Author Archives: J.M. Littenberg

Where I’m Coming From

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I come from bagels and lox
On a Sunday morning
Cream cheese and tomato
Milk and strong coffee
The New York Times
A thousand sections
Scattered over the dining room table
Time enough to read
And warm our skin in the glow of each others quiet company

I come from the best…
Doctors in NYC
Experts in neuroscience, psychology, physics, international relations
Comparative literature, 19th century American woman naturalists
You name it
We at the top of the game it
Intellectual Brahmin feasting on the choice cut meat of our superiority

I come from the children of accountants and middle management
Dental hygienists and real estate agents
Pencil pushers and line totters
Buying Buicks and ranch houses
Filled with Wall-to-wall carpeting
plastic wrapped sofas
Color TVs
Knick-knacks, bric-a-brac, and the mass-produced hallmarks of the middle class

I come from the grandchildren of tailors and shopkeepers
Deli owners and hide tanners
Leave your name at Ellis Island but keep the noodle kugel and Yiddish inflections
Door-to-door salesmen wearing down the soles of ill-fitting shoes
Our legs, backs, and necks
–not for us, but for our children–
Until our bodies are one giant patchwork of complaints
Buckled and retired
Duty served

I come from the descendants of shtetl peasants
Broken nails on dirty fingers
Mistrust and fear
Insular and complete
Fucking at the pace of klezmer
Dancing between birthing and burying our children
Russia is a cold, hard land

I come from Act Up and Queer Nation
Potlucks and consciousness raising circles
House music and platform shoes
Bay Windows and Seattle Gay News
Empty closets
The smell of something new

I come from, “but wait, there’s more”
Deeper kept secrets marked never to be released
Slipping out of the loosening grip of my mortality in thirty year old hands
Websites poured over and studied like holy, gnostic scrolls in the early morning -glow of sleepless nights
Caches wiped clean

I come from Citizens Campaign for the Environment
Jobs with Justice
The Democratic Socialists
Gender Justice League
Student-labor conferences full of plaid shirts, corduroy, and fisherman’s sweaters
Entranceways and atriums lined with the heartfelt and dedicated
Offering partisan papers, César Chavez retrospectives and books by Mumia Abu Jamal

I come from shitty temp jobs
6am alarms
Mugs full of burnt coffee
Standing on a crowded bus swaying to the rhythm of traffic lights
Everyone’s got their cell phone out
Breakroom refrigerators full of diet sodas and orphaned paper bags
Desks littered with spreadsheets, meeting notes, and memorandum
Picking up where you left off
And watching the minute hand crawl across the mean white surface of 8 long hours

I come from too sick to work
Bright neon lights
Air-conditioned rooms in hospital gowns
Throbbing, nausea
pushing through the pain until you just…can’t…push…
Giving in
Migraine brain
Where am I going?
What was I just thinking?
Why do I have these keys in my hand?
I come from no escape

I come from the classroom
I come from the kitchen
I come from the houses of friends
I come from the garden
I come from the ocean
I come from in-between the tides
I come from the noon daylight and star strung quiet night
I come from the sound of snow falling on leaves
I come from the hardworking, lazy summer days
I come from the heart of the suburbs
I come from the back, outcast
I come from love
Touching your skin and feeling electric

I come from bagels and lox
On a Sunday morning


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I am rain
In thousand yard streams
Puddling in muddy declivities
To pour over last October’s leaves
And run in rippling dances through the gutter
We were howling at the slate gray sky
Cast, unhearing, downward
This rainy season
On and off
For eight months
My love

