“Prayer For Marilyn Monroe”: brief discussion and translation

by John Samuel Tieman

A friend and student of Thomas Merton, Ernesto Cardenal is a Catholic priest in Nicaragua.  A proponent of Liberation Theology, Cardenal served as Minister Of Culture in the Sandinista government. The story goes that Rev. Cardenal wrote this poem right after reading, in an article in Time, of Marilyn Monroe’s death.

For my part, I lived in Mexico City during the 1980s. When I moved home, to St. Louis, I did this translation as a tribute to Cardenal and to Liberation Theology.

Among other considerations, in the broadest sense there is always the attempt, in all translations, to attend to the poetics of the craft, as well as the replication of the original vocabulary. In this case, there is one other consideration, one I feel is perhaps the most important. I hope my translation honors the holiness of this prayer. In our secular world, it is very easy to simply forget, frankly, that Father Cardenal offers a prayer. A prayer. A prayer in which he sees a woman exploited by capitalism in this life, and liberated by God’s love in the next. A prayer in which the poet acts as both priest to this woman and prophet to the rest of us, who closes his poem with our “Amen.”

(In 1993, this translation appeared in River Styx. In 1995, it was published in The Best Of River Styx.)

Prayer For Marilyn Monroe

by Ernesto Cardenal
trans. John Samuel Tieman

accept this girl known over the world by the name of
          Marilyn Monroe
though that was not her true name
(but You know her true name, the name of the orphan
          raped at age nine
and the name of the shopgirl who first tried
          suicide at sixteen)
and who now presents herself before You without her makeup
without her press agent
without photographs and without signing autographs
alone as an astronaut facing the dark night of deep space

While still a girl, she dreamed she was nude in a church
          (according to copy filed by Time)
before a prostrate multitude with their heads on the ground
and she had to tiptoe in order to avoid stepping on the heads.
You know our dreams better than psychiatrists.
Church, house, den, all are the security of the maternal womb
but also something more…
The heads are the admirers, clearly
(the mass of heads in the darkness beneath the beam of light).
But the temple is not the studio of 20th Century Fox.
The temple – of marble and gold – is the temple of her body
in which the Son of Man stands with His whip in His hand
driving out the money changers of 20th Century Fox
who made Your house of prayer a den of thieves.

in this world contaminated by sin and radioactivity
You do not only blame a shopgirl alone
who like any shopgirl dreamed of being a star.
And her dream was reality (Technicolor reality).
She could not but act according to the script we gave her
–the story of our life–the script was absurd.
Forgive her Lord and forgive all of us
for our 20th Century
for this Colossal Super-Production in which we all had a hand.
She hungered for love and we offer her tranquilizers.
For the sin of not being a saint
                                                       we recommended psychoanalysis.
Remember her growing hatred of the camera
and the hatred of make-up – she insisted on make-up for each scene –
and how her terror grew
and how her tardiness grew.

Like any shopgirl
she dreamed of being a star.
And her dream was unreal as a dream a psychiatrist interprets and files.

Her romances were a kiss with closed eyes
that when the eyes were opened
were uncovered by the spotlight
                                                       then the spotlight was turned off!
and the crew struck the two room walls (it was a set)
while the Director walked off with the script
          this scene now a take.
Or like a voyage of a yacht, a kiss in Singapore, a dance in Rio
the reception in the mansion of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor
          viewed from some slum tenement.
The movie ended without the final kiss.
They found her dead in bed, hand on the phone.
And the detectives never discovered who she was going to call.
It was
like someone who dialed the number of the only friendly voice
and hears a tape saying:  WRONG NUMBER.
Or like someone who is wounded by gangsters
who stretches out her hand for a disconnected phone.

whoever it is she was going to call
and didn’t call (and maybe it was no one at all
or Someone whose number is not in the Los Angeles Directory)
          You answer that call.

Brother, Can You Spare A Salinger?

When I travel, I am often struck by who makes it on to the local money. Recently, when I was in the Czech Republic, I saw John Amos Comenius on the 200 crown note. Comenius was an educational theorist and philosopher, someone I have long admired. When I lived in Mexico, the poet Juana Ines De La Cruz was on the 1000 peso note. My wife is in her Carl Nielson phase. That composer is on the Danish 100 kroner bill.

It’s difficult to imagine America honoring artists and intellectuals – and I mean honoring them at all, much less on money. But let’s try. I propose that the following Americans appear on the following denominations.

the penny – Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond
the nickel – Josephine Baker
the dime – J. D. Salinger
the quarter – Leonard Bernstein
the half-dollar – John Steinbeck
the silver dollar coin – Anne Sexton
the golden dollar coin – Phillis Wheatley
the paper dollar – Allen Ginsberg
two dollars – Langston Hughes
five dollars – W. E. B. DuBois
ten dollars – Betty Freidan
twenty dollars – Charles Ives
fifty dollars – Jackson Pollock
one-hundred dollars – Diane Arbus
five-hundred dollars – Louise Nevelson
one thousand dollars – Mark Rothko
five thousand dollars – John Singer Sargent
ten thousand dollars – Margaret Mead
one hundred thousand dollars – John Dewey

A Brief Essay on Love, Art, and Staring at a Woman’s Breast

by John Samuel Tieman

There is a level in which we all stare, but it’s usually done surreptitiously. I know that I am perfectly capable of “checking-out” a woman at great length. I’ve even developed techniques to aid my endeavor. Scratch my forehead to cover my eyes. Hold the menu just high enough, so that it comes between her eyes and mine, but not between her breasts and my eyes. That said, the success of these techniques is not even. I’ve sometimes even embarrassed myself in this endeavor. Like just the other day, when this woman discovers I’m looking at her breasts, which were lovely. But it is unusual to have such permission to stare from a stranger. It’s not like she said, “Oh, it’s okay. Please, stare at my breasts.” But a portrait does, in fact, say just that – “It’s okay to stare.”

In some sense, however, I wonder if this isn’t what all art does. The novel or the poem, the sculpture or the portrait, the opera or the TV show, all these allow us to stare at someone’s most intimate moments. We watch the first kiss of Romeo and Juliet. We watch the Stooge slip on a banana peal. We watch Michael Corleone kill his own brother. And we do so without blinking.

I remember being at Madame Trousseau’s wax museum in Times Square. I went right up to Gena Davis, as it were, and stared at length at her. I was surprised at how tall she is.

unnamedWe, my beloved and I, are also truly quite taken by this idea of a portrait allowing us to stare. It’s a compelling idea. We wonder if maybe this is also a great part of love, saying to the lover, “It’s okay to stare at me.”

My wife and I not long ago saw the original “La Fornarina” by Raphael, and were so taken by it that we have a framed replica of it in our bedroom. It is thought that she was the lover of Raphael. The half naked pose, of course, suggests something she would do for a lover. Phoebe and I think she is saying, “It’s okay to stare at my breasts.” We think of this as the moment just before she says, “It’s okay to watch me caress myself.”


Why I’m Catholic

by John Samuel Joseph Tieman

First, a confession. I am, after all, Catholic. I watch EWTN, the Catholic TV station.

In any case, I was flipping through the channels, and came across a Mass on EWTN. It was being said by a Passionist. I have a fondness for Passionists, for their combination of the contemplative and the active. The guy was a university administrator at some university out East someplace, and this was his retirement Mass. So, yea, OK, I’ll give it a look.

At the end of the Mass, he gave his retirement speech. He planned to spend his remaining years in his cell, and in his lab, contemplating eschatology, and experimenting in molecular biology. I was touched.

Then, to show his love for his colleagues, his students, for the viewers at home, he said he had brought with him a relic of the founder of the Passionists, St. Paul of the Cross.

He blessed us with The Holy Bone. I was down on my knees in front of my TiVo.

We’re a Church that takes the remains of those we love, puts them in the chipper, and turns them into relics. And that’s why I’m Catholic. A molecular biologist, in flowing white robes, blessing me with The Holy Bone. There are no Holy Bones in a Unitarian chapel. There’s one in every Catholic altar.

To be a Catholic is, by definition, to be comfortable with both paradox and mystery. It’s everywhere in The Church. Go to Mass. Contemplate the Summa Theologica while you hear, at the Consecration, “Take this, all of you, and eat it: this is my body … Take this, all of you, and drink from it: this is the cup of my blood …”. It’s primitive. And profound.

I went to Catholic grade school, high school, and got my Ph. D. from a Jesuit university. You don’t get any more Catholic. My Confirmation name is Joseph. I’ve never aspired to be a good Catholic. But, as a character on Nurse Jackie said, “You can leave the Church, but the Church never leaves you.” What a Jewish friend said of being a Jew, I can say of being a Catholic, “I wasn’t born to a faith – I was born to a fate.”

I belong to a Jesuit parish. There was once an exorcism in my parish. Just one. But this is the very exorcism upon which William Peter Blatty based The Exorcist. Ask my fellow parishioners publicly about the exorcism, and the answer will be quite rational, even a bit dismissive. Privately, I’ve heard of angels. One Jesuit, a novice when he participated in the exorcism, said he saw more evil as a chaplain in Vietnam than he ever saw in that room with that boy. He also swore that the bed rose off the floor. As for me, I think that sad little boy was mentally ill. And I think the bed rose off the floor. I remain agnostic about the angels.

I belong to a very annoying Church. This is The Church that gave us priests who abused children. This is The Church that goes berserk over birth control. But this is is also The Church that gave us Oscar Romero, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Pierre Teilhard De Chardin.

We have a proud list of folks who have found a home in The Church. Among the converts to Catholicism are Thomas Merton, Edith Stein and John Henry Newman. Let’s not forget Oscar Wilde, who said, “I could believe in anything, provided it is incredible. That’s why I intend to die a Catholic, though I never could live as one.”

