Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Christmas Eve Sermon

Or Christmas Day?  I don't know, it's after midnight.  By all rights, I should be sleeping.

I'm posting tonight, but I don't really know anything unique or profound that I should write.  I have some writings I could share, but they aren't really done.  I could make something up, but it probably wouldn't be any good; I tried writing a little poem a few minutes ago, and I couldn't think of anything except the word "blue."  Now, I like the word "blue," but it takes more than just that to write anything.  If I want to write tonight, then I've got to write what I want to say.

So what should I say?  I guess that all I really want to say is "Merry Christmas."  I don't mean that as a political statement.  Whatever your holiday of choice, I'd be glad to hear that December 25th passed as pleasantly as possible for as many people as possible.  We might not be able to resist cynicism the rest of the year (I know I can't), but it's good to have at least one day set aside for feeling selfless. 

That's what Christmas is supposed to be, really: a celebration of selflessness.  Unfortunately, it can feel like the opposite sometimes.  Nothing involving this much money can ever be pure.  But if we want to give ourselves a worthy challenge, how about this: why not take the time to rearrange our lives to make other people comfortable?

Whether it's Jesus's birthday, Jesus's fake birthday, or just another Sunday, let's all act like decent human beings.   Hell, let's be merry.  Let's look at every ordinary thing like it's the coolest thing we've ever seen.  Let's act like we enjoy human company, even if it's with some unenthusiastic humans.  Let's pretend that the best way to serve our self interest is by serving the public interest, rather than the other way around.

OK, that turned into a little bit of a political statement.  I'm sorry.

(A brief aside to more pressing business.  If I don't get up and turn off the DVD player soon, those singers on the menu screen for A Christmas Carol are likely to keep singing forever.  Rest ye, merry gentlemen, indeed.)

So have a merry Christmas, everyone.  If you can, try to keep the merriment up through the New Year.  Longer, if you can; there's really no reason to stop, ever.  If you can't make it past January, though, don't worry about it.  Sober up and try again next year.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Poetry Jam #8

Welcome to the latest installment of my growing poetical corpus, a curious body of strange ideas and uncomfortable over-sharing.  Today we have poems written between February and  April of this past year, having aged in my folder for the requisite time and achieved the proper vintage.

Actually, I've been putting off this post for a while, concerned that the backlog I like to keep might have worn thin.  Opening said folder now, I find this to be an entirely unfounded worry.  I have lots of poems in there, enough even to justify holding back the really awful ones.  The terrible poems will dwell in the folder forever, or at least until a future archaeologist explores my artifacts and finds himself wondering what the hell I was thinking.

But enough of that jibber.  Here's the goods:

Teenage Secrecy

Let's carve a place out of the hill
And keep it for ourselves, forever;
We'll care for it, and make it clean,
And keep it to  ourselves, and never
Talk or tell a single soul
About the work that we have done.
We'll cuddle in our little place
And close the warmth inside,
And keep it for ourselves, forever.

Let's whisper in each other's ears
And keep it to ourselves forever;
We'll wait for something good to come
And keep it for ourselves, and never
Leave our pleasant little place
We carved into the tender hill.
We'll catch the moment in a jar
And cool it in our arms,
And keep it for ourselves, forever.

Real Presence

Fill me, phantom,
          face me now,
Awake, and warm me
          with your smile,
Your beaming body
          bearing ever down
In dreams and only dreams,
          in days and nights,

I wake and whisper,
          where'd you go?
It's not enough
          to know you're there,
To rise and reach
          for your real presence
And find it to be false,
          a fading, empty sight.

The Liar

I told a truth, but no one else believed;
They each condemned me, charged that I deceived
And lied in muck and shit, just like a worm;
They scorned me, and I scorned them in return.

I ran away in rage-arrested fright;
I gnash on comfort bones and hone my bite,
To eat and speak a filthy-worded meal
And tell the truth that suits the way I feel.

The Softness of a Broken Wing

The numbing, warm and gentle sting
Of mouth and brain and acid wine,
The softness of a broken wing;

What thoughts and dreams they often bring
Of hopes and plans that once were mine,
This numbing, warm and gentle sting,

This memory, this borrowed ring,
The feel of something small and fine,
The softness of a broken wing.

Within my ear, a length of string
Becomes a pure melodic line,
A numbing, warm and gentle sting,

And resting, nestled in a sling,
The touch of yours for which I pine,
The softness of a broken wing.

