It’s Friday!

It’s Friday! It’s Friday!
The school children shout.
It’s Friday! It’s Friday!
But they won’t let us out!

They dash us through spelling
and draw up the art.
Then they stir up the science
(our least favorite part).

The next problem is math
(which they don’t even know),
before digging up history,
and – what? We can go?

Salvation Army

Who out there might I have saved
If I had joined the fighting?
Who might I have kept alive
and who was dead already?

And which among them would have fought
a dozen battles later?
Which among them would have marched before
adoring mortars and towards
-for fame (for what else?)
all the hell that loved them so?

Which among them would have lasted til
The wheels squealed wet at JFK
and the crying eyes of smiling wives
brightly lit the wasted lives
that were saved for them?

Which among them would forgive me if
I was why they made it home.
Which among them would damn my name
in a silent night beneath the light
-of shame (of what else?)
in a hell that loves them so?

Who out there might I have saved
And who am I to say
that the lives I might have handed out
were better than the grave?

Out There

I kind of didn’t want to write about this, because in a way I see it as marking me guilty of the same kind of enemy-making that I accuse our modern social justice movements of doing. Trampling the Good in the pursuit of the Right. Also, I remind myself that what’s missing from the discourse on contemporary social issues is generosity. If I cannot employ it where others don’t, then I should keep mum (but that sounds rather ungenerous itself).

In the end I have to remember that I cannot control responses or reactions. I can control my own words, and I can know what I am on about, but I cannot, in a single sentence or paragraph or essay, sharpen the distinction between statement and judgment, knowledge and belief, or especially reason and purpose, to the extent that someone untrained to know the difference will suddenly come around. I can only write (with very intentional capitalization), and endure misunderstandings, willful or otherwise. But I promise to work with you on them.

 


 

I made it to my first class of the new quarter yesterday. Encountering Intercultural Literature. Social narratives have been built, at this point, in such a way that we all know immediately that the word “intercultural” is why we’re here. And that’s because it has become evident over time that the word “culture,” especially when appended and prefixed to “intercultural,” is one of those many weaponized words that we’ve come to employ and discharge as we engage in our own inward-looking marches towards the eschaton (which will, of course, be televised tweeted). It is evident from that word alone that this will not be a simple compare/contrast of different literary styles or themes from various cultures during a particular historical period. It doesn’t work like that anymore. “Culture” is simply not allowed to stand as an innocuous concept that can be studied dispassionately. It is a battleground, where lines are drawn and sides are taken, and every statement is weighed for valuation of virtue tariffs.

Students – young students – get excited for classes with words like “intercultural” in the title because they are smart enough to know that in that class is an environment where other Good People are, who will say The Right Things. A place of unambiguous intent, where it is easy to know what to say without any measurable worry of incredulity. What they may not be keying into immediately is that it is a place where the ostensible material is the study of cultures across geography and history, but the real material is the concrescence of the ideologies of their own current culture. The ossification of the unbelievable strictures of right think, and a carefully designed backdrop against which thoughtcrime announces itself like a claymore. That they’re really studying or creating a gossamer version of their own culture which, incidentally, they don’t believe in. When asked, yesterday, what our definition of “intercultural” was, two students stated unequivocally that intercultural study must exclude the West. High school taught them that we are either too vile and criminal a thing to be considered alongside Noble Distant Others, or we simply do not pass the sniff test to qualify for the title of “culture” at all. It is immaterial, either way.

I try to remember to be a little careful in that class. Not because I look down my grisly nose at other cultures and am afraid my grade will suffer if I make it known. Rather, it is because people have utterly lost the ability to discern between understanding and support, such that if I question anyone’s understanding of the subject matter, I will be accused of supporting some Hateful Ideology. In the Academy – indeed, in the neighborhood, on the streets, on the Internet – you either say the Right Things, or you are the enemy. There is no room for general disinterest or passive acceptance. There is only the protest marcher or the cross burner, and your classmates, neighbors, and friends will not let you live between the two for long.

