Archive for December, 2014

Learning to See



‘If thine eye be single thy body will be filled with light.’  


I have always felt out of place in this world. Besides an atypical temperament and looks I felt like I just saw the world differently from other people.

And so I did, quite literally.

I was diagnosed at an early age with amblyopia, commonly called ‘lazy eye’. There are various forms of this, but in my case it meant that my left eye was so much stronger than my right that my eyes did not work together. While the mind can compensate for a lot, including the resultant shattered vision, it also ‘wants’ to see singly, so I developed a habit, especially in bright light, of closing my right eye so I would see a single image, not a double or a fragmented one. Most of the time I used both eyes, though, and the dominant left would predominate, while the right eye offered a sort of shadow image, if I thought about what I was seeing.

The condition results in perceiving a very different world than normal people, sort of like being color blind, only it affects depth perception. The visual world is less rich, less integrated, more fragmented.

Indeed it occurred to me only recently that this disturbance in spatial perception explains my inability as a young baseball player to catch a fly ball in the outfield. When the ball was in the air I would look up at it and have no idea where it was going to land. I would run up on it and it would fall behind me, or I would back up and it would land in front of me. I don’t think I ever caught a fly ball playing outfield, which combined with my lousy throwing arm meant a humiliating career as an outfielder.

But I was one fine shortstop, a position where speed and instinct are more important than spatial reasoning or a good arm.

And I could never see 3D. I would stare at those patterns that are supposed to transform into vivid images, but only saw the abstract image, never the 3D one.

When I was small they tried an eyepatch over my strong eye, but it never took.

Living with amblyopia, of course, one does not think much about it, or about how much visually richer the world appears to others. One sees the way one sees, the mind compensates, and all appears  ‘normal’, if you don’t know better, which of course you don’t.

I did once, a few years ago, come across a firsthand account by a woman who had done some sort of eye exercise and overcame the syndrome and the way she spoke about the revelatory nature of seeing with both eyes in union made me curious and envious. I tried to find information about this online but all I could find was some dead end links in Malaysia.

Mostly, human nature being resilient, I did not think about it and about the only reminder of my oddness occurred when people commented that my right eye would ‘wander’, gaze off into the distance just beyond them when I was talking to them, which is disconcerting to whoever I am talking to. This happened especially when I was tired, as in my mild case it was not often noticeable (some people’s eyes appear permanently crossed or walleyed).

But then a funny thing happened. I developed cataracts, though I was unaware of what was happening. I at first only knew that something was wrong because I increasingly found trying to paint icons frustrating. My hand-eye coordination was so skewed that I found the act of painting stressful, while it had always been very calming. Eventually I figured out that my right eye did not see clearly and I went to the eye doctor. He diagnosed a cataract on my right eye, and a nascent one on the left, and he prescribed surgery to replace the lenses with some high tech super plastic version of a lens.

After the surgery my right eye, dilated, was blurry. My bride drove me home, left eye shut, When the dilation wore off things gradually came into focus.

And I was amazed. I had thought that with the glasses I had worn since my early 40s that my vision was fine, but my new eye saw details and clarity that amazed me. Colors were brighter, lines more distinct. Everything was vivid.

Certainly nothing compared to my sister, who got glasses when she was ten or so and realized for the first time that when you looked a tree you were supposed to see many leaves,  not a green blur.

But it was still impressive. I had asked my wife to drop me off at the library after the surgery, where the dilation wore off. I walked home with my left eye closed, savoring the delight of all the fine details in the world. It was like being high, everything enhanced.

Since my right eye was now the clear one, I began closing my left eye, which was fuzzy by comparison. It was a few months before I had surgery on the other eye, and in that time my right eye grew strong for the first time. By the time I had my left eye done my eyes were, for the first time in my life, more or less equivalent in strength.

Which means that it gradually dawned on me that I was seeing differently. It is analogous to hearing only in mono and then hearing stereo. There was a depth and dimension that I had never seen before.

And for the first time I could perceive what other people did when they looked at 3D.

But as I have had so many years of habit, I often find myself, if I am not paying attention, reverting to my old way of seeing, even closing my right eye on bright days. It takes some effort to see rightly, with both eyes focused. And in fact my left eye is again the stronger. It takes time to correct lifelong habits at any age, let alone in one’s seventh decade. Only the other day I realized, after work, that my eyes had been reverting to fragmented vision all day.

