Your Papa’s Schmaltz

My Papa’s Waltz

by

Theodore Roethke

A Sober and Graceless Dramatic Interpretation by Andy Havens

Hell’s Kitchen, New York. The tiny kitchen you expect in the tiny apartment you never stop seeing in movies. A tiny table is clean and tight against the tiny wall. Two burner stove, a few open shelves stacked with dishes and pans, and a sink squarely balanced on its pipes. Enter Papa, well past supper time, dirty from work. Mother sits at the table, expectant and displeased.

 PAPA: Any whiskey in the house, m’darlin?

MOTHER: (Talking in the direction of the clock) I don’t guess you need any, the way you smell already. And listen to ya talkin!

PAPA: You know I can’t help but me and the boys stop in for a turn or two at the Old Russet after a Friday shift. It’s a long week in the shop, and Mickey lost three fingers in the die cutter today. And hey, it ain’t even yet eleven o’clock!

MOTHER: Three more fingers?

PAPA: Am I speakin’ Gaelic? Three fingers, sure as I’m standin here.

MOTHER: Poor Mickey musta been born with near two dozen, by my count. And yer barely standin’ there at all, anyway. Lean up against somethin’ already.

Enter the son, eight years old and yawning in his pajamas.

 PAPA: I’ll lean up against my boy!

SON: Hi, Papa!

PAPA: Sorry if I woke you up! Lemme just wolllltz ya back to bed! Mother, sing us a tune!

Mother most decidedly does not sing them a tune.

 PAPA: Well, then turn up that Lefty Frizzell!

MAMA: We don’t have a radio.

PAPA: We don’t need one! (Singing) “My daaaaad was a poor, hard-workin’ Saginaw fishermannnn…”

 Papa takes the boy by his hand and begins a clumsy dance around the tiny kitchen. The boy wraps his remaining three limbs around papa and hangs on like a cowboy. He might be smiling.

 PAPA: We’ll start with a box-step!

MOTHER: A what now?!

This first move sends a cast iron skillet from a shelf to the linoleum floor, and rattles a couple of tin mugs. There’s a glassy jangling of milk bottles inside the refrigerator. A large cat skulks dejectedly out to the fire escape.

 MOTHER: See now? You’ve even chased off Ulysses!

 PAPA: I’m sure he’ll just go up and get some fish guts from Joyce. Now, boy, like I taught you, the telemark!

MOTHER: (Rising a little, shouting and incredulous) THE TELE-WHO?! Where did you learn to-

PAPA: No time for talkin m’darlin, we’re coming to a tricky sp-

Papa slips a bit on the polished floor. The son makes a brief exclamation and rubs his ear, as it was scraped by Papa’s belt buckle. A neighbor pounds on his ceiling from below. Mother’s portrait of Kathleen Lynn goes a little crooked on its nail.

 PAPA: Sorry, son! We’re all jammed up here widdout any room. Can’t be helped! Now remember the next move, boy. It’s called the wing! Let’s dance you back to bed on a “wing” and a prayer! Hang on to something!

Mother is rooted to the spot.

 The son grabs two tiny fistfuls of Papa’s dirty cotton shirt and holds on for the scant six feet of movement from the kitchen to the one small bedroom they all share. Papa tucks him in.

 SON: Nice moves tonight, papa. You really like to dance.

PAPA: I have to dance, bud. We all have to. I only really like to dance when I do it here. Sweet dreams, now.

The bedroom light turns off. From the kitchen comes the sound of a burner igniting on the stove and a cast iron pan sliding from the shelf. A glassy jangling of milk bottles in the refrigerator. A large cat struts self-assuredly in from the fire escape.

Amotivational Wish

Not a typo. I wrote amotivational on purpose. That’s how this works.

College. Where I find unique challenges every day. I was able to say the same for the Army, but in the Army, motivation was either easy to come by, or all-too-readily available from any number of willing… mentors. In any case, you were simply going to do whatever was to do, and that was that. Rather parental, when parenting works.