Yesterday, and for the next week or two, we are into Lieutenant Nun. Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World. It’s a fun read in the adventurous vein of Don Quixote or Robinson Crusoe, and generally as believable as either of them (but I’m a born skeptic). Half an hour of discussion centered almost entirely on pronouns. What should we call…this person who is credited with writing the story? The consensus landed on “they,” to which I simply swallowed my objections about grammatical reality (you cannot pluralize an individual, credibly, popular usage be damned), as it’s hardly a hill worth dying on. And never mind the fact that, absent any knowledge about what the author herself preferred to be called, any modern day “consensus” is really just a small tyranny – a passive-aggressive instruction that this is the way we do things, here (there are few English phrases as pregnantly pernicious as “we have all agreed”). I only mentioned at one point that we could not continue to laud this as a piece of feminine literature if we could not agree to call the author a woman. The breathing reader will note the judgment-free logic of this. The Professor professed agreement, and nobody else commented. I sit in the front row, so I could not see if there were any looks of approval or disdain. But I speculate, because I think it is fair to do so in this case, that that simple logical clarification was enough to mark me as a Bad Person in a mind or two in that classroom. The subject matter of the discussion was transgenderism and I said something not explicitly supportive, which, if not quite the same as setting the cross ablaze, is at least as bad as walking towards it with a can of gasoline.

It would be one thing if I was sitting in that room (and this is really very much the case everywhere I go in the University, and in the city) as a true opponent to their causes. But I am not. Of course it is called Social Justice so that it can be said that you either agree completely or you don’t believe in social justice at all, a thing which is simply not true of any but the most ridiculously irrelevant wastrels of society. But the marches and the protests go on under the presumption of some powerful enemy amassed and assembled against it out there somewhere. And if you are not actively, conspicuously in the march, you are, by default, out there. They believe in the enemy far more than the enemy believes in them, because the enemy does not substantively exist. Except in the case of those wastrels, those marginal extremists (they’re called “extreme” for a reason, and it isn’t because of their teeming membership) who become synonymous with people like me by dint of the fact that I am not issuing high-fives and posterboard to the sign-makers and hat-wearers, the gender-includers and the intersectionalist line-drawers.

I would sit here and say that I am ok with things. That I will call you whatever pronoun you wish to be called, and will only object if your request begins to smell a little like antagonism. I would say that I have no ill judgments towards transgendered people or gay people or people of color or Muslims or of any protected class you can drum up. That I respect everyone equally until they demonstrate that they don’t deserve it. That I am every bit as tolerant as you, and in truth probably quite a bit more (just think of what you think of me right now, for instance). I would say a lot of things, but I am afraid they would not be worded strongly enough to pass for inclusion among the Good People who are on that ever-shrinking Right Side of History. Acceptance is no longer acceptable – it is deemed too flaccid a response to progress, and so the minimum expression of acceptance has become passionate vehemence. Neither is tolerance any longer tolerable – it is deemed too temporary and shallow a response to difference, so the minimum expression of tolerance has become celebratory self-loathing. If you doubt me on this, please come to class with me, where the students look around themselves and believe, passionately, vehemently, self-loathingly, that the only place they see a culture, is out there.

The Bakery in Winter

At the bakery in winter the old men hold the door
(though it sticks open on the uneven floor)
for their trundling wives.
The wind is urgent and less polite and
elbows past them as if to jump the line,
which would move faster if there were labels on
the esoteric offerings of the trade –
the crullers and bear claws and streusels and strudels
(and who really knows which is which?)

How, with the wind and the winter in here
and the line pressing on,
are they to know what to say?

They have to ask “what’s this and what’s that”
and sometimes when they’re told the names
it hurts a little to not know already.
They feel threatened to find that
that one’s a Bismarck and that one’s a Pershing
because those martial monikers ambush the old men
with the cold tactics of ghostly senescence.

Unable to assemble the disbanded memories
that they find, wandering,
amid the booted chaff of history’s drop zones,
they swallow unchallenged passwords
and re-feel the crippling fear
of never finding their way back
through the black percussive silence
to the rally point.

But here is a good place, the bakery in winter,
where the wives recount for the girl at the counter
stories of the latest hospital stay.
The husbands hang their leather bombers,
worn, wrinkled, and grave as their skin,
on the backs of chairs.

With the wind so urgent and less polite
they put their jackets back on
and think about Bismarck and Pershing
and wonder if it was good to have your name
live on forever
if only as an unmarked pastry in a good place
that could stand to hang a few labels and
that nevertheless stayed too cold in the winter.

The Real Story is Down the Page a Bit

The kids have story writing every Thursday. They’re given a writing prompt and some gentle help moving their work along. The Boy has said often that he doesn’t like it, but he’s a left-handed writer and I’m told that it is pretty normal for the lefties to be annoyed by the act of writing for the first few years, what with all the physical rebellions against  mechanical standards and procedures. And also the smudging.

