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.

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.

the-assumption-of-mary

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.

So…

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.

It’s Time

 

Gerard swings for the fences. American Digest tends to do that. He posted this back in November, pre-Thanksgiving, amid the rending of garments and whatnot over the proper order for all things holiday. So it was out of order, and I waited, and here it is. Of course once you watch it you’ll realize tout suite that it it isn’t out of order at all.  I haven’t been wearing reading glasses for long, and this one forced me to figure out what to do with them when something gets in my eye.

Back to the Dance

When I started this creative writing class, I swore that I would only write original content. Meaning that I would not go back through my years of essay/poetry/flash fiction blogging for material. Thus far I have honored that. But our last assignment is to write a poem that involves the concept of or a sense of time in some way, and damn it, I knew immediately that I had the perfect piece to go back and pull forward. Here’s the original from (oh my) nearly 5 years ago. I love that I’ve been recording things for this long. Since what, 2008, I think. How’s that for a sense of time?

Here it is, poemized. Poetified. Poefied. It’s probably not the final form. We always revise and revise and revise, of course. But how nice this is:

We Have a Dance that Makes Us Forget

We’re incredible, you and me.
We should be fetal and weeping
all the things that come our way.
But we barely notice as we act like waking up this morning
erases all the times he woke us up last night
the poor boy and his cutting teeth and
whatever the rattling wind
did to his dreams.

And in the fog of another morning
we are buried under the things.

But we’re incredible, you and me.
We should be dim and unresponsive
if we could afford the lapse.
But we barely notice as we give the girl a ‘good morning’
and a choice of food for breakfast.
She crests the stairs carrying
the bags under her eyes
that her father gave her.

And the harried ballet of the birth of a day gets eased by
– we’re already late.

But we’re incredible, you and me.
We should be hunched and scuffling
if we could even move that fast.
But we barely notice and we make a little dinner
and go “ga-ga” to the boy
and “use your manners” to the girl
and we smile and
have a family hug.

And they want to hear music now because
they dance to everything that isn’t sleep.

The old men on the TV continue to beat each other dumb
while the old man in his chair heaves a sigh
that comes out like the ghost of his grandparents
rushing to turn up the radio.
A sigh that works like amnesia.
The television disappears with a click.
A fog horn mourns in the distance.
The music plays and our people dance.

We’re incredible, you and me.

The White Noise of Prophecy

 

What if I just drove hard
with a picture in my head of where I wanted to go
and that picture was a desert.
I drove and I dreamed and I screamed and I became
a carbureted harbinger of ills that I can taste when I speak them.
And I spoke of where I wanted to be –
black charred sands
ice cold mornings
a lifetime of miles from her grave.

What if all I could do on the way was
vent that little cigarette window and watch my spent ashes
dancing an unlikely moment in the eddy
while I rod full throttle
with a picture in my head of a place that doesn’t exist
because it might be the only way I can stop seeing that forest –
damp green sanctuary
damn dirty cliché
all moss and mood and running snow
pooling in raucous serenity
where the world’s worst poems about loss
collect to commiserate over their feelings of inadequacy
and where a dipped toe stirs guilt into prophecy –

white noise
the pestilent buzz of a dead limb
the prayer that didn’t take

And what if I was Jonah
driving in a panic away from the mouth of a giant fish
because in the rearview I saw inside its maw
and I saw that wicked forest
mocking me forever as it begged me home.
So I had to fly forward to a burnt delusion
to leave that pretty little place in the woods
where I buried her.

Freedom to Donut

I do love my donut mornings. They’re getting to know me, and when I slapped down my full punch card like it was the winning domino – ameriCANO, mutha fucka! – they gave me the coffee I asked for, and gave me the donut free, too. Thanks, friends.

But first, in my car, I rounded a turn up high on a hill before descending to the beach for my goodies, and was greeted with a view of an aircraft carrier lumbering through Elliot Bay. Probably the Stennis from Bremerton – that’s the one we usually get around here. A quick check reveals that no, it’s actually the Nimitz heading back after sea trials and flight certifications. Another tool in the fight to maintain rights like our freedom of speech.

Having seen the Nimitz out there, I figured it would be worth it to give you a peek into what I am working on at school. This is my Social ethics class. As you can see, the questions are framed to discourage disagreement with the prevailing ideology. It doesn’t mean that the questions can’t be answered in the negative, but most young students aren’t geared for that. They’re just going to read the question and answer it, and store that tacit agreement away in their consciousness. It’s soft, oblique conditioning, and the teachers know full well what they are doing.

