Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Naked



"You're kidding, right?" he said when I told him I did not own a gun.

"You probably have a Louisville Slugger though."

I shook my head.

"So what are you going to do when they bust down your door and come in for your TV and bikes?" He asked as he crossed his arms.

"If that happens, I doubt having a gun will change much."

"You're a babe in the woods, probably some liberal too."

"It boils down to this," he said, "You either are in front of the gun or behind it, either the one who fights or the one who gets killed."

I didn’t know what to say to that. He was right on both the babe and the liberal charges. The other logic left me with no refutation, but I wondered about the either/or thinking. There had to be some middle way. Maybe one could stay out of the situations in the first place. And the likelihood of violent assault seemed low, if not negligible.

It had been years since I even thought about owning a gun. In those days, I had many, too many. I had a shotgun, a deer rifle, a couple of 22s, a bow and arrow, and a BB gun from old days.

I had been arrested once for reckless endangerment when some friends and I were "blasting" in the woods. We shot at anything that moved, chipmunks mostly. I loved those guns and reveled in the power of bullets. I was a good shot, and prided myself of being able bring down animals.

Then, one day, and I don’t know why, I gave all of the guns away. I walked away and didn’t look back. It may have been that skinning a squirrel revealed a musculature that was a scale model of a human anatomy. It may have been the death of a friend in a drunken, gun-ready argument. It may have been that I just got tired of it.

True or not, I have observed that walking around unarmed has a way of disarming situations that might otherwise escalate. I knew a Venezuelan guy, for example, in Mexico, who traveled with martial arts weapons in his backpack. He often ran into trouble in the market, in part, because he conveyed an aggressive, in-your-face persona. In the same situation, I had no trouble. (I am also male, pretty big, confident, "in my body," and capable of defending myself. That counts for something. I am not saying that one should have no situational awareness or set one's self up to be victimized.)

Yes, I know the world is an opportunistic place where people are out to rip me off. I have felt it acutely lately. I know it is naïve to trust people, but would rather be wrong once in a while than on-guard all the time.

The radical stance of trusting someone until they are trustworthy is not a popular or practical philosophy. And I will likely end up poorer because of it.

That said, I prefer to walk into the rest of my life naked, moving backward into innocence, shedding things, onward toward the end, naked as the day I was born.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Poetics and Teaching (Rough Draft)


Teaching writing has been reduced to transmitting technical skills in this era of Student Learning Objectives and quantifiable assessment. What used to be an opportunity to explore ideas, reflect on one's perspective, and consider big life questions has become a practice in technique.

This may seem unimportant to most outside observers, but the implications for the kinds of people universities are producing are huge.

Because writing classes not longer include a "literary" component to content, students no longer consider "aesthetic" questions. Aesthetic is not just about style and beauty, by the way, it's a term that encompasses the "whole" person, the mind, heart, and, yes, spirit.

Such considerations are seen as quaint, outdated, and not sufficiently rigorous by current approaches to teaching.

I think this is a great loss.

Students come out of writing classes without considering social, ethical, or human questions -- the kinds of questions, that, as humans, they will have to confront in their lives.

Current approaches assume that students will get this kind of exposure "somewhere" out there in life. The problem is that "literary" treatments are not something that many students are going to seek out on their own. Such experiences are seen as luxuries and not necessary or even interesting to many students.

I think one has to acquire a taste before seeking out art, theater, poetry, literary nonfiction, and other forms of literary experience.

The look I get when I raise these kinds of questions is one of "Nobody needs that anymore."

Ugh.

I don't want to be part of system that excludes being human from learning to write, think, use language, build a life.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Comes a Time When You Realize You Gotta Do It Yo Sef


I got off the phone with R. yesterday with a despondency so deep I could barely move. I had hoped to receive some encouragement but got instead comparison to writers I cannot compete with.

"Richard Rodriguez is a complex and brilliant essayist," he said. "There are only a few writers in Tucson working at that level."

The implication, of course, was that I was not one of them.

We chatted on about landscaping and other house projects that never seem to end until he thanked me for calling and went on with his day.

Devastation sat in my lap like an overgrown offspring, pinning me to the seat.

I was time to push him off and stand up, but I didn't want to. I sat there suffocating, wanting someone to rescue me from this pit of mediocrity and frustration. I get it. I haven't achieved what I want to with my writing, and it's nobody's fault but my own, gul dang it.

This realization begs ways of thinking and being that are at the core of my psyche. A long time ago I decided I could not ever pursue writing because that was an impractical vocation. I haven't achieved to my potential, in part, because I have been afraid to pursue writing as a full-time job. It's always come after the "real work" was done. (There is the "talent" question, I know, but talent without work doesn't go far.) I also got the message that it was not "my place" to aspire to such a thing. "Who do you think you are?" was the common refrain from family, friends, teachers, employers. This came from parents, relatives, my social milieu of working class kids, and teachers who were paid to prepare us students for real world work.