We take a perverse pride in creative bad Catholics, Federico Fellini, Francois Villon, Guillaume Apollinaire, Pablo Picasso, Federico Garcia Lorca. And let’s not forget Madonna.

On the other hand, we can’t forget John Wayne Gacy and Alexander VI. If you sit where Adolf Hitler sat in his church choir, straight across from him was a statue of an abbot. It is adorned with what was, at that time, a common version of the cross. The swastika.

I was never abused by a priest. Nor was I ever beaten senseless by a nun. I wonder if I missed something. On the other hand, I did go to Confession with Walter Ong. And, yes, to me he was always Father Ong. Instead of three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys, for the penance he’d give a reading list. And don’t think he couldn’t bless you with The Holy Bone.

Mystery. Paradox. The theology of Thomas Aquinas. The music of Franz Liszt. The poetry of Juana Ines De La Cruz. I once saw a peasant, who crawled all the way from Cuernavaca to Mexico City on her knees, this to pray to Our Lady Of Guadalupe. And this is what I love about Catholicism. The saint and the sinner. That side altar, at the Carmelite monastery, dedicated to a poet, John Of The Cross, and, in the pew, a holy card with a “Prayer Never Known To Fail”. The gothic cathedral, and the hospital chapel. The fact that the Mass, said by the Pontiff in Rome, Italy, is the exact same Mass said by the parish priest in Rome, Georgia. I like to picture Gabriel Marcel praying his rosary. I like the rosary.

I love Thomas More. But my favorite saint is Brother Andre, who worked for forty years at odd-jobs in a little school in Montreal. Brother Andre is buried in a simple tomb, one inscribed with only “Pauper, Servus Et Humilis”. “Poor and humble servant.” That simple tomb is in the largest basilica in the western hemisphere, the Oratory Of St. Joseph.

And that’s why I’m Catholic. That and The Holy Bone.

This summer, my wife and I will spend a few weeks in Europe. She’s a psychoanalyst. So, first, we’ll go to Vienna, where she’ll worship at the First Church Of Freud. Then we’ll go to Prague. She’ll attend the meetings of the International Psychoanalytic Association. I’m going to see the Infant Of Prague.


A New Left?

By John Samuel Tieman

I asked a buddy, a fellow social science teacher, his opinion about joining a third party. “Is there a reason for joining any party?” I’m not quite that skeptical, but I get it. I generally vote Democrat, but, were I a card carrying member, I’d resign.

Folks call Barrack Obama “a socialist.” I want to hand such folks a dictionary. The president isn’t a socialist. He isn’t even a liberal. That’s the problem.

We no longer have a liberal party and a conservative party. We have a conservative party, a more conservative party, and a far right. Which leaves leftists where? It leaves most of us unrepresented.

I’m a leftist. I am also an historian. I don’t have great hope for a third party. I also don’t have great hope for the Democrats to incorporate the views of the left. The recent election of Pope Francis makes us painfully aware of just how long it has been since America had a leader who speaks for the poor. Which brings me back to the need for a leftist party.

What would a truly leftist party look like? I think the platform of such a party would have, as its ideological basis, something like this:

A mixed economy, one that consists of private enterprise and publicly owned or subsidized programs for universal health care, child care, elder care, veterans’ benefits, and education;

An extensive system of social security that counteracts poverty, and insures the citizens against destitution due to unemployment, retirement, injury or illness;

A government that supports trade unions, consumer protections, and that regulates private enterprise by ensuring labor rights and fair market competition;

The unequivocal and unwavering support of a woman’s right to choose;

Environmentalism and environmental protection laws, funding for alternative energy resources, and laws designed to immediately combat global warming;

The elimination of the death penalty;

A value-added tax and a progressive tax to fund many government expenditures;

Fair trade, not free trade;

Strict gun control;

Policies that value immigration and honor multiculturalism;

The rejection of predatory plutocracy;

A foreign policy that supports the promotion of democracy, the protection of human rights, and, whenever and wherever practical, effective multilateralism;

Campaign reform which promotes public financing, and restricts private donations;

The advocacy of social justice, civil rights and civil liberties.

These leftist views promote initiatives that range from the progressive to the center left to the democratic socialist. And, yes, democratic socialist. The Cold War is over. Joseph McCarthy is disgraced and, for that matter, dead. Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair was George Bush’s best-est buddy. There is nothing radical about the British Labour Party. Nor is there is anything radical about the now pulseless progressive wing of the Democratic Party or, lest we forget, progressive Republicans from Teddy Roosevelt to Lowell Weicker.

Is the formation of such a party possible? I don’t feel any urgency on the part of the electorate or the elected. What is clear is that, with the exception of a Senator Bernie Sanders (I – Vt.) here and there, there is almost a vacuum on the left. A democracy is predicated upon a dialogue, a dialectic if you will, between opposing forces that form opposite and competing poles of loyal opposition. We don’t have that. In this country, we have the right wing. That’s it. There’s no left wing. There is no loyal opposition. There is no dialogue left and right.

There is much debate about the future of the Republican Party. As well there should be. I think, however, that there should be a shift in this debate. Often, reform within a party originates in criticism from the outside. But, to shift the focus slightly, there is no serious ideological debate left versus right. The anxieties of Jack Danforth and David Brooks notwithstanding, to the extent that there is a debate among Republicans, the debate tends to be concerned with electoral method. How does a moderate Republican keep from getting “primaried” by the Tea Party? Democrats offer no ideological challenge to Republicans.

For that matter, the Democrats offer no serious challenge to Wall Street. Occupy Wall Street called for a rethinking of how we do business. For all the scandal of the 2008 financial meltdown, not one C. E. O. has been jailed. But we don’t just need a new way of doing business.

We need a new way of doing democracy.


On Catholic Anti-Semitism

by John Samuel Tieman

Perhaps the greatest challenge for anyone religious is to consider The Answer, but hold off on The Rule.

Not long ago, I wrote an essay about growing up Catholic. It was generally sentimental. Among other things, I wrote about the comfort I took from the Church during an emotionally turbulent childhood. Comfort. Stability. When I think of the Church of my childhood, this stability is what I often remember.

A Jewish buddy wrote me about my essay. When he thinks about his family’s encounters with The Church, it is not comfort that comes to mind. His father fled the anti-Semitic Catholics of his city in Poland. For my friend, mention of The Church brings to mind a very different set of memories.

So consider this an addendum to my sentimentality.

As I said in the previous essay, I belong to an annoying Church. That’s how I experience The Church at its worst. Annoying. I’ve never been molested by a priest. I’ve never had my shtetl burned to the ground. I don’t get pregnant. I don’t cringe when I hear the word “crusade”. I have experienced anti-Catholicism – it was painful, but still well within the class of annoyance.

We Catholics are at our most small c catholic when we are in the minority. We are at our worst when we make The Rule.

There’s a three-fold trap to bad leadership. The first is when the leader can’t imagine the consequences of the new rule. The second is when the leader personally experiences no consequences from his or her new rule. The third is when that leader receives little or no accurate feedback concerning the new rule. There would be no pedophile scandal if Catholic bishops had children.

It would be easy at this point to simply say, “Well, we’re all human. We’re all flawed. It’s not the fault of the religion. It’s all the fault of the flawed humans. A flaw. A mistake.”

When I take my students to the Holocaust Museum here, in St. Louis, I make it clear that anti-Semitism is very Christian. A lot of young folks want to treat this as yesterday’s flaw. I’m just old enough to remember when, on Good Friday, we prayed for the conversion of “the faithless Jews”. It’s a painful memory, this memory of a prayer. But remember we must. It was not a personal flaw. It was liturgy. It was Church policy. Lest we forget, here’s what we prayed when I was a kid in the ’50s and early ’60s –

Let us pray also for the faithless Jews: that almighty God may remove the veil from their hearts; so that they too may acknowledge Jesus Christ our Lord. Let us pray. Let us kneel. [Pause for silent prayer.] Arise. Almighty and eternal God, who dost not exclude from thy mercy even Jewish faithlessness: hear our prayers, which we offer for the blindness of that people; that acknowledging the light of thy Truth, which is Christ, they may be delivered from their darkness. Through the same our Lord Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.

That’s what we said. That’s exactly what we said. It was no mistake. The only flaw, the only mistake, is to forget that it was no mistake.

We Catholics also like to dismiss another painful memory. “Christ Killers”. Although apologists are correct in saying that Jewish deicide was not part of formal dogma per se, many Catholics, including members of the clergy, and not just a few bishops, preached that the Jewish people were collectively guilty for Jesus’ death. Vatican II repudiated that. That was a step in the right direction. But it didn’t change centuries of history. That damage was done.

If you sit where Adolf Hitler sat when he sang in his church choir, straight across from him was the statue of a much revered abbot. You can see that statue to this day. It is adorned with what was, long before Hitler’s youth, a common version of the cross of Christ. The swastika.

When someone feels they have The Answer, there is an overwhelming urge to take The Answer and make The Rule. How could The Rule be so wrong if The Answer is so right?

I love my Church. But we do need a new rule. My new rule is very small c catholic. It reads —

Just because you think you have The Answer
doesn’t mean you get to make The Rule.


Reenactment: A War Story

By John Samuel Tieman

A friend invited me to a Civil War reenactment. He was well meaning enough, although why he’d think I, a Vietnam veteran, would enjoy such a thing, who knows?

Then he said, “It’s realistic.”

To which I replied, “You want realistic? Here’s realistic. Fill their rifles with real bullets. But the blood and the gore, that’s not what I’m getting at.

