Category Archives: Culture

Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the Light

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Last year, I remember talking in my classroom about the terrible news, the deaths of two British cultural icons, both personal heroes of mine, David Bowie and Alan Rickman, both dead at 69. And from that discussion, this has remained in my memory: a student actually said these words to me, “So you’ve got about twenty more years to live, then.” Even though I probably should have been, I was not offended and I laughed the comment off, even sort of went along with the gag. Sure. That may be true. At 69, I too, might shuffle off this mortal coil–that is, if I get sick, or if I have some terrible accident. I don’t plan to do either of those things, but, as I understand it, these kinds of things aren’t really planned.  So, whether it’s likely or not that I’ll only live another 20 years or less, the deaths of David Bowie, and days later, Alan Rickman moved me to a surprising degree, and got me thinking, as I am still thinking, thinking seriously, about mortality and impermanence, about living a life, and about what might be learned about dying from the passing of these two giants.

My youth, as is true for most all of us, was punctuated by the deaths of celebrities. The ones I paid closest attention to were the deaths of musicians. Elvis. John Lennon. Bon Scott. These are the ones that come immediately to mind. And I know, that as a young person, these deaths shook me, saddened me, especially because all three of them were tragic, senseless, preventable. But I moved on, as young people do, and things would return pretty much back to normal for a long long time. The deaths of people I know, mostly family, mostly well into their 80’s when they died, stay with me in my vivid memories of them tied directly to experience. My father died at 83, 7 years ago now, after a year long recovery from a cardiac arrest, and while I mourned his death more deeply than any other, my memories of him are a constant presence for me. I feel him with me all the time, most powerfully, sometimes happily and sometimes not, in the ways that I realize I am so much like him, in the various and spooky ways I feel I AM him or have become him. With Bowie and Rickman I have no genetic connection, but insofar as their work has been with me off and on for 30 or 40 years, they too, feel like family; they too, feel like a part of my genetic make-up. As I am my Dad, I am also Bowie and Rickman.

In a way, especially for musicians and actors and writers, they remain very much alive: we have a tangible record of their artistic lives and we can revisit that record over and over again on our turntables, our televisions or computers, in our libraries, and in our memories.  My dad left no recordings. He left no writings, or at least I don’t think he did. He left me his wedding ring. He left me two brothers and a sister, he left me half of my own genetic self and 45 years of example through his parenting and husbanding. So while I can keep Bowie and Rickman spinning in the exterior world, my father must remain inside. But all of it will be with me so long as I can operate the audio-visual equipment in my house and the audio-visual equipment inside my head. I’m going to try my best to keep both in working condition past my own 69 years.

And finally, in our current state of affairs, culturally and politically in this United States of America in 2017, I feel more than ever a deep need to keep exposing myself to and attempting to create the ineffable, the deathless, the lasting, humanizing record in art of our existence. I feel now a kind of urgent need to listen to more music, make more music, write more poems and stories, to read more, and to live more deeply in the world. Bowie made music until the end. Rickman made films until the end. My friend Carlen Arnett kept contributing her art until the very end. I hope I can do as much in my own humble way. And so I begin with this little meditation that I have titled after this exquisite and famous poem by Dylan Thomas. I hope you enjoy both.

Do not go gentle into that good night

Dylan Thomas1914 – 1953

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

 

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#239: 24 Hours, No Facebook, No News Redux (Inauguration Day, 2017)

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It’s inauguration day and I have once again sworn off
Facebook and any internet news or television media
for 24 hours. All I know is that my son watched
the thing in his 5th grade classroom today
and he said some kids and his teacher
were crying. He and a friend, he said, were
angry and felt that no one understood.
I heard a teacher in my building say that
the inaugural address was more of the same
and if that’s an accurate assessment
apparently I did not miss a thing.
My pledge to abstain from the news is
simply an effort not to give any attention
to this man who is not and never will be my guy.
And it’s disingenuous to say he deserves
a chance. He’s had tons of those and blew them all.
It’s disingenuous to say, this is how it is and
it’s your country after all so buck up and get in.
I believe the more patriotic move is to resist
what in no possible light could be considered good
or just or wise or anything noble and high,
anything other than an embarrassment.
What I am missing, I assume, is the good
news about the spreading resistance.
And why wouldn’t I want to see that?
To be honest, I do, I really do want to see that
and it’s very difficult not to climb on board
the media wagon to view the spectacle of this
historic refusal in marches taking place today
and tomorrow and the next day all over the land.
I can always catch up and I know that I will.
To stay away today, to have been completely
present for my students, and for this poem,
to be reflective without the images and the audio
and the punditry of the day, makes it possible,
perhaps, for me to sit with it in solitude
and to prove that it is finally possible to look away,
at least temporarily, until I understand better
what is most needed and how I can be there
in some meaningful way.

