The Whole Sky, All at Once

You can’t look for the lightning
Dad said
or you’ll never see the flash.
He would pull the Buick out to the street
and we sat like crooked teeth
in the yawning maw of the garage.
A storm coming deliberately at us
and the tornado siren
wailing with a bored urgency
like the ambulance of the great plains.
We pulled over.

You can’t look for the lightning
Dad said
or you’ll always just miss it.
He would talk about seeing the whole sky
and we sat like crooked teeth
in the yawning maw of the garage.
We tried to look at nothing and everything
while the old corn across the street
whispered with a quickened urgency
like the dying secrets of the great plains.
We closed our ears.

You can’t look for the lightning
Dad said
or someone else will see it.

You Can’t Look for the Lightning

Oof. I just had a message come across some app that’s on my phone, telling me that the literary magazine at Seattle U is accepting submissions for the upcoming issue. My first thought was “oh hey, there’s a literary magazine?” But that’s because I am a man of narrow focus. I think it’s a defense mechanism of sorts. I guess it would be pretty common for there to be a literary magazine, and a school newspaper, and all kinds of things of the sort at a college. But i’m so overwhelmed by the most perfunctorily whelming things that I withdraw, and school becomes, for me, a rote act of “park the car, go to class, get back in the car, go home.” Narrow focus shuts out the crowding hazards.

I mentioned my first thought. I don’t think that I had much of a second thought, because the deadline for submission is in two days. And there’s a theme, so I can’t just grab a poem I’ve already written and submit that. Let’s clean this up – here’s what I discovered, in order: 1. There’s a literary magazine. 2. They’re accepting submissions. 3. FOR TWO DAYS. WTF? 4. The theme is humility. 5. What? It’s an annual publication?

Yes, annual publication. I have two days to whip something up and take my shot, or it’ll be another year before I get another chance.

Well here’s my shot. If I had more patience or a less narrow focus, I would revise it for the next day and a half. Nope. I’ve already submitted it:

 
The Whole Sky, All at Once

You can’t look for the lightning
Dad said
or you’ll always just miss it.
He would pull the Buick out to the street
and we sat like crooked teeth
in the yawning maw of the garage.
A storm coming deliberately at us
and the tornado siren
wailing with a bored urgency
like the ambulance of the great plains.
We pulled over.

You can’t look for the lightning
Dad said
or someone else will see it.
He would talk about seeing the whole sky
and we sat like crooked teeth
in the yawning maw of the garage.
We tried to look at nothing and everything
while the old corn across the street
whispered with a quickened urgency
like the dying secrets of the great plains.
We closed our ears.

You can’t look for the lightning
Dad said
or you’ll never see the flash.

Blindly Leaping

Dialogue on Human Freedom (Onboard a C-130 Hercules. Forgetting, for the moment, the impossibility of actually having a conversation inside a flying C-130.)

Private First Class (PFC) Goodin: I can’t wait to be free of this airplane.

Sergeant First Class (SFC) Monti: Aircraft, Goodin. Aircraft. Civilians have airplanes. This is a C-130, and if you’ll look past the rust and dust and the shaking, and that hole in the skin over there where the moon and clouds come through, you’ll see there’s not a damn thing wrong with this bird.

PFC Goodin: Roger, Sergeant. Still, the sooner I can get my knees in the breeze, the better.

SFC Monti: Feel free to call me by my first name.

PFC Goodin: Really?!

SFC Monti: No.

PFC Goodin: How many jumps do you have, Sergeant?

SFC Monti: This is number 66. I have freed myself – thank you very much – from various types of aircraft a total of 65 times. Tonight I make jump number 66 on my 44th birthday. Though I’m not sure that, if asked, the pilots and jumpmasters would agree that my freedom, on those occasions, was entirely up to me. The pilots flew me, and the jumpmasters told me when it was time to get up and head for the door. All in all, I’m really just doing what other people tell me to do, when and where they tell me to do it.

PFC Goodin: But none of those people made you join the Army. None of them made you choose airborne school, or to be a forward observer instead of a cook or a tanker. You were free to make all those choices yourself.

SFC Monti: I suppose I was. Though every choice has a past and a future, and it’s arguable that every choice we make is the only one we could have made, unless we were to change our past or adjust our expectations and desires for the future. For instance, I’m going to exit this aircraft tonight because, in the past, I became a paratrooper, and in the future I want to remain one. Choosing to jump tonight is the most seamless reconciliation of that past with that future.

PFC Goodin: When you say it like that, it sounds less like freedom, and more like duty.