It takes will and memory to see right.

It is sort of like the spiritual life in that: we know how to see, but without vigilance it is easy to revert to old habits.

But the reward for attentiveness in both realms is a rich one.

And next summer I will see if I can catch a long fly ball in center field.

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Christmas Break



Okay, I haven’t written anything here for a week. That is not because I have become so apophatic that I have chosen to just shut up, though I may come to that point.

Nor is it for lack of ideas. All I can do these days is sketch. Someday I may be able to flesh it all out, but not now.

Of course the simplest explanation for my recent silence is the most obvious: I am a mailman and this is the Christmas season, which means a lot of overtime work, just as time becomes most needed. I mean Christmas is four days away and we have done not a bit of gift shopping. I have Tuesday off, and I must get it all done then. I don’t like to wait until the last minute like this but did not have the money to shop until this last pay check, with all the overtime on it.

There are other explanations, but I will not go into them. Maybe not for a few years, when I have some perspective on this very strange, trying and beautiful time.

So for now I am taking a break.

May your celebration of the Nativity be blessed, in spite of all that militates against celebrating God’s birth.

Painting by Bradi Barth

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woman11The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.” 13Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” 15The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.”

16Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” 17The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” 19The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. While what you say is true, I still thirst for this living water.” 20Jesus answered her “Well here is some paperwork. Fill this out and take it, with 100 shekels, to the Sanhedrin. But this may take a while. Your case is complex.”


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Gen. Michael Hayden

General Michael Hayden

Tonight on the drive home, between CDs, I caught the tail end of an Al Kresta segment. He was making the case that because other nations dismembered or decapitated or poured acid into the open wounds of their enemies that the Senate report on CIA torture is not the damning thing that it is, that America is not as bad as the bad guys.

I flipped around the dial, where I heard arguments that it all, the cruelty and evil, the hanging from the wrists, the cold dark and nakedness, the anal abuse, the horror, was justified because it produced evidence that averted a terrorist attack. Or that it was all understandable, all this getting carried away, because dammit, it was in the wake of 9/11, the most traumatic thing that had happened to civilian America since what? The War of 1812? Or that hey, it was such a long time ago. Don’t we as a nation (‘United We Stand’) need to just let it go, forget it ever happened?

After all, we all meant well and we were scared.

The release of this document has meant a return to the spectacle of otherwise intelligent men in suits calmly defending the indefensible. Catholics for whom America is the true god explain again for us how the atrocities revealed therein somehow do not constitute torture.

Prominent among these is General Michael Hayden, director of the National Security Agency (NSA) from 1999 to 2005, and then head of the CIA until he retired in 2009. General Hayden has publicly defended torture in the past and he is once again making the rounds as an apologist for cruelty in the name of nationalism.

General Hayden is also a Catholic. One would think that a Church which is  very publicly considering which sinners to allow to receive communion would have no difficulty stating that someone who has  overseen the torture of prisoners and who defends this publicly would be ineligible to receive the Eucharist.

But far from it. General Hayden in 2012 was awarded an honorary doctorate by the self-proclaimed ‘passionately Catholic’ Franciscan University of Steubenville.

And he delivered the commencement address.

I tried to raise a ruckus about this when it occurred but was met by widespread indifference. This is the piece I wrote when I realize that there was little outrage over Hayden’s honors:


But now, two and a half years later, with General Hayden again in the news and the depressing debate about torture reignited, there is a petition circulating for the University to rescind his honorary doctorate.

And you can sign it here:


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Only in America…

…would this guy:


… be considered more of a threat than these guys:


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You probably have seen the video of the Tamir Rice shooting, shocking enough. That clip shows a police cruiser pulling up to a young boy and promptly shooting him dead. No warning, no commands to put his hands up, nothing:

If this cop is not indicted for murder on the basis of the video clip alone I will understand if Cleveland burns.

What makes it more heartbreaking is the longer version of the park surveillance video, which very clearly shows a kid playing with a toy gun. Here it is, along with the 911 call:

Oh, but the boy’s gun did not have an orange tip on it, the scared white people say.


So shoot me. Boys of my generation would all be dead, justly, according to the right.