The one who lives, the dead guy’s war buddy, there’s where you’ll find your realism. The survivor, in five years he’ll think how his buddy would have graduated from college. In ten years, how his buddy would have started a family, bought a little house. In a park one day with his own kid, fifteen years from now, he’ll imagine how his buddy would shag some flies with a son. But he won’t. Because he died. In twenty years, the survivor sending his kid to college, he’ll think how his buddy won’t. Twenty-five. Thirty. And on it goes until forty years from now, when he visits some memorial somewhere, and he puts his hand on his war buddy’s name – reenact that. That’s realistic.”


On Nothing: A Summer Essay

by John Samuel Tieman

I love being alone. I love staring out my window at nothing, and sitting here thinking of nothing. This is an essay about nothing at all, an essay addressed to the whole world, which is to say no one in particular. The world is a nice, but you just can’t hang out with the world.

First, a few disclaimers. I love my wife. I’m one of those folks described as very married. In twenty-two years of marriage, in thirty-four years of friendship, I’ve not so much as raised my voice to Phoebe. Our compatibility is, frankly, remarkable. When folks ask me how we do it, what can I say? Marry someone with whom you’re remarkably compatible? Then be conflict avoidant? Anyway, so, first, I love my wife.

Then I love my friends. I have friends that go back forty years to my army days, thirty-five-plus years to my undergraduate days. Folks like that. I love them all.

But I also love being alone, staring out my window at nothing, sitting here thinking of nothing and all that.

I love my home. I live in St. Louis, although, staring out my window, it’s just a city. I stare at just a backyard with a street running next to it. The street I stare up ends with the crest of a hill about two-hundred meters from here. There’s a little public school on the other side of that rise. When the wind is blowing from that direction, you can hear the kids play. My wife went to school there back in the mid-60’s. There’s also a Catholic church on the other side of that hill. I attended that church, went to that parish school, and, indeed, was Confirmed there. I can hear the noon Angelus bells. But I can’t see the school or the church from my window. I sometimes pray the Angelus.

Occasionally a firetruck rushes up to the corner, where it turns to go somewhere, north, south. But once it stopped. Now that was Big Time. Rumor had it that someone at the corner had a meth lab which exploded. But I don’t know. It didn’t make the Post-Dispatch.

On the other side of my backyard, the closest neighbors are a Black family, friendly enough folks, although I don’t know them as well as I know the other neighbors. I call the wife “The Empress Dowager”, because on her left hand she has three fingernails each over a foot long. I’ve got to wonder what that’s about. But I don’t ask, because the fantasy is a lot more fun than any actual answer.

Not long ago, I saw the movie Into Great Silence. I love it so much that I bought the DVD as well as a book about Carthusian monks. That’s what the movie is about, monks, a Carthusian monastery full of them. Carthusians make Trappists look like weenies. They are hermits, who, while they live in a monastery, spend almost all of their time in their cells. I get that. I really get that. I don’t get why they don’t want to get laid. Or, for that matter, why they don’t want to catch a few innings of the Cardinal’s game on the tube – who doesn’t want to watch the Cardinals at bat? But the great silence, staring out the window at nothing, praying my rosary for no one about nothing. Yea.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a good Catholic. I am very, very Catholic. But I have never wanted to be a good Catholic. The Trappist Thomas Merton once said something like, “God, protect me from all right thinking men, which is to say men who agree perfectly with their own police.” I used to love Thomas Merton. I still like him, but I like him better dead. That way I can pick and choose the bits I like from his life. The actual monk, I think I would have found him annoying. Pretty much like I find my whole Church these days. I belong to a very annoying religion. I love the St. Louis Cathedral when it is cool, dark and empty. But Catholic I am. I can no more stop being a Catholic than I can stop being a Midwesterner, both of which I’ve tried. But what a Jewish friend says of his religion, I say of mine. I wasn’t born to a faith: I was born to a fate. Which leads me to nothing at all.

Life in Missouri

By John Samuel Tieman

Here, in Missouri, I live in a fairly liberal enclave within a larger, stupider state. I really should say a stupider state and a half, since southern Illinois is really us, and it’s the stupider half of that state. Even within relatively liberal St. Louis, I live in University City, the most liberal bit. We were the only township in Missouri to have gone for George McGovern. We were the first municipality in the state to allow civil unions, pass a resolution discouraging the police from enforcing marijuana laws, that sort of thing. The state, on the other hand, just passed a law saying it would not enforce Sharia law, should Muslims take over Missouri, something Phoebe and I were certainly worried about.

With all that in mind, Missouri is really quite beautiful. It’s sometimes like living in an enormous national park, one with hoosiers instead of park rangers, admittedly, but lovely nonetheless. The Mississippi is at flood stage, and is, in the true sense of the term, awe inspiring. So were the seven tornadoes we had a week or ten days ago, thank you global warming pick-up driving four miles per gallon hoosier wankers. And then there’s my beloved Cardinals — best record in baseball! And I love the Arch, which I regard as one of the truly magnificent works of public art.

But there are days when even I have to love these hoosiers. I say “these”, because we are talking about half of my family. Back in the 80’s, we went to visit the village where my father was raised. It’s in the foothills of the Ozarks. He runs into this good old boy, and asks him how all is going.

“Oh, Chet,” he says to my dad, “you wouldn’t believe how everything has changed.”

I look around. There are still the three streets, the railroad tracks, the fields. My father is having much the same reaction. So he asks.

“Everything has changed. Everything! We now got us a homosexual and a one-way street.”



On Leadership, Empathy And Final Exams

by John Samuel Tieman

The schedule for final exams was just posted. We will spend three and a half hours each day with the two classes taking the exam each day. Two classes per day, one on Friday, three and a half hours with each class. Make-ups Friday afternoon. All this to give high school finals, each of which takes forty-five minutes.

This decision met with outright anger from the teachers and students. By no means is this worst decision this year. But it is interesting. Why? Three reasons. First, the person, who decided all this, doesn’t appear to be able to imagine the impact of that decision upon our daily lives. Second, the administrator is removed from any direct consequence of this decision. Third, the administrator apparently has no way to hear the reactions of the teachers and students.

It is hard to decide whether this is a problem in the administrative model, or if this decision comes from an inability to understand what another feels.
I am inclined to think that we should consider a new model of educational leadership, one not unlike an M. B. A. model of business leadership, or a West Point model of military leadership.

Gone is the day when the long serving teacher became the department chair, then the principal, later the superintendent. In my state, Missouri, principals are required to have at least five years in the classroom. Why? Because, at the time the law was written, many principals had fewer than five classroom years. It’s worth noting that most of us regard five years as a significant, albeit limited, experience. The relevance of that experience be¬comes more limited with time. A move to a new district limits the experience that much further.

Gone is the day when the C. E. O. started on the shop floor, became foreman, went to night school to learn accounting, apprenticed in the front office, and so forth. Someone earns their M. B. A., and starts in the office. The job is the functioning of the company, not the structuring of the shop floor, a job best done by a shop foreman.

Perhaps we can learn from the graduate of West Point. That graduate starts as a lieutenant. He or she will soon be a company executive officer, and a company commander. Their job will be the functioning of the platoon and the company, not the structuring of the private’s daily life. This latter job is best left to the sergeants and the cor¬porals. No colonel would micromanage the corporal’s work detail.

We talk, in the abstract, about the function of a district, and the structure of a classroom. In reality, the classroom is micromanaged through the standardization of everything from the daily lesson to, in some cases, the very words of instruction. The results are at times disastrous.

I don’t think that there is anything inherently wrong with folks going straight into educational administration. I think there is something inherently wrong with the colonel telling the corporal how to supervise the buffing of the barracks floor.
A word about empathy. It is possible that the person, making the decision about the final exams, lacks empathy. I refer here to the sense of empathy as attunement.

It is best to start off with what “empathy” is not. It is not “sympathy.” Interestingly, Dictionary.com makes special reference to the fact that these two terms are often confused. Empathy is the capacity to think and feel oneself into the inner life of another. Empathy is the ability to know emotionally what another is experiencing from within their frame of reference. Empathy is me thinking about you thinking, me understanding your thinking from your point of view.

Empathy is a neutral term. Sympathy has the connotation of kindness. Empathy can be kind. It can also be vicious. As Richard Friedman put it in the New York Times, “When the Nazis were bombing Rotterdam in World War II, for example, they put sirens on the Stuka dive-bombers, knowing full well that the sound would terrify and disorganize the Dutch. The Nazis imagined perfectly how the Dutch would feel and react. Fiendish, but the very essence of empathy.”

Some people have a reduced capacity for empathy. It must be said that it would be extremely worrisome if an administrator lacked that capacity. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (fourth edition), one characteristic of a narcissistic personality disorder, and of an antisocial personality disorder, is the reduced ability to feel empathy.

Empathy is a form of attunement to the emotional disposition of the other.

The administrator must be attuned to the emotions of the other. It is an absolute necessity for any form of educational dialogue. It allows for an accurate judgment of the feelings between administrator and teacher or sutdent. I hasten to repeat that these feelings are not necessarily positive and uplifting. Nor should they be. Sometimes what is shared is anger and frustration.


What Is Socialism?

by John Samuel Tieman

When I hear, “Obama is a socialist”, I want to hand that person a dictionary.

I am a democratic socialist. When I say that here, in St. Louis, folks are mystified. Were I to say to someone in Europe, “My mother supported us on her secretary’s salary — I’m Catholic — I teach in an inner city high school — so yea, I vote socialist”, were I to say that to someone in Europe, they’d likely reply, “That figures.” Then yawn. Here, it’s a big mystery.

First of all, when someone says “socialist”, the immediate follow-up should be, what kind of socialist? As near as I can tell, when folks say “Obama is a socialist”, they refer to democratic socialism, a socialism exemplified by Tony Blair and the British Labour Party.

