Category Archives: Writing

Blueberries

This poem was inspired by Naomi Shihab Nye – thank you for your lyrical enthusiasm.

The white of the kitchen sink is stained

with blue splotches

from the berries we picked

as children

And we are old now

but those splotches still smile

with youthful exuberance

against the cold white porcelain

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Unused Candles

I once helped a hoarder clean her house. For the longest time afterward I couldn’t stop thinking about how disgustingly filthy she had let her house become. It took me a while before I could process the possibilities of why and how she let it get that way.

Hoarding is an obsessive-compulsive behavior in which someone cannot discard possessions they accumulate. For hoarders, it does not matter if the objects are worthless, unsanitary or hazardous.

It was clear to me that the woman whom I helped had an obsessive-compulsive disorder. She considered the condition of her house a little messy – an understatement of great proportions.

Cat urine saturated the carpet. Moldy, expired food sat in the kitchen without refrigeration. Gnats flew about the pungent remains of Chinese takeout. Junk mail, boxes, and a mess of random items scattered the living room floor in stacks. The smell made it difficult to enter the house. The mounds of accumulated waste made it almost impossible to go further.

For anyone familiar with the various TV shows about hoarding it is not difficult to imagine the challenge I was faced with. I spent several months cleaning and helping her get the house in some sort of order. It felt good to have made a noticeable difference in the condition of the woman’s house and life, but I worried my efforts wouldn’t last long. I knew there was a lot more I could have done.

I later found out I was right. Any trace of the progress I made quickly vanished. The house has once again become a monument of the woman’s inability to part with any object.

I understand that hoarding is a mental disorder and it is, to a certain extent, beyond a person’s ability to control. But my experience cleaning the house of a hoarder made me think of other people I know who aren’t hoarders at all, but are hesitant to use ordinary things that are perceived to be superior to other ordinary things. Things like fancy candles, expensive soap, a prized sweater, a handmade coffee mug, fashionable sunglasses or specific dishes.

The lesson I learned from my experience with hoarding is to enjoy what you have. Use it or lose it. Why save “good” dishes to only use a few times a year? Why not use “good” dishes all year?

It is clear that as a capitalist society we have become obsessed with stuff. Material objects are held in such high regard that we are not even able to enjoy them anymore. So it has been said, the stuff we own ends up owning us.

The purpose of life is to live. The purpose of a candle is to provide light and to burn. Wouldn’t it be better to live life and to burn like a candle until the last flicker of illumination is gone rather than to sit unused on a bathroom sink, collecting dust without the satisfaction of fulfilling your purpose?

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Infinity On Trial

At the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich. I saw my childhood encased in glass. It was a truly surreal sensation to view items from the Millennial Generation in a museum.

Nintendo, Sega Genesis, VHS tapes, Discmans — these were artifacts of my youth, with fond memories attached to them, on display as part of history in an exhibit called “Your Place in Time.” I remember playing Donkey Kong Country on Super Nintendo, listening to a cassette tape of Green Day’s “Dookie” in a cocoon of pre-adolescent satisfaction.

Such fleeting, finite memories, shared in some collective way by my peers, now sit in a different context — with a looming shroud of antiquity. Never mind that anyone can go to a resale shop today and buy a GameBoy or Beanie Baby — these symbols of my younger years, I realized, will be preserved in a museum beyond this lifetime.

I felt a little unnerved to see the progression of 20th century generational symbols — from jazz to Shirley Temple, “Gone With the Wind,” The Beatles, the moon landing and Watergate mixed with Alf, Pokémon and Michael Jordan.

Yet, when looking at my place in time, I realized that I am part of a significant generation. I am part of the last generation who will know what it was like to live without the Internet or cell phones.

Although the development of both technologies has a longer history than most realize, stretching to a time before I was born, neither cell phones nor the Internet began to dominate the personal and public domain so rampantly as they do now until the 1990s.

Despite this realization of historical significance, my feeling of discomfort didn’t subside. A quote from the great American songwriter, Bob Dylan, came to mind, “Inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial.”

Future historians and museum-goers alike will misconstrue the experiences of my generation — coming of age during the dotcom boom and the birth of a new century.

I envision people of the future looking at the 8-bit video game console in wonder and amusement or looking at pictures from 9/11, without a full understanding of why or how it happened and no real connection to how it changed everything.

