Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Espresso Cups (Southwest Border Fiction-- draft)


E wore his Christmas lights over his apron, and they were blinking away as he ground coffee in the new burr grinder. The espresso machine was already hissing behind him. The sun rose over the Rincons, East of Tucson, Arizona. It looked like a lovely day at Casas Blancas, E's gated little liberal community.

Life in the foothills of the Catalina's was a welcome change from all the noise and crime of downtown living. 

"You know the optimum temperature for espresso is below boiling, so I got this new digital thermometer that just came out. So much better than the stock thing that came with the machine. Now I can pull really premium shots. Better than the cafe downtown."

His guests all agreed. The coffee was rich and aromatic, the best they had tasted in a while. He served the coffee in petite ceramic cups.

"They are so lovely," his guests cooed. "Where did you get them?"

"Oh, I was shopping in Nogales ... you know it's so depressing across the border. Anyway, his guy selling portraits of tourists sitting on a burro told me about this hole-in-wall shop up an alley. There was great stuff there, and I got such a deal on these. I love supporting their economy."

It was the day after Christmas, and they were all planning departures back to Phoenix, Flagstaff, San Diego, and points east. A few were going to take a road trip to the border and then to the tourist towns of Bisbee and Silver City. Talk turned to travel.

"You know I just don't know how best to use all those frequent-flyer miles I built up last year. I mean with the trip to Spain and all the work flying I have been doing, I have enough for a pretty good trip. I don't know where to go or what to do," E lamented.

Meanwhile down at the border town of Nogales, D was dressing up his burro for another day of taking photos of gringos. It had been a rough year, and now that Christmas was over, the gringos were staying home, out of money, waiting for the coffers to refill.

He had a little tequila left in the plastic bottle he had tried to pass off as Herradura Reposado to a family of gringos the day before. They had asked him where they could buy tequila, and he had gone to his brother to get this cheap stuff to sell them for ten dolares.

They didn't buy it. 

Oh well... Asi es...Cheap drink is better than no drink.

He knew the streets like no one else and spoke pretty good English. He took a cut when tourists went to The Hacienda del Rancho Grande for breakfast or bought a blanket in one of his compadres' curio shops.

He knew Nogales. People here respected him, even if the tourists looked down on him, that is, until they got drunk enough to see the humor, if that's what you could call it, in sitting on a hobbled burro in downtown Nogales.

Tourists would ask him, once they heard the English that he acquired during his years in San Diego, about where to find the best deal on this or that.

What a difference between there and here, D thought. Nogales was a scramble. Mangy dogs wandered the street. Smells of cilantro, diesel fumes, and rot filled the air. Everything was so close, so tacky. But it was the best people could do with what the world offered them.

The pinche border divided two worlds. They thought about different things over there, moved with an ease beyond comprehension of his paisanos. He hoped that some of those gringos would come across today, in spite of the bad stories they heard on the news: robberies, narco wars, kidnapping, stinking, abject misery.

He saw some of them coming now, and they had that hungry look in their eyes. The day after Christmas and they were already hungry for more.



"You guys want a photo on the donkey?" he asked, half ironically, sounding exactly like one of them. "You looking for something special? Maybe I can help."

After a moment of searching his face, as if seeing in him something not visible at first glance, one of them asked "Do you know where we might find some espresso cups?"

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Turn Your Lights On


It is the winter solstice and it is raining. Cold too. I am driving out to the prison for the workshops with the heat on. Clouds cover the mountains, where snow is falling. Roads into the high country are closed. The prison is in a low spot, a cold sink, a depression between the Santa Rita, Rincon, and Catalina mountain ranges. Concrete, a great "thermal mass," holds and radiates the chill. I'll have to wear a jacket.

In spite of the gray skies and winter wind, I feel pretty good. I am carrying colored pens, composition journals and other Christmas goodies for the men in the workshop. My little pickup is a kind of sleigh, and I am a 200 pound elf.

I know there are others around the state doing similar work. Richard Shelton still goes out to the Federal Penitentiary, just off to my left as I drive down Wilmot to the Arizona State Prison. There are workshops in Florence.Writing produced in all of these workshops is included here in the third edition of Rain Shadow.

That is a comfort as I get close to my destination. 

The layers of complication and worry that fill my regular life as teacher, householder, and aging writer peel away as I approach the prison.