At times I hear a woman sing,
And as she does it calls to mind
That numbing, warm and gentle sting,
The softness of a broken wing.

The Magpie

Ten, eleven, twelve o'clock and nothing sounded in the kitchen,
Nor the hallway, bath or bedroom of my lonely little home;
Hours advanced across the window, and the night increased in darkness
As I rested, reading terrors in my sitting room alone;
Hours of existential horrors in my sitting room, alone,
When I chanced to hear a groan.

Minutes, hours and days seemed past, but still the sound resisted silence,
All my best attempts to find it faltered, and the noise grew loud;
Louder, fouler always, ever sickening my brain and body,
Never shrieking din so ugly was so hidden by a shroud;
An excruciating presence hid completely by a shroud,
Never was a sin so loud.

One, and two, and three o'clock, and not a sound in my apartment,
Not a sound could I perceive as I stared madly at my phone;
No sensation in my eardrum, no vibration in my body,
Only memories of terrors met impoverished and alone;
Heard perpetually in silence, isolated in my home,
Since I chanced to hear that groan.

The Ladder

Gaze at the city beyond from the balcony,
Dreaming of freedom and narrow escapes;
Listen for someone who doesn't reply,
Look for the ladder and learn to fly.

Climb on the ladder, to peer in the opening;
Breathe in the dust of that musty old place.

Howl in the attic and bark at the sky,
Fall from the ladder and nearly die.

Two Thousand and Five Degrees

Only a dwindling season in paradise;
Dancing and quivering under the moon,
Talking together, alone in the light,
Slowly unraveling, squeezing white.

Summer in paradise, glowing and simmering
Rocks in the water and heat in the dark;
Bottled and bursting alone in the night,
Sweating and breathing and squeezing tight.

Now a shell of boiling summer,
Shrinking under shine of day;
Someone calls for something bright,
Something must ignite.

I Am Not a One of Them

I am not a one of them:
Unencumbered, unrestrained,
Undeterred by passion, lust
For flesh or drink or breast,
Underwhelmed and under-stressed.

Behind the Door

If everybody's got to make a living,
It stands to reason, someone's got to pay;
And some of us can be too eager giving
While the other ones are taking it away.

A fortune for a moments satisfaction
And a universe of hunger for the same;
Desire pinching at the same reaction
In my heart as from the moment that it came.


Secretly whistling words in my ear,
Wishing for something unsubtle, she
Beckons to hold her and scold her at will,
Name her my darling, my dearest, my dear;

Crushing my shoulders and holding me still,
Wasting for something unspoken, impatiently
Pining for, dying for me to come near,
Slowly unwinding, exposing a chill.

Cascade Square

The trees are swinging in the sky;
Their leaves are shining in the light,
And now a cloud is passing by
As noon is drifting into night.

And lying on my back, I wait
And hope that things are not too late.


My love is like a summer's dream
I woke from in a fitful start
And tried in vain to recollect,
An absence weighing down my heart,

An impulse felt, denied and mute,
The urge to run away, ignored;
A heat is blushing at my neck
As I am walking slowly, bored.

Golden Wire

Entangled in a golden wire,
Hanging from a yellow thread,
I lie consumed in silent fire
Burning in my silent head,
And drowning as my dreams are mired
In the darkness of my bed.

Yes, that's the way I feel tonight,
Alone and frightened, hurt and sad,
My heartbeat isn't feeling right,
My brain is slowly turning mad;
If she would only shine a light
I might have cause to feel glad.

I don't, because she's far away,
Her glow is shaded from my eyes
Although it shines as bright as day,
And somewhere in the night she lies
Alone and empty, locked away;
But does she know I realize?


And now for some notes!

I wrote Teenage Secrecy out of a desire to write something sweet and dreamlike.  My friends and I have a (somewhat) weekly writing group, where we share our scribblings by email.  One of my friends read this particular poem and, bemused by my "tender heart," suggested I try writing poetry a little more like Edgar Allen Poe.  This will be relevant later.  I struggled with the title for a while; I had half a mind to call it Teenage Sex.  With that title, the perspective changes a little bit, and I wasn't sure if I wanted that to be the perspective people brought to it.  Anyway, since the poem is about secrecy, I think it's appropriate for it to have a "secret title."  But now everyone knows it, so...