Social democracy, also referred to as democratic socialism, is by far the most common form of socialism in the west. It rejects the authoritarianism of Soviet communism, and favors democratic reform. Democratic socialist parties have, at one time or another, had ruling coalitions in almost all western democracies. In the United States, Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas ran several notable, if futile, campaigns for president. At present, Vermont’s Bernie Sanders is our only socialist senator.

In addition to the politicians mentioned above, prominent social democrats in the United States, past and present, include Helen Keller, Cornell West, Barbara Ehrenreich, John Dewey, Howard Zinn, Michael Harrington, Dolores Huerta, Sidney Hook, Rosemary Ruether and Gloria Steinem, to name just a few.

Encapsulating what democrat socialists believe is like herding rabbits. Take war and peace, for example. Eugene Debs was a pacifist. Shimon Peres was Israel’s Minister Of Defense. There are socialists of every religious persuasion. Most are anti-communist.

Social background is no predictor of socialism. Prime Minister Harold Wilson was an Oxford don. Member Of Parliament James Kier Hardie was a Welsh coal miner. Nor is education a predictor. Gloria Steinem went to Smith College. Helen Keller was famously homeschooled.

With all that in mind, in general social democrats support:

  • A mixed economy, one that consists of private enterprise and publicly owned or subsidized programs for universal health care, child care, elder care, veterans’ benefits, and education;
  • An extensive system of social security that counteracts poverty, and insures the citizens against destitution due to unemployment, retirement, injury or illness;
  • A government that supports trade unions, consumer protections, and that regulates private enterprise by ensuring labor rights and fair market competition;
  • Environmentalism and environmental protection laws, funding for alternative energy resources, and laws designed to combat global warming;
  • A value-added tax and a progressive tax to fund many government expenditures;
  • Fair trade, not free trade;
  • Policies that value immigration and honor multiculturalism;
  • A foreign policy supporting the promotion of democracy, the protection of human rights, and, whenever and wherever practical, effective multilateralism;
  • Advocacy of social justice, human rights, civil rights and civil liberties.
  • Democratic socialism should not be confused with such anti-democratic movements as Stalinism. It is worth emphasizing that social democrats see democracy as both a process and an end unto itself. The vision of democratic socialism is one in which there is a decrease in the power of money in politics, and an increase in the voices of ordinary workers. This vision is of a society in which everyone, rich, middle class and poor, shapes society.

A word about capitalism. Democratic socialism stands for a continual reappraisal of capitalism. One problem with the United States is that there is no persistent critique of the Gordon Gekkos. Beyond that, the relationship between capitalism and socialism is something of a debate.

On the socialist right is the “Third Way”, a synthesis of or right-wing economics and left-wing social policy. Tony Blair, the former prime minister of Great Britain, is an advocate of the Third Way.

Other social democrats feel the Third Way is a betrayal of basic socialist principals. These folks would say that socialism and capitalism must be in constant dialogue. This dialogue stems from fixed ideological positions, which include loyal opposition, but do not include a “Third Way” synthesis.

On the far left are those social democrats who are true to their vision of Karl Marx. These folks feel that democratic socialism is transitional. The end point is the communist utopia.

The overwhelming majority of democratic socialists today are in the camps represented by the “Third Way” and the center-left.

And Obama is not a socialist. But I am.


The Trouble With Numbers

by John Samuel Tieman

I recently read a scholarly article by the principal of a public high school in New York, which in part addressed “data dysentery”, the countless reams of data we educators collect for, well, for what? The collection of data for the sake of the collection of data?

I mentioned this at lunch to a friend, himself a middle school principal in a large eastern district. He told me of a reading program that was implemented in his district. “Teacher-Proof Education”. The district spent millions on lessons were entirely scripted. There was only one program. To the best of my friend’s knowledge, everyone, teachers and principals without exception, felt the program deleterious to the point of counter-productive. So no one implemented it. Not one school. Except when there was a survey, run by outsiders, measuring the program. On those days, everyone implemented it. At other times, analysis depended on self-reporting which, for obvious reasons, bordered on the self-congratulatory.

The program was deemed a success. “People were even promoted,” my friend added with a laugh. He became a bit more somber when he mentioned how a social scientist, one he deeply respected, based part of an article on this data.

First, the disclaimer. I am not a luddite. Nor am I a data hater. Statistical surveys, and other data instruments, can provide deeply meaningful analyses, analyses that can alter an entire society. “The Kinsey Reports” irrevocably changed America by simply informing the nation of our sexual practices.

Contemporary statistical analyses, however, mostly yield noise. Perhaps the greatest disservice is done to serious social scientists, whose work gets lost amid all the stats-trash.

There is, in a word, imbalance. It is time to honor those who do serious data collection by reminding ourselves of some of the fundamental limits of data analysis.

 Data tends to create more data. And this data, based upon that data, can often act like a platonic removal, a shadow based upon a shadow of the original thing.
 Data often obscures its own prejudices. As just one example, every statistical analysis starts with the presumption that the problem at hand is amenable to, and benefited by, data analysis.
 Data has trouble with innovation. Why? Because tomorrow’s innovation is measured by yesterday’s instrument.
 Data often has trouble with social context. Early I. Q. tests were first designed for, and administered to, relatively well educated whites. Blacks did terribly, and were deemed to be intellectually inferior.
 Many large scale studies depend heavily on self-reporting. But how does one report accurately, for example, in a school system? In a rigidly hierarchical system, like a school system, it merits one almost nothing to report accurately, to the next highest level, that which is negative. There are times when, as the report moves up the hierarchy, each level acts as a platonic removal, until the final report, let’s say a report to the state, is just a shadow of the classroom upon which it reports. As anecdotal evidence, I offer the fact that, of the thousands of reading programs implemented in public schools, I’ve not read one that reported itself a failure.
 Perhaps most importantly, our lives are subject to the ineffable, the intangible, the unconscious. How does one measure awe? Faith? Hope? Beauty? More importantly, why would anyone want to? It is not sufficient to say that the opening of Mozart’s “Haffner Symphony” is brilliant in its simplicity?

The best studies do address the problems listed above. Contemporary I. Q. tests, for instance, regularly compensate for social context On the other hand, many studies are simply stats-trash. Let us examine, for a moment, educational psychology. Almost all educational psychology these days is cognitive/behavioral. Such an orientation lends itself to vast amounts of data collection. There is much that can be learned from such measure, much that is great benefit. On the other hand, as any psychoanalyst will tell us, most of what motivates us toward any behavior is unconscious. That too can be known and measured. But such knowing, such measuring, runs the risk of obscuring understanding. It rationalizes the non-rational.

There are times when it feels like the sum of a person is behavior and data, that no one has a mind anymore.

Let me be absolutely clear. Many studies are invaluable in their contributions and robust in their data. I value their work so much that it pains me to read other papers based upon numbers that are just stats-trash.

Elegy for Rudy

by John Samuel Tieman

This morning, as I left for work, after all these terrible storms we’ve had, I noticed the tiniest of my wife’s daffodils are starting to bloom. As cliched as it may sound, I felt like Rudy was saying, “It’s OK, John. Storms will pass. And, as always, life will continue.”

A Publisher’s Story

Retold by John Samuel Tieman

Tetsugen, a devotee of Zen in Japan, decided to publish the sutras, which at that time were available only in Chinese. The books were to be printed with wood blocks in an edition of seven thousand copies, a tremendous undertaking.

Tetsugen began by traveling and collecting donations for this purpose. A few sympathizers would give him a hundred pieces of gold, but most of the time he received only small coins. He thanked each donor with equal gratitude. After ten years Tetsugen had enough money to begin his task.

It happened that at that time the Uji River overflowed. Famine followed. Tetsugen took the funds he had collected for the books and spent them to save others from starvation. Then he began again his work of collecting.

Several years afterwards an epidemic spread over the country. Tetsugen again gave away what he had collected, to help his people. For a third time he started his work, and after twenty years his wish was fulfilled. The printing blocks which produced, and the first edition of sutras can be seen today in the Obaku monastery in Kyoto.

The Japanese tell their children that Tetsugen made three sets of sutras, and that the first two invisible sets surpass even the last.



by John Samuel Tieman

There is an inter-office memo. “Staff, there is no other system. I hope this answers the question.” Thus are we given the choice between being computer programmers, or being a vice-president for programming. Naturally, since we need the dental plan, we choose to be programmers and vice-presidents. Soon, we run out of programs to program. We then write programs about testing programs. While that task is in progress, the more creative among us write programs that supplement the programs, programs that augment the meta-programs, as well as programs that test the programmers and the vice-presidents.

One vice-president almost emails his wife a billet-doux. Instead, he considers company policy. The company hires only one guard. The vice-president approaches the guard. The guard is silent. The vice-president apologizes. The guard is silent. The vice-president confesses. His inter-office confession reads, “Staff, there is nothing new. Please continue.”

How To Tell A War Story

by John Samuel Tieman

I remember the day Senior Drill Sergeant Rose lined us up in squads of eight. It was the first week of Basic Training.

“Every single one of you is going to The Nam. Consider yourselves officially dipped in shit. Now look up and down your squad. There’s eight of you. This time next year, one of you will be dead. So pay attention to your drill sergeants, and you may be one of the lucky seven who comes home only wounded or crazy. That’s your first lesson. Now here’s Drill Sergeant Thomas, who’s got a war story.”

Sgt. Thomas was mean. But at first his look wasn’t so much mean as blank.

From beside Sgt. Rose’s rostrum, Sgt. Thomas smartly steps out as if he’s on parade. He stands before us at attention. He does an about face. He takes off his drill sergeant’s hat, his fatigue shirt, pulls down his pants then his boxer shorts. The skin, from his knees to his shoulders, is streaked with half-a-dozen long diagonal scars, and bunches of little ones. Then he puts his clothes back on, does another about face. And grins. He never says a word. Just that demented grin. The story was made entirely of keloids.