SFC Monti: Yes! Duty! We’re soldiers after all. And we have those seven army values, don’t we: Loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage. Now, I don’t know it for sure, because it isn’t in the Soldier’s Manual of Common Tasks from basic training, or even in the Leader Development manual you’ll be studying soon enough, but I believe those seven Army values (duty among them) are to be used in service of freedom. We are seeking a kind of freedom here tonight, freedom from this aircraft, as you said. And part of our mission is to preserve freedom for those who have it, and secure freedom for those who don’t. But you say duty, and I can’t help but thinking that duty and freedom are pretty near opposite one another. We’re free to do as we please, but we must do our duty.

PFC Goodin: Sure, Sergeant. But we’re also free to not do our duty if we choose, don’t you guess? I mean, there’ll be consequences in any case, but that don’t mean we can’t do it. Or not do it. Or – you get my meaning.

(The two jumpmasters shout the warning: TEN MINUTES!)

SFC Monti: I do get your meaning. Would you say it’s your duty to jump out of this bird tonight?

PFC Goodin: Yes, I think so.

SFC Monti: Well you have ten minutes to know so. Ten minutes to decide if it is your duty to get up and achieve that freedom you were looking forward to. You’ll be off this retiring Hercules, having, if I understand you to this point, gained your freedom only by doing your duty.

PFC Goodin: That’s a pretty shitty way to put it, Sergeant, but yes.

SFC Monti: You felt rather free when you spoke to me that way, didn’t you? And you were right to, though I can tell by your face that you won’t be sure of that until you’re free of me, too.

PFC Goodin: The sooner the better, if I can speak freely (again), Sergeant.

SFC Monti: Indeed you may. And that even helps us a little, because now you’ve added safety to our definition. Really, it was there all along, as you want to be free of this C-130 because you consider it to be safer off of it than on it. So freedom is a destination, then. A safe place. A haven. And so far, we can’t have it unless we make our way to it, and we can’t do that without fulfilling our duty to something along the way. But I can’t help but wonder now: if freedom means getting off this bird, are you not free while you are on it?

PFC Goodin: Of course I am, Sergeant. We’re all free here. But that’s, like, capital “F” Freedom. Braveheart, and all that. I’m just sayin’ that I want to be free of this airpla- aircraft, in a not having to worry about it anymore kind of way. Whatever the case, as far as me and freedom and flying around in here with you, Sergeant, well, I’m more sure than ever that I’ll feel a whole lot free-er when I ain’t anymore.

SFC Monti: Seems to me that you might be considering being free of something the same as being rid of something. You’ll be rid of this aircraft, and of me, and of this conversation soon enough. But you’ll drift to the drop zone with your head crammed into your k-pot1 with me and my words. You’ll assemble with your platoon and drink this conversation from your canteen. You’ll be tossing shovelfuls of Sergeant First Class Monti and his rant about freedom out of the fastest foxhole you ever dug. You’ll be rid of me and rid of this conversation, but I don’t bet you’ll be free of us anytime soon. Heck, you’ll be waddling towards another jump in a week or a month, so you aren’t free of that, either.

PFC Goodin: You’re killin’ me, Sergeant. I’m ready to surrender. It’s the only way to freedom that I can see at this point.

SFC Monti: Oh, my! We’re going to have to pray for bad weather or a stuck door to prolong our flight, now that you’ve gone and added surrender to the conversation.

PFC Goodin: (mumbling) Me and my big mouth.

SFC Monti: You’d agree, then, that we can surrender our way to freedom?

PFC Goodin: What? No –

SFC Monti: Listen: We’ve already said that freedom is safety, right? Combined with duty? It seems almost inevitable that surrender comes from a person doing his duty to gain the safety of himself and those for whom he is responsible, right? Why else surrender, except to salvage what safety may remain to you? In military terms, surrender means saving the lives of those who remain on the losing side. Surely, saving lives is a duty as high as any other. So, if we have surrendered, we have done our duty to save lives. And hey presto: Freedom! Capital F! Right, Goodin?

PFC Goodin: I dunno, Sergeant. Surrendering seems like it lands people in prison a lot of times. Your duty’s done, and if it isn’t a very bad kind of prison, you’re safe. But it’s still prison, and I can’t call that freedom.

