The Book I Read: Choices! More Books of the Dead! Climbing the Mountain! and the Freakout Commencement

For this entry in The Book I Read series (which is also a podcast, by the way), I am writing about, not what I’ve read, but what I’ve started to read, AND, what I’ve tried reading and then abandoned. I had these ideas that I might get well into one of those things, or well into the beginnings of both of those things in the effort to, you know, make a CHOICE about what to tackle next—and in that effort I appear to have been successful! And then finally I’d like to conclude with a bit of a freak out, a freak out over the beginning of the new school year of fully in-person teaching and learning in the midst of that part of our current plague we’re calling the delta variant spread of COVID-19.

First, about book choices: 

I am fortunate, in that I do not have to go very far to find titles. For the longest time—well, now, more than half of my life, I have been a habitual and chronic book buyer and book collector. I am guilty, as so many of us are, I think, of buying more books than I can read—embarrassingly so, maybe more books than I will be able to read in my lifetime. Nevertheless, there are books in every room of the house. I even have a tiny little traveling library in the teardrop trailer I take camping. So the list of books to read is almost always immediately accessible to me. But making the choice of what to tackle next has always been a struggle. With a limited amount of discretionary reading time—the choice must be the right one. That’s a lot of pressure. So, I forgive myself when I start a book but can’t, for whatever reason, finish it. 

So how do I choose the next book to read? For all of my academic life—or my schooling life, I was just told what to read—and lucky for me, that did not kill reading. As an adult, if you’re like me, we have lists—either ones that we write or ones that we catalogue in our brains. My list is categorized like this: books I want to read because I think I SHOULD (classics and such), books I want to read because I know I would be interested (books about subjects I dig or books by writers I already love). Then there are those books recommended or gifted, which are on the list out of a sense, as I’ve said before, of obligation, yeah, but also because I trust the gift giver. Last, but not least, there are books written by friends of mine. My community of Warren Wilson MFA alumni has produced an embarrassment of literary riches, some of which, in previous episodes, I have shared with you. I’m going to start there today by talking about the novel Appalachian Book of the Dead by Dale Neal. If you happened to read the last entry, or listen in on episode three of the podcast, you might catch a pattern here. Another factor in the choosing the next book might be a kind of thread I’m following—in this case, with Lincoln in the Bardo and Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog—I am following a kind of Tibetan Buddhist thread. This novel’s title makes an explicit allusion to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and I have heard Dale Neal speak of his novel as a kind of Southern Buddhist thriller. And it is that—in flying colors. 

I think I wanna do something crazy. Maybe even two crazy things. First, I’m going to talk about this book IN PROGRESS. I confess right out of the gate that I am a little less than halfway through Appalachian Book of the Dead. I am liberating myself from the notion that I can only talk about books that I’ve finished. That’s a crazy notion. But this is a book, I know, already, that I will absolutely finish, but today, I can only talk about my experience of the first hundred and twenty-five pages. And I’d like to begin by talking about the beginning—the opening. Some readers are dependent upon a strong hook from the start—while other readers are more forgiving and patient. I tend to be patient—more so with classics—but in this case, with Neal’s novel, patience is absolutely unnecessary. To prove my case (here’s the second crazy thing), I’m going to read out loud the first page of Appalachian Book of the Dead. 

To hear the reading, please visit the podcast, otherwise, the next paragraph will make less sense.

Holy shit. That was my first reaction. And I think I had exactly the same reaction when I heard the author read this out loud once. Holy shit. First of all, to begin a novel with a murder and car-jacking—openings to novels don’t come any bolder than that—but the sheer drama of the scene is far less striking than some of the other moves here. First of all, Peabody is fully characterized. Here’s a character we will never see again—who dies on the first page a violent and gruesome death—and yet, we know a whole bunch about him—his age, what he did for a living, his favorite sports team, his favorite snack, his religion, and something, too, beyond that, of his worldview—“he never even considered the prospect of such pure meanness”—it’s a master class in the fiction writing adage that says that no matter how minor the character, some fleshing out of that character is crucial to creating a believable fictional world, to suck the reader in to the “fictive dream.” And on top of that, in a single page, before killing him off, through those details, Neal has created a character that we care something about.  We’re horrified at his death, not just because it stirs up the creepy icky, but because he seems like a good guy. 

Okay—to begin with, Neal has opened the novel with the criminal and murderous spree of two escaped convicts, who, in short order, are forced to leave their stolen vehicle behind and flee on foot into the wilderness of the North Carolina Appalachian Mountains—into or around a small wilderness town called Yonah, where all our main characters live. Now, one of these criminals is immediately caught in the manhunt—but the other, the decidedly more dangerous one, the one that represents “pure meanness,” the one with the tattoo of the naked lady in the clutches of a demon—this guy seemingly disappears into the landscape.

So we have a cast of characters: Cal, a retired tradesman, a recovering alcoholic, also recovering from a recent and serious heart surgery, a committed stoic and faithful adherent to the teachings of Marcus Aurelius, hoping soon to write a memoir; Joy, his recent and third wife, a craft potter who spearheaded the idea to move away from city life into this vast and wild landscape; Doyle, the caretaker of a now defunct nature camp for kids, and a young woman, Ainsley, who camped there as a kid, the child of the family that ran the place, returned now to start her life anew—living in a yurt in the woods of the run down property of the family camp. She’s a spiritual seeker, super earthy, dread-locked, still attempting to practice Tibetan Buddhism—having arrived without her longtime boyfriend and spiritual companion—estranged from her now. These are the major players—and the chapters that follow that horrific and gripping opening delve into to the somewhat broken lives of these characters—meanwhile, in the backdrop, as a kind of ominous echo—almost a haunting, is the spectre of this escaped convict. Where is he? Is he alive? Will any of our people encounter him? These are the big sort of plot questions—and Neal is taking his time with this. Some people might find that frustrating—but Neal has made us intimately familiar with these characters—they are flawed but likeable—and from my vantage point, super interesting. I do not mind hanging out with these people while this other darkness percolates in the background. How does the darkness percolate—let me show you. 

As the story progress, there are some really intriguing point of view moves. One chapter, a single page long, seems to be from the perspective of a coyote, a coyote that feels it’s being stalked. And a couple of other chapters seem to be about our evil guy—but Neal has made the super strange and wonderful choice of putting these chapters in second person! The escaped convict, ironically named Angel, is now YOU. Sometimes in the style of The Tibetan Book of the Dead—which, if I didn’t characterize it specifically enough in the last episode, are essentially a set of instructions for dead people about how to navigate the bardo! So creepy. So wonderful. “You have heard of the smokey mountains, but you did not believe in the haze of these hills.” Our narrator seems to be giving instructions to this “hungry ghost” through the bardo—putting us as readers eerily in his shoes—and then later Ainsley gives her lost boyfriend her own instructions through the in-between. 

I’m gonna step out on a limb here and say that the forests in the Appalachian Mountains, for all of these characters and for us, are serving as a metaphorical bardo—an in-between place—where we are all striving toward some kind of enlightenment into a new life. 

I am digging this novel. It is vivid, beautifully written—every sentence kicks ass, and, as I’ve said, I am all in. In the next entry in this series (while I promise there will be no spoilers) I will share with you a final reaction to Appalachian Book of the Dead by Dale Neal. 

I’d like to write next, briefly, very briefly, about a book I started reading last summer but did not finish—let me sort of paint the scene. The summer of 2020, at the height, (we thought) of our pandemic woes, preparing to go into the weirdest school year in the history of school years, and I sit down for an ambitious read of a classic novel whose praises had been sung up and down over and over by people I admire, the early 20th century German novel The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. This novel is about a lot of things—thematically, perhaps, the way we understand and experience TIME—but literally—this novel is about a pandemic! It takes place during the Tuberculosis Pandemic of the early twentieth century. I loved reading this book. I have taken an entire year away from it. It’s a tome—like 700 pages. But It keeps calling to me and I know that soon, I will be back. I mention it now to add some weight to that commitment. I didn’t know what it was about when I picked it up, but it is too perfect for this time, in this year of our plague, 2021.  

