‘Howard Freeman (2)’ appears on one of the Firefox browser window tabs and, along with the other seven or so tabs, constitutes a small but growing and ornery press corps at 6:30 this morning.

The ‘(2),’ I learn when I click on it, indicates that on Facebook I have a Friend Request waiting (that’s good, as long as it’s not one of the always-slender women from Eastern Europe whom I don’t know, who appear to be photographed with a 1970s Polaroid, and have only male friends and no mutual friends with me—I can only surmise they found me because I listed Darren Aronofsky as one of my favorite movie directors) and also a comment added to something I’ve written—a news item I posted to my Wall, or piggybacking my comment somewhere else…or whatever. Some notice of some thing (if ever there was a good use of that word that all English teachers mark off points for use of) that warrants a number on the display in front of me that requires attention now. The hand from the press corps crowd is sticking up, or rather down—from the menu bar.

But wait! There! On the icons in the dock (some of them doing the put-your-left-hip-in Hokie Pokie out from the screen’s edge to warn me that I have forgotten some thing), and on my iPhone, my life consists of responding to white numbers in red circles. They all tell me I am running late.

Other tabs include my Chase Bank account (which I’ve set to send alerts to my mobile phone if certain things happen, so now I can be warned from several directions and with several tech indicators at once—as though I am Helen Keller and need a strobe, tone, and shifting parquet floor to get my attention), my work email (on which I now respond to a concerned message instead of continuing coffee with the First Lady, who was sitting contentedly on the couch next to me but now turns to her iPad. She plays ‘Godfinger,’ a game where she controls little Wii-looking figures who all do what she says and ‘worship’ her, accumulating her ‘Awe’ in the lower right corner…I have no such currency), my Google calendar (whose full window, with unabashed seniority, itself occasionally pops open in front of any other open window to remind me of an event happening now, much like Helen Thomas, whose diminutive frame—short and wide like the tab—doesn’t limit her from making her agenda known to the 6’2” men around her and to her primary audience, the man facing her…the powerful man in front of her who must listen, patiently, and then, patiently, respond. With a finger he could silence her, but he doesn’t. She is, after all, Helen Thomas, and she is the media. With a finger, he could play ‘Godfinger,’ the way the First Lady still is; he could fling her like a Wii character upwards of 340 metres across the White House compound landing her somewhere on Pennsylvania Avenue and she would go back to farming, and worship him, and give him Awe…but instead all his fingers rest on his keyboard—like a podium—which has become the place of finding a false equilibrium and foundation rather than dominion or even dominance.).

Speaking of Google, Reader is on another tab. I avoid looking at that grey rectangle, knowing that the lecture hall found on its window will only lure me in to discussions that will never end. I do care that Bill Gates wants to overhaul America’s schools, but it’s not something I have time for. I need to get dressed in twenty minutes. I spot a snippet from Arts & Letters Daily, my favorite news aggregator, that ‘Economic and scientific innovation helped propel the West past the East around 1770. So did Islam. Timur Kuran explains….MORE,’ where the last word is hyperlinked. It would be so…easy…to just click that four-letter word and learn from Timur about the innovation that Islam helped propel 240 years ago. I didn’t know about this! And If I don’t read all this stuff, I won’t be like the editors who put together these aggregators, like Denis Dutton of Arts & Letters, or even Matt Drudge, or Mr. Reader himself. But I have to get dressed in 19 minutes. BBC News has ‘1000+’ unread items. Same with Christian Science Monitor. Prior to a 2008 trip to Asia, I had signed up for the South China Morning Post to get familiarized with the issues. Now, this paper’s three feeds I subscribe to (I had a choice of so many more!)—Business, Property, and Hong Kong—remind me that we are no longer on such great speaking terms, and the relationship is strained. Among the three, there are 1378 unread items. The last time I actually went through and looked at news items, I read one or two and marked the rest ‘as read,’ summarily dismissing the collective work of approximately fifteen thousand man-hours of journalism. (Could have been more; not sure.) If I read each item from SCMP in summary fashion—using the Reader feature of scrolling down the headlines, which move from bold to roman after a couple seconds hovering over each, I can cover perhaps a few hundred of them in an hour. It would be the ‘receiving line’ of getting re-acquainted: working the rope and shaking hands long enough to smile and wink and let them know I have not deleted them without acknowledging their fleeting existence.

Along the row of tabs also are articles I have not read but want to, intend to, all with lengths approaching that of a New Yorker essay, which means that these tabs are carried over from day to day until my computer restarts at 3 a.m. one night (because it needs new system software to keep up with the bandwidth I require to keep in play the items I do not address immediately). The articles that disappear when this happens are forgotten, and I am not the worse for it. They had been temporary lusts that slithered toward me, waiting to strike, and whose venom is given an antidote by Mac OS X. The next system upgrade from Cupertino should be called Mongoose.

