New Book: Welcome to Tragedy (Sample Chapters)

I’m very excited to announce the release of my new book, Welcome to TRAGEDY: A Beginner’s Guide to Greek Drama.  A single volume to introduction to Greek drama, with introductions to all of the surviving scripts by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, plus three comedies by Aristophanes.  Here below are a couple samples – the Author’s preface, and the chapter about Oedipus Tyrannos (since I figure that’s the most familiar play for most readers).  The book is available at

Author’s Preface

At an early age I was inoculated against any infectious enjoyment of Greek drama. Likely by some withered, clucking, turkey-necked high school teacher, and then again by some smug, turtle-necked college professor. Whatever love they had for literature was not contagious.

If you want to inoculate young people against Greek drama, start by alienating them with archaic terms like hubris and dithyramb. Make them memorize these vocabulary words for a Tuesday morning quiz, which pretty much guarantees they’ll have forgotten them by Wednesday. Drag them through some of Aristotle’s Poetics, so they can see the process by which creativity and fun can be scientifically drained out of drama. Then make them read Oedipus Tyrannos, so they can see how a dirty joke can become as dry as a church service.

Teaching Aristotle’s formula (which he based on Oedipus) and then teaching Oedipus to confirm Aristotle is a circular argument that makes for an easy-to-grade paper assignment: In two pages, prove that Oedipus fits perfectly into Aristotle’s outline. Unfortunately, it then leaves students with the false impression that, if you’ve read one tragedy you’ve read them all – and why waste time reading more stories cramped into this dull formula?

And if one should attempt to read further, Medea becomes a dreary and even frustrating intellectual exercise of trying to shoehorn a story into a pattern that doesn’t seem to fit. None of the classical Greek dramatists had read Aristotle’s instructions for writing proper tragedy Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides had all been dead for decades before the book was written. And it’s a good thing they didn’t read it, because then a study of Greek drama would be totally repetitive and boring. As we’ll see, there was a good deal of liberty on the stage of Dionysus.

I’ve never had an interest in Greek drama, but in the last couple of years, people I respect have looked at me and made inside-jokes about Greek plays on the assumption that I’d pick up the reference. I didn’t, and got tired of explaining that I’d been inoculated at an early age, so decided to take it on as an independent study. This turned out to be more fun than I’d expected, because I’ve been going to the theater more lately, and generally find modern plays to be as rewarding as getting thwacked with a rolled-up newspaper and having my nose rubbed in feces.

I’m tired of watching pathetic little plays where pathetic little people fail in pathetic little ways. The number one rule for Greek tragic heroes and heroines seems to be “If you’re gonna fail – fail big. Take a whole kingdom down with you. Really screw it up on such a grand scale that even the gods will scratch their heads.”

I would have been so happy to find a slim, single-volume guide to Greek drama where all of these plays were introduced concisely in a conversational tone. I wanted to be welcomed as a mildly curious beginner. I didn’t find the book I was looking for, so I read all of the plays and several hundred pages of commentary and wrote this. A lot of the stuff I read was insanely dull, filled with obscure vocabulary words and scholar-code, and I’ve done my best to present my findings in a way that will be easy to read.

Now, next time someone makes an inside joke about Greek Drama, I’ll be able to respond. Unfortunately the response will be obscure and alienating, and I’ll realize too late I’d be better off if I’d just stared blankly. Ironically the more we learn about a topic, the harder it is to communicate about it. My hope is that, as an enthusiastic amateur, I’ve learned just enough in this last six months to write an easy-going introduction for mildly curious beginners.



Sophocles, 427 BCE

Title : The name “Oedipus” means “swollen foot,” which is explained in mythology with the story of an ill-omened baby being pierced through the ankles and left out to die, although it more likely derives from an ancient superstition that a king as mediator between the earth-world and sky-world must have one foot that never touches the ground. Or maybe it just meant gout.

Oedipus Tyrannos (in Latin, Oedipus Rex) is generally translated “Oedipus the King,” but the Greek tyrannos is a more specific legal term for someone who rules without having inherited a dynastic royal title. It’s from this word we get the English “Tyrant,” but we use the word judgmentally, about oppressive dictators, whereas the Greek word is neutral, like our word “president.” In calling the play Oedipus Rex, “Oedipus the King” we lose the irony of its title: Oedipus was the firstborn son of the previous king and therefore the rightful inheritor, but not knowing this he became the ruler by saving the city and marrying the queen. Then the realization that he was rightful king all along comes simultaneously with the revelations that destroy him. However, calling the play “Oedipus the Tyrant” today wouldn’t work, since the play establishes that the population of Thebes thought he was doing just fine.

Premise : The city of Thebes will be destroyed unless the killer of its former ruler is punished. Oedipus investigates.


Oedipus – Ruler of Thebes who must avenge the former ruler’s murder +

Jocasta – Oedipus’ wife, later revealed to be his mother +▼

Creon – Brother of Jocasta +

Tiresias – Soothsayer, reveals a vague outline of the back-story +

Priest of Zeus – Explains the plague

Messengers – Reporters of offstage action

Shepherd – Reveals that Oedipus was the abandoned baby

Antigone and Ismene – Daughters of Oedipus and Jocasta (non-speaking roles) +

Chorus of Theban Elders

(+ appears in multiple plays, see Character Index, ▼ dies in this play)

A Murder Mystery

Oedipus Rex is a murder mystery in which the detective doesn’t know he’s the killer. But unlike other mysteries, this one was written with the assumption that the audience knows the outcome before the play begins. And even in modern times, if you asked high school graduates “who killed Oedipus’ father?” they’d likely know it whether they’d ever read the play or not.

The real story of Oedipus takes place in the past – the Theban royal couple Laius and Jocasta abandoned their infant son to die, fearing a prophecy that he would kill his father. The baby was adopted by the king and queen of Corinth, but then exiled himself to escape a prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother. In a fit of road-rage at an intersection he killed a man (Laius, his biological father), then rescued Thebes from a terrorist Sphinx, married the queen and became ruler. Then Oedipus waited for the Corinthian king and queen to die so he would have successfully escaped the prophecy. But a new apocalyptic terror has come to haunt Thebes, and everyone will die if Laius’ killer is not exposed.

In theatrical study this would all be back-story, but the plot of Oedipus (which takes place on the day Oedipus learns the Corinthian king is finally dead) is driven by exposition, the past is central. Tom Driver wrote: “Formally, then, the present embraces the past. Yet as the play proceeds this formal arrangement is reversed. In a play shot through with irony, the basic irony is this: while the form of the play shows the past enclosed within the present, the action shows that in reality the present is enclosed within the past.”34 The old prophecies are firmly in control, no matter how Oedipus tries to outrun or out-think them.

Oedipus is tragically willful: he once killed a driver at an intersection insisting he had the right-of-way. And at every intersection of the play he drives forward, even when the road-signs and passengers tell him to turn back, he’s on a collision-course with destiny. He does once ask for directions, from a blind man, but he brutally refuses to accept them.

He prides himself on his detective skills – he once rescued Thebes from the Sphinx by defeating its riddle. The play doesn’t tell us the riddle, but apparently assumes we know (Q: What walks on four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon and three in the evening? A: Man, who crawls in infancy, walks in adulthood and then needs a cane in old age). It’s odd that Sophocles leaves the riddle out, since like the play it collapses past, present and future into a single day, and also contains ironic connections to Oedipus himself, whose feet were bound together when he was abandoned as a baby (making him unable to crawl) and who will presumably need a stick to feel his way around after blinding himself. But for the dramatic purpose of Oedipus Tyrannos, all we need to know is that he saved the city by solving a riddle once, and come-what-may will save the city by solving a riddle again. The Sphinx (meaning “Throttler” or “Strangler”) which Oedipus defeated in the past was a mythical chimera, a composite monster.35 The solution to the play’s current riddle is yet another sphinx: Oedipus himself, husband of his mother and sibling of his offspring, is also a composite monster.

How Complex Was Oedipus’ Marriage, Really?

Readers may expect eroticism in Oedipus, because the play’s title has become synonymous with Sigmund Freud’s theories on unconscious sexual desire, but if Oedipus has any yearning at all for Jocasta, it’s buried too deep to see it in this play. She does act maternal toward him, in the way that the wife of any obsessively focused man must help him remember the little things, and when she figures out the big secret (just before he does) she tries to protect him from this crushing realization.

The play contains only a single fleeting reference to a Freudian “Oedipus Complex,” when Jocasta tells her husband that life is only ruled by random chance, and nothing can be predicted. She then matter-of-factly says “Do not fear this marriage with your mother. Many men have dreams, and in those dreams they wed their mothers,” and Oedipus blandly answers “You are right,”36 which makes us momentarily wonder about the woman he thought was his mother (whom he immediately says he wishes were dead, so he won’t have to worry about marrying her).

Jocasta is clearly not some withered old crone, she’s likely thirteen or fourteen years older than Oedipus – their ages are not given in the play, but he could be as young as his early thirties and she could be in her mid forties. She’s energetic and sharp, but Aphrodite lurks nowhere in the background of this play. Oedipus speaks of sex only in farming terms, his mother/wife as a piece of land that had been plowed by both his father and himself: “a field that had brought forth two harvests – him and his children.”37 The chorus mixes this metaphor with the docking of a boat: “For you the same wide harbor lay open as son and husband fathering children – how, how could the furrow sown by your father bear you in silence so long?”38 Other than these euphemisms (and the fact that Oedipus and Jocasta have four children), the play gives us no sense of their attraction. At the midpoint, while the chorus sings the half-time song, Oedipus and Jocasta go home together and return five minutes later, but it’s doubtful they snuck off for a quickie.

