Saturday, November 29, 2014

Writing Can be Habit Forming and Have Side Effects

Mornings I ride
A bike
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
A hawk
Or spot a centipede
As it winds from one hiding place to
The next

More often I just keep
Moving through the wind
The sun
Or the rain

Sometimes the moon
Is blue as ice
Or red

If I just keep showing
Up one will come
Or not

My legs have gotten
Big as trees

Monday, November 24, 2014

Too Much Fun

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

What Happened When I Took My Grievance to the Top (fiction -- sort of)

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

The Sting of Being on the Losing Side of Priorities

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

Zuni in November: Indian Summer (A Sketch)

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

A Mid-Life Message Courtesy of the Folk Shop

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 never.

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.