Are You My Mummy?

NOTE: this is an old post that got hung up in the draft phase for over a year. Ever since I first saw this Diane Arbus photograph, about twelve years ago, I have been enamored of it. I have also been envious of it, upset by it, even obsessed by it. It seems like this kid caught Arbus off guard. He challenged her. It lacks the ironic distancing that is so common in her work.

It's so crazy looking and off the cuff and weird and in your face. It's a pretty famous image, so I know that others have had some kind of similar response to it, maybe not the same identical one that I've had, but something that punches me in the guts.

Today at a Halloween party, I got the chance to get into that Arbus territory with a picture of my son, Ike, in his Doctor Who inspired costume.

It's from the 2005 episode "The Empty Child" The boy Ike is dressed as is named Jaime, a child who was killed during the Blitz but who was resurrected (sort of) by some alien creatures but had his gasmask genetically fused to his face. He goes around asking everyone, "Are you my mummy?" It's pretty chilling in the show.

This costume was Ike's idea. My wife, Alisa, put it all together. She made the gas mask herself, which is pretty impressive.

And I got the shot.



But You'd Be Wrong

The other day we found this drawing in the house. It was done by our four-year-old son, Ike. At first glance it might seem that our sweet little boy is a little bit fixated on—let's just call them "lady parts."

But you'd be wrong. Dead wrong, actually. After a little questioning we discovered that these are actually the young artist's rendering of a pair of Cylon Raiders.

Innocence restored, for a season.

Blue Christmas

This morning Sting was on CBS, talking about his new winter season/Christmas record. I took an interest because I've been reading Walking on the Moon, a pretty good book on the Police. It charts the rise and fall of my adolescence—I went to high school right through the belly of the 80s, and apart from a brief departure into Rush, I managed to stay clear of most of the metal and new wave flotsam of the decade. Because of that history, I didn't change the channel. During the interview, Sting took a major departure from the standard guy-has-a-new-record feature, and he waxed briefly on Christmas. He pointed out that Christmas is not all "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." A lot of people get depressed over the holidays, which are so focused on home, hearth, friends, family and church. And when you don't have those things, it can get kind of bleak.


I haven't agreed with Sting (or bought one of his records) in years, but he nailed it for me. I'd carry it one step forward and say that the holidays can be hard for people who have disconnected from these kinds of relationships on purpose and live most of the year in peaceful isolation.

When my parents divorced and my sister and I started spending our Christmases in different houses, I started to understand that this holiday was joyous and that it also threw loneliness and isolation into high relief. The abundance of food and gifts during the holidays also serveed as a reminder that many are poor and hungry. So, while I was enjoying my presents and dinner at my father's place, I was also acutely aware that my mother was alone.

Because this all happened as I was coming into my late teens, I was naturally predisposed by my biochemistry to be moody and melancholy, but I saw this feeling was reflected across the boards outside the bounds my own self-obsession. This is when I fell in love with It's a Wonderful Life, because it really a dark film at its core. Jimmy Stewart is on his way to take his own life before he's given his visions of the world without him. This really is a great tonic for teen spirit.

Wonderful Life

Similarly, A Christmas Carol is about a man who is warned by a dead colleague to change his ways before he circles the drain of human misery and is lost forever. In high school I played Bob Crachit in a dramatized version of the play; it was the hardest role I ever did, because being believably kind and decent on stage is infinitely harder and more complex than being wretched or pathetic.

I've also noticed (and I'm not alone in this) that a lot of Christmas carols are unbelievably sad. "I'll be Home for Christmas" from 1943 reminds us how unbelievably sad it is to know that everyone else is together and you are not. This is a carol resigned to the fact that you'll be away, which is why it hit so close to the heart for so many of our troops during WWII.

"Blue Christmas" is pretty obvious, but the older I get the less this song seems like a gimmick (sorry Elvis, your version of this one blows) and the more this song crumples my heart like an empty paper cup. This guy is sitting at home or in a bar somewhere thinking about his girlfriend "doing all right" happy without him. This is the quintessential expression of misery.