But I want you to imagine a video similar to this. Maybe not in a park but in a WalMart parking lot or a busy street. And instead of a 12 year old black kid, imagine this guy:


You know, an adult white person with a real gun. Imagine a cruiser pulling up and shooting him within seconds, as they did young Tamir.

Imagine the reaction from the same people who defend even the Cleveland Police when they kill black males.

No, of course not. It is not about race.

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Flint on the Prairie


Williston as I remember it.

I once hitch hiked through Williston ND, 1978, traveling the back roads. It was a pristine town on the rugged prairies, almost to Montana. I remember that everyone I saw was blonde. It was the first time I ever felt like I blended in. They are mostly Norwegian and German, with some Swedes and Dutch, according to Wiki. The town had a population of around 10,000 when I passed through. Now it is a fracked up boomtown.


Housing is scarce.


Population has quadrupled, a magnet for desperate men from around the country.  Jobs can earn $100,000 a year, but housing is expensive, as expensive as New York City, and conditions trying.

Williston is held up by the chatterers of the right as an example of the glories of capitalism. All that wealth, all those opportunities!


Future slums.

Yes, but based upon the rape of the earth, the aptly named fracking procedure, almost a parody of capitalist attitude toward creation.

And the prosperity created is about as sustainable as any that of those other exploitative booms. When they are done with it and profits elsewhere call, they will abandon North Dakota.

Williston will in the future be Flint on the prairie.

Here is a photoessay on Williston:


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The Apophatic Man




the apophatic man




and unknowability


he values

the scientific method


at least the intuitive



still tentative


but something



cause and effect


more or less objective

but subject to revision


but something


like the test

the nuns gave

when he was seven


the apophatic man

came across it

thirty years ago

rummaging around

at his folks’ house

late at night




the yellowing

thick paper

in the cardboard box



99th percentile

creative thinking



abstract reasoning



explains a lot


except what can you really know


aside from gravity

and the like


no why

only how


and so

given the narrow spectrum


the fact that things like

physical coordination

or planning

or practical living

or mechanical skills

or moneymaking skills


or the flow of music

or the wiliness to judge a fly ball


were not measured


but still



of something

more than subjective


the apophatic man



and tries to contain


the bliss of being

and the core that remains


he is trying to navigate

a very strange land


trying to live

and trying to stand


beneath the grey sky


graced and unstained


a man in the middle





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Capitalism vs Utopia


peaceChristians who propose capitalism as a model economic system amaze me. If you are a Christian you try to follow Jesus, right? Did Jesus ever tell us how we are to live with one another in plain language? Yes, he did, in the Sermon on the Mount: love one another, love your enemies, do good to those who harm you, give to all who need, expecting nothing in return, judge no one, have mercy on all.  I would hope that anyone who claims to follow Jesus would grant that his words here have as much authority as his more arcane parables or his apocalyptic sayings, the ones that divide people and for which we once, not so long ago, killed one another.

I am speaking of Christ’s simple instructions, a recipe for living in peace.

So then, just how does an economic system that is at its root a pitting of human against human, with each trying to take advantage of the other, one which is motivated by greed and the love of money – ‘a root of all evil’ according to St Paul- one which leaves in its wake the ‘creative destruction’ of ruined lives and cultures and landscapes, encapsulate the gospel?

It is no accident that that evil woman, Ayn Rand, loved capitalism. Or that Anton LeVey, the founder of the Church of Satan, thought his ‘philosophy’ indistinguishable from Rand’s, save the lack of ceremony among objectivists: Capitalism is the ethos of hell, the economics of Antichrist. It is the anti-Sermon on the Mount system, the one based on greed and selfishness.

Yes, I know, this is ‘utopian’, this measuring all things by the Perfect.

But do you understand that every time you pray the Our Father you are praying for utopia, for heaven on earth? Jesus taught us to pray for perfection: “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.”

‘… on earth as it IS in Heaven’: on earth, here and now. Not in some distant dimension, not far away, but right here, right now, we can participate in Heaven, a present reality, which exists where God and compassion reign, wherever anyone is trying to love.

And he tells us to be perfect, as Our Father is perfect.

It’s okay to have high standards, to measure the world by utopian standards. Jesus told us to do so, and he taught us to pray for perfection.


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