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n.jackson_headshotJust before your debut novel was published, someone told you that Bhanu Khapil refers to creative projects are “a complete gesture.” Is yours?

Ah, the kindness of strangers and friends. I’ve been lucky enough to receive both recently. Hearing about Khapil’s notion of “a complete gesture” was helpful when I was struggling to let the book go and let readers and the world do with it as they will. I wouldn’t call myself a perfectionist, but I do have high standards for myself and my writing. Which means that I’m still making corrections to the book as I’m reading it aloud from it these days, even though it’s already printed and between hard covers. Some friends, the Shutes, sent me a copy of Ann Patchett’s essay about being on book tour in The Story of a Happy Marriage, and that’s been a balm too. So has sleep and spending time with friends and family who keep me grounded.

3543_browning_frankTo read Frank Browning’s latest book The Monk and the Skeptic: Dialogues on Sex, Faith, and Religion is to eavesdrop on series of confessionals, and to be party to the converse positions and erotic agreements of Browning and Brother Peter, a homosexual Dominican monk, a relationship that begins in kitsch surroundings that Jean Paul Gaultier might want to rip off. It is to enter a rich demimonde frocked in drag and incense, at times sensuous and melancholy, at others cavalier and threaded with paradox. The confessions leak from the ecclesiastical to the secular world, revealing the sexual wounds of the Catholic church, the often painful duality required of gay men within the institution. The relationship between Browning and Brother Peter is—in all senses—touching. The Monk and the Skeptic is a remarkable book, full of yearning and transcendence. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to correspond with Frank about his book and to have him elaborate further on some of the questions arising from it. Since then, Time magazine has named Pope Francis ‘Person of the Year,’ an accolade about which I suspect we would both remain skeptical.

mg_lyme_diseaseWhen I was young, I believed in all kinds of God. God in the lakes and trees and rolling farmlands of western Michigan, where I grew up, and in the wilds of all the world; God of the Old Testament, and of the New; God of the Hindus; God of the New Age. I had so much faith that I was able to do dumb things quite fearlessly (as adolescents must, I believe, or doom the species to stasis).

We met in the dim basement of a fraternity. The fraternity—we can’t remember which now, any one of those old columned houses lining Rugby Road—pumped music loud and we had to shout in each other’s ears to be heard. We were refilling our red Solo cups from the keg of cheap beer when we first yelled to each other. We were dressed alike, in tee-shirts and denim shorts. We joked later that we found each other because we were the two people who looked as if they shouldn’t be there, vaguely alternative kids in a sea of khakis and L.L. Bean.

The world is green, grass in full fall five o’clock shadow, and I stand in the middle of it. My hands cradle two pecans. There are more barely hidden in the verdant whiskers. Nearby, I may have a pile of them or a bowl full. Now, I have only the two—perfect brown ellipses flecked with black. The nuts warm quickly in my touch, the dust of their abandoned husks bitter and drying as alum. I hold the pecans. We are poetry, a song of praise. This is my first conscious memory.

I am two years old.

And I am sacred.

In 2006 I was going through some identity issues. My upbringing was decidedly American, but my habits were infused with Filipino sensibilities. I had a lot of tension between by East/West selves. My solution was a summer in the Philippines to resolve the conflict.

When I mentioned the idea to my parents their immediate reaction was horror. They used their best tactics to talk me out of it. My father used terror: “You know they kidnap Americans over there? If you get kidnapped, I can’t come get you. ” My mother appealed to my fastidious nature: “Did you know not all the bathrooms have toilet paper? Some are pit toilets. It’s gross. You won’t like it.” Thing is, my folks walked away from their families to create a life for my siblings and me in the U.S. We weren’t the type of immigrants that returned for visits. Their split had been decisive. I wondered if they were afraid that I would rewrite the romantic narrative they authored. It didn’t have anything to do with that. I just needed to understand more about where I was born.

