Monday, September 14, 2009

the importance of horizons; or, a poem by my best good friend Erik

Three Early Letters to Edward Kennedy

Wednesday, August 26, 2009
By Erik Armstrong

Today, sir, the harbor mourns
the loss of its longest sailor,
each sail drawn closed
tightly against night's slow wail
into dawn. Morning revealed
to us an entire ocean
shivering with the ripples
of some great stone dropped
from such a height
as to shake us all
gathered here on the shore, afraid
the water too rough to sail,
the mouth too far to reach,
the horizon now closed.

So many have left us,
haven't they? Brothers
we have dearly loved
taken from us without understanding
and order we mortals require
to believe
it was all worth it.


Is it enough
to be good
and decent?
To right wrongs,
to heal suffering,
to stop war?
Yes, you have said,
it is enough
in this long world
to devote yourself
to simple actions,
and in death you will not
stand larger
than you were
in life. You were large enough
without embellishment,
your booming voice
calling across the valley,
your shadow stretching long
across this great plain
teaching us
how to cry
against the night,
how to stand up
day after day
in this bright, warm,
and ever failing light.
My friend Erik wrote this the morning that Ted Kennedy died.  I was not as stirred by Kennedy's death as it seemed that those around me were; but I was stirred by this poem.  Especially the first stanza. The imagery of the closed horizon is haunting. 

To me, the sea represents open spaces. Freedom. Escape. All things that I find pretty important. I love Melville's Moby Dick; or the White Whale (yes, that is where the "Or" in my blog comes from). And, I think one of the reasons I do, yes there are many reasons, but this is one, is because I know that I would run away to sea. Even knowing what lies before him,  I am envious of Ishmael. 

Saturday, September 12, 2009

my coat of arms; or, pieces of me

My friend V  wrote a post the other day about what would appear on her coat of arms, should she ever have a coat of arms. It was inspired by a site called One Minute Writer. I am going to steal the concept. Sort of. I like the idea of quick writes, I make my students do them all the time; but, alas, I am not quick. So, here is my version of the Coat-of-Arms-One-Minute-Write the long version.

The Cat:

I feel an affinity with cats. I am sure that I was one in a past life--and prolly will be one again. I have always lived with at least one. We are alike. We share a desire to sleep in the sunny spots, we are unable to make decisions ( do I want in? or out?), and we struggle to balance our need to appear independent with an equal desire make sure we get our ears scratched.

 To wit: Kat is Cat.

I was eight years old when I rescued my first cat. He was a little gray fluffy thing with white stockinged feet and no tail.  My family and I were having lunch at the parsonage after church one Sunday afternoon when I walked in on the pastor's four-year-old son using the cat as a basketball. He was tossing the cat repeatedly through a four foot high plastic kid's basketball hoop. By the time I got there the kitten was dazed and bleeding from the nose and one ear. I said nothing, and in a silent fury, I scooped up the kitten and ran out to our car, locked all the doors, and refused to surrender the kitten. Finally, it was agreed that "Smokey" would live at our house.  This was the first of many such acts.

The Apron:

I love the kitchen. I never feel quite as comfortable anywhere else as I do in the kitchen. I consider myself an amateur foodie, I love cooking, and I have the extra pounds to prove it. When I am stressed out, I head to the kitchen to chop, boil, and knead my cares away. My natural role is that of hostess and if I am going to have a party it will include a home cooked meal. If I love you it means I will ask you over to my house and serve you something yummy.

I was seven years old the first time I baked something on my own. It was a cake from scratch (an item I still haven't mastered) and I used salt instead of sugar. Oops. My parents were afraid I would be discouraged, so they did not criticize me (probably the only time in my life they have been supportive). Instead they covered the cake in gobs of supersweet icing and invited the neighbors over for dessert. Everyone was careful to eat their whole slice and to say things like "actually, it is kind of good. I like the whole salty sweet combination."

The Baseball:

I love everything about baseball. The grass. The pace. The symmetry. The sounds.The pants. Everything. When I am angry or upset you can find me at the batting cages bashing the heck out of as many baseballs that I can get my bat on. During baseball season there is almost always a game on at my house. If I had the time and the money I could live in the centerfield bleachers.

