Monday, December 15, 2014
He is wiry. Compact, thickly muscled, and what in other days was called jaunty. His nappy hair he wears braided. He tends to carry an expression of amusement, of some joke he knows that no one else has gotten.
He also has a far-off look in his eyes.
I guess he is what many would call mentally unstable, part of why he is in prison, most likely.
Prison is, after all, where we put many of our mentally ill after the Reagan Era terminated funding for their care in hospitals.
I don't know what brought him to the writing workshops, but he has become one the regulars for the last several years. He sits across from me, and nods a lot. He writes odes to God and says he sees things most people don't.
He is also impulsive, and quick to take magazines or dictionaries that I offer. Sometimes the other inmates don't appreciate that, so I have to be careful about how those resources get distributed.
A week ago, he very ceremoniously presented me with a letter of sorts. He said, "Give this to your wife. I know she will like it." He was adamant about this.
What he did not know is that M. is struggling. She is going through a dark night and looks for comfort in soulful music, poetry, and close friends.
"You give this to her," he said again. "She'll know."
Now, you may be thinking something like "This guy is a wing-nut, half-a-bubble-off-plumb, bonkers, not-playing-with-a-full-deck," or other off-the-rails expression. And you would be correct. But consider some of the following.
Last spring, before I took a hiatus from the workshops to work on the house in New Mexico, Mr. L. took me aside as I walked to the guard house and sally port. He looked straight at me, hard. "Now, you listen... You have some kind of truck, right?"
"Well, you need to careful. I'm just telling you. You need to be careful driving that truck. Because there is a lot of trouble out there, and some gonna come to you. So you drive slow and careful."
As I turned to leave, he stood there and spoke to my back. "You be careful up there. You and that truck. You drive careful."
I didn't think much of it, but did remember that he seemed to know when I was coming to the workshop. He told me that he could "see" me coming down the road, from miles away. He knew, even when the guards told him otherwise, that I was coming to meet the writing workshops. "They said you weren't coming, but I knew you were. I told the guys so."
When I returned to the workshops at the end of summer, Mr. L. was first in line and made a bee line to me and asked "So, how's your truck? Is it bad? You look OK."
I had said nothing, but had been in an accident, been T-boned in Gallup in an intersection. The truck was nearly totaled.
"You gonna fix it? Can you fix it? Everything OK? You need to be careful about that front end."
Remember, I still had said nothing. The truck had been hit right at the front wheel. The impact knocked us into the oncoming lane. If I had been going any faster, the collision would been absorbed by the door, behind which Megan sat.
"It's going to cost a lot, but the truck will be fixed," was all I said.
"Is your wife OK?"
"She was a little shaken up, but she is good," I said, as other men filed in and Mr. L. took his place across from me at the table. He spent the day nodding in assent, smiling when he caught my eye, as the other men read their work.
That was six months ago. Since then, he keeps checking in, following me to the guard house after the workshops. He has not offered up any more warnings or advice beyond "I knew you were coming today. I saw you."
I kept all of this in mind when I presented Megan with the card. She opened it and found a hand-drawn heart surrounded by flowers, all if it intertwined, all of it on a manila file folder transformed into art. This came from a man who has no "official" access to paints, Exacto knives, brushes, or markers.In fact, those things are contraband.
M. found the card soothing, lovely, meticulously crafted.
I put the card on the mantel with the other Christmas cards.
I'll have to ask Mr. L. about it when I see him next.
His eyes will likely be looking through me to something distant, either here or out there over the horizons of his mind.
Wednesday, December 10, 2014
It was not the best of moments. My stomach burned something fierce from the coffee I drank on the way to the prison. To distract myself from the gnawing acids, I looked up at the collapsing ceiling tiles and the big gaps that showed electrical wiring, galvanized pipes, and the guts of the Programs Building. I waited for Sargent T., the C.O. on duty, to unlock the classroom where we would meet the writing workshop.
The hallway narrowed to a vanishing point in both directions. I stood there in the middle, next to the drinking fountain, and decided I should use the time to write something.
Just as I settled in, inmates began to show up, and we gathered there in from on the door, an informal, and likely unlawful, assembly.
Y.D., usually one of the first to arrive, noticed that I was writing, and wanted to share his week of work. He tended to minimize his efforts, repeatedly saying, "I'm no PhD." He told me that he had not done the assignment but rather was reading "Chozer," something the prison librarian had recommended. It took me a second to realize he meant Chaucer.
He said he had neglected the homework reading, a short story by T.C. Boyle, because he wanted to read some "serious stuff." He said it was tough going, but that he liked it, had heard that Chaucer had quite the bawdy sense of humor, and that he had published the first fart joke. He also said that the Boyle story was too "working class," too much about young guys making choices about violence and its place in growing into men.
I didn't know whether Chaucer published the first joke about flatulence, and agreed that Chaucer's Middle English could be tough going. But I wondered about the stigma, or bias, against writing that looked too much like life in the 21st century. I wanted to know more about what he meant by "serious stuff," so I asked him.
"You know, the stuff they read in college. Real literature. High brow reading, not the stuff that passes as 'good' these days."
I had to think about that. Here was a man who was a pretty good writer. He had published a few things in our inmate journal, Rain Shadow Review, and other magazines, like The Sun, but he felt that subjects that he knew, and that writing told in a contemporary voice, was somehow "less than."
To be sure, ,may popular, "genre," books do not past muster for "literary merit," but there was more going on here. Y.D. felt that his voice, his experience, his way of seeing things was not "correct" or "worthy" of literary attention. Y.D. was buying into the idea that "real writing" had to grow out of academic study, university training.
And yes, those are valuable endeavors. But writing from one's standpoint, one's place on the social hierarchy is also valuable and necessary. We readers need to hear more from the margins, from the underclasses, from the hard-knocks of having to scramble and fight for a living.
Too many men, I told him, live lives of noble struggle. They build our houses, roads, bridges. Pick up the trash. Raise families. Teach working sons and daughters how to navigate a society out to exploit them.
Movies don't get made about the dignity of work, the genius of stretching limited paychecks to provide rich, stimulating athletic, creative, or academic training for children.
Yes, craft in writing is important. Quality of ideas, language, and awareness of literary history all matter. And the voice of a writer who has lived the underside, who can speak truth to power, who finds a voice that inspires action -- all of these are what make writing good.
Before I could put these thoughts into words, Sargent T. showed up and unlocked the door. With a space to talk and write waiting, we entered.
Monday, December 8, 2014
Between the mad rushes to buy things, December can be a time to wax philosophical.
Here are two things to think about: stars and life.
Stars because it's dark, like it is for more of the day this time of year, we can see them better. Also because they are where we come from. I mean really and literally where we come from.
The stuff that we are made of (atoms) was forged in the furnace of stellar fusion. Nuclei of atoms fused to make the elements of the universe. The material that we are made of was once the light of fusion. Hold that thought.