Because of my parents’ warnings, I was suitably paranoid and expected to be constipated for the duration of the visit. I lucked upon a great program, Tagalog-On-Site, that encompassed language, literature, history, and politics. It was geared towards students who wanted to understand the American influence in the Philippines. The classes covered topics from the American colonial period, the U.S. military presence from World War 2 and beyond, and the continued affects of globalization on the islands. I thought it a socially progressive program, my Dad called it leftist.

An added incentive to the Tagalog-On-Site program was its location near the University of Philippines, Los Banos campus. If Manila was equivalent to New York City than Los Banos was like Stamford, Connecticut, a low-key city with not a lot going on. It was the perfect, easygoing place to learn about Filipino me.

When I got to the Philippines, I saw that my classes were held in the middle of a suburban-style housing development that reminded me a bit of a neighborhood where I grew up in New Jersey, save for the tropical foliage. At the time, I had been very athletic and since there was no gym nearby, I decided I would wake up early and run in the mornings.

No one in the dorm was awake as I put on my sneakers and walked out. At home I ran or hiked in the woods of upstate New York and took the trails in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, so I thought the easiest thing to do was to run in the nearby Boy Scout preserve.

The plan sounded benign, boring even, except in the Philippines there are wild dogs that roam the streets. In the U.S. that wasn’t a hazard I thought about. I had done some hiking in Yosemite, so bears I feared. And in my head I played out that if any wild dogs were to chase me, I’d punch them in the nose like a bear. Or just figure it out.

Since this is my loopy longwinded story, now is the time I disabuse people of the notion that Filipinos eat dogs. We don’t. That’s a myth created at the 1904 World’s Fair in St Louis, Missouri. At the time the fair organizers thought it a great idea to have a pavilion that showed the savages of the Pacific. They flew in a bunch of Igarot tribesmen in their traditional loincloths to populate the village. In a stroke of idiocy, xenophobic organizers killed and captured dogs to give the tribesmen to eat. Hence the legend persists.

It wasn’t lost on me that morning of my maiden run that I might be the food, rather than the dogs. Would the dogs avenge the memories of those St. Louis pups? I immediately dismissed the thought because the dogs barely looked up as I ran by them. Perhaps they realized my scrawny body wouldn’t be as tasty as the leftovers from the suburban homes. They couldn’t be bothered to chase me.

So to the Boy Scout preserve I made my way. The heat of the day hadn’t yet settled in but I could feel the warmth of the sun through the treetops.

I should have been startled by the gentleman wearing a diaper. He appeared about 10 minutes into my run. About sixty or older, he was also carrying a naked baby. Visually, there was something off.

From what I could tell, the diapered man came from a grouping of shacks within the park. It isn’t uncommon for the poor in the Philippines to do without shoes or a change of clothes. In the slums, the shanties are made of wood, cardboard or metal. And some of the homes have no roofs. Basic amenities like electricity, water, and sewage are not taken for granted. Without a doubt, the poverty is desperate.

In the moment, I didn’t feel unsafe but I wasn’t going to linger. I acknowledged him with my eyebrows to which he responded in kind. It’s a Filipino style of greeting that I only lapse into when I’m around other Pinoys. And then I was off.

On my trip back to the dorm, I ran the same pathways, through the woods, and up on the sidewalk. I showered and made my way to breakfast where I sat with classmates.

Immediately a rash appeared on my legs, my arms, my body. Ged, one of the coordinators of the program, looked at me and asked what had happened. We were only supposed to speak in the Filipino language, and mine was somewhat rudimentary, so in a terrible pantomime I explained.

Ged turned to the others. Their faces, once happy and animated, turned grave. I wasn’t quite sure what they were saying but I could tell it wasn’t good.

“You’ll need to show me the route. We need to go back and you need to apologize to the dwarves, the wood spirits,” she told me in English for emphasis. At this point in my Philippine experience I didn’t know Ged very well. Her official Tagalog-on-Site biography informed she was well educated and was involved in some indigenous music groups. My interactions with her at that point had been pleasant. I had no reason to be suspicious of the resolution she proposed.