The Big Pitch

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All right all you go, go,go hipster kids
Peel your eyes from your iPhones, Androids, thing-a-majigs and what nots,
And take a gander at this goose bump inducing wonder!
It’s the latest, up-to-datest, fantabulous, stupendous, catching on like fire
–careful, I think it may be contagious–
new thing to hit the street since plastic peacock feathers and ironic sweaters!
I’m talking big, big, big, the boss is coming over, break out the good plates!
Step in line now, son, you don’t want to wait.!
It’s the greatest show on earth!
No, I’m not talking about Barnum & Bailey’s cotton-candy-corn clownpacalypse to haunt your dreams,
trust me folks this will go down smooth like Irish cream!
Let me give you a little taste of this Elixir du vie.
Just a drop on the tip of the tongue is guaranteed to put you at ease.
Mother’s take note, it’s known to rock even the most colicky baby to sleep!
Why, on the dry sands of life, you’ll be wading in fluvial effervescence waist deep!
Float downstream on a cushion of aquatic opulence until you hit the beach!
Our competitors thought surely the tide must be high but it’s really neap!
You see it’s rising fast and everything must go!
Just three tens and eleven nines to see the show!
Take it from me, friend, that’s filthy dirt cheap!
Step right up, step right up and get the next best seat!

A Personal Question

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You know those bad decisions
The ones you knew, you knew were bad
But something in you, some inspired genius said, “I’m going to ignore all that intuition, common sense and life lessons and just throw caution to the wind”
Dumb fuck

You see, I know he fits the profile: male, wearing shabby clothes, smelling like stale booze, riding the bus looking like he is on the tail end of a hard knock life. Looking like he wants nothing better then to turn around and pass on the beat down.
But these are classist assumptions
And assumptions are keeping me down, hemming me in
And it’s been 12 years
It’s time to peel off the callouses from those years transitioning in the spotlight of unsolicited public opinion
It’s time to open myself up to the strange, beautiful, teeming sea of humanity lapping at my feet
Tapping my shoulder
“My name is _______________.” “What’s your name?”
Cue inane conversation about riding the bus, how our days are going, the Seattle weather
Then, at some point, comes the pause
And a one, and a two, and a…
“Can I ask you a personal question?”
Short pause, as he processing the fact I did not say my line
Because you know, that last question was not, is never really a question, but rather, a declaration of intent
I know what it is, this “personal question”
There is only one, and here it comes:
“Are you a woman or a man”
As if my tastefully, oh so slightly revealed breasts
And my form fitting Athleta dress (on clearance $39.95)
Were not enough of an answer
But it’s not enough
It’s never enough
Because this too is not a question
It’s an accusation
An unmasking
Exposing me for the fraud I really am
Well I have news for you my little Sherlock
I am more fraud then you will ever know
Because while I sit here calmly
Looking to all the world like a well-adjusted person
A healthy and productive member of the human race
Inside I’m reaching over and sawing through your neck with a rusted, serrated blade, severing that ugly waste of space you call a head
Holding it by the hair, blood gushing all over the bus, screaming passengers running to pile up at the doors, it’s madness

I didn’t ask to look like this
I didn’t aspire to sound like this
I don’t want to carry around the scars of puberty for the rest of my life
And it makes me angry when it’s rubbed in my face
But not that angry
I don’t really want to cut your head off
Because even now, fuming, reeling from a conversation turned sucker punch
Even now I know
At some point you were a beautiful newborn child
Come into this world without bias or scorn
And then you watched the same TV and movies as me
And saw that there was such a thing as men who dress up like women, and try to pass themselves off as woman, and that these men were hilarious and pathetic and maybe a little bit dangerous because they could trick you, seduce you, and next thing you know you, my friend, are a faggot
And then you went to the same schools as me
Where the worst thing you could be called, by your friends, enemies and football coach alike, was a pussy
And every day, boys and girls lined up separately, with a wall of space in between, and anyone who dared to reach out across this wall was laughed at and beaten and lost their place
Just like that
And the men in your life, they taught you how to be a man through ridicule, intimidation, and scorn
And you learned that this is what it takes to be a real man, and to be a real man was the best thing you could be, and the worse thing you could be was a womanly man
I understand
You’re a man and that’s all you’ve ever been
All you ever could be
Because the world is divided into two lines
Men and women
And there’s nothing in-between
Just a wall of space
And no one’s allowed to  reach across
No one’s allowed to switch lines
Not even me