So, to conclude, I’m freaking out a little bit about the new school year—for a couple of reasons. First—you know—I’m going back to in-person instruction after 15 months of plague year teaching and learning at home. I spent the entire last school year relearning my job, finally getting somewhat good at it, and now I’ve got to unlearn a lot of that—revise everything I know one more time—in the transition back to business as usual—which, by the way, will not be business as usual. I’m fully masked. Kids are fully masked. Teachers and other school employees must be fully vaccinated—while the kids—as far as I know in this moment—not so much. Last spring, in what we called the Hybrid model, when we thought things had improved enough to offer the opportunity to any kid who was willing to come back into the building for a half day, I was back in the room with between about 15 and 20 students in each of 3 classes. This year, I will be back in the building with 6 periods of anywhere between 25 and 30 students in each. All the comfort last spring, of, at least, coming into contact with a relatively tiny student population will be null and void this year. So, with these conditions and the reality that vaccinated people are far from invulnerable, I admit there’s a little trepidation. The second freak-out (albeit a more minor type of freak out) has to do with the difficulty of continuing my podcast extra-curricular activities during the school year—especially with regard to talking about NEW books I’ve read. It may just be that I might just have to talk about something else!

We will see how this all turns out. Wish me the best. I hope you’ll stay with me for the ride.

 

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The Book I Read: Wisdom Lit, the Power of Allusion, Lincoln in the Bardo, and the President’s Hat

As a student of literature, always a beginner, and one interested in a wide variety of wisdom literature or philosophical texts, certain books of historical and literary significance have crossed my radar, have maybe even made it into the home library, but have never been read, you know, famous philosophical or spiritual texts like the Tao Te Ching or The Bhagavad Gita or, more modern texts–Gibran’s The Prophet, for example. Among these kinds of work I would include the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Until recently, even though I was aware of the title and its historical, cultural, and spiritual mega-importance, I had no idea what it was about. It turns out–it is, in short, about a place called The Bardo–which I will feebly attempt to describe in the progress of this entry. This word “bardo,” too, was new to me. Only recently was I introduced to the concept of the bardo by the songwriter, composer, and performance artist Laurie Anderson–a huge influence on me, by the way–since the late 80s she has helped shape me as a writer and a musician–being, as she is, one of the most successful artists (in my humble opinion) to bridge the literary and musical worlds. In 2015 Laurie Anderson wrote, directed and produced a film with an accompanying soundtrack album, “Heart of a Dog.” Here we are on dogs again! At any rate, her film is a meditation on a number of things: living in New York in the aftermath of 9/11, her midwestern childhood and early traumatic brushes with death, but primarily, the loving relationship and ultimate loss of her pet terrier Lola–and by thinly veiled metaphor–her loving relationship and ultimate loss of her husband, Lou Reed. Actually, I don’t know that the metaphor is thinly veiled at all, it’s pretty obscure–Reed’s name is mentioned not once in the film–but the film does close with perhaps one of his last recorded songs, the beautiful and haunting “Turning Time Around.” At any rate, at one point in her film, she imagines her beloved puppy in this place–not just as an exercise, but as part of her spiritual practice–her rat terrier Lola is in the bardo.*

Don’t worry, eventually, I will arrive at the George Saunders novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. I’m serving up this long preamble, in part, to kind of demonstrate what we do sometimes when we are faced, from the get-go, (from the title!) with an allusion that we don’t understand. What’s the bardo?–the first question a reader is going ask when they approach this thing–that is, if they do not have the requisite prior knowledge. And I talk about this with my students all the time regarding allusion. What’s are the consequences, for a reader, of not understanding an allusion? If Shakespeare’s character mentions a Greek myth, for example, one that you don’t know, are you completely out in the cold? Can you still move forward without that knowledge with full understanding? Maybe you can. I know that Greek Myth was an absolute hole in my education when I was reading Shakespeare for the first time–and somehow I managed not only to understand Shakespeare but to love him. Here’s the thing I say. If you come across an allusion, and you DO have the requisite prior knowledge, your understanding of the work is enriched, as is your appreciation for how interconnected human beings are by STORY; it is a thread that binds us all together.

So, what’s the bardo? Now, granted, this is, as I have confessed, a new one for me. I have not read The Tibetan Book of the Dead, but, through Laurie Anderson’s work and some time with the google machine, I have discovered that the bardo, according to Tibetan Buddhism, is a transitional space between one life and the next. When you die, you spend, according to Tibetan lore, 49 days in the bardo, at which point you are reincarnated into the next life. Granted, this is a cursory, a superficial definition. Our job then, is not to understand everything there is to know about the bardo in Tibetan Buddhist teachings, but rather, to simply describe the way it is revealed in George Saunders’ novel.

We can get to that in a minute. First, it might be important to establish, quickly, a historical context for the novel, and to describe somewhat the unique, the super-strange, the inventive way, and the very challenging way, this novel is put together. First, it’s February 20th, 1862, about 10 months into the American Civil War, and president Abraham Lincoln’s son, William, 11 years old, dies at home in bed of typhoid fever. And to provide, again quickly, the premise of the novel: William arrives, after his death, in the bardo–where an enormous cast of characters who already occupy this space, are serving out their time, and who become immersed in the drama and tragedy of William’s death and the effort to help him through this liminal space to the other side.

Stylistically, the storytelling method here is singular, unlike anything I’ve ever seen–breaking both with conventions and tradition of narrative fiction, it is a highly experimental work. While the entire novel is mostly delivered in short bursts of prose separated from other bursts by a break or double space, the story is revealed to us in essentially two ways. Some chapters, a full quarter of them, I’d say loosely, are collections of, what seems to me, quotes from primary texts from the era–histories, news articles, essays, op ed articles, letters, oral histories or interviews–and it appears that these pieces of text are recorded faithfully by Saunders without changes. So these are pieces that Saunders has not written, per se, but only selected and then arranged. So that, for example, in several chapters that describe a party the Lincolns host at the White House while 11 year old Willie is upstairs dying, the description, the narrative line, speech and commentary are all made up from these quotes from primary source documents–each one with an identifying source note afterwards. Miraculously, these quotes from this wide range of sources, in the way that Saunders has selected and arranged them, provide a coherent and compelling narrative–a cacophony of voices that nevertheless provide clarity.

The remaining chapters, the bulk of this novel, (and what could be decisively described as Saunders’ own imaginative work), are delivered as a kind of play. Each burst of prose in these sections, then, are delivered by characters who occupy the bardo–unlike a play, however, where the character’s name is placed before the line they speak, in this case the lines the characters speak are followed by the name of the character speaking. This provides a challenge for the reader–the choice between a temptation to look ahead to the end of the burst to identify the speaker, or, to read the speech without knowing who the speaker is, and thus, be kind of guessing all the time until you might be able to identify the voice even before you’re told whose voice it is! This is hardly an issue when the lines from characters are short and follow one another in rapid-fire succession as they often do–the attribution is right there. Identifying characters or not seems to be more of an issue when the characters are given long lines or paragraphs of prose. Does it matter? I think it does–because each of these speakers has been uniquely characterized–they all have their back stories, their histories, their quirks, their syntax and rhythms. Who are these people? One of the questions that I had, which was never satisfactorily answered, was whether the characters in the bardo are also historical figures–or–are they purely the fictional creations of the novelist. Without time for further digging, my gut tells me that the latter is the case here. Still–who are these people?

