Monday, December 31, 2012

Scribbles: Unfinished Business

With the year 2012 fast approaching its conclusion, I think the moment calls for a little unfinished business.  Some people have resolutions.  I have them too, but I'm only going to share one with you now: write more.  A lot more.

Here's some poem-type stuff I found in my binder, most of it unfinished until I took the time to give them the tender loving completion they deserve.  Now that they're out of the way, I have even less excuse to put off writing more new things.  Onward, 2013!


Another day and month
I search without success;
but there,
a woman drifting through the air
and something makes my heart grow fonder,
something makes my heart respond
with hammer blows on beaten bells,
a hole inside me fills and swells
with satisfaction now,
a measure of success.


I paint with woad because it's older,
indigo is much too blue;
I'd drown in all its saturation,
older dyes will surely do.

I paint my face and stain my clothes
because it's as I've always done,
and nothing drives me harder
than traditions I've begun.

I'd brush away the new beginnings
and delay the modern trends,
but I must regret in silence
when traditions have to end.

Please Stay Away

You haven't aged a moment:
go away, go away.
I would like you to stay for an hour,
look me deep inside my eyes
and say your peace, and
go away, go away;
please stay where I can see you,
out of reach,
go away.

A Toxic Situation

No one wants to hear you whisper,
they're all hear to watch you scream at me;
they want to hear it nice and loud.

They came to see a show, but
I don't think you want to give one,
I don't think you want a single thing
except to make me fight with you.

I'm sick of how you bother me for nothing;
you want nothing?  I'll be happy to oblige.

Cold and Cracking

I always wind up crazy
when my lover's not around
because I don't know what I'd do if she were here.

I'll freeze to death in ages
without sunlight on my skin,
just a lonely ray of sun to bring her near.

To You

To one who laughs and rhymes with love and sound,
who echoes in the warmth of every night
like music in the stillness all around,
her melody a banner waving bright,

To lightning in the quiet of the morning,
to one who sees with fresh and gentle eyes
the worth and me and all we have to offer,
sweet hellos and bittersweet goodbyes,

To you, my love, I'm finally coming home.



OK, they may not all be my best work.  But some of them are pretty good.

Now, On to the future!

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I've been a fan of J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle Earth for a very long time; even from before I really knew why.  My very young self was probably drawn to the sword craft and high adventure, identifying with the Hobbits Bilbo and Frodo as they discovered a series of incredible experiences.  It was only after repeated re-readings (I once read the entirety of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit in less than a week, simply to prove I could) and further exploration of the lore surrounding Professor Tolkien's life and work that I began to understand its true allure.  Tolkien wrote with a genuine passion that went beyond telling one story.  He used every element at his disposal, from geography and mythology to his beloved philology, to animate the world beyond the story and create a realm of legend.  It sounds dreamy and nerdy, because it is; Tolkien loved the world he wrote about in all of its minutiae, the way only a true nerd could.  

As for Peter Jackson, director of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy and the new Hobbit film trilogy, he clearly loves this stuff a lot.  Maybe more than I do; I can never be sure.  I only know that it takes a great deal of love, of that obsessive type we call fandom, to make three epic films on location at the same time, and then voluntarily do the same thing again a few years later. With an army of staff and cast to manage along with the weight of expectation, it must have been a gargantuan task that wore on him heavily.  So regardless of any conceivable criticisms of any of these movies, let none question Peter Jackson's love of the source material: he is veritably King of the Nerds.

For those of us less advanced in the nerd hierarchy, Jackson's movies have been a gift of sorts.  They take the delights of our imagination and transform them into spectacles for all to gather and enjoy.  They can never replace the brilliance of their originals, but they can entertain us, and they can be shared more easily with friends and family who may not have the time or inclination to embrace Tolkien the way we do.  If the movies have problems, that's unfortunate, but we will watch them and we will largely embrace them, because deep down we know that Jackson worked hard and wanted to make a good Hobbit adaptation just as much as we wanted to see one.

And there are problems with this movie.  There are problems with the whole enterprise, really; problems we all foresaw, and which have come to pass before our eyes.  I could understand the decision to film two Hobbit movies; Jackson's love for the material demands more than what can be gleaned from just The Hobbit, what with all the delicious lore packed away in Tolkien's less accessible writings.  But we have a trilogy on our hands, ladies and gentlemen.  We have an epic trilogy built from the frames of a children's book; a trilogy of three very long movies.

The effort to put The Lord of the Rings on film was enormous, and appropriately so, because it is a very long novel and shaping it into even three reasonably balanced films required an enormous amount of editorial discretion: hard choices about what to emphasize and what to change.  Cranky nerds made sad noises at Arwen's expanded role in The Fellowship of the Ring, simply because it was different from what happened in the book.  But because Arwen was to have an important role later on in the series, it made much more sense from a film making point of view to assign her the task of bringing Frodo to Rivendell than to introduce and then immediately forget about a character like Glorfindel.  Changes like that make the movies more efficient and watchable, and are ultimately good decisions.

Putting The Hobbit into the form of an epic trilogy, on the other hand, absolutely requires addition.  None of it is cut from whole cloth, being canonically based on Tolkien's writings, but it does dramatically change the nature of the work.  The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey feels like another episode of Jackson's first trilogy, but the original Hobbit did not feel like another chapter of Tolkien's larger book.  It was never supposed to.

Tolkien wrote of The Lord of the Rings that "the tale grew in the telling."  It was a mighty oak that grew from a humble seed; its essential largeness in comparison with The Hobbit is an important characteristic for both stories.  So to see Jackson pump the shorter work up with air to match the longer one, one can't help but notice the stretch marks.  There are more battles and the battles are often more elaborate than a reasonable reading of the source would allow; the scene with the trolls is the best example of this.  The first time I watched this movie, I was somewhat disoriented by the action sequences, particularly in the hall of the Goblin King.  This wasn't as much of a problem the second time around, but the frenetic and inflated quality of the battles just seems more alien from this story than it should.

But when swords are sheathed, An Unexpected Journey usually feels just about right.  The early scenes in Hobbiton, where Bilbo finds himself suddenly besieged by guests, are fantastic.  There's a fair amount of comedy in this movie; sometimes it's overly campy, like when Radagast the Brown touts his rabbit sled (???), but usually it's good-natured and jovial, with plates flying and songs being sung in keeping with the tone of the book.  And the return of Andy Serkis as the voice and reference for Gollum is an unmistakeable highlight; riddles in the dark have never been more appropriately menacing.  It's moments like that, preserving the tone of Tolkien's original work, that let Jackson and the rest's love of Middle Earth shine through more brightly. Those happier parts make for a damn good movie.

Basically, Jackson and his merry band have offered us what is plainly a handsome gift: another three years of Tolkien movies, wherein we can live amongst hobbits and elves and dwarves, contemplate the aesthetics of their languages and culture, and view hundreds of beautiful aerial shots of people walking across New Zealand while the orcish body count piles high.  And frankly, we'd be fools to turn it down.

This is a very high-end, passionately made production, and to the extent that it fails, it does so out of a misguided ambition to match or exceed the spectacle of its predecessor.  You have to give that a little respect.  There are some things I don't like about it.  I don't care for the unnecessary inclusion of Azog the Pale Orc.  I don't like the fact that he so closely resembles Killface.  I wish this were only a two-movie event.  But the upshot of that is that Peter Jackson has two more movies to change my mind.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Poetry Jam #10

That number is not a lie.  I've done this ten times, ladies and gentlemen: my poetical impulse cannot be contained by mere single-digit numbers.  It will take more than nines to stop me, I fear.

Tonight's poems come from the period of Autumn of 2011 through approximately Summer of 2012; quite recent, by the standards I have on this site.  I have reached a point where I have a certain degree of confidence in my poetry that I did not always have.  Namely, I feel confident in stating that my work actually is poetry, and not a clumsy pile of the worst  affronts to the very idea of poetry.  I've put on a brave face this whole time, but some of my earlier work is questionable in that regard.

So, it's poetry.  Is it good poetry?  I'm pretty sure I'm not allowed to say.  If someone would like to tell me, I'd really appreciate it.  In the meantime, enjoy Poetry Jam #10.  Several other poems from the same time frame are in my folder and on my desk top, in states I consider to be fragmentary or otherwise incomplete.  I see promise in many of them, so I'd like to finish them, but for now we have the following to consider:


Welcome to Monday; you're six hours late and the
sun is unfazed by the schedule you're keeping.
she's halfway across and you've only been sleeping, 
so drink all your coffee and be on your way,
happily lonely and happily driving away.

Open your eyes if you want to see clearly.  You
won't see the sun if you're happily dreaming,
she'll fly by the clouds with her countenance beaming;
you'll never be certain to see her in time.
smile, don't mention you're happily losing your mind.