The Philippines is a faith-based country. The main religion practiced is Catholicism. Other forms of Christianity pervade and there is a strong Muslim contingent in the south. Many of the religious customs combine animistic concepts that date back around 1565, the pre-Spanish colonial period.

Growing up, my parents only told me about certain Filipino superstitions like repeating the Hail Mary prayer when driving next to a cemetery. They never mentioned wood spirits. But could it hurt to make the apology? At the time I was participating in many healing modalities, experiencing many spiritual/new-age activities, so I thought – why not?

At various locations in the preserve, Ged and I stopped. We placed rice and money on the ground as an offering of appeasement and I’d apologize. She told me, in the future, to avoid any mishaps to say, “step aside little dwarf” because they protected the forests. If I saw a little dirt-pile, that’s where they were. I didn’t say it aloud but thought, isn’t that an anthill? Yet, Ged’s conviction made me take it seriously.

We finally came upon the spot where I ran into the gentleman with the diaper. I recounted events. “Oh, did he look at you?” she asked. A worried look came over her face. ” Yes,” I responded and repeated the eyebrow salutation.

Ged asked everyone in the vicinity about the guy. “If we find him, let me do the talking,” she said. I wasn’t quite sure of her concern. Turns out, Ged thought the guy put a love spell on me! And she needed to reverse the magic.

Filipinos have a lot romantic, dramatic and not especially realistic notions about love. Ill-fated lovers often reunite in heaven after stormy relationships in their lifetimes. It hadn’t occurred to me that the old man put a spell on me. Why? Was it because I was passing through his neighborhood? I didn’t look especially glamorous. And he was carrying a baby so somewhere there was a woman, the mother of the baby, in his life. I suppressed my inclination to laugh at Ged’s suggestion.

Then there he was. This time he wore shorts and a tee shirt. I didn’t see the baby. And I noticed he had bad teeth but a big grin as they talked. I think Ged said,” She’s a student from America. She doesn’t understand. She’s sorry. It won’t ever happen again.” The only word I understood was “po,” which adds formality to the Filipino language.

Confident that we had accounted for my running route, Ged and I headed back to the dorm and a day of classes. Although I was mentally calm, my body was on fire. The rash had spread all over. When was my repentance going to stick? Didn’t the money and food help? And it was clear, at least to me, I wasn’t under a love spell.

Despite all the effort, Ged took me to the university infirmary for an allergy shot. I couldn’t handle the itching. As much as I tried to embrace the superstitions in the moment, I just needed the medication. It was the Western antidote to my Eastern ills.

 

Please explain what just happened.

I just caught some kind of sickness and had to play a concert. My voice kind of went out halfway through the show. After the show, I arrived at Houston airport at 1 a.m. My flight is at 7a.m. Good times…

What is your earliest memory?

Throwing up through my fingers in Sunday school class with my hands over my mouth, trying to stop the vomit. My efforts were unsuccessful.

 

Rumor is that you find Judaism too narrow for your tastes, and too small to hold your spiritual experiences. When did you stop being a Jew?

One doesn’t stop being a Jew any more than one can stop being Chinese or Navaho. I was born Jewish and I will die Jewish, and I am quite proud of being a member of this people.


What do you like best about it?

Its pedagogy. Jews are doubters, arguers. We prefer questions to answers, and as soon as we have answers we think it is best to question them. We see paradox as the key to understanding rather than an impediment to it. We reinvent our texts by deliberately misreading them. Having lived millennia before Gutenberg we are not bound to the linear thinking of the printed word. We were postmodern before we were even premodern. We don’t believe in fixed meanings. Meaning comes from the interaction of story and reader/listener/interpreter—the three are really one.  We have this wonderful phrase, Elu v’elu d’vrei Elohim Chayyim. Roughly translated it means: All opinions, no matter how mutually exclusive and incompatible, are the words of the Living God if their intent is to search out the truth. I don’t know any other culture that values argument and doubt the way we Jews do, and it is for that reason alone that Jews need to survive.