When I was a teen when I went to my first MLB game with teams I cared about. It was the Oakland A's and the Kansas City Royals. I grew up watching the Royals and idolizing their stellar Hall of Fame third baseman George Brett. My family still teases me because when I saw the outfield grass for the first time I started cry. My dad asked me what was wrong. I waved my hand towards the field and said, "It's just so beautiful."

The Sea:
I am obsessed with water. I didn't learn to swim until I was almost 9. But once I did it was impossible to get me out of the water. About five years ago, I learned to sail.  It is a passion that I cannot forget.  In recent years I have been land bound.  It is a goal to change that.

When I was applying to PhD programs I visited New England to school shop. I had just discovered sailing and I was taking every chance I could to sail. I was sailing on a tourist boat in Salem Harbor when I met a couple from the area. We talked about nearby schools and she told me she hoped that I would get into the one that I want, because I seemed like a nice woman and that people should get what they want. She said that they were avid sailors and encouraged my burgeoning passion. She said that she and her husband used to sail all the time, but that her husband's Alzheimers was so bad now that they couldn't go out on their own any more. She started to cry a little as her husband, formerly the captain of his own yacht, asked the captain on a cheap tourist boat a question about casting off, an action he used to perform without thought. She said that he couldn't remember much anymore, but that she had promised to continue to take him sailing for as long as she could. As we disembarked she hugged me and slipped some money into my hand--I thought is was five dollars, but later I realized it was a 50--and told me to use it well.

The Pen:
I am a writer. It is a part of who I am. If I don't write about something it isn't real. I tell stories. It is who I am.

When I was in the fourth grade, I won a creative writing contest. I wrote a story about a girl who gets lost in the woods and imagines that everything she sees is something terrible: a tree branch is a hand, an owl is a bogey man, a cat a mountain lion, and so on.  In the end, she goes home and her mother tells her that she needs to get her imagination under control, and the girl, who actually enjoyed being scared, just smiles as she imagines that her mother's shadow is really a ghost.

I am funny. It is a gift. All around me is laughter. I know that I am funny and I enjoy making people laugh. The funny (ha ha) thing is that I don't even control it any more: mostly it is unintentional. I don't really tell jokes per se, usually, it is just the way I see things. Sometimes it is my tone, a gesture, or the way I have put my words together. I am often startled by large outbursts of giggles all around me. I do love the sounds of laughter. It forces people outside of themselves. It gives me a view of their secret self, the one that is a little bit out of their control.

My last year in Reno, while at a BBQ at a friend's house, I was excited to meet the girl that one of my best friends was crushing on. I was talking to her and all around me people were laughing. I was telling her stories about my friend, and trying to make him look good. I could feel that we were not connecting.  I finally understood why, when after one particularly raucous moment she looked at me strangely and said, "Oh, you are one of those people who has to be funny." I instantly hated her.

Friday, September 11, 2009

patriot day; or, how do we remember the people w/o making things political?

When I think about 9/11, I remember the flyers posted by family and friends on New York's walls and telephone poles looking for the lost. Picture after picture. Flyers that in my world until then, I had only seen used for lost pets, now used to find family and friends.There is one image I don't think I will ever forget. It was the image of a young boy in jeans and a t-shirt putting up a flyer of his dad. The picture was taken at the man's birthday party. He is smiling as a large flaming birthday cake was set before him. In the picture is a middle aged man in a shirt and tie. He was portly, with white hair, and his face is a little rosy from celebrating. Underneath the photo in shaky letters was the man's name and a description of what he was wearing that day. It said "Dad, if you see this, call  us. We love you." I don't know what happened to that family. The odds are in his favor 15,000 people got out of the towers that day: but 2,800 didn't.

9/11 has been politicized. Two controversial wars are being fought in the name of justice (or vengeance). The design of the ground zero memorial has become a platform for New York politicians to gain votes. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani used our memory of his strong leadeship in a time of distress as political capital. The naming of the honorary day itself "patriot day" is distasetful to Americans who associate it with the Bush Adminstration and the Patriot Act.