Perhaps it is the same for me as I look at pictures of Pearl Harbor or images of the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan, not completely aware of all the implications. And so it is for each generation as they look back on their predecessors.

My generation, the so-called Millennial Generation, knows the excitement of seeing Michael Jordan become the greatest basketball player of all time. We can remember the Y2K pandemonium. We lived through a presidential sex scandal and witnessed the emergence of the musical genres grunge and gangsta rap. We can remember the first bulky, brick-like cell phones and the weird noise a modem made when a computer connected to the Internet.

What these personal experiences mean to those who lived through them will mean something entirely different to future generations. A degree of disconnect from history is inevitable. The primacy of experience is not transferable. But that does not mean we cannot relate to historical events.

We inherit the fruits of historical struggles and stand on the shoulders of ancestral giants. Even though we will never know what it was like to bargain with Native Americans as settlers expanded westward, it is important to understand the implications of such events.

To understand history is to understand why the world is the way it is today. To understand history is to understand that the collapse of the Soviet Union had nothing to do with Sputnik or the space race, as a certain former Alaskan governor had mistakenly asserted.

History is based on facts, confirmed by primary documentation. But when people fail to learn such facts, then history can be rewritten by powerful media personalities, as is the current case with President Reagan’s legacy.

Historical revisionism is dangerous. It creates a type of disconnect with reality and encourages people to form invalid judgments based on misinformation.

Museums are a great way to learn about, come into contact with and understand history. But if there is no historical context for the museum-goer to frame the artifacts, then such objects will be lifeless, void of real meaning and only interesting because of their apparent foreignness.

Historical knowledge is paramount in understanding the world as it works today. As George Santayana warned, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

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Doubts About FBI Intentions

Chances are, if your new friend shares your political views and you realize that you both hate America — you probably don’t, but for argument’s sake let’s say you do — you would never expect the guy to be an FBI agent.

So, the two of you start talking about the U.S. destroying the Middle East, all the civilian casualties, the obscenities of U.S. military arrogance and how now is the time for Jihad. The conversation turns even more serious. Plots begin to develop. Strategies are hypothesized. Weaponry logistics are considered.

Before you realize how this guy has been baiting you all along and how easily he made contact with weapons dealers, you’re in a Wal-Mart parking lot buying fake grenades out of a van. Of course he wasn’t an FBI agent, he was just on their payroll.

Although extremely abbreviated, the preceding story is entirely true. It took place in Rockford, IL in Dec. of 2006. Derrick Shareef, 22 at the time, worked a dead-end job at a video game store. He had less than $100 in the bank, no car and no place to live. Jameel, a fellow Muslim, came into the store one day and offered him shelter.

Together they fantasized for hours about possible targets in Rockford until they settled on CherryVale Mall, a ramshackle collection of clothing and jewelry stores. Through long, tentative discussions they planned to throw grenades throughout CherryVale Mall and kill themselves afterward.

The facts clearly indicate that Shareef wouldn’t have gotten as far as he did in this terror plot if it wasn’t for the encouragement of Jameel, who was assisting the FBI and the JTTF — Joint Terrorism Task Force. In fact, it seems unlikely that he would have ever taken his political beliefs to a violent level without a personal instigator like Jameel.

Jameel, with instructions from the JTTF, convinced a hapless video store clerk to become a monstrous suicide bomber. Jameel’s real name is William Chrisman, a former crack dealer with a conviction for attempted robbery. The JTTF paid him $8,500 to set up Shareef specifically. Federal agents pressured Chrisman to encourage Shareef’s fantasies, with the intent to ensure Shareef incriminated himself.

As soon as the JTTF arrested Shareef, the mainstream media barked this story across all the airways. Fox News eloquently reported, “It had all the makings of a holiday bloodbath.”

Of course, the story the mainstream news networks covered was slightly different than what I’ve told here. They reported that terror had been averted and that Americans should rest assured; the ever-watchful JTTF had done their job and will continue to do so.

But what kind of job was it? Was it a self-fulfilling and self-serving fictional plot created to champion the JTTF while keeping the public fearful of an illusive yet imminent threat? And why hasn’t the mainstream media investigated this possibility?

