Thursday, June 30, 2011

along the southern tier

I think one of the most interesting, and one of the most dismaying, things I have noted on this trip, especially as I've traveled the noninterstates, is the number of abandoned houses. there are, of course, a lot of homes up for sale, but you can always tell which are those because the lawn is mowed and free of ornament.

but the abandoned places are often goodlooking places, or places that were at one point goodlooking, sometimes with trees growing through the porch, sometimes the windows boarded up, sometimes a part of the roof caved in, almost always with the grass grown 3 0r 4 feet high and the lawn reaching all the way to the road.

this afternoon I drove 23 west from hudson to oneonta to connect to 88 south to 17 west to the corning inn where my wife had gotten us reservations for the night--and what was borne out to me over and over again was the number of abandoned places. perhaps 1/3 of the places I passed on 23 were abandoned. and as I drove along I couldn't help wondering if so much of the homeless problem could be solved or alleviated by relocating people into these abandoned places. what would such a thing take?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

"snitches get stitches" II

yesterday I was chitterchattering with ron who runs the local museum and who filled me in on some of the backstory to the recent murder.

the kid who lived in austin, it turns out, practically did move around town incognito as ron says almost no one ever saw him except as he was driving his dad and mom to the post office on a daily basis. "the only thing you ever got out of that kid was 'good morning' and 'hello' and 'sir.' seemed like a fine kid if a little lonely. but boy, the local kids saw a whole different side to him." [my mistake, too, on mentioning his assertion he was a crip on his facebook page; I was going by memory and as you can see on the link he very much identifies as blood. both are, of course, fantasy.]

as to the kid who is accused of having pulled the trigger: he, it turns out, is the nephew of a woman whose bed-and-breakfast my wife and I stayed at some years back. the boy's father and he moved out from salt lake city where, the father told him, "he had a run with some bad associates." the kid was almost immediately in trouble with the local law and had to put in some community service. ron took him on at the museum. "he was a pretty okay kid, I mean he did the stuff he was supposed to do and he did a good job, mowing the lawn and painting the porch. but you couldn't tell him he did something good. he'd do something and I'd say, 'great, that's a great job,' and he'd just look right through you or look at you like you'd kicked him. he just finally stopped coming by a few months ago and I had to tell his probation officer, 'I just don't know where he is, he hasn't been coming here.'"

and as to the 15 year old girl: her mom was a physician's assistant and doing pretty well until she started using the drugs she was supposed to be prescribing, and then she lost her license and did time and nothing's been the same since. ron had much to say about that story too as it turns out he's related, like almost everyone around here is, to that family. "I feel for her grandmother, but her grandfather, her father, they've been in and out of prison for molesting their own kids, and her brother, when he got out, he was making to do it again and this guy whose son he'd molested just came up and put a gun to his head and now he's due to get out in a couple years. there's just nothing but bad news for that family, and it's not even the whole family just the family in that 1 house. all of them, just makes the whole family hurt."

"it is just 1 big mess," ron says, "and it hurts whenenver something like this happens. it just hurts the kids and it hurts the people around here and makes it harder to grow up here. it's just bad news all around. no one escapes it."

Friday, June 24, 2011

a palestinian gandhi

"some people think that satyagraha is weakness; they believe that the angrier you are, the stronger you will be. this is their great mistake.

"causing someone to suffer the same price you have paid will never ease your pain. it doesn't help much to be right. you damage your right by just being right. one usually wants to be right only because he or she can't be honest. give me a solution...where my right is in harmony with my humanity and their right is in harmony with their humanity. nonviolent protest is where you invest your pain, a place where this pain becomes active in accordance with your humanity. you cannot practice nonviolence without listening to the other side's narrative. but first you have to give up being a victim. when you do that, no one will be able to victimize you again. I don't want the world to feel pity for me; I want the world to take responsibility, as I do."

--ali abu awwad quoted in "salt march to the dead sea: gandhi's palestinian reincarnation" by david shulman in the june, 2011, issue of harper's magazine

Thursday, June 23, 2011

"snitches get stitches"

the wireless connection in austin has been getting less and less certain so I'm traveling around the thick visiting different town libraries to use their wifi services, and to get out of the house. I've been with him nearly a week and am not impatient with him yet, but I suspect that is because I am getting away every few days.

today I am in emporium, a town that to get to I needed to drive up and over a mountain, passing through flyspecks like keating summit and portage, unincorporated areas with few yearround residents but many camps and cabins and lodges, most of them looking abandoned in early summer. the library here is on the main street but I passed it 4 times before finally locating the sign camoflaged into the surrounding wall.

