To hell with Christmas

Who killed Christmas? It wasn’t all us overly considerate types who like to substitute “Happy Holidays” for “Merry Christmas” so as to avoid giving offense to celebrants of Yule or Hanukkah. No, it was you – all you so-called Christians, masters of the pious shell game, who work to perpetuate this notion of an old guy in the sky who rewards good behavior with a buttload of material goods. God don’t like that, and it says so right in your Holy Bible, if you’d bother to read it. The message of the Book of Job is pretty goddamned hard to miss.

As long as I’m playing Scrooge, this story reminds me why I used to be a metal head: cut the “White Christmas” crap, pass the Slayer.

The 6-year-old Indiana boy who was killed when a jetliner skidded off a snowy runway at a Chicago airport was singing “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” when the plane crushed his father’s car, a family friend said yesterday. …”His mother said he didn’t suffer,” the family’s neighbor, Jean Cottrell, said. “She said it was a miracle nobody else in the family was seriously hurt.” …

Joshua’s dad, truck driver Leroy Woods, was at the wheel of the Pontiac when it was struck. His wife, Lisa, and three of their four sons were in the car with them.

“They were going to see Lisa’s parents to do some Christmas shopping,” Cottrell said. “Joshua was a sweetheart. A cute little boy who was missing his two front teeth.”

Cottrell said the town is raising money to pay for the funeral.

“I know they can’t afford it,” she said. “Leroy is just a hardworking regular Joe. She’s a stay-at-home mom. What an awful Christmas for them.”

Of course, this is America, so you can’t just blame God, or Fate, or whatever. We’re a nation of positive thinkers; life can’t just suck. So brace yourselves for months of investigations and hearings, finger-pointing and earnest soul-searching. Someone has to be found culpable so that This Kind of Thing Can Never Happen Again. Or, at least, not to the hard-working consumers of this most divinely favored of nations, whose happiness is, like our standard of living, completely non-negotiable.

Ah hell, this is all too depressing. I think I’ll go shopping.


This entry is part 27 of 42 in the series Antiphony: Paul Zweig


I’m reading Paul Zweig. This is the ninth poem in the third (“Eternity’s Woods”) section of his Selected and Last Poems, followed by my response. See here for details on this experiment in responsive reading. I’ll remove Zweig’s poems after a week or so to prevent egregious copyright infringement.

A Theory of Needs

I want what has been sliding
Toward me from the corners of the earth;
What the wind lulls along the early morning streets:
The dancing fit of history . . .

[Remainder of poem removed 11-06-05]

* * * *

Bargain (antipoem)

The lead story in the business section of the newspaper the other day said
that Halloween now generates the highest retail profits of any U.S. holiday.
The labor news section of a newspaper in a parallel universe I sometimes visit
leads with a slightly different story:

Components Manufactured in Mexico, Industry Experts Say

The article goes on to point out that Americans increasingly opt for
the convenience & everyday bargain prices available to them
in stores modeled after vast warehouses, where the economies of scale
& hefty taxpayer subsidies allow retailers
to make death more affordable than ever before.
In this alternate universe, advertising copywriters & public relations people
garner all the power and prestige afforded poets in our own society,
or griots & griottes in West Africa.
They author odes to sweet oblivion in all its disguises:
sex, drugs, saturated fats,
excitement, distraction, consumption.
We are holes, they sing. Fill us, fill us, fill us.
If I were one of them, I think I’d write a panegyric to the very fill itself,
that Clean Fill which – the crudely lettered roadside signs announce –
is always Wanted. Because in this much grimmer & grimier universe
in which I seem to be thoroughly enmeshed, all I can do is sputter
& wave my arms about like a moth stuck to the front grill of a truck.
I insist on raising embarrassingly sincere questions about, say,
the need children seem to have for some secret place –
a field grown up to thorns, maybe, or some beloved mess of trees.
An Unimproved Woodlot, the bards of the bargain would say.
Ripe for Development. Part of a tax-free
Opportunity Zone, where soon you’ll be able
to stop at the new Village Commons or Town Centre
for a Grande cup of Americano on your way to somewhere else.
A tricky place, this parallel universe: it’s hard to know
when you’ve arrived. One minute you’re there, the next you’re not.
I want to need to want to need to want, they chant, ad infinitum.
But most days that sounds like so much work! I’m glad I don’t live there –
though it can be, as they say, a nice place to visit.
There’s plenty of parking.
At the end of a long day, though, all I want is to put my feet up
for a little while before sinking into sleep,
which is, in this more humdrum & sadly impoverished universe,
still almost completely ad-free.
I need a new television, they tell me: one with High Definition,
whatever that means. I like the wildlife shows.
I don’t want to miss the minutest detail in those epic battles for survival,
those great escapes.