The Real News

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The real news
Written on the back of burning toilet paper
Strewn screaming from the mouths of passing eighteen-wheelers
Caught in the gears and ripped
Shreds stuck on the high dry bramble flowers
Kindling fires on the side of the freeway
I pick up the pieces and make a map
To find my friends
To conspire to create some space out of the petrol filled air
To knit a home from the marrow sucked dry of broken bones
To thwart your words
So that the hurled slurs fall short
And rain sweet tintinnabulations on the roof
Like a Caribbean steel drum

Continental Breakfast

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[steps up to the blackboard in front of a cultural studies class at an elite university. The black-turtleneck clad audience of earlytwentysomethings hold pen to the ready]

The comedy team Key & Peele’s sketch, “Continental Breakfast” stands as an enigmatic onion that begs peeling. On the most surface level it is the story of a buffoon; a clownishly obvious faker to the position of seasoned traveller. A man who has no idea what even such a commonplace phenomena as a continental breakfast, or a spork or even a grape is. On another level it is the story of an enlightened stranger, one who spurns the wearily sophisticated lens of the seasoned traveler and in doing so opens himself up to the limitless wonder of the experiential world.

The man in the gray suit
We first meet our protagonist as he is checking into a hotel; just a commonplace mundane man engaging in a mundane activity in a mundane location. A highly familiar site of social exchange. We know the rules of the game. But does he?

The outsized reactions of our travelling everyman are all pantomimes of shared insider knowledge, first with the concierge and then with his fellow diners. But why? What is the need to communicate an obviously lacking insider’s understanding with such comic resolution?

It is the disconnect between his position as a stranger in a strange land, an outsider with out connection or context for the myriad, shared social understandings that crosscut the (un)familiar playing fields of the hotel lobby and dining room, and his self-conception as a normal, capable, adult member of society. The obvious, and thus, failed disguise on the part of the protagonist is funny because it is an exaggeration of a game we all play, or have played at various points in our life in order to maintain face and avoid the subaltern social position of neophyte. On this level the hotel does not represent the everyday, it represents all the unfamiliar waters we swim in with a veneer of competence.

The mugging and wagged fingers on the part of the protagonist are patently ridiculous, and yet go without comment on the part of the concierge. As he shows no sign of guilelessness and, in fact, possess the trappings of knowingness, in the position of a concierge–a keeper and divulger of insider knowledge–we are led to assume that is lack of reaction to the protagonist’s obviously ridiculous attempts at insider knowledge are a matter of the required politeness and deference of his position. Likewise, the kitchen worker who is accosted by our protagonist and addressed as a maître ‘d is unnerved but unfailingly polite. The protagonists fellow diners are under no such compunction of polite deference, and their reaction, while muted, are clearly ones of annoyed contempt. However, these reactions go completely unnoted by their target. These two different reactions tap into a basic fear that others know we are truly the imposters we often feel ourselves to be but are either too polite to show any outward sign of this realization or they do react but we are too unaware to pick up on it. After all, who has not been in the position of polite, silent witness to obvious pretense? And who, when they have reacted to the peccadillos of a fellow traveler with an eye-roll or look of exacerbation have had it bounce off the targets shield of obliviousness? We assume that the other characters must be filled with the same benign contempt for the protagonist as we are, thus we identify with their location as polite witness or unnoted note taker to failed pretense. At the same time, we identify with the protagonists position as imposter and also feel more than a little embarrassed and sorry for him. The tension in these conflicting emotions is what produces such a fertile comic farrago.

A Europyne utopia
The theme of exuberance takes center stage as our travelling everyman enters the dining room and embarks upon his continental journey of delight, the buffet a series of elevatory intercourses carrying him higher and higher toward a pinnacle of orgasmic abandon.

A surface interpretation of this scene positions our protagonist as an ultra-naïf overwhelmed by the (sub)richness laid out before him. However, a deeper interpretation exists, one informed by the Buddhist and Taoist principle of nowness. In this interpretation he co-creates magnificence with his surroundings–the patently pedestrian environs of a hotel continental breakfast buffet–through an attitude of unbridled enthusiasm born of absolute presence. Is this attitude of unbridled enthusiasm willfully born or is it the direct product of his overwhelmed senses? The answer is a little of both.