In the years immediately after the war, every day I used to dwell on the war. And I don’t mean I’d think of it now and again. I mean I’d dwell at length. I remember one week when I wondered if I could recall each day I’d been in Nam. Each night for about a week, just after I turned out the light, just before I went to sleep – I could recall every day of the war.

Some time later, it occurred to me that I hadn’t thought of The Nam in twenty-four hours. I’d been home for over three years.

When the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, “The Wall”, was constructed, for the first time I saw a complete list of the American dead. I pulled out this yearbook sort of thing I have from Basic Training, and compared it to the list. I wanted to see if Senior Drill Sergeant Rose was right about that one in eight thing. I saw Thornton’s name. I saw my bunk mate, Lewis. And I stopped. It is enough to know some of us died. Beyond that, I just don’t want to think of them that way.  10,000 miles from home. Crying for mother. The chaplain leaning in and saying, “Private, I’m going to give you your Last Rites now. Are you ready?”


When I first got home, I used to dwell on the war. Now, it’s like it creeps up on me every few weeks, like some Mephistopheles stalking a soul he already owns.

Like today. The ROTC folks at my school are making a display of veterans on the faculty. They ask me for a medal. I bring them my Vietnamese Cross Of Gallantry.

Last night, I taped the movie “Tigerland”, largely because that’s where I trained, Fort Polk. The movie was waiting for me when I got home from work.

As was the novel All Quite On The Western Front. I set it on my desk this morning. My wife never read it. I promised to read to Phoebe my favorite passage, the last chapter.

Later, on “The Five O’clock News”, there’s the story of a boy killed in Vietnam. They were bringing home, after all these years, his remains. Bone fragments.

And I wept.    It all just sort of crept up on me.

The Next Renaissance or The Conjectures of a Reluctant Optimist

by John Samuel Tieman

Y si he de dar un testimonio sobre mi época
es éste: Fue bárbara y primitiva
pero poética.

And if I have to give witness to my era
it’s this: It was barbarous and primitive
yet poetic.

    -Ernesto Cardinal / John Samuel Tieman

I: The Madonna

My wife and I spent a couple of weeks this summer in Prague. We fell in love with the city. My wife attended a psychoanalytic conference, which left me with a few days on my own. Enough time for me to fall in love with the gothic Convent Of St. Agnes, which now houses the medieval collection of the Czech National Gallery. I spent two days there.

I learned many things. But of interest here is “The Madonna Of St. Vitus Cathedral.” It was one of the first “beautiful Madonnas,” sometimes called “the pretty Virgins.” In a few words, the painting is clearly medieval, but presents many features that prefigure the Renaissance. The Jesus and the Mary are anatomically proportional, for example. Obvious as it may be to those far wiser, it dawned on me, as I explored this painting at length, that it is possible to discuss a period that was, while clearly medieval, in essence pre-Renaissance.

It was a period of transition.

Which brings me to 2014. No one likes to think that they live in a dark age. (Many, perhaps most, medievalists dislike the very term “Dark Ages”). Yet I’m not sure what else to call the 20th Century. Verdun. Vietnam. Hiroshima. Nagasaki. Auschwitz. Mustard gas. The Armenian Genocide. Stalinism. World War I, which was followed by another world war far worse. The Crusades pale by comparison. If the 20th Century wasn’t a dark age, then the term has no meaning.

With that in mind, our time is also a period of transition. Many scholars speak of the end of Modernism, that we are in a time of Post-Modernism. Jacques Derrida comes to mind, as does Michel Foucault. And many other equally brilliant scholars.

In my opinion, Post-Modernism isn’t so much a fixed ideology as it is a fluid critique of Modernism. It is indicative of a transition rather than any fixed point. Post-Modernism is essentially skeptical. It deconstructs. It offers an important vision of transition. But its very purpose is not foundational.

I’m not dismissing Post-Modernism, not by any means. It facilitates transition, and that is vital. Transitions are confusing. Post-Modernism gives an explanation, a kind of symbolic comfort to the confused. To risk a metaphor, it criticizes the old world, it explains the voyage, but it stipulates no port of call. It reacts. It doesn’t establish. Post-Modernism deconstructs Modernism, and, in doing so, provides a purely intellectual interlude into which no popular movement, nor any resultant magnum opus, has yet to enter. That’s not a bad thing. It’s simply transitional. But it is not comparable to, say, the medieval religious movements that gave birth to both the Dominicans and the Franciscans, out of which grew such masterpieces as the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas, and the poetry of Francis Of Assisi.

Which brings me back to “The Madonna Of St. Vitus Cathedral.” No one likes to think that they live in an unenlightened era. Nonetheless, it is possible to think of our years as comparable to that pre-Renaissance period. Perhaps we are approaching The Next Renaissance. I hope so. The alternative, that the 21st Century will be worse than the 20th, is too horrible to contemplate.

II: The Next Renaissance

Why should anyone have hope?

We have polluted the planet to the point of global warming. The United States elected a president, George W. Bush, who doesn’t believe in evolution. One poll found that 22% of adult Americans, and 20% of high school students, thought it was possible that the Holocaust never happened. The 85 richest people own 46% of the wealth – on the earth. In 2012, 49 million Americans lived with food insecurity, 33.1 million adults and 15.9 million children. In a recent poll, 51% of Republicans believed that Barack Hussein Obama is a Muslim, who was born in Kenya. In that same poll, more than half of the Democrats believe that President Bush was complicit in the 9/11 attacks. I got an internet ad that began, “Earn Your Ph. D. Online!” In education, complete standardization is a planned terminus.

This is a litany of ignorance and decadence that could go on ad infinitum.

So why should anyone have hope? Why should anyone feel that all this portends anything except darkness?

Perhaps because the very transition itself may be hopeful. One can hope that we are transitioning, because we have exhausted decadence and ignorance. Be that as it may, Modernism is ending. But thought is not. “The Madonna Of St. Vitus Cathedral” is indicative of a new learning that was, in essence, salvific.

Allow me another litany.

The Catholic Church is entering an era that is post-sacerdotal, one where the parish is run by the people. Our president is black, and our country increasingly brown. Major TV channels are in Spanish. My youngest niece just retired as a full-bird colonel in the Army. I think I was the only passenger who even noticed when, on one leg of our trip to Prague, all our pilots were female, and all our flight attendants were male. Wikipedia does what Denis Diderot and the Encyclopedists only dreamed. Occupy Wall Street made it possible, for perhaps the first time since the McCarthy hearings, to openly critique capitalism. Malala Yousafzai was shot in Pakistan, but healed in England, and now campaigns for the education of young women worldwide. Homosexuals can openly marry. In the United States, the death penalty is itself on the verge of extinction. It is possible to consider an end of the most corrosive effects of positivism, and the beginnings of a new humanism. Some of the finest works of art, that have ever been produced, are being crafted right now.

This too is a litany than could go on ad infinitum.

Of the two litanies I’ve just provided, we will choose the one we prefer. In the end, it’s not like I can really prove The Next Renaissance is approaching. My only point is that absolutely nothing dictates that this current transition must end badly.

But mine is pure speculation, reluctant optimism. So I say there is reason for hope. In any case, if the alternative is true, if the 21st Century grows worse than the 20th, then none of this matters. Because Sobibor’s fate will be envied.

The Guest Lecture

by John Samuel Tieman

Settling on the screen
Of the crowded movie house,
A white butterfly

— Richard Wright

Thank you for that kind and generous introduction. I am really looking forward to meeting whomever it was you were talking about.

I may well be the least likely poet in the world to give a lecture on composition. I sometimes think I have these mutually exclusive frames, in which people know me as one thing but not the other. Some know me as a certified middle school and high school teacher. Others as a university lecturer. Some as an obscure historian. Others as a minor poet. To the extent that anyone knows me at all, I’m probably best recognized for my political commentaries. A few folks know my scholarly essays about educational psychology. My beloved wife is a highly regarded psychoanalyst, so in some crowds I’m Phoebe’s husband. To some I’m Mr. Tieman, and to others I’m Dr. Tieman. Some know me as a Vietnam veteran; some know me as a peace activist. I don’t know – maybe I’m simply a highly accomplished dilettante.

My point being that my writing, frankly, is just one aspect of my life. An important one, don’t get me wrong. I identify myself as a writer, as a poet and an essayist. And as an educator. And as an historian. As a war veteran. As a scholar. As a loving husband. As a Roman Catholic, for that matter. All that. And more.

In any case, you asked. Let me begin by saying that I am not going to be didactic. Too many good writers have written eloquently on this subject. (What does one say after Phillip Sidney’s An Apology For Poetry, Richard Hugo’ s The Triggering Town, John Ciardi’s How Does A Poem Mean?) But you asked. Therefore, I will tend toward the impressionistic, and the vaguely autobiographical.

Let me begin with a poem about poetry.

the art


I’ve never written a poem
that said what I meant

one means as much as shrapnel
one means as little as ink


I wish I had wisdom
instead I have lines

silent as a blackboard in summer
loud as a glacier breaking away


I’ve never known a poem
to stay where I left it

a prisoner climbing a fence
a landing light in the sky

I sometimes think I wasted decades looking for inspiration, when all I needed to do was simply open my eyes.

mother and suckling
boy at the bus stop on Pine
she notes the dawn and
wonders what the day will bring
besides milk and sleep and light

I have almost no imagination. Easily my best known poem was inspired by a shadow.
we undress for love
and for ten seconds the dusk
makes us young again

That haiku was published in Japan in translation in the millions. And it was inspired by nothing beyond what it says. I love my wife. I love her body. Twilight and I wish we were young. I used to think that all poems were inspired by a great sunset, a cataclysmic earthquake, the death of a young athlete. In Vietnam, I saw a sunset that made even the birds pause. In 1985, I survived the Mexico City Earthquake. A student died on the soccer field last year. And I got from these not a single line of poetry. Then — then yesterday —

in utter silence
I stare out our new picture
window to the street
a basketball rolls by followed
by not a soul …


Sometimes a poem takes decades.