"Education," for me, has been a process of dehumanizing, for the most part. A few courageous teachers bucked this trend, but the overriding message has been "buckle down." (Education has been systematically wrung dry of humanizing effects with its emphasis on shallow, short term content and testing, by the way. This is another source of great grief and anger, but that is another essay.)

But there was a more fundamental message at work. This message was a poison pill that I swallowed readily, and continued to take regular doses through the years. The pill spun a belief that one should never trust a heart's desire because that led only to misery. One should never really love a life. Life was too fickle, suspect, and free-spirited. It would only lead to disappointment and heartbreak.

Instead, one was to learn to be practical, productive, to fit in, and not ask questions. This was and is the script of working class education and its effects run deep in the tissues of my world view. I became the accomplice to sabotaging any attempts to really succeed as a writer. I looked for ways to avoid learning my craft, to fail in small ways, to make it impossible to get the work done.

My head was going one way, me feet and heart another. I have been torn apart in the middle and have been unable to bring the two into alignment.

Now that I am getting old enough not to care anymore, I can see that there will be no help in this. I am going to have to stand up for myself and deliver the bad news that I can no longer waste my time.

If I go broke and end up under a bridge, so be it.

At least I acted, finally, on the only truth I have ever really known.

It looks like I have come to a fork in the road, and, as Yogi Bera said, need to take it.

Forkin' A. 


Monday, December 21, 2015

Restitution


I got a letter from the Santa Cruz County Attorney. It told me that I was entitled to restitution from the theft of the truck. All I have to do is fill out the form listing all the stuff lost when the suspects stole the truck.

Well, friends, the list is long. There is the tangible stuff, like the bike, shoes, helmet, glasses, pump, tools, etc. But the real loss is time I've spent guessing where the truck went, who took it, why, and what they were going to do with it and all the stuff in it.

So, here is my list of things I want back:

1.) Three nights of sleep. I spent these nights figuring out how to deal with the insurance company, the police, the tow company, the shop that would fix the truck, the victim's rights paperwork, and desire for an oil change.

2.) A week of mornings. I lost these because I was angry, really angry, righteously pissed off angry at the little things like the keys to locks, post office box, bottle opener, sunglasses, and stuff stored behind the seats. Every time I needed one of these things and realized that it had been taken with the truck, I saw red and became someone I didn't want to be.

3.) Resistance to stereotypes. Yes, the truck went to Nogales and was stolen by two gang-banger Latinos. When I say this, I watch the knowing nods and leaps to understanding: border, crime, drugs, Mexican immigration, poverty, danger, the need for security and gated communities, like prisons.

4.) Not feeling violated, victimized, or helpless. Well, vigilance is the key state these days. I lock things up and look over my shoulder.

5.) Desire for revenge. I want to mess these guys up, bust 'em, send 'em to the joint, even though I'm "opposed" to sending perps like these guys to prison.

Overall, I want to return to my simpler world where crime wasn't so close and personal. I have to confess that I am in conflict with my philosophy, and justified in being so.

I want to return to my convictions in spite of the slide into fear and stereotypes. I want these guys to restore my faith. Maybe I'll ask for restitution, only to give it back with the condition they use it for education or building some other life.

Hopelessly idealistic: That's what I want.

I'll put it on my list.

Underneath


Skin can hide the workings of the mind and heart. True, the eyes offer access to those with the ability to see, and the nuances of the face betray the state of things below. But most people don't look closely enough or are too wrapped up the workings of their own dramas to see much of the subtlety.

What does one do with the churning oceans of feelings when there is no way to express them?

One keeps them bottled up, that's what. Or, if one is lucky, one does some kind of art. Music is good. Singing is the best. Visual art works too. Sometimes writing can be an outlet. Bike rides under a desert solstice sun help too.

Eventually, though, one has to sit with and accept the company of raging emotions. They demand action, but no action is possible in some cases. The restraints, external and self-imposed, are too much to overcome. It ain't easy sitting in the middle of the fire, taking one breath at a time, infused with a heat so high it is unbearable in any other circumstance.

One likely knows too, that with time and patience, the fires will die down. Days spent walking the halls of work and responsibility throw waters on the glowing embers. Envelopes full of requests for work and time pull one's mind into the concerns of others. One puts on the reading glasses and attends to the business of staying alive, one minute, day, week at a time.

It is the case that one dies a little as the moments pass, the actions postponed again and again. The dream deferred sinks deeper and deeper into the workings of the flesh, where it waits for peace and the relief of sleep. 


