Saturday, October 31, 2015
She feels so heavy sometimes, like this body is tied to life with a deep-sea diver's lead weights. The world looks blurred and distorted like it is viewed through the lens of a diver's helmet too. Sound, sight, touch, all blunted, in this, her life underwater. It is in these times when she needs a lift, a distraction, something to make her feel good about herself, this time especially, because the bluntedness and leaden weight of her limbs have gone on too long. The burden of living has become too cumbersome to bear. This is her night, the one she has been planning for a while, in secret. She dresses up for no one in particular. Her eyes are lined, armpits dabbed with antiperspirant, her nerves laced with anti-depressant, her breast lifted with anti-sag underwires, and her pudenda sprayed with antidesiccant. Her cheeks are bright with blush. When it is time, she dabs glitter on her lids over the eye shadow and above the mascara. Her eyes are framed by a large white flower, its petals outlined in black. The glitter helps her to remember that she is not completely of this earth, that she is made of matter, of building blocks, of discreet atoms bound together in electrical lust and love into molecules, and that those molecules somehow agree to form a system, powered by what she has no idea, but that runs on particles derived from fusion, from clusters of stars collapsing in on themselves, their heavy mass imploding in a great inferno and orgy of bonding. Will she find what is missing up there, in the Cosmos, when this life ends she wonders. She hopes she looks good lying in state, glitter still in place. She blinks at the mirror and smiles. It feels good getting this close to it all being over or just beginning. She doesn't know for sure. It's when she gets this close that the pain goes away, that life rises up to take a stand. She walks a knife edge to join the procession that invokes all souls on a November stroll. She honors those long gone and those who will depart soon enough. Electricity tingles in her beating heart, her dancing bones, hers for now. She shines.
Wednesday, October 28, 2015
List of Ingredients:
A ceramic mug
Filled with black coffee
A shot of espresso diffusing into the mix
Clock not yet cracking the whip
Thoughts not yet beholden to the business
Of running the world
Sacred baseball cap set
According to Scripture
Phone tuned to confidential signal
Moment carved and stolen
A combination spun
A vault door that swings open
When Promise sits down across from you
A come hither
Smirk on her lips
Stir in your passion
While you can
Before she gets away
She is burnt umber
The scent of gun powder
Pheasant shit mixed with
Let the aromas fill you
Mince and ruminate
Give her back
The 31 pieces of silver
Wrapped in gold
Warm her by your fire
Cut fear from the edges
Do not ask for
Open and pour in
Run ripe memory over the grater
Unlock your mind's tool shed
Simmer things you cannot
Any more than you can operate without
Sling words down
Into a well
They will ricochet off the stone walls
Before splashing in the cold
Saute a moment
No matter who gives a good
Salt liberally the song that wafts up out of the darkness
Separate the words that don't matter
Pull out the invocation
Surround the chords with
The melancholy notes
That turn the key
Open the valve
Let the grief drain
Down a river
Of light and
Heat to boiling
Monday, October 26, 2015
There are those days when it might have been better to never have gotten out of bed. This one was a mix of bravado of spirit and piss-poor bad luck.
It started on a gorgeous October morning on Mount Lemmon. The trees were at the peak of fall color. Maples were brilliant in their orange, yellow, and red. All of it framed by the deep green of Douglas fir, pondersa pine, blue spruce, and other conifers. The sky island is thickly sylvan. That's part of the problem when one has things like power lines that feed cabins.
So, it was a workday, and it was my job to clean up the down and leaning trees. There was one 40 foot tall fir leaning over the electrical line. You can see where this is going. I could see it all it my head: tie some lines onto the tree; get some heavy, strong people to pull at the ropes; watch the tree stand back up, away from the wire, and then topple in the other direction; there I could cut it into nice firewood lengths; voila! engineering masterpiece done. No more unsightly tree and I got to see it all through, a perfect vision realized. Things like this, however, don't always go according to plan.
I grabbed some old static lines from the cabin and used a stone to toss ends of the ropes as high up the trunk as I could. I didn't get them very high, and the loops were hung up in the many branches, making for a less than fully secure anchor on the tree. Getting the ropes looped around the tree took far longer than I thought it would. That should have been a sign.
After many failed attempts, I had two lines around the trunk of the leaning tree. With the help of neighbor Scott, his wife Alene, and Megan, we were ready to pull the leaning tree away from the power line.
We did relieve the equilibrium the tree had settled into but then it took on a weight and life all its own. It twisted on its rooty axis and decided to lean even further over the wires, coming to rest right on the exposed live wires. It was far heavier than I thought it would be. We were no match for the forces of gravity and inertia once it began to shift and fall.
Well, not so good.
Now we were in some trouble. The tree was leaning out over the driveway and threatening to fall on the truck.