Many years ago, I made the acquaintance of Howard Nemerov. I don’t want this to sound any larger than it was — acquaintance is just the right word. He lived down the street from me here, in St. Louis. Sometimes we’d talk of war, World War II for him, Vietnam for me. I remember once saying how I always felt like my service was a failure, that somehow I had failed The Manhood Test. It was one of the first times I’d ever been aggressively honest about my trauma. He admitted having the same feelings. “It’s amazing how war can make us feel like a failure, even when all we failed to do was get ourselves killed.”

And, of course, we spoke of poetry. I have for decades meditated on an off-handed comment he made. “I have no imagination.” At first, I was uncomprehending. Years later, as I walked across the campus of Washington University, years after he’d passed, I saw Howard’s old office window. There were the gingko trees he wrote about in his poetry. He didn’t imagine anything. He just looked out the window. That act of looking took no imagination. The art was in his craft.

This poem below records an event that happened in 1970. My first night in the 4th Infantry Division, North Vietnamese sappers blew-up twenty-one helicopters. Welcome to The Nam. The next night, we watched as “Puff The Magic Dragon”, a Douglas AC-47 gunship, killed these N. V. A. maybe a half-a-mile from the camp. This gunship carried three mini-guns, Gatling guns, which fired so many rounds, 6,000 rounds a minute, that it was said that they put one bullet in every square inch of an area the size of a football field. These mini-guns don’t even sound like a rat-a-tat-tat machine gun. It’s much more like wwwwhhhhaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhh, so many bullets firing so fast that they are indistinguishable. The next morning, a patrol didn’t find any bodies, just body-sized splotches of blood.

I wanted to capture the fact that my feelings were a combination of relief and awe. It is a cliché to say that soldiers are always afraid. No doubt many are. But I wasn’t afraid. And I wasn’t brave. This untitled poem records the night in The Nam that I became dissociative.

I have struggled for decades with my own reaction formation, which is a near-pacifist stance. I hate war. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t find it arousing. Hence, “it’s finally time” to tell a story that I, for decades, didn’t want to know about myself. Perhaps my memories of Howard put me in mind of W. B. Yeats’ “After Long Silence”, the echo of which can be found in this poem —

Years after the war, it’s finally time,
our first sergeant retired,
our outpost plowed under,
the secrets no longer the news, that we tell
the story and tell it again until we hear
what we hated to know:
that we admired the arc of the tracer,
that we admired the splotches of blood.


I’ve been influenced by many other poets.

St. Patrick’s Basilica, Montreal

the leaflet says Emile Nelligan once prayed here
horrified and solar and pale
dementia like an ice violin
a vein where no one finds gold

what did you see when you saw Jesus
a rag doll a neon eclipse Baudelaire
fantastic nostrils sudden birds
psalms sung by orphans

nearly fifty years in a hospital and
I envy you, Emile Nelligan, envy you composing
the same poem every morning and every morning

When my wife Phoebe and I vacationed in Montreal a few years ago, I was amazed at how little I knew about Canadian poetry. We went to Sunday mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where I read in a brochure that Emile Nelligan was baptized there. Without explanation, it read “Nelligan” like I should just know him. He is considered the Arthur Rimbaud of Canada. Schools and libraries are named after him. Like Rimbaud, he stopped writing in his late teens, in Nelligan’s case at the onset of schizophrenia. Emile Nelligan spent the rest of his life, the next forty-two years, in a hospital. And became a legend.

Here’s a poem Nelligan wrote. His poem is from a notebook found on him just after he had the schizophrenic episode that landed him in the hospital. For a little over two months in the summer of 1899, he wandered the streets of Montreal, sleepless, reciting scraps of poetry, haunted by the dementia he recorded in that notebook. I’ve often thought that this poem speaks to us directly from the dementia, and, perhaps, comes as close as one can to expressing what Jacques Lacan calls “the real”. I follow his poem with my humble effort.

He wrote —

And now I dream of shadows stained with blood,
Proud prancing steeds; the sounds I hear
Are like children’s coughs, cries of tramps’ despair,
Death-rattles of the slowly dead.

Where are they from, those horns that blare and blow,
Snare-drum or fife in noisy wars?
It could be said that through the town, hussars
Gallop with sea-green helms aglow.

I wrote —

Vision, 3 AM

And now I dream of a certain shadow stained
glass creates, of a procession and its priest,
of children softly coughing, of pews.

Where are they from, the psalms and antiphons,
the incense and The Seven Sorrows,
the nun who prays, “Let us pray”?

It could be said, of a certain Catholic
orphanage, that deacons in purple stoles
lead the Stations Of The Cross.


What I love about writing is the process. Good poem or no, good essay or not, I love to sit at my desk, stare out the window at, today, the snow, knowing that I have a warm cup of coffee, a brilliant and sexy wife, and, if I’m lucky, a good idea.

I am in perfect agreement with Sigmund Freud’s theory that the artistic process comes out of the same place as play. I have never been one to suffer over writing. My wife is an insightful writer. I love my wife, but there is a certain way in which I don’t understand her, or anyone, who suffers as she does with writing. If I found it unpleasant, I wouldn’t do it.


One of the mysteries of my marriage is watching
Phoebe revise. I’ve seen her take a thirty page draft

and just throw the whole thing out. All of it.
And start over. The ideas are all there and greatly

clarified. But the words she throws out.
What she keeps is the clarity of thought.

For my part, I stand in awe. She jokes
how revision begins with bloodshed.

I have no great lessons to impart, nothing large that I’ve learned in life. If angst is a lesson, I’ve learned a lot about that. I am glad I was a professional musician before I was a writer. Music taught me patience and practice. My wife was surprised when I told her that, as a classically trained musician, I often spent the first hour of each day simply playing long tones – one note held for, say, half a minute – scales and chords. All this before I ever opened a sheet of music.

I’m also glad I was a bachelor for forty years. That also taught me about practice, patience and rejection.


Tieman’s Rule Number One: Being an artist is no excuse for being a wanker.

I’ve known poets who were really nice. I know poets who are doting parents, and poets who have sexually abused children. I’ve known poets who are lawyers, and I’ve known poets who are felons. I can’t count the alcoholic poets I’ve known. What seems to unite these poets is a love, indeed a need, for the word. That’s about it, at least as near as I can tell.

But about that dissipation.

More than for his athletic prowess, considerable though it was, Stan Musial is remembered for his simple decency. Bob Costas tells of a night with Stan, Stan’s wife Lil, and Mickey Mantel. “The Mick” vowed to stay sober for the evening, so as not to embarrass himself before Stan and Lil. Later, after the Musials left, Mantel said to Costas, “I had as much ability as Stan. Maybe more. Nobody had any more power than me. Nobody could run faster than me. But Stan was a better player than me, because he was a better man than me. Because he got everything out of his life that he could, and he’ll never have to live with all the regret I live with.”

In my youth, I drank too much, did drugs, womanized. In a war of questionable morality, I killed a boy. I traveled the world in order to run from my troubles. I spurned the love and kindness of people who truly cared for me. There is much I regretted, and much more I simply learned to live with. Throughout all that I was an artist. I just wish I had been a better person. I thank God I got better with age. I became a better person, and, because of that, I became a better writer.


Sometimes it helps me to remember my favorite Bible passage, the 38th Chapter of Job, the one where God finally responds to Job by saying, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. … Can you lift your voice to the clouds, that a flood of waters may cover you?”


A few folks have asked how, with my busy work schedule, do I manage to find time to write? A lot of the time, frankly, I don’t find the time. It’s the price I pay for a pension, the price I pay that my wife and I might have a dental plan. Someone once said to me, “If you a good teacher, then you often go home tired.” I must be the best freaking teacher in the world. There have been days when I’ve pulled into the garage, turned-off the car, and have fallen asleep right there.

I love Japan, its people and its culture. I spent four years as a Buddhist, and spent about a month in a Buddhist temple at the foot of Mount Fuji. I fell in love with Akiko Yosano, a feminist known for her tanka. I love the way she combines sexuality and spirituality.

Tanka and haiku provided a solution to a nagging problem. Often I would begin a poem and, because of my schedule, I’d write a line here, a line there, all this over the course of maybe a month. But if, after that month, I thought the poem sucked, if it seemed, as it often was, choppy, then – WHAM – there went January.

Thus began my romance with haiku and tanka. They’re short enough that I can scratch a line here, there, and have a poem done in a day. This form also fits in nicely with an aesthetic that influenced me when I was young, the epigram, especially the epigrams of Martial, Catullus and Ernesto Cardenal. In any case, Akiko Yosano and my wife inspired this one —

when you stepped out
of the shower this morning
I kissed you long
enough for you to leave
wet impressions on my shirt

Here’s a line by Ernesto Cardenal that haunted me for decades. It’s not in his Epigramas; it’s from “Managua 6 PM”, but it is epigrammatic —

Y si he dar un testimonio sobre mi época
es éste: Fue bárbara y primitiva
pero poética.

Which I’ll translate as —

And if asked to give testimony over my era
it’s this: It was barbaric and primitive
yet poetic

Cardenal’s emphasis on the poetic and the political inspired this tanka of mine –
if asked to judge
my age I’d say we wasted
our best years on war
from Nam to Iraq we saw
the whole world through sniper scopes


Occasionally I can still find time to write a full-length poem.

I asked Andre how he felt after yesterday’s professional development. “It wasn’t especially soul crushing.” This was his idea of something good to say.