There’s a mess of them, from all walks of life, it appears, with no common denominator save for the fact that they’re all in the bardo–and oddly, somewhat oblivious to their “condition.” –but primarily, there are three main characters in this bardo cacophony (Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III, and the Reverend Everly Thomas), characters who take center stage, speak most often, interact with each other, seem to have established in the bardo a long-term relationship, take turns telling the story, each from their own unique perspective, and guide us, the readers, through the drama–while all the others, dozens of them perhaps, interrupt, introduce bizarre side stories or other kinds of historical revelation, sometimes help out, other times provide insight, often provide comic relief, absurdity, and sometimes, other windows into the horrors of the 19th century, slavery, the civil war, occurring in what the characters often call “that previous place.”

I fear that I could go on and on an on about this novel and only scratch the surface. As I write this thing, conscious of wanting to stay under 2000 words or so, or, 20 or 25 minutes on the clock, my brain just swims with possibility. And I fear leaving out something key–not in the way of a spoiler–because I want to be really conscious of avoiding those, but in the way of capturing the most important and striking features of this novel for me. You know what I think I’ll do–something I do often when stymied about how to proceed organizing big ideas? I’m gonna make a list:

Let’s begin with some observations about the bardo.

The people there seem to be unaware that they’re dead–

The people there, when they are not out and about, inhabit what they all refer to as “sick beds,” which seem, to me anyway, to be a unintentional euphemism for coffin. Unintentional, again, because these residents don’t seem to be aware of their true nature–

The bardo is full of these sick beds–which seems to indicate that the bardo is essentially a massive cemetery–that the people in the bardo have not really travelled that far from their resting place.

Many of the people in the bardo are in various stages of anguish, or self-torture–if one did not know better, you might say that many of them are in Hell–

Or, you might say that they are in a process of repeatedly acting out or experiencing some of their worldly defects or traumas–although, some appear to be content where they are–do not wish to leave.

The environment there seems prone to surreal and bizarre states–people physically mutating in grotesque ways, hats raining from the sky, people being mutilated in an act of violence and then miraculously repairing themselves.

People in the bardo (in this bardo, anyway) seem to have been there a lot longer than 49 days–so, either Saunders is breaking with that particular convention of Tibetan Buddhist belief, or, the residents of the bardo experience time in an excruciating and elongated way.

When someone leaves the bardo, the process is referred to somewhat crudely as the matterlightblooming phenomena. It’s quite something. Clearly, a process that is bewildering to the residents of the bardo.

One of the most exciting features of bardo existence, and one of the devices that moves this story along and provides us with an exhaustive knowledge about the star of the show–not the folks in the bardo, not the young dead 11 year old boy, but the president Abraham Lincoln–is that the folks in the bardo discover they have the ability to inhabit the bodies of others–living others–and dramatically in a few key passages, some of them–actually many of them, inhabit the body, and therefore the mind, of Abraham Lincoln, while he is visiting his dead son in the crypt.

And I guess I would like to stop here to say that for me the single most profound takeaway from this novel is that I feel like I know more about Abraham Lincoln than I ever have–I feel like I have had the privilege of inhabiting that incredibly monumental historic figure–and the central drama of this piece seems to be the inconceivable, incomprehensible burden of losing a child–coupled with the potential loss of a nation that is under one’s charge. Most of us cannot imagine the second–but all of us who are parents or who had parents (I think that’s most of us), can imagine what it might be like to lose a child–and this novel gives us that viscerally. As bizarre as this novel is in its subject and in the way of its telling, it is an incredibly moving, heart wrenching, heavy work. But I am so glad I finally pulled it off the shelf. And I can’t have been alone–again–as strange as it is, it became a best seller for George Saunders and catapulted to many lists of great books made by people who know things about great books.

In my last installment of The Book I Read, I was inspired to end the episode/entry with a poem written by a friend of mine. This seems like a good tradition. Last time, too, that choice didn’t come out left field, but was a logical decision–in that the friend’s book recommendation was wholly responsible for the content of that episode–and the poem I had chosen served as a fitting bookend to the general subject matter under discussion. I want to keep that tradition going–or at least–let it be a motif in this series.

My friend and poet Don Colburn has published a book of poems called Mortality with Pronoun Shifts. It is a brilliant collection of poems that serves as a meditation on, you guessed it, mortality–and while there are no poems specifically about the bardo, there are poems here about great historical figures, two 19th century figures to be precise, Henry David Thoreau and Abraham Lincoln. I’d like to close by sharing with you a poem by Don Colburn, “Abe Lincoln’s Hat”

Abe Lincoln’s Hat

at the Smithsonian Museum

Topper, stovepipe, smokestack, cylinder,
it made him seven inches taller
than he was (and he was tall)
and, at a distance, fashionable.
But here, dim-lit behind glass,
without a gangly, scrabble-bearded president
to dignify and heighten, it looks lost.
Unlike those who saw him, say, at Gettysburg,
I can look down on the hard flat top,
the rub of wear and weather, streaks
like rust, their grainy whorls
a time-lapse of the overbearing stars.
And see, barely, darkness on darkness,
the black silk band he added after Willie died.

Someone named Davis made this hat,
a modest seven-and-one-eighth,
stiff-walled oval pillbox on a plate,
no give or dimple in the plush.
He wore it last and doffed it last
the night they went to Ford’s, arriving late.
After cheers, after the orchestra struck up
Hail to the Chief, the play resumed, Act Three.
Hatless again, he folded his 6-foot-4
into the rocker in the presidential box,
his top hat by his feet, out of the way.

Don Colburn

Oh my god. Right? Lincoln’s hat is perfectly preserved. He probably wouldn’t have thought to leave it on his head while watching a play, but, you know, he could have fallen over on top of it after he was shot. But no–it’s “out of the way.” I love this poem. And it makes me think of what people leave behind after they’re gone, you know, people who aren’t presidents. And I can’t help but think about a musician friend of mine who recently died. I wonder where he put his bass guitar–whether it might be preserved. But he made music and he recorded music. Bob’s bass. Lincoln’s hat. Bob’s music. Lincoln’s hat. Hey Abe, say hello to Bob for me, in the bardo. Meanwhile, I will keep listening.

Here is a link to the podcast version of this blog entry

*I discovered today, that after Laurie Anderson’s 2015 “Heart of a Dog” film and album, in 2019, she released an album called “Songs from the Bardo.” I’m listening now for the first time–kind of embarrassed that it was not on my radar–but I’m thinking that this, for the uninitiated, might be a wonderful introduction to all things bardo–perhaps a more accessible route than tackling The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and one that might provide some insights ahead of time to the imagery Saunders incorporates into his novel Lincoln in the Bardo.

https://open.spotify.com/album/08D0Jby6PtRWX9io6dQamA?si=f9CBUAMoTXitR2VVVVLP6A&dl_branch=1

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The Book I Read: Podcasts (Apparently, They’re Not All That Easy To Do)

https://anchor.fm/michael-jarmer

Recently, Sara Silverman did a stint as a guest host on Jimmy Kimmel Live. One of the last bits in one of her monologues was an uproariously funny satire on the proliferation of podcasts in the world. It was brilliant. I laughed out loud, but it also made me seriously self-conscious. The bit was framed as a public service announcement warning of the podcast plague, a bonafide addiction that requires intervention: the pod squad. After this initial and somewhat violent interruption of forcibly removing the podcaster from their broadcasting desk, the pod squad offers group meetings, à la any 12 step program, where addicts learn “to be content without creating content.” I felt a little bit better at the sketch’s close, when, after saying that every podcast we get rid of makes the world a better place, Silverman tells us to check out her podcast “wherever you listen to podcasts” –before the pod squad takes her away as well. And I feel better, too, because her target (I hope) were folks who podcast about the debate over whether or not gazpacho is a soup or how to identify various balls by the way they sound bouncing on a desk. I’m not sure whether or not anybody in the world NEEDS my content, but at least, I feel like it might be providing something like a service–a content that is not, I hope, vapid, devoid of relevance, or lacking a viable audience.