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#236: Media Fast, Anyone?

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I cannot help it.
I can’t look away.
It’s a train wreck,
a complete cluster,
and every morning
begins with the same
question:

What’s the outrage of the day?

And now that I’m on
a holiday break I’ve got
something like free time
to keep checking in on
the downfall of my
civilization.

I think I need to stop.

While it might make me
more informed, this incessant
checking of the news, it does
nothing for my present
happiness. I remember a
time, about 16 years ago,
before Facebook was a thing,
when I took a break from watching
the news. I perused the paper
at work so as not to live
completely under a rock,
but I spared myself from
the pictures and the talking
heads and the bullshit
advertisements, and I think,
for awhile, it made me feel
better, smarter even, and
certainly, less anxious.

It might be possible to skip
the stuff that makes me anxious
and only do those social things
that are pleasurable or that
create connection with loved ones,
but even these things, as
necessary as they sometimes feel,
can drive me a little drunk
with dependence.

The power and the influence
of the internet has changed
everything. It’s a bombardment
of the senses and its making
me, I fear, senseless.

So I am entertaining the idea
of a fast with little confidence
that I will be successful at its
implementation. I am thinking.

I am thinking.

And with me, that’s how it always
begins: a desire or a thought,
some words spoken or written,
a visualization in repetition,
and then finally an effort
to make something happen.
What mysterious gifts might
take the place of the ubiquitous web?
How long could I stay away?
What will I miss?  And will it matter?

 

 

 

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#228: On the Day After the Election

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Having wept myself to sleep the night before,
I got up and went to work in the school house
where we met in small teams in the library
to plan or do curriculum work or talk about
assessments, where instead I chose to color
with crayons at the table our new librarian
set up for art. It was the only thing I could do.
I colored inside the lines with several different
shades of blue and some pink here and there
while I tried to keep myself together.
Talking to anyone, to any friendly face,
I had to work hard not to break down.

I was thankful when students arrived inside
my room. They gave me a focus, a place to
channel my energies, an opportunity to make
some kind of difference. My 9th graders,
unusually subdued and cooperative, dove with
some enthusiasm into a Sherman Alexie novel,
a novel about race, culture, and class divide,
but a novel, too, about hope. Arnold Spirit Jr.
realizes it feels good to help others, and I could
feel that thought resonating inside the room.
Later, my seniors came in for a study of
A Room of One’s Own, and rather than talk and
have to face the reality of this particular irony
head on, I asked my students to make art,
to talk about what was going on in Virginia
Woolf’s head by drawing it on the page.
Students must have paused for a long time
at the passage about the cat without a tail,
the cat pausing, “as if it too questioned the
universe,” as Woolf realizes that, suddenly,

“Everything was
different”
and
“Nothing was changed”
and yet, “the change was there”
not in substance but in sound.
What did men hum before the election?
What did women hum before the election?
And now what, after?
We carry on. We cling to hope.
We agitate and advocate for what we know is good.
We color, and we do what I found today
to be most healthful, finding comfort in
kindness from others and the kind attention
I could give, a hug I received from my son,
and solace in the words on the page.

 

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Melt The Guns

For those of you who have been following my project of listening to my music collection from A to Z and writing reflections on each album: no, I am not jumping ahead from D to X.  Instead, inspired by a friend of mine posting this tune in Facebook on the day we learned of yet another  school shooting, this one in my own backyard, so to speak, I felt compelled to post it here–not just the audio, but these lyrics, penned by Andy Partridge of the great XTC (an English pop band) in 1982.  Nineteen-eighty-fucking-two.  It only takes a quick google search to learn that school shootings in the United States did not originate in the late 20th century and into the 21st. We have a long history of them going back all the way to the 18th century. However, I think it’s safe to say that none of these shootings were of the magnitude and the devastation of the ones that we’re now seeing in our time. In 1982 Andy Partridge could not have imagined the depths to which his brethren across the big pond would sink in their efforts to hold on to their personal arsenals despite one devastating loss after another devastating loss. And yet, here’s this tune, so spot-on, so embarrassingly true.

Please read along while you listen.  Neither the audio or the lyric are reproduced here by permission. I’m hoping, that if he ever finds out, Andy Partridge will forgive me.

Melt The Guns

Programmes of violence
As entertainment,
Brings the disease into your room.
We know the germ
Which is man-made in metal
Is really a key to your own tomb.

Prevention is better than cure,
Bad apples affecting the pure,
You’ll gather your senses I’m sure
Then agree to

Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
And never more to fire them.

Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
And never more desire them.

Children will want them,
Mothers supply them,
As long as your killers are heroes.
And all the media
Will fiddle while rome burns,
Acting like modern-time neros.