There are times when one would like to rewind a folly and try it all again, or at least to never have tried in the first place. These things usually happen on a Sunday, late afternoon, or on holidays when no one is available to save one's sorry butt. Some people have a way of timing crises just right.
A precarious tree sitting on a high tension electrical line is not something you can just leave at the end of a beautiful Sunday. We had to call the power company. They would have to come out and clean up my mess.
The worst part of all was the disconnect between my vision of a project executed perfectly and the reality of hanging mess.
There's something to learn there, someday.
I see another big ponderosa pine leaning over the electrical line further up the hill. If I could just get the rope a bit higher up the trunk and maybe tie the other end to the truck, and.... it will have to wait for a weekend though.
Wednesday, October 21, 2015
This bag of bones and gristle called me is an expression of love and life. It is not afraid. It heals wounds. At its best, it acts out of love, always love. It does not cling to ephemera. It lets go again and again. Its greatest passion is surrender. When it knows who it truly is, it is not afraid to die, or to get lost,or to feel pain, or to go without. It is sustained by what is provided. It loves who it is in this crazy form but does not identify or need to defend that which doesn't really exist, which is an insane illusion. It dances to the story it has composed about what is good. It loves most those who have helped it grow, who have seen the soul illuminated beneath the cover of skin. It forgives itself for being blind, for believing that it is not connected to all that has gone before and all that is yet to come, for failing to marvel in awe at the gift of this tiny, one-off, never to be seen again assembly of dust forged in the furnace of dying stars.
Monday, October 19, 2015
I love the scene in The Matrix when Neo is rudely disconnected from his devices and flushed into the sewer. Morpheus is there when he comes to and gives Neo the bad news of where he is: "Welcome to the desert of the real."
We aren't in a sci-fi matrix, but more and more, teaching, along with social interactions of all kinds, is going on line.
There are some great advantages to this, believe me. I can contact my class off campus about changes to the syllabus, post links to cool videos, interviews, articles. The access to information is sweet. It, as they say, is not merely the medium, it is all what we do with it.
And, there are questions about the limitations of on-line instruction, especially something as complex as writing. I've had my BS detector on for a while, and it's starting to go "ping" "ping" "ping."
First of all, I learned from my writing teachers, in part, by picking up on non-verbal cues and face-to-face relationships. We digressed into areas not specific to my writing when I went to see them during office hours. I learned how to stay focused on a piece of writing in long, detailed workshops. I had faces and voices to attach to written comments on my work. I had to overcome a desire to run in the face of criticism because I was accountable to be there in the class, to suck it up because that is what civil people do when they have face-to-face conversations. There was so much more going on than mere transmission of content.
It seems that studies are beginning to measure some of what my intuition has been telling me for quite a while. Specifically, students in an on-line environment develop far less empathy, ability to be alone with their thoughts, and to participate meaningfully in conversation.
Sherry Turkle's book Reclaiming Conversation in the Digital Age, for instance, looks at studies done on student abilities to empathize, to be alone with their own thoughts, and ability to sustain conversation. Here's a link to an interview:
I have noticed that the more my courses go on-line, the more time I spent with students talking about what's been posted, difficulties with the technology, and nit-picking over trivial grade items. That is time that has been taken away from talking about their writing.
Yes, it all looks cleaner, like a PowerPoint is cleaner than a white board, but clean, illuminated, bullet-pointed, and color-coded is not the same as effective. The medium is not so much the point as what education is supposed to achieve.
What I wanted from my writing classes was to learn to think, to explore and express my way of seeing the world, to discover, in part who I was as a human being, to learn to listen to other points of view, see other worlds though eyes that see what I would never see on my own, to empathize.
What I see now in teaching is reduced to skills and information. I don't see much attention to who the students are, what they bring to our courses, or ways to embrace that as we moved forward into more complex ways of communicating. I don't see much critique of why we do what we do.
I am trying to stay open, to be teachable, to learn new tricks. I really am. I keep telling myself to be that worker bee that just gets his job done well and doesn't slack.
I am not saying that there is no place for on-line courses. There are courses that are primarily content-based that could work very well. I just don't yet see the benefits of on-line writing classes.
The BS detector keeps pinging away. My world feels radioactive.
There is more, much more, but I don't feel like moving faster than dragging my feet down the road into the digital landscape.
I guess I just find it too hard to let go of the desert of the real.
Saturday, October 17, 2015
The cafe, my cafe, was closed when I got there this morning. The sidewalk tables and wrought iron chairs were still locked up with their cables and the interior was dark as the mouth of a cave. I knocked anyway. Again. I even said something to the door. Hello? A caffeine addict on a Saturday ripe for writing will not be denied.
What to do?
I'll wait. I'm guessing there is a story here, some domestic calamity that kept the baristas from their calls of opening duties, a broken water main, a great sickness, maybe a plague I didn't yet know about. Had to be some reason.
