Smile Politely

Once I was lost


My dear niece Jocelyn,

The gears inside my head have been grinding for  two weeks. Because of our email debate on the issue of health care,  I have not been able to write a coherent column.

I have tried everything. Every time the writing gets precious or clever, I give up and pitch it. To distract myself, I played a dozen games of Scrabble simultaneously on Facebook. I wrote haiku. I started taking more pictures for my blog, Blurry Cell Phone Pictures. I even thought of turning this letter into my column. Nothing worked. I am lost.

I’ve decided that Barney Frank has taken the only sane approach to the fierce partisanship of maniacs. Talking with you is like talking to a dining room table. You live on another planet, Kansas. You abide in the land of terrorism, in the world of Timothy McVey, and just miles from where Dr. Tiller was gunned down with cheering support from your friends at the tea parties. You insist on believing lies. I can’t take it any more.

So let’s go over the checklist, OK? 

Acceptance of an immoral war? Check. Huge effort to deny health care reform for the poor? Check.  Those two things alone should have made it clear that you, as a professed Christian, have your reasoning hat on topsy-turvy.) Belief in lies? Check. A pleasing demeanor and lovely countenance? Jocie, face it, you are twenty-something, blonde, and have a look that would make Ann Coulter jump right off a cliff. Major check. You shop at the Wal-Mart of Fearmongering, the Republican Party? Check. A fan of Glenn Beck?  Check.

It is time to call a spade a spade.  You are the Antichrist.  I’m unfriending you from Facebook.

Your uncle,



“I haven’t walked my five miles yet today,” I told Lee as we trekked through Crystal Lake Park for the first time that day. “But I will have.”

There was a pause in our morning constitutional.

I began to ask, “What is…”

“Future perfect,” she said, correctly announcing the answer to my unasked question regarding the tense of my previous statement. “We’ve been married too long.”

Ah, domestic bliss and weight-loss activities, those incomparable and yet most up-and-down of situation tragicomedies. This, too, is just one of the reasons I haven’t been able to write a column for the past two weeks. But what could I have been thinking, to have undertaken a column in the first place that is both spiritual and comedic in nature?

I am lost. I’ve been doing various activities to jar myself out of this rut. I wrote haiku. I may have said that already. I took blurry cell phone pictures. I started following Rainn Wilson on Twitter. I endeavored to do that activity which colloquially causes one’s brains to fall out.

My editor, Dan, bless his heart, suggested I go to the movies.

“I’d be interested to know what you think of District 9,” he wrote. “I think my own expectations were too high.”

The truth is, I am looking forward to seeing District 9 and Inglourious Basterds and (500) Days of Summer and Julie & Julia and The Hurt Locker… a few months from now. Like Dan, I get swept up by the hype and am always let down by the heartburn of movie popcorn and the headache of bad projection. I wait for the true end product, the DVD. I rarely actually go to the movies, because I’m always disappointed.

On Sunday, Rainn Wilson sent out the following tweet: “Taking my 4 yr old to the matinee of Inglorious Basterds today.  Time for him to learn about the realities of war.”


When you mention the counter-culture of 40 years ago, most people think of Woodstock. I think of Italian director Michaelanglo Antonioni’s movie,  Zabriskie Point.

Antonioni, coming off the huge success of Blow-Up, made a visually inspired film about America in the throes of anarchy.  Images of college activists debating violent insurrection (including Kathleen Cleaver portraying herself) capture better the underlying mood of the times better than the three-day festival of peace, love, and understanding.

But the movie is downright weird. Despite visual compositions to die for – barren landscapes, aerial shots of Los Angeles, billboards and murals that blur reality, a desert orgy scene that defies description or analysis, hair styles that look short today but were considered scandalous at the time – there is no acting in the movie. The two leads were instantly forgotten, and rightly so. To be more precise, Mark Frechette died in prison after robbing a bank and Daria Halprin married Dennis Hopper. Rod Taylor, who is also in the movie and cannot act, would have been better remembered if he’d been merely pecked to death in The Birds.

But there is the final apocalyptic scene of slo-mo dynamiting that cannot be discounted. It remains ambiguous – did the girl set off the explosion or merely imagine it? – and compelling. And I think Antonioni could have made the same movie today, with the right-wing, gun-toting, screaming maniacs at the Town Hall meetings filling in for the 60s radicals.  Once again the world has gone stark-raving mad.

So here’s what you do. Rent the DVD of Zabriskie Point.  Turn off the sound.  Play Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” as the soundtrack.  Soon everything will all make sense.


The day started out
In a flurry of haiku.
It made me giddy.

I biked to campus.
(Summer was called on account
Of weird climate change.)

Yoda was alone,
Levitating on the quad.
He looked so serene.

“Come here,” he called out.
Or maybe he said, “Here come.”
I can’t remember.

“Lost, are you?” he asked.
“No,” I replied.  “I live here.”
“Oh.  Too bad that is.”

I got off the bike.
“How is it you float like that?”
He wriggled his toes.

“Lost, I am,” he shrugged.
“Something this is try you should.
Only people who are lost free truly can be.”

“Whoaaa, just a minute,
Yoda,” I said, “Can’t you count?
Now look at what you’ve…  er, done?”

“Glue down your tongue, flyswatter,”
Yoda said, looking sternly at me.
“Take a listen.” 

I sat cross legged on the grass. 
There was a crumpled Juicy Fruit gum wrapper next to me. 
I didn’t know people still chewed Juicy Fruit. 
All that sugar.

Yoda lectured me.

“Your people no longer get lost. 
Of travel, they only know cost.
They use GPS,
Leave nothing to guess,
Lunatics!  Me, they exhaust.”

I raised my hand, my mind now switching over from haiku to limerick.  “And why would I want to get lost…”

“Flyswatter!  Tongue!  Glue!”
He held up one green hand and continued. 

“When always know you where you are,
In prison you dwell, near or far.
The horizon is mapped.
Your mind simply trapped
In Urbana or in Kandahar.

To travel is no cause for boasts.
Airports are for zombies and ghosts.
They grope you.  You wait
Or miss boarding gate
In mountains or flatlands or coasts.”

I interrupted again.  “I don’t get it.”

“I’m KIDDING,” Yoda said.  “Read your Tao Te Ching.  Verse 68.  ‘Best people embody
non-competition. They compete in the spirit of play, like children.’”

“Un-huh,” I said.  “Go on.”

“Verse 27.  ‘What is a good man? A bad man’s teacher.  What is a bad man?  A good man’s job.  If you don’t understand this, you will get lost, however intelligent you are.’”

And then he disappeared.

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