Real Presence is a kind of experimental poem.  I was intrigued at the time by the aesthetics of the alliterative meter used by Anglo-Saxon bards in days of yore.  I wrote another poem around the same time that was even more experimental, using a complex pattern of alternating between voiced and unvoiced consonant alliteration.  But while Real Presence is pretty and meaningful, this other poem (which really deserves no title) is ridiculous and terrible.

The Liar is a meditation on an observation I had about how two people can tell the truth about a single situation, and still disagree so strongly with one another that they devolve into trolls, or something.  I don't know.  I was reading about international politics at the time, and I generalized back to individuals.  Sometimes people's interests are the truth.

The Softness of a Broken Wing is a really pretty one, if I do say so myself.  It is written in the form of a villanelle, a very strict form of verse requiring the repetition of the first and third lines at specific points.  It's a beautiful form: Dylan Thomas wrote a very famous one, Do not go gentle into that good night, that everyone seems to like.  It's also frustrating as hell to come up with six rhymes for "wing" and six for "wine" that actually flow together in an interesting way.  Villanelles are fun, but like many strict forms, I don't find myself committed to them for long.

The Magpie is my response to that friend who asked me to write more like Poe: it is, in fact, a flagrant Poe pastiche.  I lifted the meter directly from The Raven (a magpie is a smaller member of the corvid family of birds, you see), the "plot" is an echo of The Tell-Tale-Heart, and the tone and diction are as generally Poe-ish as I could manage on my ability.  Looking at it now, it seems kind of silly, but I worked much too hard on it to keep it suppressed.

The Ladder and Two Thousand and Five Degrees are both experimental, in a way.  They're both products of my (successful?) attempt to invent a unique, reusable poetic form, which is why they have the exact same meter (excepting the coda to the second one, which is just a condensed form of the meter).  Two Thousand is kind of steamy, I guess.  Everyone likes some steamy goodness.

I wrote I Am Not a One of Them and Behind the Door one night in San Francisco, apparently in a monkish sort of mood.  It wasn't until I wrote it out just now that I realized that the first one makes absolutely no sense, but oddly, that makes me like it more than I did before.

And as for the last four... honestly, I was obsessed with a girl at the time.  There's no redeeming way to say it!  Awkward as I am, I don't have a whole lot of experience with dating, but last April I managed to land myself in an emotionally exhausting run-around for about a month with a person who didn't seem able to make up her mind about what she wanted.  The specific course of events don't really need to be related, seeing as they were extremely confusing.  Needless to say, I wrote (or started writing) a LOT of poetry at the time.  Most of it was horrible, but I like these four.

Insecurity, in fact, I would go so far as calling really, really good.  Look at that rhyme scheme!  Look at those unstressed rhymes on lines two and six!  So good.  Cascade Square is pretty little piece of fluff, a poem for a postcard you might say.  Weight works (for me) primarily because of the jarring contrast between the cliche first line and the subversion that immediately follows it; other than that, I don't have much use for it.  Golden Wire is pretty heavy on the psycho-melodrama, so I don't blame anyone for hating it, but I felt pretty strongly about it at the time.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Grown Up Business

While I've been known to articulate some vaguely radical political philosophy, the truth is that I'm very much a moderate in my habits.  I'll vote at any opportunity, and I'll gladly speak my opinions when moved to do so.  I'll even sign a petition or two, fixing my (largely illegible) signature in support of a noble cause.  But I don't like holding signs or chanting slogans, especially when such activities are held outdoors, where temperatures can reach such frightful lows as fifty degrees (or worse!) and I might be forced to carry on conversations with complete strangers. 

Even a privately symbolic act, like changing banks, is something I undertake only with reluctance.  Ideologically, I stand with the 99%, and regard large banking corporations with distaste.  Stories like this little gem can only serve as proof that America's financial giants exist primarily for their own sake, a perversion of whatever nobility there is in a capitalist system.  And yet, for as long as I can remember I've kept a small sum of of money in an account at Bank of America, one of the biggest of the Wall Street bigs.