Am I a child?
Am I young and immature?
A wild and wide-eyed innocent,
A messy pile on the floor;
Do I feel alive and hurt
Or am I dumb and bored?

A child grows, and what's a grown-up for?
The children want to know;

Am I a child,
An uncompleted work of life?
Am I growing up or down
Or standing still?
Am I just a vessel filled
With questions, needs and wills?

A child grows, and what's a child for?
The children never know.

Am I a child,
Will I grow?
Have I grown too much?
Am I such a mystery
I cannot solve myself?

The Iris and the Shell

An iris and a little shell, dissolving
in a million bits of violet light;
I see them in the future, and I know
it's coming soon. They're coloring the night
and painting pictures with the falling stars,
illuminated indigo and white.

Powdered into diamond dust and ground
into a pigment, dark and dimming blue;
I see them in the future and I wonder,
if I see them, can you see them too?
All spread across the water?  Hanging in
the evening breeze, embellishing the dew?

Can you see the future, see it blinking
in the sun?  The iris, rising tall
and growing stronger in the little shell?
I see it; it is beautiful, and all
the words I know could not do justice to
its grace. I'd like to watch its petals fall,

To see it standing bare until the spring
returns; I want to know the blossoms' smell.
Their future is a supernova burst,
their voices like a shining crystal bell:
Now, can you see them be reborn in cosmic
bloom, the heavens' iris-colored shell?

Locked Out

My hand is numb from cold, and fire
burns my feet: my reach exceeds
my grasp.
Too scared to fail, too dumb to win;
too shaken up to feel secure.
In fact I can't remember when
I felt secure, or why I did;
it seems so silly now, to think
I might have felt like I was safe.
Today I'm lonely, lost at sea,
I'm isolated, up a creek.
I can't remember what to do
or how to do what needs be done.
And who can help me? Can she help?
I think that she's the key, but she
is locked inside the cabinet,
and where's the other key?  I left
it somewhere, but I've lost it now.

Who keeps the key?  Who makes the rules
that govern love and emptiness?
Who locks the lonely people out
and offers them excuses? Says
"the door was never locked, in fact
the cabinet is open wide,
and all you need to do is reach
your hand out, grab the key and turn."
But who is grabbed?  I feel sick,
like something's got me by the lungs.
Too little air; the window's locked,
Is she the key?  And can she see
me on this side?  Both panes of glass
are foggy, and I'd like to clean
them, but I'm scared they'll break.

The End of the World Will Not be Violent

The end of the world will not be violent,
baked in blood and burnt;
the Earth won't shake.

For the world will end in a whisper,
in a quiet lullaby of birds
who sing of longing and laughter, as they fall asleep
and dream of sunny skies.

The stars will pierce the atmosphere
to dissipate the clouds from great distances,
and soon they'll disappear,
to lay the pearly heavens bare.

The birds will start to snore
as their nests grow deeper and deeper,
and the skies grow starker and starker
and merge in one great sky
the likes of which has never been seen above our heads before.

Unseen it will grow and the Earth will end
as it shrinks.

The silence will be cool, and glow
with gentle light;
a nightlight for the sleeping birds
who dream of sunny skies,
that once upon a time
combined in one great sky.

One More Year

I think I've got a year to live;
if nothing turns out horribly wrong,
explodes in my kitchen, burns my lawn,
or breaks into a million pieces on
the sidewalk curb,
I think I can make it that long.

I think I've got a year to go
to London, Mars, or somewhere gone,
to fall asleep with only a yawn,
to find myself awake at dawn
and pass a dream;
I'd like to live that long.

I think I've got a beautiful year
to write a very beautiful song,
and sing it to a cheering throng,
and learn to sing it like I belong
on stage at all;
I hope I can make it that long.

City of Angels

I'll see you in the city of angels,
a dirty place I'd never like to see
again; a place for killing dreams and schemes
that hatched too soon.  I'll see you there,

in months or years, at somebody's party;
I don't know why I'd be there, but I know
I'll be there soon.  I read the invitation:
"Come at once and bring your money, all

the money you can spend in an evening."
I'll bring the most but you'll have more; before
I know it you'll have spent me, I'll be spent
and lying on the floor, crying for

you, falling for the city of angels.
In dirty tears, in dirty thoughts, in pain
and lots of others, feeling bolts of light
and arrows in my bones.  I'm all alone,

the party's slowly tapering down
and now you're out the window in your Euro-
diamond car, off to paint some sketchy,
filthy, unhygienic bar a deep,

disturbing, healthy lavender-red.
I watch you speeding down the boulevard
and watch the guards patrol the streets below,
forever mindful of disruptions: guns

and needles in the city of angels.
It worries me to think that you're so good
at this; I wonder if I pegged you wrong,
as wandering shadows dirty up the walls.

Feeble Falling Snow

I watch the feeble falling snow outside;
it sits upon the ground in pools of water,
melts before it settles down to touch the street. 

It chills the air across the window,
fogs the pane outside and melts away,
like every other flake of ice that falls at thirty three degrees. 

The snow above,
the rain below,
the crystals frozen in the gutter;
nothing cleaves to mist and dew,
It slips and slides across the frosty glass.

The Huntsman Dying in the Snow

West of the midnight sun,
the lightning strikes the huntsman as he
watches the caribou run
across the grass and snow.
Under the arctic sun
he lies, alone and smoking whispers
into the said and done,
and hearing no response.

East of the evening sun,
the sky is falling on the huntsman's
body, and one by one
the stars announce the night.

A Beautiful Life

A beautiful life in forests and fields,
cars and trucks,
the highways bound for bigger towns,
and Radiohead on the radio.

Hand in hand between the hills, the
melting ice;
the wind still sends the air below
that warms at the sound of our voices.

By mossy jeeps and the resting timber,
rivers run
beneath the slopes of green and snow,
by wheels on the slippery road.

On a whim we stop, and taste a memory,
drink a cup;
the winter on a country drive
will carry us, bringing us home.

Light the Way

Light the way, I'll follow you,
I'll walk across the city streets
if you'll be on the other side;
light the way and I'll be there beside you.

Light the way beneath the stars
with lamps along the sleepy streets,
and take the darkness from the sky;
share the light that reaches out and scatters.

Light the way that brings me home,
and if you hurry we will meet
where scattered lights have come to rest;
Come together, living all around us.


This concrete wall is bigger than me,
this bridge extends indefinitely
as far as I can see;
I am as small as anything
that I have ever known,
smaller than the dirt below
my feet and infinitely tiny
in comparison to this,
the work of your machines.

The Road Looks Like a River

The road looks like a river today,
with droplets sparkling on the black
like ripples,
and tires sinking under the surface,
under the sinking tar.

The road looks like a river
running over,
the cars are underwater and the
lights shine from below
like a graveyard of lost ships
descending home.

The river is alive!
The ripples dance across the hoods
and hail,
hail the breaking cloud
and split the surface of the black
in grains of sinking tar.

You Are So Young

Your face is laughing
and you are so young,
your heart beats faster,
seconds faster than mine can beat.

I've had enough of
this walking along;
Let's take our shot a
hundred miles and years from here!

Now nothing makes me
believe in my heart
like you: you send me
far from here and far along.

But why should I be
so eager to fly,
when you are here and
we're together on solid ground?

And why should I
surrender this day
when you are here and
sunshine glows in the open air?

Your face is laughing
and you are so young;

Music and Lyrics

I believe in a word of love
and hope, because it sounds like bells
when spoken, melts like water, cools
and cleans me, makes me think of you.

I believe in the light of music,
twice reflected in your eyes
as lightning in a sky of diamonds,
music and lyrics by one and two.

Hot Ink

The ink was hot, its fire spread across
a thousand books, and arson was the crime.

The knowledge, grace and beautiful words that rang
like keys were lost when the music burned to ashes
and the ink was poured on vulnerable heads.

A history was written in their place;
an inky darkness scorched across their pages.


Commentary is unavoidable.  Prepare for it!

Happily and Child both find me in a state of self-doubt, familiar to those familiar with my poetical works.  I don't think Child came out the way it originally sounded in my head, but I can hardly remember how it sounded way back then.  I just tried to be honest.

I wrote The Iris and the Shell in a more or less transparent attempt to impress a girl I was seeing last October.  We'd been on a few dates and I liked her, but I sensed that she was not exactly enraptured with me.  So I spent days crafting this poem, to provide some evidence of my value as a thinking, feeling person who could do at least one thing well.  As it happened, she never read it because I never saw her again, but the loss did not plunge me into my usual bout of despair and depression.  True, Locked Out came out of that period, and it's pretty depressing, but all in all I came out of that one alright.