Getting beyond the questions then, (do I need to be doing this? does this work have value beyond my own self-aggrandizement? is it serving a purpose or a need? might it be possible to do this professionally?), next there’s the technical issue of how and when to get it done.

I realized pretty quickly after deciding to get started (hooked in by the feature on WordPress that promises easy conversion through Anchor), that they are not really all that easy to do after all. I’ve written about my failed initial efforts in a previous entry, but eventually I did discover a way of skirting those preliminary difficulties by recording outside the Anchor environment altogether and then uploading the audio file. As of this writing, I have published a trailer and two episodes of The Book I Read podcast. Early responses have been positive–so I am encouraged, and I think I will continue as long as I have the momentum and the stamina–two things, I realize now, that will be required in this endeavor.

I have a suspicion that the folks out there who are doing professionally produced podcasts, ones that are viable and somewhat successful in reaching a wide audience, are probably doing this work in the context of a job. I mean, I don’t have a personally wide experience as a podcast listener, and I’m aware, as Sara Silverman says, there’s a million of them out there, but I have come across a few really great ones put out by folks in the sort of news/journalism realm of the arts and entertainment industry. I believe these folks are professionals who have serious support and a sizable chunk of time. Producing my first two episodes (especially given the approach to content I am taking), has required, first of all, to read a book all the way through, script a response to it, practice performing that script, actually recording it without or with minimal error, finding and editing the musical snippets to accompany the spoken bits, mixing it all together, uploading the file to the podcast cite, and then afterward, attempting to promote the thing. It takes time. I’m having fun, but I am beginning to worry that as the school year kicks in and I begin working again as a classroom teacher full time, my ability to keep up with near weekly episodes will be seriously hampered, if not stymied altogether.

There may be ways to make it easier, but none of those ways are appealing to me. Let me list a few. 1. I could create podcasts about, not new things I’ve read, but things I’ve read before. I could do podcasts about the books I am teaching. Both of these things seem like passable options, but not ones I’m particularly enthusiastic about. I want my response to be fresh and not studied. I want it to be as new for me as it might be to a listener. 2. Another option would be to improvise my response while recording. Sure, especially if I’m going for “fresh” and not “studied.” But I don’t know how skilled I am in extemporaneous spoken word performance to make this fly. While my responses, I think, have been fresh (in that they are NEW), there’s something about attempting to craft and wordsmith the script that, I think, makes it feel like some CARE has been taken, not just to say stuff, but to say it well. 3. I could have robot lady read my scripts for me! No. If you looked at the entry linked above, you will know how that worked out! 4. I could cut the music. No. I think it serves a purpose. It creates a vibe.

Conclusion: making a podcast is not easy. Save discussing the debate on soup and bouncing balls, improvising wildly, or utilizing the robot lady, I think making a quality thing just takes time. I hope I continue to have time for it. And I hope that soon I reach 50 individual listeners, at which point I understand that sponsorship possibilities open up for me. If that happens, I hope I have some choices and can make ads for things I actually value. For now, I will keep plugging away talking about books I’ve read, trying to broaden that audience, doing the best I can to streamline the process a bit. If you are still reading, you can help. Go to this link below, listen to the first two episodes, feel free to send me an encouraging word, share the links with your friends, and, if you can, support the podcast with a monthly donation. I’ve been out here shouting in the wilderness for a long time, it seems. It would be so lovely to know that my shouting has made some impact somewhere.

Much love and appreciation,

Michael Jarmer, Writer Guy

https://anchor.fm/michael-jarmer

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The Book I Read: Books as Gifts, The Hidden Life of Fifteen Dogs, and Budgie Danger

I have admitted in previous entries that I am a relatively slow reader. I read well, I think, but slowly. Perhaps I’m a better reader because of it. But because I love reading, and because I have the English major’s obsession with a list of things I want to (and think I should) read, I am sometimes paralyzed when friends gift me books. Recently, as in within the last year or two, I have been gifted a couple of books, books for which I had no previous knowledge or awareness, but books, as I came to understand by a very cursory digging around, that are well-known, well respected, critically acclaimed, examples of the dreaded “classic I’ve never heard of” category of books, or the “contemporary genius I’ve never heard of” category of books. Of course, then, they must be added to the list of books I want to (and think I should) read. And that’s all fine and good. But because they have been GIFTED to me, in each case by people I love and respect, there’s this added sense of responsibility toward putting those books at the top of the list–of reading those books before others on the list, because, you know, they were gifts, thoughtful gifts, and there’s this feeling that I am obligated to read and share my reaction with the very kind friend who gifted me the book. In at least a couple of occasions, that obligation, that sense of responsibility toward my benefactor, has gone on for a year or two. In that time–lots of guilty wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth. It’s time, then, finally, to fulfill my obligation and tackle once and for all the gifted books, or at least today, one of them.

I love dogs. Growing up, I always had dogs. As an adult, my wife and I through our long history together have rarely ever been without a dog. Now we have two. And, you know, if you are, like us, somewhat in love with your dogs, they end up making their way into your social networking feeds–you’re posting cute pictures of them with funny captions, you’re revealing their most recent exploits (ours love to escape into the neighborhood to flirt with death and pillage like pirates), you’re writing poems about them, or you’re taking selfies of them napping with you. I try to be careful about this. I don’t do it a ton. I love them–but they are not the absolute center of my existence. Nevertheless, the few times I have posted dog activity inspired a good friend of mine, the poet Terri Ford, to send me this book under discussion today, The 2015 Writer’s Trust of Canada Fiction Prize winner, André Alexis’s Fifteen Dogs.

A book I have owned but never read is The Hidden Life of Dogs, although I know vaguely that it is a non-fiction study about what it’s like to be a dog–how a dog thinks and feels as it exists, you know, as a dog. This novel by André Alexis, Fifteen Dogs, is a different kind of study. It is a novel that asks the question, what if, not all dogs, but fifteen dogs, had the capacity to think and feel like humans do.

Here’s the set up, right out of the gate: two gods walk into a bar–no, this is not a joke–two gods actually walk into a bar (Apollo and Hermes, to be precise) and over five rounds (they’re beer drinkers) they begin a philosophical discussion about the relative significance of human beings compared to any other living creature. Apollo sees them as no better, no worse. Hermes argues that they are more interesting, more complex, more amusing than any other creatures. Hermes wonders what it would be like if animals had the intelligence of human beings, and Apollo wonders whether, with that kind of capacity, animals would be as unhappy as humans are. Apollo suggests a wager: a year of servitude that, given human intelligence, animals would be more unhappy than humans. Under one condition, Hermes insists, that if just ONE of these animals is happy when they die, Hermes would be the victor. It is agreed, and, walking out of the bar the two gods spy a kennel–so a decision is made: let it be dogs. And it was. The fifteen dogs staying overnight at this particular kennel, through divine intervention, are given human intelligence. This group of randomly assorted breeds, then, immediately put that human intelligence to good use and escape from the kennel. And we are off to the races.

There are early and devastating results. Three tragic and clearly unhappy deaths immediately ensue. There’s a conflict between the remaining pack of dogs as to whether or not this new ability is a blessing or a curse. One dog begins reciting original poetry and is summarily shunned. Very soon, we have a Lord of the Flies type situation on our hands. Whereas, in Lord of the Flies, children on their own act like animals (but that’s probably not fair, as Golding seems to be saying that human beings are a far inferior species, and that the children, as opposed to acting like animals, are just really acting like adults–who act like animals), in Fifteen Dogs, animals act like humans, but then, many of them, try to avoid acting like humans, the result of which is that they become dogs acting like humans acting like dogs who are aware of the contradiction. The remainder of this highly engaging, super richly woven, intensely and seriously witty novel follows the survivors of the initial chaos as they navigate their lives without the original pack and as the wagering gods, among others (the Fates and Zeus himself), follow their progress. Which of them, if any, will die happy? Morbidly enough, in order to have an answer to this question, all these dogs must die–and they do. Don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler, really–I mean, it is, but it isn’t, because the joy of this novel is immensely more than the answer to the survival question.