about a week before I arrived a teenager's body was found in prouty run, the creek running through the edge of austin. the kid was 18 and had been there a week. he was almost immediately identified as were his accused killers. it's made for interesting reading for me, and here are some articles.

of the 3 people charged, 2 lived in coudersport and 1 in austin. no one I've spoken to admits to knowing the kid from austin, though it's a tiny enough borough he'd have to have been living under a tin sheet in the woods and come out for 10 minutes at a time, and then wearing a tattooed dog costume, to have been so utterly unknown. the 15 year old girl, however, is related to a friend of my father's, or her grandmother is.

the kid from austin bragged on his facebook page of his affiliations with the crips although that seems to have been at best fantasy and at worst self-destructive delusion. that's what's gotten me thinking harder about this situation. this little area, a godsend for people like my dad and my cousins and, to some extent, my wife and me, is a hell for kids to grow up. the old refrain "there's nothing to do," heard everywhere by every kid no matter the situation, crops up even more handily here. sure, there are places to hunt and fish and ride 4-wheelers--this last an aural invasion to those living in town and within spitting distance of the street--and woods and creeks and hollows to explore and bikes to ride and so forth. and there's tv and internet connections and dvds and books (although precious few of those), and there's alcohol when all those don't make it and meth and some pot.

but there's not much else. there's sports and music and plays when school is going but a lot less of those with budget crunches. there are libraries available, but less so as money dries up. there are ymcas and boys and girls clubs and the such but you often need your own car or your mother to drive you to those places. cycling and walking to many places have become less prominent the more adults worry. the sad truth is there are fewer and fewer places for kids to congregate with other kids where there is no pressure on them to spend money or behave like anything other than kids.

that might not have had any effect on this case. for all I know, kaylyn and her salt lake city boyfriend accused of pulling the trigger may have met as part of a church group. but that these kids managed to find one another in such an otherwise huge expanse, and that the 2 planning the murder could talk about it publically for a couple weeks and have it not somehow make it back to the target of their talk, and how they could have come together without the benefit of cars and cell phones and the internet and a .22 rifle, I can't say. another sad truth is that sometimes kids commit destructive acts no matter what's available to them.

echoing myself from the other day, sometimes the honest answer is "I don't know," and I think when it comes to such experiences as an 18 year old shot in the head by a couple guys and a 15 year old girl because they suspected him of being "a snitch and arrogant"--the girl's boyfriend having warned her off telling what they'd done because "snitches get stitches"--in such circumstances "I don't know" may be the only possible answer.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

teach naked

I'm sitting in the coudersport public library where I have a solid wireless signal. reading last sunday's nytimes I came across this essay in the "week in review" section and was absolutely charmed by it. what does it mean for author tim kreider to say, "I hope kids are still finding some way, despite Google and Wikipedia, of not knowing things"? it means that there is some only partly acknowledged thrill to being the only one on your block--or in your county--to know of, let alone appreciate, the wizardry of devo or david bowie (to my knowledge there was only 1 other bowie afficienado in my high school and we argued fervently which was better, early ziggy stardust bowie [my position] or later thin white duke bowie [his]). when I was a student of secondary education I was told by a professor that the 3 most important words a teacher could say were, "I don't know," followed years later in grad school by the advice of my mentor that the 2nd most important words were, "you should find out." the years between are probably the important ones.

Monday, June 20, 2011

a little grocer humor

I was sitting at the counter at the store drinking coffee with my dad and my cousin who were talking about local gossip and the conversation eventually came around to the cost of things.

my dad said, "the price of everything keeps going up. I used to bring home a paycheck of $100 for 2 weeks and that was pretty good money. I raised my kids on that and what little myra brought it."

my cousin said, "well, it's like they say, a winchester rifle used to cost a week's wages, and it still does. it was $69.95 back then and it's $695.00 now. still a week's wages."

I said, "I remember when you could walk into a grocery store with a $5 bill and walk out with a loaf of bread, a gallon of milk, a dozen eggs, 5 lbs of potatoes, a pound of butter, a rasher of bacon, a magazine, a bag of onions, and still have change left in your pocket. you just can't do that anymore." I took another drag off my coffee. "now everybody has security cameras."