The End of the World Will Not be Violent and One More Year are further indulgences in my obsession with what I privately call mellow apocalyptica, a word I apparently made up.  To wit: we're all doomed, but it might be kind of pretty when we go.  I guess I think about things like that as the year comes to an end.

I was ridiculously proud of City of Angels when I wrote it, and I still think it's pretty damn awesome.  It's also a fact that I thought it up while slightly drunk at four in the morning, wondering what an ex-girlfriend I hadn't seen in years was up to at that very moment.  Through bleary eyes, I saw that the hastily improvised meter worked, and it made me smile.  In the morning I realized I had been absolutely insane: in all likelihood she was just sleeping, like I and all ostensibly sane people should have been doing at four in the morning.  But it still works as a panicky nightmare piece.  That's valid, right?

I wrote two poems in quick succession about snow, which is only fair because it was winter and snow was on my mind.  I like living in a place where it snows, though it doesn't always come in the kind of fluffy blankets you see on Christmas cards; hence, Feeble Falling Snow.  As for Huntsman, it just seems I can't do anything without being at least a little depressing, but I think I came up with some good turns of phrase here.

A Beautiful Life, Light the Way, You Are So Young, and Music and Lyrics are my favorite poems in today's collection.  All of these poems were written for and inspired by my beloved girlfriend, Tara, whom I met in January and has transformed my life into a field of lollipops and other delightful treats.  The first two came early, and in fact I gave a copy of Light the Way to her as a St. Valentine's Day present.  I'm such a smoothie!    I composed Music and Lyrics during a prep period while working as a substitute teacher in a history classroom.  The lesson consisted mostly of showing a video, so I thought it was the best possible use of my time.  Thus far, Tara has only seen those two, so I present the others to you and to her with all of my love.

Underpass is a lot shorter than the others here, but it expresses a very simple idea that came to me while I was walking under a bridge.  It really doesn't need to be any more than it is, and I really like it as is.

Hot Ink is a metaphorical sort of thing, the sort of poem one writes when trying to be very serious about something important without wanting to seem overly transparent.  Why be transparent when you can be arty?

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thanksgiving in Patuxet

Tomorrow, Americans will come together all over the country to feast and enjoy the company of family (to the extent that they do not wish to avoid them).  Many of them will say prayers and publicly express gratitude for the good things in their lives.  Many of the meals they share will be absolutely delicious, but some of them may disappoint.  Some people will overeat, and some will come away grateful that Thanksgiving only comes once a year.  Despite these shortcomings, I consider these gatherings to be a good thing.

However, these are not the only shortcomings to consider.  Because Thanksgiving, as it is practiced, is more than a time to gather and be with family.  It comes complete with a national origin myth, which is taught to every school child and invoked in decorations and other pageantry.  We are told of the brave Pilgrims who, bearing the twin beacons of Christianity and democracy, landed by chance on Plymouth Rock and established a colony.  They befriended the local Indians (remember Squanto?) who helped them survive the first winter; the Pilgrims set about bringing culture and civilization to the harsh landscape.  After that first year, all parties involved sat down for a glorious feast, thus beginning an unbroken tradition of thankfulness that we carry on today.

A lot of this is crap.

It's extremely easy to go through life in America and never see this kindergarten version of history seriously contradicted (by which I mean, contradicted by someone you take seriously).  But it's also fairly easy to find the truth of the matter if you are willing to look for it.  You could use the internet, or even read a few books.  To make sure I had all the important facts for this post, I turned today to an old favorite: James W. Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me.  I thought it would be worthwhile to revisit this information and share it with the people of this country.

To begin with, it bears repeating that in historical terms, the Pilgrims were relatively unimportant.  Plymouth was hardly the first European colony, nor even in the top ten.  Jamestown was already up and running in Virginia, and the Spanish, French and Dutch had been planting colonies for a long time previously.  Europeans were already living on land that would later be part of the United States, in sites and communities that exist in continuity with the present day.  And of course, there were tens of millions of Native Americans living there already, many of them in permanent or seasonal settlements.  Plymouth itself was eventually absorbed into another colony.  So treating the establishment of Plymouth as our founding moment is bizarre at best, and actively biased in favor of religious Englishmen at worst.

Hardly anything the Pilgrims did was a historical "first;" not even the First Thanksgiving.  This is not a truly controversial assertion: harvest festivals are common in many countries around the world.  The timing and iconography of Thanksgiving makes it very plain that it is in essence a harvest festival, and the Pilgrims certainly held one in conjunction with the Native Americans.  But when Abraham Lincoln first established Thanksgiving as an annual federal holiday, he made no mention of the Pilgrims: declaring days of "thanksgiving" on an ad hoc basis had a long history  that preceded the Pilgrims.  According to Loewen's book, the Plymouth Rock story wasn't a part of the national holiday lore until the 1890s.

Thanksgiving is often touted as a celebration of a time when the Natives and the Pilgrims came together in harmony, the implication being that this harmony has defined our nation in some essential way.  It hasn't, of course: the Native Americans have been systematically killed and displaced from every corner of this country they originally inhabited.  The Pilgrims were gentler than most, but they represented the same general pattern: the encroachment of Europeans on land that was already populated, while treating it as though it were empty.

In fact, the biggest single piece of assistance the natives of New England gave to the Pilgrims was dying in droves of small pox.  Across the continent, European diseases had wiped out more than 90% of the indigenous population, a decline from more than ten million people.  The earliest European explorers wrote about industrious villages and even cities throughout North America.  These were drastically depopulated by the plague, and when the Pilgrims came to Cape Cod, they built their colony literally (quite literally) on the abandoned ruins of Squanto's hometown.  That town had an advantageous position on the harbor, which the natives had taken full advantage of for fishing.  There were permanent buildings and fields where corn was grown.  The name of this town was Patuxet, until the Pilgrims renamed it "New Plimoth."  Had the people of Patuxet not been decimated in a plague, they might not have been so accommodating to the newcomers.

Patuxet is not unique: the Americas are full of European settlements on the sites of indigenous towns and cities, not all of which were depopulated when Europeans "discovered" them.  But the Indians of the Thanksgiving mythos can hardly be said to have towns: they have been characterized as nomads who lived primitive, uncivilized, unproductive lives.  This is not true.  They were farmers, and fishermen, and craftsmen.  They lived differently from Europeans, but they were civilized.  Nevertheless, the descendents of those Europeans, who seldom bathed and looted the graves of natives for valuables, have painted them for posterity as savages who should be grateful for the arrival of "modernity" on their shores.

Let's bring this back to Thanksgiving, as it is celebrated today.  The holiday is a treasured part of life for many of us.  Tomorrow, I will take the opportunity to grow closer to my girlfriend and her family, an opportunity for which I truly am grateful.  I will eat the turkey, the mashed potatoes, and the gravy; God willing, it will be absolutely delicious.

But for the sake of truth and justice, can we knock it off with the Pilgrim/Indian iconography?  Can we stop treating the history of our country as if it revolves around a positive relationship between two peoples that never really existed?  Can we give indigenous people a break by not treating them as characters in a diorama, but rather as dignified humans with legitimate historical grievances? 

Can we stop treating the early history of the American colonies like a forgotten passage of the Bible?  I don't know if we can.  Americans (particularly white ones) view history as an opportunity to justify our past as an ascendant path toward exceptional greatness.  They see the hand of God in this, and they always have: most Europeans in the 17th century believed that the plagues which killed the native people of America were an explicit invitation from God to move in.  Nowadays we've forgotten even that, and we imagine that this continent was gifted to us in a pristine, mostly empty state.  It wasn't: it was opportunistically seized.

We'd do best to forget everything we think we know about "the First Thanksgiving" and learn to respect the experience of Native Americans.  Do a little research and learn about the real history of this country, whether it's in books like Loewen's or on (reputable) sites around the internet.  Some of it you will like, and some of it you won't, but in either case you'll learn infinitely more than what schools have seen fit to teach you.

There's no reason to go on with the pageants and the the buckles and the feathered headdresses.   They do nothing for school children except to turn them into close-minded adults.  They do nothing for adults except to keep their minds closed. 

Thanksgiving doesn't have to be about identifying our multicultural nation with an insular band of religious separatists and their quest to populate a "new world."  Neither does it have to be about removing embarrassing realities from our history.  It can and should be about humility and gratitude.  That's the spirit with which I intend to treat it tomorrow.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Barack Obama Won the Election, and he Won it Hard.

I was listening to Karl Rove sputter today about how Obama is the first President to win a second term with fewer electoral votes than he got the first time.  And I said to myself, that's technically true.  But it made me think of Franklin Roosevelt, who in four elections managed to get 472, 523, 449, and 432 electoral votes.  These were massive victories all, and an anomaly in history (particularly since the Constitution now forbids it), but nevertheless demonstrative of a President continuing to win reelection with declining electoral support.  Roosevelt wasn't considered any less the President because his share of votes declined in 1940 and 1944.  But Rove is clearly trying to argue that, by winning *only* 61% of the electoral vote, Obama should regard this election as something of a loss.  He shouldn't.  He won it big.