Despite the tone our 3rd person omniscient narrator takes, one of serious reportage, almost a clinical narrative of the facts and just the facts, the novel is hilariously funny in parts, deeply moving in others, philosophically rich, and interestingly enough, humane.

Let’s begin with the funny bits, just a few that were highlights for me: the first time, Prince, the poet dog, recites one of his poems-the reviews from the pack are terribly mixed. And later: “Prince had spoken another poem … and Max had wanted to kill him on the spot.” If Alexis’s hand can be seen anywhere, it is perhaps in his mockery of poetry–“For one thing,” Alexis writes, “like most poets, Prince’s way of reciting his works was eccentric,” a manner of recitation that “would have been strange for any human that was not a poet.” And there is the dog that memorizes the opening passage of Vanity Fair to please it’s literary human master. One of our main character dogs, Majnoun, with his new and beloved human companion, learns film criticism, another dog’s sense of hierarchy is completely befuddled by his human companions’ tendency toward kinky sex.

Perhaps my favorite scene in the novel–funny–yes–but also touching and, to me at least, philosophically truthful, is a scene where Majnoun’s human companion Nira asks him if dogs have stories. He says, of course they do, and then proceeds with a kind of nonsensical thing and perhaps what you would expect to be standard dog fare, a story about looking for a mate and digging and more digging and calling out and finally feeling hungry. Nira says, it doesn’t really have an ending. And Majnoun replies: “It has a very moving ending. Is it not sad to be caught between desires?”

We anthropomorphize our pets anyway, don’t we, and most animals? By some strange act of trickery, Alexis allows us to see dogs in kind of the way we already imagine them–so, we are really not all that surprised with the stuff that these dogs do and think–and because the dog language in this novel is not, initially, human language, it’s even easier for the reader to be convinced of this reality. Only when the dogs start conversing with human beings in English is our credulity kind of pushed to the limit–but again, we should not have a problem with this, right? We know we are not reading realistic fiction–we know this is fantasy, or fantastic, or speculative, or, as the author points out on the title page, it’s “apologue” (a word I had never heard until I picked up this novel) a moral fable, especially one with animals as characters.

So what are its morals? I think there is much here about the nature of things–the nature of happiness, the nature of dog, of humanity, of the symbiotic relationship between the two, about companionship, about finding one’s true nature, about the way we die and qualitatively, how. The power of poetry, whether it lasts or not. The poet dog–despite Alexis’s funning with his art, is maybe, ultimately, the hero of this tale. Morals. It’s not like an Aesop moral, an admonition against or for a particular behavior. I struggle teaching theme to my students and I often warn them about turning theme into “the moral of the story.” Themes have moral implications, I say, but they are not often, morals per se. Don’t do this. Do that instead. Not so much. Rather, and I think this novel achieves this in flying colors: Fifteen Dogs tells us about how things are, not how they should be.

To conclude, I would like to give thanks to the gods for dogs and this novel, but especially, thanks to Terri Ford, who gifted me this book, who is a lover of dogs, and a poet of extraordinary gifts. Her collection of poems, Hams Beneath the Firmament, is a marvel. She is one of the most wildly inventive and playful poets I have ever read. With her permission, let’s close this week’s blog with a poem by Terri Ford from Hams Beneath the Firmamentnot a dog poem–but an animal poem nonetheless, one in her series of poems about Budgies–which is a bird, by the way, a bird that some people have as pets.

Death to the Budgie: A Public Service Announcement

There’s a menace wields a skillet: Teflon is the silent killer.
The budgie life is a life of PERIL. Beware of anything on this list:
burning candles, scented candles, plug-in air fresheners (deadly oil
that seeps), air conditioners, drafts, monsoons. If you deign let
your budgie out: ceiling fan blades, dastard children (hight pitch, sudden
moves), halogen lamps (death by flame), doors in motion, bathtubs, sinks
& toilets. Enjoy your budgie. Keep him safe
from the proverbial glass full or half (he could drown!!),
bookshelves budgie could fall behind, electric cords, your goddamned

feet, dogs, cats, yarn, open windows, and of course the drunk
with her tiny window of judgment opening cage doors on a lark.

Terri Ford

There is just so much to love about this poem. But I chose it because I think it’s a fitting parallel to this lovely novel. It’s a dangerous world out there for dogs, people, and budgies. We gots to be careful. We have to take care of each other and our animals. We try to avoid becoming the playthings of the gods, the fates, and/or stupid, dumb, bad luck. Thank you so much for tuning in. So long. Stay cool. Be kind. Cheers. Take care!

Listen to the podcast version of this entry here

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Introducing: The Book I Read (a podcast by Michael Jarmer Writer Guy)

(What follows is a text version of the first Michael Jarmer Writer Guy podcast. It’s gonna be short and sweet–a tiny little trailer to introduce listeners to the new thing and to spell out a few tantalizing descriptors and some enticements for listening and subscribing and perhaps even donating to the cause. If you’re just reading the following text, I predict: this will be a weird experience. I think you’ll need to jump over to the podcast–whenever it becomes live–to get the full idea. Okay, then, at any rate, here it goes.)

Hey there! And welcome to the trailer for The Book I Read, a podcast with Michael Jarmer, Writer Guy, that’s me, a writer, teacher, and musician from Portland, Oregon. Mostly, this podcast will be about books I’ve read, and my responses to them. But, seeing as how the title of this podcast originates with a song by Talking Heads, and seeing as how I, Michael Jarmer Writer Guy, am a musician and a music lover, not to mention the fact that I’m a slow reader, or, at least, a reader who likes to luxuriate over the reading experience, The Book I Read podcast may also sometimes be about music. As a fiction writer, poet, blogger, and educator, this podcast might at some times be about those things as well. Here’s the bottom line: if you like books, if you like music, if you are a reader or writer of fiction or poetry or literary non-fiction, or if you are a teacher or anybody who cares about education and learning, or ideas, (I’m casting a pretty wide net), this podcast is going to have something for you at some point or another.

I am absolutely thrilled to have you along for the ride. If you’re listening, and you want to respond, there are ways to do that–some of which are, at this point, mysterious to me. I think the Anchor website may give you some opportunities to subscribe or comment or donate–or maybe all of the above. So, I hope you will avail yourself of those opportunities. Meanwhile, stay tuned for a new and first full length episode of The Book I Read with Michael Jarmer Writer Guy! We’re gonna talk rock star fiction, erasure poetry, and mother love! John Darnielle, Jennifer Sperry Steinorth, and Mary Lou Bushi will be our first featured writers!

Until then, please visit http://www.michaeljarmer.com or http://www.herecomeseverybody.com to read, listen, subscribe, or donate! See you soon!

This podcast was, is, will continued to be produced, written, recorded and performed by Michael Jarmer. The music in this podcast was written and performed by Here Comes Everybody–René Ormae-Jarmer and Michael Jarmer. Thank you so much for tuning in. Our first episode should air in the next few days!

(And here’s the link to hear what the above little spiel sounds like! It might be interesting to see the kinds of things I changed on the fly.)

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On Starting a Podcast, Because, Why Not?

All through April and into the summer months, I noticed something new in my publishing options on my WordPress blog: hey! you can turn this blog entry into a podcast! It was an intriguing idea for me, for one, because I enjoy reading out loud, think I have a pretty good knack for it, and for another, it provided a tantalizing strategy for attracting a wider audience, and maybe even (as a cursory exploration of the Anchor website teased), a way to make some money. So after I wrote my last entry in The Book I Read series, I thought I’d give it try. I know my way around all kinds of audio recording situations. How hard could it be?

Well, the short answer to that question is that it took me most all day working on my first podcast and at the end of it I had nothing to show for my labors. I suppose, it could have been user error. But I was having unforeseen technical difficulties creating audio in the Anchor website that made it impossible to finish the task.