Then consider the impossible. Atoms and life found each other in the immensity and hostile conditions of cold, heat, radiation, distance, and entropy.
Life then took those atoms and put them in motion, into a dynamic system, a system that defies the greatest of odds. The conditions necessary for life are more rare than gold, diamonds, winning the lottery, or finding Rosebud. But wait, there's more. Life can evolve, again, against great odds, to a form of consciousness. Nobody knows what consciousness is or where it resides, but we can agree that it exists.
We humans are lucky enough to be be able to see and appreciate the stars and world that brought us into being.
Given the enormity of space, the light years of absolute zero, the emptiness of it all, that's a big Wow!
Problem is, we forget.
Instead of wondering in awe at the gift of it all, we want more. In the process of getting more, our brothers, sisters, fellow animals, and planet take it in the shorts in the form of brutality, atrocity, violence, rip-off, exploitation, genocide.
Knowledge and image run riot but kindness and wisdom go begging.
Talk about dragging a rose in the dust....
In this, the dark and cold time of year for us in the northern hemisphere, anyway, the stars are particularly bright. And because it is cold outside, it is also quieter than summer.
How about taking a walk under to stars to marvel, wonder, and open to amazement?
How about remembering joy?
How about surprising someone with the gift of seeing in him or her the life we share? Seeing in its generosity and mystery the planet that sustains us? Waking to the moment that contains within it the secret of eternity?
Now that would be a winner.
Thursday, December 4, 2014
I am standing in the crosswalk near University and Euclid waiting for traffic to yield so I can get to work. As you might guess, it does not. Monster trucks, souped-up rice burners, and blithe co-eds zip past at 35 miles an hour. And it is a rainy morning, so they send up a rooster tail of street run-off high onto the sidewalk.
Insult? Yes. Injury? Not this time.
As I assert my rights as a pedestrian, I get soaked for my actions.
Don't these people know a woman in a crosswalk was killed last night by a car just like these?
The thought is sobering as I finally run to beat the next driver in his jacked-up pickup. He lays on the horn as he sends spray in my direction, laughing no doubt.
You might think this behavior is limited to drivers who don't know traffic etiquette, but it is not. The hipster on his fixie laying into corners like he's at a velodrome, slaloming through pedestrians on campus is just as bad. Don't even mention long-boarders. And women are great for texting as they roll through stop signs on First Street. The street cars are pretty good, but the tracks are treacherous.
My friend Ken was hit last week in a crosswalk at First and Mountain, in bright daylight. An international student was struck by a bike, knocked out, and suffered brain damage a few years ago. The examples and varieties go on and on and include all of us.
The subject is traffic, but the problem is inattention and a self-interest at the cost of the common good. In other words, it's more important for Me-Me for to get where he or she is going at the rate he/she wants to go than it is to watch out for others who might cross the path.
I hate to say it, but we all need reminders that pedestrians have the right of way. Legally.
Signs saying "Yield to Peds" line bike paths, but are obscured by trees and not very abundant. Since people look down and ahead more than up, how about some speed limits painted on the bike paths, some big, reflective traffic stencils that say SLOW? More flashing lights would be nice too, even the ones that line the perimeter of a crosswalk sign. The solutions are out there, but are only a start.
What I would really like to see though, is a big flashing alarm that says Wake Up!
Wednesday, December 3, 2014
This will be the 200th blog post on this site. That is not such a big deal, but it is a mile post of sorts for this writer.
I have been recording my crazy life here for the last couple of years, mostly, and have jumped from topic to topic, genre to genre, and mood to mood as the crises and dreams have come and gone.
I hope this has helped me somehow to grow up, be more observant, more reflective, more present, kind, and compassionate.
I can't claim any of that, but I can say that I notice when I get pulled out of the moment by self talk, by a story, or a button-pushing incident.
When that happens, I have begun to go after it rather than give in to it. I want to be here and happy rather than lost to old, bad habits of thought that lead to anger, depression, and disconnect.
That's a small thing I know, but I just wanted to make a note on the psychological timeline.
It's also time to write something good and big. I don't know what that will be, but I have a hunch of what it looks like, what it sounds like, what I want it to do. My job is to keep showing up and to keep recording and to keep looking for that live wire of truth that needs saying.
Here's the next 200.
Saturday, November 29, 2014
Mornings I ride
To the place
Where I wait
For a poem to come
A piece a day
Whether good or not
If one doesn't come
On its own
I dig it up
Fingernails like tines
Sometimes I hack my
Way through spiny plants
That tear at my skin.
Sometimes I surprise
Or spot a centipede
As it winds from one hiding place to
More often I just keep
Moving through the wind
Or the rain
Sometimes the moon
Is blue as ice
If I just keep showing
Up one will come
My legs have gotten
Big as trees
Monday, November 24, 2014
The sun would not rise for two hours, but it was time to go. The old Suby growled along the quiet streets of Tucson with bikes on the back. I had already picked up Elena, another bike nut, and we were about to park on one of the dark streets of downtown Tucson.
After slipping into bike shoes and clipping on lights, we rode the bikes down to the start of the 32nd El Tour de Tucson. The streets were dry at least as we flew through the cold morning air, underneath the tracks over Sixth Avenue.
The bikes felt crazy fast because under the influence of night and adrenaline.
At the start we joined other insane types, like John the retired philosophy professor from Madison, Wisconsin, and Giulianna, the organizer of Velo Vets, an organization to get injured veterans on bikes.
The early hour did little to dampen spirits, and, like I said, at least it was dry. The year before had been cold and rainy.
As we settled in for the wait, I remembered other starts.
Three years ago, I waited with friends in an intersection blocked off from cars but still active with traffic lights. Beneath red, yellow, and green signals I sat and talked with Will Streeter, a friend from Indiana who would die within the year from melanoma. At the time I did not know that he had the cancer, that he would lose an eye a week after the ride.
There were other times too. Standing with Steve Baker, who had just begun his fight against MS. We rode a tandem that year, stopping for breaks and massages as the day and the route wore on. We would both weep on the final hills before the finish, both from fatigue and the awareness that this would his last ride.
Another year I would ride with my father, the hard-assed colonel of my childhood. He told me at the start that he was afraid. It was then my turn to lead and comfort him. We rode into such deep exhaustion that we collapsed at the finish. That ride built bridges over years of estrangement, healed a rift that wounded us both.
The course has evolved and the crowds have grown over the years.
In the old days, we had to cross a running stream of effluent from the sewage treatment plant. Sometimes the water was knee-deep and always cold. Temperatures have been in the 20s a few times, bone chilling at 25 miles an hour.
The longest El Tours have been about 116 miles, the shortest about 104. All of them have stories, set backs, magic moments.
Then there have been the cramps, the wind, the wrecks, the flats, the mechanicals. One year I was flying along with a big pack when my tire blew out. I watched from the shoulder as riders blew by and I tried to fix the tire. My pump exploded. Yes it exploded into shards of plastic. I was stranded. But I limped along with the help of the El Tour Bike Patrol and finished after repairing my tube four times.