Bill Clinton won two elections with 370 and 379 electoral votes.  Barack Obama has won two terms with 365 and 332.  But Clinton never got more than 50% of the popular vote (though he still won it), and Obama has done it twice: this indicates that, as the country becomes more ideologically polarized, the potential for a candidate of either party to win stratospheric electoral landslides of, say, 400 or more votes may be declining.  But either way, it appears that in the post-Reagan political landscape, Democrats have a strong electoral advantage.

For comparison: George W. Bush lost the popular vote once and won it once.  He won those elections with 271 and 286 votes (when his father won in 1988, he won 426 votes).  It takes 270 to win, and the younger Bush won these elections with very few votes to spare: Flip one crucial state like Ohio and Florida, and his victory disappears.  By contrast, Obama could have lost both of those states this year and still won.  So even though his share of the electoral vote declined and the popular vote was close, his performance this year was still significantly more robust than the previous two-term Republican President ever managed. 

This matters, and it has everything to do with demographic realities.  In 2008, we all liked to tell ourselves that Obama's election meant that we had moved beyond the worst of racism, and that this was a new kind of country.  But the main arc of Obama's first term was more or less exactly what you would have expected "the first black president" to go through: he lost the white vote (particularly the white male vote), got locked out of most of the south, and was roundly criticized for not being "American" enough.  Governors and other yokels talked semi-seriously (one hopes) about secession, and policies that had once been popular in Republican circles were called "socialism" in Obama's hands.  A lunatic fringe became convinced that Obama was born in Africa and guided to office as part of a sinister foreign conspiracy, and more mainstream racists libeled him as a beneficiary of preferential treatment who couldn't utter a coherent idea in standard English without a teleprompter to help him.

If Obama got fewer votes this year than last time, it can be explained by one piece of data: in 2008, he lost the white vote by 12 percentage points, and in 2012 he lost it by 20.  But his support among the various other racial groups remained constant or improved.  The attitude of one racial group has been mistaken for the attitude of the whole country, simply because that racial group made up 76% of the voters.  But it is still only one racial group, and the fact that only that racial group had an eight point reaction against the first term of the first black President means something.  It does not mean that Latinos, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and every other minority group are irrationally biased against white people or the Republican party.  It means that European-Americans are irrationally biased against a black President.

As one of the 39% of white people who voted for Barack Obama in 2012, I'm proud to say that this election demonstrates the awesome power of a multi-racial voting coalition against a mono-racial one.  As a liberal, this makes me feel warm and fuzzy.  As a human being, it makes me hopeful.

So if Obama got fewer votes in round two, I feel very confident in ascribing that "loss" to racism, no matter how the other 59% feel about that label (and who knows what the other 2% are up to).  It was a unique challenge for an incumbent President (in a dour economy, no less) to overcome, and he overcame it with room to spare.  On top of that, liberals had success around the country in Senate races and ballot measures.  It wasn't a clean sweep by any means, and it demonstrates the continuing geographical divide that will be politically problematic for this country for some time.  But it was a thumping good night for the left.  In four more years I'm sure we'll all be pulling our hair out again, but for now we have victory, and we like it.

Here's to freedom, social justice, and a better outlook for the Supreme Court.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012


Spooky! is the word of the day, today.  That's spooky! with an exclamation point, which in this case is integral to the word.  Don't remove it.  That wouldn't be very spooky! would it?

Alright, enough silliness!  Tonight is Halloween and I am full of candy and burrito, so something must have gone right.  My girlfriend has sadly sent me home for the evening so she can study for a midterm tomorrow, but all in all we've had a wonderful hallow's evening.

And this being Halloween, it's only right that I should be absolutely terrified, quaking in my pajamas and huddling under my covers for warmth and protection.  This has nothing to do with me watching American Horror Story an hour ago (not scared, not scared!), but rather the usual demons of self-doubt and fear for the future.  You see, a few days ago, two of my three roommates abruptly announced that they were going to be moving out of the house at the end of November.  Faced with the choice of staying on and assuming greater responsibility over a house I've only lived in for four months, the third roommate and I have elected instead to strike out on our own for a smaller place to live.  That gives us one month to move before our rent effectively doubles.  Spooky!

So tomorrow, we're getting on that, visiting new apartments and places and making hard choices.  Among other things, I really need a job.  One that doesn't pay sporadically and inadequately like my current moneymaking pastime, substitute teaching.  That's what's really scary, I suppose.  That and werewolves.

But it's nice to take a break from all that on a night devoted to fear, and spend it pretending to be afraid of bloodsucking monsters.  I really love Halloween for that; but I also need to take a break from eating candy.

Happy Halloween, everybody.  It's now the witching hour, so I'll leave you to your spooky! night!

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Zelda Wars

I recently read a fantastic and persuasive essay by a writer on the internet by the name of Tevis Thompson.  If you have any interest in classic and modern video games, his essay Saving Zelda is a must read, for the way it balances nostalgia with a rigorous critical eye.  When I say it is a must read, I mean just that: you must read it.  Go ahead, I'll wait.  Even if you only read what he's written, without returning to consider my after-the-fact commentary, I can't really say I'd be disappointed.

Please do come back, though.

Like Thompson, I've also done a bit of writing about The Legend of Zelda.  This spring, I wrote a review of the most recent game, Skyward Sword.  But a few years before that, I wrote a series of reviews of each installment (from the original to Twilight Princess) on the old Game Informer forums (they got deleted, so don't try looking for them there).  The Uber Review, as I called it, was overlong and could have used a lot more editing than it got, but I was in college at the time, and I had actual assignments to write at the same time.  Having made such an attempt at putting the entire series in perspective, I felt as though I had to make some kind of response.

Now, obviously Thompson and I have a fair bit of distance between us on this issue.  He refers to Skyward Sword as the "worst" Zelda game, and I recently called it "a latter-day masterpiece of design."  He argues to the effect that the series has been going downhill since it appeared on the Super Nintendo; I hold the (relatively mainstream) position that it peaked on the Nintendo 64, particularly with Majora's Mask, but has been holding strong into the modern era.  His evaluations are strictly informed by the aesthetics of the first two Zelda games (and of late 1980s-era games in general), while I have been generally forgiving of its later developments and its evolution away from the original design.  In fact, you might even say I've been too easy on Zelda.

Even if I have been overly forgiving, Thompson's viewpoint can never be mine.  I've enjoyed every Zelda game I've ever played, so his characterization of a series with no soul just doesn't ring true for me.  As far as I'm concerned, the overworlds have gotten more immersive since the 8-bit days, and I relish each new chance to explore Hyrule.  For me, this series is very much alive and kicking; I keep coming back, not only for new games but also to replay the ones I've beaten.

But even if I don't agree with his big conclusion, a lot of the specific criticisms are undeniable.  The endless parade of talkative sidekicks stopped being anything close to endearing about ten years ago.  The difficulty curve has nearly collapsed under the weight of hand-holding tutorials and overly generous combat.  The abundance of disconnected gameplay mechanics can often seem like make-work, no matter how solid the fundamentals are.  The burgeoning mythos that can't seem to decide how seriously it should take itself has gotten in the way of what was once a very simple tale about the balance of power, courage, and wisdom.

So in spite of my love for Zelda as it is, I would very much like to play the game that Thompson yearns for: entirely open-ended, streamlined and punishing.  That isn't to say I agree with his ideal conceptualization of the series, but it would be bold and it would be incredibly fun.  Why not question every assumption the series has held since A Link to the Past?  Why not trust the player to define their own relationship with the world?  Why not leave the cinematics to the cinemas, and craft a uniquely game-like experience unbound by linear narratives?

There is a scene in Twilight Princess that captures the sort of atmosphere that I believe would suit Zelda well: when Link explores deep in the forest and uncovers the ruins of the Temple of Time, a major landmark of its spiritual predecessor, Ocarina of Time.  The chance to play archaeologist as well as octorok-slayer, learning about the landscape through the ruins and artifacts left behind, has been my dream-experience for Hyrule for some time.  Modern Zelda games have dithered between pursuing this concept and stabbing at new directions, never really settling on one.  But I believe that impulse does exist in the series today: it just hasn't been treated as the core concept.

