Monday, November 30, 2015

Reflections on “Sneakers, Safety Pins, and the Inescapable Realities of Hay in the Barn”

Sneakers, Safety Pins, and the Inescapable Reality of Hay in the Barn

Note: The Italics are my reflections on the choices I made to fulfill this assignment, which was to observe, describe, and reflect on an event and a community. The reflections will form the basis of a letter that details my plans for revising this essay.

This title incorporates some of the telling details of the event. The sneakers speak to the need to improvise, to show up with what you've got, while the safety pins represent formally joining the bike group, abiding by the rules, the numbers, . "Hay in the barn" refers to the limitations of the body. They all add up to the ingredients of the story, which is about desire and obstacles. I want to be the great racer but live in a reality of age, lack of conditioning, and genetic gifts. I like to use specifics in titles because they can suggest, predict, or cause readers to wonder how the detail will show up later in the essay. “Sneakers,” and “Safety Pins,” are concretely specific while “Inescapable Realities” are abstract. I also like combining concrete details with abstractions to forecast a larger significance. “Hay in the barn,” is an endurance sport metaphor and serves too to predict some of the focusing idea here. It’s a reference to the “realization” that will come later in the essay. It also gives readers a taste of the “lingo” of this community. I want readers to get a good "look" at the place, the people, the rituals, the guiding shared values of this community. I want to serve as a kind of observing witness here. The title is just a place to set that tone.

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.

Narrative essay introductions tend to use some kind of scene, or action. It’s a convention that serves to put readers into the place, the time, the action. I wanted to set the stage here in the early, predawn morning, when everyone else is sleeping. I wanted the description to be sharp, but just a bit puzzling too.  

Even though I like the introduction, I don't know if it works as well as it might to set up the specific event here. The chairs at the cafe might come across as random or incidental rather than purposeful. 

It was still cool before the sunrise and I still had my headlamp on over my Cabela's cap. Today would be hot, in spite of being in the middle of September, in the high 90s by late morning. The heat sticks around in southern Arizona. That would be a factor in the race.

An observation essay is supposed to tell a story of some kind. The first draft was merely a collection of details. This is a second draft and has something of a focus. I want to illustrate the desire to do well being thwarted by the realities of talent and training. I don't know if that is coming across here. Up until this point, I have been setting the stage, easing readers into the event without overwhelming them. I want them to feel some of the moment, the “cool” the coming heat. In this kind of writing, description, with its use of concrete and sensory detail help to create an “experience” of the event. This is some of the classic teacher exhortation to “show”, not just tell. The last line of this paragraph introduces some tension, some anticipation and provides a reason for being up so early.

I was going up to the Arizona State Championship for the Individual Time Trial. I was not going up with any hope of winning, but I felt compelled to do it anyway. I would be the oldest rider in my category and had little real talent as a bike racer.

At this point I want to give the reader some context for the event. I also want to enter the essay as both narrator and participant. My persona, the voice of the narrator, here is neither a star nor totally removed from expectation. This kind of self-aware reflection helps to anticipate the coming conflict and larger significance. That is important for readers to know as the essay progresses.

I like the time trial because it is an exercise in focus and is a race against one's self. No one knows whether or not you might have pushed harder at any given point. No one knows how "honest" you are with yourself when it comes down to pushing through pain. It is the event in cycling that is the most about truth -- no drafting, tactics, team help. I am riding in the "open" Merckx category -- no time trial specific aerodynamic equipment -- and will be against riders much younger and faster than myself. There is some element of luck in terms of wind, heat, and mechanical issues, but most it's just about the clock and the effort.

I used this paragraph to provide some background about this event, some information that readers who are not cyclists might find useful to better understand the event. I call this kind of development the “situation” or the “circumstance.” It is the bread and butter of a narrative essay. The story and the larger significance hinge on a situation that readers can see or feel. The place is a kind of vehicle that caries the meaning of the essay. Without it, the larger significance can feel un-grounded or unearned. I do not want readers to “take my word” for anything, but to see, feel, hear, taste, maybe even smell the circumstance.

The barista opens the door. I order my red-eye and hit the road up to Picacho. It's a short fast drive along the interstate. I don't listen to the radio but do visually rehearse what is coming.I put myself on the bike and anticipate the urge to sit up when the pain gets to be too much, to back off when the heart feels like it is about to burst from beating so hard, to relax the legs when the ache sets in. Yes, it is hard, not a sprint, but not far from it, and I will have to both push and pace myself to keep from blowing up too soon.

Here I go back to the opening scenario. The "coffee" angle will form one of the treads that runs through the essay. Toward the end, I plan to return to the now cold coffee cup when I am done with the race and starting the journey back to Tucson, to home life, the "usual" routine. I am not sure why I include the coffee reference here and may cut this out if it isn’t helping the story. Aside from this little time and information skip, the structure of the essay will be chronological, a weave of actual events and my commentary on those events. The event lends itself to chronology because the tension rises as the day goes on, before dropping off at the finish, the return home, the resolution.

I pull off beneath Picacho Peak and make my way to the parking area. There are already about a hundred cars filling the overflow truck parking of the Picacho Travel Center. Lean men and women are spinning on stationary trainers behind their cars, their bib shorts loose at the shoulders, the suspender straps draped along their hips. They wear heart-rate monitors and glisten with sweat, even though the first rider will not go off for over an hour.

Abundant sensory detail here helps readers see some of the defining features of this community and event. Participants are trained endurance athletes, so the “heart-rate monitors” the leanness, and the stationary trainers all help “show” that. I might have to add some more here.

I find a spot to park and go check in. I have to show my USA Cycling ID to get my race number and safety pins. My start time is written on the back of the number  along with instructions to pin the number on the right side. On the way back to the car I stop to wish some riders from El Grupo luck on their rides, not that they need it. They are seriously trained, hardened cyclists. The program takes disadvantaged kids and gets them bikes and training in exchange for community service. It's become a top-tier youth cycling team and has sent riders into pro ranks. They are a force. Here's their web address:

Again, I want to emphasize the community here and some of its rituals. We have ID numbers, and organized groups. I also want readers to be able to get more information if they want, so embed the link in the draft.

One of the riders will eventually win my category today, and I couldn't be happier to see them here. Cycling is an elite sport in many ways. In order to be here, riders need the equipment (expensive), transportation, time, and the support of others. Also, cycling has tended to be a "white," male, and European sport, but that is changing. This year, for the first time, there were African teams in the Tour de France, and the peloton saw more diversity in terms of race. I am delighted to see the changes. Women too, have gained better footing in terms of pay and access to the big stages, like the TdF. The World Tour now has events in the Middle East, Asia, and South America. I hope the cycling "tent" continues to grow with participants coming from more cultures and backgrounds.

Now, I feel it is time to give some of my commentary, some of my reflections on this community. I point to areas of change, improvement, and hope. I also offer up a bit of personal perspective and critique. I wonder here, if I should mention issues like doping scandals, that plague cycling. I also wonder about the cost of equipment. Racing bikes cost many thousands of dollars, keeping talented athletes from taking up the sport. It's also a bit snobby sometimes. People are very ego-invested and want glory at all costs. I'll think about this. Any new information would have to help move the story along.

