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.

Tiny Giant

I had a tiny body once
so often rapt with joy.
It turned the wheels of tiny bikes
and proclaimed “Here comes a boy!”

It left me bleeding once or twice
and bumped a thing or two
as I flew around this giant world
and learned to steer it true.

Everything that held the line
from getting all confused
was new and out in front of me
and replaced what I misused.

Now giant eyes have seen the world
but in glancing glance away
From the giant things I once beheld
but are tiny now today.

At Noon I’m Just a Man

I.

I lay down a Captain and a deist
scheming at waves of massed dreams
diving from the plastered sky
– kill a little, leave a little be –
and casting a guided prayer for peace
and help
and hoping
there’s enough company here for the plea to be absorbed.
The key prayer for reinforcements
in rooms defrocked of their vested power of relief.
Under the moon, that last supper clings to a dream
of never being taken at all.
In a moment, God says, it will not have been.

II.

I wake up a poet and a deist.
Spreading my toes to filter First Things
springing from the earth of the morning
– catch a little, leave a little be –
and casting a blanket prayer for space
and absence
and hoping
there’s enough emptiness here for the plea to echo back.
The rare prayer for abandonment
in rooms vested with a host of languid dust motes.
Before the sun, breakfast clings to a hope
of being taken alone.
For a moment, God says, it can be.

(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
alive

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:

windowthing

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.