The phone rang, I answered it, and it was my dad. This made it exactly once that he’d rung me since I’d moved to a Zen Buddhist monastery several years earlier. Oh no, I thought, who died?
It was New Year’s Eve 2007, the Year of the Pig. I was in the electronics cabin, camped in front of the PC, perusing year-end website summaries of the Iraqi Horror Picture Show. Though intimately acquainted with personal failure (I’m something of a Renaissance Willy Loman), I had never known dysfunction on a national level like the Iraq War. There was a palpable sense in the air that something terrible was happening, and we were responsible for it. There was blood on our hands. Oops, America was crying, like Lenny from Of Mice and Men, large, dumb, and dangerous, looking up at George from the crushed child in his arms: We’ve really fucked up this time.
“Yello, is Jack there? This is his old man,” Dad began, recognizing neither my voice nor my ordained name when I answered the phone. He waited in silence, I suppose, for me to go find myself, which is pretty much how he’d approached my tenure at the monastery. Few American parents want this for their child. They never say, “God, I hope Zippy grows up and becomes a robed celibate without a paycheck. That’s the ticket!” You give your son the greatest gift of all, the gift of life, and here he is running off to a mountaintop and questioning it, trying to figure out where he was before he was and where he’ll be after he is no more. Some gratitude! I have no spouse, house, kids, car, or career, not to mention a single lock of hair on my head. I scrub dishes, meditate, try to stay out of the cold. It’s a simple life—the value of which I have never, not once, been able to communicate to my father.
“Pops, it’s me,” I confessed.
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