I feel lighter, simpler, clearer. I feel a twinge of -- dare I say it -- purpose, though not the purpose you might think. I started doing the workshops for all the wrong reasons. As what psychologists call a "high verbal" type, I thought I had something to give, some directive guidance to publication. I was going to fix things.

It hasn't exactly gone that way. It's more of a two-way exchange, where I get more than I give.

Like all writers, the men in the workshops give me a window onto worlds I wouldn't otherwise know. Some of the writing carries light, joy, and humor, while more of it is witness to the ragged edges of twenty-first century society. It bears witness to poverty, drug use, violence, abuse, mental illness, bad luck -- all of the contributing elements behind incarceration.

The men shed light on realities that I would otherwise miss or, I am embarrassed to say it, willfully ignore. They are my teachers, guides into places otherwise left out of the spotlights of media attention. They are the front line in a system that works to make profit out of locking up the socially marginalized.

We engage in exchanges, dialogue, share new vocabularies. I bring them terms like "narrative distance:"; they give me "tweaking" and "bums." The language men create in tight, shared spaces is a living thing, a creature born of situation. The richness of it carries the scent of humanity coping with the impossibly hard time.  

In the workshop, I am facilitator for these human stories, a big-boned mid wife for ideas that need a form in order to be born into a bigger audience than the workshop. We humans want to be heard, and these guys want the free world to know they are still here, still wanting, dreaming, loving.

It's a pretty simple role. I just show up and grease the wheels of expression.

I don't know how the inmates look at it though. Some of them may attend for the pen and pad that they can sell of trade on the yard. Some may just want an excuse to get out of their cells. They may be coming to the workshop for the "wrong reasons" too.  But they might find they have something to say that they want someone to hear.

I try to make a space for that to happen.

It's not perfect I know. They maybe don't get what they want, or what they might deserve, but they do get the gifts that life gives them. It's up to them to take it from there.

So I drive out to the end of Wilmot Road, where a bunch of guys wait for the chance to make it right, say it well. It is today, this shortest, rainy, cold day, that I have to squint to see the road, to turn my lights on in these dark days.





Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Blue Colnago


Every once in a while a thing acquires immense meaning.

This happened when I saw the blue Colnago Dream HX on Craigslist a few years ago. In addition to the name, it was a dream bike. It was what we cyclists call a "pro-level" bike, and had been owned by a professional cyclist.

My life, it must be said, does not afford luxuries like a pro-level ride, but we had just sold a house. I had some cash from the sale. Yada.  Yada.  Ridiculous I know.

So I called the guy.

He was as nice a guy as walks the earth and needed to sell the bike. He had just gotten married and was now selling real estate in Tucson, where the real estate market had gone flat. "It sucks," he said, "and I need the money more than the bike."

He was willing to negotiate.

Now here is where it gets very dangerous.

I am a sucker for the "good deal," no matter the overall cost. It just has to be a bargain more than the right size, whether or not the thing is practical, or durable, or something I need or will use.

This hunt and hunger for the good deal came in equal parts from my poverty-stricken days as a student and the Lutheran frugality I inherited from my father. Classified ads, yard sales, thrift stores, fire sales -- these lit the consuming fires. 

There is something wrong here.

And the Colnago, fitting the category of a smokin' deal, became a scary possibility. This guy wanted to sell it, to me.

Some history for non bikophiles: Colnagos are high art. They combine style with function. Think Ferrari, Formula One racing cars. To a cyclist, they are a kind of Holy Grail.

They also represent all that is good on this planet: beauty, integrity, creativity, affluence, success, achievement, personal alignment of all aspects of the psyche -- mind, body, spirit.

It has to be said that these are the things I REALLY want. The blue Colnago just represents them.

It was also the perfect size, tracked like it was on rails, felt alive, and begged to go fast. The potential for speed designed into the bike is something I will never realize.

I had no choice but to buy it.


Or at least that's what I have told myself.

I know better. The bike is an attempt to bridge the gap between the me I want to be (fulfilled, happy, aligned) and the me I really am (underemployed, disorganized, frustrated, angry).

People who study this kind of thing know all about compulsive buying. It's rooted in the psyche more than in the need to have and use "stuff."