Sunday, June 19, 2011


you could get carpal tunnel waving to people in this town. I've been in the thick since 11 last night and it seems that, besides listening to my father tell me variations on the same local news he told me during my last visit here, is all I have been doing.

he's known here, though, and that's important to him. not as some local celebrity but as "uncle harold," a regular and constant, consistent presence in the village. I've written previously about the effect this has on him, this being acknowledged and recognized as a member of the community and that hasn't lessened with my mother's death, only increased. we sat tonight on the porch of the local store and I counted at least 2 dozen cars and trucks whose drivers lifted a hand at sight of my dad (not a one in the direction of my cousin or his wife, owners of the porch we sat on, and sitting on the other end; my dad remarked later on that, saying, "well, they don't wave or say 'hi' to any of those people so I don't know what they expect otherwise").

last night, before I arrived, his new neighbor got drunk and tried using the mailbox on the corner like an atm (or so my dad interpreted his shoving his bankcard in and quickly out several times) and before anyone else could see he brought him up onto the porch to sit and chitterchatter until he sobered, and failing that took his hand and walked him to his trailer where my dad called his wife out to take him inside, telling her he "ought to lie down for a while". today the neighbor came by with a sheepish look and a plate of stillwarm homebaked cookies.

at 1 point in my life I fantasized I could live in a village this tiny and empty. I don't know now if I could, but I could live with stillwarm homebaked cookies.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

lost in indiana

well, I'm not anymore and I wasn't for very long. maybe half an hour. and it wasn't a problem except that I wasn't entirely certain I was heading to the east--something about the sky seemed wrong that early in the morning, and it turned out I was driving southeast, and that wasn't the way I'd intended.

I stopped a couple times at rest stops near the wisconsin-illinois border for naps--the 1st lasted 2+ hours and I listened to an owl somewhere behind me, then I got up, had a quick shpritz in the restroom, and then drove about 3 hours south and then northeast to avoid the chicago pike. the 2nd time I was somewhere outside chicago and settled in for another couple hours in the front seat. after that was pretty uneventful until I ended up heading to detroit after missing the exit south I'd needed. I ended up in portage which seemed like a pretty goodsized town, until the town stopped and then about a block away, the road teed and I had to make a choice. I opted for the left, figuring I'd been heading south so that should be east. and it was except it was on a little podunk 1-laner that had no name for the longest time. I was heading for 30 east and eventually discovered I was on indiana 130 east so I knew I was on the path. eventually I caught 30 east, which is one of those old 2-laners through the middle of the country the interstates were meant to replace but are still good easy-driving roads, red highways instead of william least heatmoon's blue ones.

along about 9 I wanted to stop for a while and found the town of plymouth which seemed large enough to warrant having an open library. it did but I spent the better part of an hour searching for it. fortunately it was a little town of old brick houses where people still decorate the fronts with bunting and most of the stores on michigan street are open. I don't know whatever became of the library sign system that was meant in the 70s to make it simple to discover where any town's library was, and was a godsend to my travels in the 80s, but after driving up and down streets I couldn't find a sign. eventually I settled in a catholic cemetary and used the force, or rather the browser on my cell phone, to find the public library's webpage and map. after a few more twists and turns I found it off the main road and tucked back along a side street, by which time it was open.

this is the beneficial confluence of 2 forms of publically available technology, the ubiquity of solid cell service along high-density roads and the blessed existence of free public libraries with wifi access. now I sit here in comfort, typing this post out, reading a nytimes from a few days ago--today's issue doesn't matter--particularly an article about how social media is helping to sustain dissent in saudi arabia, and I may drop off again into blissful, safe noddingoff before I head back out on the road.

[the illustration, by the way, is by edward basker, an artist who died in 1972]

Friday, June 17, 2011

heading east out of the rim

I remember reading an article in a late 80s issue of outside magazine about the joys of roadtripping, and the idea that has stuck with me all these years is the concept of "go fast, come home slow." I have never been one to do that. the speed with which I drove out last june because of my mother's death is an anomoly, as is the slowness with which I returned home. I wonder if the practice comes from the experiences of people unhappy with where they are, zipping to somewhere away from home and then dragging themselves back because they have to. for me it is quite the opposite: not that I am necessarily enamored of where I'm coming from at any oen time but it strikes me that what I like is the slow deliberate drive to whereever I'm heading, and then the quick-like-a-bunniness of coming back from there.

all of which is to say that I'm on my way out of the rim and heading to the thick for about a month. although I left later than I'd intended to--I'd originally meant to leave at 8 this morning, then changed it to 10, then noon, and finally turned the car on at 3--I've left myself plenty of time for arriving in austin, pa, by father's day. as a result, I've been driving off the interstate so to see what I see.

and what I have seen has been interesting. I drove on us 12 for much of the way until outside black river falls when it detoured onto I-94 and I figured since it was early evening I'd just stay on the interstate. but the drive was fascinating. living on the rim I have been lulled into a false sense of liberal complacency that my neighbors have an interest in other people's lives. but I have never seen so many houses for sale, abandoned houses (and some that might as well have been abandoned), "scott walker is my governor" signs, artificial niggers, and proudly flapping confederate flags in all my time here in the midnorth (admittedly no 2 of them in the same place). now, I admit I may be wrong and these people are very interested in other people's lives, but I suspect it is more an interest in what others should not be allowed to do than an interest in their welfare.