That said, we spent the entire morning pondering the following question. “How does the ability to read complex texts relate to the student’s potential for college and career success?” Andre keeps a list of the top ten “soul crushing” workshops he’s attended. It’s chilling to consider that this one didn’t make the list.

I usually write poetry at these meetings. It looks like I’m taking notes. Like this one, for example, which I published not long ago.

7:45 Roosevelt High

it’s been a dark dawn and at the last minute
Arianna grades the long student

she smells the stale ink
and something akin to her mother’s old
age home

her sweater smells of Tide
and chalk she rubbed off the board
she’s been beat for an hour and a witness

to nothing but D’s and lipstick
that smeared on her cuff
a yellow bus crunches low gear

and this is how she begins
nervous over her bell
shaped curve

and the next unit
which she promises
everyone will love

I always liked that poem. I remember needing a name, and, looking up, I saw a name-tag on this woman across from me. I spent some time imagining what her day was like, not that it would be that different from any of the rest of us. Then I noticed a smudge of lipstick on her cuff, and I knew I had my poem. All the stuff about the mother is my own mother, who, at that time, was 101. Also, I do the laundry for my wife and I, so the Tide is mine. I chose the name Roosevelt High because every school district in the U. S. has a Roosevelt High.

But I never got a copy of the poem to Arianna. By the time I published the poem, she had quit.


Thus do I have little wisdom to pass along. Listen to the greats. Have fun with the process. Practice. Find a form that works for you. All that and the simple fact that accomplishment means little without kindness and decency. I got better with age. I became a better writer, because I became a better person. “I, too, went to bed amid the howling of the autumn wind, and awoke early the next morning amid the chanting of the priests … .” So says Matsuo Basho in his Narrow Road To The Deep North.


I don’t want to get away without talking about prose.

I write my prose like I write my poetry. When I’m writing for a newspaper or a magazine, I look for good verbs, alliteration, rhythm, all that. In a word, prosody.

I even break my prose paragraphs like I break my poetry lines.

I don’t want to take my audience’s time by reading a whole essay. I think, however, this prose technique comes together, at least for illustrative purposes, in a form I call the modern haibun. In essence, I update and Westernize a Japanese form. I begin with a haiku, go to a prose poem, and finish with a tanka. And while I borrow the form from the Japanese, it really is thoroughly Western in its sensibility. The prose is much more influenced by, say, Michael Benedikt than Matsuo Basho.

a modern haibun

another Monday
again I surrender to
the whisper of snow

My wife is reading Freud this evening. I sweep the fireplace, the ashes from Sunday more interesting for what they were. Phoebe says something I don’t quite catch, something about desire.

I stare out our picture window. I inventory our yard. Pine, twilight, beast, leaf, pulse and fog, raven, root. In the west, from work, a husband caught on a detour lengthened tonight by longing

“My War”, my memoir in this month’s Vietnam magazine, I’m surprised by the letters from strangers. Several veterans had the same job I had. Others vets were stationed where I was, An Khe, an obscure corner of jungle. One message from a wife — the husband never talks about our war.

in this Nam photo
the burnt torso of a monk
an enemy monk
tonight a cigarette glows
in the dark and is crushed


If there is one last thing, and only one last thing, I would wish a young poet, I would wish that poet a great passion. Everything else will follow, the right words, the necessary silence.

That’s it. That’s all I got. That’s what worked for me. Is it is generalizable? I don’t know. I think I’m safe in saying that life is better if you’re not a poetic prick. At least that was my experience. As for the rest, maybe there’s a small something in there somewhere.


Parts of this lecture originally appeared in the following magazines, books, journals and newspapers: The Autumn House Anthology Of Contemporary American Poetry, Coal Hill Review, Mainichi Shimbun, Modern English Tanka, Schools: Studies In Education, and my chapbook of poetry, A Concise Biography Of Original Sin. Ernesto Cardenal’s epigram is taken from his Nueva Antología Poética, published by Siglo V

A Brief Guide to Pope Francis

by John Samuel Tieman

A lot of my non-Catholic friends are asking me about Pope Francis. Whether Pope Francis is more popular than Jesus, this only time will tell. But he is popular. The Washington Post thinks he is more popular than John Paul II. He is Time magazine’s “Person Of The Year”. You’d think Catholics would be, dare I say, counting our blessings.

But conservative Catholics are choking on their communion wafers, and liberal Catholics, while hopeful, are cautious. Why?

Francis is no radical. You don’t get anywhere in the hierarchy unless you tow the dogmatic line. Conservative Catholics, like EWTN radio, are quick to point out that Francis has changed no doctrine. That’s true. Nor is he likely to change disciplines like priestly celibacy. If you’re holding you breath for female ordination, you’ll turn blue soon.

It’s not so much what he is changing as what he is emphasizing — and what he is deemphasizing.

Francis is no radical. That can’t be said often enough. He is, however, a product of his priestly culture, he’s a Jesuit, and he is the son of South America.

Francis is not changing doctrine, true. However, this Argentine bishop is emphasizing something that, while not explicitly said, has long been a part of Latin American ministry, which is the “preferential option for the poor.” Given the choice between helping the rich or the poor, preference is given to the well-being of the poor and powerless. This is central to Francis’ ministry, and, indeed, central to his mindset.

The rest simply follows.

Francis has deemphasized the culture wars. “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods,” the pope said in a recent interview. In what many regard as a profoundly symbolic move, the pope recently relieved Cardinal Raymond Burke from a key post on the committee that fills episcopal vacancies. Cardinal Burke, the former Archbishop of St. Louis, is seen by many as perhaps the most conservative American bishop. He is a leader among conservative cardinals. During the 2004 presidential election, Burke publicly stated that Catholic politicians, who support legalized abortion, should not be given or receive Communion. That meant John Kerry. More recently, the cardinal said, “Since President Obama clearly announced, during the election campaign, his anti-life and anti-family agenda, a Catholic who knew his agenda regarding, for example, procured abortion, embryonic-stem-cell research, and same-sex marriage, could not have voted for him with a clear conscience.”

Burke’s removal, from that committee, will have little immediate consequence. The papacy of John Paul II was so long that his many conservative appointments will be in place for decades. To a large extent, the removal of Cardinal Burke is symbolic. Burke remains the Vatican’s Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, a position analogous to the chief justice. But we are talking about the Catholic Church here, a Church in which symbolism is no small thing.

Pope Francis has washed and kissed the feet of prisoners, AIDS patients, Muslims, and drug addicts. Reliable rumor has it that he goes out at night, beyond the Vatican walls, among the poor. He lives in a small apartment, carries his own bags, drives a used car.

Pope Francis is no radical. This does not prevent Rush Limbaugh from denouncing him as a “pure Marxist”. Among the many things that Mr. Limbaugh does not understand, there is this. While the Church does not endorse any one economic system, it does regularly denounce exploitation. Hence, John Paul II condemned various forms of socialism that tended toward Stalinism. Now, Pope Francis is criticizing extreme forms capitalism. There’s nothing new here. We just haven’t heard capitalism criticized for a while. At least not with such emphasis. In November, Francis denounced “the idolatry of money.” Trickle-down economics he characterized as “a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power, and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

About that women’s ordination thing. Francis is a Jesuit. He has lived his whole life in a celibate, all male environment. I like Jesuits, and I like people who like Jesuits. I got my doctorate from a Jesuit university. My wife and I attend a Jesuit parish. But, as Phoebe says when she’s around Jesuits, it’s like she’s in the Castro district of San Francisco. Their nice to her. They’re liberal minded. But I’m the guy who gets invited to the party. In his latest document, “Evangelii Gaudium”, Francis talks about women’s “sensitivity, intuition and other distinctive skill sets which they, more than men, tend to possess.” He mentions “the special concern which women show to others, which finds a particular, even if not exclusive, expression in motherhood.” He carries on with these statements of “feminine genius” in a manner that can only be regarded as stereotypical and even retrogressive.

While the pope may not be a radical, he is refreshing. He has not changed doctrine, and he never will. He has, however, changed the emphasis, and this amounts to a change in the direction of ministry. So far, this is largely symbolic.

And therein lies the hope.

If you think that symbolism is not important to the Catholic Church, you need to cross yourself and say three Hail Marys.

The Education of a Gun Owner — Day Nine

by John Samuel Tieman

Gun Day Nine – Reflections

I sometimes consider how small the weapon is, and compare that to how much it can destroy.

I loaded the weapon just once, just to see what it feels like. It felt heavier than I expected. Then I unloaded it. Now, the Smith And Wesson sits under a hat across the room. It’s like I’m hiding it from myself. The most positive feeling I can muster now is ambivalence.

Our house was robbed once, so I have had fantasies about killing the burglar. I’m a war veteran, and, unlike a lot of the folks I’ve spoken to, I don’t have to ask myself if I would shoot someone. I did shoot someone. Which leads me to the conclusion that, fantasies notwithstanding, I don’t know if I have it in me to ever shoot anyone else. I do know that I own nothing worth a human life.

As I write this essay, there is news of a massive school shooting. This news has eclipsed recent news of a massive mall shooting. By the time I publish this essay, there will be yet another massive shooting somewhere someplace. I wish I could end this essay on a note of hope. But I am amazed at how little my government cares about weapons in private hands. When I made inquires, the local police were indifferent. A summary of my state’s regulations I read while I drank a cup of coffee. I have no idea why the National Rifle Association is worried. My city has more regulations about siding than side arms.

That said, I no longer favor gun control. I want weapons banned. I’m tired of crying when I see, on the front page of my newspaper, terrified children being led to safety from a shot-up school. As for the Second Amendment, I am not a “well regulated militia,” and neither is Jared Lee Loughner or Adam Lanza or Mark David Chapman.