There is a ‘+’ sign to the right of the tabs, reminding me I can start a new conversation anytime. Invite more people to the press conference. Perhaps I do this, and the others—while they don’t fall completely silent, especially not Helen Thomas in the front row, who raises her voice about every 30 minutes—are shushed by the increasing din of the current conversation. My ‘Favorites’ also perch in a row above the current tabs, like gargoyles, waiting to be affirmed as named. They know they will be called on at some point; that’s why they’re Favorites. At one time, I had the power to name them and place them there; now they with the name and position hold the power. If I delete them, I would have to find them again, or at least I’d have to email the IT guy to get the URL to access the work server remotely. This is unconscionable.

I get up from my computer to get more coffee for me and the First Lady—who is happily subduing and having dominion—but it is not quiet that I experience.

It is deafness.

photo: kees straver


Cleopatra-style hair and cigarettes

Since I liked the number 17, I scanned the list of sponsors’ names and found the seventeenth:  “Ray W.”  The list was written in various inks and in pencil on poster board and tacked with thumbnails to the paneled wall over the water fountain.  I wrote down Ray W.’s phone number, sat through the hour-long Open Meeting at Clayton House in Jonesboro, Georgia, and drove back to my room, which I rented from a Mormon couple about three miles away.


030809-petraAA is supposed to be anonymous, but in this small community, most people knew each others’ last names, where they worked, which Waffle House we all congregated at.  Eddy started with a hair salon, though he branched out into tanning, and I helped him procure his first tanning bed in Griffin, a town about 25 miles south along Tara Boulevard.  Tom worked at the phone company, and his live-in girlfriend Phyllis had magenta-colored Cleopatra style hair.  They both smoked incessantly yet had brilliant teeth.  (Pretty much everyone at Clayton House smoked but me.)  I went over to their house once with a few others.  Clean laundry was falling out of the dryer, which was in the kitchen, and they all smoked cigarettes as we drank cokes or lemonade or sweet tea.  The collective laughter and in-jokes were the music we all listened to, its tones and rising pitches wafting across the room with the blue-grey smoke.  Sandra was there, a woman in her late 30s, natural blonde, who still to this day typifies to me what serenity – as opposed to mere sobriety – is like.  Woody had a dog grooming shop, and his trimmed beard and shoulder-length fine black hair, always combed, made him look like an afghan, except for his diminutive height.


Joe and Frieda were the first Mormon couple I had ever become friends with.  They had a daughter in college and a college-bound son, who listened to the Grateful Dead most waking hours, and Joe seemed to have a gift for fixing the washing machine with parts that he extracted from their 15-year-old Dodge Caravan.  As I recall, I paid them somewhere around $200 per month for my 10’ square room, and I had bathroom cleaning duties.


I used their phone to call Ray W.


At the time, I had not met Ray face to face.  When I finally did, his appearance was underwhelming.  He was 6’2”, thin and bent like a homeless man, and had dark black skin and graying and aging clothes.  He wore dark glasses, and I can’t say I ever saw the whites of his eyes.  When you don’t see the whites of someone’s eyes, you wonder if they even know you or think about you when they’re addressing you.  At least I did.


And yet, when you get to a certain point in your life, when the misery is great enough, you do what someone tells you to do, especially if their names happens to fall under lucky number 17 on a list, a criterion as good as any to pick a sponsor.  Ray told me to call him every night at 7:30 to check in.  I did.  He told me to go to a meeting every day.  I did.  (At least one.)  He told me many other things as well, including insisting that I come to the Thursday night Spiritual Recovery Group at Southwest Christian Church in East Point.


It was on Thursday nights I met people like Bill and Julie.  Bill worked for Delta Airlines, and they lived in Peachtree City.  Bill and Julie, and many of their friends from SWCC in their 50s, 60s and even 70s, were the kind of people I had always assumed spent the better part of the day counting their blessings that they were not heroin addicts.  But there we sat, in a room adjacent to the sanctuary (no smoking allowed, however), and one by one we went around the room, introducing ourselves by first name.  There were maybe sixty of us.


“My name is Jerry, and I’m an addict.”  Hi, Jerry!


“My name is Howard, and I’m an alcoholic.”  Same refrain.


“My name is Julie, and I’m a sinner.”


A “sinner.”