In college, motivation can be more elusive. You are truly on your own here, and if the material presented does nothing to move you intellectually or emotionally, it can be hell to get started on a project. I suspect this is why so many students just do what they’re told and buy whatever narrative is sent their way. It eases the difficulty. There’s no real way, from the impotence of the student’s disposition, to ensure that the wheels get greased. So the student’s best bet is to become a wheel and catch as catch can whatever lube is dripped her way.  To wit: an hour in a literature class is plenty of time to know exactly what the professor professes in public and private, and there’s a real narcotic allure to the idea of getting ideologically on board. Your assignments will conform to your conformity, and the sad coitus between two beings of diminished creative ambition will spurt along at a potentially Dean’s-list-level of coursework.

I see it, as best I can, from a distance. I call myself a writer with some confidence now, having produced some papers for school that I am perfectly proud of, as well as having one poem published and another take honors in a competition. I am a writer. There is power there, that I don’t think my fellow majors understand. I can sit in these classes, listen to these teachers, read the little post-modern litanies of a liberal arts education, take in the constantly present sense that “seriously, just do it like us, it’ll be so much easier for both of us” – and still write what I want. All it takes is evidence, and if you read regularly, you become so stocked with the stuff that you could be the 163rd CSI incarnation. I could read a piece of feminist literature and write a 5-page paper that never mentions feminism. And as long as I find the evidence for my points in the paper itself, I am in the clear. That’s the real power of liberal arts, as it is supposed to be understood. The power of being a writer with a little actual resistance in her. The power of turning post-modernism against itself and recognizing how easy it is to be right, within the framework of today’s vacated artistry and dissipated standards.

One of the first things anyone should be able to recognize from inside of the vapid collegiate gestalt is that the last thing anyone should be giving it is what it asks for. Maybe I am uniquely capable of seeing this because I am a parent: I know that you can’t raise a damn thing – child or idea or machine – by giving it what it wants. You have to give it what it needs. The university doesn’t need feminist papers or anti-feminist papers. It wants them both, though, because in either case the student is still just a wheel, safely hubbed onto the framework. What the university does need is true papers, real papers that are disinterested in social propulsion or the narrowing effects of thought-building. The university does not need to be saved by noble conservative infiltrators and their stout anti-political messaging. That’s more of the same, anyway, and absurd. It needs, like a protest needs a mute button, apolitical messaging. It needs, in short, to be made to forget about itself for a while. Again, exactly the same way that a parent knows that a child in a tantrum is best served by a distraction. The university is child to the student, and the student needs to start distracting its disobedient charge from its own illogic. You don’t do that by shouting “NO!” or by presenting oppositional logic. That just keeps the focus on the locus. Distract, distract, distract. You do it with ice cream and tickle bugs, wisdom and wit. You make it get up off the ground by showing it the sky.

But as nice as all that is to wail about for a minute, it’s only a small part of motivation. For instance, I am about to read “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” It’s a challenge that I am simply not sure that I am the master of. It’s ok, though, because again, there is a distance I can keep. A professionalism, and an artistry, even. Sometimes all it takes is is to talk to myself for a moment, and pencil up a poem to buoy me through the surf:

Every Wish has a Rider

“Your wish has been granted”
said the Genie to the girl at the protest march.
She rose,
stiffened,
hoisted her sign and
a single finger for the patriarchy
(forgetting her father)
in permanent letters
on the tip of a
long wooden shaft.
She heard herself say
“Thank you, sir.”

Gaudy Explosions

I don’t think I’ve had a year of so much change since 1998, when I joined the Army. On April 4th last year I started school again for the umpteenth time, and made up lost ground in a hurry. Three quarters at South Seattle College got me an Associate’s degree, a frightening (for me) comfort with the Modern Language Association and its writing format, and frightening (for you) comfort with poetry. Recall (as I reminded you of too often) that my English Comp teacher asked to use my Voter ID paper in her future classes. My only fear – recognized after giddily saying that OF COURSE YOU CAN MY GOD – is that she’s been giving it the full Maddow ever since. Putting my calmly dispassionate support for voter ID on the screen and ripping into as prescribed therapy for post-election PTSD. But hey, she wouldn’t do that if it wasn’t good.

