Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Book of Doug

For as long as Doug could remember,
he prayed to be made a messenger of God.
He prayed to speak the Word of God.
He prayed to be a prophet.

When Doug was 32 years old,
he was a deacon at the Shepherd’s Way,
a nondenominational congregation,
located in a wealthy, predominantly white
Northwest suburb of Chicago.
Some sneered and called it a “mega-church,”
but Pastor Rick smiled and said,
“The size of the flock doesn’t matter.
What counts is where you’re taking them
and if you can protect them in the night.”
Doug was engaged to marry Rachel, Pastor Rick’s only daughter.
He didn’t have much experience preaching yet,
but he was the more popular
of the two youth group leaders,
and the best cook at the men’s pancake prayer breakfast.

One unseasonably warm February night,
an Angel of the Lord came onto Doug
and woke him from a deep, untroubled sleep.
Like you would expect of an angel,
it was winged and clothed mostly in white
and bathed in a blinding light
almost too painful to look at.
Its gender was, to Doug, troublingly indeterminate,
and it wore an angry expression
like a dog with eyes all black,
ready to bare its teeth and bite.
The Angel asked, “Do you fear the Lord God Almighty?”
Doug normally would have said
that he had a deep personal friendship with God,
but this apparition was terrifying,
so he just replied, “Yes.”

The Angel said to Doug,
“Your prayers have been heard,
and they will be answered.
If it is still your desire,
you will be given a tongue of fire
burning to speak the Word of God.
You will not be silenced,
and the Word of God
shall ever be on your lips.
But,” the Angel added,
“you won’t like it.”

“It’s the only thing I’ve ever really wanted!”
Doug cried.  “Let the Lord’s Will be done!”
The Angel, to Doug’s surprise,
kissed him on the lips,
a hot, burning sensation,
then vanished.
Doug sank into unconsciousness.

He woke up feeling pretty good, actually,
and couldn’t detect any change.
What a strange dream.
He had a busy schedule:
a staff meeting at the church
in the morning;
a youth group planning session
in the afternoon
to discuss the upcoming Spring Retreat;
and Passion Play rehearsal in the evening.
It was a musical version featuring live animals—
donkeys, camels, and sheep—
and complex choreography.
Other churches in the area bussed people in
just to see it every year.
Doug wasn’t much of a singer or a dancer,
so he usually played the part of “Man from Jerusalem #12,”
one of many who at first followed Jesus
as he preached and performed his miracles
(as featured in the song “Singing His Praises”)
but by the end of the play had turned on Christ,
lustily shouting “Crucify Him!”
(during the song “Crucify Him!”).
The role had originally been named “Jewish Man #12,”
but Pastor Rick had wisely discerned
that nomenclature could cause some problems.

Doug also planned to talk to Pastor Rick
about the sermon he was planning to deliver the following Sunday
at the 10:00 service,
which was THE service at Shepherd’s Way
with the full choir,
better attended than the 6:30 or 8:30
and felt more official
than the simple acoustic guitar service
for those lazy 11:30-ers.
He was feeling a bit of stage fright and writer’s block, to be honest.

Doug lunched that day
at one of those so-called “fast-casual” restaurants
with seemingly infinite combinations of
sandwiches, soups, and salads.
Healthier than a burger and fries, sure,
but you’re still paying like twelve dollars
for half a sandwich and a bowl of soup.
And he was contemplating this
and what his grandmother would have said
about the entire concept
and watching every single other person in the restaurant
staring transfixed into some kind of tiny screen
while they were standing in line
or waiting for their order
or even sitting at tables in groups in silence.
Small children had their own small screens too,
and nobody could process through the line efficiently
because everyone was mid-text or mid-tweet,
and the two young women in front of him
who should have been walking up to the counter
paused to photograph themselves,
holding a cell phone high above them
to capture the most flattering angle,
their faces frozen in an expression
of false orgasmic joy
for just a moment,
capturing that they are there, together,
in that sandwich, soup, and salad place,
looking as beautiful as they ever will in their lives,
showing off their friendship and joie de vive
and ability to purchase $12 lunch combos.
And Doug could see that the cashier was getting frustrated,
calling out, “Can I help who’s next?”
But the women in front of him
were busy on their phones,
publishing this slightly blurry photograph of themselves
on various social media platforms,
and he didn’t want to cut in line.
And it was at that precise moment
that Doug’s tongue was set afire,
and he began to loudly speak the Word of God.

Twenty minutes later,
he was sitting on a bench next to the Pace bus stop
maybe a block and a half from the restaurant,
He had never been kicked out of any place in his life,
and it seemed for a while that the police were going to be called.
The manager grabbed Doug by the arm
(while Doug continued to speak the Word of God)
and physically removed him from the establishment.
There was a remote part of Doug,
the part of him who wasn’t wide-eyed and shouting,
literally spitting his words at the disgusted manager,
the part of Doug who had retreated deep within himself
and could only watch this scene in horror.
Have I been possessed? he wondered.
Miss Greensboro, a Biblical Studies teacher
at the Christian academy Doug attended
during his high school years,
once told his class that only the spiritually weak could be
possessed by demons.
So he was reasonably sure that didn’t apply to him.
I’m obviously far too stressed, he assured himself.
Taking on way too much at church,
plus the wedding next year.
I will prayerfully discern how I can cut back
while still being of service to others.