I only didn't finish once, and that was last year, when a lock ring stripped and left my cassette a collection of tiny, disconnected cogs -- both useless and unfixable.
There is the human side, the physical side, the emotional side, the spiritual and philosophical sides -- all of them add up to something ongoing, ineffable, as enduring as the desire to roll, to feel the wind, and to meet what the miles have to teach.*
Pretty soon I won't be able to continue. That's OK. I am grateful for having followed the sometimes insane impulse to line up early, wait for the gun, and join the river of bikes winding around the perimeter of Tucson. That impulse used to be a mystery. Now it's a tradition, a tradition that I hold alone if no one joins me, but alone in the company of my memories, my love, my tribe.
* Thanks to Damion Alexander for the second pic.
Thursday, November 20, 2014
I was mad about how the money was going around. The usual stuff, you know: the fat cats were getting more than they could ever use and the skinny worker bees were staying overtime with the grunt work for peanuts. Usually I would just eat it, so to say, but this time I wanted speak up, be somebody. When I made the appointment the secretary kind of looked at me like who are you anyway and yes there is a cancellation so you can talk with the boss on such and such a day but you only have half an hour so make it quick. I wore my best shirt that day and spiffed up my belt over my baggy jeans that I had to roll up so they didn't get caught in my bike chain on the way to work. I was a PhD after all so I thought I should look my position in life. I wrote up questions, had them clamped to my clipboard and showed up early. Nobody there. The secretary and I talked small talk. She seemed nice enough. Five minutes after we were supposed to meet, the big guy arrives with his latte and newspaper. It's mid afternoon and he's just coming to work. Yeah. He waves me in and closes the door. I go through my spiel about how hard teachers are working and how the things we do are good for the university, the town, the state, the country -- hell -- the world. We are doing a service I say, a great service. We are teaching people to think and write and we should be fairly paid for doing that. The big guy listens for a while and then begins to drift off. I can tell his body is there, but his attention is like in Tahiti or something. When I stop, he looks at his watch and talks for the first time since I laid into my pent-up indignation. So, the guys says cry me a river and people put me here to keep people like you and the ones you want to help out of our neighborhoods before he turns back to his screen and waves me out with a hand that says meeting over. If we were downtown the muscle would have come after me for the bum’s rush but since we were here at the top where videos are watching and things are civil I just walked out on my own two feet past the pretty secretary. She didn’t so much as look up. I guess that’s what happens when you get the big red mark of non grata on your head and back where wonks can see it coming or going.
I like mornings. At least I like them after I start to to warm up during the pre-dawn bike ride to work. Those first few miles in the dark with all the traffic whizzing by are not what I am talking about.
I like mornings because they are the time of potential. A whole day stretches out, unknown, ahead, and I imagine what might happen. I might write something good, make a good contact, and get something published. I might earn a personal best on a bike ride up the mountain. I might be in the right place at the right time and make a friend for life. The tumblers of chance might line up just right and unlock the door that stands between me and being happy.
Alright, maybe that is over the top.
Anyway, these few minutes before having to go meet my first class, where I will stand in front of sleepy freshmen who don't really want to be there, these moments are my favorite part of the day.
I wish I could stretch them out, hang onto them, stuff them in my pockets for later, when potential has to compromise with the actual.
But for now, it's just good. Worth noting.
Monday, November 17, 2014
Second guessing is always bad business because what's been done is over. No changing what's over.
But I can't help it, now that my career that never really was is winding down.
I have some regret about entering the humanities, teaching English, with all the "soft" and abstract work that the field implies. Nothing solid has come of it, except one book that never really took off, and one course I helped design to give at risk students a better chance to succeed.
As a teacher, I went to the margins, the place where "at risk" students hang out, rather than to the "top" where the honors students reside. I wanted to work with the ones who might not make it in the university system, cruel as it sometimes is. They usually were the students who came from lower socio-economic (read "poor") status, had less than the best experiences with school, and, in Tucson, did not always have the advantage of English as a first language.
I believed in writing, passionately; I felt, and still feel, that learning to write could change a life.
I worked with others to set up a course that would give extra help to the students who did not place into "regular" classes. I won't bore you with the details, but the course cut time to graduation, increased achievement, and helped retain diverse students (read non-white).
It also cost the university more per student, an investment that the university was willing to make ten years ago.
But, like many good, effective programs (with data to support the effectiveness and a national award from the Council on Basic Writing) that make bean counters wonder where the money goes, the program has been re-classified. Teachers will no longer be paid for the full course work, the extra time with smaller groups.
Teachers who work with the course will basically be asked to volunteer time to help students.
Of course, the teachers who work with this course are not tenured or highly placed faculty. They can't afford to work for free, even if they would like to. They are the ones who do much of the university teaching that higher ranked faculty find onerous (more time with students, more grading, more prep time, more hands-on, face-to-face interaction, more case-by case problems with attendance because students have family and work and transportation issues).
It's a harder course than honors courses to teach. The students come to class with a wider range of outside issues that teachers have to attend to.
But the administration doesn't see that or take that into account when keeping the books.
So, the course has been weakened, is on the rocks, and, likely will die a slow death on the vine.
Those students will end up going to community colleges or just to work.
It's just the poor, brown, red, black -- and white -- kids, so is not a high priority for big bucks.
And, the course is the only thing I will be leaving behind when I get out of my low rung job at the University of Arizona.
It's been a frustrating career, for which I take responsibility. I made my decisions and they were not money-making or career building decisions. That's just the way it is.
But the kids, the students, the loss for them and the rest of us because of the contributions they might have made.... that stings.
Thursday, November 13, 2014
Smells of juniper and pinon pine sawdust waft off the pickup trucks carrying loads of firewood through town. Every once once in a while, one of the stove-length logs falls off and bounces along the highway. Soon enough to prevent a wreck, another pickup stops to pick up the split wood.
A young woman runs along the highway, training for the state cross-country meet . Her black hair bounces along her back, dark as a raven's cloak. Her dog runs alongside, nose low enjoying the scent of elk and sheep.
Three boys do their best to dress like gang-bangers as they shuffle along the sidewalk, hands in pockets, hoods over heads.
Men sell carved fetishes at the only gas station, just past the only stop sign. Dust blows.
Grasshoppers feed on their dead brethren. They know time is short and find warm eddies of sun out of the wind.
Domed ovens covered in terracotta mud stand in waiting for fuel and loaves of bread.
There are ruins on the mesa, pot shards covered in dust, history beneath dessicated stands of Indian bush.
The town secrets keep their own company. Kachinas will dance when the tourists have gone home.
Nights are clear and cold. Stars, like tiny flecks of ice, shimmer against the blackness. Days are still warm, though. No snow yet. Just wind. Lots of wind. And dust.
Megan leaves for her teaching job before the sun comes up and she returns after it has set. She lives in the casita, a portable building without running water. The privy is cold in the morning.