First of all, I discovered the hard way that using the Safari browser allowed the podcaster only five minutes to record. I discovered this later in the fine print somewhere, but before I did, I had made three or four passes at a recording when the thing just cut me off. Furthermore, the audio wasn’t saved, so I couldn’t have gone back to edit even if I wanted to. So the first learning: Safari allows only five minutes of audio at a time, while Chrome, apparently, allows 30. Chrome did not recognize me, my password was a strong suggestion from the Mac that did not travel from browser to browser, so recovering my login info would have slowed me down even further. I decided then to record my first podcast in five minute chunks that I could later string together. That didn’t work either. Again, for some reason, even keeping my performance under five minutes, the audio would not save and it appeared that I was doing everything correctly. Sometimes, a test pass that wasn’t even a serious take would save, but then when I tried it for real, it wouldn’t. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason as to why sometimes it would save and other times it wouldn’t. Again, how hard could it be? Push the damn button and go.

Loading up music for an intro bumper and closing credits also proved to be ridiculously ineffective; the software would let you upload a music file, but would only allow you to cut that file into smaller chunks. There seemed to be no way to fade audio or manipulate its volume or to do one of those professional kinds of things where a voice is recorded over the top of a musical interlude. Again, I confess there may be features of the Anchor software that I was unable to unlock simply because I was unfamiliar with the ins and outs of the thing, but I also had a sinking suspicion that the software on this website is just very much limited to make things exceedingly simple for even dummies like myself.

My only success yesterday was to allow the Anchor software to read one of my blog entries out loud using some kind of Siri-like computer voice. This is an actual choice you can make. I have no idea how many bloggers out there are allowing Siri to speak their podcasts, but I just had to try it. It was exceedingly entertaining. She did a really nice job! But, you know, it wasn’t me, and it didn’t have, you know, that je ne sais quoi quality that makes me, you know, ME. But she didn’t make a single error! And hearing her read my writing so fluently made me feel pretty good about my skills! Am I posting that? No sir, I will not. But I could see, for fun, employing her at some point as a guest in some future episode, if I can ever figure this thing out! For amusement’s sake, check this out:

So here’s where I am (in the event that a Michael Jarmer podcast might be at all interesting to you). I’m going into my music studio gear to record a podcast with some gussied-up features (a musical intro, the ability to voice over the top of that music, the best audio quality at my disposal, maybe even a special effect here and there), and then I will attempt to upload the audio into the podcast Anchor website. It might be that in the next couple of days, I will be able to debut my first ever podcast presentation. Wish me luck. And if there’s anyone out there with Anchor experience, it would be really great to hear from you. Cheers!

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The Book I Read: Rock Star Fiction, Erasure, and Mother Love

(Books discussed in this blog: Wolf in White Van, John Darneille; Her Read, Jennifer Sperry Steinorth, and Paddock, Mary Lou Buschi)

In April of 2019 I thought I would begin a series of book review blog entries titled after one of my favorite early Talking Heads songs, “The Book I Read.” So I did that. The trouble is: that first entry was the only entry! You know what they say: the best laid plans something something blah blah blah. Today, two years later and some change, I still think it’s a good idea. I am a person that is perpetually in a state of dissatisfaction about how much I read; every year of my life since leaving a formal education program where I am pretty much forced into the endeavor, I vow to read more, and specifically, to read more for pleasure. “The Book I Read” series seemed to be a tidy way to hold myself accountable, both for the reading and for the other thing I’d like to be doing more often–writing. And, too, I think the review, while I know nothing about how to do one properly, keeps me engaged in an activity I have always found, as an English teacher, to be a pedagogically sound practice: Okay, you’ve read a thing. Write about that experience! And as a student, I always found that my writing about my reading helped me to internalize the experience and to remember more of what I read. Perhaps this practice is why I have a much better book memory than a film memory. All I can tell you about a film I saw two years ago, or even two months ago, is whether or not I liked it. Don’t ask me to tell you what it was about–except to say something like, you know, it took place in outer space, or in the future, or it was about a boy and a dog and some vampires.

Because I am a musician that writes, or a writer who makes music, I have a soft spot, or an affinity, with others like me. Some famous rock musicians are very good writers. My first experience reading a rock star who could really write was Bob Geldof’s autobiography of the late 80’s. I’ve read David Byrne’s stuff. Mark Oliver Everett, The Eels guy. I’ve got Ben Folds on the shelf waiting. With Wolf in White Van, I have my first experience reading a rock musician fiction writer. John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats, a band I have been smitten with over the last two or three years, is the author of this gem, and this was my first summer reading project.

Here’s a quick gloss of the premise: a young man, terribly disfigured by an accidental gun shot to the face, makes his way in the world as a role-play game designer, the protocols of which are extremely lo-fi. For a subscription fee, his customers play his RPG through written correspondence–that’s right, letters. He sends them a scenario, they send him a kind of narrative account of the choices they make, and in return, he sends them options for their next “move.” There are a few key dramatic arcs in this novel–or, a few key questions that provide readers with the impetus to keep on trucking. One: how did he fuck up his face? Two: is he responsible for the deaths of two of his players–killed no less in the process of “literally” acting out the scenarios in Sean’s RPG? How does one so disfigured navigate the world? Why doesn’t he seek plastic reconstructive surgery? What’s up with his parents? Is a relationship between Sean and his childhood friend Kimmy possible post-accident?

I liked reading this novel. Darnielle can really craft a sentence, and the novel is evocative, poetic, sometimes funny, and philosophically engaging, cerebral. It can also be frustrating. The first big question, how’d he fuck up his face, is ultimately answered, but we are made to wait until the very end to find out–and the answer is not altogether clear or satisfying. The other seemingly big question about the deaths of his customers is answered rather economically before we’re really half way through the novel–it turns out for the reader to be a kind of dashed expectation–at least it felt that way for me, as I expected it to be a key plot feature. Perhaps neither of these questions are the important ones, and it seems that Wolf in White Van may not be a novel driven by plot–but rather, by voice, by character; and the thing that moves us through as we bip back and forth in time with our narrator should really be the psychology of this guy, unraveling and understanding his nihilism despite his privileges and gifts. Certainly, the key might be in the unpacking of this potential metaphor of the Role-Play Game. People spend a whole heck of a lot of time pretending to be in a world that doesn’t exist, in the same way that people who are not gamers at all spend a considerable amount of their time on the planet skirting reality.

This next thing, Jennifer Sperry Steinorth’s Her Read, is unlike anything I have ever seen. It is manifestly unique. The book, about 260 pages long, is a single poem–a poem in a form we call an erasure. We have an erasure, essentially, when a poet has taken an existing non-poetry text and created something new and unique through the process of blocking out significant chunks of the original. I have come to know it as a common teaching technique in writing classes where the goal is to have students thinking about language and the various choices poets make–while simultaneously easing the anxiety around the blank page–everything is there for you already; you just have to find it. It’s like sculpting–you remove stuff in order to discover the shape or the image or the meaning inside. Super fun. I’ve only encountered erasure poems by serious poets on a few occasions, most notably, Tracy K. Smith’s erasure poem from the Declaration of Independence, a poem that totally transforms and reframes our understanding of American history.

But Steinorth’s poem is not simply an erasure–it is, as the cover announces, a “graphic poem.” It is a full color printing replete with drawings, photos, diagrams, and replications of the original source–a book originally published in 1931 called The Meaning of Art by Herbert Read–so that the reader can visually see Steinorth’s white out erasures, her doodling, her coloring, her stitching, her cutting and pasting, her manipulation of classic paintings–and the ghost of the original text, sometimes attempting to peak its way out from under the white-out, sometimes appearing vividly around the new poem, crossed out against Steinorth’s circled choices or otherwise as a kind of backdrop or wall paper out of which the new text or an art image leaps out. Without saying anything about the poem’s subject matter or themes, I must begin by just saying what a blast this piece is to read. It is tremendous fun. It gives new meaning to what folks sometimes say about any literary work–that the reader must learn HOW to read it. On almost every page, we are faced with a new kind of puzzle, sometimes a straightforward and easy adjustment, other times diabolically difficult. And, decidedly, it is just a beautiful thing, an art object as well as a literary artifact.