There is still a long way to go. No rest for the good guys. 

I just wanted to add some of my voice here, to put a human face on the narrator.

I head to the car, open the hatch, extract the bike, and set up the trainer.

Action. This is a sentence of verb clauses to underscore the actions. Actions are part of the story, the scene, and help to make the circumstance one readers can connect with. I try to use active verbs, vivid verbs, like “extract” whenever they seem to fit.

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.

Specific people here illustrate some of what I was talking about earlier, in terms of the growing diversity of the cycling community. I also tie the description back to the values of the community, some of the defining traits of fitness and youth.

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.

Another portrait of participants helps to flesh out groups and individuals. The “sneakers” detail helps to provide a telling example of what individuals at the event are going through. It also shows the need to go with what you have, to improvise. I name specific teams to give readers a taste of some of the “color” and variety of the groups. The sponsors, use of other languages, the mention of “team,” and “road” show some community values.

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. When I finally got a nice bike, it cost more than some of their cars. That's another story.

This paragraph I devote to my background, my perspective. I want readers to identify some with want this means to me, why I am here. This type of commentary, or point of view helps readers to find the significance that I am beginning to locate in the event.The names of the legendary bike racers I hope helps readers feel some of the romance that surrounds cycling. These names to me are an invocation. I don't know if they will work that way for readers. Perhaps part of my implied audience is other cyclists here too. I have to sort that one out.

After enough time on the trainer to work up a sweat I decide to take a spin out on the road. I set my jersey on a day pack and pin on my number. I usually glue it on with spray adhesive, but I don't have that today, so have to do the best I can. The safety pins remind me of changing diapers. That was not such a long time ago. Life is like a race in many ways. You have only yourself to answer to ultimately. Did you do what you could or not?

I want this section to crank up the tension some. It’s time to enter the breech and heat of testing and competition. This community shares a value of testing oneself and of placing that test, and the results, up against the results of others. This is a race, after all.

Out on the road it's quiet. The two lane highway is a lightly traveled frontage road along I-10. The view of Picacho Peak in the rising sun is spectacular. The air is still cool, but has warmed up into the 80s. A breeze has picked up out of the south. That means I'll be fighting wind for twelve and a half miles before turning to return with the wind at my back.

I want to recreated some of this moment because it was important to me and to the story as a whole. I decide to name the highway here and to reiterate the mountain name. I think maybe I have repeated "Picacho" too many times and might have to cut some of the references. The verb "fighting" fits how I want to convey the adversity of having to ride all-out into the wind.

I feel a rush of adrenaline as I imagine the start.

Then I am there. I clip in while a holder steadies the bike. I hear the five second count -- four, three, two, one -- and I am off. The road is rough and dips in and out of arroyos. I don't see much as I settle in to a hard effort. I ride at about ninety or so percent of my maximum heart rate. Into the wind, this is about twenty miles per hour. I have to be careful not to go out too "hot," and blow up from the excitement of the start and the adrenaline.

This is combination of narrating the specifics of the event and providing information. Present tense is my choice here because I want readers to be as much "with me" as possible. Present progressive might seem like too much.

I feel good and pace the intensity. I settle in and listen to the dramas of the mind. I hear the voice of aversion to pain that begins to whisper "slow down, take it easy" and the reality czar with "you are the oldest in your category; you are not going to win, so what's the use?" and the others who take their turns. I hear too the coach reminding me to be smart. "Ride hard, but settle in. Feel the zone, the paradox of calm in the heat of battle." It encourages relaxing while working hard, the way to sustain over an hour of hard effort.

The “inner voice” here, I use as part of my reflection on the moments of intense effort. Part of telling this story is recording what happens “inside” as well as “outside.”

Almost never do I sustain my heart rate this high for so long. I don't know if I can do it, but I let the body take over. It either will or it won't. Either I have trained well or I haven't. The "hay is in the barn" or it isn't. This is the hard and inescapable truth: you can't spend what you have not earned.

I want to spell out some of the significance here. My realization is that my results are tied both to my talents and to my training. I have hit the wall and can hang there, but can go no further.

And the truth is that the El Grupo rider, who started behind me, comes around fast, way faster than I could even dream of going, and pulls ahead slowly, inevitably. He recedes like a fading galaxy into to distance, a shining light dimming in an indifferent universe. 

The particulars of the other riders help to tell some of the story here.

I see another rider who started a minute before me up ahead and close the gap as we cover ground. Three miles, seven, ten, and I pass him. He is still behind me at the turn-around and a race official penalizes him for pacing and drafting. He gets mad and passes me. On the return trip I see him struggling. He is no longer smooth but is bobbing and tightening up. I can see that he is bonking.

I am the bug and the windshield for whatever that is worth. 

Voice and perspective.

I pass him again with about three miles to go. He falls back. The body doesn't lie. I have been lucky today and the long rides up Mount Lemmon have paid off.

I see the finish though a tunnel of oxygen debt. My body is tingling from lack of blood, ears pounding with my pulse. I manage to stand and sprint across the finish. That sends me into the red zone, and I have to coast for a long way to get my breath back.

It was a good effort. I did not win, not even close. I was minutes slower than the El Grupo rider. No state champion jersey for me.

I still have some coffee left for the drive back home. The cafe has been open now for hours and the sun has taken on the intensity of Arizona in late summer. I have done it, met some of my demons, and come out satisfied with the outcome. I have the rest of the day to enjoy the fruits and euphoria of having chased a dream no matter the result.

I hang the bike on its hook and staple the race number to the wall above my tool bench. The bike and number stand ready to testify that I joined the race, that I was lucky enough feel the heat of the fray, the place where no one can hide.

I want to come to a resolution here, some finishing thought or realization. I don’t want to overstate a larger significance. This event did not “change my life.” It was, however, important to me. I feel satisfied about having done my best, even if I did not win. I can live with that. 

The overall purposes of narrative essays and reflection are, to my eye, to look at human concerns, big issues like desire, love, loss, mortality. I think the subject matter here is coming to terms with limits, with aging. The narrative as a form and the strategies of narrative and reflection all help to fulfill looking at those questions. The purposes of the essay fit the form pretty well. 

This, however, is not the same as an analysis or an essay whose primary function is to inform. The personal material would get in the way of that.  