But the Dream HX is so beautiful. People think I am that person I want to be when they see me riding it.

Very well, then, at least I can pretend, for a little while anyway.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Crossing the Line


Some people say it was wrong what we did, they say we should not have buried him that way, in that place. They locked me up for it, mostly because they said I was honoring the wrong things. But you have to do the right thing sometimes, even if it means breaking the rules, even the ones you used to live by. He knew that. He lived free as anyone I ever seen and he wanted to rest free too. No fenced-in cemetery for him. But I still have to wonder about his kids and wife and family back in Kentucky and how they will feel not knowing where he rests. That's on my shoulders now. Seems like everything that happens has some kind of consequence. This one has many. Mainly that I have to live with myself. It's worst at night. Then I wake up sweating because the old voices are beating on me. Then some judge in my head is banging his gavel on his desk, yelling "Guilty as charged!" If he didn't break the rules himself, I wouldn't have known how to. He told me to throw all that garbage that I had in my head out and to pay attention to what you see with your own eyes, what you know in your own heart. Got to free yourself he said. It was all about the here and now and finding the energy in things. You can try to avoid it he said, but it will always be there, waiting, calling, whispering. He said you could tell what was wrong and right because you knew it somewhere other than the rules. But you had to work at it. Work hard, harder than anything you ever did in your life. And you had to want it, like someone who is drowning wants a breath of air right before he gives in to breathing water. The crap in my head has to be rooted out and replaced with what I know to be true he said. And I have to give it him. He never told me what to think. Just said keep looking. That did change things I have to admit. And I started to feel more alive but also got into trouble when I stopped bowing to the bullshit that most people live by. Now I have nothing against people who play by the rules. They get something for doing that. It's just not where the live wire of time and space hangs out. Here in prison I see it in the way guys talk when they get a hair cut or look out over the wire toward the mountains. The sky sometimes can break your heart. It can be a kind of blue-green, like ocean water, and it glows there, behind the razor wire. Yeah, it was wrong, but sometimes wrong is the right way to get at the core of things. You got to pull away the covers, the dead skin, to get at the fresh stuff, again and again. After a while the old scared voices start to settle down. They get quieter as time goes on, as the work progresses. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Surrender


I give up.

I give up being mad at the people, the job, the body, the brain that did not turn out "right."

My life, in a certain light, is a train-wreck. Failure, frustration, negative cash flow, skin fungus. Bummer.

And so what?

Specifically, and for this blog, I am looking at my home and the people I share property with.

For almost twenty years, I have lived in a community/rental business where we disagree about how to spend limited money, whom to evict or offer shelter, how to share the work, where to park. It's been an ordeal and it has been a wonderful place to live. Both are true.

This little ditty is about the men who share this place with me though.

They are flawed, to say the least. They are self-serving, mean-spirited, duplicitous, manipulative, and greedy. They work the system for their own ends. They violate agreements when it serves them and viciously enforce them when they benefit.

No trailers allowed? No problem if they are mine or belong to my buddy.

No dogs? Well yours has to go because I don't like it.

You can't park by your house, but I can and will and it must suck to be you.

I want to pass this proposal so I will rewrite the rules so that I now have a quorum. The people here will vote for me, give me what I want. F*%k legality.

You get the idea.

I have pointed this out and made enemies out of many of them.

To them, I am an arrogant asshole. I sit in judgment of their moral failings, their cowardice, their selfish behaviors. 

That's OK.

What's not OK is carrying around resentment that is making me sick.  I also know that judgment is about confusing someone's behavior for who he or she is. Judgment is more about me than about them. I also know that when I assume the worst about anyone, that is what I usually get. All of this I know, but I don't yet act on the knowledge, don't yet trust my beliefs.

I can't change them, but can't seem to give up on trying.

It's back to the old Twelve Step slogan of wisdom being predicated on the ability to accept the things one cannot change, while changing the things one can.

The only thing I can change is me.

I surrender to that fact.

So, I am going to accept that they are who and what  and where they are.

While I may not like them, I plan to see them and accept them. I have invited them to get together to just talk about our lives to see if there is something I can empathize with. It will be a kind of Truth and Reconciliation thing on a very small scale.

Men have been gathering in circles for millennia. Maybe we have lost the ability to do that, to work things out, or at least find a way to peacefully coexist, but who knows? Maybe it can work. It won't be any worse than what is.