And when those blue snowflakes start falling That's when those blue memories start calling You'll be doing all right, with your Christmas of white But I'll have a blue, blue, blue Christmas.

I have had my share of Christmases in this state. I much prefer the ones I have now, but this song is good for keeping my head in check.

Longfellow's civil war Christmas poem-turned-hymn is particularly full of despair. In most hymn books it has been dutifully cleaned up, striking two full verses:

Then from each black, accursed mouth The cannon thundered in the South, And with the sound the carols drowned Of peace on earth, good will to men.

It was as if an earthquake rent The hearth-stones of a continent, And made forlorn, the households born Of peace on earth, good will to men.

"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" from Vincente Minnelli's Meet me in St. Louis has been similarly flocked to hide its edge. I'd go so far as to argue that 99% of the people listening to and performing this carol have forgotten about the context of the song or its history. The original lyrics were deemed way too depressing for the film. Take a look at the original:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last, Next year we may all be living in the past Have yourself a merry little Christmas, pop that champagne cork, Next year we will all be living in New York.

No good times like the olden days, happy golden days of yore, Faithful friends who were dear to us, will be near to us no more.

But at least we all will be together, if the Fates allow, From now on we'll have to muddle through somehow. So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

Despite the revisions, the song also became a favorite of troops serving overseas in WWII. I love the lines:

Through the years, we all will be together If the fates allow Until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow

Sinatra purged the last line from the song so it would be more jolly—this is where we get the "hang a shining star upon the highest bough" nonsense. There's a great NPR piece on this song from 2001 that deals with James Taylor's decision to put "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," in its full muddleness, into his own Christmas record.

All of this gets to the core of what Sting was saying in his interview on the normally bubbly CBS Sunday morning show. It was a nice leavening of the non-offensive programming of the morning: this piece was slotted between David Pogue's geek gadget list done in light verse and a Splenda-sweet piece on ugly Christmas Sweaters.

The culture has done the same thing to Christmas, I think. We've cleaned it up so that it better fits our need for economic stimulus and for treating bleak midwinter seasonal affective disorder.

Let's remember that the Christmas story goes like this: a couple of young parents-to-be are living in an occupied territory. The colonial presence has called for a census, so everyone has to go to their birth towns to be counted. All this is to expedite taxation. The pregnant lady has to ride a donkey. When they get to Bethlehem, there's no place to stay, so the pregnant lady has to sleep in a stable, which was most likely just a cave. She probably has the baby there without a midwife or any help. In a few days the king hears that some "new king" was supposedly born, so he starts killing all the babies. The parents go underground until the heat is off. Unfortunately, this is just the beginning. The heat never tapers off.

But behind all that is the miracle. It's not on the surface. For me Christmas should remind us this is a sad and beautiful world—both things at the same time, perhaps not at even distinguishable from each other. This world is full of glitter and doom, an image I stole from the title of the latest Tom Waits record. He and I see eye to eye on this matter, think. So, I'll let him have the last word.

Visions of Sugar Plums

Spent a recent morning with Ike and the kids at Headstart. They were decorating gingerbread men. Suddenly, a tugging at my sleeve.

Young Boy: Hey mister. Me: What? Young Boy: I put boobs on my gingerbread man. Me: Which one is yours? Young Boy: (pointing to a cookie) That one.

I looked down and said cookie had two great dollops of frosting on the chest, accented with two M&Ms, one yellow and the other red.

Me: So, it's not a gingerbread woman, is it? Young Boy: That's right. It's a boy.

Young boy walks away, making fart noises to the tune of Jingle Bells.

(And, scene.)

Subject: The Outside

This might be the best student evaluation I've ever gotten. This student wasn't in my class this semester because he'd been incarcerated. He writes:

Dr. P,

Once again the simple minded folks at the Utah DOC have set me loose upon society. I want to express thanks for the great things your mentoring provided to me. I can and will write, perhaps even shit people will want to read. In spite of the fact you have previous knowledge of this, I want to say that you are a great mind, you have and will continue to inspire. There are great writers who are a little mental, or a lot. I count myself among them, the really disturbed and dysfunctional, unique futuristic writers. I know your [sic] probably thinking, "Get off my leg."