But what’s this poem about? And is it a good poem? I am a poetry lover, not a poetry scholar. I don’t think of myself as much of a critic–only that I know when I’m reading a poem if I’m enjoying myself or not, if I’ve understood the poem or not, or if I’m able to appreciate the various moves the poet is making. I’ve already confessed that I enjoyed myself thoroughly reading Her Read. But it is what I would call a difficult poem–in that it’s meaning is allusive–or rather, that my understanding while I read was tentative, slippery. I take full responsibility for that. I can say, though, that Eleanor Wilner’s introduction is astounding and astoundingly helpful, and the author’s preface, “Her Apologia,” is also edifying. Perhaps most helpful is the revelation that the source text, The Meaning of Art by Herbert Read, makes mention of exactly zero women artists–and in a subsequent edition from the fifties, only ONE. So–my biggest take away from this beautiful book is that the poem is a kind of reclamation of the history of art by and for women writers and painters and art enthusiasts. This is after all, her read, her reading, Steinorth’s illumination of what was missing in Herbert Read’s original text–and yet, present all the same! I just blew my own mind right there. I doubt this is accidental: the whole time I was reading I kept thinking of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. I bet Steinorth would consider that pretty good company.

Finally, I arrive at Mary Lou Buschi’s Paddock, a volume of poetry so sparse and spacious, even at 64 pages, that it begs to be read more than once. So I did that. Outside of preparing for a writer’s workshop on a manuscript, I don’t think I’ve ever read a complete volume of poetry cover to cover more than once within the space of a couple of days. I felt it necessary perhaps to revel in its weirdness. That’s true. Or maybe I thought I’d understand it much better the second time around. That checks out, but still, I must confess, my understanding feels limited, superficial. Poetry like this makes one especially thankful for blurbs on the back covers, which, in the poetry world, are often little mini-essays in and of themselves. In the effort towards stepping away from Paddock with anything like an “understanding,” Patrick Donnelly’s blurb on the back cover was immeasurably helpful. He doesn’t have the answers either–but his speculating about what could be was a tremendous lifeline. Like Her Read, I found this volume to be a difficult but enormously rewarding reading experience. My own poetry, and (surprise surprise) the poetry I like best, is narrative in nature–where a story is being told or an experience is being described that is rooted in a comprehensible world–even if that world is exceedingly weird. I also enjoy lyric poetry that describes an emotional response or teases out a philosophical territory–and yet still is grounded somehow in a familiar world. The most rewarding reading experiences where neither of the above approaches, narrative or lyric, seem to be relevant or important, is in my deep reading over the years of Samuel Beckett. His disembodied voices, his gallows humor, his vaudevillian approach to the deepest existentialist questions, has been some of the most satisfying reading of my life. Paddock reminds me of Beckett more than anything else, and in particular, his play Waiting for Godot.

In Paddock we have three primary voices, girl 1 and girl 2, and a chorus. The chorus does what choruses do: sets the scene, provides commentary, maybe helps interpret the proceedings, lends a kind of mythic aura to the whole. The girls are our main characters–but in actual text real estate, their lines and their conversations are clipped, truncated, brief, and, like the conversations between Vladimir and Estragon from Godot, strangely surreal, comical, absurd. And like their Beckett counterpoints, they are on a mission it seems, not one of waiting, but one of looking, searching–and of trying at one and the same time to leave and to arrive. What are they looking for? Who are they leaving or hoping to join? Mother. And this, thankfully, is given us right out of the gate by the chorus: “Once, as there are many,/time stretches infinitely,/2 girls set forth,/to find a mother,/who is she,/who is I,/who is Dear.” Now the mysteries of this collection, similarly to the mysteries of Godot, are questions the reader may have that the text of the drama does not answer explicitly. Where are these two girls? In what state? Are they dead? Are they about to be born? Clearly, (I just said “clearly”) they are in some kind of liminal space. How are the girls related, or are they? What trauma has their “mother” experienced and by whose hands? Do they have the same mother or different ones? Is “mother” literal or metaphorical, symbolic? These are huge unanswerable questions–but again, like in Godot, the pleasure and the meaning is in NOT getting the answers you seek, but instead, more questions. In the end. . . No, I’m not going to give away the ending!

Paddock is not just a collection of poems–it is a singular and difficult drama. The more I think about it, the more likely I am to give it a third reading. It is beautiful and weird, nightmarish and strange, puzzling and profound.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a wrap on my second attempt in two years at a blog about books I am reading in the series I have called “The Book I Read.”

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #29

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It’s hot. Is it hot? It’s hot in here. It’s hot out there. It’s so hot. Squirrels are dying. Baby hummingbirds are abandoned. The crows are clearly pissed. For three days in a row Portland saw temperatures in triple digits—three record breaking days in a row. The fourth day promised to be a chilly 97 degrees. Finally, some relief! In fact, somewhat miraculously, it did cool down over that third evening, over two hours about 15 degrees. 8:30 on Monday evening, from 103 or so to 88 in the shade. That was insane. We had no central air, but instead, there are window units in the bedrooms that couldn’t keep up, a basement that is cool until one gets used to it and realizes that, relatively, it’s not really all that cool, and we have the great privilege of owning a tiny RV with kick ass AC—so we were living in that thing with the dogs for the duration of the heatwave.

This school year has been a bit of a hellscape sandwich. On top of everything was the Covid 19 pandemic, but September began with massive wildfires that shut everything down and made breathing dangerous, February brought us a freak ice storm and the loss of power for six to ten days, and summer break begins with a record setting heatwave. One of the mildest climes in the continental United States finds itself with Baghdad temperatures.

Now, almost midway through July, things have cooled down. But we haven’t seen any rain in a while, and our “cool” days have all been in the mid 80’s, a couple of 90-degree reprises. This, we can live with. But I understand our neighbors to the south are not fairing as well. Death Valley, California, while normally a hot place, reached temperatures a few days ago of 130 degrees. All year, with the weather and the pandemic, we have, it seems, been covered by clouds of impending doom. 

And yet—there is good news. In Oregon, having reached the 60% fully vaccinated threshold, we are, it seems, completely back in business, have reopened “the economy,” have dropped altogether the mask mandate. It’s been a bit of a shock to be out in public. Can I trust these people? What is that whole bit under the eyes, there? Noses? Mouths? I think I remember those! Should I keep my distance? Within a day, it seems, the public has gone from fully masked to no masks. I still have these panics when I’m driving some place—oh my god—did I forget my mask? Should I go back? I still find myself carrying one around with me, just in case. It amazes me how we have become so accustomed to mask-wearing, a thing that was SO strange in the beginning, now, we feel kind of naked without them—or still super anxious that people around us are not wearing theirs, even though we’re not wearing one either. Let us keep our fingers crossed, however, that this is a trend that continues, that we are really, if not completely, almost out of the woods.

Back in drumming business!

And rock and roll is back in town. Live music is a thing again. Last weekend I played my first two drumming gigs in public in fourteen or fifteen months. It was glorious. Seeing friends again, hugging people, shaking hands (tentatively, still), and having face-to-face close proximity conversations: we need this. I need it. In fact, I’m realizing how much I need it, surprisingly so. I think I had kind of convinced myself that the introvert in me had become accustomed to my relative isolation and had learned to like it. And now? Not so much. It feels good to BE with people again. Is this the last of the Plague Journals? Somehow, I doubt it—but I think I might be close to wrapping up this series once and for all. I’m totally okay with that. 

Don’t stand so close to me NO MORE. The Nu Wavers at Tumwater Winery in West Linn, Oregon.