It only took thirty years or so of practice to get to this point, the place where the puzzle pieces start to fit together. You see how it all works, for a brief second or so at a time. You see that it isn't really about you after all, that it is about giving in rather than getting your way all the time. The social climbers, rising stars, golden ones won't listen to you, but that doesn't matter so much any more. You're off their radar anyway. When the conversation at the party turns to who held what office or led what committee or won which award you can finally sit back and soak in the light streaming through the window as the sun sets on another desert day. Your body still wants to tighten up, to draw the attention back to you and what you have done, but it's vestigial, a relic of some forgotten kingdom now covered in dust. You're old. Your eyes are going bad. Your brain, however, is sharp, penetrating, clear, and quick. Not that it matters to anyone else. After all, it's just the here and now that you occupy. You know that change is not only possible, it is inevitable. You ride the waves of change now. The fear of not having enough has taken a back seat to the knowledge that all is in motion, in flux, shifting -- a story under constant revision. The only guide it knows is truth, energy, and resonance. So you recede into the background, enter the river, and begin your journey to the sea. You have nothing to hang onto, nothing to lose, and the joy of it burns. The brighter it shines the more invisible you become.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Storyteller Visits the Prison at the End of Wilmot Road

Only rarely does the prison visit my dreams. Last night was one of those rare visits. In the dream, I and the inmates were all seated at a long banquet table, and yes, we were, as is the prerogative of dreams, drinking wine and eating bread. (Yes, the Big Guy was at the center of the table, but nobody was paying much attention to Him. We were more interested in the Earthly delights than airy spirituality.) The rational part of me wondered how I managed to smuggle all the wine, cutlery, settings, and platters of food into the prison, but rationality has little sway in dreams, so I didn't stay for long in logical disbelief. We, the inmates and I, were all drinking deeply and stabbing at the piles of food with our usual irreverent abandon when I noticed a figure outside the door in the shadows, watching the scene. I was the only one who seemed to notice this amid the clamor of the feast. He was watching me in particular. I could tell he was about to bust me for bringing in the food these guys needed. I felt an ice pick of panic pierce my gut. The party went on. He stood there in the shadows watching. I asked someone to pass me a beer. I knew he would come for me. It was just a question of when.

I woke with the dream still vivid in my rushing blood and short breaths. What the hell was that? I thought. Just the psyche shrugging off some of its dead skin? The voices offered some speculations: You've eaten too much over the past days and can't sleep for all the digesting. It's prison day and you are worried about being up enough for the workshops. You're just a weenie worry wart who sees danger everywhere. And on and on.

All of this will fade as the sun burns off the haze of sleep and dreams. I'll get dressed, pack the tubs, organize the materials, and make copies for discussion. Today will be a routine day -- just guys sitting around a table talking about life, ideas, stories, and ways to make sense out of chaos. We will try to hold despair at bay, find comfort in the courage of others. Just another day. I just have to do my part. One foot in front of the other. Pass the beans and the brew, comforts for the heavy weight of this ephemeral, fragile, and easily frightened body.  

Thursday, November 26, 2015

My Work Problem

On this, the day of giving thanks, I have much to be grateful for: wonderful sons, a place to sleep, friends for whom I would scale the tines on the gates of hell, health, and a moderately functioning brain. I have won the lottery, and I know it.

That said, work has been an "issue." I have a hard time making a living. I can't seem to fit into the mold necessary to be happy whistling while I work in this, the post-modern, assessment-driven, trivialized university.

It's a character defect. I am barely employable. I wish this were different, that I could be happy humming along the university assembly line, stamping grades on students as they passed by on the belt, freshly minted in the skills necessary to becoming corporate citizens.

But I am not.

So the question becomes: what do I do? On the one hand, I could quit and become a vagabond, join the ranks of the unemployed, live under my bridge, pen my incoherent ravings, and sink further into obscurity. On the other hand, I could change my attitude, grow up spiritually, and stop looking for meaning in all the wrong places. This view, of happiness being an "inside job," is the harder path and is the one most people discourage.

I don't know if it is possible. I can't seem to jump the tracks of habit. As a chronic malcontent, it's hard to embrace a commitment to cultivate happiness.

This is the classic dilemma, the two horns of which are both sharp and likely to impale me no matter which I choose. Then there is the third way. I may have to throw sand in the eyes of the bull, and do both. I am hoping the world is rich with potential for an aging English teacher who needs a job and that I can meet the demons that keep me from my own fulfillment.

The best course of action seems to to be taking a leave of absence to test the waters. A year from now, I hope to be standing in the wind of change, looking for whatever it is that will fill the gap created by leaving my job. I won't have health insurance or income or an office. That's all fine.

I will have to shoulder the onus of being pro-active. I will have to engage the demons that come out of the dark and into vacuum created when I don't have to be somewhere.

After a year, if nothing materializes, I can maybe go back, pick up the trail of my work life, and finish out my days as a wage slave. I might be glad to get the work. The work world, after all, is pretty brutal and my situation is far from the worst case scenario.

So here I am at the crossroads. I am grateful to have to chance, the choice, the opportunity to step off the edge of the cliff and into the space of an unknown future. The rush of fear and excitement is a welcome change from the deadened numbness of routine.

Onward. Adelante.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Detachment Is Not Indifference

"Possession," a friend of mine used to say, "is pornographic."

I didn't get it at the time, but am slowly beginning to understand. What he meant, I think, was something like "Desire is an end in itself. You don't have to consummate every little taste of lust." Striving, craving, scrambling for the bigger, better, hotter, at the expense and disregard for what is, leads to emptiness. You can't, as the old saw of twelve-steppers says, get enough of what you don't really want.

With Black Friday closing in and the mad frenzy that is The Holidays hot its heels, I have to think about this. I have to think about how getting things is often a substitute for looking closely at the unhappiness beneath the desire. I ameliorate the longing by consuming things. I medicate with consumption. Shopping and chasing after stuff, in other words, can be like a drug that covers up pain. The causes of the pain won't be addressed by gathering up more stuff. Instead, they will persist, maybe even fester, until I take the time and energy to look at them.

Desire, lust, anger, fear -- all of the churning emotions that follow me around are begging for me to act on them. This looks like quitting my job, punching arrogant assholes in the face, and getting into all kinds of debt, impulse behaviors, and trouble. The trick is that the emotions aren't the problem; it's the fallacy of needing to objectify them somehow, to concretize them, to make the mistake that I am my emotions and thoughts. At least this is what my Buddhist teachers say.

I am trying to detach, to let them be what they are, to feel them, to watch them, but not to be them. I am learning to occupy a space some people call an observing witness. This space is calm, peaceful, and humming with the energy of presence. It's a great place to hang out, good work to have if you can get it.

Now, this does not mean I don't do anything. I have to act, but actions coming from this place are done mindfully, deliberately. They are based on reflection, of considering the options, and finding what seems the best action in everyone's long term best interest. What is in my long term best interest are actions that will benefit my soul, my conscience, my family, my species, my planet. They are the actions that might lead to happiness.

And they are best done with no attachment to an outcome, without a need to possess or control or dominate. I have to detach because I care too much to contaminate the actions with expectations. I do what I do because it is what needs to be done, even if the cause is hopeless. My reward comes from the mindful acts and is a contract with a sense of what is right.

Of course, this world is defined by compromise. There is no easy, clear path of right action, thoughts, or words. I have to do my best to approximate  what I know to be right. Because I am not beholden to the codes of the university, my nation, or what works financially, I am usually out of step with my fellow humans. In many ways I am dismissed, invisible -- if not insane -- un-American, or even dangerous in their eyes.

What they can't see is that I am alive, that I begin to see things as they are (to the best of my ability anyway), that I have a taste of freedom from the incessant grabbing. The days of detachment are an ongoing creation of connection, peace, generosity, patience, and contentment with what I have been given.