Did Oedipus have an “Oedipus Complex?” It doesn’t seem so. Oedipus did not seek out the queen Jocasta because he was hot for her. Marrying the former ruler’s widow was part of the rise to political power, like Aegisthus in the Oresteia these royal successions seem to preserve an old memory of queens who ruled for life and had replaceable male consorts.

Once he learns that he’s impregnated his own mother, Oedipus does feel guilty and ashamed, and what had been a healthy marriage instantly turns into something nightmarish and gruesome. When he finds Jocasta has hanged herself, he tears off the brooches that pinned her garments together and plunges the needles into his eyes. His dead mother’s naked body is the last thing he sees before going through the rest of his life blind.

Oedipus and the gods

At the midpoint of the play, while his world is being turned inside-out, the exasperated Oedipus shouts out “Whoever took all this to be the work of a savage god would speak the truth!”39 Where are the gods in Oedipus? Offstage giggling, it seems. The audience sees the play from the gods’ perspective – since the story was already well known, spectators could simultaneously see the past, present and future, while Oedipus blindly bumbled around trying to assemble the past. Destroying his eyes at the end was just a formality.

The surprise twist at the end of Oedipus Tyrannos is that Oedipus wins! He accomplishes precisely what he set out to do: deduces and punishes the former king’s murderer, and saves the city! But there’s no victory party – the gods rob him of any joy in success. He is a true hero, a savior, and yet he’s truly tragic, ground in the gears of a trap he can’t see until it’s too late.

Miscellaneous : Oedipus Tyrannos (bundled with two other tragedies and a satyr play) was the second-place entry in the dramatic competition of its year. Sophocles was beaten by Philocles, nephew of celebrity playwright Aeschylus. What this masterpiece was we don’t know, Philocles’ works have not been preserved, so we can’t judge for ourselves whether he wrote something better than Oedipus. All we really know about Philocles is that his uncle had industry connections.


Available now at


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SHOUT – Football as Religion..?


A couple years ago I got up to preach on a Sunday morning and saw the strangest thing – a young couple in the back of the church, their faces painted blue with some shocking streaks of red and white. And after the service they apologetically explained that they were going straight from there to the Bills game, and wouldn’t have time in between to do their face-paint. I understood. But the strangest thing about seeing them back there during my sermon was that they looked like they should be shouting, chanting, cheering, stomping, clapping…but no, they just sat there painted blue, quietly respectful. Maybe they thought a few prayers in a church would assist their team with victory, but they’d made two slight miscalculations – first, they were in a Unitarian church. And second their team is the Buffalo Bills.

They should have prayed to the football gods, torn live squirrels apart with their teeth, made a giant straw bison and set it on fire…and who knows? Maybe they planned to do that while tailgating. And it made me wonder about Christian Churches where, presumably, people weren’t wearing blue facepaint, but spent the prayer-time begging God to crush the New England Patriots or Miami Dolphins or whatever. I wondered about the ministers preaching, seeing all those dull, blank faces, hanging like masks, and wondering… What’s really the mask? Maybe the blue paint is your true face, and this pale pink skin is just something you wear to fool your boss and minister, so Sunday afternoon you can paint on your true face and worship your true god in the arena.

God may snooze through the same old readings and prayers during Sunday morning church services, but the roar of the coliseum on a Sunday afternoon must wake God up. The shouts, the chants, the barbaric cries for blood, people waving signs that say “John 3:16,” which must mean something like “Crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of their women.” And the crowds go wild. All good Christians (except their team’s totem animal is the bison, so some wear horns). Catholics, Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Baptists, Evangelicals, all those guys who can barely stay awake in church, but once the whistle blows and the blood flows and the pigskin flies they’re screaming their heads off, calling on the gods to rain down apocalyptic destruction on the Giants, Bears, Bengals. If we lived in Detroit, fans would be screaming in the arena for the Lions to tear the Saints to pieces. And in New Orleans good Christians pray for the Saints to massacre the Redskins. I don’t watch football, but if they ever released a video of the Redskins beating the Patriots I’d rent it.

Sunday morning zombie Christians turning to werewolves howling in the Sunday afternoon arena?

I don’t see this as a problem with football, it’s a problem with American religion.

There’s something very strange about the word “Religion” – as a religious studies teacher, I witness that “Religion” is synonymous with boredom. Boredom like filling out an insurance application. “Religion” has come to mean afterlife insurance, and the application needs to be filled out and signed again week after week after week. “Sacrifice” has come to mean another Sunday morning sacrificed to boredom, which also means part of Saturday night must be sacrificed. So that God who has accounted all these hours or boredom will pay the premium after death.

In ancient cultures, religion was the only show in town – what we think of as sports, concerts, theater, even strip-clubs, it was all part of religion. That’s how it was in Babylon, Egypt, Greece, the Mayans and all the ancient civilizations I’ve studied. The ancient Babylonians would make their king fight a lion in order to prove that the gods approved of his rule (and if the lion won, it was a sign that the gods were ready for a new king). In ancient Crete, acrobats did flips over the backs of charging bulls, then sacrificed the animals for a giant national barbecue. The ancient Greek Olympic games were a religious festival, and we can still see it in the ritualistic processions and parades and pageantry of it. The ancient Mayans had a ball-game, it was like tackle-basket-volleyball – you could only touch touch the ball with your elbows and knees, try to knock it through a hoop, and the losing team could be sacrificed (or, if the winning team played supernaturally well, they could be sacrificed). Here in Western New York, Lacrosse was invented as a religious ritual. And these ancient sports were not solemn and dull, they were loud and sexy and musical, feats of human ability, screaming crowds, and victory was seen as a collaboration between athletes and gods – as if the gods themselves would enter into the players and the game, to put on a show for believers.

It was some highly idiosyncratic people in ancient Judaism, Christianity and Islam who separated that, and for our purpose here we can say the Puritans coming to the new world definitely had no patience for any pageantry or eroticism or uproarious outbursts in Church – for the Puritans a worship service had to be as boring as possible. So the public appetite for entertainment went elsewhere, into sporting arenas, rock concerts, strip clubs and theaters. And what was left for religion? Afterlife insurance. Paid up in weekly installments, an hour or boredom buys you six days of doing what you want without worry about having a heart-attack in the brothel – you’re covered. You can treat people like any kind of garbage as long as you pay your weekly premium.

Is that really religion? I don’t know, it sounds so cold and legalistic, so quid pro quo. But then look at the majority of American Christianity – people are damned, the world is doomed, it’s all a foregone conclusion, so the only question left is: can you make a personal deal with God to bail you out? Not save the whales or bring world-peace, just give a singular believer some pie in the sky? I’d say that’s not really religion.

What is Religion? It’s about connections: connection with a higher power, and connection with community. And religions generally involve rituals on some sacred day of the week, songs and chants, sacred clothing and foods, and a longing for victory (which can be victory over the self, victory over fear and desire, victory over sin or death). And if alien anthropologists flew over Buffalo they’d see us doing all these things – on Sunday afternoon.

Buffalo Bills fandom has all these things. It binds people together in community, longing for a victory that, for a moment, can unite all of Western New York, Republicans and Democrats, races and creeds, across the generations. It’s got a sacred day of the week, songs and chants – what is “Let’s Go Buffalo” but a prayer? Even ministers who sweat through their shirts can’t get congregations praying like that. It’s got rituals, celebrated at home with family or at a bar. Even fans at home can wear the sacred clothes (jerseys, hats, beads, talismans), do the chants and cheers, believing that their superstitious rituals can influence the flight of a ball through the television set. It’s got pilgrimage to the sacred ground of the stadium, hallowed ground baptized in blood, sweat and tears (here in Buffalo, mostly tears). It’s even got sacraments – sacred foods and libations, by which I mean Labatt Blue, pizza and wings. A Native American said, “So much like the White Man to kill the Buffalo and only take the wings.” That’s dark humor. But imagine for a moment the number of chickens who get sacrificed before a Bills game. I read somewhere about a fan who always eats fish before the Bills play the Miami dolphins. Symbolically eating the enemy to rob them of their power, put a curse on them. That’s old religion. I wonder if Hell has a special place for Presbyterians who eat fish to work a voodoo curse on the Miami Dolphins.


No matter how much we hear about teen concussions and brain damage, it’ll never make high school football less popular. Why? What forces on earth could possibly possess parents to risk the health and the lives of their children? Money, obviously, if you play your kid like a lottery ticket to see if they make you a zillionaire. But more than that, religion. The history of religion is littered with bodies of firstborn children sacrificed for hungry gods – the story of Abraham being called to sacrifice Isaac is an easy example, and Abraham’s unblinking compliance is a clear sign that what he was told to do was nothing out of the ordinary (Isaac may have been surprised, and in the Bible he never speaks to Abraham again). Greek mythology is filled with legends of fathers killing their sons and eating them. Teen football remains our distinctly American form of child sacrifice. For a shining moment your kid can be a god on the field. And there in the stands, parents go nuts with visions of NFL sugar-plum contracts dancing in their heads – they shout at the kids (the kids can’t hear them), they shout at the referee (the ref’s not listening) they speak in tongues, it’s a primitive thing.