But she doesn't much mind. It's where she wants to be. Winter is coming, but has been delayed by the last taste of summer.
Saturday, November 1, 2014
I needed some hardware, a very small screw to be precise. A tuner on my guitar had come loose from the headstock and no longer held a string at a steady note. I wanted to get back to playing with all the strings, so made my way to the local folk shop, the Folk Shop.
Everybody who works at the Folk Shop is talented beyond imagining and poor as desert deer mice. They are great people who know a lot about music, life, and problems like needing a screw. I also wanted some new guitar strings, which I bought.
They also gave me a bunch of screws, more than I could ever use for one guitar. (They operate on a different business model than the big up-and-comers of the flashy variety. The place smells of wood and leather. Music lives there. Instruments line the walls. They radiate love stories and lonely times. Music is what they do. Making money is a hopeful side effect. The Folk Shop has not "gone corporate.") They also gave me good advice about making sure the screw I put in did not fall back out. Quality, durability, function -- the important stuff. "Break a toothpick off in the hole," they said. "That will keep the new screw from loosening," they said, three of them nodding in agreement behind the counter. "Bring em back if they don't work."
I left with more than free screws, and with this embarrassment of threaded riches, I made my way into the rest of the day.
As I threaded my way through Tucson traffic, I felt like I was in some kind of race, both speed-wise and other ways. Audis, Porsches, Beemers, and hot rods rushed ahead of me at red lights so they could cut in front of me and be one car ahead of where they might have been.
They were not so nice, but they looked really good. Nice cars, nice clothes, coifed hair, expensive shades -- the works.
By contrast my old Subaru looked dilapidated and just plain dated. The bike racks were bent, had lost paint, and looked tired. Real tired.
I felt tired too. And old. The rat race is losing its appeal, and being happy, of some kind of service to others, and satisfied with what I am, is looking better and better.
It might be my age, or something else, but I am just about done with the race to look good, to answer some advertising ideal. The pull is still there. People one-up me all the time at parties: Where have you traveled? They ask. When I tell them, they say Oh I've been there and more. How smart are you? Before I can answer they say Well I'm really smart and make all kinds of great decisions. Where do you get those clothes, anyway? And on and on.
I still want to answer "Oh yeah? Well I can blah blah blah as well as you," but the reflex is dwindling as fast as my waist line is growing.
I have to say, that I find 50 and 60 somethings scrambling to present bigger and better egos a little unbecoming. For a 20 or 30 or even 40 something, it seems age-appropriate to compete, to scramble to make a living and life.
When do people stop valuing "smart," "better than," and "looking good" less than "wise," "generous," and "kind?"
Maybe we just keep scrambling because that is what modern, industrialized adults do. Maybe it doesn't matter what others do when the lights of mid-life start to dim into late-life.
Maybe there is more in the palm of a hand than an urge to grab more and more for a me-me that never quits wanting. Maybe doing a favor is worth as much or more than stepping on someone to rise higher. Maybe aging and heart-songs can teach me.
Aye, what a dilemma, so many choices. What does one do? Home-spun and happy or glitzy glam? Or both?
I like the Folk Shop and my free screws and want to learn to play my tunes of longing better, to join my mates in the great decline, undiminished, nutty as a fruit cake. I don't get excited about being smart, shallow, and looking good as my hipper brethren, but do find wrinkled, wise, and sly a promising prospect.
As I install the new screw that now holds the tuner snug a boat anchor, I wonder about simple, Earthly pleasures, like singing when my heart is in trouble and my soul feels that life is too hot to touch.
Monday, October 27, 2014
You don't have a radio? the guard asks as he unlocks the room we'll use for the prison writing workshop.
He is alarmed when I say I don't want one and then rolls his eyes.
Well, keep the door open so we can hear you scream he says.
As I arrange the tables and chairs into a circle, I wonder what the hell I am doing there, what could possibly pull me away from a Saturday ripe for bike rides and fun and put me here in a room full of felons.
Of course, part of me knows that answer, and that answer is that I don't go alone, that I follow what it is I have to do. I just tend to forget and need a reminder, a clear refresher of values, once in while.
Now things get dicey because few listeners will follow my line of wondering. The line makes itself up as it goes along. It does not progress in a straight, logical, or even common sensical progression.
It is a musing on poetry -- not poetry as something studied in school or memorized for credit or discussed after a professional reading. (Full disclosure here: I am not a "poet." I don't carry that as a label, or identifying trait others can hang onto. I don't live to publish or make any money teaching the art. I am not even all that versed (so to speak) in the disciplines or forms of my muse.)
This is personal. It's organic. And I have no idea where it came from, though it likely has something to do with my mother. (You Freudians will like that.) So here we go.
Poetry connects me to the living world. It wakes me up. It lives in the details and follows the avocado pit as it rolls into the deepest recess of the kitchen, the narrow alley where dust mice hide from the broom, after the pit jumps off the counter. Poetry laughs as I bend and stoop in irritation to retrieve the errant pit. It delights in things not going according to plan, smiles when attention veers toward surprise.
Poetry follows me out to the prison. It takes a quiet seat in the workshops, is patient when words get lazy, but delighted when hard questions dodge easy answers. When Curly finds a sliver of moon and Cowboy claims that people in Yuma delight in gunfights and hangings.
Poetry comforts my anger, sets my sadness afloat on a running river, goads me into opening and action. It forgives my laziness but suffers nothing sloppy.
It sits on the handlebars of my bike when I ride to the mountain. It points out slanting light, water falls, shimmering fall colors. It hangs out in the space between breaths.
Poetry whispers that living is full of pain and joy.
I ask it about the bullies, the ignorant, aloof, and bullet-headed enemies of truth. Poetry just smiles in a way that tells me they are powerful, but no match for what endures. It says keep your mind open and quiet and focused. It says consider your work first, then take care of what needs care. There will always be things that need care.
But I am so tired, after all that fear and anger, I tell Poetry. That's OK Poetry says. It's what you learned. You can outgrow that.
No one will pay me to watch the leaves, to speak truth to power, or find what it is that sings in my heart.
Poetry smiles. And the smile says payment is more than money. Truth can be its own reward. Find that place to work from and the rest will follow.
Easy for you to say.
Yes. And what have you got to lose?
A lot I think. The world as I know it I think.
And then I am alone. The traces of what made so much sense linger for a while, but fade as weekend turns to Monday, as responsibility and tasks wake and demand my time and attention.
Remember. Something says. Remember.
Wednesday, October 15, 2014
The turnout was slow on Saturday, so I stood waiting for the inmates at the door to the "band room," a reference to the days when inmates were allowed to play music.
That was a while ago, in the days when they could also work in gardens that provided fresh produce, and when they could take classes to earn an Associate's degree.
No more music. No more gardens. Very few opportunities.
The band room's south wall is glass.
Yes, I know -- this is Arizona, and south facing glass means solar oven.
I, and the guys in the prison writing workshop, deal with it. I don't need to state the obvious, that we sweat, even though we hide in what little shade remains when the sun is at its most intense.