This week we did sexual and racial discrimination. People have lost jobs and have had their right to free speech completely revoked for saying some of the things I say below. Innocuous things that nonetheless are not allowed to stand against the dominant narrative on campus. Which is relevant to last week’s topic of free speech and speech codes. Campus speech codes claim to target and limit hate speech, but their target is, in every instance, free speech. My current college has a seemingly reasonable speech code, but it uses words like “harm” and “harassment” without making any effort to define them. When those definitions are left up to the accusers, good people get hurt.

The questions are in italics, and come from the teacher. Answers are where you’d expect them to be:

1. Can you think of other instances or phenomena that are indicative of, or might contribute to, the so-called “rape culture”? What, if anything, can men do to fight against “rape culture” and stereotypes that promote overt male dominance?

I find, first of all, May and Strikwerda’s statement that “rape is a crime perpetrated by men as a group, and not just the individual rapist” to be wildly irresponsible. It’s a moralistic assignment of blame without due process, and a sort of high command to all men to stop everything now and do everything differently. To imply that there is no such thing as a man who is innocent of rape is so absurd that it alone is enough to refute any claim of a rape culture.

If there is a stereotype of overt male dominance, I don’t know it. It’s a trope that’s been “fought against” for so long, and opposition to it has been the dominant narrative for so long, that it seems unlikely that if the stereotype does exist, it holds any sway in society. I just don’t see how socialization can still be blamed for “rape culture” when for decades now the overwhelming social momentum has been against it.

2. In regards to racism and sexism, to what extent [if at all] do you think that being “tolerant” involves tolerating others who are intolerant? In other words, if we are to truly respect others as autonomous agents, how ought we respond to those who do not respect others? Explain your reasoning thoroughly.

This takes us back to the free speech discussion in some ways. It seems more right to tolerate an intolerant person, if his intolerance doesn’t come in the form of speech or expression that causes harm, however we might define that. So yes, in terms of an obligation to respect the autonomy of others, we should tolerate the intolerant up until the point that his intolerance is an infringement on the rights of someone else, does someone else harm (which we must clearly define first), or otherwise restricts the autonomy of another. Still, to show too much respect may cross into the territory of the self-deprecating person (or Uncle Tom or Deferential Wife) in that we may forfeit our own rights and demonstrate a lack of respect for morality in general by doing so. All of which makes my answer remain a firm “yes.” Tolerate the intolerant, but do not tolerate her infringement on your own rights.

3. While we may reserve the right to socially exile or pressure others to be respectful to all, to what degree do you think such pressure should be exerted legally? For example, the fact that former Los Angeles Clippers owner, Donald Sterling, was banned for life from the NBA for his racist comments. Or the President of Harvard University, Lawrence Summers, who publicly spoke about men being better suited for the sciences and engineering because of their innate aptitude for such demanding fields, while women have more natural “family desires”. Should either, or both, of these individuals be legally or professionally punished for such statements? Why or why not, and to what extent?

I’m all for people like this being professionally punished. The court of public opinion matters, and is a helpful check against unwanted behaviors. Legally speaking, however, no. They may have made poor comments, but they did not cross any boundaries of free speech protections that would warrant legal ramifications. Certainly nothing in our readings would support legal action, even the broadest of speech codes. There was no incitement to violence, and no issues of time and place that would have bestowed their comments with anything resembling a promotion of physical harm.

4. Choose one of the media items from this week’s module that you found the most interesting and summarize its content. Why did you find it interesting? What, if anything, do you think could be done to promote equality between the sexes, races, or both?

I think that to help equalize society, the primary focus needs to be on honesty. For instance, the article “Debunking the Mythical Gender Pay Gap” does not debunk what it claims to. The gender pay gap, the “77 cents on the dollar figure” makes no effort to control for any variables at all. It is the average of all women’s earnings in the US subtracted from the average of all men’s earnings in the US. That is literally all of the data that goes into that number. No data about the types of jobs, hours worked, education of employees, tenure, or even how many women vs men are in the workforce. Therefore, to start a conversation about equality with the 77 cents premise is to start the conversation dishonestly, and push for change from there.

And so much of the rest of our conversations about equality go the same way. The data concerning police brutality does not remotely support the claim that minorities are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement. An honest conversation would start by acknowledging that fact, but that never happens.
We cannot work to promote equality between anything if we are not willing to be honest about it.