I lived in a football town where teens would dance around a bonfire before the season’s big game, doing strange pagan chants and rituals. The team was called the blue-devils, so there was a good deal of satanic imagery involved (strange, since Allegany’s such a Christian town). There was a homecoming dance, so the town could offer its virgins to the local football demigods. Child sacrifice for the good of the community. As a matter of fact, if it wasn’t for stranded single-moms and brain-damaged ex-football players, everyone would leave Allegany as soon as they turned eighteen.


Football is the American religion. Let’s face it, we don’t live in a nation of “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Our neighbor is Mexico. We don’t live in a nation of “Love the Lord your God with all your might” – we save our might for the Sunday afternoon bread-and-circus gladitorial spectacle. This is America. We crush our enemies. We charge in with our military because our politicians need a victory to distract us from their swindles and scandals. We like war. War news coverage is a sport, just another way of getting couch-potatoes to watch commercials. We like victories. The big difference between American warfare and American football is that in our wars, the other team rarely shows up on the field, so we order our team to charge into the stands and tackle the spectators. American warfare is a spectator-contact sport.

The other difference is, with football, we can watch it live, with other people. And the possibility of sharing what Sigmund Freud called “The Oceanic Feeling” or boundless oneness with the universe. The “Religious Experience.” The ecstatic feeling that can come from jumping and shouting, getting your pulse up to a frenzy (maybe also consuming poisons, like beer and cigarettes), enhanced and amplified in a giant echoing arean under the vast open sky. And then a touchdown, a moment of connection, something so improbable that in this strange game, someone actually coordinates an action, and let’s face it, the difference between catching the ball or having it roll off your fingertips comes down to something so tiny it must be an act of God (a butterfly flapping its wings in India could change the wind enough to spoil that catch). In that moment, all of life and the cosmos feel so connected and the crowd feels for a moment like they can levitate – they turn and hug each other, because after an experience that strong, you need a moment of human connection just to ease the way back to earth. That’s a religious experience. Not just the church-aerobics of stand-sit-kneel-sit-kneel-stand, then line up for a sip and a cracker. I mean a full-bodied religious experience, a single instant of being all-animal, all-human and all-divine, river-deep, mountain-high, one with the earthworms and the stars. I hope everyone in their lifetime will have a religious experience like that. And if churches won’t provide it, people should seek it anyway.

Truth be told? I don’t watch football. But I respect its validity as true religion.

A couple years ago, when I did a sermon and that couple in the back was wearing blue facepaint, I caught a glimpse of their distant ancestors, “the picts,” the blue-painted Natives of England. We don’t know much about their religion but it must have been wild, and probably did involve wild, drunken cheering while victorious warriors threw and kicked the head of some defeated enemy. And after calmly, quietly sitting through a religious service, they were going to go shout their heads off at a pagan gladitorial event. After the service they were apologetic, but I knew it was American religion that owed them an apology, for its absolute refusal to acknowledge the deep, human need for spectacle. The need to see a miracle – that’s what a touchdown pass is, a miracle – and feel that deep chiropractic catharsis and loose that primal scream.

I’m sure if you conducted a survey, even during the rowdiest part of a Bills game – “what is your religion?” You’d find that Bills fans are mostly Christian (Buddhists screaming their heads off about possession of a football would have a lot to answer for… Luckily, Buddhism has no gods, so nobody’s asking). But if you asked those fans, “The Buffalo Bills or the Doctrine of the Trinity – which one makes you want to shout?” Well, I think the answer would be obvious.


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When you’re a kid…Summer! No school! Longer days! More energy!

When you’re a parent…Summer… The kids are more energetic, you’ve gotta come up with ways to keep them busy and supervised (a full time job, trying to wear them out, or a part-time job chaffeuring them to all these activities). You can’t keep them in the house, they’ll destroy it. There’s no bedtime, days are longer, and all the kids can think is more more more. More games, more trips, buy me a drone, build me a swimming pool! More more more.

You want more? Get a job. I can’t wait till my kids get summer jobs, that’ll teach them to shut up and love the school year. Actually you can learn more valuable skills with one summer bagging groceries than you can in three years of algebra. There is no algebra in the real world – my teachers used to say – “But someday you might need to cut a pizza into 528.1979 equal pieces!” Yeah, right. I doubt even office parties at NASA do that (and they’d sure better not be doing that equation with tax-payer chalk). But the lesson that you have to pass their idiotic tests and earn that diploma so you won’t still be bagging groceries at forty? Priceless.

Our whole concept of “summer vacation” is artificial, I always heard it came from the early days of public schooling when kids were needed back on the farm for the summer (and then they realized there is no farm-work in summer, agriculture is fall and spring, all farmers do in summer is watch grass turn to hay). And they’d spend the summer saying “gotta get that diploma so I can leave this farm-town!” And so many of them did, and left the family farms and went to the corporate cities. Where they put their kids in school and got stuck all summer long in overcrowded tinderbox tenements! Summer is the smelliest time of the year, especially in cities, nothing to do but swat flies and watch typhus spread. So they took their kids to the Grand Canyon. “Look, kids! It’s the world’s biggest nothing.” It’s an empty hole in the ground. Someday I’m gonna set up a souvenir stand next to the Grand Canyon – “Piece of the Grand Canyon! Five Bucks! Thank you, sir.” “Um, you’re not giving me anything.” “Well right, it’s nothing, that’s what you came to see, and now you can take a handful of nothing home with you.”

My parents never took me to the Grand Canyon, they took us to Wisconsin. They’d pack us into the van and we’d drive for days, from Newark into middle-of-nowhere Northern Wisconsin to a cabin in the woods with no TV, no flush toilet, no telephone. I used to think this was a problem, but now I realize, my Dad was an inner-city Episcopal priest. And to him, no phone! It was the only way he could get away from other peoples’ problems! And for three weeks we’d play card games and go fly-fishing and canoe and swim. We had to swim every day because there was no bath or shower. In Northern Wisconsin we learned the true meaning of family. Also the true meaning of terror – walking barefoot thirty feet by moonlight through the dank, chirping, croaking forest to use an outhouse at night. Given the choice, I would have happily avoided that by diving into the Grand Canyon. Ah, summer memories.


Who here remembers what our big June holiday is?

Nobody. Fathers Day.

Father’s day used to be celebrated on March 19, the Catholic feast day of Saint Joseph. Which is odd, because the Catholics don’t believe Joseph was the father of anybody famous – the Bible says he wasn’t the father of Jesus, but he does seem to have sired Jesus’ six siblings. But Joseph is a perfect symbol for Fathers Day because in all four Gospels he never says one single word, and he’s so easy to forget. To the point that whenever Jesus said “our father,” Joseph was the last person on his mind.

There were various attempts to make Fathers Day a national holiday in America, but it didn’t become official until 1972, and they picked the third Sunday in June, I guess because neckties are cheaper than sweaters. Fathers Day is payback for Protestant fathering, because all that stuff you say to your kids, “stiff upper lip,” “it doesn’t matter if you win or lose, it’s how you play the game,” and all those other father-isms that basically mean “nobody cares how you feel, get to work” and Fathers Day is when your kids get to give you the same message in return: “nobody cares how you feel. Get to work.” And they communicate this effectively by hounding you to make them breakfast. Twelve Fathers Days in a row, not one of them has anybody brought me my slippers in the morning. I don’t even own slippers, because nobody ever bought me slippers for Fathers Day. The only person who calls on Fathers Day is my father, who makes me feel guilty for not sending a card. He says something like “nobody cares how I feel,” and I say, “yeah, nobody cares how I feel either.” But we’re not real sad about it, we also take a sort of pride in that, because it means we’ve raised our kids with a strong Protestant ethic. And then we switch topics, talk about what we’re working on.

One of my favorite parts of fatherhood is what it teaches me about my father – because I keep getting this Deja-vu – haven’t I played this scene before? Oh right, I did, but I was the other guy, the little one. Now my eldest is twelve and a half, he’s starting to get mopey, mumbly, gloomy, teenager-ey. He’s becoming more sensitive, but his preteen brain tells him what’s happening is I’m getting more insensitive. So I’m folding laundry (for six people, by the way, or seven if you count the pile of outgrown baby clothes) and ask Jackson to take his pile to his room. He says something like “Dad, you’re such a tyrant!” “Hold on there – here I’m folding your mom’s underwear, tears in my eyes from an R.E.M. song – and I’m your image of insensitive manhood? Because I ask you to put your freshly folded clothes in a drawer?” But I have trouble expressing my feelings, so instead I say “Jackson, this is a week of laundry here and there’s only two pairs of your underwear. This is a sign. Change your undies more often.” “Dad, you’re so insensitive!” “Yeah, but my nose still works – you’re the only person here who can’t smell your clothes.”


In modern America we celebrate the beginning of summer with Memorial Day, when we feel bad about our fallen soldiers… Then on the Fourth of July we celebrate our ability to blow stuff up! But in between, the Gay pride parades still remind us of midsummer festivity, and the protests against the parades bring back memories of the Puritan forces who doused the Midsummer bonefires.

