(for cream)

Now, I don’t know what’s normal here, but when I make the rare mistake of saying yes to “would you like room (for cream)?” (I always visualize the parentheticals in real life), they seem to think “here’s a guy who wants to come back and ask me to top off his cup.” I am not such a guy. Maybe that’s just the protocol: give waaay too much room (for cream) in case the customer is a freak for the white stuff, and we can always top off in the event that the customer is not off his meds. But I don’t want to top off. I don’t want to go back. The customer should never have to go back. I think that was the whole point of Jesus. “Imma do this thing twice, ya’ll, to make sure you can get it in one go.” One of his less celebrated miracles, oh by the way, was the Great Topping Off. It was a full day at the Nazarene Barista Academy when everyone got exactly as much room (for cream) as he wanted. Not a single customer had to go back.

And a poem seed is planted.

I had that moment yesterday at the dentist, during the 6-month update and life-story refresher, wherein the hygienist asked what it is that I plan to do with my schooling. I am not an idealist. I am not unrealistic. I know that this is the natural thing to ask, so I’m not going to rail against it like some hippy (I’m wearing a J Crew sweater over a collared shirt from Nordstrom, so I wouldn’t really be able to pull off the hippy thing, anyway). But here: I’m not really planning on doing anything with it. What comes, comes. I like to write, so I imagine there will be tsunamis of that sort of thing going on. Maybe I wind up teaching. Best case, I can earn respectable scratch by sitting at home writing poems and books. That’s the dream, in a manner of speaking. A way to visualize a thing that would be good for me and my family. How pleasant, right? So if you want to know what I plan on doing – or rather expect to be doing – with my education, I guess that’s got it.

I really don’t know what else to say. A deeper discussion would be a turn off – existential platitudes about being vs doing vs seeming. Real human value, permanence, faith, etc. That, by the way, is the discussion I am having. It’s the discussion in my head and in my actions. But it certainly isn’t the discussion in my dentist’s chair. It isn’t the discussion where the coarse sophistry of Facebook’s trending topics is so ubiquitous. It kind of just isn’t the discussion anywhere, is it? I would have been a terrible Socrates.

Ugh, now I really do need to write a poem.

It’s Friday, anyway, which is another thing that I have been given back by school. Since last April, weekends matter again. Weekends are a deep breath, again. A little extra room (for cream, even). I had lost something to look forward to, and then I got it back. Now there’s justice.

Burning Down the House

In winter it is all wet.
The trees burdened groundward.
Exhausted cedar boughs
reach skyward to nothing,
clawing at the clouds
like they’ve woken up inside
a grave without a bell.

I look inward to late spring –
the marginal brightening.
A shuttered window at midnight where
there’s dancing inside
and the light trips out just around the edges.

In summer the house burns down
and everyone gets out

Reaching for Mysteries

It is all wet.
The trees burdened groundward.
Cedar boughs exhausted
from reaching skyward to nothing.
I look forward to late spring.
The marginal brightening.
A shuttered window at midnight where
there’s dancing inside
and the light trips out just around the edges.
In summer the house burns down again.

That’s not for nothing. Not for something. Shower thoughts that might have a little life in them.

I’ve got a week – ooh, lemme get a little Euro here: I’ve a week at uni behind me. It was just the lubrication I needed. I’m not fully comfortable and confident there, but my NEW GUY NEW GUY NEW GUY neon has dimmed. The hardest thing to do in a foreign land is kill time with grace and dignity. My schedule with the kids, combined with the uncertainty of traffic, means I leave for school as soon as I can and generally get to campus well before class starts. Have to kill time. I’m getting better at it.

Colleges are the sort of places that cling to the idea of being a good place to be. I suppose that to call a collection of buildings “good” is to misuse the term a bit, but the architecture and the landscaping and the livable area in general just always seems to have been designed in an effort to rise above the mundane. And I think that is good, in a very old fashioned, rigorous sense of the word. A century ago I would have been able to say that it “reaches toward the divine” without losing readers. Today I can say vaguely and without offense (to anything but the truth) that it aspires to something greater. The architecture can be grand, the open spaces are comforting. College campuses are not strictly functional places. They are transformative places. And this is not simply because of the classes or by accident or by dint of tuition and private funding. It is because it has always been known that to be at our best requires help. To achieve at our highest levels is not a droll and mechanical undertaking. The human status quo is truncated by inherent limitations, and we surpass them only by reaching beyond ourselves. Historically, that was the purpose and intent of art and architecture and music. College campuses are one of those places where a little bit of the human reach is still directed upwards.