I have to wonder if the administration doesn't gain some kind of sadistic pleasure in assigning this as the location for workshops, afternoon workshops -- hot sun, maximum gain, solar heated workshops.
So, there I was, last Saturday, with my plastic tub filled with writing pads, pens, books, and drafts of inmate work, when I noticed some movement in the band room.
I thought I imagined it at first, that the movement was a misfire of optical sleight of shadow and light.
But I looked more closely, and sure enough, something was there, behind the leg of a desk, looking for shade against the far wall.
It was a Sonoran toad, a big guy, the kind that produces hallucinogens in its secretions.
Yow! What was a Sonoran toad doing in a locked band room in the Santa Rita Unit of a state prison yard?
My reverie was interrupted by one of the officers who carried keys to the room.
"We want you in here," he said.
No surprise there.
"Remember to shut it down by 3:45," he said.
"Thanks," I said, to both the favor of opening the door to the oven and to the reminder to end the workshop before count.
Once in the room, I extracted a folder from the tub and slipped it under the cooperative toad. I lifted him like a bearer would lift an emperor on his litter and carried him to the scrubby "garden" in front of the band room.
He hopped off to the cover of some leafy ornamentals before I turned to see some of the inmates watching me from the door to the band room.
"You're a crazy soft touch," one of them said.
"Yeah, even the guards out here seem to take care of the frogs," said another.
I didn't correct him about the toad not being a frog.
"Wonder he got in here," was all I said.
As the men gathered to discuss their work, the toad and the story moved into the background of our discussions.
One of the men wrote about how much of himself he loses in prison, how against the odds maintaining a sense of generosity and trust can be. He spoke of his prison time in terms of chisels, hammers, and knives that cut away at his fragile humanity.
As he talked I remembered the improbable image of a toad hiding from the sun in a locked room and wondered how anything fragile survives out of its place, away from all hope.
Wednesday, October 8, 2014
He overcame her with patient tenderness.
She wanted to pull away, to run, but he stroked her hair and told her that she could trust him, that the running world was large enough for a few eddies of peace. She hesitated and then let down her guard enough stay within arm's reach.
It was a tenuous arrangement that lasted only moment by moment, but those moments stretched on into years, and she began to soften.
The wounds she carried still festered down in the deep tissues of her heart. They rose up in fits of rage when she was reminded of the slights of her young life.
In those times she would spit her rage at him, even though he was not the cause.
He did not waver but carefully studied her intensity.
He found what he lacked in her, that drive to survive, to face the hardest of questions. She gave him raw, unadulterated fear.
And so they danced until time came for one of them, and they found that the price of comfort and a companion was paid in full through the redemption of the other.
Tuesday, October 7, 2014
I was driving home last week after a long day teaching and thinking when one of these rare fall storms moved across the city. The rains split time and space with brilliant sunlight, sometimes crafting rainbows. I was pulled out of my distracted reverie as I drove into one.
Rain drops clung to the windshield and glittered like sapphires when the sun shone between the clouds. A street still wet from the passing storm smelled of water and creosote as cars slurped along on their way to important business.
I would have missed it, but happened to open my window.
(Summer in Tucson is usually spent behind glass in air conditioning. Cars act like rolling greenhouses and make really good saunas without A/C. It is forgivable to drive too much with the windows tight. )
So there it was. Rain. Light. Sound. Smell.
I just had to notice.
And, in that moment, I forgot what I was worried about. All the ho-hum stuff of money and work and stress and what I don't yet have but feel that I need or else I'm going to waste my life.
It was luscious.
It was instructive too. Unless I work at clearing away the chatter and clutter in order to just notice what is going on in front of me, I spend my days trapped in my head.
The work of art is to get out of the head and into the world.
It's a day-to-day, moment-to-moment undertaking that requires effort, focus, and intention.
It is not always romantic, nor is the domain of a privileged, talented few.
It is the birthright of the soul.
I kept the window down until rain soaked me and my seat. The sensual respite woke something sleeping. I have forgotten that I am here to enjoy the world while I can, while I draw breath.
I have learned too well to look away and wonder when I might be able to produce a work of art.
Wednesday, October 1, 2014
Protests for greater democracy are being led by students in Hong Kong. These students are boycotting classes, a move that could put their tenuous careers in jeopardy. They are giving up solid advancement in a system they find corrupt in order to make a better future for the society as a whole.
I admire that.
When I listen to the interviews I hear enthusiasm, aliveness, passion, and vision of better life.
And I wonder if many of my students, or I for that matter, could take such a stand.
Americans, I hate to say it, have gone pretty soft. "Me-me" culture reigns supreme. The common good is a distant afterthought. On top of that, most students live a virtual world that doesn't much politicize them.
We are missing out on something.
When people stand up for something, a principle bigger than themselves, especially one that speaks the truth of poverty, injustice, or corruption to power, they are infused with energy.
I had a small taste of this in my student days at Madison when my fellow politicos and I went to "Survival Gatherings" and other political marches. I got arrested for civil disobedience and did workshops on non-violent resistance.
Yes, there is a veil of nostalgia over those times, but I also remember the days as some of the best of my life. I didn't care so much about my career, or about job security, or health insurance. I was single and able to live on next to nothing.
Of course, things have changed. I am more responsible. But I am also less excited about the difference my work might make.
I watch, with no small resignation, news of the widening gaps between rich and poor. I look at my paycheck and see that I am making less, in real terms, than I was thirty years ago.
In short, working people are getting screwed by the systems set up to benefit the wealthiest Americans.
Millennials are looking down the barrel of reduced wages and opportunity. And they are a wildly creative bunch who know how to work together.
It bothers me that the "old guard" is so set against giving them education and opportunity. They are like a bunch of spoiled children afraid that they might have to share some of their toys. They live for the bottom line and are as ruthless with the environment as they are with their fellow Americans.
And "we," the ones who work for a living, mostly, don't stand up to do anything about it. When you need money, you do what the people writing the checks tell you to do.
The result, for me, is depression, resignation, desire for distraction. (And there is plenty of distraction.)
Just sayin, and just noticing.
It is a hard choice to make, but maybe the cure is to risk everything again for the next generation.
The recent marches in New York drawing attention to climate change and the need to respond are one indicator that people may be waking up. I say more of that.
Here's to the thrill of waking up and putting it on the line.
Thursday, September 25, 2014
The blinking lights on my bike do little to discourage cars from passing so close I can feel the wind blast made by their mirrors as they fly by.
Big pick-ups are the worst, and I think their drivers are acting out some kind of bike commuter phobia when they cut it so close.
The sun is not quite up, but the eastern sky has grown light enough to see the debris in the bike lane.
I am on my way to work and have seven miles to cover. It is still hot, even though we are several days into fall. Sweat runs off the brim of my cap visor.
Sweat will also soak through my shirt that I change into to teach. My students don't mind too much -- just as long as they don't have to sit next to me.