Saturday, December 19, 2015

Gravitational Pull


There you are, just flying through space, covering miles and miles, faster than bullets fly, when the tug pulls you off course. The first time it happens, you just alter your trajectory slightly and lean in toward some remote planet or star that gets just a bit too close. But you are moving so fast that you streak past and pop out the other side of a field of gravity none the worse for wear. In this way you chart your path through the cosmos as a circuitous series of close encounters that leave on you only a vague impression as the light years pass. Then it happens that you feel the familiar tug, feel your course arc again off in the direction of some body large enough to exert a force over your flight path. But this time the arc tightens and you find yourself overcome with an increase in velocity, a growing certainty that from this course there is no escape, no return to your solo wanderings between the glowing galaxies. You feel yourself drawn, helplessly, in and down. It is then you feel the rising heat of an atmosphere, a skin over a living mass of fusion and magnetic force. You begin to glow from the friction, the passing density of a system beyond your control or understanding. Part of you peels away, turns from heavy armor to light, burning light, as you blaze across a sky, distilled down to the finest of particles. Your trail is one of brilliance as you are consumed by the free fall. It lingers there, a moment of grace, just after the last of you flickers, blooms, and disintegrates.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Too Much


Adam rejected his second wife because he saw God make her, or so they say.

He stared in amazement as God pulled elements out of the earth and assembled them into bones from the ground up. God started with a rough idea of her build and then fleshed out what he thought would be an irresistible mate for horny Adam. God made her tarsals and meta tarsals, her tibia, fibula, patella, femur, and pelvis. He colored her uterus gray-blue and padded her hips with a yellow layer of fat. Then he found the brightest of reds for her muscles and blood. He gave her a backbone, ribs, a hard head and good brain. Then he wired her for feelings with circuitry for nerves. After that she got a circulatory system, plumbing and waste disposal, reproductive organs, pink genitalia, sharp finger nails and teeth for tearing and masticating and defense. God gave her thick hair, and a fine complexion of silky skin. He made her as perfect as was possible under the circumstances.

Adam, knowing just a bit too much about her insides, her anatomy, her machinery, was overwhelmed and would have nothing to do with her. Maybe it was because she was too mortal, too visible, too transparent or complicated. Maybe she was too much his equal, too much a match for his games. Maybe she reminded him too much of himself, of what he too was made.

Whatever the reason, he could not love her or touch her.

His first wife had run off to consort with demons and had spawned monsters from her pleasures.

This second wife was just a bit too human for his tastes. He needed to know less, to have some room for illusion, some space to forget that he too was made from dust, piss, shit, and miracle.

God then took pity on Adam and made for him a hooker with fine breasts who always laughed at his jokes.

The Last Day


He didn't know it yet, but it was his last day here on earth.

The car purred along at eighty miles an hour between roaring semis and commuters sipping on their lattes. He had the radio off for once and listened to the music of the machine: the air rushing past, a faint croak as pivots in the suspension absorbed the bumps of the highway, the hypnotic drone of the motor.

He found all of it soothing, a kind of lullaby.

In the car, he had moments of peace. Being between places gave him the chance to review the slide show of his life. Did he have regrets? Sure. Who didn't? Successes? A few. Failures? Too many.

He was scheduled to be at a luncheon, but had begged off and gone for the drive instead. This was the time of reckoning. With no one to hide from, he was brutally honest with himself. He looked hard and clear at the corners he had cut because he was afraid. Rather than chase the dreams that haunted him at night, he had chosen comfort, security, mediocrity. The consequences of postponing happiness had piled up and hardened into a calcified and rigid straitjacket.

He was done with it.

Mountains on the horizon hid the rising sun but the sky was brightening, a rose fading to blue. A river of red lights pulled him along. When he considered the magnitude of machinery, each set of lights a story, an amalgam of metal, plastic, glass, and the brilliance of engineers, all flying along in sync, not just here but all across the country, it made his head spin. Cars upon cars, in the millions, snaking in a hissing string along the roads of America both amazed and appalled him.

The freedom and the poison of motorized society was a noose he put willingly around his neck.

In a sense, he was just one of many. In another sense, he was the secret to changing course, to pulling up abruptly at the lip of the edge of the precipice. Nothing kept him from jumping the tracks of habit except habit itself, but there were the excuses, always the excuses.

When the front tire failed with a report not unlike that of a rifle, he was holding an idea of what might be possible if.



Monday, December 14, 2015

Scottsdale


I went for a walk in Scottsdale.

Nobody, it seems, except street people and mad dogs, goes for a walk there. There are sidewalks, miles and miles of lovely sidewalks, and paths and landscaping and big boulders and fountains, but no people.

