Thursday, January 30, 2014

A Russian Dust-Up Over Poetry *

Two guys are drinking vodka in an ice-fishing hut in Novosibirsk, Siberia. The cast iron, pot-bellied stove hums away in the corner, a domesticated volcano of heat. The men are in shirt sleeves, sweating from both the drink and the heat as sub-zero winds howl outside through the pines. A wolf sends up a lonely and plaintive cry in the distance.

"Prose is the only real literature," Igor says to his drunken mate, Ivan. He is thinking of his kind and generous prose-loving mother and his critical, emotionally unavailable poetry-quoting father.

The hut goes unnaturally silent as the words sink in. Ivan, an unrepentant poet, retired sharp-shooter, ex literature teacher simmers on his fishing stool.

"What's that you said?" asks Ivan. "I'm not sure I caught your last sentence." His eyes are red, his gaze suddenly hard as the tungsten being mined in the nearby mountains.

"I said, prose is the only real literature," repeats Igor, his hand tightening on his grimy, half-full vodka glass.

"That's what I thought you said, but I didn't believe a man could utter such an idiocy as that."

Ivan, in a reverie, remembers his essay collection, The Treatments of Rosebud, and how the book was taken from him when he was placed in an orphanage when he was ten. The bullies there all read poetry. 

Now it is Igor's turn to be silent. The heat within him rises, his blood boiling, as the stove crackles and hisses, a menacing red furnace light shining between the iron grates.

"Tolstoy. Dostoevsky. Turgenev. All prose writers, the only literature of any consequence to come out of the Motherland."

"Wasted words. Long blathering farts that say little, have no elegance."

"Better than pansy-sniffing pussies who work for weeks on a phrase that no one can understand."

"At least they think about what they are saying, combine beauty with form and thought, get at truths prose writers only imitate, the lazy blow-hards."

"But prose writers like women, and get into fights... They throw their characters in front of trains."

"Like I said: crude, inelegant bastards."

Igor tightens his grip and prepares to leap at his attacker, quadriceps tightening. He looks to the wall, where his shotgun hangs on pegs.

Ivan feels in his pocket for a knife, ready to spring, the blade locked in a single flourish of his thumb.

A blast of arctic wind hits the hut like a hammer blow and Ivan is the first to his feet. A quick lunge and he has impaled Igor with his high carbon blade.

The door is open before Igor hits the floor and Ivan runs for his life into the searing and bitter wind.

He knows he was right.

A fish takes the bait and the pole in the hut tips up, but no one is there to reel in the catch.

* Actual event, dramatized here because I could not resist. Here's a link to a news article about it:,0,4059892.story 

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Growing Into a New Skin

Snakes shed their skin every year or so. I continue to wonder at the fact of that -- their skins hanging in dry husks in the back yard, usually hooked on a thorn or sharp branch.

Their bodies got too big for the confines of old limits and literally split the seams of the boundary that defined them, protected them, held the dangerous world at bay. 

I imagine this to be a painful process.

Put yourself in the mind of a reptile, your body stretching and expanding against the confines of your largest, quite sensitive organ. Like being born, you have no choice but to engage in a peristaltic surging against a suffocating membrane.

That's gotta hurt.

But there is a payoff to all that twisting down something like a birth canal.

The scales have more definition, brightness, luster. I imagine that the snakes breath a little easier, having slipped the pinching girdle on their younger selves. 

I feel like my skin is too small these days. I am running on empty, short-tempered, irritable, snarky. It feels like I am going to die. I can't go on like this. The incessant sniping by those who want a piece of me is overwhelming.

But this death is less a literal one than it is a death to the limits of the old ways of seeing and being. Like a seed that falls to the ground and dies to become something else, a living, breathing, photosynthesizing plant, some deaths are part of growth.

Something in me has gotten too big for the britches that contain, confine, and limit the boundaries of who I am.

There may be a new, fresh, clean, and shining soul-self on the other side of the split seams.

It's just so damned hard to get there, to let go of that old, dry, skin that has served me for so long.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Never-Ending Benefits of Going for the Add Shot (Dedicated to the Folks at the Ancient Way)

"For an extra sixty cents you can add a shot of premium espresso -- fresh-ground, special roast, and pulled with real care," she said.

"And this will work better to wake me up, help me with my day?" I asked.

"Sure will. In fact you will get done today what you usually do in a week."

"Will I not get drowsy, even after writing twenty supervisory reports?"

"They will write themselves. All you have to do is think about recurring themes in poetry and how you might best put them into words that no editor could resist."