This summer, some Dad’s gonna take his kid (drag his kid) to see Niagara Falls for the first time. “Dad, you’re such a tyrant!” “But look – it’s like the Grand Canyon, with a cooling mist! So we won’t smell so bad during our twelve hour drive back to Milwaukee.” This summer, let’s remember the Dads, Moms, Grandparents, aunts, uncles, adoptive parents, teachers, working full-time to keep America’s children too busy to play violent video games or loiter the streets. And if you don’t have children to drag around to tourist attractions..? Take mine! Because I need a vacation.

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Beginning Work on Next Book

It’s been so exciting to return to fiction and script-writing, but I always come back to the best writing advice I ever got – not “write what you know” but “write what you would like to read – and if you don’t know it, learn it!”  And what I like to read is heavy, densely annotated scholarly commentaries.  So after a year of intensive research, I’m finally beginning to put words together for my next commentary book.  A topic I always wished I knew more about.  It looks like this book will take longer and be longer than my others, but it’s so much fun.


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j. Snodgrass’s Short Play “Death & Dunkin” on Youtube (Link)

I heard a rumor, and then found out yesterday that a living-room production of one of my short plays was filmed and posted on youtube.

The play is called “Death & Dunkin,” a 9 minute modernization of Macbeth starring Emily Yancey and Andrew Zuccari. I wrote and directed this for an Ascension for the Arts fundraiser in October.  A couple people asked if I’d copied sections of this directly from Shakespeare – that’s an honor, but no, I wrote it myself, and adapted a few famous Macbeth lines to fit into it.

The video starts abruptly with the opening line of the play, “Well one more dumpling left – it’s you or me” (it might look like some of the scene got cut but it didn’t).  Thank you David Poole for recording this!

I’ve recently begun writing plays again after many happy years away from the theater. And now I’m starting work on my new book, tentatively titled “Shaping Fantasies: Folk Belief and Ritual in Shakespeare” TjS

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Three space explorers crash-land in an enchanted forest full of primal beauty and danger. There they encounter a shaggy blue monster, a fearsome tribe led by three mysterious priestesses, and a sinister threat that could end all life on the planet. What dark and idiotic secrets will the visitors discover about this world, and about themselves? And who will survive the Thirteenth Moon?

After many wonderful years writing heavily footnoted scholarly books and wacky sermons, my brothers finally talked me into writing something fictional again.  So excited it’s done and I can get to work on my next book of commentary!

Available at , kindle version available soon.

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I don’t take my kids to movie theaters. They want popcorn. You get to the seats and then they’re thirsty. You back to your seats and then they need the bathroom, back to the seats and then they want candy. Then I finally settle into a seat and watch the credits. I think that’s why so many movies put a little scene after the credits, because they know the Dads with their kids just got into their seats. How was the movie? I don’t know, but I got a good workout, walking back and forth in the theater.

Every time the cost of a movie-ticket goes up by five bucks, a new Robin Hood movie comes out. It’s a form of taxation – every five years we have to pay the Robin Hood tax (which includes a time-tax of two hours). But if the message is robbing the rich too feed the poor – shouldn’t the movie company should pay me fifteen bucks to watch it? And donate some twizzlers for my starving children?
Movie companies love Robin Hood because he can’t be owned, he’s nobody’s property, he exists in the Sherwood Forest called “public domain.” He’s a brand-name without copyright, and Robin Hood heroically rescues Hollywood from its greatest fear – having to come up with a new idea. Before there were sequels or prequels or trilogies, there was Robin Hood. Studios making the same movie over and over and over again.

I heard that there’s a new Robin Hood movie from last year and I haven’t seen it. I pay my Robin Hood tax in a different way – whenever a new one comes out, I re-watch the Disney version with the foxes. Where the Sheriff goes around muscling peasants for coins so the king can sleep on big piles of sacks of gold (maybe that’s why he’s so cranky, medieval gold-stuffed beds were terrible).
I guess he’s doubly evil because he doesn’t spend that gold to stimulate the economy, build a proper road through Sherwood forest and hire a competent police force. At least John is a more honest Disney King – how did that fat guy in Cinderalla pay for The Ball except by sending leg-breakers to squeeze the peasantry? All those Disney royal palaces – how were they paid for? Except Elsa from Frozen, letting go of the medieval agrarian economy to build a castle of ice.

I assume every generation of film-goers has a certain soft-spot for whatever version was current when we were eleven years old. I like the one from the 1990s that somehow takes place in the 1960s with hairstyles from the 1980s. It’s got a good communal hippie theme, plus it’s got Kevin Costner, and I’ll watch anything with Kevin Costner in it.

Like the King Arthur legend, each new generation’s film claims to bring startling new evidence, an enhanced historicity, and then when it’s over we realize we’ve seen nothing but new special effects (which drive the film even farther into fairy-tale territory). With every film, Robin Hood blows up bigger and bigger stuff. With a bow and arrow. How do you blow stuff up with a bow?

But long before Hollywood and special effects, even before the novels, the Robin Hood story begins with an ancient pagan folk-dance, a piece of community musical theater that was thrown together each year as part of English celebrations at the start of May. It was a festival of fire and fertility, to welcome the spring. Easter is imprecise about the coming of Spring (Easter being based on Passover, which originated in warm places like Egypt and Israel). In Britain, as in Western New York, we don’t expect blushing floral outbursts in mid April. I do, but then Elizabeth always tells me I’ll have to wait till May. May first is a much safer bet.

Robin Hood originates in ancient Pagan fertility pageants – not as a bandit bowman but as a mischievous forest spirit. “Hood” is not the thing you wear or place you live, it’s “Hud,” an old word for an oak log that could be burned to bless a house. Robin Hood, also known as Hobgoblin or Robin Goodfellow, is sometimes pictured as a faun or satyr, a man with goat legs and horns (which the church leaders adopted as a symbol of opposition to the Christian Gods, inspiring our imagery of the Devil).

The Robin Hood dance also involved other characters which could be played by village plowmen – Little John (the village’s strongest bachelor) and Will Scarlet the bowman. The town drunk would be dressed as a mock Franciscan and called Friar Tuck. And then there was Maid Marian, who appears in early versions as an English version of the Greek huntress goddess Artemis/Diana. In a folk-song, Marian is celebrated as “sovereign of the woods, chief lady of the game…With bow and quiver armed, she wandered here and there / Amongst the forest wild; Diana never knew / Such pleasure, nor such [deer] as Mariana slew.” But she was often played by a man in drag. Robin Hood legends do preserve certain historical realities – during eras of Christian control, indigenous rituals had to go into hiding, like the “Merry Men” in Sherwood forest.


The first of May was called “Beltane” by the Celts – Fire of Bel (likely the northern name of the fertility god Baal mentioned in the Bible). It was celebrated with bonfires whose smoke would purify livestock animals, and sky-clad witches would leap over them for divine blessing and protection. Villagers would dance with brooms and chimney-sweeps (those who purify the passageway of the hearth-fire). There’s an odd reference to this in Disney’s Mary Poppins, where the witch dances with chimney-sweeps and encourages the children to shake hands with them for good luck.

Along with the bonfire, the center of the village festival was the Maypole, a tall tree shorn of its limbs and sunk to stand upright on the ground. This was decked with flowers and tied with ribbons, which villagers would hold while dancing circles, weaving a colorful braid around the tree – a symbol of fertility, a connection of land and sky.

Teenagers in the fields played “barley break,” which seems to be an ancestor of our modern childrens’ game “Red Rover,” where you call someone over and they try to tackle their way through a human clothes-line of locked arms. …Is this game still modern? I played it in the 80s but now it sounds really dangerous. Other Mayday games included archery contests (which feature in all Robin Hood legends) and a curious invention – a large stump with a log or board across it, that teenagers would straddle, a laddy on one side and a lass on the other, alternately bouncing up and down to get themselves excited. This survives today as the see-saw or teeter-totter. Then the teenagers would run off to get squirrelly in the woods. Or the more polite phrase is, “a bustle in your hedgerow.”

In 1613, Humphrey King wrote a sort of Eulogy for May-games and Robin Hood in his “An Halfe-Penny Worth of Wit in a Penny-Worth of Paper.”

“Let us talk of Robin Hoode
And Little John in merry Shirwood,
Of poet Skelton with his pen,
And many other merry men,
Of May-game Lords, and summer Queenes
With Milke-maides, dancing o’er the Greenes…
Of May-poles and merriments
That have no spot of ill pretence.
But I wonder now and then,
To see the wise and learned men,
With countenance grim, and many a frowne
Cries, Maisters, plucke the May-pole downe
To heare this news, the Milke-maid cries
To see the sight, the plough-man dies.”

The Puritans were pretty successful at stamping this out. In modern America, our May holiday to kick off the summer is a militaristic parade from the local high school to the cemetery, to celebrate the large-scale sacrifice of soldiers, then eating a lot of meat. We don’t dance around the Maypole. But still there’s something irrepressible about the start of May. This is the time of year when the sidewalks hum with people running, walking, bicycling – emerging pale from their long winters inside, binge-watching Game of Thrones, stepping out into the sunlight. In the classroom I see my college students getting fidgety, at home my children are asking for the playground.