I could go to Starbuck's, but, no.
So I clear a spot on the locked couch and settle in for a wait.
Now this is living, dear friends. I am sitting on a couch, watching the clouds race past, with nothing demanding my attention but free time, for a half hour anyway.
I think about the bony meal of my life, the compromises I keep making, the shortcomings, the small victories. It seems there are road blocks falling in front of me, no matter what the path. I feel numbed, desensitized, under-appreciated, over-stimulated. It isn't until I pause for a second to consider these things that I am even aware of them.
When I look up, I see a blind woman approaching me, sweeping her cane, coming right at me.
She is impaired rather than fully blind and asks me if the cafe is open yet. I give her the bad news and she pauses to consider this.
"I'll wait," she says.
I am not one to share my solitude well, but stay open, social.
"People think that blind people can't do math," she says. "I tutor them in calculus. People assume all kinds of things about what blind people can and can't do."
She seems to be reading my mind. I am embarrassed.
"I teach writing," I say. "People told me working class men can't write, or jump."
She likes that.
We settle in to talk about how school has become a standardized script for teachers, how creativity, and diversity of learning styles, intelligences, have been abandoned for expedience. We talk some about how tragic that is for students who don't fit the mold for whatever reason.
The bumper sticker version of this goes something like this: We ask only how intelligent students are, not how they are intelligent."Intelligence" is only a certain kind, abstract reasoning skills. There is nothing wrong with abstract reasoning. It's wonderful, but it's not the only game going, and reducing education to developing a single intelligence is a loos for all of us.
That kind of thinking leads to a flattened world where diversity of thought, talent, and possibility are all diminished. Students don't build on God-given talents like art, music, connection to nature, or physical movement unless they are recognized, or fight for it.
It usually takes as advocate or two to make the non-standard path a possibility.
I look at her, and see her, really, for the first time. She is sharp, strong, a fighter.
I envy her, because I have lost contact with the struggle. I am numb, beat, tired, just this side of demoralized. I can't even feel my anger at the machine any more. The reduction of education to low level SLOs followed by quantitative assessment has poisoned teaching. Just a fact in my experience.
Creativity, critical thinking, passion, elan, humanity have all been shoved into the corner, an afterthought if they appear at all.
"I'm going to get a master's degree in blind education," she says. "I'm going to write a text book on how to work with blind students and math."
"You go girl," I say. "You go."
Friday, October 16, 2015
A lady killer, heart-throb, lover, dream-boat, eye candy, and more, Demon could charm the birds out of the trees. His nick name had more to do with his frenetic energy than it did with any menacing behavior. He could just as easily been labeled "Angel."
But Demon it was, as in "he wrote like a demon," when he wrote, which wasn't as often as I would have liked. He was too busy doing tattoos on the side in a prison that forbade tattooing. He wanted to do one on me.
"I'll bring my needle, " he said one time in workshop. "We could do it right here." He looked around the Programs Room, with its blackboard that had no chalk, the bare walls, the ceiling tiles stained by roof leakage.
"You mean you have a tattoo gun?" I asked incredulously.
Don't ask me how or where or any other logistic details about such a thing. All I know is that contraband makes it into prison. One week, a brick of black tar heroin had been found in the false bottom cavity of an inmate's drawer. I swear that there are times when I see stoned inmates on the yard. It's a testimony to desires finding a way, and I would not be shocked to hear that inmates have ways to get cell phones or more exotic goods.But a tattoo gun?
"You never heard nothing from me," he said, smiling, meaning, yes.
I couldn't believe it, but it was just another in the series of surprises that Demon brought to the workshops.
He was an artist. A real artist. In another life he might have been a famous painter, or film director, or, maybe, poet. In terms of "human capital," his stock could have demanded a premium. That it did not is nothing less than tragic. His physique suggested Adonis, and his tattoos, which were numerous, were the quality that comes only at the highest price. There was a portrait of Marilyn Monroe on his shoulder blade; vines with roses grew down his calf; some kind of reptile snaked up his forearm and rested on his shoulder, looking viewers in the eye. Some of them he had done himself; others were executed under his close oversight and standards.
I considered the offer, for the briefest of delusional seconds. The vision of a corrections officer opening the door with the volunteer being tattooed would signal the end of the writing workshops.
"You know I can't do that," I said.
"Just wanted you to know I'm willing. I'd do it for free," Demon said, big grin filling his face.
His tatts, as they were, did not confrom to the gang-banger, macho type, and I could tell from the workshop dynamics that his work, or his unwillingness to work, was something of an "issue" out on the yard. He didn't conform to blunt authority all that well. His writing was a testimony to that.