After the morning classes I will work on the course web site, grade papers, record attendance, and get ready for the next meeting.
The meeting, of course, is about planning and assessment. Always and forever assessment. It's the mantra of modern teaching, and I spend more time dealing with reports, evaluations, and assessment than I do teaching.
We here in the teaching world are fanatical about assessment, about data, about drilling into the data to better assess what we are doing, which we do less and less of because of the time we spend on assessment.
In the meeting we will pass papers around and look at the Likert scales and then make changes so we can then compare the Likert scales with the new, improved curriculum.
We don't talk much about teaching.
We don't talk much about students.
We don't talk much about class size, funding, wages, the decline in interest in the teaching profession.
But we do talk assessment.
Can't wait for that next meeting.
Monday, September 22, 2014
My family passed a landmark recently. We collectively took on different roles: parents became empty-nesters, sons became graduates, workers, travelers, young, semi-independent adults. We changed geographical locations, got new jobs, broadened horizons.
It has been exciting to stretch, for the most part, but with stretching comes tension. The new and unfamiliar comes with challenges, doing things differently, meeting and engaging with limitations.
My son Sean calls these limits comfort zones. That works for many situations, but each of us is entering territory that has been a bit charged emotionally, or it has been avoided, or is somehow contrary to how we traditionally "identify" ourselves.
When a person moves in the direction of something personally difficult, a shadow if you will, that person goes to meet a demon.
I respect deeply the courage needed not to turn away from something avoided or disowned or out of balance. That, my friends, is hard, real work.
Each member of my beloved family has taken a path that puts them on course to encounter a demon.
Megan has a new, hard job. She drives seventy miles a day to teach at a school in the Zuni Pueblo. The work is demanding, overladen with paperwork.The hours are long. She is living alone, without running water, in a remote part of New Mexico.
But more than this she is learning not to be "the star," to just do a good job, and to live withing limits of time and energy. That is very hard for her. There is more, much more, but she has taken on the challenge and deals with high levels of anxiety, frustration, and exhaustion.
Sean is in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru. He is alone as well, for the first time in his life, and is learning the lessons of solitude. He reflects on his privilege as an American abroad. The territory is new and uncomfortable.
Kyle is in San Diego and is meeting demons of his own. He goes door-to-door selling solar power to home owners. This is a young man who refused to read a poem to his school, even when threatened by his principal. He keeps his own council and would prefer to be left alone.
He is learning how to talk to strangers, to listen, to empathize, to put them at ease as he presents ways to use cleaner energy.
I am left without the distractions of family life and live alone. I have to look at how I avoid doing my job, how, now that I can, I have forgotten what it was I wanted to do. I am drifting and have to reinvent myself.
The script I live by is an old one and has to do with holding oneself back, always busy with what has been left undone, but avoiding really getting the work done.
I guess you could call this work psychological growth. Or maybe the human curriculum.
I can't explain why, but I keep coming back to it, find it very important, and see that something like my soul hangs in the balance.
I cannot overstate how much I respect my partner and sons for taking on the hard work of growing as people. I have to say I would like to see more of it, and more work in the world because of it.
Rather than list just worldly, financial, or physical achievements (all wonderful), I would like family communication like Christmas cards to report how we have met our demons, pushed beyond comfort zones, become more balanced, more energetic, more integrated, less egotisitical human beings.
To be in a family that shares that desire is more than I could have dreamed.
Wednesday, September 17, 2014
As the sun rises over the mountains to the east, the sky above her darkens. Clouds from the south and west take over the horizon as a tropical storm makes its way over the desert.
Some call the coming rain a chubasco, or big monsoon, usually fueled by a Pacific hurricane or tropical storm. These storms can bring five or more inches of rain -- half of what the desert normally gets in a year -- over a single day.
Too much of a good thing will mean erosion, muddy washes, and dangerous flash floods.
She will spend the day walking between classes at the university with storms in her head to match the one moving in.
Her storm is an old one. It's more a rain of words than water and goes way back.
The darkness matches her mood as she makes her way across campus. It gathers in the corners of unfinished business in the alleys and niches of her mind. What if they discover what she has done? The migrants she ferried to Tucson in the middle of the night along that four-wheel-drive track out by Arivaca, lights off, undiscovered by Border Patrol, might talk if they are detained.
That's the chance she agreed to take when she started this business, the voluntary defiance of law. And she, so law abiding, has always felt a sting of betrayal. And the boyfriend who wanted no part in it, who left her, what about him?
She feels a stab of regret, of fear, but marches ahead to the next class, unable to share the secret demons in her mind.
All that has been left undone, unsaid, unearthed reaches out a beggar's hand.
She hopes that the rain washes away the mud of summer, that it rinses and cleans the air.
What she does not know is that the storm won't arrive, that she will be left without distraction from the insistent voices. They will persist and she will carry them with her while she navigates her day.
Where is the rain? Where is the release from the heat of summer?
She knows that she will have to return, that there are more who need her help.
It would be so nice, though, she thinks, to just have a few moments of relief.
Saturday, September 6, 2014
If I were a cat I would be glad when my human came home after almost three months away. I would follow him around, not unlike a dog, and extend my right front paw, offering a "high five" when he came home from work.
I would love him and give him presents.
I would bring in creatures from the wilds of the back yard.
Desert spiny lizards would be my specialty.
I would pick out the fattest, most colorful, handsome, and sassy of the species and bring them into the living room. While he watches the News Hours for coverage of ebola outbreaks and ISIL atrocities, I would fling them into the air, swat them on the way down, and then wait for them to run across the tile to refuge beneath the couch.
I would look at him with an expression of "Wasn't that great?"
He might try to ignore it all, but that would become difficult at night when he hears me jump onto the bed with a muffled "mmmmrrroww," because I have a very live and healthy mouse in my mouth.
I would let him know it's time to wake up and play.
The mouse, of course, would go under the covers and hide beneath his legs or run desperately across his face or leap blindly into space off the bed closely followed by me in hot pursuit.
I would find it all thrilling, and I would know he does too, even if he pretends to sleep.
When he gets up in the morning, I would be ready for a day-long nap on my cat perch.
He would search the bed for the mouse, grab it when it sits still, and return it to the back yard. I don't know why or understand, but that's just the way he is.
Sometimes they try to fight and escape. They are suprisingly strong, like they have been doing pilates every night with me in the back yard.
As I drifted off to sleep with a Cheshire smile on my face, I would want him to have as good a day as I had a night.
He is strange, but I would accept him, even when I don't understand, if I were his cat.
Monday, September 1, 2014
Dr. Isabelle Stelmahoske was my freshman English teacher. That class was 40 years ago, but it lingers with me today and has colored my career as a teacher of writing.
That class, like many first-year comp classes at the time, was decidedly expressivist. We wrote personal essays. Dr. Stelmahoske wrote more reader response comments than directive or prescriptive, and I was smitten with the work of the course.