For me as a teenager, I think, the May Games would have been just one more opportunity to be ignored. Although, come to think of it, I had my first kiss with my very first high-school sweetheart on the first of May, my junior year, which ended the long, cold winter of being an overweight and lonely adolescent. I would say “girlfriend,” except she didn’t know we were a couple, I later realized, and my hurt feelings about her other various May Games were a series of surprises. About a month later she figured it out and dumped me, for a girl, but I doubt it was because she found me too manly. I don’t think about it that often, except when I hear someone in a movie say “Mayday, Mayday,” and I think, yeah, there are worse things than crashing an airplane.

Otherwise this a tough holiday to comment about because it’s been so effectively erased here in America. Yes, it can help us to understand some Mary Poppins stuff and a few lines of “Stairway to Heaven” (I was talking earlier about the “Robin Hood” tax but for my wife Elizabeth there’s also a “Stairway” Tax – every time that song starts, she loses eight minutes of her life. It doesn’t happen in our house that often, though. Personally I prefer Meat Loaf). The whole “Rites of May” when the forests would echo with laughter – does anyone remember laughter? Now it’s just useless trivia, waiting for some future film’s promise to reveal shocking new secrets about the “real” Robin Hood. But I doubt they ever will.

I wonder what will the next generation of movie Robin Hood be. Maybe Disney will re-make it with an orangutan, trying to keep his tax returns a secret. And his bow fires poison-tipped tweets. And a multiple personality twist where Robin is also Prince John taxing the peasants to build a wall around Sherwood Forest. And, in an even more bizarre twist the peasants think he’s Jesus Christ. Or maybe he’s a cheetah, and the movie’s called Tax-Cheetah. And he strips insurance from the sheep to give tax-breaks to the wolves. And the sheep throw big rallies to encourage him to do it.

The good new is, it’s almost May, winter’s getting sick of us. This is a time when we can turn off our televisions and leave our caves, escape from Robin Hood and Washington and Hollywood. I recently found an old invitation, written by Robert Herrick four hundred years ago. It’s called “Corinna’s Going A-Maying,” but I also sort of feel like he’s talking to us, here today.

“Get up! Get up for shame! the blooming morn
Upon her wings presents the god unshorn.
See how Aurora throws her fair
Fresh-quilted colors through the air:
Get up, sweet slug-a-bed, and see
The dew bespangling herb and tree…
Rise, and put on your foliage, and be seen
To come forth, like the springtime, fresh and green,
And sweet as Flora. Take no care
For jewels for your gown or hair;
Fear not; the leaves will strew
Gems in abundance upon you…
Come, let us go while we are in our prime
And take the harmless folly of the time…
Our life is short, and our days run
As fast away as does the sun…
Then while time serves, and we are but decaying,
Come, my Corinna, come, let’s go a-Maying.”

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Everything All of the Time

Song of Amergin

I am a stag: of seven tines,

I am a flood: across a plain,

I am a wind: on a deep lake,

I am a tear: the Sun lets fall,

I am a hawk: above the cliff,

I am a thorn: beneath the nail,

I am a wonder: among flowers,

I am a wizard: who but I

Sets the cool head aflame with smoke?

I am a spear: that roars for blood,

I am a salmon: in a pool,

I am a lure: from paradise,

I am a hill: where poets walk,

I am a boar: ruthless and red,

I am a breaker: threatening doom,

I am a tide: that drags to death,

I am an infant: who but I

Peeps from the unhewn dolmen, arch? [uncarved stone arch]

I am the womb: of every holt,

I am the blaze: on every hill,

I am the queen: of every hive,

I am the shield: for every head,

I am the tomb: of every hope.

Song of Amergin” translated by Robert Graves, from The White Goddess




Someone made a mess… No, wait a minute. Someone spilled dry cereal on the kitchen floor. And then three other little someones must have seen it there but trampled through it anyway, grinding it into powder… Unsurprised, as a father I instinctively grabbed the vacuum cleaner. The handle was smeared with butter. My first thought was “How did this get here?” But my second thought was “You idiot, how could you have been so stupid? Of course there’s butter on the vacuum handle – where else would it be? Why should anything not be anywhere, ever?” Why should this toy car not have yogurt painted into its driver seat? Why should plastic Spider-Man not be floating face-down in the toilet? (“The toilet is not a toy.” Yeah, right, try explaining that to a toddler).

The remote control is inside a shoe that was thrown behind the couch. That’s what the kids and I find out after a half-hour of tearing the living-room apart. It’s the first place we should have looked. Where’s the remote control? Are there any shoes stuffed into any furniture? Check there first, then you won’t feel so stupid about all the time you spent digging through toy-boxes and seat-cushions and the kitchen (how does the remote control get into the kitchen? Elves, I think, pokey little elves who must imagine it’ll make music come out of the microwave). I need the remote control, so I can turn on the closed-captioning for the hearing impaired. I know that’s politically correct but I don’t like being called “hearing impaired,” I think it should say “closed captioned for the parents who can’t figure out what’s going on even though the movie’s in English.” When I was young all the cool, hip teens watched movies with subtitles. Now I’m the hippest of all because I watch everything with subtitles.

Sometimes in the dark I put one foot in front of another. It seems intelligent enough, but always reminds me how ignorant and presumptuous I am. Step on a lego, slip in yogurt, trip over a Bat-cave playset, twist my ankle in a pair of shorts lying in the middle of the stairs. In winter, the shorts are there – nobody’s worn them in six months, they’re out-grown, how did they get here now? But of course they’re there – where else would they be? I slipped on a banana-peel. Honest-to-goodness banana peel. Which is funny in cartoons but in real life it also leaves a streak of banana-slime on the floor that, once it hardens, you can’t scrape it off with a chainsaw.

My house. It’s a jungle in there. This winter we had two feet of snow – the West Side of Buffalo looked clean and fresh, in a white gown of bridal purity. And then I’d walk into my house, dark and teeming, strange sounds and smells. I don’t want to get too graphic about this because then Child Protective Services would show up…and find that Elizabeth had murdered me for saying this in public (people blame her when our house is messy, never-mind that she’s a full-time medical doctor and I’m a part-time professor). As a matter of fact, forget I said that, and a jungle is a bad metaphor for my house anyway – jungle makes me think of lions, and a “king” (although a lion strikes me as a bad king, a predator with a big mouth and that tacky orange hairdo and never releasing his tax returns). My home is more like a hive, there’s a queen bee and we all buzz around her and sometimes the kitchen floor is sticky with honey.

Every-thing is everywhere, all the time. Laws of temporal dynamics, laws of physics, displacement of matter – my house laughs at those so-called laws. And Einstein’s theory of so-called relativity too. Where’s the relative to this mitten, Einstein? Where’s the other shoe? Elizabeth’s keys? Phone? Don’t waste your time digging for it, just close your eyes and meditate, or pray. Or dance. And maybe it’ll just appear in your hand. Or on your head or anywhere. You never know what to expect. Unless you expect everything all of the time.

I was talking to someone, the radio was on, a commercial. And a bunch of childrens’ voices said “Yay!” and I jumped. “Where? Where are they? How did they get in here?” I’m shellshocked by parenthood, like I’ve been living in the trenches for a thirty years (my first was born 12 years ago, but you add the ages together to determine how long you’ve been parenting. Thirty years). Elizabeth and I need a vacation. So I’m gonna take her to Beirut. Because how could we sleep without explosions and screams all night long? The sunny Beirut vacation, they should call it the family value pack. And you can bring the kids, and they’ll wear themselves out with a sixteen-hour shift of knitting souvenir scarves. Maybe the kids could embroider me a special scarf that says: “It takes a village to raise a child, but it takes a village idiot to raise four of them.”


What keeps me alive in the jungle? Nature made me a shape-shifter. Compartmentalize – I am all this, and then a moment later I am all that. I can read critical scholarship while two kids are playing, one has music on, and another one is shouting about something. I think more clearly in chaos than I do in silence. Then I’ll grab a toddler’s foot and start chewing on their heel, I turn into an animal and pretend to eat them, they laugh. Nature knows that sometimes a Dad is going to come home from the hunt or the war, spattered in blood, and the kids need to still trust him. Children develop their ideas about the world starting with their parents at home – to them we’re super-human, divine, and that’s frightening. But they also see us as animals. The parent is all-divine and all-animal, all at once. Stormy like a thunder-being and smelly like a dog.

As a human being I’m a child of the jungle – all of humanity comes from the jungles of Africa, that was our cradle. Twigs snapping in the night, subtle changes of scent in the day, color-shifts with seasons, stories written in animal tracks. Senses – smell, sight, sound, touch, taste – information flooding through our brains. Plus other senses, the ones we can’t quantify yet (the ones only pseudo-scientists and Unitarians get to talk about) like magnetism and telekinesis, all those signals flashing in the brain, lighting it up like Tokyo in a rush-hour thunderstorm. We have that kind of power inside of us, because that’s what it took for our fragile species to compete and survive.

Think a moment about humanity’s cradle, rock-a-bying baby humanity on the tree-tops – people used to sleep in trees! Imagine that, scratch an itch in the night, you roll over and next thing you’re grasping for vines while plummeting toward the jungle floor. And the big cats evolved, causing a massive wave of extinctions, but not us. Somehow we adapted, survived and multiplied. And now we, human beings… I was going to say that we keep pet cats now as prisoners of war, trophies of our victory but cat owners tell me really that’s not true – the cats won the war and domesticated us to make us their servants.