I don't know how it will go, but I do know I won't try to control it. Maybe we can begin to see each other again. Maybe we can a different perspective on who we are to each other. Maybe we can even change our stories about each other.

We'll see...

Monday, December 16, 2013

Full Moon, Rising Sun


Dawn is breaking over the city as the Long Night Moon slides toward the western horizon. Some people call this the Winter Moon. The solstice suggests to me the Wolf Moon. Whatever you call it, this moon grows as it descends.

I am up early on this Moonday, the first day of my work week, after dropping a friend at the airport for a red-eye.

Now I have a few hours before work to just witness the birth of a day. Part of me shines this time of day. Stars are not the only things that emerge when it is dark.

Ridge lines in the east are still sharp and black against the orange backdrop that lightens by the minute. Stars retreat as the light rises. It's cold and clear, three days from the Solstice. Lights are sharp in the crisp air. Traffic is picking up. The day is getting under way.

I wish I could stop time. I love this moment when night and day trade places. It signals potential, immanence.

My fellow humans are beginning to stir and will soon be racing around on their chosen or not so chosen errands.

As I drive into the heart of the hive, the sky lightens and there are lines forming at the intersections. It's getting busy. Really busy. It is Christmas time after all, and it's time to shop, time to get ready for the days off.

Another week begins, and I will have to turn my mind to the work and words of others. I am a worker bee, a householder, and I give my time in exchange for a livelihood.

I feel pulled and buffeted by the coming intensity.

It extracts me from my reverie, and not in a good way.

The river of activity tugs at me, and it takes some effort not to be carried away in the frenzy and hurry.

With some intention, I hope to find a different way to do the day.I want to live it remembering who it is I am when I am not trying to fit in to what others want me to be, do what others want me to do.

Learning that I can do this is new. Learning how to do it is a challenge. I see how rare it is to act with integrity, to stay happy with actions.

So as the night turns to day, I want to remember what it is that I want to do today, how it is that I want to live, to hold heart, mind, and spirit together as work takes its pound of flesh.

This is my work. It helps to say it, again and again, to remember what it is that my life is about. I thank the darkness and quiet for insight, the day for the challenge to put it into action. 



Friday, December 13, 2013

Final Drafts


The smell of fresh donuts wafts across the desk -- Boston creams, glazed, cake, strawberry, holiday spangles. They look good, but they are for students, not me.

It's our last meeting of the semester and I am collecting their final portfolios. Our room is an amphitheater with projectors for ELMO, laptops, DVDs, PCs and more. I can control the lights, the screens, the volume. And the place is unoccupied by anyone except me and my thoughts.

In this unexpected pause in the noisy distraction of my days, I see my life's simple trajectory: A young man dreamed of being a writer. Afraid that he would fail, he opted for love, companionship, and householding. He became a teacher, as close as he could get to the dream. His heart gave up reminding him what it was he dreamed of doing. Days, years passed. Now he is old and barely remembers. But there is a flicker and some time now. Is there any picking up where he left off? Who knows? And what about the work he has done, about the students?

My story is a common one. Too common. A bit tragic. A bit pathetic. But there it is, undeniable, in black and white. I feel stricken, but clear and liberated by the simple truth. 

The moment is poignant for me, but a chore for my students. They can't wait to get-outta-Dodge and head home for California or Chicago or the suburbs of Tucson. They are various and wonderful: K, the soccer star who is as kind off the pitch as she is ruthless on, T. the Viet Namese refugee on her way to becoming a physician, R. the son of mechanics who wants to study literature. My students have come from Eastern Europe, Asia, South America, Mexico, and all over the States. Some of them hate writing. All have been gracious and generous with their time and advice as we have worked through assignments of the semester. They have been strong and open and now will disperse.

I will stay here in Tucson, will relish time alone to think and write. Plus it is cold and dark. Strange, perhaps, but I like this and hope to spend a few nights camping in the mountains before the holiday rush and bustle. I want to be cold and listen to nothing but wind.

I am wondering how many more times I will play my role in this education ritual. I know that my days as a teacher are numbered, that I am about "done." By done I mean that I need to move on, find something else to do for a living.

I cannot blame anyone or anything or "the system," though I am more and more baffled by technology and the differences between me, my students, and the changes to teaching. All of that is another essay.