I don't necessarily want Zelda to become skull-blisteringly difficult again; as disappointing as an easy game can be, I happen to believe that 8-bit games were generally much harder than they actually needed to be.  Neither do I want to see Link lose his hookshots and bottles and go back to the bare-bones sword fighting of yesteryear.  But there is a universe of design possibilities that Nintendo has more or less closed itself to in designing new Zeldas, because it seems so reluctant to throw any elements away.  The name itself will sell plenty of copies; I don't see what anybody has to lose by experiencing something radical.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Living with Democracy

One month from today, we'll finally learn for sure who will be President for the next four years.  This will come as a massive relief to some and a sharp and sudden disappointment for others, and I really hope that I'm among the former.  My preferences have been made known, and I'll reiterate them today: Barack Obama may be a flawed President, but he has made progress on issues that I care about.  We need him to stick around so that he can make the next round of Supreme Court appointments and defend his legislative legacy.  Mitt Romney has promised to undo or roll back much of that legacy, and there's a better than even chance he means to do it.  The man may be a weather vane, but he's still a conservative after all.

So we wait now, for the ballots to be cast and the map to turn red and blue in various places, and then we'll know what we're dealing with.  Frankly, it's kind of a pain to be so unsure, but that's just the way things are.

Never let it be said that I am anything but a democrat, with an emphasis on that miniscule "d."  I may rail inwardly and outwardly about the foolishness of the masses and my desire to dictate the lines of an ideal government policy, but in my mind there's no getting round the problem of legitimacy.  There's no good basis for government power except the social contract, so the people have absolutely got to have a stake and a choice in how they're governed.  I wish to God they'd make better choices sometimes, and actually select the most ethical and intelligent among them to do the governing, but sometimes they won't and that's all there is to it.

Ever since the big blowout in 2010, I've had to make peace with an idea that I hadn't really faced: sometimes, people who I strongly disagree with are going to win elections.  Sometimes, I will cast votes and be rewarded with nothing but losses and fervent plans for "next time."  That really, really sucks, but that's democracy.  I don't resent the principle for how it may be perverted or abused, or even how it may disappoint me personally.

So I've been watching the Presidential election like a hawk.  I've visited Nate Silver's blog, Five Thirty Eight, virtually every day since he unveiled his Presidential forecast model for 2012.  Nate Silver is my political guru, in so far as he informs my perspective on the political process.  He cuts through a lot of the bullshit and identifies the variables that actually matter for making accurate predictions.  At the same time, he always recognizes the limitations of the idea of prediction.  He doesn't make promises or use the numbers for propaganda: he just wants to get at the truth.  I recommend it for anyone who wants to know more about how this process actually works, or even if you just want to watch the most accurate horse race around.

It's been considerably comforting to me that Silver's forecast model has shown Obama to be the favorite for most of the past few months.  The President's chances of reelection are currently pegged at 80.2%, though that's down from a couple of days ago and likely to go down a bit more before all is said and done.  But that's fine.  Uncertainty is the name of this game we play, and we deal.  When my ballot comes in the mail I'll fill it out just like I said I would, and hope for the best.  Then in a month, I'll know whether the good news holds.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Last Month

No, not the final month.  That would be silly!  There's bound to be several months after this one.  Probably. 

But the last month sure has been quiet for this blog.  And by quiet, I of course mean that I have posted nothing here.  Now, I've been known to do this in the past, but I still feel bad about it.  Blogs are for blogging, and if a blogger won't blog, well, what's a blog for?  Occupying space, I suppose, but nobody wants to be a blogsquatter.

My micro-blogging endeavors over at The Wave Function Tumblr have been considerably more fruitful, with four pages (and counting!) of posts of other people's content reposted with my undeniably invaluable and insightful commentary.  On top of that, I've used the platform to write a couple of micro-mini-short stories, brief little fables written on the spur of the moment.  I plan to keep writing these, and possibly compile a few of them on this blog once I have enough.  They call that synergy, I hear.

Now, I haven't been entirely idle toward The Wave Function Junction.  I have just been mostly idle.  Many times when I could have been doing some meaningful writing, I was instead loafing around my girlfriend's house watching Angel and playing Kingdom Hearts 2.  On the more productive side of things, I have been renewing my contacts with the local school districts, updating my tax forms and preparing for a new semester of being called upon at five thirty in the morning to go teach pre-algebra in an hour.  This last week I got my first sub job of the school year, and it felt good to be back on that particular horse again.  I also bought a new suit, because hey, suits.

And I even have a new story in the pipe for this blog, a fantasy/dreamline about a musician, entitled Dreaming of a New Set of Strings.  It's only about halfway done and I want to polish what I've got some more, but I am working on it.  Really!  This is no sprawling multi-part epic, just a simple tale of unusual events with the slightest hint of a moral about following your dreams and so on.  And if I can keep from watching too much Angel in the coming weeks, I'll be sure to get it done soon.

So worry not, hypothetical reader: the blog is live and content awaits.  And it'll be good, it really will.  Very soon I'll have some more thoughts on politics (oh yay), television, and life to share with the world.  But tonight, this is all you get.  Because right now, I'm about to hop in my car and go watch a show about vampires. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Wave Function Tumblr

So, when I made this blog, I gave it a silly name.  I did this because I'm terrible at coming up with names for things, and because I'm fundamentally a very silly person.  The fact that it rhymed was quite literally the single most appealing thing about "The Wave Function Junction" to me, and that is why this blog is called that.

Anyway, I came up with a rationalization for it the other day.  I don't really like it when things are the way they are for no reason.  I decided that, retroactively, the name referred to the multiplicity of my interests.  In quantum mechanics, a particle's wave function "collapses" when it is observed, reducing the possible states it might exist in to one.  And my blog has always been kind of like that, shifting between different kinds of content every time you check in on it.  That is, assuming you wait long enough to check in and I've actually updated it.

It's in that sort of spirit that I launched The Wave Function Tumblr the other day, expanding my web presence across yet another platform and bringing my plans toward Total Web Domination that much closer to fruition.  There I will pursue the popular pastime of micro-blogging, posting links to cool things online and adding my two cents underneath.  The internet runs on micro-blogging, I hear, and I want in on this game.

Anyway, I see the Tumblr as a complementary adjunct to the blog, a spin-off as it were.  I'll be looking for more ways to integrate the two as time goes on.  In the meantime, I'll also be making some updates to the look of this old place, try and spiff it up a little bit.  I think there's too many links, and that's distracting.  There's no reason it shouldn't look cleaner.

So check out my Tumblr, if tumblng be your game, and revel in the micro-blogging experience.  Don't be surprised if the whole thing collapses: it's kind of supposed to.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Dark Knight Trilogy

Beware: you may find spoilers in here!

Christopher Nolan and company's three-part, epic presentation of the Batman mythology has now run its course, leaving us with that sense of finality that pervades superhero stories; at least, for the few minutes until someone in the process goes public with the plan to reboot or retcon the whole thing.  Movie watchers and comic book readers alike have come to recognize that every dramatic change of the status quo is one wave of a hand from being reversed, and that the continuity tying a hero's adventures together is a fleeting, scarcely maintained fiction.  Nolan's Batman may be done for good, but Batman will be back for more sequels as long as studios deem them feasible and profitable.

Still, we are meant to think that Nolan's movies (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises) are special in some way.  Whatever loose ties that bind the various Batman media together are not fixed as strongly to the Dark Knight trilogy.  Whatever perceptions we have about Nolan as an auteur have strongly colored our perception of these movies, and it isn't all hype: the trilogy is tonally distinct from just about every super-hero film ever shot.  He takes Batman seriously, and made three very serious movies about him; this is something fans like me appreciate very much.  So I think this trilogy will likely be held apart from other Batman-related media for a very long time.

I first saw The Dark Knight Rises on July 26th, but I re-watched all three movies with my girlfriend over the course of last weekend.  Multiple viewing of multiple movies, of course, has a way of warping your memory and diminishing your appreciation of each as a distinct work, but it also allows you to catch more allusions and self-references.  In movies as dense as these, it's helpful to have all the relevant details fresh in mind.

Now, I love Batman.  I'll take Marvel Comics over DC any time, but you don't get to be as big of a nerd as I am with out recognizing Batman's superiority as a crime fighter and hero.  But Batman/Bruce Wayne isn't easy to get right, and plenty of creative people have gotten him very wrong.  There are three very important elements to get right when drawing Batman's character.  The first is his extraordinary high level of skill, intelligence, and strength; without these traits, the character cannot be taken seriously.  The second is his extremely damaged psychological state; despite growing up with unimaginable privilege, the trauma of his parents' death was enough to drive him into adopting a life of extreme violence and uncompromising conflict with dangerous enemies - all while dressed as a bat.  And the third, of course, is the conscience of Bruce Wayne, directing his traumatic rage toward "bad guys," without allowing him to commit the act of murder.