Now, at this point, I think a disclaimer is in order.  I read recently in a NY Times article, one of many in recent years, about the supposed overlap and equation of “addiction” and “sinfulness.”  That’s not what I’m getting to here.  I’m writing about how a person who recognizes that he is broken by alcohol or cocaine, and how a person who recognizes that she is broken by sin, sit in the same room and talk about what Jesus did for them.  The same Jesus, and the same deliverance.  In fact, I noticed that the people who had been in this group for some time, people with substance abuse issues like me, would often introduce themselves as, “Shawana, a crack addict and sinner.”  Sin was at the bottom, not addiction, even though addiction often paraded around on the campgrounds that sin had the permit to.


And so this is how I met Bill and Julie, and Ray W. and Jim Dyer (the founding pastor of the church, and founder of this group), and Joe O. and Hendu and Cheryl and so many others, most of whom I can remember faces of if not names.


Ray W. told me what to do, and I did it.  I did it half out of fear for what would happen if I didn’t, and half out of certainty that he knew what he was talking about.  Ray was supervisor in a halfway house called S.O.A.R., a ministry that SWCC founded and funded.  A lot of the guys I met in Clayton House were living there and would get jobs at a Waffle House or gas station, wherever they could walk to, since their driver licenses had been revoked.



photo:  :petra:

Bootless cries

I cried out to God this morning and was surprised to hear not a thunderous response, nor a stern rebuke, nor a gentle cooing, but rather a velvet hush.  No, “hush” is too soothing, and “velvet” is too luxuriant.  It was more like a Mona-Lisa-smile of a sound.  No judgment, one way or the other.  Ambivalent.  Not uncertain but, rather, indiscernible.  Known by the other, hidden from the viewer.  Or perhaps it was like the sound of a kindly older relative, tapping her finger on the armrest of an oak rocking chair.  Not clearly directed at her audience, perhaps in response to some other thought, or memory, or hope, she happens to be considering at that same moment.  Not negligent in the strict sense.  Just otherwise engaged.


This made me quite angry.


I kept praying, waiting for something…anything.  I was in pain and I thought I had come to my Father in heaven and would get…comfort? ease?  lightness of spirit?  peace?  Yes, peace.  Peace is what I see promised all over Scripture.  And I also read about how if we come near to God, he will come near to us.  And how Jesus stands at the door knocking and if we answer he will come in and dine with us.  Sit down at the table and feast, convivially, joyfully.


But here I experienced none of that.


Rather, I completed my time, pried away from where I sat by the clock and not sated by any consummation, feeling like the writer of the 88th psalm, in which the closing line reads “…and darkness is my closest friend.”  This is actually one of my favorite psalms if not my favorite, since it aptly describes these times best, when after all my pleading and crying and begging, I face only…that ambivalent stare, that finger-tapping, from heaven.  It also reminds me that I’m not completely crazy.  Someone else – yes, even if it’s only one other human in history, who happened to have pen and paper – experienced what I am experiencing.


Shakespeare once lamented that he would “trouble deaf heaven with [his] bootless cries.”  I don’t claim heaven – or God – is deaf.  No, but on days like today it becomes even more painful to know that God hears – God hears, knows, sees everything; of that I have no doubt – and does not answer me clearly.  How dare he.  He owes me something.  Anything.  He owes me, his child, an answer.  Or so this mad rage reasons in my mind.


Usually the tears themselves are cleansing.


But this morning, they were just the precursor to the tapping, the stare.  I wept and wept for a few minutes, feeling like my tears themselves would melt his heart, that certainly now I would have some answer that eluded me moments before.  After all, didn’t my own sons get results when they turned on the waterworks and asked for dessert?…another two minutes at video games?…to stay up five minutes longer before lights out?  (And the truth is, to my shame, they too often do get results this way.)


I wanted a word…anything.  A simple word.


And there, in the tapping, I didn’t get a word but rather a reminder.  The writer of Psalm 88 acknowledges at the beginning that the Lord is the “God who saves” him.


The psalmist gave me the vine that was draped over the edge of the cliff I felt I was hanging from.  There was no doubt in there being a cliff, or that I was hanging, or that if I let go, I would fall.  But the vine was rooted in something I could trust.  The vine would hold, whether I believed it would or not.  So long as I held on to it, it would hold me up.


This God, who created the heavens and the earth and all that is in it…this God who was silent before me, by his own choosing, expressed his Being-ness to me.  His certainty.  His absolute reality.


This was the great “I AM” who held me up.  Here was the greatest of all realities, who created all the realities I trusted implicitly around me – air, carpet, coffee and pajamas – and who was pointing to his presence as enough for me.  And by no means was it a ponderous wave of knowledge that came over me.  It was more like a stubborn fact.