It's time to thank my students, my principals, my teachers, my opportunities and my luck before beginning to re-imagine myself in the next chapter of this crazy life.

Thank you for what you have given me, what you have taught me, for your knowledge and kindness and occasional wake-up call kick in the butt.

The door has opened and the students have begun to trickle in. I wait for them, for their words, and I look for signs that they have benefited from our time together this past semester. I hope I did not damage them too much before getting them to think, a little, for themselves, to find that quiet voice that can lead them to person they were born to be. 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Requiem For Madiba


A dream maker has passed.

He saw visions the rest of us could barely imagine.

But mostly he saw the best of what we all might be.

He saw in us a spark of genius, talent, potential, divinity and brother/sisterhood.

Leaders like him scare me because they demonstrate what I am most afraid of: the me I might be if I allowed myself to believe the vision that is my birthright.

And he acted on it. Acted in the face of injury, insult, and prison, maybe even death. Hatred surely.

His path was the rocky one, the heroic undoing of complacency and comfort of the status quo. 

I have to wonder where and how that level of conviction and courage developed.

Was he told by his father that he was born to greatness? Did he win races as a child? Did he have a vision under the stars while working in the fields of Africa?

How did that tree of unshakeable courage take root?

Most likely it was the result of small things, messages, luck.

So many things can derail a man or a woman from his or her destiny.

However he got there, he worked from that base to set in place social and political structures that would allow millions the chance to better achieve their visions, heart's desire, their fullest potential.

No small feat that.

I see broken men all around me. Some of them broken by poverty, drugs, incarceration. Others by their own poisons, a self-defeating, inside job.

I am one myself. But I know that and watch for the signs that I am living under the shadow of the angry, broken, spiteful man. 

Broken men like me are dangerous. They tend to tolerate the breaking of others. They may even do it themselves. They are subject to angry leaders who blame others for problems. They identify with their wounds, their damage.

Mandela saw this and side-stepped it. He could have been a demagogue of indignation and revenge. He could have joined a long line of false prophets and dictators who enrich themselves on misery and genocide.

But he did not. He resisted black domination as much as he resisted white.

He saw past his anger and desires to exact a price for his sacrifices. He did not ask for the tooth or eye in payment for what was taken from him.

Yes, he was a political hero, a statesman.

But he was also a man who mastered his demons, a man who forgave, a spiritual example.

It is this that I toast. It is this to which I bow.

He has shown me that there is a man inside me, down there somewhere; he taught that I have to break my own chains as part of breaking others'.

He reminds me that it is my work to keep digging, to unearth the treasure of that shining, fearless, indomitable inheritance.

I raise my cup, lower my head, hear the music that runs through me and all things.

Adios, Madiba. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

An Ode to the Dark Days


Dearest Darkness,

I wander your moonlit arroyos and thank you for the stars.

They are sharp as cut crystal this time of year.

Your cold pierces my skin and tugs at the heat lighting my body.

You are strongest in what we call December, and offer gifts to those who listen.

I want to see you alone. That way you can tell me about the patience and vulnerability of stones.

They crack with frost but are not afraid to sleep for a time with a frozen heart.

I am not a stone, but can still learn from them.

All seasons carry lessons, and yours is the most strange, but also my favorite.

The best thing about this season of human light is you.

It is because of you that I can see the stars, be reminded all I do not know.

We of this Earth sometimes fear your unknowable expanse, your eternity, infinity, mystery.

But this narrow window of long desert night is also a delicacy, a rare and wonderful delight. I want to hide out with you, curl up close, light a fire, get a hot drink, cover with a quilt, and descend into you.

You bring gifts as wonderful and precious as the light's, but yours speak a language of sleep, dreams, and shadow.

You show me treasures invisible in the day.

You have weight, press down on me, and are at home in the world inside.

You infuse my dreams with brilliance and clarity, and I want to sleep, or maybe even hibernate.

This is time to open doors usually locked, to find the truth of fire.

You frighten people and push them to gather and to light up houses with sparkling LEDs and trees that stay green.

Our rituals reflect the effects of shortened days, longer nights, colder winds.

The need to lean on others, I have to confess, makes me a little less ornery, a little more patient, a little more inclined to share a drink or a meal.

