.

Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.

The American fliers turned in their uniforms, became high school kids. And Hitler turned into a baby, Billy Pilgrim supposed. That wasn’t in the movie. Billy was extrapolating. Everybody turned into a baby, and all humanity, without exception, conspired biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve, he supposed.

Slaughter House Five, Chapter 4

If time were slippery for you, like it is for Billy Pilgrim, what moment in your life, or in the history of humanity, would you like to see revisited or recreated in the present for sake of our humanity, peacemaking and kindness? If shared with the right person, people, or powers, what would be the best possible outcome for an issue that we face today?

I find myself looking for those answers in times like the era of The New Deal, when the WPA (Work Progress Administration) and CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps)  built the US highways systems and the national parks to help pull the country out of the great depression.

“But what on Earth does that have to do with September 11th, or declaring everything short of war once again?” A friend and teacher of mine recently reminded me of a basic principle: Almost all conflict can be traced back to someone being robbed of dignity, or the perception of being robbed of their dignity. The New Deal was not about vanquishing problems. It was about growing solutions. An approach which could go a long way both at home and abroad. If I could carry the President, the Speaker of the House, and some of the leaders of ISIL through the wormhole of time, I would set a course for the Oval Office. We would sit down for a nice fireside chat with a presidential polio survivor, and see what we as humanity might conspire to do.

May all of our best memories guide us as peacemakers, and may all who are suffering be relieved.

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