Prevention is better than cure,
Bad apples affecting the pure,
You’ll gather your senses I’m sure
Then agree to,

Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
And never more to fire them.

Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
And never more desire them.

I’m speaking to the justice league of america.
The u s of a,
Hey you,
Yes you in particular!
When it comes to the judgement day and you’re standing at the gates with your weaponry,
You dare go down on one knee,
Clasp your hands in prayer and start quoting me,
‘cos we say…
Our father we’ve managed to contain the epidemic in one place, now,
Let’s hope they shoot themselves instead of others,
Help to civilize the race now.
We’ve trapped the cause of the plague,
In the land of the free and the home of the brave.
If you listen quietly you can hear them shooting from grave to grave.
You ought to,

Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
And never more to fire them.

Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
Melt the guns,
And never more desire them.

“Melt The Guns” is track #7 on the album English Settlement by XTC. It was written by Partridge, Andy.

Lyrically, this song is not perfect–not very many rock tunes are.  There are places in this lyric that confuse me and bits of it that don’t seem quite right, philosophically. But what I most admire about this indictment is the attention it calls to the way in which guns have been embraced by American culture to the degree that our society lacks all imagination for any other vision. It is a madness so pervasive that we do absolutely nothing after grade schoolers are gunned down in Newtown. I also appreciate the song’s bridge where Partridge points the finger directly at the United States! And in this fascinating move (if I understand it correctly) Andy points the finger right back at the U.K.   –as if somehow England left us not only with our independence, but with our guns and our second amendment–an abused and misused and misunderstood little piece of the constitution if ever there was one.

I have very little to add to this conversation.  It’s all been said so well and so eloquently by countless others.  It’s more personal because I work in a school and because I have a child in school–along with millions of others who must also be tired of this new terror and sick to death that our politicians do nothing about it. It seems to me that any politician who takes money from a gun lobby should be ineligible for office. Vote these fuckers out, please.

I’m way anti-gun.  I’m in favor of strict gun-control. I will never have a gun in my household. I have mixed feelings even about my son’s nerf gun arsenal. No, actually, the feelings aren’t mixed.  I feel bad. But I understand that it’s not just about guns; it’s about a lot of other things too. I’ve read so many articles over the last couple of days about this subject (I should probably stop), that I have difficulty remembering all the sources, but this piece by Mark Manson stands out, not only because he calls attention to much of what we don’t understand about the issue and its causes and effects, but because his conclusion comes down to a level where every individual has some agency and control–and that is about the way we care for one another, the way we are in our communities, the way we love and the way we listen. Empathy. He’s right.  I think about the way I could help. I think about the way I could take better care of my students. And then I remember that I have 178 of them. I have classes of 36 kids in the same room at the same time. One of my principal charges as an educator, a core-value of mine, to KNOW my students, is next to impossible in these conditions. It is the nature of the beast that the students I most need to help are suffering in silence and I will never know it.

Andy Partridge of XTC was correct, too, decades before it would be up in our faces like it is today, but he only described part of the problem, albeit a huge part of the problem.

Do we want to live in a less violent society? Do we want teachers and students to work and learn without constant fear? Do we want to feel and actually be safe in public places, in movie theaters, concert halls, malls, fares and markets? Do we want automatic weapons and assault rifles out of the hands of any civilian, no matter how upstanding, no matter how law-abiding, because we understand that these kinds of weapons have only one real purpose? If we can keep our cities and planes safe from terrorists abroad for 15 years running, can we not do something to keep our citizens safe from the terrorism of gun violence at home? We must act as if these things are not only possible, but absolutely non-negotiable. The eternal optimist: I think it can be done.

I’m out of things to say for now. Here’s some material to consider:

Say No to ‘The New Normal’ — Five Things You Can Do About Gun Violence

http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/the-simple-truth-about-gun-control

Need “ammunition” for an argument against the pro-gun crazies? Look here.

http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/4-pro-gun-arguments-were-sick-of-hearing-20151001

And then there’s this from The Onion, which strikes me as not even a piece of satire, but an honest statement about our insane belief that we are helpless against terror: http://www.theonion.com/article/no-way-prevent-says-only-nation-where-regularly-ha-51444

And we’ll leave it at this:

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A Single Dispatch from Writer’s Camp 2015

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It’s quiet on campus.  Everyone has gone home.  It’s just me and Mark, the dorm all to ourselves.  He’s here still because he can’t travel on the Sabbath.  I’m here to simply take a few deep breaths, to take advantage of some solitude before heading home. I went down to the cafeteria tonight for dinner, and where there were swarms of people from all places and ages buzzing around in that huge room over the last six days, tonight I dined alone in virtual silence, maybe a half a dozen other individuals scattered throughout the dining room.  Only two choices tonight: salad bar and mac ‘n’ cheese. I chose both. I went for a walk after dinner through this lovely campus, ghost-town quiet.  I couldn’t visit the reflection pool one more time because the only action anywhere on campus, a wedding, had reserved for private use the entire lower gardens. I skulked my way back to the dorm where the last two writer’s camp campers are all alone in a five story dormitory.