Credit (or blame) for this goes to a post in Creature of the Shade, which led me to James Howard Kunstler’s newly blogified Clusterfuck Nation columns for the first time in months.

The deliberately unlyrical antipoem was pioneered by the 20th Century Chilean poet Nicanor Parra, and was characterized by “a sense of the unspeakable and a comedy shout,” according to Miller Williams.

Returning to the drey

I’m out on the porch with my coffee a little later than usual this morning. It’s about 6:30 and almost fully light, though still overcast and threatening snow or rain. I’m watching a gray squirrel at the edge of the woods with increasing interest. When I first notice her, she’s in the top of a tulip (a.k.a yellow poplar) tree, gathering a great wad of something long and stringy and stuffing it into her cheek pouches. I don’t have my binoculars with me, but I can see that the small, nearly horizontal branch she’s on has stuff dangling from it, and she’s grabbing strips of it – presumably the soft, inner bark of the tree. I’m guessing that it was recently exposed by the porcupine that lives in the crawl space under my house, though I don’t see its tracks in the snow.

The squirrel races back to her nest near the top of a slender black cherry tree about seventy-five feet from the tulip, quickly empties the contents of cheek pouches into it, and returns for another load. What with going up and down tree trunks to reach suitable lateral branches, it looks as if she travels about 150 feet for every fifty feet of straight-line distance. It’s at this point that I start getting really interested, thinking rather self-reflexively about the way my own mind works. I’ve often thought that, for North Americans, the Buddhist phrase “monkey-mind” should instead be translated as “squirrel-mind.” This morning, I see that while the branches are a given, the route is not.

I watch her make four trips before I get too cold and have to go inside. Each time she takes a slightly different route through the mid-level branches, and once she returns from nest to tulip by a completely different route, higher and farther back from the wood’s edge. In typical gray squirrel fashion she often uses her own weight to bridge a gap, small branches bending down to the point where she can leap the last couple feet to the twig-ends of the next branch. Since it’s not quite fully light, some of these smaller branches are invisible to me, which makes her progress appear even more death-defying and miraculous. However, I’ve watched enough squirrels to know that this spirit of experimentation and play seems to infect much of what they do. I don’t think that’s simply the affective fallacy on my part. If playfulness makes one avoid doing the same thing the same way twice, one is less likely to end up as someone else’s lunch. Predators are, by and large, a fairly single-minded lot.

Each time she returns to the same, small branch in the tulip tree and strips off more of the long, dangly stuff. She takes so much, she can’t even close her mouth. I figure she must be a female with babies on the way. What else could be so urgent as to require the gathering of new bedding material first thing in the morning, before breakfast?


I often warn people about my normal style of discourse: even my digressions have digressions. Watching this squirrel thus feels strangely validating. The shortest distance between two points may be a straight line, but who says that’s the best way to go? Much as we may envy and admire the single-mindedness of a hawk or an eagle, most of us are more like squirrels. The sooner we recognize this, it seems to me, the easier time we’ll have identifying and isolating the true predators among us.

Chris Clarke of Creek Running North shares a truly harrowing tale from his past, describing the serial killer his mother dated one summer when he was a young man. As always with Chris, the writing is exceptional – not one word too many or too few. His mother and a brother, both bloggers themselves, weigh in with their own recollections in the comments.


I think it’s safe to say that the government of the United States of America now constitutes the largest and most dangerous predator the world has ever seen. In addition to launching unprovoked invasions of largely defenseless countries for the express purpose of stealing their oil, it has built a worldwide gulag archipelago of secret prisons where its enemies disappear without a trace. (Thanks to’s “News You Might Have Missed” e-newsletter for these links.) From a realpolitik perspective, indefinite detentions and systematic torture of suspects make little sense. The questionable value of intelligence gained under torture is surely not worth the strains with allies or the surge in Al Qaeda recruitment that such flagrant violations of the Geneva Convention tend to promote. Some have argued that it’s all about lowering the bar, so that in the future, similar or even more heinous actions will be tolerated by American voters. But I believe it’s mainly about power – reinforcing that strange feedback loop that links pleasure with oblivion. Why drill in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge when the ecological and political costs are so steep and the likely rewards so negligible that even the big oil companies don’t think it’s worth it? Why antagonize countries like Iran and North Korea when it’s O.K. to buy off Libya and Pakistan? Why pursue what even the GOP refers to as the “nuclear option” in the U.S. Senate? To those of us who mainly think squirrel thoughts, these sorts of things will always remain darn near incomprehensible.