Which is not to say that Seattle University is a gem of architectural wonder. It has some of those spaces where commercialism and efficiency have muscled their way in and a shy austerity is created by too much lighting, too much space, and too much smoothness. I like the rooms in the administration building instead. Paint flaking off the frames of the wafer-thin windows, old brown chalkboards, doors that close with a heavy ‘thunk.’ Everything is so sturdy above the thick carpet that sounds are naturally muffled.

At the top of the 2nd floor stairs is the always shut door of the small Immaculate Conception Chapel. I want to go in, but I adore the mystery that the closed entrance creates, emerging over the horizon of the top step as you ascend, and I’m afraid that to open it will solve that mystery and make life too normal again. The proverbial door that, once opened, can never be closed again.It’s like Christmas: the problem with presents is that it’s no longer Christmas after you open them.

Week 2 starts tomorrow. I get the feeling this one’s going to move fast and set the tone for what’s coming. Killing time should become much less of a concern.

Business as Usual

Have to get this dished out before my third day of school.

My second day of school has worn me out like a first-time kindergardner. It’s the 90-minute classes, I think. And this conversation I had with a classmate:

“I noticed that every single one of our readings is from a male author.”
“Does that make them bad?”
“Of course it makes me mad.”
“No, no. Bad. Does their maleness make them bad? Is their educational value diminished because of it?”
“Well no, but…”

At which point the professor started talking and our chat was over.Eventually, the subject was brought up by another student, and the professor gave a good and obvious response – that given the questions we’re asking in this class, these are the philosophers who cover them the best. He said “I could do a survey course, where everyone gets a fair shake, but in one academic quarter you wouldn’t learn anything about any of them.”

Business as usual. And this is all just so entertaining to me so far. “Real College,” where the things I read in the news are actually happening. During introductions yesterday, a student said “My name is Jordan, and I prefer he/she pronouns.” I rejoiced! A pronoun preference announcement! I HAVE ARRIVED. Refreshingly, the teachers that I have had so far seem to be only paying lip service to the mad PC maelstrom whirling in the campus atmosphere. In British Lit, my professor kept reminding us that Wordsworth didn’t like women, or at least thought they were second class citizens or something. But she seemed only to be saying it to preempt the eight or so kids in the room whom she knew would object if she didn’t say something.

The students are trained and on high alert, to be sure. There’s a (cough, cough) stiffening sensation in the air whenever the word “he” or “man” or “his” is used, especially in the neutral cases like “to each his own.” Or when Wordsworth, in My Heart Leaps Up writes “The child is father of the man,” it does not simply  mean that Wordsworth is himself a man, and therefore writing from that perspective. It is determined to mean that Wordsworth is displaying his lack of respect for women, and saying that women do not deserve to be included in this celebration of natural piety.

Some of you reading this may scoff a bit and think that I am overstating the case. Exaggerating. Or at least misinterpreting the situation so that it will fit the narrative that I have gone in search of. Others of you will know that I am more likely understating the case than overstating it. The fact is that for many in academia – students, faculty and administration alike – every masculine noun and pronoun is a signpost on the road to oppression. In simpler, more street-ready terms, masculine pronouns are their little bell, their cue to sit up and start some shit. It’s downright Pavlovian.

If I can take a moment to exercise some naiveté: As far as I can tell, in my boundless optimism and hope, this mess is more fad than fundament. It’ll pass. You can almost see the teachers fighting to hold back a weary and bored sigh every time someone says “white male.” It has whipped up to the point of job loss in places like Yale and Claremont, but I’m starting to think that maybe it has peaked. Chicago wrote the letter to its students and faculty all but telling them to grow up or eff off. Other colleges have done the same. And the Trump thing has waned, big time. Though with the inauguration looming, brace for more hoax crimes and weirdness. Peeps gotsta get clicks and likes and paychecks, and all that. But by March, everyone will be mostly back to business as usual. It’ll be nice.

It’s 8:15 am, and I have to get back to business as usual, too. The kids are playing Pokemon in the basement and confusing Alexa by shouting conflicting commands the moment she begins to execute the previous one. They pause in their play periodically to punch each other and cry, but then get back to touting the powers of the evolved form of Pikachu or something. In other words, for them, for us, it’s business as usual.