Batman fans owe a lot to Frank Miller, the author of many classic Batman stories.  Books like Year One and The Dark Knight Returns are very obviously sources of inspiration for Nolan's trilogy, to say nothing of the tremendous influence they have had on decades of comics.  For a long time, Batman stories had lost their way: the traumatic element of his life, his prime motivation for engaging in super-heroics, had been watered down by years of high camp and kid-friendly attitudes.  Miller helped bring back the pain and violence that were inherent to the character, and helped expose the fundamental contradiction that has troubled fans of all superheros for decades.  The essence of the superhero fantasy, the ability to act unfettered for the sake of an idealized good, ultimately resolves to a form of fascism.  Superheroes, being disproportionately strong, intelligent, stubborn, and very often wealthy, are one unprincipled decision away from seizing control over a society they mean to protect.

So the best thing I can say about Nolan's depiction of the Caped Crusader (a campy moniker if ever there was one) is that it does not follow Miller's more closely than it should.  In today's age of "dark and gritty reboots," it's become far too easy to turn Batman into an amoral, authoritarian lunatic.  At a certain point, that becomes cartoon-ish in the worst sense of the word; the conscience of Batman becomes a flimsy pretext, an invitation to glory in Batman's violent adventures while admitting no "weakness" or humanity.  There's no Bruce Wayne in this conception, except as the original source of the pain that drives the Batman; we get something a lot closer to the Punisher.

The Dark Knight trilogy understands the character in a more subtle way, while still being forthright about the pain and contradiction at the core of Batman.  As portrayed by Christian Bale, he's certainly damaged: in Batman Begins, young and undisciplined Bruce Wayne attempts to murder his parents' killer on the day of his release, and only fails because a mob assassin pulls the trigger first.  His obsession with not only brutalizing, but also terrorizing the criminals he fights speaks to the hurt and rage that drives a man of privilege to attempt to personally restore order to a decaying social structure.

But once Wayne goes through the essential transformation and adopts his new persona, he acts on the basis of a focused conscience.  Although he operates outside the law, the dominant theme of these movies, particularly The Dark Knight, concerns which lines Batman will not cross.  As Batman he exercizes incredible power, but he does not see himself as a ruthless conqueror.  District Attorney Harvey Dent compares him (favorably) to Caesar, but perpetual dictatorship is not Bruce Wayne's desire; instead, it is a dark shadow of his mission, a consequence he strains to avoid with his uncompromising moral code.  It's a role he plays, but at great cost to himself

Not everything Batman does in these films is right or praiseworthy.  He's guilty of torture, spying on ordinary people, and a conspiracy of silence that leaves his city woefully unprepared for the catastrophe that takes place in The Dark Knight Rises.  But most of these actions, regardless of how they turn out, are motivated by a selfless ethos: the belief that he must commit certain sins in order to allow Gotham City to become a truly free society.  The epic conflict of this third movie draws from the fact that, heroic though their intentions may have been, the actions of Batman and Commissioner Gordon helped set the stage for Bane's assault on the city.  Batman saves Gotham, but only after he finally decides to put absolutely everything on the line to do so.

So this is Nolan's picture of Batman for us: deeply flawed and fallible, yet deeply and essentially oriented in mindset toward the greater good.  He operates in a society that blurs the line between the surface and the underworld, where terror confronts ordinary people in random and shocking ways, and the notion of civil society is pressed against the drive toward authoritarianism and the death of freedom.  Against this nightmare world, Batman is essentially the product of a dream: that the darkness which made our fears can provide us with hope.

The Dark Knight Trilogy is not the last word on who Batman is or what he stands for.  There will be more movies and books that will develop the character further, and there will always be alternative interpretations of what, if anything, the example of Batman has to teach us in the real world.  But their tremendous visibility makes this version of the Dark Knight more accessible and widespread, and I am glad for that. 

Monday, July 30, 2012

Poetry Jam #9

A funny thing happened, just now; I looked in my big folder of handwritten writings and found that the number of new poems it contained was only enough for one decent-sized poetry jam.  This isn't because I've stopped writing poetry; it's because, although I like writing by hand, with my shiny fountain pen, when I have an idea for a poem it's usually easier to type it out on the closest computer.  Does this mean that I spend way too much time in close proximity to computers?  Probably.

But at the same time, I also have a number of hand-written stubs, proto-poems I started without finishing or fixing, that I've been meaning to revisit.  The next poetry post will probably include many of these, because some of them are actually pretty cool.  They're just not done, is all.

As for the poems I wrote on the computer, I might have included a few in this post to pad it out a little more.  But they're on my desk top, and I've only got my laptop here, so they'll have to wait!

Today's poems are from the approximate period of April 2011 to December of that same year.  The themes they address are diverse, but mostly they are sad, because 2011 was kind of a downer of a year for me.  It had its bright spots, as most years do, but on the whole 2012 is really kicking its ass.  Way to go, 2012.  Keep on kickin'.

A Downtown Walk

I think I hear an echo,
or am I speaking double,
talking loud enough for two?
A distressing conversation
set between myself and you.

I swear I heard a whisper
of something like a whistle,
something small enough to miss.
In my lifelong agitation,
in the shadow of a kiss,

I think I hear a siren
in buzzing, throbbing silence,
walking up the busy street;
a vibration in my headphones
where the storm and waters meet.

I wonder where it's screaming,
to where its wheels are squealing
in a little lonesome town,
upside down beneath the waters
where the stranded ducklings drown?

It feels like something's burning,
a million pictures taken
in the lifetime of a day,
of a moment soon forgotten
set in sepia and grey.

Song to You

No beauty meets a melody
like yours in every word you speak,

No light could shine as crystal clear
and cool as you in your mystique;

No secret ever kept as sweet
and left my heart so weak,

Your soul so like a minor scale
expressed in an ecstatic peak.

Amazon Blues

I think I saw you walking
seven blocks from Ferry Street;
I pulled up to a stoplight,
watched you cross and didn't speak;
I didn't want to say a word,
I just tried to be discrete.

I guess I figured you'd be leaving,
thought you'd go and disappear;
I hoped you'd travel 'round the world,
come back in twenty, thirty years,
and I still can't quite imagine
why you'd keep on living here.

The Ballad of the Silent Word

The silent word was dead;
it died three thousand years ago
the instant it was born,
it shouted with a silent voice
and gently drooped its head.

The silent word was dead:
the mourners let it lie in state,
it moldered in the room
and suffered long in silence
as the eulogy was read.

The silent word was dead:
asleep inside a stack of paper,
dreaming of a song,
it flared up into silent life
the instant it was read.

Sleight of Hand

The sound of a hundred hands inspires
the sight of a thousand lucky eyes,
the lines and lights,
and lies
a powerful public work declaims;
the words of a silent leader's mouth,
the people's fear
and doubt.

The radio plays the people's choice
of cynical songs on endless loop,
to see the depths
to which they'll stoop;

A miracle on a darkened stage,
identical birds and swarthy cats:
a rabbit from
a hat.


The sunlight on a beam of cherry wood,
warming in the afternoon and
holding warmth throughout the night;
a blossom on a branch of vanity,

Nothing comes close
to water at the end of drought
or drifting dunes of melting snow;

Nothing comes close
to floating on a stream of melody,
slowly sinking at the moment
nothing holds you up but earth;

To dreaming, and at last remembering
nothing comes close.

The Long Night

If only to be young and strong
as all the world is breaking down,
with fire burning all around,
releasing ashes to the evening,
keeping moonlight from the ground,
I would stay where I belong.

If only to be home among
my people, and to see their faces'
resignation take its place
beneath a grainy layer of dusk;
I'd take a look at them and brace
against the plunge that comes along.

If I were ever young and strong
and swaddled in decaying light,
I would be troubled by the night;
observing all that's growing and
remarking on the present blight,
I would admit that I was wrong.

The Nothing Man

In the name of Nothing Man,
a final will and testament
bequeathing none and nothingness,
to name whoever else will know.

Nothing leaves the Nothing Man,
and nothing new has come before
it disappears into the night,
like nothing new has ever done.

Come the night the Nothing Man
denies the night that came before,
and never mentions anymore
the only name he ever knew.

Broken Glass Around my Head

Shining streets of broken glasses
gleam in corners of my eye;
I had nothing much to do with
how they broke; I don't know why
but something makes me want to hurry home,
hurry home away from  here,
away from all the broken beer
that's soaking in the stars.

Music in the evening hours,
music in my eyes and ears;
I am blinded, I am out of touch
and deaf to all the sounds the people
make; they make me want to hurry home,
hardly have to say a thing
before I hill the doorbell ring
and I am back at home.

Poway Under Cover of Darkness

The spotlight on the silver streets;
the absence of persistent beats
is keenly felt, as keen as night
as winter's cold in city lights.

A chilly fifty-three degrees,
this southern California breeze;
the constellations upside down
above my California town.