What do you like least about it?

Rules. Following the wisdom of Rabbi Hillel, I believe that Judaism is all about compassion: not doing to another what you would not want done to yourself. Jewish traditions should be continually reinvented so that they promote compassion. I keep my own versions of Shabbat and Kashrut (Sabbath and Kosher), drawing from the past but in no way seeking to imitate it.


Do you worry about the future of Jews and Judaism?

Worry? No. Worry doesn’t do anything. But I am struggling to find a way to maintain Jewish pedagogy. It seems to me that Jewish education has shifted to the more western model of seeking answers rather than learning how to sharpen one’s questions. We need an old/new kind of Jewish academy that focuses on questions and hones one’s creative imaginal and critical thinking skills.


I’ve heard you say you are not only Jewish.

Yes. While I am tribally and culturally Jewish, and Judaism is my primary source of spiritual nourishment and expression, I draw from the wisdom and practices of many religions, especially Vendanta Hinduism, Sufism, and Zen Buddhism. Even from Scottish Rite Freemasonry.


And you find the same capital T Truth is all of these?

No. I find useful insights in to how best to live my life, and powerful practices that open me to realities beyond those my normal waking mind can fathom, but Truth is something else. No system can articulate Truth. To paraphrase Lao Tzu, the Truth that can be named ain’t the Real Truth.


Most of your time is spent writing. If the Truth cannot be named, what is the point of writing?

I write because I have no choice. When I don’t I feel ill.  But I never write to articulate the Truth, only to share my opinions.


What do you feel is the future of the book?

I think digital books will dominate the market sooner rather than later. I’m not one to make a fetish out of paper, though I do go out of my way to own hardcover copies of those books that have defined my life.


Such as?

The writings of Camus, Kafka, Nachman of Braslov, Martin Buber, Krishnamurti, Alan Watts, Dogen, Borges, and Jabes.


You also teach writing and religion. What have you learned from your experiences in these fields?

First, most people can’t write. Second, most people don’t read, which may be why most people can’t write. Third, most people even when studying the religions of others are careful to defend their own against any intrusion from the outside. Fourth, some people are curious enough and courageous enough to let their defenses down and actually be touched and perhaps transformed by other religions. These are the people I love to talk with and teach and learn from.


You work extensively in the field of interfaith. Do you find the same thing to be true there as in the classroom?

Yes. Most so–called interfaith dialogue is really interfaith monologue. True dialogue is unscripted, leaving the partners open to surprise and transformation. Few people are ever changed in what passes for interfaith dialogue today. They are too busy defending their truth to be open to challenging let alone changing it.


You seem a bit, I don’t know, bitter. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about humanity?

Both. I believe humanity will survive, that is my optimistic side; but not significantly change, that is my pessimistic side. While we are good at improving the longevity of our lives, we still suck an improving the quality of our living. While we get better and better at entertaining and distracting ourselves, we still suck an improving ourselves. Greed, fear, arrogance, violence define us today just as they did in the days of the Buddha and the Hebrew Prophets.


So how do we survive?

I am fond of the Jewish idea of the Lamed–Vavnik. The letters of the Hebrew aleph-bet double as numbers.  Lamed is the number 30, vav is the number 6. The idea is that there are always 36 people—Lamed–Vavniks—on the planet whose capacity for grace, generosity, compassion, and justice are so strong as to prevent humanity from imploding under the weight if our own idiocy.


Why thirty-six?

The Hebrew word for life is chai, and carries the numerical value of 18. Lamed–Vavniks carry their lives and the lives of the planet—twice 18, or 36.


Who are today’s Lamed–Vavniks?

The teaching is that we never know who these people are in their own day, but I suspect we can identify some with hindsight: Buddha, Ramakrishna, Hillel, Jesus, Rumi, to name just four off the top of my head. Today we don’t need more Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Christians and Muslims, we need more Buddhas, Ramakrishnas, Hillels, Jesuses, and Rumis.