"And the papers I have to grade, what about them?"

"They will turn into hundred dollar bills that just keep multiplying."

"And the income disparity between teachers and higher ups... What about that?"

""They will see the value of your work and raise your wage, give you back pay, and then send you on a tour for your upcoming book. In fact all people who work for a living will receive fair pay and healthy working conditions. The more a person labors for the good, the more dignity she will have in the eyes of others."

"There is a bike race this weekend. I always come in last place."

"Get ready to fist-pump the sky, stand on the podium, and radiate physical prowess, the musk of success."

"But my dad has Parkinson's and my sons are worried about the world waiting for them after college."

"They will have cures and meaningful, rich lives -- full of satisfaction and love, maybe a Nobel Prize."

"What about the barrel bombs, drowning migrants, and the bullets flying over innocent kids caught in the crossfire?"

"Food, jobs, medicine, housing, and higher standards of living all are on the way."

"And the darkness at the end, where all is given up and I have to answer for all my petty ingratitude and self-destructive mistakes?"

"I've got connections and have already put in a word."

"Will I be free and full of joy for the rest of my days?"

A nod.

"Cross my heart."

Friday, January 24, 2014

Inmate Released

J. is out. Out of prison, that is.

After many years behind bars, the long-term member of the writing workshop was waiting for me outside my university writing class yesterday.

The man I was used to seeing on the yard was standing there in his government-issue jeans, flannel shirt, and starchy new black baseball cap, smiling. His sharp gaze, the perceptive eyes of an intellectual, musician, writer, one-time film student shone through self-consciousness. He looked uncomfortable in his new duds, but not at all like the prison type. He does not wear the sleeves and ink so often the mark of time in prison.

Neither of us could believe it. I brought him into the class and introduced him to students who were packing up, already off to their next class or job or other commitment.

I stood there between two worlds -- the world of university teaching and prison workshop. I could not reconcile them.

A lot has changed since he was first locked up. He has culture shock. He responds by trying harder, speaking a bit too fast, trying to anticipate the next phrase, thought, idea.

He wants to work, to have some purpose, to be left alone, to do something good.  He wants to shake off the con life, meet new people.

He doesn't know how to get there from here.

This free world is baffling, frustrating, strange. J. looks at things the way they are.

I wish I could help him. 

We talked about possible projects, jobs he might do. I said I would help him look for a place, and maybe some handyman work. I did not know if anything would come of my queries.

His life right now is the limbo of half-way houses, parole officers, and bureaucratic wrangling.

He walks a lot and has large blisters from the trips between the house and public health-care, social security, and reporting to overseers.

It's a life that saps confidence, that waits for a mess-up, a miss-step.

Prison looms over him, follows him everywhere.

The odds are stacked against him, but it is his life to make.

Freedom can be terrifying.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Where's the Story? (Rough Draft)

It has taken me over fifty years, but I think I am finally getting it.

I get my share of unsolicited emails with links to videos of dare devils flying of ramps into pools many hundreds of yards away, doing stunts that boggle the limits of what is possible, amazing and stupid things both.

I like this stuff, laugh at it, am amazed by it, but find that I feel empty in spite of all the hoopla and thrill.

I finally realized that much of the "stuff" I pay attention to is just action or clever one-liners or cat videos. There is no theme, no psychological tension, no realization, or shift in perspective.

There is no insight into much of anything beyond adrenaline. It's the cotton candy of the mind.

It's everywhere.

We warm our hands around the LCD fire and share the physical exploits of our brothers and sisters, but there is no drama, no insight into the human condition, no confrontation between tired, old ways of doing things and the need to grow up.

We're in a stage of arrested development, medicating with silly videos that have no real story.

I have done the same things for years in my writing. I paint elaborate scenes and put characters in motion doing what I think are engaging actions.

But the ideas, the core, the story has been missing.

Not surprising, given the diet of candy that passes for entertainment on the internet.

There is a place for all of it -- the thrill, the titillation, the amazement. And a steady diet of it gets old and shallow.

Time to look somewhere else, now that I know what I'm after.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Riding to Work in the Bike Lane

I am commuting to work on my stealthy, flat-black cruiser bike when a big SUV slows next to me. Yes, I am riding on the stripe that separates my space from that of cars.

I turn my gaze toward the rolling mountain of fumes and iron -- which happens to be dangerously close, in spite of a wide car lane and open left-hand turn lane -- just as the driver rolls the window down.