SFC Monti: You do like to complicate things, don’t you, Goodin? Let’s skip a bit, forgetting for now whether it matters to whom or to what you surrender, and grant, then, that prison isn’t freedom, as it’s rather obvious that prison is something a person seeks always to be free from. I think we could pick that apart for a while, too, but the jumpmasters are getting fidgety, and must be about to give the one-minute warning. See that? Even now, confined to this rickety missile, we await our jailers’ commands on our quest for freedom from this bird.

PFC Goodin: Hang on, though, Sergeant. What you just said: if this bird is our prison, and the jumpmasters are our jailers, then we can only be free if our jailers allow it.

SFC Monti: Sounds like you aren’t comfortable with that.

PFC Goodin: I’m not. I may not know my jailer, but I know he can’t tell me whether I’m a free man. He can let me out of jail, but he doesn’t have the power to make a whole human being free or not.

SFC Monti: I’m going to have to attach you to my platoon if you expect to start talking about where freedom comes from. I don’t think we can tackle the God topic before the light turns green and we commit ourselves to the clouds.2 I’m content for now to wonder what freedom is, and here you are trying to expand into how we get it. Ambitious, but unrealistic right now.

(The jumpmasters give the command: ONE MINUTE!)

SFC Monti: And there it is. You have one minute to decide if you are free. To decide if you are going to shuffle to the door with the rest of us, dutifully obeying commands, and exit this high performance aircraft because you are a free man, or because it is the only way that you can become one. Or, whether you are so free that you can choose not to jump at all.

PFC Goodin: Well I can’t choose not to jump, Sergeant.

SFC Monti: No?

PFC Goodin: No. Think about everybody else. There’s 32 of us on this side of the plane, and you and me are pretty near the front. If I don’t jump, that’s gonna hold up you and everyone else behind me.

SFC Monti: First of all, don’t be so sure that I couldn’t find a way to persuade you out that door. Second of all, are you telling me now that the duty you’ve been talking about only exists because of all these other jumpers? That in order to be free, you have to see to everyone else’s freedom along the way?

PFC Goodin: At least not get in the way of it. But I’m free to do that, too. I’m as free to screw this jump up as I am to help it work. But if I use my freedom to mess things up, I’m going to lose it pretty soon.

SFC Monti: You can’t seem to pull your duty out of your freedom no matter what you do. Are you saying that we have a duty to exercise our freedom responsibly?

PFC Goodin: Yes, Sergeant. And the light’s amber, so we’re going any second now. I wonder though: is there any time that we can enjoy our freedom without being burdened by duty?

SFC Monti: Maybe when we’re dead!

(And the jumpmasters give the command: GREEN LIGHT! GO, GO, GO!)

Notes:

1. K-pot: Kevlar helmet
2. before the light turns green: When the aircraft is in the proper place over the drop zone, a light at the exit door turns from amber to green, and the jumpmasters send the paratroopers out.

The City Sends its Dogs to Say Thanks

The sight of the urban maiden is all light
in the fog and damp of our staid, cemented ways.
In boots and dearly rationed leggings –
as if I have to say!
Her whole aspect a lively equipage
liveried and lent to our idling eyes.
A city’s little thanks for our putting up with it
as we do
as a whole
because we try
against our very produce to not be
a pallid wash of mere moneychanging.

And then, dangling with less decorous restraint
from her bejeweled and worried fingers
– that are only trying to keep their distance –
is a loud, indelicate package announcing its lady’s attendance.
Pendulous and any color you like,
a cackling sack tied shut around the dignity of the maiden.
It hides without guile what we all alike are aware
that her dog delivered,
back there.
Deposited to the city’s coffers
and loaned out again
against the collateral of her oblivious dignity.

Letters from the Edited

I have children everywhere. But not in like a pro football player kind of way. More of a Jesus-y kind of way, if I may be so bold.

When I started my winter quarter in January, my schedule changed and I was no longer able to help the 5th grade teacher at my kids’ (genetic, just two of ’em) school with essay writing. Mind you, the teacher didn’t need help with her essay writing, she needed me to help her students with theirs. And so, of course, to help her with the task overall. (But I wax Dickensian again). I never felt like I was doing a very good job, it being my first effort at teaching 5th graders anything. Neither of my kids have gotten there yet. And I never could tell whether, while guiding them through their outlines and intros and theses, I was giving them too much credit, or too little. Expecting more than I should have from them, or thinking them less capable than they are, and not expecting enough. The thing I did was to try.

In December, just before the Christmas break, one of the students gave me a little Christmas card. She had made it herself, and another student nudged between us to say “it’s from me, too.” I scolded a warm tear back into its dungeon, and thanked them for being so thoughtful.