Eturnal Shakespeare

No doubt I’m a morning person. I like being up and ahead of the game.But it still needs to be mostly dark and quiet. I like, I think, using the time for introspection. I’m not sure any other time of day works as well. Once the sun has come inexorably up, it’s the the dull usuals on a march, slightly out of step.  And as I wrote on that post in the link:

I’m a little tired of everything I have, and am frantically searching for something which, next year, will be what I remember about the great way that this summer wound down. The soundtrack to the end of it all, or something.

Or the beginning. As much as I will be railing against it in February, I always look forward to the winter, just like I always look forward to the change of one season to the next both times it happens here in Washington. Winter changes to Summer, and three months later, Summer changes to Winter. You only have to brace yourself once a year.

I’m not tired of everything I have, though. Going back to school has catalyzed a sea change in the tenor, the mood, the psychological weave of things. It creates an anticipation and uneasiness. A worried excitement. But “sea change?” That’s gotta be from…surely it’s another…

Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made,
Those are pearls that were his eyes,
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change,
into something rich and strange,
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell,
Ding-dong.
Hark! now I hear them, ding-dong, bell.

Yep, another eternal turn of phrase from Shakespeare. Eturnal Shakespeare. If it wasn’t for Shakespeare and the Bible, I’m not sure we’d be able to have a useful conversation about anything. Which is a pretty good explanation for the miserable gewgaw language of the social justice movement. Tottering as they are through an education whose strictures carefully target the most important influences, while wheedling students with the most useless reassurances of their personal value.  When you’re ignorant of what made you, you can’t make anything yourself. But you can certainly, efficiently, make nothing of yourself.

I’m sharing the table with my mother in law right now. She writes and speaks for a living, on various socially useful subjects. I’m not sure what’s she’s working on, but she’s taking calls and typing away and leaning in to the screen and, well, this: If my wife were home to see this dynamic – me, with her mom, the two of us just doing our thing together – she would weep tears of joy, and perhaps kill herself knowing that life has reached its zenith. There can be no more surprises. Unlikely affinity is one of life’s most subtle and rewarding little charities.

I did say “socially useful subjects” which may have pinged your radar once or twice as a pernicious little turn of phrase. You are not wrong. She is political, and devoted to the cause.  Refugee-positive in a “we must be universally welcoming and open” kind of way.  It’s sentiment over reason, and to my mind it comes apart far too easily far too early, but I do not brusquely shrug it off.  She is a thinker and does nothing carelessly and I admire that. It is an unrealistic expectation that all careful thinking will arrive at the same conclusion. In the case of me and her, it does not.  In the case of millions of people, it does not. If any of us believed in the virtue of universal agreement, we would hate free speech because it is the ultimate impediment to that brutish uniformity. It is an honor to be sharing writing space with an intelligent dissenter.

I work hard to not be reactionary with people. To be in an argument the way it seems people used to be capable of doing: calmly and with generosity. Jonathan Haidt’s work about the increasing volatility of polarization is instructive here.  It’s actually true that people used to be much, much kinder in disagreement than we are now.  If I could reach back to the past and pull anything forward, it might be that proclivity. But to be really trite, things are the way they are because they are. We didn’t just decide to be inflexible and abrasive one day. We built the structure for it. Here we live. I’m generally comfortable with the idea of people disagreeing with me, doing different things. But the virtue signaling gets so tiresome. Therefore – cue the cliche – we don’t talk politics. Why would we? Football teams don’t play each other hoping for a tie, or to end the game with the other team’s players wearing their uniform. If you want a fight, face your opponent. If that opponent is family, don’t be a jerk. Leave it.

Though I do giggle when I muse about what my mother in law probably thought I was doing when I was working an intelligence position in the Army. SPIES! And now that Hillary has done what Hillary has done, people who formerly had a contempt for all things governmentally secretive and clandestine have to abandon that contempt for a forced ambivalence. “Security clearances? Well, those aren’t really a big deal, anyway. Certainly nothing to get all ‘legal’ about. Amirite?”

Moving on.

It’s a little dark outside. I think Autumn has finally turned out the lights for the year. Or dimmed them, anyway. But the world doesn’t buzz like the dining room lights do. It’s all just wan and limp, leaves and limbs hanging damply, without actually being damp. This will be the scene Monday, when I head back into the classroom. I have two classes on campus, Creative Writing directly prior to American Government. Online I have Social Ethics and the bonus freebie class: Health and Fitness. I expect a lot proselytizing over high fructose corn syrup and big bad evildoers like Monsanto, but like anything, I’ll take what learning I can and apply it where I am able.