Any last words?

Too early for that I hope.



This is what happens AFTER you write the next book.

You have days of euphoria. No one save for a few people who you love and trust and who probably love you a little too much to objectively read the drafts of your next book, are even aware that you have finally completed the new manuscript.

An Adequate Idea

By Doug Bruns

Essay

I was recently engaged in a conversation that ended with the phrase, “The difference between us, Doug, is that I am a man of faith and you have no faith.” It was delivered with shrugged shoulders, a slightly tilted head and the nervous hint of a smile. It was not mean-spirited, just a declaration, yet it seemed to carry the impress of righteousness. I found it a curious thing, this conversation-stopping declaration. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Author’s Note: I’d like to thank TNB’s own Megan DiLullo for her invaluable comments as I created this piece.

 

When I was quite young, around a year old, my mom began reading to me. She started with Dr. Seuss books—The Cat in the Hat, On Beyond Zebra!, Green Eggs and Ham. My memories of those moments are extremely vague, smudged pastel impressions at best. But mom assures me that during those times I’d lay quietly in her arms, hypnotized by the sound of her voice, and the pages spread before me. With tiny fingers, I’d touch the colorful pictures. I’d touch the animated words practically leaping off the page.

Super Bowl Sunday. February 7, 2010, 2:00 p.m.

If the hereafter has a switchboard, it’s jammed today.

There are prayers going out to the saints, for the New Orleans Saints. St. Jude might be getting a break this afternoon. He heard pleas for four decades, I’ll bet, for that lost cause of a football team.

My own grandfather requested divine intervention for his home team, year after year. Some weekends, I sat within earshot of him and my uncles as they shouted and prayed. Lord, the noise! Dear Blessed Mother, the fumbles and fouls! In my smart-mouthed youth, I might have asked aloud why they continued to cheer every season for such losers. I am almost certain I, too, muttered the slur, The Ain’ts. All involved, please accept my apology.

…being an account of the author and wife’s pursuit of a child, subjoined with discourses on teaching, pornography, and “irritable reaching after fact & reason.”


Each month for the better part of 2006, I go into the fertility clinic’s collection room to donate sperm. And each week, I read the sign on the door states that the room is available on a “first come, first serve” basis. I find this hilarious and share with the nurses in the specimen room. The nurses do not laugh.

They take their sperm collection very seriously at Albany fertility clinics.

As I enter the room, a computer desk sits with a laminated sign taped against the monitor. Something about closing whichever porn site you are on whenever you’re finished. A 12-inch TV with collection of outdated VHS porno tapes sits in a stack. It reminds me of my college living room.

I tell Dr. Ramullah that whoever coordinates the pornography purchases in the collection room needs to change their subscriptions.

“What do you mean?” he asks.

“You’ve got a subscription to a suite of fetish sites, like Spank That Black Ass, We Like ’Em Hairy, and Girl-Peeing.net,” I say. My wife looks on, her cheeks reddening slightly. She’s less offended than she usually is when I openly talk about my preferences in pornography. “You really should just subscribe to your standard PornStarNetwork.com or Vivid.com. I doubt your clientele wants to view clips from EroticPunishment.com while they donate sperm.”

“That’s very helpful,” Dr. Ramullah says. He seems earnest when he says this, not creeped out at all. I help him spell out “PeterNorth.com” on his notepad. “I’ll tell the nurses.”


Copyright ©2009 by Daniel Nester from How to Be Inappropriate.  Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint.



I’ve been noticing with greater and greater alarm that atheism is getting more and more popular in literary and academic circles. In fact, the majority of writers and scholars believe that anyone who believes in God must be naive and stupid. You aren’t smart enough, aren’t sophisticated enough to realize that God doesn’t exist and that life is pretty much shit. As the old saying goes, misery loves company. Now I don’t claim to be some highfalutin intellectual (fingers corn cob pipe thoughtfully for effect) but my great grand-daddy left me with at least this much sense: anything that makes you miserable ain’t all that good.

