Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Letter to Claudia

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

Anachronism, Incongruity, Flagrant Fashion Offender

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

Trying to Get Back On a Saddle That Doesn't Fit

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.

No problem.

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

Nobody Knows

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?

No idea. 

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.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Workin' It

I went over two months without a "real", i.e. indoor, shower this summer. To say living and working fifty miles from groceries, hardware, medical, and TV was "rustic" would be an understatement. For most of the time I had no phone service, no internet, no radio, no media to speak of.

It was great.

I got more in tune with the rhythms of the sun, moon, wind, rain, body, brain, emotions.

And I am exhausted. I did the work of a younger man, and pushed my brain to learn electricity, plumbing, propane, trenching, well operation, carpentry, sheetrock, check writing, and lots of patience.

One car died when an engine blew up. Another one died when it was "t-boned" in an intersection. The well house flooded. Megan struggled with a new job and the anxiety, fatigue, and overwhelm that goes with it. I have no money in the bank.

I missed my cat.

There were challenges.

But, I am glad to say, that I feel good, rather than beat.

Gracias a Dios, I am learning, slowly, to live, to surf on the storms that life serves up.

My heart is calm and grateful for the people in my life, for the chance to play with tools and to create a space that is full of life and beauty and potential. I hope it will be warm when the snow flies and that the house will be filled with stories that get written over the coming years. I want to share all of this with those I love, all the wonderful souls who have crossed my path in the last decades.

Some of them met for a celebration of house progress last Sunday. I was nervous about planning the gathering, but decided to go with a hunch. We would paint on the fresh drywall. I have never painted on fresh drywall, but that's what we would do.

I would have to do things I have never done before, like get the paint in Gallup, get brushes together, clean the construction mess before the party, get food and drink, and call people I have never called before.

All new, all scary, all unknown. Would the paints "work" on the wall? Would people think it was a stupid idea? Would nobody come or care? Would I fail, bomb, regret the whole thing?

I pressed ahead in spite of the nagging nabob voices and and just kept moving, following some new way of doing, being, learning. I really did not know what would happen, but I wanted to try, to see what would happen.

When I got the paints, I was terrified to try them on the wall. What if the water dissolved the paper and I had to redo all the sheet-rock? But I put some paint on a brush and voila! It worked. It went on nice and smooth and had its own way of working. But I had to find what that was by doing it, by contact with the brush, the paint, the wall, my vision.

I was tentative at first, then more bold, and finally, I was throwing paint all over the place.

Some of it was really bad, but some of it came out like something out a dream. I was living a vision I was born with but did not know I had until it showed up on that wall.

When friends came over, they joined in the fun, and we launched off into a shared creation, each doing his or her part.

Then, almost on cue, the sun shone through the window and hit the painting with its setting light.

Yikes! If I had any doubt that this was the right thing to do with my time, that sun sent it packing.

Yes, I want a real shower once on a while, but the gratitude of one after two months without is worth the wait.

Summer work on the house is done, but new work at about to begin.

I hope to keep learning, to keep finding the gifts that rain down on me, in every moment.

Gotta work it to find out what's there. 

Thursday, August 7, 2014

They Met for Coffee

She laughs at his jokes, a little too enthusiastically, too theatrically. He is older than she is, uglier too. But he has something she wants: freedom from the hassles of never having enough, of having to scramble for the basics, all the time. Her apartment is too small, too cluttered. Her work drains her with its tedium, the incessant imperative to be pleasant to the pseudo intellectuals, the egotists, the narcissists, the bullies.

He is nice to her. Calm. Kind. Pretty smart, but more lonely.

She looks past his paunch and his sagging, bulbous face.

He likes the slender grace of her long arms and narrow shoulders. Her hair is still thick. Her laugh is girlish and she makes him feel young again.

When she throws back her head at yet another of his quips, he is sure that this is something he will hang onto, something he will risk everything for: the wrath of family, the nasty slurs under the breath when he brings her to family gatherings, the exile from his golf group.