In a comment to my post about the American flag, British blogger Dick Jones of Patteran Pages writes,

I can’t help thinking ‘only in the States…’! I recall (dimly, as with an old man’s fading vision) there being something of fuss when The Who went national with the mod fashion of clothing made out of the Union Jack. But it was no more than a sort of choral clearing of throats from the retired colonel brigade. After that the symbol of Britain’s imperial pride was up for sartorial grabs & has been ever since.

So this sanctification of the Stars & Bars is fascinating & only partially explained by Mr Turner’s characterisation of symbols as both ‘social & normative’ & ‘sensory & affective’ (I bet THAT explanation went down like a cup of cold sick with the second big guy). Further reflections on the cult of the flag from commenters would be illuminating.

I responded by admitting that the U.S.A. is “one of the few countries where one sees the national flag flying everywhere – kind of like the ubiquity of portraits of the Great Leader in places like N. Korea and Turkmenistan.” But I was clueless about the origin of U.S. flagolatry.

So if you have any ideas about how to explain this to a non- or un-American, please leave a comment in the string attached to this post (less confusing than going back to the original flag-burning essay, which is a ways down the page now). Thanks.


Over at the vernacular body, Elck raises some interesting questions of his own, which directly relate to (and are perhaps partly responsible for) my concern with circuitousness this morning. “Our home, our city, our world, our life is now a supermarket for the satisfaction of the senses,” he writes.

We could binge on Peking Opera if we wished, or read nothing but Uruguayan poets, or fill up our Netflix queues with films from Japan and Japan alone. And, in addition to the available range, there’s also the issue of portability (paperbacks, mp3s, fast downloads), the convenience of mail-order, and the existence of blogs making transglobal stimulating discussion of these interests possible.

This situation creates a number of dilemmas, among them:

We risk finding out the hard way that things too cheaply obtained are poorly attended to. We don’t necessarily take the time to immerse ourselves in the best that culture offers us. For example, how does having a stack of DVDs (or a Netflix queue) affect our experience of a film like Andrei Rublov or Fanny and Alexander? Would we watch the film with different eyes if it were the only thing we had seen on the screen in several months, if the viewing of it were a sacred, set-apart experience, rather than something to be gotten through before popping the next disc in? Is the surfeit of product (even of good product) dulling our senses?


Even as a plan for satisfying the senses, I think the typically American, consumption-oriented approach falls short. We are taught to be direct and goal-oriented, and not coincidentally, I think, many people complain of being unsatisfied, sexually and otherwise. As K. of A Happening wrote last month in a post called the last taboo,

[W]e live in a culture that … does not know how to appreciate physical beauty unless it’s seen on a playing field. As Americans, we don’t know how to enjoy the naked human form for what it is. Our fear of sex has made it impossible for us to understand the possibilities for variety in sensual experience and in the experience of eros. In our linear thinking, goal-oriented society, if it’s naked we have no idea what [to] do but fuck it. And because most of the time the object laid before our eyes is not really available, we feel compelled to satisfy this desire in some other way. Usually by buying something.

Quite apart from the question of who has the time to sketch, make music, read and write poetry, or what have you, I wonder how many even retain the ability to appreciate the subtler wonders that surround us every day? One of my favorite quotes – and one of the very first things I ever posted on this blog – suggests that this crisis is neither new nor distinctly American. The Baal Shem Tov, 18th-century founder of the Eastern European Hasidic movement, is said to have exclaimed, Alas! The world is full of enormous lights and mysteries, and man shuts them from himself with one small hand!


In her latest post, Andi of Ditch the Raft announces, “I’ve decided to become a seeker after Mysteries.” On a recent family visit to Finland, she watched a Lenten mass in Helsinki’s Uspenski Cathedral.

Once again, I noticed the prostrations. Not so different from a Tibetan half-prostration, the “grand metanoia” came after each congregant had crossed him- or herself. The word “metanoia” means “to turn,” as if turning away from something, such as sin and evil. I like to keep this in mind when I do my own prostrations. I like it, in part because it implies a circular movement within the self, rather than a linear one. We do not progress out of sin, toward sinless-ness. Instead, we are constantly turning within ourselves, seeking the light which guides not necessarily on a straight path, but simply around, like the Zen circle, to our true selves.

For those unfamiliar with Ditch the Raft, it may help to know that Andi is a committed Buddhist (of the Korean Zen variety) and is preparing to enter the monastic life in May. I encourage everyone with an interest in the ostensible focus of this blog, the via negativa, to go read the rest of her post, which includes an illuminating interview with a Greek Orthodox deacon back in the States. I can’t improve on her conclusion.