but it hasn't been all unpleasant. aside from the requisite deer I've had a young female moose trot swiftly across the road and seen foxes in the fields and eagles cresting lake surfaces. at the moment I am in a culver's restaurant just to the west of madison where in moments I will enjoy an ice cream concoction I haven't decided on yet. then I will return to the car and drive until I have had enough, turn off at some rest stop, put up my feet and put down my head and sleep the sleep of the just plain tired.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

"we are unfolding"

"we have the same brain as our paleolithic ancestors. some scientists believe that the religious impulse is in the architecture of our brain, a by-product of evolution. (1) we believe in god because we are evolutionarily adapted to believe in what psychologists call an agent, something independent, purposeful, and outside ourselves that could affect us--possibly in a bad way. humans who assume that it is a lion causing that ripple in the grass, rather than the wind, tend to survive longer. (2) we believe in god because we are evolutionarily adapted to create narratives and explanations. the tracks in the sand mean that a deer recently passed this way. a pool nearby means the deer might be thirsty, and if it moves here and I move there, I could be eating its leg for dinner. life isn't just a matter of chance. life is about cause and effect. (3) we believe in god because we are evolutinarily adapted, as social animals, to understand that other people have minds. we cannot see what these invisible minds are thinking or planning, but we would be wise to anticipate whether they are friendly or angry. we believe there are invisible forces in the world, invisible minds in solid bodies.

"why not, then, a mind outside the body? why not an invisible agent involved in the story of our own life? although such an idea mostly describes theism, the message is the same for pantheists. we are predisposed to believe in a meaningful, interconnected world, as well as in something outside and larger than ourselves. we may choose to believe in these things because such beliefs help us deal with grief and despair, motivate us to cohere socially, and are generally more fun and interesting than not.

"other scientists say that religion is less a by-product of evolution than an actual adaptation, furthering longer life and more reproduction. for example, religious belief may have allowed our ancestors to marshal the placebo effect offered by shamanistic healing. although scientists are not sure how the human body responds to the idea of a cure and heals itself, we know that this happens on a regular basis. ritual healing may have been particularly important when there were fewer medical options. people who inclined toward a belief in shamans, spirits, and gods--who had more of the hardwiring that promotes religious experience--better survived injury and disease and thus had a reproductive advantage.

"from then to now, the hardwiring hasn't changed. we are, of course, running new software. we read. we write. we fly through the air strapped into plastic seats, drinking diet coke. I will never see the world the way a hunter-gatherer saw it. in terms of my relationship with the earth, I am sorry about that. I feel left out. I feel incompetent. but there you go. that's history...the universe is an irreversible emergent process. we are unfolding. we are moving forward along with everything else, changing and being changed. we carry with us our past and our genetic coding. we are who we were. but we can't go back either."

--from standing in the light: my life as a pantheist by sharman apt russell

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

lost & found poetry

we had a call a few nights ago from a local charity getting together a crew to work on a habitat for humanity house and it reminded me of another recently found poem.


It's snowing.

In the slow snow

the clack and crack of crowbars and hammers,

the scrape of shovels against charred wooden floors,

and the conversation of carpenters

discussing the builder's lack of technique

and watching the clean-up kid

scrambling around in the dumpster

like a monkey in the jungle.

Monday, June 13, 2011

johnny thunders died for your sins!

an important element in punk's community-building abilities was its existence as a secret in plain sight. it was so unusual to experience it many places the few moments one did make it an extraspecial moment that links one with unseen others for whom it's equally occasional.

for me, a broadway-loving fat kid growing up in the woods 2 hours north of nyc where the local radio station's idea of cutting edge was playing early era disco, saturday night live was a revelation, and getting my 1st taste of devo was a taste of acid delivered by communion wafer. I had never heard devo nor heard of them. it was like digging a hole in the backyard and finding an electrical cable you'd never known was down there. coming across them in late-night 78, in their shit-yellow jumpsuits and jerky motions and visors and mark mothersbaugh's nasal whine against a washedout background set, was like accidently finding a broadcast from some underground bunker where the last remnants of culture were desperately airing a plea that there were others out there somewhere. monday morning high school around the cafeteria table was full of "did you see that?"s and "what was that?"s. the following thursday, our usual family ride into town for dinner at burger king and shopping because the stores stayed open late, I scoured barkers and jamesway in vain, and had to wait until a later-in-the-month trip to colonie center mall near albany to locate the album nestled in the bin among def leppard and doobie brothers platters.