When it comes to something like changing banks, the practical simplicity of the act is countered in my mind by the conceptual difficulty of overcoming the inertia of familiarity.  The Bank of America in scary news alerts seems almost like a different company from the one that holds my spare cash and issues me a convenient debit card.  Lately, however, the kind and gentle behemoth I remember has been acting more like the ogre the rest of the world sees.  This spring they pushed me into a new type of account that imposed an eight dollar monthly fee if I committed certain rash, irresponsible actions, like speaking to a human teller.  Then there was the farce two months ago when the company threatened to impose a five dollar monthly fee on the use of debit cards.  If they hadn't backed down when they did, I would have probably dumped them as soon as the fee went in place.

The final push came when I realized that I was more thoroughly entangled with Bank of America than I'd ever realized.  A while ago my favorite (and only) credit card, originally issued to me by Charles Schwab, became disassociated with that company and managed directly by a group called FIA Card Services.  It never occurred to me to check, but I learned this past month that FIA was, in fact, owned by Bank of America.  Paying my bill on the Charles Schwab website was fairly simple; every change since then has only made paying more inconvenient.  I might have gone on with the status quo indefinitely, but I was tired of trying to play the bank's game.  I decided on Wednesday to go to my local branch and, once and for all, sever all of my connections with the company.

On the long march downtown, I girded myself for an emotional battle.  Bank of America is a very large, intimidating organization, much like the mafia.  I imagined they would try to talk me out of it, perhaps by appealing to our long history together, or prophesying  the collapse of the financial system, or making veiled threats against my family while caressing a baseball bat.  I am terrified of confrontation; even though I was definitely sure that I didn't want to bank with them anymore, and had absolutely no shame about my motives, I dreaded explaining myself to the people whose livelihoods depended, in part, on my money. 

Once inside, however, the staff were nothing but polite and professional.  When I announced that I wished to close my account, they did not ask why.  They simply ushered me to a cubicle to process my request quickly.  The lady at the desk even smiled the whole time.  It was a little creepy.

There were a few road bumps.  The lady informed me that she'd "heard somewhere" that cancelling a credit card could have a negative impact on a person's credit score.  I was sensitive to the prospect of bad credit, but I held firm; credit card providers are a devious lot, and that sounded like exactly the sort of bluff they might try on a noob like me.  I held my ground, and insisted on ending the card.  She promptly called an associate, and handed the phone off to me.  Score one for the 99%.

The man on the phone who manages credit cards asked me, point blank, if they had "done anything wrong" to warrant the loss of my business.  My resolve shook: a more committed ideologue would have readily recited all of Bank of America's corporate sins, laying them at the feet of the hapless employee and demanding an apology.  A more disgruntled customer would have recounted a tale of woe and abuse, shaming the employee and demanding an even weepier apology.  I, on the other hand, felt compelled to reassure the poor man by offering a vague "it's not you, it's me" excuse and insisting I only wanted something "simpler."  I think he took it well.

There were some charges on my credit card, so I told the lady to take them out of my checking account before closing it.  She then left me, ostensibly to retrieve the cash from the secret vault, but possibly to give me one last chance to repent my sins.  I waited.  I sat up straight, lest my slouching posture alert observers to my degenerate socialist nature.  I eyed the passersby for signs of concealed cans of pepper spray.  I clutched my Charles Schwab checkbook, hoping it might ward off the demons of financial insecurity.  I thought of the good old days, and I yearned.

Finally, the lady returned with my (woefully meager) balance, and I was free.  I was proud of my accomplishment, but felt suddenly vulnerable as I realized that I now lacked the ability to pay for anything except by cash or check.  And so, even as I stepped out into the cold autumn air of liberty, I eagerly leaped back into the warm embrace of another (significantly smaller) financial institution.

Ironically, my exit from Bank of America resulted in perhaps the best customer service they'd ever given me.  I worried that, having to deal with decent human beings rather than a faceless corporate "person," I might back down from this confrontation and consent to keep my money in the big machine.  But realistically, there was no confrontation.  They did what I asked, and I left with no strings attached (at least, no strings that I know of).

I felt a little guilty about the protests that had taken place on the branch's front drive back in October.  While Bank of America may be a perfectly legitimate target for populist rage, most of the people in that building were as much a part of the 99% as the people outside.  I don't feel bad about cutting the corporation down to size, but I'm also not entirely eager to see the downfall of large banks that offer employment and the possibility of assistance to ordinary people.  If we had some concrete assurance that the powerful financial institutions actually regarded their mission as one of helping others rather than merely enriching themselves, we wouldn't have any reason to occupy everything under the sun.