Grades, Grays, Graze

fullsizeoutput_114a

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:

IMG_3458

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.

Just Don’t Look at The Other

Anybody want to read my Philosophy One-Pager for today? Sure you do. (“Philosophy,” as well as “remember,” are probably the two words that I mis-type the most frequently. Odd redundancies of letters.) I had fun writing this one, and as has happened a few times in this course, I wished that I could write more. Alas, the assignment is limited to “not much over 250 words,” so there.

You Say Potato, I Say I’ll Go Cry in the Corner

The Other is a refreshing introduction, because it has seemed pretty obvious that things were going to get messy for Sartre as soon as someone else came along and started making meanings for things at the same time that he was. However, I am not certain I agree that consciousness has to forfeit its positionality on things to the Other. After all, the Other would necessarily have to suffer the same fate in my presence. A room full of people is just coincidental, mutual dis-integrations with no sustainable claim on meaning. So why is this forfeiture necessary? Is it simply strict adherence to post-modernism, the requirement of the movement to eliminate the self at the earliest convenient opportunity? Maybe it’s better than that. Maybe it’s because, as I am not him, I cannot know what these things are to him or for him. They have to transfer allegiance to the Other, because for me to have any amount of ownership of their distance or relation or meaning to him is an absolute impossibility. He disintegrates my ability to rationalize – to positionalize – my world, because he owns meanings that I cannot conceive, for objects that I do perceive. The Other is the antithesis of consciousness.

So the objects in my universe have a new focal point. I have been eliminated as the locus of positionality. Seems that, by extension and because it must necessarily be the same from the perspective of the other, that he is also eliminated as the locus of positionality, and on and on in saecula saeculorum, such that there is no such thing, anywhere, as a locus of positionality. All meaning dies, and we place the corpse of morality on the pyre alongside it.

As noted, Sartre leaves gaping vacancies where morality and ethics are concerned, though I hear he made a run at those things eventually. For now I enjoy the challenge of digging through his oily narrations and coming up with some understanding. There’s a lot to like.  A lot to agree with.

Medium, on the other hand, is yet to be decided upon. I joined up last week. No matter how many times I click “show fewer stories like this,” or “show fewer recommends from medium staff,” I still get stories like that, and recommends from medium staff. And they’re all the same droll political drivel. However, there are also many poets and writers (not mutually exclusive, those two, natch). If my exclusions eventually yield a primarily creativity-friendly experience, then maybe I’ll be on to something. Someone posted a poem there today, for instance, that referenced Descartes in a playful way. I pointed out that he had also invited Sartre to the party through some of his lines about forward-looking identity. It’s timely and engaging and fun. And I won’t link to it, because it’s probably illegal or something. Medium is, like, a big and serious internet operation. Meaning that there’s more things you can do wrong there than right.

Imma go off to school now and try to do some things right. It’s working out that way so far.

Our Inner Divinity

fullsizeoutput_1130

Sven(!) asked me to read the poem I wrote in class today. No, wait. I didn’t write a poem in class today. I wrote a poem last week, and turned it in as an addition to an assignment. Today, in class, Sven(!) asked me to read it. I posted it, but don’t remember if I mentioned anything more about it in the previous post, so I’ll mention it here: this was for philosophy class:

(The False Sartre)

I can point my hands at numbered things
and I can perch upon the wall.
I can wear a face you see right through
and I can speed or I can stall.

But I cannot be the time I tell
nor the alarm you’ve come to hate.
I can only be what I am not yet
and wake you up with your bad faith.

There is no concise way to describe why that poem makes (some small) sense for Sartre, so take my word for it. But I read the poem out loud for my class, and felt surprisingly calm and secure about doing it. Last quarter at South Seattle College, my creative writing teacher set up a poetry reading for us in the auditorium on campus. There were forty-ish people in the audience (including my class), and I was miserable reading up there like that, but I hadn’t presented anything for anyone since an OPORD or two in the Army fifteen years ago. It went well. During this current quarter at Seattle University I’ve done two presentations in my Natural Hazards class, and now today, the impromptu poem reading. I think it’s all starting to feel a little more normal. Which will help when I read my poem at the release party for Fragments Magazine. It’s not that poem up there. We’ve been over this.

Major subject change, but something happened today while I was studying in Starbucks that made me think for a while. Made me wonder about myself and my reactions to things: A girl dropped an F-bomb, and it bothered me. What I am wondering is whether it is fair that I know it wouldn’t have bothered me if it was a man. Well, wait – that’s not actually true. It would still have bothered me, but differently. So that’s the fairness I’m wondering about, and here’s the difference: a man swears needlessly in public and I think “what a jerk.” A woman swears needlessly in public and I think “you’re better than that.” I become disappointed. Context matters, of course. My wife can swear around the house (THOUGH SHE NEVER HAS.) and it’s no big deal (IT WOULDN’T BE A BIG DEAL IF SHE EVER DID IT. WHICH SHE HASN’T. EVER). It’s private and domestic. Our standards don’t lower because we’re home, but our expectations do shift with the intimacy of naked tooth brushings and handling dirty underwear. If Mother Teresa swore in a flower shop I’d feel The Apocalypse bearing down. If she swore in the bathroom I’d tell her to light a match.