I love, too, that we lived through THE ELECTION. The last great tragedy that occurred in my life – the last “where were you when” event – was the Space Shuttle Challenger blowing up in 5th grade. What was her name – Krista McCullough? I think so. Wrong! Krista McCauliffe. The teachers wheeled little CRT sets on carts into our classrooms, turned the dials and adjusted the antennae until one of the 4 channels came through. I wonder, with THE ELECTION, how many classrooms had their flat-screened LCD panels drawing satellite signals of pre- and post-election coverage into classrooms. The anticipation beforehand, the buildup, and the moment of recognition that the carnage was real. I can’t imagine a condition by which anyone would have enjoyed watching the space shuttle separate into flaming debris after launch. But if you were a Trump voter watching the election unfold, seeing that gaudy, expensive, billionaire’s toy rocket to the stars come apart on its ascent on November 8th was as satisfying as hearing the words “no cancer.”

Two months before that, I quit drinking. It’s as if I knew how important sobriety would be on November 8th – the last thing you want to be in a riot is drunk. This is my first and last post on the subject, because no matter how you spin it there isn’t a drinker in the world who wants to hear a single word from a non-drinker about not drinking. There is no mission, no outreach, no hope that you might be getting through to someone. There’s no place for that sanctimony among friends. The problem is that most non-drinkers use that sanctimony to fuel their sobriety, as if smugness is how they quit, and more smugness is how they stay quit. That’s not mine. I will make one blanket statement, and move on: I quit because it’s better this way. Everything is. Not hyperbole. Everything important is better, and I am better at it. Would it be the same for you? Yes.

Poetry. One of the things at which I have gotten better. Much better, and still going. Thank you Michael G. Hickey and South Seattle College.  I have submitted a packet of poetry to The Iowa Review, arguably as prestigious a literary publication as there is. I’m sure nothing will be selected, but that’s not even the point. Two other times, I have been selected. The aforementioned Mike Hickey submitted two of my poems to a competition at which I won an honorable mention (and money!). Thanks, Mr. Hickey! And Fragments, the literary magazine at Seattle University, is going to publish another of my poems. But you know all this. What you may not know is what I think about it: I think I am doing things right.

And now I’m studying creative writing at Seattle University, though I haven’t taken any creative writing classes. So far it’s much more like creative reading, and that’s fine with me. I’ll write more, submit more, read more (sometimes out loud) and hopefully get published again soon.

Carry on, now. Facebook told me that I am turning zero, and that “That’s all for today.” Imma just try to live up to that.

Grades, Grays, Graze

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There’s nobody in that picture. Mostly, at nine-ish on a cold weekday morning, the few people about are older couples, ambulating carefully along at a thoughtful and deliberate pace that I should adopt myself more often. There’s nobody in that picture, but there is a cool little seagull way up in the corner, like a staple, if at the entirely wrong angle. I might become paralyzed if someone handed me a stack of papers stapled that way.

Grades came in from Winter Quarter. All is well in the world, as I managed all A’s. There was some anxiety because my Brit Lit grade, while good going into finals, depended on a final paper and a final exam, so just about anything was possible there. Philosophy was a worry, too, because I went into finals with the lowest A possible at the time. My paper needed to be spot on, and I suppose it must have been. I know I had an absolute blast writing it. How could I not?

Here’s the cool thing about philosophy, too, that I wish more people would understand about life in general: Understanding something doesn’t mean agreeing with it. Believing in something doesn’t mean supporting it. I can write a fun and thorough paper on Sartre’s philosophy, absolutely sticking the landing on every point we were asked to hit, without agreeing with any of it. But we get stuck in these patterns of thinking where if I say that I understand the reasoning behind a travel restriction or a border wall, that means that I want them both to happen and think they should. We have these conversations where we view the person we’re talking to as if he were a Facebook comment, electronic, robotic, and incapable of intellectual nuance. Philosophy, done right, doesn’t make that mistake. I do think that Western people are generally raised to not do it right, and are trained to resist doing it right by schools and social media, so we are starting from a position of weakness. Everyone wants to win at something (because they weren’t allowed to as kids), but when you look around and don’t see any opponents, you have to manufacture them.