Thanks anyways. Warren (not his real name)

Well, good luck, Warren. Stay out of the pokey, and write something that counts. Do I really hope that all of my incarcerated students think about me on the inside? I guess that would be kind of awesome, sort of...

Ramadan Trash Talk

A few weeks ago, I was in Boston to work on ideas for a text book I may be writing for a publisher I really respect. After the day-long battery of meetings, I returned to my hotel, and seeing that I'd have another hour or so of daylight, I headed out to Newbury street to scare up a meal and see if there was some book store I could skulk around in for a while.

I walked a few blocks, maybe a quarter of a mile, and I found Newbury Comics. For a while, I looked at comics and graphic novels and some really awesome kitch that would never fit in my suitcase. Over the store sound system was playing some very new, very early-eighties-sounding band, something I'm sure that cool people everywhere will soon be dumping on their iPods.

After I lost interest in the rest of the store's obscure Manga robots and badly done anti-McCain bumper stickers, I walked along the street, checking the menus of the street side bistros. While I was stopped and reading the menu of an Indian restaurant called Kashmir, I noticed two Middle Eastern dudes in their early twenties. They were dressed like they were part of a hip-hop entourage: pants sagging, ball caps perched high on their heads.

The one closest to me went up to the short iron fence and leaned across it. "Khalid," he said. "Yo, man. Khalid." I looked to where he was throwing his voice, and I saw another young middle eastern kid, dressed up in a white shirt buttoned to the collar and dark jeans. His shoes looked remarkably expensive.

He was with the kind of girl who I, when I was in college, would have thought was twenty-six but who I now understand, having taught in universities now for twelve years, just appears to be sophisticated. She was remarkably pretty, like someone going into broadcasting. Her hair was blonde and cut expensively, piled up for her date with calculated abandon. She appeared to wear no makeup at all, though that was certainly an illusion. Her fair skin was even and unblemished. She wore a light grey dress that lifted her breasts into view. Around her thin shoulders was a cream knit shawl. In college you could guarantee that I would have gone for the girl in the shawl.

Then there was a hand on the iron fence, rapping against the metal. "Khalid, don't pretend you don't see us."

The blonde asked Khalid if he knew these guys. He nodded. "They're my roommates," he said, and he took some of the flat bread and dipped it into a bowl and ate it.

The two dudes next to me on the street, groaned. The guy next to me pointed to the west above the roofs of the shops on Newbury Street. "The sun does not go down for another ten minutes, dude. You should not be eating."

Khalid looked at his date and shrugged. She checked her phone and then set it down. Khalid jerked his head to one side, to get the guys to move along.

"Aw, shit," the guy next to me said, then looked at his buddy who straightened his cap and repeated the oath back to him.

"I'm gonna call his moms," the other guy said. "He should be fasting. This is bullshit and he knows it."

"Ten minutes, Khalid. Ten minutes," the guy next to me shouted at his friend in the restaurant. Then the two of them made a show of dismissing him with a broad wave like two old men on a stoop. The waiter setting down more food at Khalid's table looked like he thought was doing to die in a hail of gunfire.

As they walked away, the guy who was yelling from the street shook his head and said, "But she's hot for a white girl."

"I know," the other guy said. "Damn hot." Then they walked off, joining the flow of foot traffic on the sidewalk.

I live in a deeply religious community in Utah, where the thought is that by living together and sharing the faith, we can support and sustain our shared beliefs. Though I have lived in this community longer than I have lived at any one address in my life, I have never seen the young people of my own faith reaching out (however ineptly) to preserve the integrity of a friend. Not to this extent.

I can see now, the fear, that religious leaders have about mingling of faiths. Until this moment on Newbury Street I hadn't seen that scenario, (as old as the Old Testament) at play in reality, and I was strangely impressed.

I also felt as ambivalent as those young men must have felt. Khalid's date was hot. I can only wonder what was the rest of that date like? Did Khalid get lucky? If he did, how much would Ramadan observance have actually mattered in the face of that other indiscretion?