The latest thwarted domestic terror plot occurred Friday, Nov. 26 in Portland, OR. Mohamed Osman Mohamud allegedly attempted to detonate a bomb near a crowded Christmas tree lighting ceremony. The only information about this incident comes from an FBI affidavit.

According to the affidavit, the FBI undercover agent in contact with Mohamud encouraged and supported the plot financially, yet allegedly advised Mohamud that there were other options to serve Islam. The assertion that other options were offered, if proven, will prevent Mohamud from arguing a case for entrapment. However, out of all the recorded conversations between the undercover agent and Mohamud, that conversation alone was not recorded due to technical problems. Weird.

It appears that the FBI and JTTF are manipulating potential terrorists into becoming full blown, convicted terrorists in order to keep the public fearful and boast their own exaggerated success.

How does it make you feel, to think about the possibility of a government agency funded by your tax dollars performing coercive activities designed to illicit fear in the public mind?

There are several more cases of exaggerated domestic terrorist threats attached to suspicions of entrapment. Unfortunately, the mainstream media is too embedded with corporate interests to ask questions about these incidents.

Of course, there is an expectation of secrecy for certain government agencies like the FBI and the CIA, But this privilege is all too often abused.

I think of COINTELPRO, Fred Hampton’s assassination, the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Iran-Contra scandal and a long list of foreign interventions.

Wherever there are secrets, there are lies. For an organization whose nature is explicitly secretive, how will we ever know if it is trustworthy?

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Purple Sky Edging Toward Dusk

I am out in the yard trying to fix the garden hose nozzle that my 10-year-old son broke last weekend playing Ghost Busters with his friends, when I see the strangest looking plane fly low overhead. It looks like some sort of mythical bird. These high-tech military warplanes just keep getting more sophisticated.

I look up at its black, smooth, flat under belly and its jagged wings. The engine is so quiet that I wouldn’t have even noticed it if it wasn’t for the shadow that crossed my small suburban yard. I’m sure one day they’ll figure out how to conceal shadows though too.

I have always felt safe living so close to a military base, but the constant air traffic has become an issue not only for me, but also for some of my neighbors.

There is this Rastafarian guy that lives down the street who is extremely paranoid the military is running a surveillance operation in our community. He told me he never uses any electrical plugs unless he has to. Another neighbor told me he thinks the military is mapping the neighborhood and everyone in it to create some video game for training purposes. “We’re all going to be video game characters,” he told me, “How’s that for invasion of privacy.”

I really don’t know what the military is up to. Their planes are becoming bothersome, but not as bothersome as this garden hose nozzle. I can’t get the handle from sticking in the on position and it is getting late. My son walks outside in his Halloween costume. He is dressed as a lobster. He looks like a walking stuffed animal. The bright red suit flops around as he walks over to me. “Jimmy will be here soon dad, and then we’re going trick-or-treating.”

“Sounds good,” I tell him. “We’re having a two headed turkey for dinner tonight.”

“What?” my son says in an off-guarded amazement.

“Just kidding, we’re having lobster.”

“Ha, ha, dad.”

“Okay, we’re having turkey. Regular turkey, wishbone and all.”

My son’s friend Jimmy comes running and jumping into our yard with excitement. The way he is dressed, he looks like some sort of jumping holy man. “What are you supposed to be,” I ask him.

“A genie.”

“Can you grant me a wish,” I ask him.

“Om, yea-ah sure.”

“I wish I knew how to fix this garden hose nozzle.” He crosses his arms, closes his eyes and nods his head.

“Wait a little while, and you’ll get it,” he says.

I smile and look up at the purple sky edging toward dusk, wishing I could be young again and experience the pleasures and mysteries of childhood, the joyful freedom of Halloween night, walking around town in the dark, without parents, on a mission to collect candy, dressed up as imaginative characters. I notice in Jimmy’s hand a strange looking piece of thick plastic. “What’s that,” I ask.

“Oh, this,” he holds it out, “I found it in the woods.”

I take it from him and pass my fingers through the various notches of the object. It looks like some sort of martial arts weapon, designed to be inconspicuous, yet used to inflict a maximum amount of pain. I hand it back to him. “Weird,” I say.

“Do you think we’ll see a ghost tonight,” my son asks.