He was a free spirit in a world where that can land you in prison, and it had. To hear it from him, all he was interested in was doing his art (top priority) and chasing romance (very close second), always the gentleman. I read many episodes of beach lovemaking in Mexico, dangerous romances with the consorts of drug lords, tourists looking for a lark with an exotic tattoo artist.
There were also the drug arrests, the automatic weapons to the back, the rough treatment, beatings, and cross-border extradition. He told me he was working on a book-length work and asked me to type up several chapters. They were good, but needed work to become publishable.
He told his story the way he did everything: with ebullience and passion. While his techniques were primitive, his learning curve with language was steep, and he climbed it with like a man starving for what lay above.
Here is a poem he wrote.
I am the Mess You Chose
Banking constant dollars
In Big Big Business
As I’ve strung a lasso
Round about neck high
To your high-heeled legs.
Penguin suits can solemnly dare.
Stare stone split stares
A shore of foam…
In sympathy my last, Black
Séance is a note
To your condemnation.
Tear a curtain shredded
As Samson is shaved
Bald, signs for weakness brightened
A cold industry abandoned
Damaging single mothers
My son is now your target.
Stop me now?
I’ll just stumble atrociously
Never to be broken
The understanding swells.
May I have a horse
At the end of my rope?
It’s me tatted down you chose
A rifle I have eaten. Afterlife
A haven for parasites
Just a movie forgotten
I was chosen.
The intensity here was no less than every piece he brought to the workshops. In some ways, I didn't know what to say to him. He had gone into a language that was so rich and playful that it was beyond me to make constructive critique.
Then, as often happens, he was "rolled up," moved off the yard after his tattoo needle was confiscated. I heard that things had gone badly when they found his gun.
I never got that tattoo and have been spoiled for considering one from a lesser artist. I hope Demon doesn't relent, that he keeps his high pitched passion, that his art thrives in the soil of his many liaisons, his humming, exigent genius.
Wednesday, October 14, 2015
A carpet of emerald green grass lay in sharp defiance of the shimmering colors of October in Wisconsin. The maples blazed in reds, yellows, oranges -- a painter's pallet of primary and mixed colors.
All of it dazzled me, the desert dweller. My desert colors are lovely, but subtle, the change of season far less dramatic.
Leaves fell on the highway as the car sped past, a whirlwind of turbulence. Late summer valiantly clung to the grass, while fall, a young upstart wrestled away her scepter. Fall would win by the day's end. That is the way it goes. Indian summer would become the gray sleet soon enough.
But today it was the magic point of equilibrium. The sun was hot, the air cool, the sky brilliant, and the leaves at the peak of their poignant power.
It was on this day that we sent The Bear on his Honor Flight, a program for veterans of WW2, Korea, and Viet Nam, that flies them to DC for a tour of Arlington Cemetery, Lincoln Memorial, and war monuments, before flying them back for a raucous homecoming. He spent the day as a center of attention, wined and dined from Madison to DC and back again. As he rolled through the cheering gauntlet of clapping family, friends, and community supporters, he cried. There was a lot of healing going on in that procession. I have never seen my father cry, but he is not the same man I knew in other times.We have both changed.
His story of getting here is a long one, but the gist is one of choosing to follow love.
The Bear, was a hard-ass, spit-and-polish, take-no-prisoners father. He plowed through life on a path of status, rank, image, and things. At least that's what I saw.
Now, however, he wants simple things: peace, quiet conversation, companionship, and some time to commune with the changes of the season. He has dementia and knows it. His gait sometimes looks like that of a toddler. His balance isn't the best, and he needs to hang on to things or use a walker. But he is still out there soaking in the breeze, the sun, the changing leaves.
As might be expected, this change of story and season does not come without some wind and turbulence. The Bear has chosen love in the form of a wife other than my mother and a new family. Some people see that as a betrayal to the old ways, the old family, the old story.
You pay a price for love. Love can be scary because it doesn't always follow the rules or the status quo. It can put you face to face with fear, loss, and old wounds. Such is the case with The Bear.
Love, in spite of it all, shines in the faces of those who know her, who follow her, even in the face of the obstacles.
Most of us have a limit to how far we will follow love. Reason, rules, moderation, money, time, energy -- all militate against following love into the wilder zones of fulfillment. The heart, we know, is a lunatic and will ambush the ego and all of its attachments. Love lives in the woods and carries out its ends in guerrilla warfare against all that stands in its way.
The Bear has learned to soak it in and to radiate it out. He has his moments, as we all do, but mostly he is peaceful, open hearted, and waiting to connect with anyone who will make the effort to do so. For better or worse, he has stepped over the balancing point between an old way of being into one that is new, one that sees beneath the veneer of superficial image to the heart beating beneath, to a radiance of acceptance, support, generosity, common ground.
He was a fighter, but has become a lover, as certainly as the trees have gone mad with color.
We don't know what lays down the path of his future, but in this moment, he shines, a supernova of love.