Amateur Secret Handshake Hour

So that’s day one at Seattle University. I had one class today, which was held in a classroom in the oldest building on campus. There was a real chalkboard. Built-in, robust wood trim like an old fireplace mantel. And then, joy of joys, miracle of miracles, the professor wrote on it. With chalk. No snark here, I honestly thought that I would never see a chalkboard in a classroom again. Wondering if getting in trouble will still mean I have to stay after and clean the erasers.

I still have the trepidation of a tourist there, walking around with the feeling that there is a neon sign over my head flashing NEW GUY NEW GUY NEW GUY. This is how it is with me every time I go somewhere new. Places like colleges, cities, bars, coffee shops, you name it, make me feel very clumsy initially, because I assume them all to have an unspoken code of conduct that can only be learned by being there. “Check out the new guy. Doesn’t know yet that nobody takes those stairs.” But I parked far away on purpose, and took a lot of roundabout ways to get to class as I try to imprint the map on my mind. I’ll worry about shortcuts and efficiency later. For now I need immersive familiarity to overcome my tendency to be overwhelmed. I used to get overwhelmed when I jumped out of airplanes. That feeling only stopped after I stopped jumping out of airplanes.

It’s a Jesuit school, and this building where I am taking my Lit class has a chapel in it. Our obnoxious teenage orientation guide said “I, like, seriously had no idea that it was, like, there.” I’m shocked. The whole building carries the church in its architecture, and is old in that nice and comfortable kind of way. Solid. Heavy wood doors. It’s not an 80’s supermarket with 3 inches of Johnson’s paste wax on the floors. Or my barracks at Ft. Bragg. Good God. The little churchy recesses in the halls, (there’s probably a better name for those. Probably.) kind of like the one below, hold fire extinguishers:


I am a lightly religious person. I regained an understanding of the purpose and truth of faith sometime around child #1. But I am terrified of the social repercussions of doing something as simple as going to church. Of saying “Thank God for that” instead of “Thank goodness for that.” Of being looked down upon and having another reason to weep for this heart-wrenchingly cynical community. When I am settled in and comfortable at Seattle U, I will probably find my way into either of the chapels from time to time. A moment’s peace. An amateur’s prayer. And boy howdy, talk about feeling like you’re in a place with a secret handshake. A place where things are done a certain way, and you can’t know if you don’t know. I mean, I honestly don’t know if it’s ok for me to just walk up to a church outside of service hours, open the door, and go in. Seriously, no idea. Imma give it a shot soon, at St. Ignatius.

I don’t have any writing classes, so I’ll have to prod myself on to poems and blogging. This month will see me gathering the poems I wrote last quarter, along with a few others, and submitting them to a contest or two. And hopefully I can take enough notice of my little interstices between life and living to keep on producing.

Moar Poetree

Civilised (I spelled that with an English s instead of a z, and Word took the piss) civilized people, smart people, don’t make resolutions. Do we? Remember Keyser Soze? “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he wasn’t real.” Well, the greatest trick that people ever pull is convincing themselves that nothing has to be hard. Resolutions are hard. If you don’t make a resolution you can’t fail at it. Last September 1st I resolved to quit drinking. Done. I can’t really resolve to keep not drinking, because to not drink implies that, in different circumstances, I would be drinking. It implies a battle against impulses and urges. I don’t have those. Can’t fight an impulse that I don’t have.

What do I resolve?

I’m sitting in Starbucks, where the interior designers give zero shits about the concept of personal space. The guy next to me is so close that if I lose focus I might start typing on his keyboard. This is not a good arrangement for me. I resolve that by the end of 2017, this will be a perfectly acceptable arrangement for me.