I do, incidentally, agree with a lot of Sartre. To get to the end of his ideas – to read your way through “Being and Nothingness,” for instance, is difficult and confusing. But once you get to the core of what he is saying it looks like a common sense acceptance and description of reality as it is. That table you’re looking at is a table. Seriously. Sartre doesn’t really allow for a bunch of esoteric weirdness that renders the table some imaginary construct of the mind. There’s a friggin’ table over there. Deal with it. And of course we have to deal with it, especially when someone else is looking at it, too, which is where I start to part ways with him.

Here’s a link to the paper.  It’s only 4 pages, so a 5 minute read or so. What follows is an excerpt from it:

A certain momentary me. I know that this is just a story I’ve invented, and for a few moments the internal negation between that coffee-drinking self that’s been created, and the reflecting consciousness that created it, gives me space to wonder – do I have to be that person this morning? I could just as easily be a man who starts his day with a grapefruit juice or a tea or nothing at all. Neither coffee-me nor tea-me are a me that needs to be, and I’m starting to notice that with all of these possible beginnings to my day, none of them have singular importance. Whatever me it is that gets out of this bed – if I even do that – is no better or worse a version than any other. None of them can stake a foundational claim to me or my day or my life. This is a woeful resignation on the first Saturday of Summer. My Summer. I could choose a breakfast of fish and vodka instead of coffee, because the story of me as a coffee drinker is fundamentally unmoored from facticities like time and place and body and freedom. Anything else could take its place at any time. But that smell is delicious.

I’m still rocking along on Spring break and trying to write a poem that’s probably my most “serious” effort to date. But the funny thing about art and beauty is that the accidental kind is very frequently what tends to stick. The castoffs and the rigorless productions spring up out of the past and give you a “holy shit” moment. I wrote this one a while back, just a few quick revisions and done, and I love it more every time I read it:

Un-brella Weather

In October the wind came at its worst
and the rain became confused
from knowing how to fall
just plain down
anymore.

The boy said the rain is going sideways.

His sister used one hand
to put up her hood
then casually closed her umbrella
because she knew
it wouldn’t help anymore.

The boy said hey we need that.

But his sister just put the furled umbrella
(a rainbow colored rebuttal)
under an arm
and used one hand
to help him put up his hood too.

 

 

Publication, Compensation

I drive the two miles or so across town to come to the Starbucks at Barnes and Noble, passing at least five other Starbucks on the way. It’s not because of the books, not because of Betsy, who’s been serving my coffee for at least three years here, and not for the increased likelihood of having my car window smashed for the nickels in the cupholder while I quaff an americano. It’s because it’s quiet. My goal – and I’ve been succeeding – is to be more comfortable with proximity. Sharing a table with a stranger at a coffee shop, for instance. Still, my preference is for peace. I am the sole customer here this morning, 9:36, March 20, 2017. Over my headphones is the oddly comfortable cadence of Betsy moving chairs around while she wipes them down. The scoot on the floor, the light knock against the big disc on the floor at the base of the table’s central mast. It’s domestic and expansive. The sound of things having been done since there were things to do. The peace of nothing new.

Things that are new:

  1. A Kindle Voyage. It’s nice. I’ve had the Paperwhite for years and love it, but I want to bequeath it to my daughter for her birthday. The Voyage is an upgrade, and there’s only so much you can do to an e-reader without making it too much more than an e-reader, so it’s hard to get excited about it. But like I said, it’s nice. A little sharper in the contrast, nice page turning buttons to make one-handed reading work better. Nice.
  2. Sunshine. I think we’re done with it for a while, but yesterday was epiphanous. If you never knew anything about Spring or that it even existed, yesterday would have taught you everything you need to know. I mowed, I fertilized, I took down a huge shrub that had been damaged in our one big snow this winter. Using Spring to clean up what winter broke. I’m working on a poem about things like that. Which brings us to…
  3. Poetry competitions. Specifically, doing well in them. I looked at my phone yesterday to see a missed call, a voicemail, an email, and a Facebook message. All from my South Seattle College Creative Writing teacher, Michael G. Hickey. “I have some news you might be interested in hearing.” (A moment of silence, please, for the official death of understatements) He submitted two of my poems to a competition held by The League for Innovation in the Community College. It’s a National literary competition among all of the community colleges in various cities – Dallas, Phoenix, Miami. He even mentioned Canada, so I guess it’s technically international. Obviously all of the Seattle Community Colleges – South, Central, and North. One of my poems earned an honorable mention.