So beautiful, so rare, so fragile, so undeniable. So it goes.
We carry on in the business of our days, the leaves and green grass of October in Wisconsin a dream, a memory of surrender.
Wednesday, October 7, 2015
I met Fire when I was in second grade. What was first a spark by a flint right next to my heart grew into towering inferno that tore through the village of my life and left nothing standing. He then punched me in the face when I first saw my neighbor, Marilyn. You won't believe this, but Marilyn invited me over to play with her on a polar bear rug, in front of the fireplace. We lived in Alaska, so this was not so strange back then. To show how much I liked her, how much my chest was on seven-year-old fire, I threw rocks at her on the playground. I don't remember if she returned my affections after that. Fire simmered down for a while in my late single-digit years, but came roaring back when another neighbor, now in St. Louis, showed me her pug-dog, Smokey. Barb liked pink frilly things and took me to her basement. It was convenient that she lived next door so both of our houses could burn at once. Again Fire banked the embers until we moved to DC where I touched Marjorie's breast. Fire left me in ashes. She dumped me for an older guy, so Fire brought in his criminal brother, Grief, to mess me up and leave me in rags on the front porch. I tried to stay clear of Fire after that. You know how that goes. He moved up a bit and now lit the attic of my desires in the form of pen and ink. Good Goddamn but that fire won't die down and has left me in a world lit with Promise, some street person that won't go away. Together they feast on my days, savoring each of them on a fork, one at a time, like priests overseeing a blood sacrifice. They wait, wondering when I might again join them, toss a few words onto the perennial embers, lie down once more on the stone.
Tuesday, October 6, 2015
Like tigers in martial arts movies, it hunkers down there beneath the mesquite tree next to the carport. It crouches just a bit too well sometimes though. The tree drips sap on its oxidizing hood, roof, and trunk. The spoiler has begun to peel.
It's a crouching old tiger now, a '97 Nissan 200 sx, with 165,000 miles that have begun to show. It gets 40+ miles per gallon, if the winds are right, and has five sweet speeds on the floor. It's a thinking person's sport coupe with manual everything. It's Arizona plate has the letters ZFC, Zippy Friggin' Car, which makes it light and cool.
A bit lonely too. The "pride" has moved on into adulthood.
Zippy the Zip-Meister, has been the faithful steed of both of my sons, Kyle and Sean. It has served nobly and tirelessly.
Sean ferried his friends all over Tucson during his high school days. Zippy went from the east side climbing destinations to the west side trail heads without complaint, carrying hundreds of pounds of sweaty teen-aged boys and girls. It went to The Beach, to tennis matches, even to San Diego a couple of times. It lived there for a bit, after crossing the Mojave Desert in all its sweltering desolation.
Kyle had Zippy then. He used it for work and to take Alesita to Hermosillo, Mexico after her bus failed to depart from Tucson. All the way to Hermosillo, with no idea of how to get back.
Zippy doesn't even speak Spanish.
Zippy may crouch, but it does not hide. As a dragon of sorts, its prowess is not easily masked.
Yes, the Zipper is long-in-the-tooth, and we have a lot to talk about as we commute to work these days. It has been a good friend. We both have entered late mid-life, with tires that are getting a bit bald.
Every trip is a gamble. I don't know if a hose will burst, or CV joint go arthritic, or heart seize.
We are a day-to-day thing, moving still, but for how long, nobody knows.
Monday, October 5, 2015
She sits in the front row, always quiet, if not a bit aloof. She doesn't seem to trust me, or is impatient with the clunky red tape of a university writing class. Her eyes show a sharp discernment, but also a reluctance to fully reveal the extent of her insights.
There are others who want to dance in the light of class attention. They joust with me, have already begun to call me "Toso," even though we are only in the third week of the semester. They find my goofy socks and perennial footwear of sandals a bit over the top.
She rolls with it all, on her way to somewhere else. This is just a required stop along the way. She doesn't shine, has no need to. The extroverts can run the class as far as she is concerned.
But then her paper comes across my desk. The cover is blown. She can no longer remain in hiding, at least to me. She has taken a ho-hum assignment and transformed it into poetry. She went to the food court at the student union to observe and report.
The food court at the UA is an exercise in corporate franchise and screen bombardment. Students are served up fare for the body and mind that keep them on the path of good corporate citizens. The place does not exactly make people think, and is the counterpoint to my experience and the Memorial Union in Madison, Wisconsin. That was a hotbed of diversity, intense conversations, and student creativity.
So, she goes to the UA food court to observe. I expect a litany of cliches about Chik-Fil-A and Burger King.
What I find is "High school, for me, was a metal grate of conformity and judgments. Here I sit left alone, anonymous, my mind at peace, surrounded by a chaos of hurry."