I am not there often. Old habits and my fear of betrayal of the consumer's code make it hard to leap across to the other side.

Yes, possession can be pornographic, but being happy with what I have, and acting out of mindful deliberation, makes the entire world my lover.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

El Tour -- Chapter Thirty One

According to my heart rate monitor, my beats-per-minute totaled 172. That meant I was ten BPM over my maximum. It likely also pointed to my imminent demise should I keep it up.

Oh well... I guess you have to expire from something, and this was as good a cause as any.

I was serving as a domestique for Kim Sooter, a cycling phenom looking to earn platinum in her first year riding the El Tour de Tucson. To do so, she would have to average well over 21 mph for 104 miles.

No problem for her, but it was going to be a problem for me. Good thing it was about time to hand her off to the next domestiques. We were serving as a kind of booster rocket to cut the wind so she could save energy and ride longer and faster, not that she really needed it.

For the last hour and some, I had been weaving in and out of packs of cyclists for the first 25 miles of the ride. The pace had been hot. The traffic chaotic. Crashes too common.

And I was really out of my league. I wasn't well trained and am getting a bit old for this level of riding. But you know how that goes. Kim marked every surge and stuck to my wheel like Velcro.

Eric Streeter was helping too. As a six-foot three teen-ager, he cut a mean swath through the wind. He too was smokin' along with the big dogs. To my eye, he didn't seem to be suffering as much as I was. But then he came alongside and announced that his heart-rate was over 200.

OK, at least we're both earning our keep, I thought.

When the road began to turn up, after about 24 miles, I had to ease off the gas.

Kim found her connections and took off with them like the rocket she was.

Eric and I settled in for a long, hard, good day on the bike. We had already burned a bunch of matches, and needed to drink, eat, and take it easy. The legs still had eighty miles of road to cover. The climbs were just beginning. It was time to cruise and soak up some scenery.

As we rolled along I got to talk a bit with Nelson Vails, "Nelly," and hear from him about his days as an Olympic track cyclist. Spectators rang bells and encouraged us to keep it up, yelling "good job," and other magic spells that somehow worked to give my heart a boost.

Watching Eric, I thought of his father, now gone, and the El Tours we did together. We suffered too. In his gallows humor about his melanoma he once told me he could "keep an eye" on some cooking pots as he extracted his prosthetic eye and moved to set it on the lid of the boiling pot. Very funny.

Eric's brother, Mark, had also ridden El Tour. Once with Team Colleen, a group that helped cancer survivors and family meet cycling goals, and once on his own. I remember seeing him in the front group, sitting up, his head much higher than everyone else's, flying by at 23 mph. He just looked at me and waved.

This El Tour, was now just Eric and myself. We settled in to the task and to the lessons of the day. We stayed together, supported each other, stopped when we needed to. We immersed ourselves in the pain that accompanies any hard effort and kept moving.

We took communion at the altar of shared endeavor and worked at finding the humor on the other side of a desire to complain. We had invited this physical challenge because we wanted to test ourselves, both physically and mentally.

El Tour serves as a harsh and inescapable yardstick of conditioning. You cannot hide or draw on strength that is not there. The body can only perform with what it has in the tank. El Tour is also mirror of the psyche. When you suffer, you see what you are made of, what depth of character you can draw from to keep going. Limitations rise in the mind. They dare you to step past them. As soon as you pass one, another pops up, and another. The urge to quit is constant nattering, and it takes practice to ignore the whiny voices, to smile, or grimace and push through.

Will knew this. He taught this to his sons. They are now learning it the hard way, through lived contact with the choice to persevere or pull out.

And there are times to eat, to drink, to take on fuel. Failing to do so spells disaster and breakdown. That's another lesson. No one answer works for all situations. Thinking in one track is the path of the fanatic and the idiot.

Eric, wiser than I am, made the call to pee, eat, drink, and stretch before the final push into downtown Tucson, 25 miles distant.

His dad and I had stopped at the same sag station five years ago. In adjacent Porta-Potties, we were relieving ourselves when he asked me, though the plastic walls, "Hey Erec, my pee is black. Does that mean anything?" "Nah," I replied. "It's just weakness leaving the body."

He, like Eric and I now, turned into the wind and rode to the finish. Eric and I took the same roads that Will had traveled the year he died. Eric and I marshaled the will to finish, to push ahead. We followed the examples set by generations of nut cases who set out to test themselves. All comfort gone, will stepped up to direct the effort. Just keep going I thought. And we did. We crossed the line together, as Will and I had, years before, relieved, grateful.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Saving Yourself

In the rush to argue over whether or not to let Syrian (or any) refugees into the country, an important piece of understanding is often left off the table. That is self interest. I am not talking about an egoistical, fear-filled self interest here. I am talking about a self interest that comprehends the interconnectedness of all life and all matter. (Yes that little detail.) If one accepts that indeed, as physicists tell us, that we are all connected, that we breathe the same air, drink from the same water cycle, see the same moon, and are made of the same matter, then, yes, saving someone else is actually a step taken to save yourself. Buddhists say that in some other life we will all be refugees, if we haven't been so already, and that the work we do here will reap benefits when we are the ones knocking at the door, asking for help in a time of crisis, needing to be let in. That is real self interest, enlightened self interest, but self interest nonetheless.


There was a part of him that he kept locked up. He did so partly to protect others, but also to protect himself. That part loved too strongly and acted without regard for what others thought of him or whether or not behavior would earn him money or position or allies. That part of him was a servant of his soul and listened to nothing else. You can understand now why it was so dangerous. Even with that part of him locked up, he loved so strongly that he was beside himself sometimes, standing there next to the body that went to work, taught classes, sat in meetings, graded papers, bought groceries, paid bills. That side of him, right there off his left shoulder followed him everywhere, but no one knew it was there. And he certainly couldn't say anything about it. He could only absorb it, let it fill him with all the unrequited electricity of desire. Unleashed, this aspect of him would destroy his tidy routine, would fly toward the Beloved without restraint, a focused beam of purpose. A kind of Mr. Hyde would discredit the decades Dr. Jekyll had built so carefully, block by dutiful block. He knew he had to survive in this world and that this feral part of him beholden only to the work of his soul would never make it, much less thrive. Its ferocity ran contrary to every civilized system of thought and behavior he knew. But, there comes a time for everything, even soul in a soul-less scramble to buy and sell and grasp and climb. It got so tiring, all of that responsibility. When he no longer valued the striving, the need to get it right, or to plan it all out, he took the key from beneath his shirt, inserted it into the lock, and turned it with a deliberate twist. The lock fell open with an audible click.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Digital Aversions

Most people dream about the place. It is clean, well-appointed, airy, and razor sharp on the cutting edge of style. The Apple Store in the tony La Encantada Shopping Mall is a magnet for the hippest of hipsters. They wear their tight, straight-legged jeans, trim their beards just right, have whitened teeth, and look like they walked out of a Calvin Klein ad in the New Yorker.

The place makes me cringe.