The upshot is that I’ll get a plaque, and…wait for it…wait for it…a check. I wrote a poem that’s good enough to get paid for it. That, friends and neighbors, is new. Published at Seattle U, and now earning cheddar in a competition. Time to frame those letters I wrote you. They liked the other poem, too, but evidently got a little freaked out by it. Thought it was too creepy or too dark or something. Which is funny, because I was anything but dark when I wrote it. It was this one, The White Noise of Prophecy. That’s a pretty awesome poem, and while there is a dead girl buried in the woods, I was probably making PB&Js and playing Connect 4 right before I wrote it. As for the other, the honorable mention, I don’t know what to do. There are odd rules for publication, and I don’t know if it is being published at all. I also realized that I have two versions of the winning poem, and I’m not sure which one I submitted. I guess that doesn’t matter much, though. Heck why not – it’s this one. I think. Might be the other version, but they’re not very different at all.

Who won, and with what poem? I don’t know. I have a hunch that it will be someone from a protected class – person of color, etc – who wrote a poem about oppression or THE ELECTION. In a way I hope I’m right. I’ll have a clear understanding of why it beat me out, instead of worrying that someone might have actually written a better poem. Which of course is as likely as anything else, but I’m too fragile and petty to handle that.

The Lamp, The Noise, The Cat

That’s the last of the final exams. What am I supposed to do? Buy myself something? I wouldn’t know what. I am buying myself lunch. That’ll have to do.

I met with Sven(!) yesterday after my British Lit final, to iron out some small details of the Sartre paper I have to turn in on Friday. Here’s an excerpt that I just wrote over my Italian club sandwich. It will read, initially, as possibly autobiographical. It is not. I have to write from the perspective of Sartre’s philosophy. Besides, I made it fiction by changing the length of the marriage. That’s all it takes, folks:

Part 4: She’s looking right at me, though. From the other side of the closed door, which is wearing more of the White Dove OC-17, she’s looking right at me. And I am disintegrating her idea of the coffee as she does it. How can she know if I’ll like it as strong as she made it? I’ve told her a million times that I do, and that I like it best with a little milk and sugar, but she knows she’ll never be sure of that. Because here I am, objectified by her consciousness, a thing in the house that negates her negations and dis-integrates everything that she thought she knew about this Summer Saturday. My Summer Saturday. And she does the same to me, out there turning me into Prufrock by measuring each transcendent moment of my life in coffee spoons. How can I be sure that she loves the warmth of the sun instead of hating the exposure she feels in its brightness? How can I know if she really is a morning person like she’s always told me she is? I cannot know it. My wife. Sixteen years married and she is unfathomable to me. We are unfathomable to each other. Free and forlorn ‘til death do us part. I’d like to think I know what to do. She’s looking right at me, though.

I’m such a cliche, sitting in a coffee shop, reading Sartre and writing philosophy papers.  And it’s not even corporate Starbucks, man, but a totally eclectic neighborhood joint. There’s these little pamphlets from the ACLU (dear God: coffee shop, philosophy, political pamphlets. It gets worse with every moment) presupposing mass roundups of “the wrong kind of people.” Look, I’m not sure I’m on anyone’s side, in particular. I know how I’m likely to vote at any given moment and the sorts of things I’ll support or not, but this polarization that’s been happening is so disheartening. This pamphlet, Jesus:

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I’ll say the obvious things, to save you from yourselves: I am not a racist. I am not a bigot. I have a strong commitment to community and tolerance and acceptance. There. Done. And my commitment to those principles is why I hate that pamphlet. You tell me: After reading what I am sure the ACLU and most of this city would say is a very generous and helpful gesture, would a Muslim or a Mexican or other person of color feel more safe and welcome, or less?