I must admit that I write today with full knowledge that by writing about the politics of 9/11 I am just as guilty as those I am criticizing. So be it. But, I have to start there because the real stories of 9/11: the victims; those in the air and on the ground, in uniform and plain clothes, at ground zero and 3000 miles away have often been lost behind these discussions. I hate the term patriot day (and yes, I am refusing to capitalize it). I think the term is loaded and distasteful. It has been dragged through the muck and the mud and come out on the other side forever tainted.

Truth. On that day eight years ago people died. A lot of people. People from all over the world. Most of the 2800 victims were Americans, but some were not. There were victims from 8 nations in the final death toll. While the attack was in New York, the towers belonged to the world. On that day, many mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, daughters and sons died. Our assurance in our collective safety died. Our trust in our infallibility died.

But, it wasn't these deaths that made us into patriots. The first flags were about something different than the patriotism that was spawned after that day. The rhetoric of war and the language of "you either support our agenda of vengeance or you do not love america" was born. The word patriot was changed. The flag waving began to mean something else entirely. After 9/11 there were rules about how you can love your nation. If you were anti-violence--for any reason--you were unpatriotic. If you saw deaths of any kind as a tragedy that should be avoided you were on the wrong side. Critical discourse: not patriotic. Protest and dissent: not patriotic. Questions and doubt: not patriotic. (unless we are talking about healthcare reform, but that is for another day).

In talking about 9/11 we have conceptualized and nominalized our individual experiences until they fit into the collective story. The offical story, the capital "H" History is not about the people. It isn't really even about America. It is about changing the words to fit into the story you want to tell. It should be about how a group of people attacked another group of people. It should be about how we will always miss them. How we will always remember them. Instead it is about terrorists, patriots, heroes, enemy combatents, us, them. When we use these terms then people, like the man in the 9/11 flyer, become concepts. We have a lot less compassion for concepts.

I remember 9/11. I remember the people. I mourn the loss of my neighbors and friends. Not the loss of patriots.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

the bridge; or, learning to hang in there

I believe that I have found my calling, I am a Community College instructor; currently adjunct, but, with ambitions of a full time position.  I think that I have come to terms with idea that this is my career. I can stop searching. I am not going back to my PhD in American Literature at UNR. I am not going to teach English in Thailand. I am not going to get a job in marketing somewhere. I am not going to get a high school teaching credential. And I am certainly not going to raise alpacas in my backyard. I am going to teach English, most likely first-year writing, in a Community College. Now, that being said, what I really want to talk about is Puente.

Puente is the program I am working in now; a program that is aimed at helping under-represented students tranfer to four-year colleges and universities. It is a UC program, so of course, they would prefer that my students transfer to UC's but we will all be plenty happy when they graduate with BA degrees from most anywhere. Most of my students are Mexican-American. A few are first generation immigrants, mostly second, and a smattering of third generation immigrants. Some are here legally, some are not; but all of them are struggling with such difficult circumstances. Reading levels are very low, writing even lower. Their personal lives are amazingly difficult. I listen to story after story about painful childhoods, abusive family members, citizenship difficulties, poverty, violence, and drugs. Daily. Many of them missed out on the educational foundations they need to do well in college. And now, they want to do well, but it is hard.

Puente means "bridge" in Spanish. Right now. I am the bridge; I am their bridge to the academic world. I am the one that is standing with one foot on their side of the gulf, and one foot on the universities' side; and I am trying to help them cross over. It has only been one month into the first semester and already I am tired. In the past two days I have I talked to five students in my office hours. Already there have been tears. Theirs and mine. Theirs were tears of frustration as they talked about struggling with words: reading them and writing them. Mine because their badly composed stories about drive-by shootings, abuse and abandonment were told so matter of factly. I tried to keep my tears to myself. I don't want to make these students feel any shame about their history, but as I talked about snapshot sentences, how to use imagery, and adding clarifying details in their writing, I could feel the weight of their lives growing heavier and heavier on my back. I want all my students to tap into the power of writing, but especially the Puentistas.

Today I am tired. But,this is my calling. Tomorrow is another class and another chance to move them farther away from one edge and closer to another. I am the bridge, and I just have to hang in there.