The technology is the newest, fastest, highest resolution, statement-makin' technology out there. This is the stuff that users customize to express their personalities,their visions of life and liberty, their uniqueness, individuality. They get special colored cases, attach expressive stickers, make them as personal as a broken-in pair of boots or frayed cowboy shirt.

I walked into the Apple Store, the swankiest of swank at the most elite mall in Tucson, wearing my sweat-stained, sun-rotted, grime-encrusted, foam contaminated Cabela's cap. That, I infer, was a bit too much expression, a kind of garment over-share that was not received all that well. The salespeople scattered with looks of "I'm not dealing with that guy. You take him."

Very well.

I took it upon myself to approach the hippest of them to inquire about replacing my dying MacBook Pro. He gave in, reluctantly, with a sigh, that said, "O Kaaaay..."

He pointed to the MacBook display table with a sigh as he saw a trim female hipster sashay in with messenger bag, I-Pod, I-Pad, and I-Phone. She was stunning in her cobalt blue, mirrored aviators. His look said "Why not me?"

He didn't roll his eyes when he turned back to me, but had to fight the impulse. He glanced down at my frayed Carhartt shorts. I hope he didn't notice the hole in the seat that likely revealed more of my briefs than was tolerable.

"Which one is the cheapest?" I asked. Might as well put my cards on the table, as if they weren't there already.

Again, the sigh.

"The base model is only $999," he said, looking past me, nodding to someone in the back.

He went on to identify the speed of the processors, the memory of the hard drive, the resolution of the screen, and other details.

"It's pretty basic," he said. "If you want to do video editing or digital mesmerizing of multi-modal docu-synthesis (or something like that), it might be slow."

He might as well have been speaking Russian. He didn't know he was speaking to an uninitiated, ingenue primitive straight from hinterlands of face-to-face networking. I was the hick in from the farm looking in awe at the bright lights of Broadway. 

I was also having trouble breathing. I felt like the world had taken off without me and that I was stranded on some desert island with stone tools and no way to make a fire. I wanted to grunt.

"Most people don't use laptops anymore," he said. "You could do just about everything with an I-phone."

Yes, cyber life on a phone, I thought. No need for a camera, computer, day-planner, or separate device to make phone calls. Just get up to speed, I thought. Ugh.

"Do you guys ever have sales?" I asked.

That did it. I could see him push the button under the table to signal the muscle. Get this guy out here. The bum's rush is too good for him. He's a throw-back, an neanderthal, a relic, an obsolete piece of rusted junk.

All of my anxieties about getting with-it, on-line, developing cyber literacy, just surviving this brave new world came to  a head. I couldn't think or speak for the paralysis. Aye.

Without ceremony or explanation, I mumbled a thank you, turned and walked out. The big glass door swung open easily onto a November afternoon full of fall chill and changing colors in the trees. The breeze felt good. The demons, though, were still there in my wake.  They wore T-shirts identifying them: Fear, Inadequacy, Resistance, Anger. I had first met them long ago, in other situations that I could not understand, that resulted in my feeling like an outsider. I would have to come to terms with them.

I would have to go back sometime. The techno-world has not gone away. I have to deal with it. I would learn the vibe, take a few trips into Cyberlandia, check it out, see if I could learn some of  the lingo, go through my baptism by fire.

What the hell? It's just a new, strange, foreign, and scary territory. As long as I have a brain cell or two, I should be able to figure something out.

For now, the sun and wind will have to do.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Getting It

His truck gently bumps the parking barrier with its beefy front tires. He feels the slightest jolt travel up the steering column to the wheel he holds. Here at last, he thinks.

The morning is still cool and the sky to the east is just beginning to lighten behind the sharp ridge of the Rincon Mountains. Pink ribbons of cloud shimmer on the baby blue backdrop as he grabs his book bag from the seat next to him. It is heavy with a laptop, student papers, a three-ring binder full of spreadsheets that serve as his record of student grades. In it there are also a journal, several dry-erase markers of different colors -- red, green, blue, black. There are bills in envelopes that need to be paid, a checkbook, assorted pens, one copy of the most recent Sun Magazine.  It's all good stuff, but is just dead weight right now. He is here for something other than doing his job.

He has come here to sift through the noise of his life, the sink into a chord that resonates deep in the well of silence that he can hear only at this hour, when he is most awake.

He closes the dented door of the old truck. It was broadsided a while ago, but he has yet to spruce it up with socially acceptable body work. The paint is oxidized and a faint trace of rust has begun to creep around the edges of the exposed metal. Wounds.

He unlocks the first gate, passes through, locks it again from the inside. He then unlocks the door to the sacred chamber. He pauses, takes off his shoes, focuses as well as he can, bows, and then enters. He is joined by an animal who greets him. Its fur is thick and the animal is strong. He lives here and welcomes all those who come to search.

The animal trots alongside him to place where he sets down the bag of worker, the weight of livelihood. He then sits, closes his eyes, and lets all of the chaff of scrambling in this world fall away. He waits for the chord to come. He is learning to be patient. He doesn't always reach it, though is certain that is there, down deep between the folds of thought and habit. He lets himself sink into a deeper and deeper awareness.

He is awake but utterly still and calm when it comes to him, or he opens enough to it. Its resonance runs through him like a wire of light. It is there he sees the way, the path, gleaming road of his destiny. It something felt more than spoken, something known better than understood. It is woven of gifts inherited in this life, the guiding principles he has known all along but forgotten when the din of necessity scrambles his coherence.

He enters the resonance and feels its message through the most elemental bones and blood of his senses. It is this you have been looking for he hears. He finds a few words to tie together as a way to carry the sense with him when he has to leave. This is not his place to live for now. He can visit, but has to travel out into the pain of forgetting and compromise. It is his destiny, his curriculum for this life. He must string together the story that best pulses with the chord he can hear only in the quietest of moments, the precise second that the sun splits the darkness over the ridge of the mountains to the east.

He sees that the sharpness of his anger only hinders his peace. He decides to take down the billboard of complaint he has grown so fond of broadcasting. Yes, it has earned him some attention, but the chord it strikes is a malignant note. It's up to him to replace it with stronger note of direction he knows will keep him aligned. He knows that seeing the choice is not something found easily. It is the result of conditions he has been given. He only vaguely understands, but the gift is there, as undeniable as the rush of first and certain love. 

He is the luckiest man on Earth.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Composing Humanity in Prison Writing Workshops

I am often asked about inmate writing when people find out I conduct prison workshops. After the big questions of "Why?" and "Aren't you scared?" and "How can you spend time with those people?" the talk moves on to the actual work.

Most assume that inmates are mentally weak, if not ill, that they have nothing worthwhile to express, and that, most likely, they can't spell. I can't blame them. Most of the images that media portray of inmates are stereotypical to the point of ridiculousness. Think violent, incapable of remorse, loser, loner, sociopath, incapable of articulating an original thought.

Beyond misconceptions of the workshop population, I think these well-meaning, curious people assume that writing workshops are like bad writing classes that waste time teaching grammar in the hopes that it will improve student writing. Writing classes, for many people, are right up there with dental work and colonoscopies.