In that moment and the moments following, even to the moment now as I write, he did not give me a word but rather gave me himself to rely on.  The faith he was calling me to have as I wiped useless tears from my cheeks was to believe in him as enough, his reality as true, his completeness and his goodness and his ultimate control, as sufficient to carry me through.  No word about me or for me, no gentle breeze blowing in my ear with a reminder about some verse or doctrine, no vague sense of peace and well-being.  Only a pointer to himself.  A picture of One who is.  One who is, regardless of my belief or doubt in his Is-ness.


There is much more to say about him – what he gave up because of his love for me and others – but that’s not what’s in question here.  His love is not in question, his love is not on trial.


I was looking for an answer, a response, a sign, a signal, a knowing look, a comforting…feeling.  What I received was:  I AM.


It was enough for today.



photo:  Myles Smith; Clickr Clickr

heartless man

There was a mosquito in my office this evening, and I killed it without a second thought.

I saw it doing a lazy air dance in front of me, almost like a drunken kamikaze pilot who’s off course:  it was slowly lilting from right to left over my laptop as I prepared a presentation for Monday on the topic of “stewardship,” which of course includes the proper cultivation and care of God’s creation…and all the animals therein.

It was odd.

While I open my window a crack if my office gets hot, it was closed today, and we are on the 11th floor of a modernized space.  This bug was definitely out of its neighborhood.  Definitely far from home.  Which was probably Queens.

I had read part of an essay in The Sun the other day by Andrew Boyd about his stay and quasi-apprenticeship at Doi Suthep, a Thai monastery.  As part of his regimen, he was to live by certain vows:  no sexual activity, no stealing, and no killing, meaning he “couldn’t even murder mosquitoes.”  I had taken so such mosquito-specific vow, nor would I during the months from April to October.  Neither would I near large amounts of standing water during the months of November through March.

So I swatted at the damn thing first:  you know, the hand clap thing in front of you where you figure it will get dead no matter which way it goes.  But it seemed to have eluded my very un-Zen hands.  (This was indeed the sound of two hands clapping.)  I forgot about it and kept typing, still trying to figure out how it got into our space.

Perhaps fifteen minutes later I looked down along the F key row on my keyboard and just above F8, on the concave power button, there was a small body, struggling for life on its back.  I knew what I must do.  I took my thumb – for with that digit I could exert the maximum pounds per square inch, and the thumb also has fewer nerves it seems than my other fingers and I was feeling a little sensitive about the while Doi-Suthep-no-murder thingy – and I pressed down on its entire being until it was still.

I made sure not to press too much, or my computer would power down.

I picked up the cadaver between said thumb and middle finger and deposited it in the wastebasket on top of my used dinner containers from Cafe Metro downstairs.

Now, some may find me cruel.  Or heartless.

The way I see it, it’s either him or me.  Him or me.  And I have a family to feed.  He’s a bug.  Alone, way above his altitude, far from home, and ostensibly looking for a fight.

Well, he found one.


photo:  tux-penguin

Optimizing interactive interfacing technologies

A bio I…encountered…online for a man who works with a consultant in the homeland security field mused as follows:

“[Dr. Joe Smith] a medical neuroscientist, has an MD/PhD  from [West Coast] University, is the [employee title] of the Institute for Interventional Informatics and has gained international recognition for pioneering new methods of physiologically based human-computer interaction. [Smith’s] research efforts have focused on advanced instrumentation and new methods of analysis which can be applied to evaluating various aspects of human function as it relates to human-computer interaction, this effort was to identify methods and techniques which optimize 083007sradion.jpginformation flow between humans and computers. [Smith’s] work has indicated an optimal mapping of interactive interface technologies to the human nervous system’s capacity to transduce, assimilate and respond intelligently to information in an integrative-multisensory interaction will fundamentally change the way that humans interact with information systems. Application areas for this work include quantitative assessment of human performance, augmentative communication systems, environmental controls for the disabled, medical communications and integrated interactive educational systems. [Smith] is particularly active in technology transfer of aerospace and other defense derived technologies to the fields of health care and education. Specific areas of interest are: advanced instrumentation for the acquisition and analysis of medically relevant biological signals; intelligent  informatics systems which augment both the general flow of medical information and provide decision support for the health care professional; public accesses health information databases designed to empower the average citizen to become more involved in their own health care; and advanced training technologies which will adaptively optimize interactive educational systems to the capacity of the user. “

Frankly, I think he has done so much interactive interfacing, optimally speaking of course, he has left the rest of us scratching our heads and not knowing how to transduce, assimilate or respond intelligently.

photo:  sradion