Despite being a non-writer, I began keeping a journal, recording days snow-shoeing off campus and climbing trips to Devil's Lake. My life suddenly became the subject of record and reflection. I began to observe closely, to think and to carry a pen with me wherever I went.
We read Donald Hall's Writing Well and talked in class about each others' writing. I read about the different effects that word choice can produce, the difference between, for example, "dishwater blonde," and "strawberry blonde," the difference between an abstract, lazy platitude like "education is paramount," to "I don't know what I will do now that I made it to college or why I worked so hard to get here."
Both Hall and Dr. S. used our interests in our own lives to contextualize and then teach craft, how we could become agents in shaping our own narratives.. Because I was interested in finding out what I thought, I was also interested in improving how I presented my observations and ruminations. Dr. S. seemed genuinely interested in what we had to say, and conveyed the message that what we had to say was worth a reader's attention. She was what I would later call "student-centered."
I began to see how I was shaped by personal, family, cultural, religious, and political "stories." I came to college with a vague and conservative belief that my own privilege, social hierarchies, and power relations were all somehow "natural," that what I saw on TV and read in Time or Newsweek was "true."
I did not see discourse as written; it was just received.
I switched from a major in forestry to English and began to make a life out of words. I saw that mine was a life made of story and that I was the narrator.
When I transferred to the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the drama of the personal enlarged to include social history. Brilliant teachers like Harvey Goldberg pulled back the curtain of obfuscating ideologies. The stories that ran my life grew from being personal to being cultural, social, and political. What I had taken at face value for truth became suspect. The stories being disseminated about the nobility of US foreign policy became cynical fabrications that supported dictatorships and undercut popular organizing.
A brain specialist might say my frontal cortex was forming enough to handle more complex "formal operations," that I was ready for a higher level of concept load and theory. That may be true, but I also see an organic progression from personal interest to engaged social empathy.
Whatever the cause, "expository" writing made more sense to me than it had before. The aversion I had to it began to subside and it became a living, elegant, necessary form of writing rather than the mere academic exercise it had been in high school. I could see my place in it, had an investment in it, using the parlance of market economy.
I would not have been ready for this during my first semester at college, yet it was what I am asked to do as a teacher of writing at my current university.
What I am saying is that I feel (yes, I know that is subjective, anecdotal) that I am skipping a step, that my students lack some of the personal engagement I acquired from Dr. S.
I prefer to ask my students to look at how literacy has played a role in helping them to expose the roles that images, sounds, words and narrative shape them, their identities, beliefs, values, how understanding the shapes of stories, how they can revise these stories, how doing so empowers (yes, another dated word) them.
Friends who know brain research tell me that the frontal cortex "lights up" whenever humans want to work on a particular problem. Desire is a funny thing, but may just be the missing link between student engagement and academic writing courses.
Thursday, August 28, 2014
In Rome, Italy, 1976, American citizens -- even those with meager means, no prospects, and sharp, critical tongues -- were invited to the American Emabassy for a bicentennial, July 4th party.
After presenting my passport and walking through the gates (guarded by soldiers with automatic weapons) I joined my fellow revelers.
Most of them were insiders, decidedly East Coast Ivy League types, but a few were like me and there for the food.
It has never ceased to amaze me that so many Americans have so much money. In gatherings like this, everyone seems to be floating on fortunes, fortunes that open doors and make dreaming about what you want to be and where you want to go as natural as breathing.
Now, there is a myth that all Americans get to do that because dreams don't cost anything.
Well, they don't cost anything until you try to realize them. Then they tend to cost plenty.
So, as I talked with my fellow misfits, those of us tolerated for a day before being locked out, it occurred to me that I had not written my girlfriend of the time, Claudia, a letter for a long time.
I had been traveling around Europe for two months at that point and thought about her often, but had not actually sat down and sent her a letter.
I felt bad.
It may have been the guilt of not writing and the need to make it right, the opulent surroundings, the good wine, the clever talk, or something else, but I wrote a great letter.
It was funny, romantic, informative, intellectually engaging, emotionally gratifying, with only mildly annoying penmanship.
I sent it that night, an Aerogram, and dreamed of Claudia reading it back in Wisconsin, picturing me vagabonding in Europe, her picture next to my heart, and seeing a version of me that I could never really attain.
Then, in my visions of return home, I saw her running toward me, tears in her eyes, letter in her hand, certain beyond any doubt that I taken hold of life in its least compromised form, had captured a moment on the page, had lain the first brick of a long and rewarding career in letters.
Well, it didn't turn out that way.
When I got back to Wisconsin, Claudia was gone to Sri Lanka doing a semester abroad. Her trip may have been more interesting and exotic than mine.
I got a job harvesting tobacco and waited for her to return.
When she did, she looked different, more stunning even than before, with eyes that saw something far beyond me when she looked at me.
After hearing about trip and watching her dance Sri Lancan dance, and giving re-entry enough time to settle, I asked her about the letter.
"What letter?" she said.
"The one I mailed you from Italy, the one that was the best writing I would ever do, the one that his all the right notes," I answered, puzzled.
"Oh, it must have gone down with the mail boat that was torpedoed by the Tamil Tigers while I was there," She mused.
It took a while for that to sink in.
My letter was at the bottom of the Indian Ocean.
"But you can tell me what was in it," she offered. "Yes, now I want to know. If it was so good, surely you can recreate it."
Well, I did my best. It went pretty well, judging from her response.
I don't remember what I was able to compose from those fragments of memory, but the revision may have been better than the original.
I have heard that some writers write a draft and then lock it up or shred it so that only the strong parts make it the next draft.
That may be true, but it is scary. I want that letter at the bottom of an ocean to be what I thought it was, that it might stand as a testimony to a magic moment, that it might survive the gauntlet of time, might never be tarnished or misplaced.
Tuesday, August 26, 2014
The baggy pants and Hawaiian shirts are bad enough, but the garish socks put him over the top. You could say he is clueless, out of step, counter-hip, or cloddish, but he was just born in a barn when it comes to early adopting of technology and post-modern style.
And it's not just style that he struggles with. He can't seem to get the whole digital thing. As a teacher, this is a problem, given the 21st century is well under way.
The list here is long: his course web sites are a desert -- empty, sweeping vistas of open sky with only an occasional lizard to indicate life at all. He doesn't have a smart phone, so gets emails way too late if at all. When his printer jams or runs out of toner, he has to call for help. He doesn't chat, Tweet, Instagram, or sext.
He is a throwback dweeb and invisible exile from cyber space and the world wide web.
But the worst of it is his socks. They don't match and are bright colors: red, blue, green, and, worst of all, purple. Plus he wears them with sandals. Sandals!
So, what to do with this?
Maybe time and the lack of cyber literacy will decide for him.
Saturday, August 23, 2014
I am trying. I really am.
The new on-line class web platform is just a problem I have to solve. The new emphasis on capturing data and then drilling down into it is just another way of improving teaching. The younger, faster, brighter new hires are just colleagues I need to get to know. My new office is just a stack of boxes that needs unpacking. The new academia is just another iteration of my chosen profession.