After working through the now familiar progression of myths many people have about the inmates, workshops, and about writing in general, I begin the explain that the workshops are not "those kind" of writing experiences.

What is most difficult to explain is that the workshops are about the "big stuff:" life lessons, learning that effective expression requires a development of empathy, of becoming, for lack of a better expression, more human. Reading with a mind to learning, to soaking up rich language helps too. You gotta have the words if you're roll with the big boys, after all. Language, I find, and being able to listen, notice, observe, record, and narrate, is all part of being "human."

Yes, I know that "human" covers everything that humans do: genocide, cheating, brutality, exploitation, and on and on. But what I am talking about here are the characteristics of being human that tend to be underdeveloped, both by inmates and successful examples of people out here in the "free world." I am talking about emotional IQ, vulnerability, sincerity, and, yes, sensitivity to how people act and think, to seeing beneath the surface of behaviors to some of the motivations below, some of the churning of damaged psyches.

These traits underlie good writing, writing that strives for literary merit. Stories worth hearing and telling usually deal with some truth of the human condition. They speak to shared challenges in the worlds of love, money, work, integrity, unfairness, and all kinds of misunderstanding. When someone talks about life challenges, about real, lived experience, (either as fiction or memoir) one has to take some responsibility the consequences of bad decisions. Personal demons come out of the carefully kept world of looking good and announce that they make for part of a good story. The best work often deals with embarrassing moments, mistakes, character defects, failure, insights, comedy, and usually involves a hefty dose of contradiction. Nobody comes out looking entirely good or entirely bad, because we are, every one of us, a dance of devils and angels.

Life is complicated, and if writing is honest and worth anything, it needs to meet those complications head-on, or at least deal them a glancing blow. It is through contact with the "Big Questions" in other words, that writing workshops begin to compose and construct humanity, the humanity that is waiting, shy, and blushing on the sidelines, waiting to come into the light of expression.

Inmates tend to be experience-rich and confidence-poor when they begin the workshops. Some of the men will sit quietly for months before bringing their first piece in for response, and if they are up to it, critique. That takes a courage that is not taught in the puffed up bravado of the yard. They have to reach deep, sometimes digging around in the guts of memory and imagination to bring something forth that a developing human will find worth giving his attention to.

It is not only the inmates who are composing their humanities. The guy running the workshops is having his growing pains as well. That is another essay, one with its own aches and ruptures from stretching. 

So when people tell me that inmates have small minds, hard hearts, and are somehow less than human, I want to say, "Put that in writing. We'll see how your story holds up under the lights, the test of human empathy."

A Day in the Life of a Long-Time Lecturer

You wake at 4:30 a.m. You have been doing this routine for over twenty years, so you know it well. It's mid-week, say Thursday. You take some time to plan, to assemble the materials you will need for the day. You pack a laptop, planner, and three-ring binder full of papers to grade into a backpack. You prepare a simple breakfast, a banana today, and get dressed. If you have children, you will have to drop them off at school. If they are sick, you will have to find someone to take your classes. You ride your bike to work, just as the sun is coming up. You turn off the light to save batteries. You cannot afford on-campus parking and can’t afford to maintain your car. Once you get to your office, you will take your reusable cup and go get some coffee. If they ask if it is a refill, you lie and get the coffee cheaper. Then you find a table in the student union where you can think and drink the coffee before you grade papers. If you are lucky, you will write. If you have papers to grade, papers that are due back later today, you will help others with their writing by encouraging them with your comments. You also give a grade.  They are not the best papers, but you have learned not to be too much of a snob. You plow through them and try to be constructively critical and fair to all the 25 students in each of your four classes, part of a 5/5, full-time workload. Later this morning, between classes, you will have a committee meeting. Unlike the tenured faculty, you do not get release time for service, committee, scholarly or creative work, but you do have 20% time for “initiatives;” your 20% is curriculum design, work normally done by administrators who earn four times what you make. The work is time consuming and loaded with complicated details necessary to roll out your course. Student Learning Objectives need to be spelled out; methods of assessment identified; syllabi codified, standardized; pedagogically precise verbs embedded into assignment sheets and rubrics. If the course is good, others will take credit for your work. Credit here goes to those with tenure, but tenured faculty do not have time for such work. They will accept the award your course wins for you because you will not be invited to receive it or have the money to travel to the conference that will recognize the course. Tomorrow, your committee will host a meeting with administrators. You may be asked to take minutes. Today, though, you will sit through most of the meeting, but will have to leave early to teach. On the way to class, you will eat a dry energy bar. That is lunch. You will teach and attend other meetings for five and a half hours, covering the range from a first-year course to graduate level. When you finish your last class you walk across campus in the dark to your office. There, you place your clipboard and the homework that needs to be read for tomorrow. You will then post the grades on-line so students can keep track of the minutest changes in their scores. They will email if they slip down a percentage point. Then you will ride your bike seven miles in the dark. There, you will grade some more papers before falling into bed, only to get up and do it all again the next day and the next.You are lucky that you don’t have to travel to another campus to teach a few more courses for the extra money. For a year of this work you take home about $28,000. Not bad, considering you get health insurance with it, but it is difficult to support a family. You don’t get a sabbatical, or release time, or job security, after teaching full-time for over twenty years, but are expected to serve as a course director, member of several committees, to supervise graduate student teachers, and to write somewhere in there. You have directed national level professional development programs, published in university presses, in national journals and magazines. You direct a high profile service "outreach" program. You know that no matter how much you publish, how much service you do, how well you teach, that you will never penetrate the glass ceiling above you. Promotion is out of the question, not part of your work trajectory or university policy. You keep your mind on the path you have taken, the love you have of writing, reading, and language. You remind yourself that you share that love with students as much as you can. You do this because it is what you wanted to do. You remember how it was when you were a student, how exciting it was to see life spelled out on pages, in words. You work to remember and to keep the rising anger at bay. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

I Bumped Into Jorge Luis Borges on a November Night in 1977

After reading "The Circular Ruins" by Jorge Luis Borges, I knew I had to go hear him speak when he came to Madison many years ago.

His writing opened doors in my little Wisconsin brain. Because of him and words by others that pointed to the power of imagination, the cruelty of circumstance, and a need to act now, I had abandoned everything I called familiar.

I was living alone, going to college, and utterly lost. I wanted the toughest of challenges, to become myself, and Borges had pointed in that direction, but with no illusions as the difficulty of that undertaking. He wrote that the dreamer in the ruins "understood that modeling the incoherent and vertiginous matter of which dreams are composed was the most difficult task that a man could undertake." I was in the breech, had nothing to lose, and driven by hunger. That's the way Borges would like it.

So, he was going to speak at 8:00 at the Memorial Union Theater. I had just finished my shift as a dishwasher at Paisano's, a pizza place off State Street, and was in a hurry to get home, clean up a bit, get my backpack, and head to the Union to get in line.

I think half of Madison had the same idea. Back in those days, someone like a Borges could pack a house with young people who were on fire with questions. They were heady days. Madison, after all, had been in national news for its anti-war protests an even a bombing that had resulted in the death of a grad student.