The public sphere is different. We need to represent, to some extent, our higher selves. Not through any overt displays, and I’m not expecting rampant sainthood, but looking closely enough at someone should reveal a glimpse of some faint tether to inner divinity. Especially in women. Men, however, I have mostly given up on. We are hopelessly vulgar and mundane. Clever and powerful and packed with potential that is often realized, yes. We heave our creations out of the muck for general consumption, but we never come clean ourselves. We are rotten and banal and probably beyond redemption. We can be good people who do good things, but to hear a prim and proper, well-dressed sort of man walk down the church steps after mass and say “Now where’d I park that fucking car” would give me no pause for disappointment. No feeling of letdown. I expect this expulsion of discernment, because we lost our claim to the throne probably as far back as Cain. A man displaying social and cultural impiety has all the meaning of an off-leash dog shitting on a pool deck. You’d rather not see it, but it’s exactly as much as you can hope for.

When, on the other hand, I see (as I did today), a similarly prim and proper woman, with hair and boots and everything done up “just so” and exemplifying all the wonder and elevated being that men have lost completely, say “some fucking freshman,” I am sharply disappointed. It comes out as a spurned deification from someone who had a chance, man. Another fallen angel.

Now don’t get me wrong, if she has facial piercings and neck tattoos and is standing behind protest signs, I don’t expect anything more from her than I do from a man. She’s made her move, and it is a permanent diminution. But to have, as women do, a GPS with the route to The Kingdom in its presets, and then to follow HBO into an underground cockfight instead, well, it’s just kind of a blow to any general sense of optimism I might be carrying around.

Not a very big blow, though. My inner divinity knows where it’s at and what it’s not. And I still get to read poems out loud to my philosophy class.

Transgressions

fullsizeoutput_1114

“Transgress.” Because you have to have that edgy, sometimes-crime-is-right vibe going on. But of course, it’s college after all. They aren’t going to say “Uphold Current Social Norms.” Imagine how hosed college would be if things were generally ok. What would people at colleges do if they weren’t moved to transgress all the time? (Please, by the way, nobody tell them that the current social norms are them. They’ll get too boring.)

I can’t remember the last time I transgressed,  – wait, I can. I remember sitting in my first back-to-college class, a week or two in. We’d been split into small groups, and as I sat there with four kids in their late teens and early twenties, I had cause to say “Are you asking who cares about it? I do. I am one. I care a great deal about what happens to white males.” While caring about my future is a rather perfunctory and mundane thing to me, it’s what transgression is in 21st century America.

Clearly, at 41 years old, I still cannot help myself from showing gratitude through insult and cynicism. “Fragments” is the literary magazine at Seattle University, and they’ve selected one of my poems for publication. But you know this. I was able to  get hold of last year’s edition, with a bonus 2013 copy thrown in for free. The worries that I had about being the only submission, or in some other way seeing my elation diminished, are put to rest. It’s a good, heady collection of very high quality work. I am in good company, and in every way justified in feeling just tickled as hell to be a part of it. Though in honesty, if I was the only submission, I would still consider myself poet laureate of at least my home, and present my work as enthusiastically as ever.

Somebody commented on one of my Facebook posts “So you’re a poetry guy. Cool.” I find it odd, first, that he is just now seeing that. But I don’t usually put my poetry on FB, I put links to my poetry there. I know that people don’t look closely at everything. They don’t click through. And this is not a reactionary lamentation. We can’t look closely at everything. We choose, mostly unconsciously, what sorts of things to plaster onto our days.  To choose everything would crush us, then turn us inside out. Parenting, for instance, is often an involuntary capitulation brought on by too many things choosing you. And if you haven’t felt crushed and inside out after mad morning with kids, fights over toothbrushings and HURRY UP WE’RE LATE, feed the dog and no, the dishwasher still needs to be unloaded, and SERIOUSLY NO SOCKS, then you don’t have kids. It’s the closest to lost you’ll ever feel. Helpless. The parent knows it. The crime victim knows it. The soldier knows it. And it’s all because, as I said already, too many things have chosen you. We are limited, but discerning. The world is neither.

But yes, to end it quickly and get off to school, I am a poetry guy. I need to put it to good use. I am not a crusader, not a protester, not a fighter. But if anything needs a transgressor right now, it is poetry. Not as the boring “voice” against the world’s evils. That anyone is still writing about oppression or bad presidents is depressingly unhelpful. Poetry itself needs to be transgressed against. To have it dragged up from its self-obsession, pulled by its collar from the cave, subsumed, ultimately, by its own protests. And to start celebrating knowledge again. I promise to make it fun.