I have seen this before. A student sits in class and does little to distinguish himself or herself and then begins to write. The secret is out. There is a voice there, a capacity to take words and shape anything into a living, breathing thing of beauty. They are magicians in that sense. They can change a moment from dull, flat, and tiresome into something worthy of awe, of wonder.
For me, as a teacher, this is a sip from the Holy Grail. It is rare, but it happens. A few students who have the gift have gone on to become writers or teachers or community organizers. I see them occasionally around Tucson. They are rubies in a field of gray, unbidden gifts that I carry close for the hard times, for inspiration.
She goes on to the smells of coconut, mozzarella melting, and orange chicken surrounded by a "beige conformity and drabness in spite of the blaring neon signs saying 'buy me.'"
The assignment asked students to reflect on the place they observed, to bring themselves into the portrayal.
She writes : "Everyone is in motion. I am too, but drifting for the first time in the direction my life wants to take. I too am moving, but now out of the glare of high school criticism and labeling -- 'loner,' 'freak,' 'weirdo,' -- and in an anonymity I find liberating."
Damn. Couldn't have said it better myself.
But she doesn't let up.
"While others may find the paradoxical anonymity and solitude of the food court unpleasant, I am content to let my thoughts take me where they will, to see where they will go, what person they will reveal in this new found freedom."
"I can't know what others see or feel here, what are the circumstances of their lives. Here I can be the girl that I am becoming without anyone jumping all over me. I can be the girl who dropped her glasses, the girl tripping over herself, the girl, who, for whatever reason, is sitting in the corner, closing her eyes to better see what it is she wants to see, writing for herself. I can be the girl who is a surprise, a stranger, but yet familiar, an old friend who I am just beginning to know."
So clerks take their orders and shout out numbers and engage in mind numbing repetitions of tasks while one young woman who happens to write sits in a corner and finds a poet she always knew, a girl who wanted a chance to speak her vision.
She unleashed a vision so strong it transformed the place to a work of art. She has the gift to turn a pedantic exercise into a dance, a synergy that adds up to far more than the sum of its parts. In the world of multiple intelligences, her strengths lie in what might be called the intrapersonal and the linguistic. Another framework, the Myers-Briggs inventory, might place her in the category of introvert as well. As such, she is in the minority in a world dominated by extroverts, an educational system that views knowledge as primarily a social construction, an interpersonal exchange, of persuasion and argument, of fitting in to the system. Writing curricula stress the need to identify existing forms of social communication and to then master them, all while conforming, rather than questioning.
D. will have to navigate a university path that is not much built to draw on her strengths. She will likely have a hard time contorting to fit in the narrow mold of a successful university career. Fitting in will not come easy. She will not get much opportunity for self-exploratory reflection, or be asked what it is she thinks about something. Most of her life here will be about short term content, parroting what her teachers tell her, paying homage to the received wisdom of experts.
"The one thing you can't be here," she writes, "is the girl who didn't talk because she either had nothing to say or no words to say what she was really feeling."
With that she began to disappear into the swirling chaos of a university food court only to re-emerge between the notes of constant movement, anonymity, and chaos.
She is an anomaly, an incongruity, a human spark in a research assembly line. I wish her well and will tell her to hang on. She's in for a hell of a ride.
Friday, October 2, 2015
The concept seems simple enough: sit down, put some well-chosen words on the page, send it in, sit back and enjoy the fruits of published expression. Gravy. Piece of cake.
So why has it been so hard to get the words out there?
The answer to that gets complicated. I hate it when things get complicated. Or, better said, I don't like that I care how little writing I have gotten together in a form that some editor will find worthy of publication.
Part of the problem lies in my belief that writing worth publishing should ask something of readers, push them to think, to consider the bigger questions of being human -- literary, in other words.
"It's good," publishers say in the rejections, "but it won't sell. Why don't you pump out some easy-to-digest writing that people will buy? Nobody has the time to work through your high-minded, serious material."
"Literary" stuff is on the skids, while "genre" stuff tends to rake it in.
Can't help but wonder what to do.
OK, so maybe it's time to climb down from the tree of literary merit to consider some lower hanging fruit. Maybe I should start writing soft or hard core erotica. Or action-packed fantasy. Or -- the lowest fruit of all -- the dog story. People want escape, titillation, heart-warming love that doesn't talk back, vicarious luxury, other worlds. I can't blame them. Life in the digital age is pretty mind-numbing. Simple good and evil makes easy sense.
It would also help to incorporate a celebrity, and maybe a political message that would speak to those one percenters who have discretionary cash to spend on books.
Of course, there is good "genre" stuff out there. Harry Potter and The Hunger Games series are both well-crafted, offer thoughtful critiques of society, and limn round, complicated characters. Fifty Shades of Gray? Nah. What I need is some way to put all the hot trends together in a potpourri of sex, action, wealth to spare, easy-on-the-mind ideology, and heroes that bring the tribe together again.