Many of us were looking for something, a way to understand the chaos of the times, something that might mean

People were asking big questions and Borges was a kind of prophet. His work influenced Gabriel Garcia Marquez, among others, and was an antidote to the flat conformity and consumerism of the early 60s.

All I know is that I got lost in it when I read it, and it propelled me into studying Spanish, its original language. The idea of "dreaming a man" in "The Circular Ruins" gave me hope that I could dream a life that would lift me out of the quotidian small town world of Wisconsin. I couldn't breathe, and Borges opened a window through which fresh air blew.

So I was in a hurry, not running exactly, but passing others in a fast, somewhat determined walk. I don't remember the exact intersection, but just as Borges was stepping off the curb, his elbow in the capable grip of his young and beautiful companion, that I collided with him, his face two inches from my own.

I almost knocked him down, but not quite.

He was blind, so couldn't see me. I was mortified as I realized immediately, even before I actually bumped him, that I had plowed into one of the great minds on the planet.

I stuttered an apology. He looked directly at me, his face unchanged in its serenity, and said something like "no hay de que," no problem.

His companion, however, glowered. If looks could kill, I would have been dead after her first irritated glance. "Idiota," she said.

Borges, raised his hand to calm her. She took the cue and shot her irritation at the broken up sidewalk.

Later, as I sat in the balcony in the theater, listening to him read, I thought back to our collision, a chance meeting on a November night, in a large university town. So close, I thought, to a passing vision. It, like hundreds of other close calls, near misses, and head-on collisions in this life have guided and followed me like spirits, like the magical forces in Macondo of A Hundred Years of Solitude.

It is rushing headlong, sometimes, that you run into things, like bumper pool or pinball, little changes in direction that can affect the trajectory of life.

As I lose speed, my inertia running out, decelerating to a stall, I can see him still. He is calm, out there in the ethers, raising his hand in forgiveness. "No hay de que," he whispers. Don't worry about it.

It's just what happens as you dream your life into being. Sleep harder, focus the beam of your attention on what it is that sustains, for it will pass faster than you think, a speeding wave of voice and light.

As I dream this man I want to be into a form I can embrace, I realize that others, somewhere, not all that unlike myself, are dreaming up the vision I mistakenly call me.

How's that for a cooked noodle?

Saturday, November 7, 2015

When Life Lessons Come in the Form of a Packrat

Yes, I am awake again.

Two-thirty a.m., and the packrat -- the one that knows not to take the bait in the live trap, the snap trap, and who eludes my killer cat, Simone -- is at it again. He has found a way into the duct work and has found something to gnaw on. That something has the acoustics of a stand-up bass, and amplifies every little chew into a late night megaphone of irritation.

He, or she, has gotten my attention. I am up with my flashlight, my headlamp, my broom, my shotgun, my Howitzer, and my brass knuckles. I am going to get him.

Only I can't. He is hidden behind plumbing and conduit and couldn't care less about my superiority in the arms race or the hierarchy of Being that puts me and my fellow hominids, especially homo sapiens, well above a lowly rodent.

In fact, he appears in the beam of light, smiles a greeting, and then goes back to gnawing.


This is not the first time this has happened. Everywhere I go, whether Mount Lemmon or New Mexico, I run into my nemeses.

They are in my purview, my line of sight, and won't take no for an answer when it comes to stepping out of the spotlight of my attention.

I am left with no alternative but to consider the packrat my teacher for the time being.

What am I to glean here, dear Buddha in rodent form, from your presence, your smiling invitation to consider my spiritual curriculum? If you could speak, what would you say?

"Oh dear pilgrim, you are irritated by me and my avarice. I can see that. But this is my nature, so I have no choice but to reflect back to you some of your weakness in the ways of things. You, dear biped, while not a hoarder, have let things collect around you to the point where you are choking on them. I am here to tell you to let go, to toss out, to pass along, to free yourself of your need for things. After all, we lowly types have no choice, you of the 'sapiens' species are supposed to be able to reflect, decide, and then act in the world's best interest. You don't have to take more than what you need."

"Ah my unwelcome packrat, I hear you and I agree, but it is not that easy. For you see I am identified with all of this and without it I should not be able to rest until I possessed it all again."

"That may be, but it is not my problem to solve. You need to do what you need to do. You can resist or you can surrender. It's nothing to me."

"If I act on your lesson, will you leave me alone at night, let me sleep?"

"If there are not piles of objects around here, I tend to lose interest and move on. I can't promise anything though."

"I may trap you and take you away. Or my cat will catch you. Then I won't have to think about this anymore."

"That may be too, but, for now, I am here and you can't seem to get rid of me. Plus I am legion. My brothers and sons will come after me when I am gone. It's all up to you. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some work to do, to get more space to store my treasures. It as, after all, what I do."

Then he leaves me there, in the cold, November night.

When I lie down, it is quiet. It looks like he will spare me his gnawing for the time being.

Just as I am about to drift off, Simone jumps up on the bed and gently places her paw on my eyelid.

She sits, calmly, purring, everything about her saying "It's time to wake up." 

On Paper -- Advice to Young Scholars

If professional life is like a race, I am losing. Those with whom I started have accelerated and are already crossing the finish line of career achievement. They are deans, provosts, full professors, muckity-mucks to the maximus. They long ago disappeared over the hills ahead of me as I slogged along the path of a lecturer, teaching freshmen, earning a third of what they earn, and getting little or no credit for curriculum design, for long years of experiment and reflection and innovation, for any achievement related to the practice of teaching.

What, you might ask, made the difference between them, the successful, and myself, the slogging, frustrated malcontent?

Well, interesting you should ask.

It's all about paper, looking good on paper. And paper means publishing, marketing, and playing the academic game. Of course, there is "good" publishing, the refereed, scholarly stuff, and "bad" publishing, essays, editorials about your university in the local newspaper, and things like memoirs, at least in my "field." (My field has always been a mix of teaching, writing, reading, language acquisition, literacy, and exploration of ideas. I jump fences between disciplines as a teacher and writer. I guess that's part of the problem too.)

If you want to move up the academic ranks, you need to do the good stuff. And you need to promote yourself, throw your hat into the ring, schmooze like crazy. You have to be the kid in class who sits in the front row and raises his hand before the teacher even asks a question. "I know!" "I know!"

You have to practically squeal with eagerness, a little cocker spaniel of positivity. You need to narrow, specialize, find your niche and fill it up with expertise. You need to hop to it and learn to make everybody else wrong or inadequate in some way. The old guard had nothing to say, unless they were stars. In that case, kowtow.

If you are the least bit slow, reluctant, critical at the wrong times, or a boat rocker, you might get into trouble, be a bad risk, and be doomed to the basement of academic drudgery. If you fall into that category, and carry the title "instructor," or "lecturer," it won't matter how much you publish, how well you teach, how much community or departmental service you do, you will never rise up the ladder of rank, salary, or position.

Even if you are good on paper, you are damaged goods, persona non-grata.