I walked a long ways, for over an hour. It got dark but the lights pulled me forward. Scottsdale uses a lot of electricity. There are also lots of screens in Scottsdale. I went into a bar and talked to a smiling waitress with bright eyes. She showed me pictures of her corgi dog on her phone. She wore a micro mini Scottish skirt and revealing plaid halter top. The screens were ubiquitous, even in the bathroom. The volume was loud enough to wake the dead. I gave the waitress a big tip for being friendly, the only friendly person I encountered.

People in Scottsdale drive. They drive really fast -- climb-up-your-bumper-and-roll-over-you-if-you're-only-ten-miles-an-hour-over-the-speed-limit fast. And the cars are buffed, lustrous, squeaky clean masterworks of foreign engineering. On my "block" near the hotel, there were Porsche, Ferrari, Audi, Jaguar, Alpha-Romeo, and BMW dealerships. They were lit like baseball stadiums and full of gleaming new cars.

I am guessing Scottsdale is where some of the one-percenters hang out. They like their cars new, fast, and clean. They like their waitresses young, beautiful, and scantily clad. The gods of goods and flash assault the senses.

Of course, the other great way to really see a place is to go for a bike ride. I took a sixty-mile bike ride to Bartlett Lake, a reservoir on the Verde River. Drivers couldn't get enough of buzzing me with their fancy cars as I slogged up the hill toward Cave Creek and Carefree.

Once I turned off for the reservoir on Bartlett Lake Road, however, traffic disappeared. I had the road to myself. And it was a lovely, lonely, winding, hilly ride.


The day was a chilly one, and I was a long way from Scottsdale, my rental car, and the hotel when my chain snapped. It was at the turn-around point, about 30 miles in. I was at the marina at Bartlett Lake, at the bottom of a four-mile long hill. As I pondered my situation, an airplane soared low over the lake. It flew low enough to see me but made no move of recognition. The pilot wore a Santa cap. The beautiful twin engine Beechcraft was a pilot's dream machine. No surprise there. It fit in with all the boats in dry dock at the marina. The yacht club has access to a jewel of water out here in the middle of the desert. Owners were off shopping, no doubt, because it was Christmas time, too cold for water skiing. No people, but white, clean, impressive boats stood witness to my predicament.


I have to admit that all of this is lovely beyond imagining. The lives of the super-rich are the bread and butter of envy-laden tabloids. These people don't have to deal with stolen trucks or lean months of paycheck-to-paycheck accounting, or broken chains. At least, that's what one voice in my head was saying. That is the voice of drama and poor me. As I stood there in the cold sun, drenched in blessings of day and body, I took stock. There was the chain. It is here, hanging on the handle bar.


I thought I was screwed, but found in my trusty bike bag, a chain tool, somewhat the worse for wear, that was just enough to repair the chain and get my sorry ass out of there and on my way back to Scottsdale. I was grateful for my chain tool, my burning legs on the long climbs back out to Cave Creek, the fabulous machine I was piloting -- the equivalent in bike terms of the best of the Ferraris -- my breath, the sun, the road, the turquoise water, my myriad blessings of living flesh. I wanted to be nowhere else, to be no one else.

Just as I finished the last climb of the road to the lake, traffic started to pick up again. Angry drivers took to cutting it close with their foreign sports cars; the smells of money began to waft on the breeze; and a spoke broke.


My rear wheel was a wobbly mess for the next twelve miles or so back to shopping plaza, but I made it.

Now, one could get upset about the inegalitarian distribution of wealth that is these United States, get tweaked about trust-funders holing up next to golf courses, hogging all the cool cars, living in a plastic diorama of shopping malls and gated communities. Yes, one would be justified in such a stance. Life is not easy for most of us, nor fair.

The "middle class," as we all know, is shrinking. The super rich are getting more and more while the rest of us move to other side of an increasingly yawning gap. This, friends, is one of the great issues of our times. 

But we have our guides in this maze of injustice. Mine is a voice of working class wisdom and existential philosophy. He is a sage who wants nothing more than a little peace and a cold beer at the end of the day. He doesn't pine for yachts, planes, fancy cars, aggressive driving, fat plastic shopping plazas. He embraces his place in this world, inelegant as it is. He is a working class hero.




He is my guide, my spiritual director, my role model. Homer is The Man. With him I can go anywhere, do anything, not fear the inevitability of breakdown and greasy hands.


Sunday, December 13, 2015

Off to the Races


My truck was found near Nogales, on the US/Mexico border. It had some new "Arizona pin-striping," which is, in normal parlance, scratches and streaks from trees, bushes, rocks, and cacti. The camper shell has been painted black. The steering column has been trashed by the hot-wiring.  According to the Santa Cruz County Sheriff, the truck had been used in "criminal activity," likely drug or human smuggling. I have not seen it yet.

Aside from that, I guess it's in decent shape.

There were two arrests, both juveniles. I don't know if I'll get to attend any arraignments or trials. I would like to see them though, just so I can put a face on my imaginings of what transpired when they stole the truck. I'd also like to hear more about that.