All of that, packaged and movie-ready, now that would be a wiener.
That, or try and make it to Oprah... We'll leave that one alone for now.
It's just what is. There is no shame in trying, a rough draft anyway.
So here goes (think special effects, violence as drama, PG-13 nudity, endorsement by bi-partisan think tanks) :
Guns, Vampires, Dogs, and Hot Love
The weight of The Donald's weapon pressed against his thigh as he sat down with his loyal golden retriever, Pumpkin, to consider the fortified lair of the evil vampires, commies, drug dealers, and puppy millers.
A scent of lavender reminded him of her, and the ache in his groin as he swelled with reverie made his leather pants even tighter. Pumpkin looked at him with her doe eyes and braced herself for the fight to come.
He shook off his daydream and got down to business. Just as he was about to shoulder the grenade launcher, the convoy of black SUVs rounded the corner of the only road leading to the evil doers' hideout. Quietly, slowly, he set down the RPG before glassing the situation. He and Pumpkin took turns with the binoculars, the eyes of each meeting the other in a telepathy of tactics that needed no language.
When the body guards jumped from the lead idling and sinister GMC to raise the gate and to scan the perimeter, he saw inside the bullet-proof Suburban to where she was bound with duct tape in the back seat. In the dimming light, he could just make out her ample bosom between the diving neck lines of her red satin cocktail dress. Her skirt had been hiked up enough to reveal a smooth, nicely muscled, silken thigh. One shapely foot still wore a stiletto pump, the other foot, small, pointed as that of the ballet dancer she used to be, thrust forward between the front seats. Her stockings had run but her toes were perfect. How he loved those toes, those feet, her shoe closet. He wondered what had happened to that other shoe, with its leather -- sweet leather -- straps, so thin, so strong, so... grrrr... Pumpkin gave him a look that snipped that line of thinking in the bud.
Though he could not see her pouty lips or her mysterious eyes, he knew they were burning with indignation and unbowed dignity. She would have a thing or two to say about this when the tape came off.
The thought of her there, in their clutches, it made him, well, pretty mad.
His outrage fueled a focus like that of ten Ninjas. He could have leaped over the concertina-lined wall with the adrenaline that coursed through him, but he instead focused his rage. Revenge would be sweeter if he waited, bided his time, and called upon the powers of his inner canine.
Pumpkin's hackles went up when she heard the muffled cries of Penelope, the hostage held by the ruthless drug-dealers, most of whom were also pedophiles with connections to ISIS.
He knew for sure only a few things: he was in the right, and that because he was right, he was entitled to carry bigger weapons, that Penelope's heart was true, even though she had scorned him, and that, after the carnage, he, Pumpkin, and Penelope would find peace and euphoria following great sex -- if he could only isolate the evil Hispanic/Arab/Asian/Black/Mixed-Race villians, catch them by surprise, and take the fight to the embodiment of all that is wrong, mano-a-mano, his wholesome dog against the villainous broken-bad but un-house-broken pit bull.
As a white, straight, (but secretly questioning) male, he carried forward a crusade of goodness in a world gone mad with chaos and conspiracy against America, against freedom, against his preferred pecking order. He wanted simple things: a blonde woman, a ski chalet, a frosted bottle of Bud Lite with drops sweating and cascading down the bottle, a Japanese pick-up truck, well, and maybe, a BIG tower that would advertise his masculinity. It was what he was owed, what he deserved, and he would settle for nothing less, even if he had to get it all himself, which he had. No help that is, just like now. One man against a tide of stupidity and slackers. He almost gave himself away as he began ranting to no one. Luckily, Pumpkin whimpered that something was happening below. There was more movement.
Once the gate was open, the black SUV inched forward between the land mines. Only the most expert of drivers could navigate the perimeter of the high-altitude fortress.
He saw immediately that his flying squirrel suit would get him over the wires and into the compound. But he would have to wait until dark, the wolf hour, when the blood sucking guards let down their guard, when all was silent save for the beating hearts of ripe desire,unconditional dog love, and rippling guns that carry small arms with a big clip.
He crouched, waited, wound tight, ready to spring at the perfect moment. Nothing premature could satisfy his mission, bring all of this to the climax he hoped for. Only death, the petite mort, could keep him from bowling over the evil and corrupt king pin...
[For full text, send advance and contract for royalties.]
Now with an appeal like this, who could say no? He asks, knowing that this is a joke, satire, parody. But thrill, eros, gender stereotypes, celebrity, dog, politico/socio acceptability and kowtow schmoozing to the elites, and a dog (did I mention the dog?) all seem to add up to the right ingredients. All it needs is some football scenes mixed in between the vampires and we're golden.
Look out publishing world, here I come.