I am not moved so much by the "Holiday Season," though.

The music, shopping, and intensity of frenetic partying does nothing for me. I find it grates against what you bring and the quiet of the wolf hours.

So for this season, I will take time to gaze at your midnight mirror, to inscribe, to gather energy that comes from rest, and to curl up with your timeless, generous, incomprehensible expanse, your ease with emptiness and deep space.

I will sit with you, the dark, and invite you to sing your soulful tune as we whisper to each other in the language beyond words.

I will try to love you no less than the light. 


Monday, December 9, 2013

Dancing With Compromise


My sons and other young people I meet and work with are at a crossroads. They are trying to figure out how best to be happy while making a living. They are new to the maze where reality engages with desires.

All I can tell them is that they have to referee a battle between hungry dogs. There is a war that is waged in the psyche between the need to be practical and the heart's desire, between the mind and the soul. Joseph Campbell famously said "Follow you bliss," as the guide for a life lived well and fully. Then there are the fairy tales of industrious critters making hay while others dawdle in order to be the ones who survive when winter comes.

Both bliss and street wisdom are great truths, often at odds with one another. They need respect and they need each other to thrive. They form one of the great questions that I have yet to fully understand. 

Together, they form a question that is a tough nut to crack, and even now, in my late fifties, I have little counsel for young people who are trying to map out a life, to make decisions about how to live.

For people like me, work is a requirement for survival, and income makes the difference between misery and comfort. Money talks and people respond. Poverty talks too, but people are deaf to what it says and usually turn away or wrinkle with scorn.

On the other side, the universe dances when anyone finds his or her passions and lives by them. It dims a bit when the lights of talent starve for lack of expression.

The problem is that passion doesn't always equate to income. Sometimes it's hard to live on bliss.

So, how does one manage both the economic realities while feeding and living by dreams? How does one survive while fulfilling a calling? How does one make a living while trying to write?

And what if making a living precludes the writing, or the music, or the painting, or the dancing, or whatever it is that lights the fire of the heart?

The answers to these contemplations lie with the individual and there are as many as there are lives to reveal them.

In addition,the fight, it must be said, is often not a fair one. Few of us are asked what it is that we want to do, what it is that lights a fire in the spirit world, what fills us with energy and passion. As children, we see the calling, but, for some reason, over the years, we forget, or betray it, to be "practical." The consequence of such little attention to soul is complicity in its starvation.

Very few people fully taste and follow what it is that makes them happy.

On the other side, the voices of making a living and defining one's self as an income generator, are everywhere.

Before embarking on a decision, I recommend that seekers create a level playing field, say out loud what it is that they want to do, look at it squarely, and get some experience with success or at least practice before embarking on a direction, moderating the contraries. Then see how it turns out, benefits and consequences, and prices paid; take a cold look at the possible outcomes. 

The results of the struggle take many forms.

Down one path lies anger, compromise, bitterness, or regret at abandoning the dream to make a living.

Down another path lies a stack of rejection letters that do not pay many bills, exhaustion at having gone for it, but not finding the audience or the forms that resonated in a way that made money.

Of course there are myriad mixes of compromise and realization.

One can make a living, earn some time at the end of life and then go for it. One can steal time in the mornings or evenings to write while making a living.

One can find a patron or a sugar daddy/momma to pay the bills while chasing bliss, security and shelter from the storm while cupping the flickering candle.

One can live on nothing and be happy with that, on live well and just stuff the dreams into a closet of closed discussions.

Each of these is the story of a life, a story of happiness or anger and resentment, of sacrifice and reward or consequences.

For my part, I let doubt get the better of me and took the path of work. I only occasionally regret it. I have been lucky enough to taste both the rewards of creativity and the regularity of a pay check.

I would be lying if I said I was happy about it all the time. But I am grateful for the fullness that this life has been so far.

It has been a both/and compromise that was the best I could do, given my fear, doubt, need for companionship, clarity of heart. 

The dogs are hungry, as the great teachers say, and which gets stronger depends on the one we feed.


Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Red Tree


Next to the UA Memorial Union, just west of the Alumni Plaza fountains, a tree has gone mad with color. This kind of display is not uncommon in New England or in the red maple hills of Wisconsin, but here in the desert, it is a sight.