As I’m about to tell him, in the cheesy dad sort of way I’ve become accustomed to, that tonight is his best chance to see a ghost, but to stay away from the cemetery because the ghosts there will pull him underground, I see a bright flash in the distance. It is nothing, but it causes me to imagine a mushroom cloud from an atomic bomb. The worst-case scenario I’ve feared almost my whole life. Death has always seemed eminent. And I wonder if I should tell my son tonight, over dinner, that the x-ray of my chest taken last week showed my cancer is spreading through my lungs like an oil spill.

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Looking at Heidelberg, Heidelberg Looking Back

This past weekend I experienced art like never before when I visited the Heidelberg Project in Detroit, MI. I didn’t know a thing about the place until I stepped out of my car and entered the vibrant urban landscape of the socially inspiring installation art.

At first glance it looked like colorful junk art. A hodgepodge of discarded consumer artifacts. But as I looked closer, the art looked back at me and begged me to look into myself.

The Heidelberg Project encompasses roughly two neighborhood blocks in southeast Detroit where dilapidated houses have been turned into art, sidewalks are painted with bright and colorful abstract faces, vacant lots are decorated with pieces of painted plywood, stuffed animals cover light-poles, abandoned cars are adorned with symbolic imagery and so much more.

The Project is the brainchild of Tyree Guyton who was raised on Heidelberg St. — the namesake of the project — and began transforming the area into a massive art environment in 1986. He enlisted the help of his grandfather, Sam Mackey and neighborhood kids, converting abandoned houses into works of visual intrigue.

Guyton’s mission is to create an environment that inspires people to express themselves creatively as a means to enhance their lives and their community. His art evokes an emotional and intellectual response. He uses symbolism to address issues such as poverty, corruption and violence.

In one vacant lot a rusty old stove sits with piles of shoes stuffed inside as a haunting reminder of the Holocaust. Near the stove, whimsical faces are painted on bent-up old car hoods — “faces in the hood.” There is a boat covered with stuffed animals, a piece suggestive of Noah’s Ark.

There are several religious references scattered throughout the project. The colorful faces painted practically everywhere are referred to as the “faces of God,” the idea being that God is in everything, ugly and beautiful.

The most famous landmark of the Heidelberg Project is the “Dotty Wotty House.” The house has been in Guyton’s family since 1947 and it is where Guyton’s grandfather first placed a paintbrush in Guyton’s hand. Today, the house is covered in bright polka dots, symbolizing the unity of all people.

The Project has had a controversial history. City officials in the past took issue with the barriers to urban planning it represented. In 1991 Mayor Coleman Young ordered the demolition of four house installations, and in 1999 Mayor Dennis Archer directed three more house installations bulldozed.

Guyton and his supporters filed a civil lawsuit against the city of Detroit after the second demolition. The Wayne County Circuit Court ruled that the Heidelberg Project was protected under the 1st Amendment as political speech in the form of outdoor art.

The Heidelberg Project continues to be a voice of creative expression for a community surrounded by social struggle. It is recognized as the most influential art environment in the country. It emphasizes the power of creativity and its ability to change lives. Visitors from around the world come to see, feel and move through this urban landscape of living art.

People were once afraid to walk around this neighborhood, but it is now a shining example of positive community outreach. Guyton and other artists that now live there welcome the help of volunteers in an effort to inspire a rebirth of Detroit.

The goal is for this spirit of goodwill to spread, even beyond Detroit. Being at the project is almost like walking on sacred ground. There is an aura of respect and gratitude for what the artists have accomplished.

The Heidelberg Project conveys a sense that there is beauty in everything — every scrap of abandoned rubbish. The only thing one needs is a little paint, a twist of imagination or a slight juxtaposition with another object to manifest new meaning.

Everything is connected. That is the art of life. The Heidelberg Project inspires these ideas. Go there with an open mind and let yourself be transformed.

(originally published by the Independent Collegian)

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Connecting to fulfill our purposelessness

He and I found out we were both from Denver. We started naming our favorite restaurants but he had never heard of the ones I mentioned and I had never heard of the ones he mentioned. It became frustrating until he said, “Lilly’s Café.”

And I said, “Yeah, I’ve been to Lilly’s Café.” I had never been to Lilly’s Café.

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