The Girl generally says she does like it. She’s a natural speller and focuses well and has a head full of scampering whims and intentions, so she can sit down and churn out plenty without getting too bogged down. She is a bit literal and straight, though, and she moves between sentences like a bowling ball between pins. This will all be ironed out with practice and guidance. She has the unteachable knack of taking it very personally, too, so there’s a chance that writing can make her crazy eventually, meaning that she might be very, very good at it.

Yesterday’s writing prompt was “hope.” The Girl has asked me not to read hers. Too personal, too revealing. She can’t bear for me to know. Of course I’ll read it the first chance I get.

The Boy, on the other hand, said “Papa, make sure you go in tomorrow and read my story.” He is the self-promoter that I have never been. I strutted with them both through the hall this morning, cocky as all get out because I know I am a better parent than any of these people, and my kids are far more useful already than theirs. Before I entered the classroom, one parent had already told me that she loved The Boy’s story. In the classroom, both teachers said “I hope you’re here to read his story. It’s wonderful.” This was getting interesting.

I floated past the 1st grade scrawlings and pictures, passing Chloe’s and Connor’s and Vera’s and Milo’s (Meatloaf, he likes to be called, says it’s Spanish), and found The Boy’s. Atop the page is a sickly, uncomfortable red and black marker drawing of a big building that looks like a moldy hospital, but says Seattle University across it. Spelled properly, score. The first sentence said “I hope that I go to a great college.” This, it turned out, was the entirety of what all of these people thought was so exceptional. They may not have read past that line. To my eyes they looked like they were relieved, all these adults, made to feel safe by the thought that a 7 year old has already emerged from the great die-cutter, ready and eager to take his place in the procession that has produced everything that they put their faith in. And of course the most certain thing is that they all now think that, because he said he wants to go to college, he must have pretty good parents who are sitting at home and telling him the Right Things, because they are Good Persons, and no doubt on the Right Side of History.

He does. He has incredible parents, but not for those reasons. And he has an amazing sister who I already know will fight his fights for him until he is fighting hers. But that he wrote that he wants to go to college is nothing special. He sees what I am doing, and I talk about it, and like a good boy he wants to do what his dad is doing. If I was a drunk he would want to be a drunk, too. When the mother of one of his friends said “That first sentence is amazing: ‘I hope that I to go to a great college,'” I said “I just keep trying to make sure he knows he doesn’t have to.” Because he doesn’t. But if I don’t tell him that, it’s possible that nobody ever will. And if he eventually finds out that college is not his cup of Kool-aid, he’ll feel as smoked out and useless as I did when that happened to me. College isn’t everything. I’m only doing it now because it is free and I am missing some piece of self-determination that I thought going to college could help me pop the clutch on. So far it has been a raging success for me, but if I was in my twenties or a B/B- kind of student (or God help me, both), I would be miserable. Wasted for the future and needing another path. I will work hard to make sure that my kids don’t rest all their expectations on an artificially clean run through the Academy.

With his teacher standing next to me and sounding more like a proud parent than I did, I moved her attention down the page. “Here,” I said, “is the best part.” He has had a cold for a few days, was probably wiping snot with his sleeve while he wrote his story, and the sentence said “I hope this sickness runs from me soon.” He didn’t do it on purpose, of course, but it’s loaded with meaning, it’s rhythmically neat, terse and tidy, and it’s all grown up. Having built such a simple, direct sentence with a bit of anthropomorphism and the subtle flourish of metaphor, intentional or no, is a far more heartening indication of his innate potential than any sophomoric declaration of a desire for college.

We’re going on and on as we can only do. I’m starting to look at MFA programs and getting a little more serious about pushing my work around for publication. If all goes well the kids will eventually be able to see that college has worked for me because of qualities that possessed or lacked, not because of the infallible utility of the university itself.

They’ll be able to see, most importantly, that you don’t really know anything if you only read the first sentence.