The dual nature of intentionality and abandon are expressed through our protagonist’s declaration that he “loves being incontinent!” That is, he loves surrendering to the total loss of control born of unrestrained masticatory exuberance. The state of incontinence is genuine, but this dyonisistic revelry is a product of the protagonist’s openness to unbridled enthusiasm about the mundane. His loss of control may be genuine, but the circumstances that birthed it are very much manufactured through a deliberate stance toward the world — one of infantile-like rapture. This state of abandon is in fact a state of absolute presence. The experience of now is unencumbered by equivocating comparisons with the past or desires for a more perfect future. The protagonist’s only want is to “have what I’m having!” A wish that is granted with each moment of profound experience.

The emptiness of expertise
In contrast to the vivaciousness of our protagonist, his fellow diners are paragons of world-weary cynicism. They represent the dominant state of consciousness in late-modern America. A jaded state that renders them free of the subalterned position of neophyte and safe from the ridicule of their fellow dinners, yet mired in anhedonia. This state of professed knowledge is a reaction to the sheer unknowable size, complexity, and rate of change that is the modern world. We are all repeatedly rendered neophytes in most areas of life. Forced into the uncomfortably vulnerable an indeterminate state of naïf, we react by faking it. The modern state has rendered us all imposters to competence. The price we pay for this is an alienation from the state of wonder enabled by the sheer technological power and complexity of our society. It has never been easier to enter the pure land of rapt enlightenment, and never before have so many people been positioned so diametrically opposed to it.

The eternal truth
When our travelling Bodhisattva informs the concierge that he will be “staying here indefinitely,” he is declaring his intention to forever dwell in the pure land of enlightened experientialism. Wherein the concierge states a simple, universal truth, that he, and by extension we, have always been here. We are born into a universe of wonder and reside there for the rest of our lives. The fact that our awareness of this state of affairs is occluded by our reactions to the push and pull of the minutia of life in no way lessens its veracity.

When confronted with this eternal truth our protagonist first attempts his habitual ruse of expertise, only to remove the mask and ask, “really?!” He, like us, lacks a conception of the permanent and total nature of what is experienced as a temporary revelatory penetration of the usual equivocating cognitive mediation. Unlike most of us, he does not resist this knowledge with protests as to the temporal nature of previous experience, but rather accepts it with equanimity…so long as he can return to the world of wonder, the great continental breakfast buffet. Perhaps all of his experiences have been as revelatory as his continental breakfast, or at least all of his breakfasts. This is certainly suggested by the closing Kubrickian pan in on a photo of a continental breakfast from 1935 with our ageless everyman featured front and center.

The defetishization of commodities
The continental breakfast buffet represents our modern world, full of every day, taken for granted, wonders. The latticework of labor that goes into the creation of this “mundane” and, one assumes, mediocre continental breakfast is nearly unfathomably staggering: from the back breaking labor that goes into growing and harvesting the fruits and vegetables, to the animal husbandry, care and eventual slaughter that produces the meat, to the mining and processing of petroleum that goes into the construction of the “fpoons,” the electricity produced to provide lighting and cook the food, to the food preparations that go into the creating the breakfast buffet day after day. One can go even farther back to the production of the tools used to create the raw products that go into the continental breakfast. Then there are all the processes that allow the workers to reproduce their labor through the satisfying of their requirements for survival.

Alone, our wise fool is aware of these facts. Or rather, others’ may, when it is brought to their attention, become momentarily aware of these relations of production, but only our gray suit-wearing friend is able to ingest this information to the extent that it informs his cognition of the world around him. His senses penetrate the surface sheen of disembodied commodities to penetrate their corn-syruptitious nature as the end products of a Gordian interrelatedness of labor production. This awareness of the origin of things and their dynamic nature is at the root of his gnosis.