One other quote from Andi brings us full circle, back to squirrel-mind. This comes from a comment she left in response to a recent post of Dale’s, over at mole. In Today’s catch, Dale shares “some of the weirdly false thoughts I’ve captured on the wing, today… Answering these thoughts is not exactly rocket science,” he writes. “They’re infantile, mostly. Fatuous. My life is being run by thoughts that would do no credit to a six-year-old.” Andi responds:

[It’s] funny how we want to say that the most basic part of us is infantile, or small in some way, when it’s actually the common denominator, the glue of the mind, the mundane fears and worries that underpin so many of our actions. Seeing them as basic is wonderful! – we stumble upon the unhidden truth, that we’re simple at heart, run by things that, the longer we look at them, appear more and more like exaggerated shadows than mountainous objects. Simple fears also mean simple joys, wonderful love over the small things of life, nothing grand: just a beautiful day, a smile from our lovers, the laughter of our children…


Squirrel-mind excels in the construction of circular nests, or dreys. Winter dreys are more elaborate than those built for summer use. Though they often appear fairly messy from below, they are in fact quite compact and, from all reports, rather cozy. According to The Natural History of Squirrels (John Gurnell, Facts on File Publications, 1987),

They are waterproof and made of an outer coarse layer of interwoven twigs, which the squirrels usually remove from the tree in which the drey is built (often with leaves still attached). There is a softer inner lining consisting of moss, bark, leaves, fur, feathers, lichens and similar material, and dreys which are used by females to rear young tend to be very well-padded…. A squirrel takes from one to several days to construct a drey, and they will maintain it and add to it as and when required.

So this morning was I watching normal nest maintenance, special refurbishment, or something else entirely? The same source refers to the inner bark of several tree species as a food item for squirrels, not just a nesting material, so it’s possible the individual I was watching was simply doing her grocery shopping. In any case, the weather was threatening; it’s now begun to snow. A good time to snuggle deeper into the nest, tail curled over head, and dream of spring. For busy as they may seem, most of what squirrels do during the long, lean months is sleep.

Power outage

Half-wild, half-cruel,
like the laughter of a solitary man.

– Paul Zweig, “Eternity’s Woods”

I’m used to waking in the dark; it isn’t that. I don’t really mind the thought that the majority of my fellow citizens may be simpletons, because I am myself exceedingly susceptible to delusions of every sort. It does bother me a bit, though, that virtually every analyst and pundit has skipped blithely over the glaring mismatch between exit poll data and election results. Exit polls, they suggest, are simply another form of opinion poll, and therefore only as good as the pollsters and the questions asked. Nonsense! I can think of only two ways the exit polls in Ohio could have been so wrong: massive voter fraud, or widespread lying by people who had just voted for George Bush.

The latter possibility deserves at least a little consideration. Willful ignorance and outright mendacity are not, after all, so very far apart. “He’s my president, so if he tells me that Saddam was poised to attack the United States, I believe him.” “Yes, I know that ‘faulty intelligence’ wasn’t to blame. We went in there for the oil – and it’s a good thing we did. We need that oil. If we have to kill a bunch of Arabs to protect our standard of living, so be it.” (I actually had someone say this to me a few months back.) “Sure, he lied. He does what he has to do. It’s all for the greater good, which most of us have no idea about. The ways of those who have access to the full truth will often seem incomprehensible to the more poorly informed masses.” (This is, of course, a neoconservative article of faith.) “Every decent, moral, Christian person has no choice but to vote for the candidate who will defend the sanctity of marriage and protect the lives of the unborn. But why should we tell the unsaved what we are doing? It’s not a sin to lie to liberal pollsters and reporters. ‘Let not the left hand know what the right hand is doing.’ It’s all part of God’s plan.”

Thank You, Jesus, For My Plastic Ears.
– headline from the Weekly World News

I woke in the dark with no power. This isn’t a metaphor. The electricity was out here from 1:10 a.m. until 6:35 a.m. yesterday, then again from 1:30 to 4:30 in the afternoon. The second time, my father finally called the power company and persisted through fifteen minutes of voice mail purgatory until he reached a human being, who informed him that we could expect to have our electricity on by 7:30 at the latest. When the power was restored only five minutes after he hung up, we felt absurdly blessed.

Our power company is a subsidiary of First Energy, the Ohio-based corporation found responsible for last year’s Great Northeastern Blackout. That was but one of six outages we had in 2003 that lasted 24 hours or longer. It doesn’t pay them to maintain their infrastructure, so they don’t. And with deregulation, they don’t have to.