This was (is still) the card from Katie (and Sydney, too, if I am to believe her in spite of a paucity of evidence. I do):

 

Yesterday a letter came in the mail. Official school envelope, addressed only to me. It worried me some. I wondered what kind of trouble I was in. The only thing troubled, though, was my heart. My 5th graders – the heading says they belong to the school, but I know better – wrote me a letter:

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For the record, I don’t remember ever criticizing a single one of them. Couldn’t have happened. Not me.

Not Really Applicable

There are too many books today for one bag, and I had to use my little laptop case for the overflow. It fell, I picked it up, and on arriving at school realized that my headphones and the book I wanted were on the floor at home, casualties of the fall. I have everything I need for class, but not for the classy way I meant to spend my time before it starts. Best laid plans.

A year ago I laid plans to go back to school. So far, so good. I read, I researched, I learned all that I could about College Today(tm). The news and social media told me I was in big trouble. That I was on the cusp of war. The great Machine of State was twisting the teacher’s pulpit into a Hitlerian platform for social engineering, and because I am generally conservative, I was public school enemy number one. They would find out about me, and then they would come after me. Gird thyself.

I girded. I tried on an optimistic defensiveness, hoping that I could not only handle the abuse, but that I could also slow the socialist march with sober, reasoned, civilly presented opposition. I could be the “good conservative” that would give them pause in their reflexive excoriations of the sneered at Midwesterners that had somehow escaped the churchfarmcult and wandered dumbly into the big city.

I thought all of that and I was wrong. Not about my end, though. I can be good, and I am being good. I was wrong about their end. At first, in class I told myself I was impressed by the restraint I saw. Or at least that I imagined I saw.  I’ll admit to having been a little keyed up going in, the public and the media assuring me that every fiber of the university is woven with the intent to guarantee my ideological destruction. That if I wear a red hat I’ll be seen for a sweating Trump supporter and have the bigotry beaten out of me by the wooden handles of BLM signs. And also fail all my classes. Because they know, man. And when it simply didn’t hit that hard right off the bat I told myself: “refreshing, but don’t let your guard down.”

I did not, and my vigilance was rewarded. Last fall our creative writing class went to a presentation given by a Title IX officer with just a spectacularly non-white name. And he gave me everything I wanted. Building his sentences up to wild, screaming, sermon-like shrieks of admonition, demanding simultaneously that his unique identity be respected, but also never, ever noticed. I was doing EVERYTHING wrong. I damn near hated myself after walking out of there. “I don’t quite hate myself,” I thought, “but they were right. College hates me.”

And then when class met again, my teacher apologized for taking us. He wasn’t sure that it was the right thing to do.  I was crushed. College liked me again. WTF?

In a new class now we ask about what is really good and really true and really right, and really beautiful. That word – ‘really’ – really means something. The inclination is always to apply this questioning to current politics. Because just about everyone – even people who would recoil at the thought of something like permanent, objective truth – everyone likes to find something really, really old and widely revered that can be used to prove some evil in modern times. Using Aristotle against Obama, that sort of thing. Indeed, people who believe that morality is relative and changes from person to person and day to day, will still reach back to a passage from the 4th century BC and go “see? SEE (the irony)?”  But I don’t want to do that. Too ugly. After all, you can’t say the word “Trump” anymore without laws being spontaneously drafted that reopen the slave trade, the wage gap widening, and women being beaten out of abortion clinics. You can’t say “Clinton” without American soldiers immediately dying by the dozens somewhere, and top secret emails being Instagrammed to Beyonce via a jailbroken Blackberry. I don’t want to dirty up Socrates by lending him to the White House Press Secretary for a fight with CNN. Something has to be sacred, somewhere.

So, unlike my philosophy classmate, who for our assignment of a written response to Book IX of Plato’s Republic, simply turned in a picture of a smiling Donald Trump, I will keep it out of the classroom. Sven(!) has done as much so far, and so have the other students. Mostly. Certainly nothing at all has happened in the classroom to rival the lunacy that I’ve seen in the news. We seem to have a relatively sober and focused campus. No great proliferation of flyers for this cause and that, no constant calls for rallies, no aggressive gatherings in the quad. Sure, I’m only 3 or 4 weeks in, but its been the 3 or 4 weeks surrounding the Obama/Trump transition. Including the inauguration. I expected madness. Instead, I barely so much as heard the word “election” spoken in the parking garage.