What an assumption! I know, right? I’m just as sure that all atheists aren’t miserable as I am that all believers aren’t happy. However, I can honestly say from experience that many (not all) of my atheist friends seem to wear their unhappiness like a badge. They consider their terrible lots in life to be irrefutable proof of how “real” they are. This is an old idea really, suffering being equated with authenticity. As a survivor of many forms and flavors of abuse, I personally think there is nothing noble about suffering, especially when it’s self-induced. It just sucks.

I see the core of this issue as being about the concept of newness, modernity. The idea of God is ancient, so it’s not cool anymore. Cool or not, that doesn’t mean there isn’t any truth to it. At some point in time if I shit on a canvas I might have gotten a gallery show because it was new, but that wouldn’t mean I’m a better artist than someone who could actually paint. For God’s sake people, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. If you believe there are some things that endure the test of time than who better than the G-O-D?

The literary and academic worlds are supposed to be a haven, a forum for all thoughts and ideas so what’s up with all this judgment? I’ve heard intellectuals call religious people closed-minded but isn’t it just as closed-minded to say something definitely doesn’t exist as it does? I think of the professor who has the courage, yes the courage to believe in a higher power, and the subtle and maybe not-so-subtle flak he/she might take from his/her co-workers, and it makes me sick. But not too sick because like time, God heals all wounds. Awesome.

I guess this is just another case of the old pendulum swinging back the other way again. Once upon a time people were crucified for not believing, now things have reversed and the faithful are ostracized for believing. See? I could have used the word “crucified” but no, I’m not some crazy, religious nut. Nor do I think I am right. I just think God exists insomuch as you let God exist, so hey, maybe it’s a good idea to try cracking the window open a little now and then, eh? I believe in spirituality more than some bearded, old, moody, white man in the clouds, and that spirituality has organically lead me to believe that if there wasn’t some kind of divine goodwill out there, that shit would be a lot worse than it is now. If you think that makes me crazy, well then put me in a sundress, slap my ass and call me Sally, I’m crazy.

Let me just anticipate one question: How can I believe in a God, all-knowing and all-powerful, when everything is so terrible? Well, sorry to bum out your bummers folks, but things are actually pretty good. Ah, I can almost feel the screams of protest! Why look at healthcare and Iraq and the corporations and all that. Terrible situations, agreed, but guess what, it could be a lot worse. The U.S. is a culture of complaints for which I partially blame Jerry Seinfeld and his weak, Satanic little observations, as well as a sensationalist, emotion-preying media. No, the sad truth for anyone out there addicted to the victim identity is this: everything’s okay. Life is hell only insomuch as you let it be. And I really think that is a significant part of people’s problem with faith; if there is a God than woah, what do you know, things might actually be alright.

The fact is that if I were to publicly announce that things are actually okay in some of the more popular intellectual hangouts (coffee shops, bookstores, etc), I would probably be verbally abused. Why I wouldn’t be surprised if the sexual practices of my own dear, sweet mother were called into question. My own flesh and blood mother, the very woman who brought me into this precious, wonderful world. Think about that a second.

 

 

In college I worked one summer as a line cook in a 120-seat restaurant of a small hotel in Florida.

Although I had no formal training as a cook, I was able to bypass the usual progression from dishwasher to busboy to line cook, going straight into cooking because my friend Tony Spagnolo worked on the line.

Kitchen_2

“It’ll be fun, you and me working together all summer,” he said. Sure, I thought. What’s the worst that could happen? Food poisoning? Injuring myself or someone else with sharp implements? So I went to work.

It was grueling, hellish, fast-paced, chaotic, and for the most part, unrewarding. Of course I made some amateur mistakes, but I also did some good things and I learned a few things along the way. I also got to date a number of hot waitresses, but that’s another story.