So, when the gun goes off, at the beginning of your race into the world of academe, start scribbling and keep you nose clean. Find the buzzwords -- socio-rhetorical literacy, digital everything, SLO-driven assessment -- and go for it. The end justifies the means. Push down every door you see. Storm the palace. Jump on the bandwagon. Take no prisoners. This is the war of your life.  Look to those who write the checks and kiss up to them. Start racking up the lines on your vita. Make a name for yourself. Push the rest of your life into the background, because none of it will help you if you don't get that paper kingdom built.

Looking good on paper is part of the political hardball that academic work has become.

Don't look to your experience for answers. There you will find only situations and students that require you to abandon your neat and tidy conceptual frameworks, will require you to act mindfully, to be eclectic, to see that no single theory explains everything in the complicated world of teaching, perhaps contradicting your precious concepts. You will find excitement and confusion and multiple truths. You might have to admit that you were wrong about some things. Buy we can't have that. No. No. That takes too much time, will end of costing too much, transferring precious attention to what's actually happening with students in a lived experience.

It's about the paper, looking good on paper. 

Friday, November 6, 2015

Touching the Live Wire

He held no interest in the workshops until he saw Sandra Alcosser, a visiting poet, walk with me across the yard on our way to the Programs Room. After that workshop, he hailed me from the other side of the fence separating the sidewalk from the rec yard, and asked how he could get into the workshop. I told him what I tell everyone who asks, "Send in a kite." I thought that was the last I would hear from him. After all, the excitement of seeing a woman visitor on the yard passes as quickly as a June rain shower.

He did, however, follow up, and soon became the hardest working member of the workshops. A. is a lyricist at heart. He writes love songs, but he wants to understand poetry. He devours books I bring in. Laurence Perrine's Sound and Sense, for example, has long been a classic for university poetry seminars. It's a semester-long text book that covers theories of poetry, forms, and it contains a lifetime's worth of prompts for writing verse.

A. worked through the book and about drowned us all with the wave of paper filled with his responses to the prompts. He wrote villanelles, pantoums, haikus, acrostic poems, sonnets. He experimented with form poems, free verse. He crawled into metaphor, metonymy, meditations, and rants. The guy was on fire.

His eyes look at me with  a gaze I would expect from a bird of prey -- sharp and hungry. His nose is sharp, brow low, cheeks chiseled. There is an edge to him to makes me a little uncomfortable sometimes. But his passion for writing gives him charisma of leadership in the workshops. He is unafraid to speak his mind when critiquing the work of big-shot gangsters.

Beneath the sharp exterior, A. is a man in love with words. He spends hours revising single lines once he gets to the point where he wants to polish a piece. And he speaks lucidly about his quandaries between the connotations of one word or another. When he can't decide between one and another, he makes up a new word, such as "contradistinctive" in the piece below, or he juxtaposes opposites, such as the Dionysian Apollonian. I don't if it's because I know him, can hear his voice in these constructions, or if they do carry an organic sensibility, but his inventions make sense to me.

His work looks at complexity, paradox, contradiction. He goes to the heart of ambivalence. His instincts for tension help him sniff out the stories lurking in his own work and the work of others. He loves deeply and is angry. That might fuel some of his insights into conflict.

When, J., a grad student in the MFA program came in to talk about prose poetry, she brought along copies of J.G. Ballard's poem "What I Believe." Here A. found a form capable of conveying the range of his vision. Here is a sample of his work:

Untitled III 

            I believe in the power of the pen to bleed onto the page the pains of yesterday, to pollute the bright surface with audacious ideas laid down as loops and stray marks.

            I believe in painting in words, done by one stroke at a time, to add a little bit of blue to the natural gray of this dream called life.

            I believe in ideas, abstract as they come, to grab hold of them and smash them to the concrete, to create and destroy them, to conceive, deceive and make them bleed, to kill them.

            I believe in reading a novel but once, and to go over a poem over and over, ‘til each line becomes a novel in itself.

            I believe in making many pictures into one image, in making many lines into one, in making many words into one, in summing up many ideas into one punch line, in imagining how much more we can say using one word to convey sentences.

            I believe in observing the unseen, in containing the untameable, in capturing the wind from the East and keeping it for selfish gain.

            I believe in the daemon that troubled Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the writer, in that shadow that is the light hidden in the vale of tears, that is the soul, in the entity that some call evil, but what I call the spring that gushes forth gold.

            I believe that before Satan was cast out, he robbed the treasury of heaven, and now showers those who will listen with rubies from the Holy of Holies, the secrets of the dream of life itself.

            I believe that the mysteries of life aren’t mysteries at all, but are the things we know the most of, the things that scream at us to only look within, into the mirror inside us that reflects true being, the demon within.

            I believe in the blunt talk, how oxymoronic it is when it cuts with machete-like words, hacking to the heart.

            I believe in putting notes to words, in giving voice to the heart, in giving color to the soul, and hope to the young.

            I believe in not holding Death at arm’s length, in not trying to avoid paying one’s debt to nature, in not running from tomorrow.

            I believe in illegality, in being tabooish in order to be crowned with the regal headband of Alexander the Great, in crossing moral borders, climbing the Great Wall in order to be Genghis Khan and trample into dust the so-called chosen, in breaking the law, in being part of the 1%, the rich and outlaws, giving it 100%, and schooling the street 1·0·1, all in order to be the Dionysian Apollonian.

            I believe in being unconventional, in untying one’s hand and foot, in being unconstrained, freewheeling my free will down the great road, in being unstuck, shaking the mud off my boots in order to stomp and get blood on them.

            I believe in being contradictory, in being contradistinctive, in being the contrarian, surpassing the norm, antagonizing the average, directly contrasting a constellation to a planet, putting to shame the prevailing wisdom of the age.

            I believe in Jesus and Darwin, in Muhammad and Krishna, in Buddha and Confucius, in the Aztecs and Spaniards; take a little here and a little there, puree and drink up the mixed blood of my ancestors.

            I believe in the sad eyes that hide a happy heart.

            I believe in being honest, in not lying, but honestly telling you nothing, in being truthful, and the truth is this; silence is the ultimate truth, in being sincere; I sincerely do not apologize.

            I believe in being passive aggressive; you can laugh now; I’ll just wait ‘til no one is watching.

            I believe in being aggressive; sometimes there won’t be a next time.

            I believe in keeping score.

            I believe in the rose, the petals and thorns of life, in the one apple a day, and in that one apple from that one day, he must have eaten the arsenical seed that took root in his loins and poisoned the seed of man.

            I believe in names, if we only lived up to them; in titles, if we only honored them; in handles, if we only grabbed hold of them.

            I believe in the deus ex machina, in the Godsend, in the Jesus of the story, in the eagle perched upon the nopal cactus devouring the serpent, in the father of my daughters.

            I believe in changing with the times, in if you live by the sword, you will die by the gun, in giving up your dreams of a better tomorrow for a better tomorrow.

            I believe in holding on, only to let go; in capturing the hummingbird, only to let it fly once more; in catching the white whale and releasing it back into the deep; in getting the girl, only to leave her in the morning.