All of this I keenly miss
with music in my ears; if this
is music, let it stand and play
a song of moonlit nights and days.

Roll, roll, roll, roll, roll, roll, roll, roll, roll, roll,

Rolling on the paperweight forever,
ever rolling on a compact disk
and spinning on tectonic plates,
roll, roll, roll, roll,

Rivers in a cabinet
and monsters under bassinets
roll, roll, round and round,
ever rolling under solid ground,
roll, roll,
twisting in the horrible,
horrible hurricane,

Rolling over carousels together,
never rolling anywhere apart,
and twirling into silver dollars,
roll, roll, roll,

Commentary now!

The end of the last poetry jam left me moping and despondent over the ill-treatment of my foolish heart at the hands of a pretty girl.  A Downtown Walk, Song to You, and Amazon Blues find me in much the same condition, because I would not just get over it already.  None of them, however, are actually about that particular girl.  The first is a more general contemplation of melancholy.  The second is an abstract expression of longing, directed at no one in particular.  The third is about a completely different girl from a different time.  One day, I may find it difficult to keep them all straight.  But for now, I take comfort and peace of mind from my lovely girlfriend, who doesn't seem to be going anywhere.

The Ballad of the Silent Word is kind of heavy handed, and it used to be more so.  It's written in my notebook with a different fifth line: "and whimpered as it bled."  Clearly, I spent way too much time being morbid before I wrote this.  The idea for this came from an article I read about a "post-literate" society, a concept of which I am very much not on board with.

Sleight of Hand is also kind of heavy handed, I guess.  You try to make a general point about society and everything comes out totalitarian, with the statues and the subliminal messages and what not.  No, I don't think we live in a Stalinist nightmare of memory holes and gulags.  I just think people aren't as fond of truth as they are of comforting illusions.

And then there's Cherry, which is a positively cheerful bit of dreaming.  I've posited before that my most artistically successful things have always been melancholy rather than happy.  But while I can read melancholy into this poem, it doesn't strike me that way.  Reading it makes me feel happy, and I think it's still a really good poem!  Imagine that.

The Long Night was written as a more or less immediate response to the novel Less Than Zero, which I reviewed last year.  Needless to say, it sent me right back into apocalyptic-doom mode.  The feelings came from reading the book, but the imagery was inspired by my memories of 2003 Cedar Fire in San Diego County.  What connection is there between the two?  None really, but there felt like there was one at the time.

I wrote The Nothing Man more or less in one piece between sets at an open mic night that I was attending.  No, I wasn't reading poetry in front of anyone; I just had an idea and wanted to write it down before I forgot it.  It's kind of ridiculous, but not the most ridiculous thing I wrote last year by far.  No, you're not allowed to read those things.

The only way that I can explain Broken Glass Around my Head is that I was slightly drunk when I had the idea for it.  I was walking home from a social event for my teaching cohort at the Eugene Hilton, and much wine had been served.  Judging by my handwriting, I wasn't really drunk by the time I sat down and wrote the thing, but walking through the streets at night can clear your head a bit.

Poway Under Cover of Darkness reflects another night time stroll, under much soberer conditions, back in my home town for the holidays.  The difference between those two walks can clearly be felt in the difference between these two poems.  I like the second one more, to be very honest.

And finally, Roll, x10 is, well, a poem.  I'm not even sure if I meant to title it at the time, it just had the word "roll" written a bunch of times in the upper margin.  Word association and stream-of-consciousness produced this underrated masterpiece.  Look upon it and beware; just reading it might get you high.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Just a Regular Road Trip

Last Monday, I went shopping for a used car.  On Thursday, I drove my purchase off the lot.  But strictly speaking, it wasn't me driving: the driver was my friend Bau.  You see, the car that won me over, that I knew could satisfy my needs, fit my budget, and provide me with the satisfying road experience I wanted, was a 2008 Chevy Aveo.  And it had a manual transmission.
The Scariest Thing in the World, scheming in Eugene, Oregon.
Now, a short-term thinker might have shied away from such a purchase.  Not only had I never so much as turned the ignition on a stick-shift before, I had a stated commitment to embark on a journey of over a thousand miles just three days later.  I had to return to my ancestral lands to participate in my father's wedding, and there was a general expectation that I should arrive in one piece.  Were I to play it safe, I might have stuck, at least for the immediate present, with my dad's Dodge Magnum (pictured here, covered in snow).

But I had other considerations.  I wanted a car in my own name: one that was more practical for my lifestyle, easier to maneuver in tight spaces, and lighter in its fuel consumption.  I also thrilled at the unexpected opportunity before me, to learn a new skill and impress some folks.  So I signed on for The Unknown Quantity and spent the next three days mastering its conceptual intricacies, and trying really hard not to roll backwards into a line of cars when I parked on hills.

Finally, on the date of Saturday, July 15, having sufficiently leveled up (and placed all my meager skill points in hill-scaling), I set off down Interstate 5 on my epic adventure.  It was, for the most part, uneventful and unremarkable.  But I learned a lot about diving, lessons that rang truer as each of the ensuing, interminable hours passed.

I've made this particular journey several times, in both directions.  I've done it in a Suburban, a task that seems harrowing through narrow mountain passes.  I've done it in the Magnum, which is a lot more secure but not much more economical.  I had reason for trepidation, driving stick for the first time over such a long distance.  But I found that, on long stretches of sparsely-populated freeway, driving The Mighty Muskrat was a lot like driving an automatic.  I might glide in neutral over a slow curve or down a steep hill, or shift down to fourth or third while ascending an imposing mountain, but most of the time I could sit in fifth gear and cruise along at a steady 70 miles per hour.  I couldn't exactly zip past slower traffic with the greatest of ease, but you have to give some things up when you surrender a machine with an 8-cylinder hemi engine.

I stopped in San Francisco to spend the night at my sister's place; despite my fears, I was not defeated by that city's exaggerated, non-euclidean topography.  True, I only had to negotiate two hills in my time there, but it was an important personal triumph, not to mention a mercy for my transmission.
The Mountain Goat, greeting the dawn in San Francisco, California.
Monday morning took me out of the Bay Area and back onto the 5, where it is distressingly easy to go more than 80 miles per hour, whether you want to or not.  High winds swept across the central valley, jostling me on the road and somehow generating the ghostly sound of a windshield wiper on a dry pane of glass.  That noise was probably the scariest thing on the entire trip, but since I only heard it in high-wind zones and it persisted even when I was in neutral, I decided to press on without fear of catastrophic failure.  It's that kind of optimistic thinking that characterizes my general attitude toward drives like these.

Driving through California's great central valley is not one of life's most essential experiences, unless you're way into expensive gasoline, malodorous cattle ranches, and perennial angry placards accusing Democrats in Congress of taking away the region's water (which I suppose was once naturally abundant).  Fortunately for me, The Yellow Submarine has a capable sound system, with a quiet engine and decent isolation from the inherent noise pollution of a high-speed freeway.  Armed with a book of over forty CDs, I beat back the monotonous advance of insanity and kept my eyes out for the slightest change in elevation.

Passing through the Grapevine and into that mystical parallel universe known as Los Angeles county, I knew I was about to face my greatest challenge.  Armed with my stick-shift, I was to attempt a crossing of the most congested city of the American Nightmare, at just about five o'clock in the afternoon.  I would be forced to stop, and start, and stop, and start, time and again, inching my way through urban blight and doubtless ruining my machine with amateurish jolts and stalls.  And that was why I abandoned the direct route and made for the San Bernardino freeway.

I have no doubt I saved at least an hour from my total travel time, but that section of the 10, at that time of day, isn't much better than the 5.  Apart from a few glorious minutes of 60-mile-per-hour bliss, The Tiny Minivan and I crawled our way home in first and second gear, when we were allowed to move at all.
There was basically no rush in taking this shot before I had to start moving again.
It was at these low speeds, navigating the capricious currents of Los Angeles traffic, that I truly began to appreciate the joyful burden of the manual transmission.  Although I frequently found myself in the position of having to start in first from a dead stop, I avoided the stalling and lurching that plagued my early efforts.  I reached a level of basic understanding with my vehicle.  Although I obviously could not hope to control the traffic, I could control my car to an extent that I'd never been able to appreciate in an automatic.  When we finally reached the 15, and I was able to move about once more with freedom, it was a very satisfying release.