But he is happy. She seems happier.

She should be wearing a nicer summer dress, one that is cut for her form. She has grace and it should be displayed.

He wants to pamper her, show her places she has never yet seen. He wants her to see places, and be entertained, to be moved by fine music, art, beauty. They will go to Europe someday he says to himself as the wind blows her hair into her face.

He feels the breeze on his bald head. His bushy eyebrows ruffle imperceptibly. He listens to her and nods in polite agreement and understanding. 

She looks at him over her sunglasses, brushes away her hair, and dangles her elegant wrist and long hand over the back of her chair.

When she was a girl, she had dreams. She did well in school and was a good musician they said. She did not think life would turn into such drudgery, such tedium, with days that drag on and on. She did not think she would ever hate her life so much that she would play to the first passing hope of relief with the sum of her charms and so little regard for her heart.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Rain and Rainbows

The Way It Is

The rejection letter was mixed in with a bunch of bills. The form letter was nice enough and asserted that, even though my submission "did not fit the needs" of the journal at this time, the rejection was "not a reflection of the quality of the writing."

Yeah. Right.

Some pieces are published. More are not. That's the just the way it is.

Some people live with more than they can use. Others have less than they need. Still others have nothing. or less than nothing, and are in deep debt. Most of us have our incomes steadily delcine for the past 30 or so years while the wealth at the top continues to concentrate. The grabby, scared, greedy plutocrats just want more, always more.

Some love a hopeless love that is not returned. Some are loved but can't love back. Passions don't always come with talent. Talent sometimes gets crumbled and tossed into the ditch.

That's just the way it is.

I drop the letter into the 13 gallon file and tie on my tool belt. I have things to do, tasks that need to be done before I head back to another year of teaching back in Tucson. Today I have some sills to craft. Boards will be measured, cut to length, notched, sanded, painted with sealer and then with Urethane before being installed.

It's a slow process, one that I want to hurry through. I want to skip steps and just get the sills installed so I can be done and take a break.

Yet, I know if I take that path, the time will be wasted and the wood ruined and stained from joint compound.

There is the easy way and the right way.

One of the humans I respect says that his "meditation" is critical thinking followed by action. Yes, action. But action that comes from a blend of mind and heart, usefulness and passion. 

I see that I can keep at it and do it well, or I can hurry up, cut corners, give in to laziness, sloppiness, fear, or stubbornness, or whatever it is. But to do it well, I have to put my mind to it, to engage with the work. I also need to put my heart into it, to love the moment and the simple pleasure of this task, of all tasks, and be mindful, as they say.

If I take that path and let the work be an expression of my presence, I will produce a solid, beautiful, finished sill, or poem, or painting, or thoughtful conference with a student. If I don't, I get more work trying to fix what I did not do right in the first place.

Just the way it is.

The laws of life don't change no matter how much I want them to be different. I want editors to publish my work, but they don't. I want my days to be free from work, but they are not. I want people to be fair and generous and aware of their connections to others. I want to know that my welfare is the welfare of my neighbors. I also want to brood and to be left alone, but I have taken on the challenge of stepping past what is easy and familiar.

I have committed to help others realize dreams and to make my living teaching.

No matter how much I try or complain I am not exempt from the way it is.

I get what I get and do with it what I am able and willing to do.

Them's just the facts.

I decide to slow down with this moment and take the work one step at a time. I mark the boards precisely and cut them on the line. I apply the sealer with slow, even strokes, with a thin coat that does not blister or bubble. I let it dry. Then I add the Urethane. I take it all slow and easy. The board goes in, snug and tight as a duck's butt as they say. It looks nice and will pay me dividends over the years every time I look at it.

I know that working like this is a luxury granted only to those lucky enough to be working alone, free from the pace of corporate production. The world wants more and more junk, even if that means less and less quality.

Short term gains to cover the loss of not being seen the way we want to be seen don't change the way it is.