But we not only survived the cats and the hawks and the snakes and the scarabs, we learned from them too. We learned from the bugs how to store food for winter, we learned stealth from the snakes and tools from the apes and teamwork from the cats and eventually from the birds we learned to fly. And our teachers live in us – we are the snakes and bugs and cats and birds. “I am a stag: of seven tines… I am a hawk: above the cliff… I am a salmon: in a pool… I am a boar: ruthless and red… I am the queen: of every hive.”



“The Song of Amergin” comes from an ancient legend about the Celts approaching Ireland. Three native kings enchanted the sea to sink the invading force, and aboard a sinking ship, a druid bard named Amergin (or Amorgen) sings a song invoking his connection with the land, waters and creatures of the island. By the power of this song he is able to part the storm, their ship landed. The natives were defeated and went into hiding, becoming the Sidh – faeries and leprechauns of Irish folklore. The song, attached to this and other legends of Ireland and Whales, was restored by poet/scholar Robert Graves for his book The White Goddess, in which he says this lyric should be the beginning of any exploration of English-language poetry. The stories attached to the song might be mythological, but the song itself feels like an authentic encapsulation of old European animism – the belief that everything in nature has anima (spirit), that everything is interconnected, and that the human (individual and collective) is entwined in this twisted Celtic knot.

This is not a song about someone who likes “nature,” it identifies the singer with all of these phenomena. The singer is the environment: “I am a flood: across a plain, I am a wind: on a deep lake, I am a tear: the Sun lets fall… I am a hill: where poets walk.” The singer is the animals: “I am a stag… I am a hawk… I am a salmon… I am a boar… I am the queen: of every hive.” The singer is also human, a hunter/warrior who uses tools, and the singer is the tools also: “I am a spear: that roars for blood… I am a lure: from paradise… I am the shield: for every head.” The singer is the hunter and prey also. The singer is a tomb and a womb – male and female, a birth-giver and killer, at all stages of life from the helpless infant to the wizened wizard. This is a song of someone who can reach beyond all boundaries of gender and age, life and death. The singer, whether individual or collective, is everything all of the time.

I first encountered this song when I was a stay-at-home dad, and it all made so much sense. “I am a wizard… I am an infant.” The child is the alchemist-magician who can transform food into feces, clothing into laundry, transform the poet into a zookeeper, perhaps even transform the spouse into a coworker (in which case the home becomes an office and the marriage becomes an awkward office-romance. “The boss fell asleep – meet me in the bathroom”). As a stay-at-home dad I would playfully list my job as “waste management,” yes, I work for “The Family.” But I didn’t want to end up in a turf-war.

When I envision the sharing of this song, I imagine a gathering at one of Britain’s mysterious circles, like Stonehenge. When the singer says, “I am an infant: who but I / Peeps from the unhewn dolmen, arch?” They’re speaking of an arch of uncarved stone (or wood), from which ritual participants look outward at the surrounding land. Stonehenge is mysterious, and I’m not going to go on and on about it, but one thing I can say for certain about it – when we compare it with other ancient megaliths, the Ziggurat of Ur in Babylon, the great Pyramids of Egypt and Mexico, we can see that other ancient cultures were seeking divinity upward – pyramids draw the eye toward the skies. Britain’s stone circles draw the eye inward and outward, horizontally, orienting ritual toward divinities here, around us.

And below us. The other great monuments and religious expressions of old Europe and Britain were underground – decorated burial mounds filled with carvings and paintings, and caves. Hunters descended into the bowels of the earth for solitary rituals, inscribing animals in the womb of the land, in the hope that the ground would give birth to them.

One of the most famous cave paintings is in France, a creature that combines elements of the human, the owl and the buck, with seven points on his antlers. Unlike other cave paintings, which are almost always of animals in profile, this painting looks directly at the viewer, as if challenging us to consider how the hunter and the prey are really one – the animal has been the hunter’s teacher, and will also be his dinner, and its life-force will live on in him until in death he returns it to the earth, where it will feed another generation of plants and animals. It’s hard to put this image into words, but really what he seems to be saying is “I am the stag of seven tines.”


The human species spent millions of years adapting itself to survive. Competition with lions and owls pushed us to use our wits and hands and tools and communication skills to become some of the most powerful pack hunters on the planet. Ugly hairy men who wanted attention from beautiful hairy women had to invent a sense of humor.  What other species of animal could come up with that?

But then, starting ten thousand years ago, some group of people stopped adapting themselves to fit their environment, and started adapting their environment to suit themselves. This might seem like the most simple, self-evident thing there is – of course we change our environment to suit ourselves, we wouldn’t last ten minutes in the jungle! But we as a species survived three million years in the jungle – the jungle made us strong and lean and confident and beautiful (not as beautiful as the panthers, but still pretty handsome). It kept our reflexes quick and our cholesterol low. Nobody needed a gym membership or a tanning booth,

But ever since we as a species began adapting our environment to make our lives easier, we’ve been devolving. Civilization has made us soft – our life of ease has left us flaccid. And worse, we’ve lost the self confidence that kept our species alive in the jungle. We’re taught to fear the challenges of nature, the daily tests of survival skills that once kept us sharp. And our fear of sadness and our fear of pain has got us trying to perfect ourselves with chemistry experiments in our own blood and brains. And our natural longing for interconnection has created a new jungle, a digital jungle filled with digital souls, where everything is animated (radiates with anima), we dress up in glamorous avatars and seek kindred spirits, but often find mischievous digital trolls and people pretending to be programs and programs disguised as friends. The internet is not a paradise where angels meet, it’s a jungle where we swing on treacherous vines, and predators stalk in the shadows. We survived millions of years in the old jungle, but will we survive one hundred years in this new jungle? I don’t know. And shutting out our primitive relatives, the salamanders and toadstools and saplings and sprites and seagulls – it’s not so good for us. I’m not saying we should move back in with those relatives, but we should probably visit more often.

When we unplug, log off, whatever, a brief walk outside can remind us that we are related to all objects and life-forms in so many ways, that the whole realm of existence can be seen as a tangled, chaotic web, a Celtic knot. The more we look at the interconnections between all things, the more we can appreciate how an individual life can be without boundaries, and without limits. Everything, all of the time – a messy house, a chaotic mind, it can be scary and overwhelming. But chaos is our natural habitat, and immersion in it brings us closer to our fullest human potential. Where’s the remote control? It’s in a shoe behind the couch. Once we accept this we can move on to the even deeper philosophical question: is the shoe also filled with peanut butter?

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Book Release: “CHAOS, CHAOS”


I’m very excited to announce the release of my new book, “CHAOS, CHAOS” (Collected Speeches 2014-2018, different from by other book called “CHAOS”).  It’s now available on amazon ( ).  And here is a sample chapter:


Recently while moving I had plenty of opportunities to think about power – the energy it took to pack, stack and haul the stuff, fighting the strong urge to dump it all at Goodwill. I even had a chance to test my strength with The Force, successfully levitating an upright piano with my mind while watching six dudes load it into a truck (they definitely did their share, but without my intense concentration I don’t think they could ever have got it here in one piece). Of course my powers have limits, which I had plenty of time to consider while awaiting an electrician who promised to show up sometime between 8am and 4pm, and faithfully kept that appointment at 3:55. He was clearly disappointed to find that I was not a lonely housewife fresh from a scented bath. Instead I was a haggard father, generously scented with my own musk because I hadn’t taken a five minute shower because I knew that would have to be the five minutes in which he showed up, hung a card on the front door saying “we knocked,” and disappeared for another two weeks.

Power. What is “Power”? My experience with the electrician gave me a couple hints. Power is the power to hold someone else against their will, to put them under house arrest from 8 to 4 waiting for you. And power is also the power to show someone a number and tell them to pay it, giving them no frame of reference to understand your cryptic system of computation. “How did you arrive at this number? I don’t understand amps and breakers but I know what a dollar is. And I can see that in fifteen minutes you’ve installed two bucks’ worth of metal and plastic. How do I owe you five thousand dollars?”

Electricians always tell you that the previous electrician was a crook. “That’s your problem. The last guy to work on this was a crook.” But how can you know? The only safe assumption is that they’re all crooks. Power is the power of one sweaty man in dirty clothes (because he’s a specialist) to tell another man in dirty clothes (because he can’t take a shower), “Pay what I say or else.” Or else what? “Or it’s the Dark Ages for you. Hope you like candles and tapestries.” When I was young, the US and USSR spent zillions of dollars and rubles proving their power to “bomb you back into the Stone Age.” But electricians don’t need atomic bombs, they can put you back in the Stone Age with a ninety-cent screwdriver.

Ah, now the lights are on and you’re as bankrupt as the Soviet Union, finally taking that shower and trying to remember the business motto printed on the side of the electrician’s van. “Electricians: Holding America Hostage Since 1879.” “Electricians: You’ll Be Shocked By What We Charge.” “Electricians: If it’s not broke, we’ll fix it. And if you’re not broke, we’ll fix that too.” When the US treasury prints the trillion-dollar bill it’ll have Thomas Edison on it.


At the start of the college semester, there’s a game I like to play with my religious studies students. I show them the word “Power” and tell them to think of a person, then I ask them about the image that comes to mind. Descriptions of this imaginary person often involve words like “Strong” and “Tough,” and I say, “Yes, those hefty girls with their broad hips and hard stares” and students laugh. We realize that for your average nineteen year old, the stock image of “Power” is male. But not just any man, we gradually narrow it down until we’ve further classified this strong man as someone who can use force or threats of force to make you do things you don’t want to do – to make you do what he wants you to do (or to make you pay what he wants for fuse-box work).