It leaps off a page filled with cactus greens and tawny dying grasses. It is a diamond in a box of stones. It dances while students drag their feet to last classes of the semester.

And nobody seems to notice.

I saw David Soren, a classics professor and local superstar, walk right past it. I had to stop him to ask if he had seen the tree, and he replied, "No. I was thinking about my lecture."

Yup, me too.

At least I was until I looked up. Seeing it was like being struck by an arrow, or thunder, or awe. Synapses of association fired up and down my frontal cortex, my tingling spine. In current parlance, I might whisper O - M - G. So much poignancy in autumn:. an old truck rolling across Nebraska on the way to Colorado, a picnic lunch on a hill overlooking rolling fields with a woman I loved, solitary moments in the woods while I watched for game and wondered what I should do with my life.

The cold water splash of memories passed and I resumed my walk to class. 

A wind storm is forecast for the rest of the day. Rain will follow. It will be near freezing tonight.

The leaves will be blowing around on the paving blocks of the Alumni Plaza by tomorrow morning.

The red tree will express flamboyance for a day, for just this morning, and then go to sleep.

The leaves have been cut off from life-giving nectar and no longer photosynthesize. The loss of chlorophyll has revealed the underlying pigment of the now dead leaf tissue. In dying they shimmer in color, no matter who pays attention, or who is struck by the flying arrows of memory.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Teaching for a Living -- Twenty-First Century Style


He goes in early to plan for the day. It is still dark, but at least it is quiet. While he used to have his own office, he now shares one with two colleagues. It's harder to focus on planning and grading when there are teachers and students crowded together discussing essays, grades, attendance, plagiarism, and conduct issues, but teachers deal with it.

There will be classes to run soon and the papers that go with them. And then meetings to review curriculum, re-format supervisory checklists, recruit faculty to serve on committees, assess the work of the past semester, get the annual performance review together. Time then to micromanage and plot performance of both graduate student teachers and students. Then there will be editing of submissions for the magazine and correspondence with both writers and other editors.

He has been at this for about 25 years and has not seen a salary increase, in real dollars, in that time. His work load has also increased from four classes per semester to five, with some service thrown in. It would have been slightly better, financially, and more secure, to teach high school than it was to come back to the university, but it seemed like a good career move at the time.

He was on a multi-year, renewable contract, but now he is on a year-to-year, re-apply contract, part of a growing workforce outside the tenure track. He does not belong to a union. He did belong to an "association" when he taught in the school district, but it did little to increase wages or improve working conditions in a "right to work" state.

He takes extra classes and works summers to make up the difference between increases of expenses and flat salary. There are occasional speaking and conference presentations for which he receives an honorarium.

The longer hours have helped, but he can only do so many.

Costs are up; income is flat; assets are already maxed out. 

Even with the longer hours and extra jobs, the rising cost of college has left him in the red. But he is lucky.

He has benefits that most can only dream of: good health insurance, some retirement contributions from his employer, long-term disability should he need it. Younger workers are not so lucky. Benefits like his are disappearing because costs have to be cut. Everywhere there is deficit. The younger faculty see this and hang on for a while as adjuncts before leaving to find something better paid.

Like others in the middle class, he has less and less purchasing power. He makes ends meet, usually, but that is about it. His children will graduate from college. He is lucky there too. Graduation rates of high schoolers have been flat and are dropping as funding for colleges goes down and tuition goes up, and up, hundreds of percent increases over the last 15 years.

His partner works too. That is a given these days.

He refinanced his house to help pay for college, a better car, and that medical emergency. But the value of the house went down and now he is under water.

Flat wages have led to longer hours, working partners, more debt.

Wages won't go up because no one lobbies for them or makes policy to support workers like him.

If middle class purchasing power goes down, businesses cut back. If businesses cut back, tax revenues go down. When tax revenues go down, education and infrastructure spending decreases. Students don't get as good an education and can't afford college. A less educated workforce means lower quality and decreased productivity. With lowered productivity and quality, capital goes global to make a better deal, get a bigger return.

It's a complex, vicious cycle, and he is caught in it. 

Wealth has been redirected to the top. The uber rich have had their way for the last three decades and have done very well while the middle class has been fleeced.

It's up to him and others like him to wake up, do their homework, and shape policies that will make working for a living worth the time they put into it.