I like this quiet ending of Writer’s Camp, the Warren Wilson MFA Alumni Conference, this year, hosted and coordinated by yours truly at Lewis and Clark College here in Portland, Oregon. For six days we have been teaching each other classes: we learned about Orphan Trains, we talked about revision, Elizabeth Bishop, bad guys and gals in fiction, characterization and computer programs that write good poetry.  We had conversations about agents, poetic resonance, writing about childhood, submitting our work. We read Shakespeare’s The Tempest in the round almost all the way through. We did a table read of a new screenplay by one of our campers. We attended workshops where generous, thoughtful, wise, and spirited writer friends helped us along with our work. We heard each other read: 48 of us read 10 minutes of our work to the smartest and most appreciative audience any of us have ever had.  We recited poetry from memory to each other at 1 o’clock in the morning. A handful of us meditated every morning for a half an hour. We wrote. We laughed a lot. We made new friends and reconnected with old ones. We held a silent auction and raised a bunch of money for our program. And we danced. All of this seems somewhat miraculous, and yet, the Warren Wilson Alumni Conference happens every summer, and every summer, at least for me, it is a peak experience, the pinnacle of my year.

And I like the quiet of the campus now that all my official duties are done.  I’ve never been to a conference before where I had any official duties save for reading for 10 minutes or teaching a single hour long class.  But all week there were things to attend to, phone calls to make, arrangements to arrange, decisions to decide, people to help, things to set up, a meeting to facilitate. It was far more intensive than I expected it to be–and yet, I couldn’t have been more happy to do it.  My only frustration the entire week had to do with things that were entirely in my control: not getting enough sleep simply because, just like my 9 year old, I didn’t want to go to bed, and losing my water bottle on campus at least three times every day and having to hike around in the heat to find it.  Otherwise, my labour was a labour, as they say, of love, pure, stupid, inexhaustible love for this group of people and the program and purpose that ties all of it together.

Most of the way through the conference, and even now in this quiet evening as I sit alone on our outdoor patio at this ginormous picnic table on concrete slabs in front of the dorm, and even though I am a 20 minute car ride from the front door of my house in Milwaukie, I have felt far away, very far away indeed.  I have felt like I might as well be at one of our other regular conference locations.  I could be in Amherst, Mass, or I could be in Moraga, California, Mt. Holyoke or St. Mary’s, or even at  Warren Wilson itself in Asheville, North Carolina.  I could be anywhere.  I hardly feel like I am in my home town because every year, even this year where the responsibilities were many and opportunities to freely choose when and when not to be engaged were fewer and far between, I feel utterly transported.  I am with my tribe in a veritable magic freaking bubble of goodness.  There aren’t many places in my experience where it gets any better than this. As I said to my campers during our last formal minutes together at the end of the last reading of the conference: I am more exhausted than I have ever been in my life–and simultaneously, I have never been happier.  Maybe my wedding day–yeah, that tops the list. Wally conferences are in a close second.

My fellow Wallies, and to anyone who is lucky enough to have a community like this: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.”  We arrive together in this incredible community, and, as quickly as we arrive, we vanish into the ether on the way to our homes all across the country. But there’s the certainty that there will be other opportunities, another brilliant chance, as our gods or as good fortune will have it, to come together again in just one short year. Until then, goodnight and godspeed.  Having finished his Sabbath observances, Mark and I are going to have a drink together.

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#177: Trigger Warning

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Trigger Warning:

The following poem
may contain upsetting
material.  The poet wants
to warn you about it
in advance so you can
decide whether or not
to proceed, knowing
full well that you might
be upset by the poem’s
contents.  It has become
the convention of late
for writers, for readers,
for teachers of writing
and reading, to provide
warnings such as these
to guarantee that no
one is ever unwittingly upset.
This is so kind.
Isn’t it good to know
that writers and readers
and teachers care so
much about your feelings,
care so much about
your emotional well-being
that they would avoid at
all costs writing or reading
or teaching material
that might upset you?
They know and appreciate
how upsetting it is to
be upset–especially when
it could have been
avoided in the first place.
Maybe some day in
the glorious future
writers and readers
and teachers will not
need warnings because
their concern for your
psychological welfare
will prevent them from
writing, reading, or teaching
anything upsetting, anything
that might possibly require
a trigger warning, and the
word trigger will go back
to being and remain always
only the name of a movie star
horse. And that, my dear,
dear friend, is the real
trigger warning.

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