the fact I can so easily conjure up the devo clip that made me stare drooling at the tv so long ago on youtube and can even program a punk pandora station if I want doesn't mean that sensation is in the past. I don't know how many students I've turned onto 3rd wave ska and gutbucket and moshpit skittle by introducting them to it in my classes, acting like a walking 70s snl in glasses and untucked shirt and barefeet. just like then, it doesn't matter it's been there for a while, being made suddenly aware of its existence sears the experience on the cortex and makes one part of a small, select, amazed elite. it's a selfselection into a community with no other boundaries than the space between one's ears and the breadth of one's hands but still a deep connection via some dharma transmission between otherwise tentative allies. it isn't that these things didn't exist before one heard them it's that they existed all along and a curtain is drawn slightly aside just enough to remind one that there are other equally mesmerizing places back there to be explored.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

urdu for "smoosh"

"concessions by the government of prime minister recep tayyip erdogan in 2009 made way for the first kurdish national television station, and the government also permitted the teaching of kurdish language classes in private universities (but not public ones). token gestures, they made front-page headlines: first because they were signals to the outside world that a democratic state run by an islamic leader will not automatically become xenophobic or tribalist, and second because even small steps toward acknowledging kurdish culture can provoke political firestorms inside the country. turkish nationalists...regard even the most basic kurdish demand00that their language also be allowed in grade schools and at official settings where kurds are involved--as treason...'if you asked turks today whether, in the abstract, people should be able to speak their mother tongue, most of them would say, of course, no problem,' [filmaker sedat yilmaz] said. 'but with kurdish, fear clouds the picture. language is the biggest kurdish demand because language equals identity. it's the root of any culture, and many kurds, having had their language repressed, no longer even know the basics of kurdish grammar. so the debate has inevitably turned to language...'

"at the diyarbakir institute for political and social research, nurcan baysal and dilan bozgan, researchers in their 30s, said that like many kurds of their generation they never learned their own mother tongue because it was stigmatized in schools. but they grew up hearing it in kurdish music. ms bozgan said her own young children don't want to learn kurdish because their turkish classmates and teachers tell them turkish is the only language that really matters, and after that, english. 'if you don't give prestige to a culture,' she lamented, 'people won't value it, and it will die.' but conversely, when a culture does gain prestige, it can incite a revolution. turkey's kurds look to revivals or corsican, catalan and other formerly oppressed european languages as examples of cultural change leading to political upheavals."

--from "for kurds in turkey, autonomy in music" by michael kimmelman in the june 5, 2011, issue of the new york times (my emphasis)

I am without qualification opposed to the dying off of languages. that said, it is also a natural part of linguistic evolution. think of how many millions of tribal and local dialects and languages died out before our species even became aware there were more than the handful we recognized as our neighbors' tongues? david crystal estimates that a language currently dies about every 2 weeks.

while there's no danger of language extinction--most languages get subsumed by their neighbors and this is what happened with english and its french influence in the recent past and what's happening with it and its contemporary latin american spanish influence--there are plenty of languages dying, which for the speakers of those languages amounts to the same thing.

but what I want to point to here is something commentators on language seem to take for granted: the convergence of mother tongues with mother cultures. the above comments in kimmelman's article aren't the only comments I've come across this week. just a few nights ago I watched a fascinating pbs documentary about the decline of ojibwe as a communicative tool for modern american indians and a native speaker made exactly the same claims as the ones above: that language and culture are so intertwined that losing one results in the loss of the other.

I'm not convinced. that they're related is undeniable--culture is a means of keeping language alive and vital, while without a common language culture is almost impossible to spread. almost, but not impossible. because while it's hard to bridge between cultures that have no common language, it's nonetheless done daily. think of the number of nonspeakers of english who enjoy and appreciate untranslated fast and furious movies or untranslatable episodes of jersey shore (what's urdu for "smoosh"?). these may not be the best ambassadors of american culture or what we want to think of as the best we have to offer but they're culture all the same. they are culture whose enjoyment is completely outside language.

it's not only the latest michael bay explosion-porn that is enjoyable without knowing what the people standing around are saying between pyrotechnics. how many of us who enjoy opera speak italian? or who enjoy noh drama speak japanese? when I had cable tv I sometimes enjoyed telenovas on univision despite my inability to process anything beyond "si" or "cervesa." my students in the past have put up with my showing them 15 minute clips from bollywood musicals that are filmed using several languages, often 2 or 3 mixed into the same sentence. while it's impossible in each of these examples to follow every nuance, and it's certain that viewers would get greater enjoyment if they were able to, doing so is not required for some measure of appreciation.

that language is important is unassailable. that the dying off of languages from a human perspective is a tragedy is also unassailable. that there is a 1-to-1 relationship between a people's language and their culture, and that to lose 1 is to risk losing the other, of this I'm not convinced.