This is the future, folks. Get used to it. In ten years, regular power outages will become an accepted part of life, just as they are in much of the so-called developing world where small, venal elites feel no sense of social obligation. Who needs bread and circuses when fear and repression work just as well? That’s something, after all, that both major parties believe in. Police repression in Boston leads to the death of a college student? Well, clearly there just weren’t enough cops on the street! Brutal U.S. presence in Iraq fuels an exponential growth of the insurrection? Let’s send in more troops! Flatten Fallujah! Kill ten Iraqis (or is a hundred?) for every dead American! Prisoners don’t respond to torture, or give useless or false information? Come up with better tortures!

Besides, false information is better than no information, right? As long as the empty suits on the network newscasts have something to work with.

Facts don’t matter any more – if they ever did. Remember all the public confusion surrounding the millennial year? No rational person could fail to conclude that the year 2000 was the last year of the 20th century and the 2nd Millennium. But rather than insist on the point, the mainstream news media put out the notion that it was mainly a matter of opinion. There were, after all, two sides to the argument, and all good reporters learn in journalism school not to pick and choose between warring points of view – just report them both. The same approach has allowed the Bush regime to get away with most of its outrageous claims, about everything from global warming to forest health to the War on Terror. Two fraudulent presidential elections later, it seems that our entire reality structure has become postmodern.

Out in the open,
Everywhere to go.

– Gary Snyder, “The Trail is Not a Trail”

But what does it matter, Dave, if nobody really knows what time it is? Time is, after all, an entirely human construct. And you wouldn’t get so worked up about these things if you took the long view, cultivated awareness, recognized that all is vanity, or samsara, or whatever.

Well, yes, I suppose that’s true. But it is curious how the time becomes suddenly so important to me whenever the clocks go dead. Winston Smith thought it might have been 1984, but it bothered him never to know for certain. I could just sit here and treasure the silence – I wrote yesterday afternoon, scrawling the words by hand on some old scrap paper I dug up – watch the sun through the window flirting with fast-moving clouds, stop measuring the daylight remaining until supper. This time of day it takes me so long to get the words out, I wrote, that I can watch my thoughts change course in mid-stream. For all intents and purposes, the River Lethe has only a single bank. Earlier I napped, and when I awoke I was only able to surface halfway, at first – a peculiar sensation. I tried to count to ten and kept getting off track somewhere in the vicinity of six or seven.

Before that, I transplanted some New England asters to my front garden. They had gone to seed in the most appealing manner, tousled heads of brownish gray waiting for the autumn winds to do the rest. I thought of the blogger Paula and her obsession with roadside weeds, her unflinching agnosticism. Now I sit in this unaccustomed silence and find myself wishing that I could meditate as deeply as a seed, still my internal clock and go into suspended animation. I’d come back to life only when all the conditions were just right.

Never forget:
we walk on hell,
gazing at flowers.

– Kobayashi Issa

It’s getting to me, I confess: the capriciousness of power, the pervasive dishonesty about its modes and motives. In my other blog, dead raccoon, I try to turn the tables, ape the Grand Inquisitor. Because every declarative statement now begins to seem fraudulent, as if made-to-order for the interrogator of the moment. One moment, please. A service representative will be with you shortly. Please hold.

One moment. That’s all they ever ask for, isn’t it? But it’s enough.

In a world of shit

The wise and compassionate Helena Cobban writes, “I am desperately trying not to feel angry with those of our ‘fellow citizens’ who voted W in this time.”

Good for you, sister. I’m just concentrating on not doing bodily injury to myself.

What I am trying to remember here is that my fellow Americans aren’t any dumber than anyone else – we’re just way, way more ignorant. As far as general stupidity and susceptibility to mass hypnosis go, let’s not forget that the Germans pre-Hitler were supposedly among the best-educated folks on the planet.

So my take-home thought for this morning is that We Suck. All of us. Robinson Jeffers was right: humanity is needless. We’d shit on the morning star if we could reach it.

But hey, this is Via Negativa’s 600th post. Huzzah. Plus: I’ve started a new blog – basically just a links blog, designed to force me to follow politics a little more closely – called dead raccoon in the road. Don’t know if I’ll have the heart to keep it up or not.

For here, for now, in celebration of this blogging milestone, how about some…


translated by Ulli Beier (Yoruba Poetry, Cambridge University Press, 1970)

We call the dead – they answer.
We call the living – they do not answer.

A round calabash in the spear grass.
[moon and stars]

A thin staff reaches from heaven to earth.

The bereaved one has stopped weeping.
The compassionate friend is still crying.
[rain and the dripping leaves after rain]

A pile of shit on a leaf, and covered with a leaf.
[humanity between heaven and earth]