The sun is coming up. It's time to meet that first class. 

 

Monday, December 2, 2013

A Few Kind Words For Purple Toe Nails


Megan and I hiked Wasson Peak before joining friends and sons for Thanksgiving dinner.



The walk was a good one: sun, wind, expansive vistas. And having some time to think and talk combined all of the ingredients to cook up a sweet morning. We would walk the Sweetwater Trail to Kings Canyon and then up to the Hugh Norris Trail. I love the names and have a history with this place.



We will climb about 2,000 feet. My shoes don't quite fit, but I don't care. My toes will bump against the boots on the way down and I will get the usual blue toe nails of the weekend warrior hiker.

That unsuitability of boot to foot was not the only thing out of whack, though. We had some bones to pick and took the time to bicker. Never underestimate the power of people to find something wrong with a gift horse. Yes, our dream day wasn't all puppy romps and love light.

Couples who have been together as long as we have need to vent once in a while. The shortcomings of the partner fester when days are too busy for honest tete a tetes.

And we are diverging some in what we want for the coming years.

There are "pressures." She wants me to give things up. I want her to give me time and space. We are on the cusp of a new stage of life -- empty nesters.

So, as I loaded my pack, it began.

My foibles as a handyman, thoughtful kitchen cleaner, desires for bike rides instead of chores, and choices about clothing accessories all came spilling out in not so pleasant tones.

And I can give as good as I get.

So you can imagine this lovely day as two lone hikers in paradise tromp along in fumes of irritation and disappointment. Silly.




The point of this is not to be right, find fault or air dirty private laundry, but to ruminate on the over-inflated expectations of relationships.

Specifically, we Boomers and others tend to expect a partner to be and do and fulfill everything we want. We have learned to want both security and passion, fidelity and hot, kinky sex, intellectual stimulation and toilet fixing, physical beauty and lots of free, leisurely time, super man and intimate man (or woman). This list is long.

And nobody can be all things to someone else. No real person anyway.

Relationships have gotten very difficult and I feel inadequate to meet the expectations, the demands.

I don't blame my partner for this, but rather the times, the cultural stew that shapes these crazy needs.

As we plodded along up the beautiful, sunlit trail, I mused on my defects. They are many. And I want to be OK with them or willing to work on them in my own time. I don't need the constant reminders of how I fall short. I just want to be accepted for who I am.

But if want to get something, you've to be willing to return something. Can I do the same for my partner?

I see that I am in the same quandary she is. I want her to be beautiful, playful, financially independent, supportive of my interests, out of my way. I also want her to fit some of my fantasies. I put impossible demands on her too.

So we walk along, each less than happy with the other on a stunningly clear gift of a day.


But as the trail wore on, the dissatisfaction began to fade and the effort of the climb put me back in my body. It was Thanksgiving, after all.

I reminded Megan of other hikes -- the moonlight hike up to the peak from the Esperanza (hope) Trailhead in June, the time we watched the lights of the city glitter below us like diamonds. Or the Christmas hike when a bitter wind blew through the needles of the cholla so hard you could hear them whistle. Or the time the sky was lit blood red with a sunset that made the cacti shimmer in the low light.



She softened in my eyes. She is lovely in her desires, her restlessness. I see the mystery of her that I saw many years ago when we first met. And now she is going through yet another transition. She wants me to grow with her. I am afraid and reluctant to let go of what I know, what I want. We will have to work this out.

She is aging. I am too. That adds another layer of urgency. We both feel the need to go after what we want. Limits loom larger as bodies decline, opportunities move out of reach.

I am aware that she cannot be all things to me, nor I to her. And she is my partner.

As such, I have been wounded by her; she by me. I see all too well that she is flawed. I am too. She has also enhanced my life in ways I can only vaguely fathom. She has been party to the alchemy that moved me from boy to man, my finding joy in learning to father, to provide, to surrender to things bigger than myself, my boyish ego. We have been on a spiritual path in which we have both shed confining skins in order to learn to both give beyond what we thought possible and receive beyond what we could imagine.

The walk hurts sometimes, but, I take steps forward, so far on the same trail, even though my toes will show bruises for my efforts. What to do with all these stirrings of the heart, these crazy, impossible desires, this life passing faster and faster, the end that grows closer with each step?