I suppose that as with most things, the political discombobulation over campus culture in the news is amplified by small sample size. Nothing quite so dire is tearing universities apart as we would guess from the isolated incidents around the country. Which is not to say the bias isn’t there, real, and obvious. It is. The Fake News seminar I attended for extra credit was a parade of examples of conservative news sites doing stupid things (which of course they actually did, remember) without a single similar example showing a liberal error. BUT! There were no cheap jabs, no snooty jokes or snark. Just one overconfident tenured fellow in the back looking silly by citing John Oliver “when you want real, in-depth coverage.”  So far it is all like that seminar. One-sided, sure, but without malice and theater. My British Literature professor is a sure feminist, but she doesn’t act like it. My Philosophy professor is anyone’s guess. And people, I’m in a Natural Hazards class – BIG WEATHER EVENTS. MOAR HURRYCAINZ – and so far there has been not one. single. mention. of climate change or global warming. I will recommend that Breitbart not bother with Seattle University if they’re looking for their next bucket of grist.

We move on. Everyone seems to be saying that (if not doing that) “since the election.” I scare quote that phrase because I can’t think of any word or words that have been uttered more frequently since the word Jesus on the first Easter Sunday. “Since the election” is always the start of a conversation you don’t want to have. It is the telemarketer’s call at dinner time, and it’s just as hard to beg your way out of without abandoning courtesy.

We move on. I move on. Mostly because it is remarkably difficult to take it all seriously by now. It is hard to find much gravity in the idea of this great liberal brainwashing, this relentless indoctrination that is said to be going on. The supposed ubiquity of a pernicious system of Democrat programming in American Universities loses a coat of paint or two in light of the fact that Donald Trump just won the Presidential election. The system either doesn’t exist, or isn’t working. Either way, I’m over it.

 

Why Be Good?

I’ll share these from time to time, I guess. They’re short pieces that the Professor calls “One Pagers.” We try to hit 250 words concerning a theme in the readings we do. Lately we’ve been poring over Plato’s Republic, and the themes are energizing, even if the reading is a little exhausting. I really don’t know why I haven’t thought to do this before.

Our Professor’s name is Sven! Arvidson. The exclamation point is intentional. I can’t help but feeling as though that name should be shouted. At least when written. It sounds so swift and warning like:

“Sven! Avalanche! Look out!”

“Sven! Valkyries! Look up!”

“Sven! It’s spiritual poverty! Look sharp!”

Suitably Nordic. Scandinavian (I don’t hope to know the difference without looking it up). BUT! He confides that his name isn’t Sven at all. It is…Patrick. Bit of a letdown, isn’t it? I’ll ask him some day where the Sven comes from, but for now it’s of no consequence. The man is remarkably available, encourages phone calls, and answers emails in a trice, even on the weekends. This is a good way for a person to be. Seems natural, or at least reasonably expectable, from a person whose life is dedicated to the study of being good.

Book IX of The Republic is an explanation of why we should care about striving for any kind of permanent, eternal good, if we can just be really bad (which is much, much easier) and gain riches and fame and honor that way. I absolutely love hearing someone take seriously the ideas of relativism and spiritual (not necessarily religious, mind you) poverty. This is what I wrote this morning, before my coffee and before my kids, but well after my dutiful wife was off on her search for the unchanging good:

These themes in Republic always seem to be a version of seeming vs. being. Riches are riches, but in the end, the riches of an unjust man only seem to make him rich, and instead must always serve to feed further injustice, making him wretchedly poor. I would wonder whether having a poor, unfulfilled, conflicted soul is any interest to the man corrupt enough to live that way, but Plato reminds us that it doesn’t matter what that tyrant thinks of it. His ills are not a matter for earthly debate. His vices are his vices, and he is a bad, low person, no matter what any human might choose to say about it. I couldn’t agree more, especially as this saves us from dangerous relativism, where each person gets to decide what is right based on what comforts her the most. Goodness isn’t interested in comfort, isn’t influenced by comfort, and yet when sought through right and virtuous ways, goodness is the ultimate comfort – no matter what travails may come your way because of it. This is faith and spirituality – the idea of it – no matter how it is branded. It is even the goal no matter how it is practiced. The beauty of the eternal, unchanging good is exactly that: It is eternal and unchanging. It will never fool us or lead us to something false. The honest search for it will always be accompanied by good, and every successful search for the good is a search for the same thing.

It’s nice to limber up the brain like that, early in the morning.

I did write a special little dialogue yesterday. Four pages concerning human freedom, couched in a conversation between two paratroopers on their way to a jump. Once it is revised and submitted (Wednesday), I’ll post it for your enjoyment. Or indifference.