Friday, June 10, 2011


"it sounds good on paper. me and the earth. me and the animals. me and the sun and the moon and stars. but when I am in a bad mood, pantheism feels more like unrequited love, the dreary task of whipping up both sides of a relationship. the truth is I often feel lonely. I am talking to myself and no one answers. yada-yada-yada. blah-blah-blah. the same stuff I have heard all my life. I am so tired of this voice. I am so bored. it may sound strange, but I don't want to be alone in my body and mind. I want someone with me.

"this is an ontological loneliness that my husband can not redress, although I love him and he loves me. my children distracted me from this feeling for a long time, 22 years, and then they grew up and went away. (which was, of course, the right thing to do. still, you can't help but feel--ungrateful wretches.) now I am no longer distracted. I have more time to talk to myself. yada-yada-yada. blah-blah-blah. now this loneliness seems unending and almost unbearable.

"it is the loss of the personal god. in some ways, I think I would have done better in another religion [than quakerism]. without doubt, I would believe in god or gods or goddesses if I could. I would like someone to pray to. someone to note my fall and care about my scraped knee. I would like that shoulder, that chest, that arm. it is less a matter of won't than can't. did I believe in these things once? maybe, as a child. but even that belief felt more pretend than real.

"sometimes I feel envious of other faiths. then I remember the story of abraham and isaac. my first response is that I want a god to speak to me. my second is that it depends on what he has to say."

--from standing in the light: my life as a pantheist by sharman apt russell

if I understand what russell is saying here, then I have to take exception. I no more find the prospect of our being alone in existence any more lonely than the experience that only dogs and cats and plants and music made by humans are in this house with me now is lonely. this isn't simply some idyllic being-at-one with nature or the universe, it's a cold-eyed recognition of the connections between me, shale, the roadkill on I-94, the syrians being killed by their own government, the dust being plowed up by a meteorite on some nameless hunk of rock orbiting saturn, the woodtick on my dog beans, the carpenter ants at work in the barn, the guys widening the road a half mile away, and so on. in fact, if anything, when I was younger and believed in the easter bunny and santa and fairies and unicorns and ghosts and a whitebearded god in flowing robes I was lonelier. there would always be some part of existence to which I knew, even then, I would forever be denied--no one I knew had ever communed with any of them beyond his own wishful thinking. far from feeling lonely, the idea that there is nothing outside us and what we experience makes me feel more--what's the opposite of lonely? secure? surrounded? loved? maybe the term I'm looking for is "at peace."

Thursday, June 9, 2011

asparagus roots

I live in an old house, or a house which is old by standards of the rim, which in my eastern seaboard experience is pretty recent--"oh, a hundred years old? that's the new house"--but out here farms advertise their existence as century-long enterprises by official plaques, so that the lifetime of our home at 110 years is still exceptional even if it might not last another century. all of which is to say I'm not terribly surprised to discover all kinds of things in the ground that I would never have expected to be there: mauls and tanks and pottery shards and worn-smooth wooden toys along with the requisite bones.

our property used to be a larger piece, chunked into parcels decades ago by the farmer to our immediate east, a former high school history teacher who got the bug and never looked back. he married into a working farm and they built a newer, more efficient set of buildings and gave these up. at one time, before the county road came through, this was all of a piece, which goes some way to explaining why there is asparagus growing not 2 feet from the macadam.

the state is widening the road, which will bring it right up to 1 end of our front lawn, and so threatens the existence of the asparagus, so it was in a righteous mood that I went out yesterday with a shovel to dig it up and replant it on our property. but I'll also admit to a proprietary mood as well, that it should remain part of the property.

it took me much longer to dig up than I'd expected. I knew the roots were tangled and thick and deep but not how deep and I spent the better part of an hour and a half digging out a little here and there and here again. it had had 10 stalks when I started and dropped off, 1 by 1, all but 2 by the time I tugged out the rootball, like an upsidedown head with a matted tangle of thick dreads, free of the earth. but not to worry, I left a generous amount of offshoots still there so that when the apocalypse comes and the roads dissolve the stalks will shoot up through them like nebraskan missiles.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

johnny thunders died for your sins!