This craziness comes at a strange time. The end of the semester, the beginning of the holidays, the newly cold weather, a coming new year. I have to finish reading student final exams, get my grades in, attend social gatherings, buy gifts, be cheerful, and make decisions about a stolen truck.

It's just the usual craziness of life.

The big fork in the road is whether or not I can, am willing, or even want to engage with it all. Right now, I'm just shell-shocked, incapacitated. I can't seem to find the words. I hope I get a break soon, but it looks like the near future is moving fast.

Time to line up and wait for the gun, again, as usual. 

Friday, December 11, 2015

What He Wanted to Say (Fiction As Catharsis)


She was there waiting for him at the sushi bar. Papers spread out on the table, glasses down on her nose, she pored over the fine print of a contract. Her sparkling water was set off to the side.

He wanted a beer, a tall, dark, high alcohol-content craft beer.

She had ordered him a water that matched hers, bubble for bubble.

When he sat down, she looked up over her glasses. "I'm concerned about how much we're paying for insurance and how much we are losing on the rental that needs filling. Have you called about the discount we should be getting for the landscaping work last week? That crew messed up the lighting on the path so bad I can't see where I am going when I come in late."

A waiter appeared, and the man looked mournfully at the menu pinched tight between the waiter's elbow and his rib cage.

"I already ordered for you," she said. "Veggies and rice."

"I want a beer," he said to the waiter.

She gave him a sharp look of disapproval before returning her gaze to the papers in front of her.

"A large one," he added.

The waiter made a note on his pad and turned away, stepping neatly around the bus boy on his way to the bar.

He was confused, tired, out-of-sorts, and wanted to say so. It seemed to him that nobody cared about anything anymore, that people just wanted to exploit each other, to steal, to take advantage, to climb over each other on the way to bigger and more. And the apathy, the mediocrity, the complexity. You couldn't even talk to a person on the phone anymore if you had a question. Go to the website. Get stuck in a ridiculous dead end of asinine buttons, clicks, and menus of numbers. He wanted to tell her that he was angry all the time and felt victimized again and again.

"Can you swing by that Asian market on the way home and pick up some fresh ginger?" she asked. "I want make something special for the Rosenbergs. They are coming over tomorrow night. We really need to impress them if we want their business."

When the beer came, he poured it clumsily into his frosted glass. The foam head rose like some aggressive fungus over the shallow yellow brew. He drank it anyway and was pleased that the foam made a moustache over his lip. He wanted to look ridiculous, to act up, throw a tantrum.

All of it, the losses, the violations, the helplessness just wouldn't leave him alone.

He wanted to bring it up.

"Sorry," she said, "but I gotta run. I have a 1:30 with the selection committee. You know how they are. And the pool we have to pull from... just not very deep. People don't seem very competent anymore."

With that she finished her California roll, tipped her fizzy water back like a shot of tequila, packed up her brief case, kissed him on the forehead, turned and marched toward the door with a gait that stabbed at the tile with her sharp heels.

She was a mover, a marketing genius, and proud of it. She thrived on the waves created by changing ways of doing things, saw them as a challenge to be met and defeated. She was the new way, the cutting edge, the pressure against the limitations of the envelope, and she took no prisoners. Get with it, her eyes said, or get left behind. He knew to stay out of her way. She hated weakness, indecision, and incompetence, all of which he felt in his bones.

He watched her disappear into her waiting Lexus through the window of the restaurant.

He nursed his beer and realized he had the rest of the day to himself and no one to call. 



Thursday, December 10, 2015

Open


S. stepped up to the teaching station to read his draft of the final paper aloud to the class. His assignment was to reflect on the writing he had done this semester and to focus on one of the previous essays as an example, to identify what he would do to better meet the assignment.

He pulled his paper up from the course web site, projected it onto the screen and began to read.

Within a few lines, the class was giggling, then chuckling, then all-out guffawing at his take on his writing. I, sitting off to the side, trying to keep a straight face, was laughing all the harder for resisting the urge.

On one hand, he had no clue about what he was supposed to be doing, but on the other, he was grappling with the assignment where he was in terms of his abilities and understanding of the course. His draft was a sincere effort to re-consider, re-see, and re-work his essay. His take on the project was just so clunky and clueless.

He wrote something like "My intro just sucks. It gives readers no idea what my focus is and I wonder [sic] all over the place with no idea of where to go or what to do."

His observation was on target, I thought, and his self-assessment was frank and hilarious. He really had been out of sync all semester, asking the most obvious of questions when papers came due. "Just what are we supposed to do?" he would ask the day before a deadline. "We're supposed to do an interview??" he asked one time about a profile assignment.