Monday, September 7, 2009

regrets; or, after all this time

I still wish that things had turned out differently. And, now, even though I know that nothing can be done. I still dream about reconciliations. In my dreams (literally) I have long conversations where I get to explain myself. And he (the HE) nods as I talk, and says nothing. I know that his silence is because even in my subconscious I know that he isn't likely to play along. I mean, after all, he never did before.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

so much for everyday; or, so,about this commitment thing

Yesterday, I watched a show on Lifetime (yes, it's for women and I love it), about a beautiful, blonde, model who dies and is returned to earth in a smart, fat, woman's body. It is calle Drop Dead Diva and, well, for various reasons, I like it. The episode last night was partially about a woman who was suing her maid of honor for banging her fiance right before the wedding. And yes, I do mean right before, as in while wearing her bridesmaid dress. Anyway, the gist  of the show, and this post, is about commitment, and I guess, forgiveness. In the end, the bride drops the lawsuit and forgives her strayed groom and welcomes him back. she forgives him because she loves him, and because he tells her that he knows it was a mistake, but that he will try harder. Of course, there was more to it than that, but I am not going to retell the entire plot points of the show here (check it out if you have room on your DVR for a funny procedural law show about identity).

What I really want to say, is that, committment is hard for me. I tend to be ruled by how I feel. If I feel sad, or sick, or off in any way, I will use it as a reason to not do something that I know I need to do (work, exercise, pay bills, eat right, floss, etc). I commited to this blog just to practice my discipline. And well, I missed yesterday. In the scheme of things, this is not a big deal; but, then again, maybe it is. I tend to demand perfection from myself, and when I don't get it, I will give up. I normally would say, "Well, so much for September, I guess I'll try again next month." I seldom forgive myself. Or even worse, I use the small failures as an excuse to give up altogether. But this time I am taking my cue from Drop Dead Diva ( hey you gotta get your life lessons where you can, right?) and I am going to forgive myself and just go on.

So, here's to writing everyday, as best as I can.

Friday, September 4, 2009

beautiful: a list; or,hey, it's Friday

The view of the Sacramento River from the Deistlehorst bridge at dusk. particulary if you walked the 5.7 miles to get there.

The bottom of a cat's foot (they claim that black pads indicate that your cat is descended from the egyptian cats that were once worshipped as gods).

Derek Jeter making his patented "jump throw" to first base.

Chico in spring (especally looking out the front window of the Naked Lounge).

That first post coital breath after really good sex.

The way you can tell that Autumn is nearing just by listening to the wind.

Scotland's forty shades of green.

The sound of someone's true laugh (the embarrassing one, the one with the snort, and tears, the one that surprises even you).

Me, on a good day.

Authentic questions.

Discussions w/o agenda or malice.

The joy on a student's face when they finally get it.

Homemade pizza fresh from the oven.

The view from London's Waterloo Bridge at night.

You being here. Right now.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

beautiful; or, let's start with the intellectual and work from there

The "theme" this month for NaBloPoMo is beautiful; and yes the word theme is in quotes because I don't get it. Beautiful is an adjective. It is a description. Beautiful is temporal. What is she? She is a woman.What kind of woman? She is a beautiful woman. She will always be a woman, whether or not she remains beautiful is unkown. I do, after all, make my meager living as a writing insructor, so I am more than aware that as an  adjective Beautiful is limited by time. Nouns are permanent. What is she? She is a Beauty

Perhaps, I am struggling with this concept because I am in a career that is obsessed with Beauty.Yes, I do mean Capital B Beauty. And, no, not in the way you might think. As a student--and now an instructor--in the humanities Beauty has always been a much discussed topic. Writers, Poets, and Artists have been trying to represent Beauty since the beginning of  of said writing, poetry, and art. In my own world in the field of English, there is a whole field of literary study called Aesthetics which is basically dedicated to the study of Beauty. So, I come to this word with a bit of history about the difference between Beauty and beauty.

I am not complaining, so much as I am going to take this month to explore this idea of the word beautiful. Today, I start with definition and contextualization. The word is an adjective meaning something that is pleasing to the senses, very good or enjoyable. Hmm. Such a light definition for a topic we spend so much time and energy worrying about. I understand the power behind this term and I do plan on getting to that later in the month.But for now, just think about how you use the term. To what do you apply the label of beautiful? What is beautiful to you?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The other One Art blog;or,it isn't cheating if you repost something w/a new introduction

Orignally posted on 14 Jan 08
Orignal title: a poem I have been thinking about for a while now; or, the trip to bountiful

One Art
by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.

--Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster

He was so upset when they used the poem "One Art"  in the film In Her Shoes. As we walked out of the  theatre he just kept swearing. I laughed a little to myself because I know that he loved the idea of being a rebel, a romantic hero who doesn't live by any one's rules. To him, Bishop's poetry would always belong on a New Hampshire dock and the deck of other people's boats he had managed to talk his way onto for free sail. In his mind, teenage girls were rushing en masse to Barnes and Noble to get their copy of The Complete Poems of Elizabeth Bishop. I giggled a little as his rendition of imagined (but likely) future classroom conversations with those girls as they begin their analysis of this poem with "Well, when Cameron Diaz reads this aloud..."

As he continued to complain I watched him run a hand through his shaggy hair and put on his aviator glasses, and I was returned to a video store 15 years before. It was before we had hurt each other so badly, before he married someone else, before I had moved away. I had only known him a few weeks and we were picking a movie for a group movie night. He wanted to get the 1985 oscar winning "The Trip to Bountiful." I wanted to get Cameron Crowe's "Singles." We were talking about which one to get when he turned and looked at me. He watched me as I told him that it has Eddie Vedder, and it is really good, and I know a lot of our friends have been wanting to see it for a while, how I wasn't sure that everyone would like the one he picked, and so on.

He didn't address anything I had said. Instead in a quiet voice he said 'You are so aware of what other people think about you. You are afraid your friends will think you're not cool, you are probably even afraid of what the clerk thinks of your movie choices." He grabbed the videos out of my hands and put them both down and walked over to the New Releases and picked up the hottest new release, I think it was Prelude to a Kiss, but I can't be sure now, and without another word to me, he walked up to the counter and rented it. I just stood there and watched him walk to the car.

Write it!; or, just get something down

For a woman who does not really consider herself to be a big fan of poetry, I certainly find myself influenced by the poems that I have had relationships with. Don't get me wrong, I like poetry; some of  my best friends are poets. But, I am a prose gal. I studied the novel in grad school, and I teach the essay, but it is poems that follow me around.

One poem that takes walks with me and tugs at my sleeve trying to get my attention quite regularly is "One Art" by Elizabeth Bishop. I only know two poems by Bishop "One Art" (reprinted below) and "At the Fishhouses." But both of them haunt me regularly. I have written about "One Art" before. I am including that blog here, as well. In the past, this poem appealed to me as a way of processing loss, but today, as I continue to struggle with writer's block (yes that is going to be a recurring theme here for a while), the parenthetical exclamation to just (Write it!) from "One Art" pops into my head.

Just write it. It is I am sure the probable motto if Nike were to make pens instead of shoes. It is also what I tell my students when they struggle with their writing. Right now, I hear my voice saying things like "it doesn't have to be good" or "it is easier to edit, than to produce, so just write something" and I hate myself a little.It is so easy to tell someone else to reach into their vault of words and to assemble them onto a page, but so difficult to do it myself. What is it about writing that seems so hard? What is it about words that seems treacherous at times?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

NaBloPoMo; or, learning to commit

Here it is. The first of my committed blogs to NaBloPoMo. NaBloPoMo is National Blog Posting Month. Thanks to my friend Vickie for talking about them in her blog. The theme this month is Beautiful. I am not completely sure how that constitutes a theme, but hey, I am the new guy, so what do I know? I do know that I have not been writing. Not at all. No emails. No letters. Papers. Blogs. Nothing. I can't really put my finger on why I haven't.  It could because the -m- on my laptop is broken and has to be pressed with special care. Or, because I got two new cats and they are drawn to my laptop (and my lap) like moths to flame. Or, it could be because I don't know who I am writing to anymore. I used to have an audience. I knew who I was writing to/for. Not anymore. The ways and means to the loss of said audience is a story for another day. Today this is just about my announcement that I will post everyday in September. So, new audience, whoever you are (or may someday be), Hi. And I' ll see you tomorrow.