Finally rolling into the humble town of Poway, California, I felt a great deal of pride in my accomplishment.  I'd taken a car I knew very little about and finished a physically challenging drive.  I'd covered the last 215 miles of the trip with only about six gallons of gas, even as I pushed through stop-and-go traffic and steeply inclined grades.  I had renewed my confidence in myself as a driver.  And then, with less than half a mile to my mother's house, I stalled at a stop sign at the top of a hill.
The Car of Many Nicknames, relaxing in Poway, California.
My two-day drive was an important lesson in humility and in possibility, a chance to reevaluate my relationship with my car and the world I drove it through.  It was also dull, long, and by the end of the second day physically uncomfortable.  But it was definitely worth doing.  I'm not looking forward to doing it in reverse in a few weeks, but I'm sure that will be worth it, too.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Miniature American Flags For Others

Is this becoming a political blog?  I really don't mean for it to.  My purpose has always been self expression rather than straight-up advocacy.  I don't make any effort to hide my political opinions, of course.  I'm a liberal, and I am so because I believe that the economy and the government and all of our various societal constructs exist for the benefit of the people at large, rather than the minority with the most money.  So I favor strong, viable institutions, available for use by the entire public and supported by the entire public.  Public schools, public transportation, and yes, public healthcare.

So obviously, I'm pretty pleased with today's decision from the Supreme Court that preserves the Affordable Care Act in almost exactly the form it was passed.  There's a lot that is wrong with that law, but "overreach" is certainly not the issue.  Our current health care crisis was created by the private insurance market, and the ACA functions primarily by trying to enroll more people in that market.  Having coverage with a company that makes money by taking as much and paying as little as possible is better than no coverage at all, it still represents a situation that no fair-minded person should regard as ideal.  And yet I am pleased nonetheless.

The ACA provides us, the American people, with many tangible benefits that we would be worse off without.  The Republicans have proposed no comprehensive alternative, so their demands for "repeal and replace" are really just demands for repeal, and then allowing insurance companies to operate however they please.  I prefer some rules to no rules, especially when the rules prohibit discrimination against women, the elderly, and the sick.

Pleased as I am, though, I find the Supreme Court's decision to be fascinating in a lot of ways.  Liberals will note that Anthony Kennedy showed his true colors by writing in his dissent that he and the other three justices in the minority regarded the entirety of the law (not just the controversial "individual mandate") as "invalid."  Anthony Kennedy may agree with the liberals on some points, but he is not a liberal.  He is not a moderate, either.  He is merely an idiosyncratic conservative.  Better than a dogmatist like Scalia or Thomas, but far too easily led by them.

Chief Justice John Roberts, on the other hand, is a tougher one to analyze in this case.  He had, before this vote, a more conservative reputation than Kennedy.  He probably still deserves it.  But his vote gave the liberal justices their majority and allowed this law, which conservatives despise, to survive.  As a result, Americans will keep what benefits the law gives them, even as they await the real long term solution that will help lift us out of our real crisis.  Because conservative media and politicians will publicly flay him for this, he should be commended for a courageous vote.

On the other hand, the decision he wrote seems calculated to preserve the law while simultaneously undermining the power of Congress to pass progressive laws.  It feels odd to be so thankful to John Roberts when he seems determined to put social security, medicare, and countless other programs on increasingly thin ice.  In the best case scenario, the language of Roberts' decision is a face-saving measure for the conservative crowd, while allowing him to vote his conscience.  In the worst case, he's up to something sinister, and this is merely laying the groundwork for the annihilation of every progressive law since the New Deal.  It may be something in between these extremes, but Roberts' real motivation is certainly something more than he's let on.

Regardless, it should be clear to all liberals that the Supreme Court, while occasionally capable of doing the right thing, cannot be counted on to back the interests of the public above all else.  At least five of the Justices are prone to the influences of reductionist ideology, and will side with injustice if it suits their "originalist" fantasies.  Nominating Justices to the Supreme Court is an extremely important power, and ought to be a major factor in our consideration of who to support for the Presidency.  The Court is powerful, and it should be powerful, but our only means of influencing that power directly is through the President.  With the oldest members of the Court currently in the conservative faction, we have an opportunity to buy ourselves some measure of judicial security; provided the President in office is inclined to appoint liberals, or at the very least true moderates.

All of this may sound cynical and nakedly political.  If you are a conservative, it will sound horrifying.  But we're stuck playing this game now, and I'd like to see the side that favors justice and equality playing it well.

Friday, June 22, 2012

WFJ Book Club #9: Dreams from My Father

Some time in the future, probably not very long from now, Barack Obama will be remembered in much the same way as all of his predecessors, one more link in a chronology of American Presidents.  It will be assumed without much critical thought that he was destined for that list, that every stage in his life was a step in that direction.  Jimmy Carter was a peanut farmer, Lyndon Johnson was a public school teacher, and Ronald Reagan was an actor, but none of these things seem to define their identities except as stops along the way, as if they were just biding their time and waiting their turn.

So reading his first book, the memoir Dreams from My Father, seems a little surreal.  The book was first published in 1995, before he'd been elected to a single public office.  The edition I own, republished in 2004, identifies its author on the back as "the U.S. senator-elect from Illinois."  A title like that is so immediate and time-bound I can't help but laugh at the prospect of a future political scholar pulling it from a library shelf, and wondering briefly if they've got the right author.  I don't know when Obama began planning in earnest to run for President, but there was a time when "senator-elect" was the highest office he could claim.  And years before that, he was just a regular guy; if he was a future President all along, there was no way of knowing.

Obama certainly has one of the most unconventional life stories of any U.S. President.  He was born in Hawaii and lived for four years in Indonesia, moving to the American mainland only when it was time to go to college.  From there he adopted the lifestyle of a socially conscious African-American in the early 80's, though he pursued it in a variety of ways: business, community organizing, and eventually the study of law.  There was no special destiny about any of this, and Obama's primary theme throughout the book is doubt: uncertainty of who he was, what he was doing, and what he was going to become.

History will remember Obama as America's first African-American President.  Examining that claim, however, brings us to the great contradiction of his identity, nestled in the contradictions of our racial politics.  As an American of African ancestry, he certainly meets the definition of an African-American.  In common parlance, however, "African-American" is a synonym for "black," and black is implicitly regarded as the opposite of "white."  But Obama is biracial, with a white mother and a black father.  If you were to try explaining our racial system to a Martian, it would be difficult to explain in purely rational or mathematical terms why someone who is precisely half black and half white should be regarded primarily as black.  Obama accepted the label, but not every biracial person he meets with on his journey accepts it in quite the same way.

The path toward coming to terms with his blackness, the part of himself that makes him "African," leads Obama to reevaluate over and over his social status, his mission in life, and most of all his family.  His extended family is large, particularly on his father's side.  But Obama never really knew his father, apart from a brief reunion in his early adolescence.  He did not come to know most of his half-siblings, cousins, and other African relatives until years after Obama Senior had suddenly died.  Dreams from My Father reaches a climax with his first visit to Kenya, where the reunion with his long-lost family introduces new stories and facts into the mythology Obama constructed for himself.  He recounts these discoveries with high emotion and no small amount of pain, but by the book's end it is implied that he has drawn some measure of peace from them.

Race is everywhere in Dreams, and it is discussed primarily from a black perspective.  This means occasionally stepping on the toes of whites, describing them in terms of oppression and colonialism that the less enlightened may find threatening or offensive.  But Obama is always in a state of doubt: partly as a result of his white heritage, and partly from experience working in impoverished, inner-city Chicago, he tries to look beyond the orthodoxies of the black community.  Where the line between idealism and reality should be drawn is never resolved, but it helps in some way to explain Obama's pragmatic political style.

As someone who, like most people, came to know Obama first as a rising political star and then a sudden contender for the Presidency, it is impossible not to analyze this book for clues to understanding his political choices.  But apart from the oft-observed truisms that he is both a liberal and a pragmatist, there's not much to learn about Obama the politician.  Politicians are cautious with their words, careful to offend as few people as possible.  I chuckled somewhat at the younger Obama's fond recollections of Jeremiah Wright, knowing that he'd probably prefer to publicly discuss the Reverend as little as possible after what happened four years ago.  Dreams is not a collection of boring freedom-flavored platitudes, the like of which major candidates like to foist upon the public to boost their electoral potential.  It is measured and not at all sensational, but it is also frank, honest, and emotionally powerful.  Even knowing the job that Barack Obama would one day hold, it still comes across as a book about a man's past, not a strategic support-piece of a career politician's ambition.

The man who wrote Dreams from My Father is the man I voted for in 2008, or at least the version of that man who I most identify with and support.  After meeting him anew in this way, I wonder what a time traveling, mid-90's Obama would make of his future self's administration.  Would he be disappointed by what pragmatism and political reality had made of his ideals?  How willing would he be to accept those compromises?  Could the Obama of the past properly appreciate the burdens of the office which the present Obama has carried for almost four years?

I'm not sure that any of us could, any more than one book can ever take us directly into the heart and mind of another human being.  But Dreams will be as important to Obama's legacy as just about anything else he has or will produce: a first-hand record of a man who would be President, long before he could have thought it possible.