At nineteen this was true for me too. My image of power comes from the mid 1980’s, the age of the brawny blockbuster. Yes, we all knew that power had fallen into the hands of shadowy bureaucrats and Cold War spies, and that the real Cold Warriors were Wall Street Terminators and Predators. But we wanted to see muscle, someone who would sweep the bureaucrats aside and win something – for five bucks you could watch Sylvester Stallone win the Vietnam war, you could watch Arnold Schwarzenegger win the war on drugs (they may have lost their personal wars against steroids, but at least they weren’t bureaucrats. Yet). Let’s face it – it’s been a long time since America won anything. Our last national victory was when The Patriot Act won the war on personal privacy. Then during the Bailout, Wall Street won its siege of the government. But it’s not very cinematic. Power is the power to say “pay up or else a disaster will befall you,” which is what Wall Street did, holding America hostage and it worked. But, um…I thought we don’t negotiate with terrorists. And don’t I pay the US armed forces to protect me from threats like that? As a matter of fact, where was the US army when that electrician was holding me hostage? They were off protecting his right to free enterprise.

Anyway, we think of power and we think of a strong man who can coerce you to obey his will, we think of a dominator. Then I show my college students a picture of a pregnant teenager. “Nobody thought of this person when I said ‘power’? Maybe we see the pregnant teenager and think, “there’s someone who has no power, someone who played around with the power of seduction and got busted, someone who has lost all their choices.” This is generally the agreement among college students. But can the pregnant teenager can do something the strong man can’t do? He can send you to the hospital or the morgue, but the pregnant teenager can produce and nurture life. A ripple, you can feel it, a ripple runs through the classroom: a ripple of unimpressed boredom. Young minds are not blown or changed.

The teenaged mother gets no respect. So I ask “Who does respect a teenage mother?” Silence. “A baby does! Because to a baby, mother is God, that great being who created and loves and nurtures life.” It’s impossible to teach babies about manly religion – original sin and sacraments, sacrifice, salvation, paradise, all that stuff, they yawn: “Eh, sounds fine but I’ll take the nipple instead.” Yeah, actually that’s how I feel too. Then I ask my students, “What do believers tend to like about God? Is it that God gets angry and smashes things?” Young eyebrows furrow – “Who’d you talkin’ about, Willis?” “Yes, God gets angry and smashes things, if you need proof there’s a book I recommend: the Bible. But is that what believers tend to like about God? Rage and wrath and righteous rampage? Or is it that God creates and loves and nurtures?” Ah, it’s not the ‘strong man’ God that people really love, it’s the pregnant teenager God.

That’s the first thing God’s Mother asks when He calls, “Are you still getting angry and smashing things?” “No, Mom.” “Then what’s this I hear on the news?” Actually that’s the same thing my mother wants to know first when I call, “Are you still getting angry and smashing things?” “No, Mom, how about you? Are you still pouring bowls of chicken soup over childrens’ heads?”

God is powerful. We could say “God is Power.” As a matter of fact we have to, because if we don’t say “God is Power” then we’d have to say “Power is God” and that would be a nightmare. Especially for us non-electricians. God is powerful, but what are the powers of God? God used to do everything. Until just a couple centuries ago when God received an open letter from Galileo saying “Hey – it turns out you don’t need to keep pushing the sun and moon in circles around the Earth. Just stand back, you’ll see everything will orbit perfectly around the sun on its own. Happy Father’s Day!” And then an open letter from Charles Darwin telling God He no longer had to painstakingly hand-carve every wing of every mosquito and every eyelash of every child – the incredible diversity of life would from henceforth be handled by a random algorithm that guaranteed every pine needle would be as unique as a snowflake. Now God sits despondent in a retirement home hoping someone will show up for visiting hours on Sunday to hear the old stories again (and unfortunately they’re written down, so they don’t get bigger every time we hear them). Some modern Christians have drawn a line in the sand: Gravity and biodiversity can have their pieces of the pie, but God still gets creation, destruction and judgment. The clocks of physics and biology can keep ticking, but God gets to set the alarm and then smash the clock when it rings. And in the meantime He’s entrusted our care to wise billionaires, whose capitalist adventurism will steer the ship through the maze of ice-burgs.


Sometimes I feel powerless and wonder… Do I really need to be a prisoner of this house? An indentured servant to this mortgage? A hostage of these electricians? What if I took my family, Swiss-Family-Snodinson-style into the state parks or Pennsylvania and started a new life in the wild? Then I remember…it’s illegal to stay in the state parks. And Pennsylvania is swarming with rabid packs of Pennsylvanians. And also… I’ve never hunted anything. Or made tools for a hunt. And I don’t know how to build a shelter. And my wife knows a lot, but I doubt she could find enough berries to feed five people. I’ve got powerful tools but they run on electricity. I’ve got power but I don’t have the powers of the average ten-year-old in the Stone Age. I’ve got powers, but I don’t have the power to walk away from a societal situation that doesn’t work.

I ask my college students – how many of you want to get up at 7am every weekday for the rest of your life and work till 7pm so you can go buy food? It turns out, in a classroom of 45 college students, nobody. But nobody ever taught them how to feed themselves any other way, and so they’re stuck. Elementary school taught them how to measure a triangle and name the fifty states, but not how to catch or cook a rabbit. Or a rutabaga. Elementary school taught them that all the food in the world is locked up and the only key is money, and then elementary school sent them to me (I hear that some of them attended high school on their way to college, but I’m not thoroughly convinced).

When I feel powerless I try to remember…human beings are powerful. Meat machines that run on a wide range of bio-fuels (few species on earth can derive energy from as many fuel-types as we can). We can turn oxygen, the toxic flatulence of green plants, into life force, and we can turn the poisonous farts of rotting barley into alcohol, which gives us delusions of even greater power. The skin that covers us is a solar panel, and our brains become more active by absorbing radiation from the sun. Our skin can also absorb electricity from moving water, which is why many of us can’t think straight till we’ve had a hot shower in the morning. At our center is a rechargeable battery called the heart. And being electric, we also produce magnetic fields, the effects of which we don’t fully understand. Maybe it was magnetism that helped me levitate that piano – I really can’t explain it. We also have powers we don’t talk about – producing powerful smells, for example, which can influence those around us more than our words or actions. We don’t necessarily take it as a complement when someone says we’re smelling strong today, but we must admit that it’s form of power.

Imagine a machine that ran on a combination of solid, liquid and vapor fuels, electricity, solar radiation and magnetism, and that by absorbing a combination of these energies it could move around and tell dirty jokes, predict the future based on the past, even screw in a light-bulb. But this machine is not a black hole, not an energy vacuum – it processes energy, generating more electricity and magnetism, its foul-smelling belches feed the trees and its droppings are a goldmine for beetles and worms and ferns. Alchemists once wondered – can we transform feces into gold? But it turns out our feces are more valuable than gold to our neighbors in the community of life. In the Greek creation story, Zeus’ greatest fear was that human beings would gain that other form of power, fire, which would give them a sense of control over their environment, and an inspiration of infinite strength by total destruction. We have modeled our culture on that fire, burning energies and scorching the land – alien astronauts looking down at the lights of New York and Tokyo at night might think the world was on fire, and they would be right.

We are parasites crawling in the benevolent biosphere, negotiating a balance. While the earth spins in a dizzying orbit, we build wagons, steam-trains and Jeeps to move us further and faster. Meanwhile, we ourselves are the moving benevolent biospheres for billions of bacteria, germs and parasites, who have been working tirelessly for billions of years to evolve the wagon, train and Jeep of land mammals – I’m the Jeep that nurtures these bacteria and transports them in style while a factory in my body produces the seeds of even sturdier, handsomer bacteria-transports, my children. Inside my human machine is a whole world of living cultures. That’s why the inside of my mouth smells like New Orleans until I brush my teeth in the morning. And as the microscopic germs work for balance with the biospheres of our bodies so as not to render us uninhabitable, so we as human beings must work for balance with the biosphere of the earth so as not to render her uninhabitable.

We are powerful beyond our own imaginings. As a seminarian I found systematic theology to be incredibly confusing, and discouraging. Now as a reproductive adult I find systematic biology is even more confusing, but it is also empowering. Earlier I mentioned the power of the teenaged mother. Condemned by culture, castigated by religion (although didn’t I once hear that God chose to manifest great power through the reproductive apparatus of an unwed teenager?). It turns out I’m an electrician too, and a power-plant generating warmth and energy and a safe home for billions of germs and bacteria and parasites. But I don’t use this power to make them feel like prisoners in my intestines, and I certainly don’t use this power to make them pay exorbitant fees for the right to absorb my precious electricity and half-digested hamburgers.

Many of us here are not blockbuster superstars or billionaires, and I can tell we’re not electricians because nobody in the room is charging to attack me or attacking to charge me. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have power. We do have power.

We are the power.