As for our Smith And Wesson, I’m heading back to the gun shop, asking $250 for the .38, and then – I’m thinking sushi for me and, dare I say, my better half.


The Education of a Gun Owner — Day Eight

by John Samuel Tieman

Gun Day Eight

Janet gives me the address of a gun smith, who specializes in antiques. I drive over after work.

Surprisingly, the place is more like a museum than what I expect, a gun-nut hobby shop. And the owners are well educated and articulate.

One guy went to my high school, a private Catholic high school, and we chat at length. I mention that I graduated in 1968, went into the army in 1969, served a tour in Nam. Suddenly, I find I’m one of the guys.

I bring my weapon in. I ask if the revolver is safe. The short answer is yes. The action is fine, the tolerances like new. It’s doubtful if it’s ever been fired. The ammunition is also safe.

So I ask – what do I do with a gun?

“You have no reason to ever fire this”, the gun smith says. And repeats this at least three times. He tells me that this weapon is made of a very low grade of steel, “like the stuff that was used in the Titanic.” I meditate on how well that went. Then he tells me that, if I fire the weapon, I should wear protective eye glasses. And once we’re talking about wounding body parts, I’m done.


The Education of a Gun Owner — Day Seven

by John Samuel Tieman

Gun Day Seven

I ask a neighbor if he thinks I should register this pistol. “No, no, no! The only thing registration will do is help the government find you when they come to take our guns away.”

I don’t know what to say. But I think to myself, “Isn’t there about 17,000 societal things that will go wrong long before the National Guard kicks down my door, and confiscates my antique .38?”


The Education of a Gun Owner — Day Six

by John Samuel Tieman

Gun Day Six

I want to speak to someone about gun safety, and about registering my weapon. So I call the police. A secretary answers. She is quite helpful, cheery, almost ebullient. She tells me of the “gun safety officer,” who can visit my home. I find such community outreach comforting. I’m told to call back later.

I call back later. I get a lieutenant, who has no idea what a “gun safety officer” is. Instead, we chat for a few minutes. He, too, is quite helpful, if a bit dismissive. Overall, however, I am most impressed by how little he cares about my weapon.

He tells me I don’t need to register my revolver, although it might be helpful, for example, “if someone steals it and uses it in a murder.” But registration is not necessary. Ownership is conveyed by virtue of the fact that my father-in-law gave us the desk and all it contained. And that’s as legal as it gets. I went through more trouble installing cable TV.


The Education of a Gun Owner — Day Five

bu John Samuel Tieman

Gun Day Five

I’ve thought a lot about masculinity. One thing Vietnam taught me is that sometimes masculinity is simply too high a price to pay for being male. Is owning a gun about being masculine?


The Education of a Gun Owner — Day Four

by John Samuel Tieman

Gun Day Four

I need a haircut. I tell my barber, and the barber shop gang, about my weapon. Here for the first time, I get camaraderie. Wistful memories about youthful hunting. Several good tips on safety.


The Education of a Gun Owner — Day Three

by John Samuel Tieman

Gun Day Three

I think this weapon is making me mildly hysterical, presuming one can be just a bit hysterical. This pistol is all I think about. I note that I never fantasize about what can go wrong with this weapon. That said, it’s not like what can go right is soothing.

I go to work. I informally survey my colleagues. About half have a weapon. I am amazed. One administrator owns four. A fellow is about to inherit 50. People are startled when I ask, “Do you own a gun?” It’s a bit higher order of a question than, “Do you own a Buick?,” but not quite as personal as “Do you own any porn?” Several, who don’t own a gun, admit to wanting one. These are some of the kindest, gentlest, best educated folks I know. Of those I asked, not one lives in a dangerous neighborhood – including me.

Today, I had to humble myself to Janet. I’ve argued with her over the 2nd Amendment, me anti-gun, and she pro. I had to ask her, “What do I do with a gun? I don’t known jack about the laws. I can’t tell whether the gun, and the ammo, are safe. I haven’t handled a weapon in 40-plus years.” Stuff like that. She spared me a razzing. Her snarky smile sufficed. She said she’d get back to me.

Through the internet, I’ve discovered that I have an antique. I half-own a Smith And Wesson Model 4 “pocket pistol,” a nickel-plated, five-shot .38 caliber “top break” that was manufactured no later than 1907, making it over 105 years old. It’s sometimes referred to as a “lemon squeezer.” The model is not rare. It’s worth a few hundred dollars. Phoebe says we should sell it, and treat ourselves to a nice dinner.


The Education of a Gun Owner — Day Two

by John Samuel Tieman

Gun Day Two

I’m surprised at how small the gun seems.

I looked up my state’s gun regulations online. It was a quick read. As near as I can tell, I can buy, carry and conceal everything up to and including a Light Anti-Tank Weapon.

Phoebe went to visit her father today. She asked him about the gun. He barely remembers it.


The Education Of A Gun Owner

by John Samuel Tieman

Gun Day One

Actually, I am not a gun owner. I am half a gun owner. The revolver is right here, in front of my keyboard.

I never thought I’d say that. With the exception of one drunken New Year’s at John McGoogan’s, I haven’t fired a weapon since I was in Vietnam.

I’m surprised I have a pistol. I didn’t plan on it.

My wife’s parents went into the old folks home a few weeks ago. My wife and I, and well as my in-laws, have been moving stuff out of their home ever since, this in anticipation of selling the house.

Phoebe, my wife, really wanted her father’s desk, a lovely oak affair with plenty of drawers. Her father used the desk at the pharmacy he owned, the Delmar-Taylor Pharmacy. He had moved the desk from his pharmacy to his house in University City.

We moved the desk into Phoebe’s study, but the drawers were stuck. The two movers fussed with them until, finally, the bottom drawer opened. And there was an old .38 pocket pistol, along with a holster and a box of ammunition.

The men all paused. Suddenly, something was in the room that could kill us.

Phoebe, interestingly, took the least interest. “I was wondering where that gun was.” She knew her father had a .38. He had been robbed several times at the pharmacy, so a sympathetic cop gave him the pistol in maybe 1950 or ’60. At that time, it would have been a very old weapon. Eventually, he brought it home. Phoebe, in a sense, grew up with it. I, on the other had never had a weapon in the house.

I asked the mover to hand it to me. Now. From my army days, I know this much about handling a weapon: First, make sure it’s unloaded.

The mover offered me 20 bucks for it. I said no. My first impulse was to throw it away. But it’s not really mine. It’s my father-in-law’s. Except he’s blind and in the old folks home, so I guess it’s my wife’s, which makes it half-mine.

What do I do with a gun?

It’s a Smith and Wesson. Respectable. The revolver is in good condition. No rust. Barely needs oiling and cleaning. My father-in-law was the gun owner equivalent of the “little ole lady from Pasadena.” Then I look at the ammunition. Hollow points. So my gentle father-in-law had his bad-ass potential.

I’m not about to shoot any of this stuff, however. Not until I’m sure it’s all safe. The revolver and the ammunition are old. And I’d like to get older.

So how do I feel about this weapon?

It’s arousing. I feel powerful. But that feeling is fleeting. Because I fought a war, I know what it’s like to be shot at and shoot back. But I know enough about all that to know that this doesn’t mean I could do it again. Still, there have been some shootings in the nearby park, and, while I wouldn’t call myself paranoid, I have my dark visions.

This whole business raises all manner of question. Given my near-pacifist leanings, shouldn’t I just throw the revolver away? I’ve been extremely conscious of having a gun around the house. Do I really want to be comfortable with that? If I keep it, where do I keep it? What do I do with a gun?

If I’m going to get all bad-ass, shouldn’t I get a concealed carry permit? Or do I even want to take it outside the house?

If I keep the thing, should I take lessons – I used to be a musician, so the only comparison I have is to music lessons – in safety and shooting? If the truth be known, when I was in the army, I liked target practice. I was good at it, and I have Expert Rifleman Badge to prove it. Which reminds me that this weapon, like my old M-14, isn’t made for fun. It’s made for killing folks.

I’ve got to stop-by the police station, and ask them, “What do I do with a gun?”



By John Samuel Tieman

in a parking lot
I spot an acorn falling
from nothing at all

I used to live in Mexico City. About 1984 or 1985, I went to Tepeyac on December the 12th, the Feast Of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Tepeyac, which is now a part of Mexico City, is the hill where Our Lady appeared to St. Juan Diego.

Never before nor since have I experienced religious ritual with quite this combination of the devotional and the bizarre. Jugglers. Bishops. Fire breathers. Deacons and nuns. Aztec dancers in feathered headdresses yards across. Someone is reciting a litany. Union workers carry a banner, “The Sewer Workers Of Azcapotzalco Salute La Virgencita”. It’s like a circus, only with rosaries.

Just outside the shrine, within sight of Juan Diego’s tilma, the great relic, there’s a commotion. Right next to me, the crowd parts for a woman, a peasant who has crawled on her knees all the way from Cuernavaca, maybe one-hundred miles. Her son is assisting her. I ask the son, “What is her prayer?” And he answers, all of this is in Spanish, “The chicken.” That’s when I notice the bird in her arms. Her son explains, “Her prayer is for more eggs.”

Beside me, slightly out of sight of the son, smartly dressed young man, educated no doubt, rolled his eyes and spits the word, “Naco.” “Peasant.” As for me, I’d give my decades of education for one-tenth of that peasant’s faith.

when I was a child
I wrote a note to myself
on how to find faith
I’ve since traveled the world
in search of that note on faith


C-Melody Sax

by John Samuel Tieman

Gus McCrae of Lonesome Dove says, “The older the violin, the sweeter the music.”

But I like to think of myself as an old C-melody sax. That’s an actual name, by the way, C-melody saxophone. A lovely name, when I think of it, with a lovely sound.