“Hey! Why don’t you move over to the curb?”

Before I can answer, the luxury SUV speeds up; the window zips shut; and I am left only with a half-baked answer on the tip of my tongue and the noxious gas fumes.

I want to tell her that I was riding the line because there was broken glass in the bike lane. 

I wanted to tell her that I have to swerve around branches (mesquite, palo verde, and more pernicious prickly pear, ocotillo, cholla, and other tire penetrators), car mufflers, discarded, ripe diapers, galvanized pipe, bungee cords, baseball caps, big rocks, small rocks, and, one time, an entire toilet. 

There are also the dead animals and the live animals – skunks, bull snakes, pack rats, all in varying stages of sinking into the pavement, the bald guy with his put bull that is straining against its leash to get at me, growling, the pajama clad grandma who nods as I go by and gives me a wink, the middle-school kids walking three abreast sharing a stolen smoke, and, once, a coyote loping along side me. Green eyes. Hungry looking.

There are more, many more. I won't bother you with the complete, exhaustive list.

They are all there in the history of these commutes, my companions of the routine road to work. That history teaches me to ride the line, the line between the clutter of the bike lane and the relatively clear road of cars.

But I know I could not put all of this into a quick answer for the driver, so I just drop the unrequited response and continue my commute. 

I will have to be faster next time, but I doubt the driver really wanted an answer. 

Thursday, January 16, 2014


Another full moon.

So many full moons.

They climb into the night only to sit on the horizon as I snake my way through the hustle of early traffic. A motor cycle splits the silence, bare knuckles on a wood bar. Look at me.

I want to look at the moon.

I watch as it settles onto the sleeping woman of a ridge and then sinks. Gone.

Last night I sat alone for a drink, the beer aptly named Blue Moon. It came with a slice of orange.

I ate the pulpy flesh and considered the rind as a basketball game played on a big screen. The game was muted and the players sliced up and down the court in silence, like they were under water.

So young, fast, and strong. Their bodies and passion for winning our entertainment.

The moon shone through a window.

I thought I might eat the rind, bitter as shoe leather.

But only rolled it into a tight knot, a token of despair, and left it in the glass before walking out into the cold bath of moonlight.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Decline in Function

I am forgetting things.

The usual stuff of reading glasses, keys, where I parked the truck has escalated to stuff like forgetting my volunteer pass at the Main Gate when I enter the prison to do the writing workshops.

They had to bring it to me at the gate to one of the units last Saturday. Without that ID, I cannot leave the prison. Not so smart. Should pay more attention.


Yes it's getting bad. I forget where I am going when I run errands, suddenly lose my orientation in cross-town traffic, and draw blanks with names and words that used to be second nature.

Second nature -- that automatic, hard working capacity to just go without thinking -- is declining. Maybe it has already declined and I am just waking up to the fact.

My horizons are narrowing. I don't see as far into my array of multi-tasking as I used to. I can manage just a few things in the here and now. Forget anything like planning. What's that?

Reading anything beyond novels and essays is slow and onerous.

It takes so much work to focus. I force myself to follow the train of thought in meetings and on the news. I notice that I have less passion for abstract issues. I have a harder and harder time getting worked up about anything.

And I am low, probably depressed, almost all the time. My affect leads to my not wanting to do things I have to do for my job. The administrative stuff of report writing, spread-sheet filling, web site setting up, making lists, keeping track of minutiae all make me just short of catatonic.

I feel like I should be doing something else.

All I want to do is ride my bike, spend time with friends, eat, and do creative stuff.

Forgive my vagueness, but I want to make something out of this life. I want that thing to endure, a kind of amalgam of what I have learned that might serve others. I want to believe that what I did with this life made a difference (a good difference). Time and ability may be shorter than I thought.

I am either entering early dementia or turning a corner into a new phase of life -- the late-life, contemplative, final phase.

Soon, I will have to admit that I need help, or at least some kind of diagnosis. Tomorrow I go in for an all day cognitive test. I'll learn something from that, whether this is neurological or psychological at the least. From there I'll have to decide what to do, where to go.

Whatever the outcome, I need to cultivate a simpler life. That or let people who rely on me down, big time. 

If I don't quit, I'll likely be laid off or fired soon.

This aging is a hell of a thing.

Is this the fall of the mind or the rising of the soul? Or both?

I hope the test will tell.

My wings are ready when the time comes.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Dodged a Bullet

I was arrested a while back, like way back. Some of the charges were respectable -- trespassing, public intoxication, disorderly conduct -- but one of them was embarrassing. It was indecent exposure.