"there is, too, a connection between the era bret easton ellis attempts to satirize in [1991's american psycho], the greed-is-good '80s, and the time of [john] lennon's murder, one month after the election of ronald reagan, the man who would make that era possible. in lennon's rolling stone obituary, greil marcus was the first person to note that 'nothing like lennon's killing has happened before.' while marcus was careful to say that reagan's election did not inspire mark david chapman--any more than [j.d.] salinger did--he did note the confluence of chapman's actiions with the 'secret message' of reagan's election: 'some people belong in this country, and some people don't; that some people are worthy, and some are worthless; that certain opinions are sanctified, and some are evil.' he went on, 'such a message, which tells people they are innocent and others are to blame, can attach a private madness to its public justification.'

"in 1980 john lennon was far from the canonized figure he has become. the people who grew up with the beatles had not yet moved into controlling positions in the media. in his time cover story, jay cocks was talking about himself and his contemporaries when he wrote that some people 'wondered what all the fuss was about and could not quite understand why some of the junior staff at the office would suddenly break into tears in the middle of the day.' it's easy to dismiss cock's piece for its openness of feeling. for all the things that cocks had to do, and did exquisitely, in that piece--it was a news story, an obituary, a career restrospective--what still comes through strongest is shellshock, his disbelief that he is writing the story. which is why it was a risk, and essential, for him to insist that the shooting was an assassination. putting lennon's killing in the company of the killings that had preceded it in the previous decades is not, though, a contradiction of marcus's claim that this had never happened before. it had--but not to a popular artist. what both cocks and marcus understood was that lennon's murder was a symbolic murder of what he represented. chapman was disturbed by the denunciations that ended [lennon's song] 'god,' lennon's brutal elaboration of [bob] dylan's line 'don't follow leaders.' but the beatles, for all the adoration they inspired, stood for a vision in which people, as marcus wrote, did not lose their identity but found it.

"a vision that tells you it's possible to live a good life and to live it your own way holds out possibilities that other visions--reagan's or salinger's--deny. those visions judge who belongs and who doesn't, who shuns contact with the wrong kind of people, chooses to withdraw from or tries to control the world rather than embrace it."

hiker on the road

I was coming home from visiting my father-in-law who's dying--we're all dying but he's doing so a little faster than most of us--and was driving the back roads when I passed a fellow hiking in the opposite lane. I don't mean he was hitchhiking cuz while he was heading in my direction he was faced away from me and didn't have his thumb out and was on the westbound shoulder. he was wearing a full backpack complete with bedroll and tentpegs poking out of the side and ambling contentedly toward the east. if I hadn't been on a timetable I would have at least offered him a ride just to hear his story. and perhaps it was the combination of things in my life, my father-in-law's approaching death, my lack of an immediate future teaching job, the stresses my wife and I allow between us, he looked absolutely radiant with life to me.

Friday, June 3, 2011


years ago, when I was writing poetry as part of my mfa studies, I mentioned to a classmate that my 1st wife was paranoid schizophrenic. she said, "wow, that's gotta be a dynamite source of writing!" and that's when I realized that I'd never written anything about that period. this poem grew out of that.


When everything else fails you, you can still

believe in bread. She is anchored in lime jell-o

in the kitchen. His suits litter the pantry,

his books are their plates. Sex is sliding on ice,

only with her legs spread. When he pries

at her with meat-thick fingers, she feels too much,

too much. She always has wool on. She pounds

the dough. Her fist goes through the table

and clanks on the floor. The bread, why not,

can be a doughnut.

Did he ever love her?

Might as well ask if she was ever pregnant. Depends.

Or was it the slant of light? Well. The oven's on,

and bread is bread and not doughnuts. He reads,

oblivious to bread, to doughnuts. She grabs a knife

and a chair. She faces the chair backwards,

at the kitchen door. She kneels naked on it.

She balances the knife along the top of the chair,

its handle blunt against the door. She props the tip

just above her navel. Metal and skin are a finger

and water. This is the question:

Will he open the door first, or will I stand up?

Minutes pass. The blade

mirrors her: the tense lips, eyes hidden in her hair,

teeth monstrous and full.

He goes on reading. She has to pee.

The knife clatters. That sound

and the smell of burning bread bring him to the door.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

a bird in the hand

the summer we moved here to the rim 10 years ago my father-in-law and I fenced in part of the side yard off the deck leading from a 3-season porch in order to let the dogs roam free. as a part of that, we put in a dogflap on the original screen door, and when that flap eroded after the 1st winter, we just left the hole open, and when the door itself started falling apart, I replaced it with a heavy wooden windowed door which, because it isn't the right height and won't sit right on the jamb, remains ajar about 6 inches, wide enough to let the dogs through and held to in the wind by a bungee cord.