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #28

Here are some details about a typical Saturday over the last month or so: I’ll have a leisurely morning, drink coffee, eat a light breakfast, walk the dogs, make plans for the yard, eat a heavier lunch, drop off cans at the bottle drop, buy records at the curbside of Music Millennium, dog bones at the pet store, beer at the liquor store, liquor at the beer store (yes, I started drinking again), briquettes for the Egg at the pool store, listen to my boy gush about his drum lesson while he shows me some new rudimental licks on the practice pad, listen to several records start to finish all in a row while drinking beer: Japanese Breakfast, Crowded House, Cheap Trick, Steven Wilson. Maybe later: Gary Numan or Kansas. Maybe later: digging into to The Mare of Easttown or The Outsider or Bo Burnham’s Inside.

Both vaccinations? Check–for both my wife and I, as of the end of March. The resident teenager acquires his second vaccination at the beginning of June. Check. And finally, the arrival of the end of the weirdest school year in the history of school years. Double check.

Over the last quarter of the school year, after three quarters of teaching online only, I was able to be with a little less than half of the students enrolled in my classes–in person, in the flesh. While the rest of my students chose to stay at home, we happy few were together in a room, masked, over the course of fourteen 90 minute periods between April and June. The microphone set up we were supposed to have in our rooms–so that hard of hearing students could hear us better and so that our voices would last the period–never materialized. And it was strange, uncomfortable, to deliver instruction through a mask. Projecting, as teachers must do, was difficult with one’s mouth and nose covered, had the effect, as they say, of taking away the breath–like–you know–it became sometimes literally hard to breathe. I never passed out, but I did find myself dizzy on several occasions. Thank goodness: holding forth for 90 minutes was never an expectation. In fact, we did considerably less teaching, less teacher talk, than we have ever done or had to do. Our role was primarily supportive–supplemental: here’s the thing we did yesterday in the google meet presented in a slightly different way, or in a way that is conducive to conversation, and here’s a supplemental thing that might make these concepts more vivid, and here’s some materials to make something creative, and here’s a chunk of time to get done what you otherwise would have had to carve out your own time for. You’re welcome. I think this last bit, that gift of time, is the thing that students and teachers found most valuable about hybrid learning. I had very few students signed up for in-person classes who sat and did nothing for 7 weeks. I could count them on a single hand.  

As a result of teaching online for an entire year under a protocol that did not require students to enable their microphones or their video feeds, and an in-person experience with only half of them in that last quarter, I feel this year that I know my students less well than any group of students I have ever taught. Paradoxically, though, there is a kind of warm regard, a deep appreciation, an enormous well of gratitude, even a love for these kids I am seeing for the last time today, that I have not necessarily experienced before. First, there was this feeling all the way through of solidarity, the sense that we were in something together, something new, something challenging, something that would demand the better angels. I found students this year to be more appreciative, more kind, more thoughtful, more patient, and less behaviorally challenging than any group of students I’ve ever had. For the most part, students rose to the occasion. As weird as it was, as awkward, as limiting, and as isolating–we managed still to form something like a functional and positive learning community. Today, saying goodbye to my students for the year, some of whom I have never seen in person, I got me some serious feels. It almost brought me tears when one student, in our last google meet synchronous session of the school year, opened up her microphone to publicly thank me and share her appreciation for the work I had done. Amazing. So, there you go. An historic school year ending on the highest possible note.

In other news:      

Yesterday I got my haircut. It was maybe the fourth time over the last year that I’ve seen this particular stylist (a new person for me)–but until this last time, I had never seen the bottom half of her face. It’s amazing how much the bottom half of a face contributes to the experience of the whole. You really do not know what someone looks like until you have seen their whole face. That seems kind of like a ridiculous thing to say–but there it is. It had never really occurred to me before, and thus, when I saw her whole face, both of us having been fully vaxxed, it was a revelation. 

Live music returns! It looks like, beginning July, this will be a summer for drumming. I’ve got gigs booked. It’s time to start shedding. Across the country, Stephen Colbert returned to the Ed Sullivan Theater in front of a fully vaccinated live audience to do The Late Show. Things are opening up all over. Oregon is on it’s way to having 70% of adults with at least one shot–and then, our governor says, we will open up completely. We’re just above 50% now, above the national average, but still–no cigar. Nevertheless, it’s becoming clear that after 14 months of quarantine, a return to normalcy is within view! That, perhaps, will become the theme of the end of 2021 and into 2022–a return to normalcy. It’s fun to see folks celebrating the new White House behavior as absolutely mundane and boring–you know, the kind of behavior you would expect from politicians just kind of doing their jobs. There’s still all of this residual ugliness, though, in our political landscape. Exhibit A: the government passes a law to make Juneteenth a national holiday while simultaneously politicians all over the country try to make the teaching of Critical Race Theory against the law. WTF. There’s still plenty of WTF to go around. Soon, perhaps, as we recover from this crazy last year and people find themselves in less desperate situations, things might start to even out, cool down, liberalize–if you will. 2022 could be a pivotal year. Another one? I know. I’m hopeful it will be for the good.  

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#403: Poem on April 30, 2021

Photo by Rajeev Mog Chowdhary on Pexels.com

It’s always astounding to me, when I set myself the task of writing a poem a day for a month, and then each day becomes marked by a poem, how quickly the month seems to pass. Thirty poems seems like a lot of poems. Thirty days seems like a lot of days. It’s not. You’d think we’d be used to this, that whole time-passing thing. It’s been more than a year since our lock-down began. I went 105 days without alcohol. I was counting those days, not because I couldn’t wait for the abstinence to be over, but because I wanted to see how many days I could go. 105 days went by pretty quickly. A full year of distance learning, of teaching remotely from my home computer, from April 2020 to April 2021–that happened. That, however, did not go by quickly. This, perhaps, has felt like the longest school year in my long career. Maybe it’s that you have to be counting, and in small increments, to experience time as accelerated. My two most favorite unfinished reading projects are both about time. I was not able to finish Proust or Mann’s The Magic Mountain. I don’t know what this means. Perhaps I’m grasping at straws. I liked today’s final suggestion from the Napowrimo website, but it feels slight somehow, not suitable as a concluding poem–as if, for some reason, I feel like the last poem of the month should be somehow a kind of pinnacle, some kind of stirring, epic, grand, final gesture. That’s a set-up for failure. William Stafford’s advice about writing has stuck with me more, I think, than any other piece of advice I have ever heard or read from another writer. When you are stuck, when the going gets tough, “lower your standards.”

Thanks for joining me on this journey. I so much appreciate those of you who have visited a bunch of times, sharing some comments here or there and “liking” the work. It’s sustaining. It’s very gratifying. I wish I could be as generous to you all as you have been to me. Time to visit the work of my Napowrimo brothers and sisters is always limited in my situation during this most critical time of the school year, the home stretch, as it were, and especially in this year of our plague, 2021. Cheers. Congratulations. May we meet again in better circumstances. Here are the directions to my house.

Poem on April 30

Just follow the signs.
You can’t miss it.
It’s just right around the corner.
Well, right around several corners,
the penultimate corner of which
will, after one more corner,
bring you practically to my doorstep.
It’s almost nothing but left turns
with a right turn just in time
so that you’re not traveling
in circles. Yeah, if you think
of it like that, a series of
near circles, or squares really,
with a right turn after
every two lefts–that’s the idea.
Look for the tree, the one
all by itself on the curbside,
standing, as if on guard,
against what appears to be
a whole forest of giant oaks,
which leaved today, by the way.
I swear, I’ve been watching,
like I do every year: one day,
bare trees, the next, leaves.
So look for the green in the canopy.
The dogs will bark but they don’t bite.
We have a roundabout driveway
that moves round about the house.
We hope you will feel welcome here,
but our doorbell is out of commission
so you’ll have to use the knocker.

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