The charge was thrown out by the DA, but there it is on my permanent record.

Some people think I'm a perv, or worse.

Images of a guy in a trench coat flashing passers by on a dark street come to mind.

I am here to say that all I did was skinny-dip and that someone saw me dive into a pool. I did flash an unintentional moon. Sorry about that.

It happened on a road trip from Wisconsin to San Francisco, and we had stopped in Steamboat Springs to camp near the hot springs for a few days. It was September and an early snowstorm sent us to town seeking warmth and a fresh jug of wine.

We decided to take advantage of a sauna near the pool of one of the local hotels. I have never been accused of being the sharpest tool in the shed.

So there I was, lying on my back on the hot bench of the sauna, having just returned from a snowy dip in the pool when the door swung open and two burly Steamboat cops let the cold air in. I was shrunken, shriveled, and bum rushed to the waiting squad car, cowboy hat and handcuffs only.

My girlfriends got to get dressed and came in a second car with much more dignity. 

When I think back on it, things could have gone very bad.

While the cops were booking me, they were talking Colorado work farms. They saw my long hair, scruffy beard, beat-up blue jeans, my cocky attitude. They had me convicted and sent up the river before they finished the finger printing.

They even read my charges: "You, Erec Toso, did unlawfully and intentionally expose your GENtiles (yes, gentiles, not the other word) to so-and-so...."

That's a serious charge with big implications, implications that would have made life tough. Flashers are technically sex offenders, a label that does not earn many friends in prison. Getting charged is bad enough; getting convicted would have been bad, worse than bad, and would likely have altered the trajectory of my life.

I doubt that I would have ever been able to teach or have been eligible for scholarships or financial aid.

The coulda, mighta, maybes are frightening to behold.

So, what made the difference between going down and getting sprung?


That, and a dash of good-ole-white-boy cronyism. 

When the booking cops found out I had traveler's checks enough to post bond, I was suddenly a new person. Rather than a depraved criminal, I was a thrill-seeking college kid tourist capable of supporting the local economy.

The whole incident became a funny, frivolous, and forgivable episode of smirks and back-slapping. Stupid too. I was a guy sowing wild oats with some beautiful young women. An eccentric child of privilege traveling with females of even greater privilege.

Suffice it to say that the lesson was not lost on me. The justice system is rigged, and if you are poor, it's ready and waiting to bring you down. If you can't read or write, so much the worse. If you get angry you are given the maximum sentence. If you are brown or black you're already guilty.

Yes, privilege carries weight. It speaks to authority. It puts one on the protected side of things. You get the benefit of the doubt. You get charges dismissed.

Don't think I'm going to forget.

Neither are the potential employers doing a background check.

Oh well, camping under bridges isn't so bad....

Monday, January 6, 2014

Desire in Profile

The cat stretches to rest its paws against his chest. A man sits at the head of the bed, a hot cup of coffee in his hand. The cat issues a plea that blends a purring trill with a mew. She looks at him. He knows she wants her food bowl filled. Now.

But he doesn't want to move. It is still dark, a Saturday, and January cold. His lover holds him, her thumb and finger looped around him at the root of his desire, a meditation mudra encircling heat and blood. He caresses her cheek, hoping that she will wake enough to move her hand with more purpose. The coffee goes down easy, if bitter, and sits there in his stomach, a chemical burn.

She floats in and out of sleep, only vaguely aware that he is touching her. She is warm, between his legs, her head pillowed by a thick thigh. She dreams of landscaping -- berms, tree trunks, transplanted succulents, boulders, metal sculpture -- and knows that she will need his help. She wants him to want to help, to share her love of xeriscape.

The cat rises again, this time a bit more insistently, and extends her claws through his T-shirt. She mews, redux, with a hint of urgency.

When she sits next to him, he looks at her. She at him. She wraps her tail around her front paws, as elegant as a Japanese water color.

He takes another sip from his cup as he runs his finger softly along his lover's cheek, then traces her jaw. She stirs and tightens the loop of finger and thumb. He grows. She slips back into a dozing snore.

The last of the coffee has cooled, but is still strong. He savors the dregs.

The cat, insistent, utters her b-r-r-r-r-t.

He extracts himself from her touch and swings his leg out from beneath her, lifting and swinging the quilt off of him. He swivels out of bed, walks to the bowl, cat at his heels, wife dreaming the dreams  of gardens.

The cat waits as he delivers the aromatic kibble to a waiting, empty bowl.