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The Fluid Edge


When I was a child, my parents and teachers taught me about personal boundaries – which I still think of in terms of my “swimsuit area.” Partly because it’s on a childhood trip to the pool that we learn about these boundaries. We change clothes in a room with naked people, probably with one of our parents (who we see naked and never forget it) and we learn not to stare and point at others in their un-tanned vulnerability. Including that one really old dude in every changing room who really wants to be seen. Ladies, I honestly don’t know if there’s any equivalent, and I don’t want to know. In modern times we see notices saying not to pretend to talk on your cell-phone while taking sneaky pictures in the locker-room (wow, I’m glad I grew up in the eighties!). Then we’re at the pool or beach and everyone is in this strange state between dressed and undressed. You’re sort-of in clothes as you step up, but then as you wade or lower yourself in, there’s that moment of yeep! when the water does its, I dunno, the water-version of a handshake greeting and you know the water does not respect your boundaries. The water has known your nakedness.

As children going for a swim, we were told to wait forty minutes after eating before getting in, so that lunch will stay inside the bounds of our bodies. And we sometimes saw clever signs saying something like “Our Ool doesn’t have any P in it.” But kids pee in the pool anyway – for children it’s a chance to experiment with legal boundaries, prohibitions… Will something happen? Will the Olice show up? Nope. Except the person next to you might ask if the water got warmer. And… Not to get disgusting here, but when we actually think about it, we know that all the water in the pool (and the ocean) is urine, every drop has been drank and sprayed by whales and jellyfish, elephants, orangutans, dogs and cats and squirrels and people. All of the world’s water has been urine at some point, and even his imperial majesty the Pope can’t bless that away. Babies get baptized, and that water in the baptismal font has passed through bodies – maybe Jesus, maybe Muhammad, Mother Teresa, Sitting Bull, maybe Madonna. And a tyrannosaurus rex. Any drop of water, or look at a single snowflake, think about where it’s been, it’ll blow your mind. “I was the blood of Caesar, I was sweated out by Muhammad Ali, I was a tear of Harriet Tubman, and I got pissed off by Eminem.”

I’m not here to gross you out – all the world’s water has passed through animals, but nature also cleans the water, with evaporation into the clouds above, and also the water-treatment facilities we call “plants.” Rain comes down, then passes through roots and accumulates in berries, coconuts, tomatoes, onions, nature’s way of purifying the water. I would not drink a cup of rain-water from this area, but an apple grows in my front yard and I’ll eat it, I know nature has purified that water. Ironically, the water in our baptismal fountains has been cleaned by forbidden fruit.

Our bodies also process water – we’re like power-plants, factories, we constantly need clean water coming in and constantly have waste-water coming out. Not just from our swimsuit areas but from every inch of our bodies. Our parents and teachers taught us that our bodies are solid, our skin a boundary between what’s inside us and what’s outside. But none of us here is made out of diamond – our skin is a bag for holding water, and the bag has millions of holes in it. Water is passing through my skin, you are breathing it. Water is passing through your skin, I am breathing it. We are exchanging water right now. When you smell someone, that’s not a supernatural spirit in the air, it’s water from their body carrying flakes of skin into your nose and lungs and blood. Also I sometimes spit when I talk, so if your mouth is gaping open in shock right now you might want to move to the back row.

Our parents and teachers taught us about boundaries, but in a biological sense those boundaries don’t exist – we are all continuous, connected by water. Not just people, all organic life – plants, trees, fungi, bacteria, animals, Keith Richards, cockroaches, fish, that smelly guy you sat next to on the bus (who might have been Keith Richards, I don’t know). The Ojibwe scholar and activist Melissa Nelson wrote, we “are not separate from the environment. We are the environment! …With every bite of food we eat, every drop of water we drink, every breath of air we inhale, we are on the fluid edge of ‘inside’ and ‘outside,’ ‘me’ and the ‘environment,’ the person and the planet, and the individual and humanity.”1 Water respects no boundaries – especially the artificial and cultural ones we make up for ourselves. We want to close ourselves off from nature, but it’s inside us. Rivers don’t care about our imaginary borders, and even if we build a wall against Mexico, those rivers will defy us by still connecting us. We are all from and of water.


“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” an old funeral saying goes, but our lives don’t begin with dust or ashes at all. Human life begins in water – we all started out as single-cell organisms in a primordial sea, I mean all life collectively and each of us personally at conception (and the water in a pregnant mother’s womb maintains that same salinity as the oceans at the beginning of life long ago). Then we evolved into a little tadpole-looking creature, then into some sort of frog-like thing, before we started to look primate, except with gills on our ears. And then labor begins with the breaking of water. I love that expression, it sounds so sacred, so sacramental, “water breaks.” (Of course it didn’t seem very sacramental when it happened – I was half ready to say “Send the midwife home, we’re calling an exorcist!”). But the water breaks, a new life begins…and two lives end, the social lives of the parents.

And then, straight away after birth many of us were rushed off for a religious cleaning – having spent ten months in mother-water, we get sprinkled with father-and-son water. I was baptized as an infant, held by a nun who then ran off with a man because she realized she wanted to make a baby. I would like to think of that as the first time I caused a religious conversion. Then I went to seminary-school and realized I don’t believe in infant baptism. When Jackson was a baby, and I’ll never forget it, Elizabeth and I visited a church and this beautiful Episcopal priest, a lady-priest, she beckoned me over to ask about something. I walked over, holding the baby and while she was talking she reached back, dipped her fingers in the baptismal font, and suddenly flicked it at him! As a new parent I instinctively shielded him from the sudden motion and then realized my shoulder was wet. That sneaky priestess tried to baptize my son! Like a JFK grassy-knoll baptism! And accidentally baptized me a second time! So, I don’t know, maybe that cancels my infant baptism out.

Just as water knows no personal boundaries, water knows no spiritual boundaries – water is the common element binding all the world’s religions. They’re all related through water. The Christian baptism (copied from the Jewish mikveh), the ritualistic washing before prayer in Islam, the sweat-lodge of the Lakota, the Hindu wish to be sunk in the Ganges after death, the sacred wells of the Celts – they used to celebrate times of peace by breaking their weapons and throwing them in water, and they would pray for health or luck or fortune by throwing coins to water spirits. The pagan tradition continues in wishing-wells, every semester I ask my college students: “when you throw a penny in a well and make a wish – who are you talking to? Wouldn’t the Christian God be happier if you gave your offering in a church?” At the wishing well you give your coin (a sacrifice) and say your prayer to ancient water-spirits. My college students don’t know that the wishing well connects them with their pagan ancestors.

Water freely flows through all belief-systems, but belongs to none of them. In the Bible, water is there before “In the beginning” – if you read it closely, the book of Genesis does not say that God created the water, it was there before He showed up. Similarly in the Qur’an, Allah creates all things from water, but does not create it. Here in Western New York, the creation story begins with a world entirely covered with water, and a muskrat dives down to bring some dirt to the surface. The Mayan, Babylonian, Egytpian, Greek and Roman creation stories all begin in a swampy chaos, before the gods arrive and start building.


Water is creative, it can also be destructive. Glaciers of ice once tore their way through this land, it was water that carved out the Grand Canyon. It happened really slowly in human time, but in geologic time it was like a bulldozer on rocket-fuel, like Babe the blue ox hopped up on red-bull, roaring through, digging canyons and thrashing up mountains. Now nature gets mad and throws water at us, flash floods that sink whole towns (usually targeting southerners who refuse to believe in climate change). Water can be hurricanes, tidal waves, someday water’s gonna eat California. We’ll have to air-lift our movie-stars to Wisconsin – I guess we’re in for a lot more Thor movies. We used to get these brochures in the mail: you can buy a big chunk of the Florida coast, cheap! And I don’t like Florida, it smells like death, but I couldn’t help looking anyway – where’s the fine print? What’s the scam? But it wasn’t in the fine print, it was in big letters across the top: “Land Liquidation Sale!” Oh! So you’re trying to sell pieces of land that will soon be under liquid.

Water can be dangerous big, and water can be dangerous small, even in little trickles. My wife’s got potted plants, they leak on the floor. She loves dogs, they leak on the floor, she sprouts babies, they leak on the floor – one of these days I’m gonna walk in, “Honey I’m home,” and fall through the floor because of all the water damage. Given enough time, a little trickle of water can split a whole mountain in half.

Water can drive you crazy – it’s been used as a torture device for centuries, dunking witches, Japanese drip torture, water-boarding. Water has suggestive power too, deep psychic powers of suggestion. Like I say “Imagine Niagara Falls, envision all that water flowing, tons and tons of water crashing down…” And now everybody feels like they have to go to the bathroom. Sorry, I’ll try to get to the ending of this soon.

Water – what would we be without it? A little pile of dust and bone. And each of us has water sources that are sacred to us, maybe just the bathroom sink where you ritualistically begin and end your day by brushing your teeth. Maybe the shower where you go to recharge your electricity and collect your thoughts, or sing like nobody can hear you. Maybe a toilet. Maybe the kitchen fawcet where you wash dishes and mumble about the injustices in the world. Maybe a river or lake where you like to walk and talk to yourself, or with someone else. Maybe an ocean where you get a sense of perspective. All water is sacred, and all water is part of all of us.

And we are all part of water. It connects us with all living things, not just across personal bounaries and cultural boundaries, not just across species boundaries, but also across time: Water knows no boundaries of time. The past, present and future are all coexistent in water. The fluid in our bodies today will not be the same fluid there tomorrow. But the water we borrow and carry at this moment has been the life of creatures past and will be the life of creatures yet to come.

1Nelson (2008) p. 9

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