Outside of class, S. was a busy guy. He had fraternity duties, social obligation, and, I gathered, many romantic interests. He wasn't resistant to the work of the course; he just didn't see the point of it. He had other priorities.

He was not alone. Other students wrote about their writing in ways that revealed where they were in relation to the work of the course.

We were in very different places.

But we were talking to each other, and they were sincerely writing about where they were and how they understood the assignments and the revising of those assignments to better fulfill the requirements, goals, an objectives of the course.

The gap between where they were and where I was pitching the content was one that was unbreachable without a bridge of baby steps.

I had to be open to them and they to me to make it work. I had to work from where they were, what they came in with, and they had to stretch to understand what I was trying get across. Most of that had to with language, it's levels of abstraction or precision, conventions, strategies of the assignments, and making the work done in their long-term best interest, i.e. motivation.

Only then could they stand back and have something to reflect on. And I have teaching to reflect on. How did I learn from them?

We are at cross-purposes in many ways. I am old school, language-based, craft-driven, text-centered, working from process to product. The new school is more big picture: context, rhetorical situation, purpose, audience.

As S. continued to read his draft, the laughter continued until he quoted some thoughtful passages that he had crafted with real insight. Then the comedy turned poignant. His thoughts came across and the class quieted. His writing resonated with the group. We heard him reaching across the chasm of misunderstanding. His openness connected with out own.

We were trying, awkward thought the attempts might have been, to reach each other.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Aftermath


The listing has begun. When one loses something or is violated or traumatized, the need to make sense of it waits until the drama of gnashing teeth dies down and the quiet sets in.

So, last night, as the cat found her perch on the bed and began snoring, I started the long list. I wanted to name the things, and then to kiss them on the forehead before letting them go. I mourn them, mourn myself and my fragility, my ephemerality. Name them, I say. Call the roll and recognize them for the gifts they have given. Love them. Let them go.

There were the big things: the pickup truck I had nursed to health with new cylinder heads, front differential, wheel bearings, drive shafts, axles, boots, radiator, power steering pump, tires. With the camper shell, it was my get-away car. I could run to the canyons when life got too hectic at work and at home. The four wheel drive was just enough macho to feed my need for manliness. And the bike: Dura Ace, Mavic wheels, lights, and bell  -- all the pieces of a fast commuter the way I like it. But there are the small things too: the headlamp that my son gave me for Christmas three years ago, my clown jacket with red polka dots, my extravagant Sidi Dominator bike shoes with yellow, red, and blue leather, the heart-rate monitor that had listened to my pounding chest on so many long rides and time trials, the helmet, gloves, and pack.

There, I have them all in my sight. I speak to them at this moment of reckoning, and I utter a requiem for times we had together. I tell them thank you and I bless them for our shared moments on this crazy earth-walk. I see them out there arrayed as a kind audience now ready to move on into the chapter of their existence.

Good bye, dear friends. Adieu. Que les vaya lindo, con Dios.

As I say this, the lights dim, and the auditorium of our shared moments empties. This show is over.

The house crouches and readies for what comes next. 

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Was It the Bike Ride, the Hot Dog, or the Labyrinth of Chance and Consequence?


It had been too long. With all the papers to grade, the prison workshops, Thanksgiving, and the need to find new tenants after the old ones left because of "mold," I had gotten stressed. I needed a bike ride.

So, Tuesday morning, early, really early, in the cold, I went for a ride up the lower part of Mount Lemmon. I had been off the bike for quite a while. I had put on some pounds. The ride was lovely, but painful too. Perfection. I only made it ten miles in before I had to turn around and head back to my householding/worker bee life.

I stopped at Costco to pick up some groceries. They let Executive Members in early on Tuesdays, so I got to shop before the crowds. I parked the truck near the entrance and went in to get the 3 Cs: chicken, cheese, and cashews, the basic food groups.

I made my rounds, loaded the goods, and checked out.

It was then that the hot dogs called, on the way to the exit. After the ride, I was short on protein. I had skipped breakfast and ridden hard for ninety minutes. Hot dogs and a drink were a buck fifty. I wheeled my cart up to a table and ordered a dog.

That extra five minutes may have been just what the car thieves needed to hot wire the truck and get away with my faithful companions -- the Salsa racing bike and the old, beat-up Ford gas-hog, 4x4 Ranger XL.


I passed the receipt check and headed for the place I parked.

No truck, but lots of denial and walking in circles with my box of chicken and cashews and pepper jack cheese.

So, now the bureaucratic process begins. I have to move forward, but can't help to wonder: Was it the hot dog? The need for a ride? Just piss poor luck? The labyrinth of chance, mystery, and consequence of taking one step or the other?

Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Closer


When she walked her calves calves cut edges on the backs of her leg like fish filet. The muscles rippled from there up the length of her sculpted, silken legs. Those legs grew out of a skirt that hugged her rump like Saran Wrap. All those hours in the gym and the green salad lunches with sushi on the side have paid dividends.