A more polished, unironic version of this could be marketable, in part, because it reinforces the master narratives of gender, American self-importance, and moneyed ways of doing and being. That tends to work better than writing, or art of any kind, that is complex, less clear-cut, asking deeper questions of what it means to be human.
The best writing, I hate to say it, has to perform some social critique, not to slavishly pander to fashion, trends, or low hanging appetites (not that those things can't be part of good stories; they are). But writing that just makes the status quo feel good about itself, or just leads readers into escapist fantasy, is not the best writing. The "real," "serious" stuff goes after the "hidden narratives," the stories that aren't splattered all over the popular media, that speak the truths of those who aren't making it in the current system, that are not given privilege, that work in dead-end jobs because it's the best they can get from a system that excludes them.
The hidden narratives take work to understand, ask that readers think, go beyond mere titillation and entertainment. And, problem is, not many publishers are interested in them. Publishers think they won't sell. I think readers are smarter than that. They likely want the "real" stuff, and would buy it.
OK, that's enough. This is starting to sound shrill and strident. Suffice it to say that noble, serious, and earnest don't pay the bills. Those values and two bucks will get me a cup of cheap coffee.
Just can't bring myself to dance to the piper's tune, la chingada del perro bailarin. Fookin Aye.
I think I'll keep fishing for the wild ones, even if means I come home empty-handed.
Thursday, October 1, 2015
Sophia's head rests on the desk. She looks angelic and sunburned. Her hours on the tennis court have exhausted her and she can't connect with the abstractions of analysis in the freshman comp class.
Andrew looks serious, really serious. He drills his attention into the white board with so much focus I think his gaze will knock down the wall.
Sarah is spilling out of her evening gown. As a member of a sorority on "evening gown day," she pulls Sterling's gaze and mind away from the screen where today's text patiently waits for dissection. Sarah's doppelganger, Gabby, tries to focus, but this world of gossip proves to be too much. She turns her head to Sarah to discuss who was in her cups the night before.
Noely and Jesus have their spot in the corner. They are quick with the tablets, way ahead of the rest of the class in finishing the assignment. Alex is right there with them, so quick it is frightening.
In the middle of all, Cristina sits in a kind of grace, beauty, and elegance that is permanent and unflappable. She has deep roots in calm presence born of years studying dance. Her poise and serenity is counterpoint to the chaos, hubbub, and diffusion of the late afternoon class.
Only fifteen minutes left, I think to myself, and forty-five minutes of work to do. Oh well, I'll catch up later, maybe. There are piles of papers to grade, the Promotion Criteria for Non-Tenure Track Faculty to write, the survey results to compile, the norming session to plan, the broken water main at home to repair, the syllabus to put together.
Maybe over the weekend.... after the prison workshops.
If I get caught up, I might get to write some of my own stuff. The question then becomes, to what purpose? To feed a need for accomplishment and recognition? Moving the work onto a bigger stage, a larger audience? Just because it is what I do? A way to fill the nagging void that whispers not good enough? Ah, who knows?
Plus the publishing world is rigged. My work will never see the light beyond the slush pile of rejections. Without an agent, nothing will get off the ground. Got to get to know somebody in the biz or I'll be here forever.
Wait a minute... I already have been here forever. Time is up, and I guess I lost.
Ken and Richard, journeyman writers, family by circumstance, are on a road trip. They are at Point Reyes at a quaint hotel, like the ones they stayed in on their book tour a few years back. Richard lost Lois to Alzheimer's earlier this year. In a Facebook post, Ken cites Richard as "hearing as extramarital lark." Richard's humor and poetic ear may be faded but are still sharp. I think of them looking at the mad tangle of lines that define student postures here in the classroom. We are not a finely composed painting or poem. Legs extend akimbo, heads push up against the back wall, back slouch, and arms cross in anticipation of exit. We are at cross purposes. I don't blame the students or resent being stranded here in this rough draft of a work life today.
They are good students, fine human beings, these first-year characters. In my way, I love them, as I love what I am trying to do with and for them. And the whole project has grown grotesque, is stunted, a tree root-bound in its narrow box.
Then time is up and I tell them to finish up their brainstorming for the next essay. Dutiful though they are, and hungry, distracted, they jot down some notes. The class ends unfinished, a work in progress. The jangling abruptness of the transition rings in my head as I walk down the hallway back to my office.
Martin, the custodian, is there, waxing the floor. "Every night," he says, "you walk the same corridor. But look at this tonight. I waxed it for you. You always stay late."
I do as he says. He is right. The floor gleams in the light, like a mountain lake under a blazing sun.
"It's nice," I say. "Thank you for your work." And I mean it.
My desk is testimony to the unfinished business of my day. I set down the clipboard, the attendance roster, the book littered with Post-Its that flag the upcoming lessons -- the march forward into another round of papers to grade.