naturally the gap doesn't let in only the dogs but an assortment of insects and flies and, about 1ce a day in the summer, birds. this is a common phenomenon here. when the dog flap was covered birds were always hopping in under the material and soon we'd see a whispy, fluttering shape darting from 1 side of the porch to the other, the dark movement brilliant against the white paint of the inside of the porch and the multiple windows that let in the afternoon sun.

generally my wife calls me to let the bird out. I am the official bird-letter-outer since I've got the patience for it. my 1st act is to open the door wide and herd the intruder toward it so he or she will make a dash for freedom. but birds are not apparently very good at seeing the difference between an open and closed door and continue to smash themselves against the brightness of the windows instead.

after a few minutes, worried that they'll hurt themselves by braining their noggins against the glass or snapping their own necks or exhausting themselves in vain until they suffer a heart attack, I'll catch the bird and release it. this isn't as difficult as it might sound. again, it's a patience game. I follow the bird from window to window to corner to floor, walking slowly and lightly, cooing reassurances all the while. the tone and words aren't really intended to affect the bird, who probably thinks it's all threats and bluster anyway, but reassure me that I can do it.

sometimes this takes 10 or 15 minutes. I have the time. when the bird is against the window or on the floor or in a corner I cup my hands around it gently, muttering all the while, and grip it as tightly and as loosely as possible. the feeling of bird-heart against my palms is indescribable. it is like holding a beating heart must feel. sometimes the bird pecks against my hand, sometimes drawing blood, and that's okay. don't go gently, I tell it in my head, if you think this is the end fight it. life should fight.

I step to the open door and fling my hands open and the bird flies like a shot into the trees and beyond. if birds have the equivalent of religion I like to think of myself as somewhere in it, not a savior but a boddhisattva. I've caught and held dozens, maybe a hundred or more birds like this, even hummingbirds which feel like holding a tiny buzzing cell phone. then I close the door and wash my hands.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

wednesday night reading

"on saturday morning, driving to our campsite near the apache box, we pass faded prayer flags flapping from the scrub oaks by the dirt road. here and there, large mounds of rock are topped by sticks of newer flags striped blue, white, red, green, and yellow. these fillips of humanity are not intrusive or jarring but seem to soften the backdrop of rocky mountains dry as bone and just a bit hostile, the bones of arizona...soon we see a half dozen buildings and small trailers scattering the desert with its own scatter of mesquite and stunted juniper trees. april and merritt have been to the tibetan buddhist retreat center before, and we decide to stop and visit. immediately, we are greeted by a young man happy to show us around.

"we go up a small hill to see the new prayer wheels. now we are stunned and try not to show it. tibetan prayer wheels are devices for spreading a spiritual blessing. traditionally, rolls of thin paper are imprinted with copies of mantra, or prayer, wound around an axle in some kind of container, and spun round and round. tibetan buddhists believe that turning a prayer wheel and spinning these words will disseminate that prayer and make the world a better place. such mantras invoke the attention of compassionate, enlightened beings. they invoke our own nature of compassion. at the retreat center at iron knot ranch, inside a large, warehouselike room, men are now installing seventeen twelve-foot-high white cylinders like monstrous water heaters, which contain the words om mani padme hum in tibetan script. the papers have been printed and shipped from minnesota. the cylinders, weighing many tons, were hauled up by truck. one of these prayer wheels will be turned by hand, using a large wooden device in the center of the room. the other sixteen will turn mechanically, solar-powered, day and night.

"the building that holds these seventeen prayer wheels has the air of an industrial shop as three men struggle to move one of the cylinders onto its base. I have seen this scene many times. men struggling to move something heavy in such a way that nothing breaks and no one gets hurt. the men discuss leverage and physics. they are proud, intent, a little nervous. gail, april, peter, and I look at each other and look away. there is something about the scale and technology that seems inappropriate. but what do we know? this is tibetan buddhism in the twenty-first century.

"merritt and emanuel take a few more pictures with their digital cameras, and then we walk over to the temple, an open-air ramada with a central altar rising to the ceiling. from every side, the altar glows with color. red, green, yellow, blue. a smiling bodhisattva, a mocking demon, spirit faces, curlicues, flowers, lions, monkeys. walk around the altar and say your prayers. focus on the images.

"the retreat's web site later explains, 'one of the traditional methods for removing hindrances to the recognition of our true nature is the creation of representations of enlightened body, speech, and mind.' the temple, with its demons and bodhisattvas, is a representation. the prayer flags fluttering from the scrub oak trees are a representation. the huge cylindrical prayer wheels will be painted with more representations. the prayer wheels themselves are respresentations--the more, the heavier, the faster, the better. these representations radiate healing in every direction. 'no matter who adds oil to the lamp,' the web site assures me, 'everyone benefits from the light.'"