When she looked at you her eyes narrowed. She was a predator, a mercenary, a shrink, your best friend, and she wanted you to help her move product. She has erased all doubt that this is the way. Her certainty disarms you, victim of questions. Five minutes after meeting her, you will be ready to mortgage your house and move to Bali. If you have to swipe your card, no problem.

Here she comes. She has you in her sights and is smiling. You want to run, but your feet stay planted and you turn toward her, drawn to the flame. As a prisoner in your body, you exist to get the best deal you can, to pass on your genetic material to best prospect of survival and attractiveness. She is all that and more.

"Can I help you?" she says.

You hear something like "Can I save you?" but answer yes, she can help you.

You want to buy something, get more of what you don't really need, but that is the only thing that keeps despair at bay. You tell her what you want and she cuts you open with her gaze. She plants a decision in you to buy whatever it is that she is selling. She is the consummate professional, and her feet look edible. You want to chew on her toes, run your hands along her the musical strings of her tibia.

Her skirt is so tight is shows the delicate ridge of her hips, the faint bulge below her flat abs. The subtle mounds and valleys of her cast a spell over you, and she knows it. She has worked at this, has studied you and others like you. You are an easy mark, as transparent as a crystal cup. She fires the harpoon and reels you in.

Now that she has you, she is kind. She talks intimately about your options.

You want the best of the best because you want her to believe, that, like her, you are quality goods. You are both worshiping at the altar of goods, of product, of meaning in world of stuff and social climbing.

A stab of conscience disturbs your thrill at grasping and you feel the weakness of integrity, the choice to betray. You shut that down and switch back to the chase. It is what you have been trained to do. The economy runs on you making the choice to bleed into the river of consumption. You are lucky to be here. Millions around the planet want to be in your shoes, the have to power you hold in your credit card.

It is too much. You look at her. She is waiting. You take the plunge. You comfort yourself and look to the testimonials, the pats on the back of the faithful, and you hope they are right.

But then she moves on.

The thrill has passed and you are left there holding a contract that will slowly drain your life blood. Part of you wants more, wants that heat, that salivating hunger of acquisition again and again. Part of you, however, wants to drop it all and disappear into the woods, or a monastery.

The simple life. That's it. The only remedy is to get away -- to sever the cord, to run to where the radio waves, the nattering sales pitch, the cattle prod of motivation to consume, become a distant cloud of noise -- to a place where all of it, fades to atmospheric hum.

Ha, fat chance of that. You are wired to her. She knows it too. She is Alpha woman, genetically superior, and your DNA has no defense but to cave in to her.

How do you explain that yawning emptiness when she turns off her light and leaves you for the next target of opportunity? 

Friday, December 4, 2015

A Revising Plan Memo For English 101




Friday, December 4, 2015

Dear English 101 Classes,

Now, at the end of the fall semester, it is time to take stock of the writing we have done for the course. As you know, I have tried to complete some of the assignments to see what it was like to grapple with the challenges of reflecting, informing, and analyzing. I won’t lie; it has been difficult.

For the last assignment, we are all revising one of the essays we worked on earlier in the semester. I believe that the better a writer can name what it is in a piece of writing that needs revision, the more likely the revision will be successful The saying, “if you can name it, you can tame it” applies here.

So, I have decided to revise the essay “Sneakers, Safety Pins, and the Inescapable Reality of Hay in the Barn.” Based on my reading of the assignment and the think-aloud protocol I did on the essay, here are some of my plans. I hope to have the revision ready by the end of next week, when the portfolios are due.

·       *   First I need to re-work the opening paragraphs to better predict and forecast the “story,” the “larger significance” of this event. As I was writing this, I discovered that the personal realization, or “take away” from this event had to do with my desires to win and how those desires come up against the realities of aging, training, and talent. As Joining the Conversation  states, “Almost every type of writing – at least writing that’s interesting – tells a story” (143). It goes on to ask readers what “kind” of story it is that the writer wants to share. “As you draft,” it says, “think about the kind of story you want to share. Will it be a tale of triumph against all odds? Will it lead to a surprising discovery? …. Will it be a tragedy? A comedy? A Farce?” (143).

In my case, the essay will be a realization that I want to compete even though I have no hope of winning the state championship in the time trial. I guess that is a surprising discovery but also comedy and tragedy, maybe even a bit of a farce. Mostly though, it's a realization that came out of writing about the event. In a way, I “come to terms” with both my desire and my limitations. The essay needs to imply some of that focus more in the opening paragraphs.

The opening graf, for example, reads:

The metal chairs were stacked and secured with a thick cable next to the locked door of the cafe. I could see the baristas bustling around inside getting ready to open. It was just a bit before 5 a.m. and they would open soon.