He felt better then,
but was alarmed when a young man approached him
at the bus stop,
skateboard in hand,
wearing all black, shaggy hair dyed purple
in an amateur, haphazard fashion,
studded with piercings in his lips, nose, eyebrows, tongue,
earlobes grotesquely stretched,
a tattooed octopus tentacle on his neck
reaching upwards.
Doug remembered seeing him in the café
and could feel his cheeks start to burn.

“Hey, bro,” the young man began,
“What you said in there was just awesome, man.
Awesome.  I’ll never forget it.”

Doug stared at him, mouth gaping,
didn’t have a chance to say “thanks”
watched the young man ride away,
listened to the satisfying crunching and grinding
of skateboard wheels on asphalt.
Then all was quiet,
except for birdsong above and the drone of passing traffic.


I believe that names are very important
and reflect critical aspects of your personality.
For example, I am leery of naming a dog “Loki,”
for fear that he would delight in creating chaos.
A toddler named “Nero” would be a frightening creature indeed.
Does the name make a person or does the person find the right name?
Is a christening a matter of mystical fate or a happy/unhappy accident?

What my name says about me, I don’t know.
My mother had some dreary suggestions for me,
Llke “Dawn Marie.”  But my older brother had other ideas:
named me after two ‘70s TV stars—Karen Valentine and Michelle Lee.
This may come as a surprise, but
I’m not a glamorous actress
with gloriously feathered hair and bell bottoms

Karen is a Danish variation of “Katherine,” I believe,
which is derived from the Greek for “pure and unsullied.”
I can’t imagine that anyone over 40 feels very wholesome and immaculate.
Karen is not a trendy 2018 baby name,
but it’s not quite a grandma name, like Helen or Gladys.
It’s more like the name of your craziest aunt,
so I guess it fits me pretty well after all.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018


So I died a few minutes ago,
and I’m not really sure what to do now?
I had been lying on a small white bed,
inclined slightly
in a dimly lit hospital room.
A whiteboard once had “recovery goals” written on it,
and those were now erased.
“Pain free” were the only words that remained.
A machine that had once been beeping rapidly
now pinged slowly and sporadically.
Someone gripped my thin, cold hand.
I don’t remember if it was someone I had loved
or a kind nurse or a priest.
I shuddered,
and I closed my eyes for just a moment.
A blink,
and now I’m here.
Miles and miles away, I think.
I don’t know where I am.
I don’t really know who I am
or if anyone can see me.

I am standing on a hill above a vast green field.
The land is a quilt made of emerald, gold, shamrock and sage-colored patches.
Clusters of trees dot the landscape.
I can see a long, low wall fashioned of round gray stones far in the distance.
A few muddy white sheep are grazing nearby,
indifferent to my presence or non-presence.
I would guess this was Heaven,
except it’s kind of cold and rainy.
It’s beautiful,
if you’re not a city person or a beach person.
No mountains or anything,
but it’s fine.
I take a few tentative steps.
Am I in Yorkshire?  Or Wisconsin?
This grassy people-less landscape stretches as far as I can see.
There are dark gray threatening clouds above.
Raindrops are streaming down my face.
Can’t see through my glasses.
Do I still need my glasses?
Yes.  Yes, I do.
I find a winding dirt path that stretches clear to the horizon
and have no choice but to follow it.

Write About Humor's Role in Our Culture, the Poetry Prompt Said, Which Is an Unfunny Idea

Assholes on Twitter will tell you
that women aren’t funny,
which is very strange to me
because I wouldn’t have made it this long
if I wasn’t funny.
I’m not conventionally attractive
or physically coordinated.
I’m prone to depression
and have a family history of mental illness.
Of course I’m fucking funny.
I cling to laughter as a life raft
when life’s trying to drown me in an ocean of bullshit.
And I make people laugh.
I once made Saul Williams laugh—not a polite “ha ha”
but a real laugh!
I could tell you what I said,
but I don’t think it would be as funny out of context.
There was a point in my life
when I was 13 or 14,
and I could choose who I wanted to be.
I certainly did not like myself very much,
and my classmates, in general, agreed.
I could have been the girl who really got into Tori Amos,
and that would have been fine,
but I would be a MUCH different person than I am now.
Instead I became obsessed with Monty Python,
and I realized that all the things that were making me miserable,
like irrationally angry teachers or packs of seventh-grade girls,
were actually absurdly hilarious if you look at them the right way.
And I would find the one person who was also
on the outside looking in,
and I’d make fun of the cliques and the bizarre Catholic school rules.
Then I would have a friend.
And that’s how I got by.
It’s how I still get by,
always looking on the bright side of life.