But it all eludes me, and I am having trouble keeping up, getting into the groove, mastering the lingo, joining the team.
And they are a great team -- wonderfully open, bright, focused people.
But I feel like I am playing the game left-handed, blindfolded, hobbled. The old dog studies the new trick instructions while wearing reading glasses, but seeing the words isn't always understanding what they say.
Scene One: I am set to present to a group of new graduate student teachers. While "on deck" I notice that the person presenting before me is doing the exact same presentation that I have planned. Our handouts are identical, verbatim copies of each other.
It is my work that has been out floating around the teaching circles for a few years. The presenter just picked up the ideas and decided to go with them.
Scene Two: I have been asked to explain the new plagiarism procedures at the General Meeting, a gathering of all the Writing Program teachers. It's a pretty big audience.
So I write up a script for a role play dramatizing how to deal with a plagiarism case. I add a soundtrack for both comic and dramatic effect. I am poised to present.
Just as I am about to take the stage, I am told my skit is too long and that it has to be cancelled so PowerPoints can take the stage.
Next, I get into a discussion about how much I will be using my course website for real-time chats, paper downloading, grading, streaming video, how much, in other words, I will switch the students' attention from face-to-face interaction in the real classroom to on-line screen gazing.
I say I don't plan to use it much and watch as the eyes of the person I am talking to glaze over and look away. He has not looked me in the eye during our entire conversation. I don't feel much human contact.
The days of preparation and orientation pass slowly as the first day of classes approaches.
I feel out of sync.
I see the pull of the new teaching. I know that change is constant and inevitable. Change also implies casualties, the old ways sloughed off like dead skin. I don't know how teachable I am in these new times.
So I use pen and paper to plan my next sessions. I am not one with the multi modal classroom, don't have a vision for it, and fear that I will fall farther behind as the new world accelerates.
Monday, August 18, 2014
The brim of the storm stretched from horizon to horizon. Its shadow changed the bright, August afternoon into an eerie dusk.
A gray curtain of rain swept dust in front of it as the storm advanced across the open valley.
This was going to big one I thought to myself as I pressed on the accelerator in the hope of delaying our meeting, of running just a little ahead of the growing monster.
The gray mass grew larger and larger in the mirror as the shadow of the storm overtook me.
I was headed south from Show Low toward the Salt River Canyon in the central Arizona highlands. The steep grades covered with runoff would make descending hazardous. The low visibility would make the going slow.
I did not know how bad it was going to get.
When the storm hit, the world changed. Streaks of lightning lit the clouds, stabbed at the ridges. There was no radio in the area, but even if there were, I could not hear it for the roar of rain on the roof, the wind. Hail began drumming on the roof and windshield. Some of the stones were about an inch in diameter and I thought the windshield was going to break, that the steel roof and hood would be pocked with dents.
Nothing to do about it. No place to hide.
The road cuts ran with chocolate water falls. Boulders fell into the road and I had to swerve to avoid them. Rivulets ran brown and thick with mud across the road. Wiper blades slapped furiously but were unable to keep up with the buckets of water pouring on the windshield. The little car hydroplaned a few times. I had to slow and to put the flashers on.
I was one of the few who kept driving. A copper ingot-hauling semi kept a good pace on the downhills and I used his lights as a guide. Cars that had passed me near Show Low when the weather was clear were now huddling in pull-outs with hazard lights blinking.
Fair weather speeders in their monster trucks knew better than to keep going.
The din and darkness lasted from the Mogollon Rim down to south of Oracle, easily the longest storm I have ever driven through in Arizona.
Squalls of hail and wind taunted me on the steep, narrow, winding highway past Globe. Just when it seemed to let up, it started again, with greater fury.
I just kept going.
Then, I came out the other side. Pusch Ridge north of Tucson was lit with the setting sun.
It was hot, muggy, quiet, and lovely.
Behind me, the storm was petering out, but still dark gray, almost purple in its waning threat.
Cocky sportsmen in their lifted pick-ups headed up the hill toward the Gila River. I hoped they would get a taste of the natural intensity I had been through. They would not tail gate so much if they did.
I stopped for gas next to a guy with a mini van. He seemed so distracted, so complacent. He had no idea what was on the other side of the ridge, that there were landslides, flash floods, deafening wind.
He didn't know and he didn't care.
He could not see into my mind, just as I could not see into his.
So much of this worldly experience lies hidden from view, from those who pass so close we can feel their breath.
No words could convey the ringing still in my ears, the adrenaline still pumping through my veins.
Friday, August 15, 2014
Wind, duration, and intensity of northern New Mexico thunderstorms make driving in downtown Gallup just a bit dicey.
People forget how to to drive and careen into each other with alarming frequency.
It happened to me a couple of weeks ago.
The collision was unremarkable and no one was hurt. My truck, however, was disabled, maybe permanently. As I surveyed the damage, I searched for the right verb to capture the type of collision. It wasn't a "head-on," or a "side-swipe," or "rear-end," or a "fender-bender," (all good words with lively sounds). It came to me after a few moments: "t-bone." I had been "t-boned."
I was swept away with sadness looking at my injured companion after I found the word. But that's another story.
How and why the other driver and I came together is one of those mysteries. Why the intersection of Coal and Fifth? Why this day? This time?
Like a billiard game or pinball or any scene in motion, contact resets life's trajectory.
Mine, for example, had to be reset to accommodate the lack of motorized transportation. I could not return to work in Tucson on schedule or haul supplies for the house project.
I had to adapt to this revised cast of possibilities.
My extended stay made some things possible that would not have been possible otherwise.
I got to rest and do some art and hang with friends.
As chance would have it, I returned to the intersection a few days later. My friend, who was driving, thought it would be good to check out a local bar, that a trip to town might cheer me up after losing my truck. He did not know where my accident had happened, what kind of collision it was, or any of the details. Nor did he know that I very seldom eat meat or go to bars.
He just thought it would be fun to show me some of the sights in Gallup after a mountain bike ride.
I was surprised when he parked right at the fateful intersection.
I said nothing about it as we walked over the Coal Street Pub. He wanted to treat for lunch. I would buy the beer and gas for the trip. Since he was treating, he got to pick the food, which he said was a local, Gallup specialty.
As an omnivore who just likes to eat, I was game for anything.
We ordered our beers, Marble Red Ales and talked about how strange life is sometimes, that there are inexplicable coincidences, like seeing a neighbor across the street in a European town thousands of miles from home, or finding just the right book in a library when you stop to browse the shelves.
I confessed that since the accident, I had been finding things that I had been looking for in odd places and strange times. For example, I needed a news clipping for a piece I was writing, and could not find it until I was cleaning windows and saw some paper between the panes. I pulled it out, and it was the article.
How did it get there?
All well and good, I thought. It's just random chance, and we are random billiard balls careening off in a random life.
Right on cue the food came. It was the special of the day: t-bone. Rare.