What else do I resolve? Moar Poetree. I took that Creative Writing class last quarter, which turned out (to everyone’s surprise I eventually learned) to be a poetry class. I’ve written some poems over my life. I’ve read some. I’ve railed against free verse because it is the written version of every modern art installation going. It is the manifestation of the mantra that “art can be anything, and anyone can be an artist.” Neither of those things are true, and neither is it true that hammering out a 15 line free-written run-on sentence of f-bombs and sex, then breaking it up into random lines, is always poetic. Or even artistic. Sometimes – often times – it’s just bad and inaccessibly personal. What would be the point of something like golf if it had literally no rules save requiring a club and a ball? When poetry has no rules save requiring words, there’s nothing left to be good at. There’s nowhere to put the beauty. And I’m afraid I will not back down on this one. Whatever the paint-splatterers and fecal-smudgers may pretend about art existing for shock and discomfort, they are wrong. Art is for beauty and intellectual improvement. Art can, of course, be beautiful and uncomfortable. The two are not mutually exclusive. Look at how many people are made uncomfortable by Christmas plays. Imagine the furor if something as incredible as The Assumption of Mary showed up in a courthouse.


So yes, beauty can be uncomfortable, but not because it’s beautiful. Rather, because we’re not. The arrangement is supposed to be that the beauty in art can show the viewer his ugliness and help motivate him to aspire to greater things. Not that the ugliness in art can show the viewer just how ugly art can be and help motivate him to be miserable. Cans of Shit  (It’s Wiki, no pictures) come to mind, but the list is long.

I digress. I prefer (preferred) rhyme because it requires discipline where free verse eschews it. It’s harder to be good when you have limitations, and so it is better to be good when you have limitations. But I have come around. That someone simply insists his free verse is good does not make it so. I certainly don’t have to believe that it is. Also, that there are no – or fewer – rules, does not mean that free verse cannot be good. I proved that several times last quarter. Free verse can be spectacular.


Moar Poetree. I carry prejudices. So do you. Saying “Welcome, refugees!” does not mean that you approach the world with harmonious magnanimity. I do not deny my prejudices. How does my prejudice work? I write a little formula in my head. It’s poetry – it’s art – so in this day and age it’s likely to be very preachy. The saying goes that all art is political. All art is politics. So, the first number in my formula is “art” and its attendant political meanings. Next we have the first poet we examined in my Creative Writing class: Naomi Shihab Nye.  “Naomi. Shihab. Nye.” Can you imagine a more wildly identity-packed name than that? She’s from somewhere that isn’t Nebraska, that’s for damn sure. So in today’s political and artistic climate, that name wields a heavy ethnic aggressiveness. When you are named like that, you are armed. You are weapons hot in the Western culture. So my equation looks like this right now:

“Art” + “Weaponized ethnicity”

This, by my calculations, can only result in one outcome:

Art + Weaponized Ethnicity = White People Suck

Unlimited license to rail against whiteness and privilege and all the dull usuals that populate places like art, where mediocrity bullies its way to power. It’s a title IX officer’s wet dream.

And so we dove into the poetry of Naomi. Shihab. Nye. I was doubtful and skeptical and preparing my defense. And we read “The Art of Disappearing.” And it was beautiful. It is beautiful. Nye is Palestinian, she is Texan, she is American, she lived in the West Bank, she went to Trinity University. She could be killing us with political accusations. But she does not. Politics exist wherever they are sought, and her poems are no exception. But she is a child in an adult’s body, writing with an informed innocence that I think is impossible if you have never been loved. I mentioned that the beauty of art can exist to show us where we are not beautiful, and to inspire us to improve. Nye’s poetry ups the ante, making me not so much aware of my ugliness, but making me feel more beautiful than before I started. Oscar Wilde said “Anybody can sympathise with the sufferings of a friend, but it requires a very fine nature to sympathise with a friend’s success.” Her poetry, I think, does that. It makes me sympathise with her success. It makes me happy for her. That’s really something. She wrote this one about time:

Burning the Old Year

Letters swallow themselves in seconds.
Notes friends tied to the doorknob,
transparent scarlet paper,
sizzle like moth wings,
marry the air.

So much of any year is flammable,
lists of vegetables, partial poems.
Orange swirling flame of days,
so little is a stone.

Where there was something and suddenly isn’t,
an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space.
I begin again with the smallest numbers.

Quick dance, shuffle of losses and leaves,
only the things I didn’t do
crackle after the blazing dies.

I am happy for her that she wrote that. Last night, friends and I scribbled wishes on wispy sheets of paper. Gossamer parchments. We lit them and they rose up as they burned, the ash falling slowly back down so it could be caught, carefully, and the wish could be made real. The first stanza of “Burning the Old Year” seems to have been written for that moment. What a nice way to wake up on New Year’s Day – sober and poetic.

So my other resolution: More Poetry.