As it stands, it doesn’t point so well to the focus on my hopes of winning. I want to add something like “I couldn’t help but hope that today, miraculously, might be the day when it all comes together, and that I might win,” or something like that. I want to set up some of the romance, the expectation, yes, that’s  it, the expectation, that a miracle might happen.
 
·         * In addition to anticipating the story, and weaving that in more through the opening moments of the essay, I think I could develop better the human face of this community. The assignment sheet states “The goal of this assignment is to familiarize yourself with the community through conducting primary research…” So I am not just thinking about “my” story, but also the defining values of this community. As the assignment sheet recommends, writers need to “interrogate” their observations in order to begin seeing “between the lines” of the community to “beliefs, values, desires, assumptions, and fears.” I feel I could focus more on the value of competition this community shares. Winning is a big deal, as is the willingness to show up at the line and throw down your best effort.

I think I could include more of that in the interactions I have with some of the other participants. I do a pretty good job when I write “The car next to me is occupied by a couple from Hermosillo Mexico. We talk some about the course and about people we know in common from Hermosillo. He and she both race regularly in Arizona. They are both young, fit, and look like real contenders,” but could include a conversation with I had with a friend about meeting at the races.

Here is a possible re-write: “I saw Kelly warming up on her stationary trainer and went up to wish her luck. She smiled when she saw me. ‘How do you think you’ll do today?’ I told her some of the racers in my category were fast, real fast. She shook her head. ‘Oh well, at least you’ll get a good workout.’ Her interest shifted back to her heart-rate monitor in a way that told me she wanted to focus on her warm-up,” or something like that.

Developing more of the hidden but shared values of this community will enhance my appeal to readers in that I am letting them in something they may not know. The community’s values also reflect on my own, adding to the overall tension of the essay’s focusing idea of desire and limitation.

·          * The purpose of a reflection essay is to explore a personal or social question. The questions tend to be human questions that other kinds of writing can’t or don’t quite address. The narrative structures and conventions help advance those purposes. Development and evidence in these kinds of essays comes from closely observed and incorporated detail. Details work best to create a kind of experience for the reader. Concrete specificity, active, vivid verbs, local lingo, mood, and color all add up to a more satisfying reading experience. I try to approximate some of this when I write:

The sound of trainers and quiet conversations mixes with the crunching gravel of new arrivals. A few sun shelters pop up. They have bright tops with logos of various teams and shops around the area: Team Aggress, Southwest Hand, Team Vitesse, Strada, and others. I see a young rider from the UA who forgot his cycling shoes. He tells me he plans to ride in his sneakers. Later I will hear that he achieved a personal best of twenty seven miles per hour. He won the state championship in his age group wearing tennies. Not bad. Sometimes you have to improvise, most times, in my case. I just work with what I've got, and today, for once, I seem to have my ducks in row. I thank the gods of cycling for having been so generous to me, so supportive in letting me fulfill an athletic dream.

As a kid I was one of those weirdos who  followed the Tour de France, who dreamed of riding high into the knife-edged snow-caps of the Alps, rolling through fields of sunflowers, and rocking the bike in a bunch sprint down a narrow avenue in a French village. Nobody in my small Wisconsin high school even knew what the Tour de France was or who Laurent Fignon, Bernard Hinaut, or Eddy Merckx were. I wore black wool shorts and rode a skinny tired bike while the other kids watched the Green Bay Packers and drove burly four wheel drive pick-up trucks.

The names, the crunching gravel, the reverie back to memories all add to the prospect that readers will “see” and “feel” more of what I am trying to convey. I feel this particular aspect of the essay is working well. As the Students Guide says, “Vivid and concrete details can bring people closer, creating a moment of telepathy in which an image or a moment travels from one mind to another.” This kind of “telepathy” is what I want to achieve in the description and the commentary and reflection here. I am looking at the situation as well as my subject position, my point of view, my desires. Doing so helps to fulfill the purposes of the assignment, the conventions of this type of writing, to engage my audience, and to solve some of the challenges of this rhetorical situation, which asks that I think critically about an event that I observe and find something to say about it that goes beyond recording the incidental details. 

* Overall, this semester has shown me the importance of “pushing” my writing beyond what I do in my first drafts. Through revising I can select details to better illustrate my focus and my claims. Writing goes way beyond speaking in that way. Because I get to make selections, I “up” the complexity, precision, and sustained examination of my subjects, whether they be an event, a profile, or a genre. I see I can shape writing to fit purposes and audiences in ways that make me more of a “shaper” of my own thoughts.

I guess that’s not such a bad way to end the semester.

Thanks guys for getting this far and for helping me see what I didn’t quite see as clearly before.

Sincerely,

E. Toso