It's strange to say it, but really hope that one day, in my own home town, on the first Sunday of the month I might see two cowboys hauling a buddy of theirs out of some house, a fork in their buddy's left hand and a plate full of pie in the other. I hope they throw him in the bed of their truck and drive off, with a beautiful dark haired girl from Vegas in a tank top and jersey shorts watching on, screaming after him, "I'll text you."

I hope one of them says, "You can come back for dinner, bro, and you can kick my ass if you want to, but you're riding out your fast with us."

I know that doesn't say much for agency, but it would make a great story for General Conference.

Captured Conversation

My next door neighbor is hilarious, and I think he knows it. The other day we had my sister-in-law visting with us. She lives in Lagos, Nigeria and she gets over to our parts once a year or so. We were taking a walk and we introduced her to the neighbors, who were out in the front yard tending some irises.

ALISA: Hi, this is my sister, Josie.

NEIGHBOR: She looks like a sister. What brings you up here from Oklahoma?

JOSIE: Actually, I live in Nigeria. In Lagos.

NEIGHBOR: So, do we have you to thank for all the internet money schemes?

JOSIE: No, that was someone else.

Truth is stranger than fiction, and I love it.

Sick as a Dog

Lately I've had a rash of throat-related medical issues. This March, when I was down on the Arizona/Mexico border, I woke up with a swollen uvula, which went away with a field dressing of Sudafed, Ibuprofen, and Mexican Amoxicillin. I had a hard palate infection followed by a command performance of the swollen uvula, this May while I was up in Bryce Canyon. I got over that with a superdose of steroids and a course of Amoxicillin.

Then, early this Saturday morning, I awoke with a feeling that was not unlike having half a brick wedged into my throat.

I went to InstaCare and discovered that the May instance of uvular edema was not some sort of pilot error on my part. The doctor said that there had been multiple cases recently, and they suspected a viral cause. In any case, the by product of a massive dose of steroids is a weakening of the immune system.

Which brings us to the massive case of strep the doctor found squatting in my throat on Saturday morning. I got a big shot of antibiotics (they threw in the Tigger band-aid), then I went home and slept pretty much constantly until the next morning, at which point I grabbed my headlamp and checked my throat in the mirror. It felt like the brick was gone, but it looked like a brick had indeed been shoved in there and then yanked out with a piece of vinyl clothesline.

So, that's what's been going on with me lately.

As a side note, I'm making good headway into my revision of Rift. It's been really quite enjoyable. My editor need not fear.

UPDATE 6.11.08 :: Alisa has it, too. So, to clear the house we all went to Kung-Fu Panda. I had a surprisingly good time.

UPDATE 6.12.08 :: Ike got it, too. Zoë seems to be in the clear. Cross your fingers.


You get a list of everything that a child can choke on. I thought it would be easier to list the things they can't choke on: The Astrodome, Belgium, a crane, two shipping containers, and a rhinoceros.... As they were sitting at the breakfast counter in the kitchen, something happened: a shoe dropped or somebody was sitting too close to somebody, and Ike started screaming at Zoë.

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Weimar Troubles

Lately I've been reading David Byrne's blog, which has been a fascinating and at times intimate experience. In a recent post, Byrne makes a connection between our culture and the Weimar Republic that is so basic and profound, I wonder why only the Republicans have been seeing it.

Erwin Lowinsky's Weisse Maus was a cabaret night that encouraged hopelessly amateur performers to get on stage -- dreamy housewives, deluded bank clerks. They were encouraged to make fools of themselves. Sounds familiar.

The Black Cat Cabaret featured theme nights -- nude girls in imaginary sacrificial Mayan ceremonies, mock bullfights, and naked novices being humiliated by lesbian nuns -- with rituals involving silver crucifixes.

Then came Hitler.

Despite the change in control of the House, this is pretty scary to think about.

So Much Depends...

William Carlos Williams wrote "so much depends on a red wheelbarrow." His was glazed in rain, surrounded by chickens. Mine is glazed in snow and represents a triumph of sorts. Read on...

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