In conclusion
The crux of the joke is that our pseudo-sophisticated traveller is way too excited about a continental breakfast. But behind the joke is a wry commentary on knowledge, ignorance and the imperative of social pretense in the face of incomplete knowledge. And behind that, still, is a sage parable on the joy and richness of absolute nowness, an infantile-like state of rapture with the world.


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When I was one year old I ate my first birthday cake with my face, smiling, chocolate icing on my chubby cheeks, chin, and nose.

When I was two years old we moved to America, to one-half of a prefab house in a field on the ground of the laboratory where my father now had a job. In this field stood other prefab houses, and in many of these houses lived other children.

When I was three years old I got my first Big Wheels[tm]. If you don’t know what a big-wheels is, it’s like a tricycle, except it’s plastic with the seat low to the ground, two small fat wheels in the back and one big fat wheel in the front. My best friend, Evan and I rode our Big Wheels[tm] all around the sidewalks and playgrounds in our little neighborhood. Sometimes, when we felt especially brave, we’d venture out into our aging concrete cul-de-sac made up of giant slabs with lines of unmowed grass and dandelions standing in the cracks. The world was ours to discover.

When I was four years old we moved into our new home, a 1920s era gray shingled ranch up a steep driveway on a dead end street with a backyard surrounded by rhododendrons, gooseberry bushes and strands of maples, oaks and birch trees. Laying on the cool, soft grass I felt completely enclosed, safe.

When I was five years old, my grandfather would come to visit bearing airplanes made of balsa wood and rubber bands, batwing kites with yellow eyes, and strange technicolor bubble concoctions banned, years later, for being carcinogenic. He would reach into my ear and pull out quarters.

When I was six years old I fell and hit my head real hard on the street. All the adults gathered around, hunched over, looking down and asking me how many fingers they were holding up.

When I was seven years old we played red rover, red rover and capture the flag and monkey in the middle in my neighbors backyard. Liz, being the oldest and the loudest, was the boss. Sometimes the neighbor’s goats would wander into the yard and chase us, giggling, inside, where we would play Sorry, Battleship, Stratego and Uno. Dice and pegs from one game were cannibalized to replace missing pieces from another.

When I was eight years old I started wearing my mother’s clothes.

When I was nine years old my favorite baby-sitter was Miriam Wisenbloom. She would play cards with me and help me with my homework–unlike Joanne Monicamore, who stayed parked in front of the television watching General Hospital. Luke and Laura were trapped on an island, hunted by an evil genius with nefarious plans for the citizens of Port Charles. They escaped his island and had a wedding attended by everyone who was anyone. They were madly in love.

When I was ten years old I would come to work with my dad on Saturdays. There was giddy fear wandering the labyrinthine hallways, peeking into darkened rooms full of strange humming noises. Glass corridors connected buildings. Silhouettes of birds, wings spread wide in flight, were taped to the transparent walls.

When I was eleven years old I dreaded soccer practice. Mike McGuire would kick me hard in the butt and say, “quite picking your ass, faggot.”

When I was twelve years old we moved into yet another new home, a two-story house with a two-car garage. Abstract geometric shapes in a bygone palate of brown, orange and yellow covered the walls. My parents new, oversized bedroom had it’s own bathroom. There was an alcove, or really an antechamber to the bathroom with a mirrored wall where my mom kept her makeup. After school I would look into the mirror, applying lipstick and eye shadow, and see a woman looking back at me.

When I was thirteen years old I disappeared into the worlds woven into the pages of pulp paperbacks. I became a character in the infinite branching side-stories born of idle afternoon hours. I was admired for my brilliance, charm, skill at swordplay, and, most of all, my magic. That year my voice broke and little wisps of black hairs appeared above my upper lip.

When I was fourteen years old I got my first job, washing dished at a country club. The manager let us drink beer at the end of our shift.

When I was fifteen I got two D’s and an F on my report card. I was far more interested in getting high and tripping my brains out then I was in algebra, chemistry, or American history. I’d discovered magic; there was no competition. My mother’s sobs were muffled by the wall between us. I was grounded for six months.