That’s all. People like the ACLU and most of the Movement, March, and Protest (MMP) society have a need to sow fear in the service of virtue, and the source of those fears is never in the obvious places. Seems plain enough. Think about the scene in every horror movie where you get “what was that terrifying, sinister, fear-inducing noise? It came from over there, behind that curtain that has an indistinguishable form behind it, and – Oh, phew. It’s just a lamp and a cat and OHMYGOD HE’S BEHIND YOU!” The Huffington Post and NPR and FOX do their reporting on the lamp and the cat. The ACLU and BLM print pamphlets about the indistinguishable shape behind the curtain. And the audience just knows, as we gnaw down our nails and get happy-scared with anticipation, that the curtain will be pulled aside and the shape and the noise will turn out to be Donald Trump wielding a bloody executive order, hijab fibers between his teeth. But it turns out to be just a lamp and a cat and a noise, and when someone finally shouts OHMYGOD HE’S BEHIND YOU! we turn around and it’s finally him. But instead of dining on the victims of his executive orders, he’s still just eating that taco bowl and telling the Hispanics he loves them.

The horror is never where we’re told it is, and sometimes there’s just nothing to be afraid of. I’m not sure why we don’t seem to get that.

In the end, if you’re asking my opinion (or reading this little bit of noise behind the curtain), I’d say that a thing like the ACLU booklet up there increases the fear and instability of a community. That’s all. It isn’t deeper than that.

 

Sprung Broke

I am less than three hours from my Natural Hazards final exam, and in my comfort zone. Top Pot doughnuts. A maple frosted chocolate cake doughnut and a 16oz americano. The two Washington State Patrol officers (seriously at the doughnut shop) that I sat so close to are probably annoyed because this place is mostly empty otherwise, and I nestled in to the table closest to them. Alas, I know where I like to sit. Admittedly, I would normally bristle at this very thing, but I’ve resolved to be more comfortable with proximity, and that works both ways. They’re talking about asthma inhalers.

I do have a problem, though. It’s the disinterest in studying. Half my problem is that the professor said this is the easiest test of the quarter. The other half of my problem is that if I score a 50% on this test, I still get an A in the class. The third half of my problem is that I have a philosophy paper due Friday. Why is that a problem? because I started writing it and I love it and it’s all I want to do. Sometimes you do work and think that you are making the teacher as happy to have you as you are to have him, and that’s really gratifying. Yesterday he had some nice things to say to me and the girl who thinks I’m smart because I’m old. She asked him for a hug after class, too, and it was the first time in 12 weeks that he looked unsettled. Awkwardest hug I’ve seen. Worse, probably, than Leonardo DiCaprio trying to hug the truth.

I think what I’ve liked most about this philosophy class has been that I’ve been able to be freely creative. The three papers I’ve written have been a combination of clinical analysis and rollicking imagination, and they’ve been successful. For this one it is all about Sartre, and life within all the little details of his philosophy: Negation, pre-reflective and reflective consciousness, anguish, freedom, bad faith, all kids of restrictive categorizations that somehow lend themselves to well to narrative construction. Probably largely because that is, for Sartre, what we do as humans at every moment – affirm or deny our personally crafted narrative of self, by way of a paralyzing totality of freedom. A narrative about built narratives and and our awareness of and belief in them. Being asked to write a  paper based on that is like being given ice cream for breakfast in Tahiti. We laughed yesterday at a classmate who asked how strict the page limit was and could she go over it. But seriously, how could you not?

There’s another paper. British Literature. The Lady of Shalott. She is “half sick of shadows,” and I am half sick of that poem. I chose it. I like it. But I’ve been too deep in it for too long and I don’t want to read it again for like a decade. I just have to remember to give that one a last minute once-over tonight and turn it in tomorrow when I take the final. Then the Philosophy paper and then Spring Break.

Ahhh, Spring Break. I’ve booked a flight to Mexico, but nothing too crazy. I’m old, so it’s an all-inclusive type of place that I hopefully won’t have to wander too far from and won’t get too noisy. And of course none of this is true. I’m actually just going to keep waking up at 6:30, making lunches and two trips per day to the kids’ school. I’ll probably use much of my free time to get the lawn in shape for spring – a little moss control, a little overseeding. And at some point I’ll polish the floor. It needs it.

Maybe I’ll write a poem or two.

That’s as much as I’m able to fake it for this morning. It’s time to bring out the notes and the textbook and see how far from failing my final I can come.