The Ugliness of Books

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There’s the #bookstack for the quarter. One book is still missing, an anthology of Ottoman Lyric poetry. I don’t have nearly enough history in me to say anything funny about that, though it seems ripe for ridicule, for some reason. I’d go do some quick research on the Ottomans, find a reason to presume the quality of Ottoman poetry to be somewhere between Tay Bridge and Vogon, but I think I’ll just put my feet up and relax instead (do I still have to point out the #dadjokes?). And of course that doesn’t include Arabic. We don’t even use the textbooks for Arabic, but I lug a dictionary the size of a church pew to that class every day, except the 4 days per quarter that we actually open it. Every single time I look at it in the morning and think “I can leave it at home today,” we end up using it. About 3 people will actually have it with them, and the teacher makes us feel like naughty children who have disappointed her terribly. I love her. She bought chocolates for my kids and gave them to me after our final exam last quarter (don’t tell the kids).

Sometimes I feel (bear with me here), sometimes I feel like I don’t look all that cool, when I’m wearing my cardigan. Like I’m showing my age, as they say.

Anyone whose read David Foster Wallace can probably tell at this point that I’ve been reading David Foster Wallace. I have a terrific tendency towards style creep, and while I am universally incapable of reproducing the wit or profundity of any author worth selling in a nearly Amazonned-out-of-business basement-used-bookstore, I can certainly wrestle with them (wit and profundity) in a passably similar sentence structure and pacing scheme. I can sound just like Vonnegut, given a few chapters of reading him, without worrying you over any questions of my actual talent. The proof, I was recently reminded in an Alexa-driven round of Jeopardy!, is in the pudding.

He’s going on and on, Wallace is, in this part of Infinite Jest where he finally gets to describing the physical abnormalities of one of the characters. Mario. Mario has been talked about enough that the reader knows, and if the reader is honest wants to know how much, Mario is enfeebled. Wallace does not disappoint. He is as relentlessly visual about Mario as he is about everything else, and not a single word of it is flattering or careful in any way. The book was written in what, ’96, so I would have been too stoned  to know what The Culture was doing about honesty at the time, but it strikes me that a modern audience is probably aghast at Wallace’s being so derisively clear about someone born – how would we say it in the classroom – omnilaterally bio-intersectionally disadvantaged. Take this:

“…Mario had not so much club feet as more like block feet: not only flat but perfectly square, good for kicking knob-fumbled doors open with but too short to be conventionally employed as feet: together with the lordosis in his lower spine, they force Mario to move in the sort of lurchy half-stumble of a vaudeville inebriate, body tilted way forward as if into a wind, right on the edge of pitching face-first onto the ground, which as a child he did fairly often, whether given a bit of a shove from behind by his older brother Orin or no.”

It reminds me of parts of Something Happened by Joseph Heller, in which the main character is bluntly despondent about the toll he suffers because of his son, who is a special needs child of some sort (I cannot remember the details, years removed)(Here it is)( Found it):

“It is not true that retarded (brain-damaged, idiot, feeble-minded, emotionally disturbed, autistic) children are the necessary favorites of their parents or that they are always uncommonly beautiful and lovable, for Derek, our youngest child, is not especially good-looking and we do not love him at all. (We would prefer not to think about him. We don’t want to talk about him.)”

This is the truth. This is people exhausted by the gymnastics, with nothing left for the self-immolating obsession with seeing the best, no more blood to spill. He laments the time, the effort, the drain, the stress. And he blames the boy, because it is the boy’s fault.  The modern psyche cries “SELFISH! MONSTER!” but if it’s healthy, the modern psyche takes a moment to be refreshed by the permission to feel just as handicapped, though in this case by duty.

More about Mario:

“…together with the lazy lid-action gave even Mario’s most neutral expression the character of an oddly friendly pirate’s squint.”

His brother, for Pete’s sake, yanks down on his (Mario’s) eyelid “with that smart type of downward snap that can unstick a dicky shade.”

You’re not laughing. I mean, you are laughing, because you’ve pictured it and you’re hearing the cartoonish flapflapflap of the liberated shade, but you’re not doing anything wrong. You’re relaxing your sphincter for a moment, finally. Of course we don’t go around freely cursing every living thing that can’t be reasonably expected to go golfing or row a boat, and when you have a child or a sibling or someone very close to you who has some Serious Problem or another (here someone suitably progressive will tell me that my use of the word ‘problem’ is problematic) you do not curse his existence. You do not target him. Because if one facet of telling the truth is that it can be shit ugly and hurt worse than withdrawal, then another facet is the kind of intentional lying that shores up the holier parts of our nature. The looking at the Marios and the Dereks and saying, unbelievably, “He’s wonderful.” It may be flat-out false in all but the briefest and most accidental flashes, but so is epiphany, and thank God we have books that can say the ugly stuff out loud for us.