When I was sixteen years old I learned how to drive. I bought an ancient Toyota Celica held together with rust and skateboard stickers. My newfound friends and I spent our weekend evenings travelling from town to town, late-night drive thru to empty parking lot, wandering back roads to clandestine gatherings of teenagers, wasting time and wasting gas. Radio blasting, we were too old and too young to sing along.

When I was seventeen years old I fought my father. Circling each other, arms grappling, shaking from adrenalin, I managed to get him into a headlock and bring him down crying, “I don’t want to fight you! I don’t want to fight you!”

When I was eighteen years old I gathered an assortment of clothes, toiletries, and books and drove up to college with my parents. After we hugged goodbye I watched them drive off, lit a cigarette, and began putting my stuff away.

To Everyone Down on Their Luck Who’s Ever Tried to Cut Me Down

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You, who hoping to find the answer,
So went to the doctor asking,
“How can I survive the pain in my head?”
And was spoken to in measured tones instead
Of gratitude lists and secularized gauze
Ripped from a mandala on some poor monks wall
Dragged down to Earth with bracket drugs to man the barricades
This is not the way

Humanity is the medium in which we exist
Humanity is the bee hive on which we trip
Humanity is of many minds
Humanity likes to repeat itself
Humanity is thicker than water
Humanity is kind of slow
Humanity didn’t make the rules
Humanity is just doing their job
Humanity’s making the omelets
It’s nothing personal
Humanity has bills to pay
Humanity is behind on the rent
Humanity isn’t made out of cash
Humanity sewed the clothes on our back
Humanity protects me from the full force of your wrath

You, who are part of the monster they created
To chew up the evolutionary vanguard and spit out our broken bones on the sidewalk for example
Why can’t you see?
We are made of broken bones
We are golem


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Large enough to eat in and then some
Acres of naked floor
Flowering brown circular stains, a memento to careless tipped hands holding mugs full of coffee
The old wood table sits shrunken in the corner
Populated with cereal boxes and pages torn from spiral notebooks
Windows, dust streaked, illuminated by the sunlight reflecting through a yellow circle of hanging stained glass
Picked out of a box on the sidewalk marked, “name your price”
Electric spirals or was it iron crosshairs over flame?
I don’t remember
Probably the former.

She was a grand old dame humbled by generations of rapacious landlords gauging students passing through like ships in the night, to her
She was an ancient oak in which we cooked and laughed and danced and wept
With serious house business around the kitchen table met
My lover and I, relishing the sound of that, “my lover and I”
We cooked the meals of the newly initiated
Recently liberated
Maruchan ramen and Campbell’s tomato soup
Just looking back the sodium dries my mouth
I’m thirsty for spaghetti and meatballs with fresh baked garlic bread
A bottle of cheap red wine
Friends with the closeness only youth can afford
Time enough to spare
Time enough to discuss Foucault and Patricia Hill Collins and satellite States and gay pride
It’s a new era
The 80s are over
And anything and everything is possible.

Healing is

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Healing is waking up before the alarm to find a cat on the pillow staring down at you with love in his eyes
Waking up this morning I smile, twenty-four brand new hours before me. I vow to live each moment to the fullest and to look at all creatures with eyes of love
Peeling off the covers
Stepping out of bed and into a routine

Healing is meditating outside at half-past seven in the still, cold morning air
Before the vibrations of the people on their way to work stir it all up again
Detritus churning
But that’s later
Now the spider webs hold only steeply angled sunlight and dew.

Healing is the gong of a struck cereal bowl
The cushion of your seat
The morning, waiting in emails to reach out and swoop you into blessed occupation
Coiled around a purpose
Taking time the ticking hours become something to complete
The days become accomplishments
I want to reach back and grab all the wasted time
But I hold onto forgiveness

Healing is the small rituals of the familiar
Moving forward on a well worn trail
The ground becoming solid from months of footsteps tamping it down
Thoughts hold their meaning better over here
Not slipping through my fingers, dissipating in air
The days of nauseous free-fall are over
Here I’ve built strong handholds

On the matt in child’s pose
Healing is stolen moments of ease
The satisfaction of not giving in
Healing is making the same choices again and again.