Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Poetry Jam #14

The new year is upon me, a full seventeen hours earlier than usual.  With 2013 slipping out the door, I thought, what better celebration for the turning of the calendar than another batch of poetry?

Other than Dayquil and chamomile, of course.  I have quite the sore throat, unfortunately, so I won't be reading any of it out loud.  Did you know I usually read them out loud?  Of course you didn't.

You might do the honors instead, if you're interested.  Poetry is for the ears as much as for the eyes, if not more.  These poems date from February to July of 2013, so keep that in mind for your pronunciation.

Have a happy, multi-sensory new year.

Real Strange Genes

There ought to be a song about
the way your fingers do that thing
they do sometimes, when you are trying
to impress a crowd of girls.

That thing they do is brave,
bizarre, and just a bit offensive;
"got himself some real strange genes"
they'll sing around a minor chord.

But no one ought to sing this song
in public, if they have good taste.
That thing your fingers do will get
us all arrested soon enough.

You will know me by the time I'm gone

You will know me by the time I'm gone
and you won't miss me.
You may wonder where I've gone today
but you won't wish that
you were with me:
it will already be so.


Sometimes I don't get sudoku.
Sometimes it seems arbitrary,
like there's no solution,
almost like the rules are changing
while I scribble in the boxes;
sometimes, it's a bother.

Other times I want to break them,
force the numbers into order;
sometimes I can do it.
Sometimes I take weeks to solve it,
then the obvious solution
kicks me in the stomach.

Sometimes I dislike my puzzles.

Law and Order

Anyone like me can see you're happy
in your little house, where
anyone who'd like to hurt you only
has to force the locks;

that's just life in human cities on the
walls of planet Earth, where
freedom and security are promises
of little talks.

Silhouettes can vanish from the window
of a little house, where
law and order keeps us happy, sleeping
in our little box.

That's just life in human houses under
stars and moonlit nights, when
anyone can soundly fall asleep in
little city blocks.

Cognitive Red

Nothing's red about red
and none of you can prove it;
keep your reds and I
will do with mine as I
see fit.
If I see fit to deny it,
I will deny,
and if I see fit to claim it
for myself,
then all the rest
will have to make do with other
hiding under every bed,
with what is right
and what is red
and white.

Keyhole Wisdom

Hold your own and shake your head,
before you're beaten
on the field of crimson flowers
bloomed in triumph,
blooming in the sunset,
stained with crimson
by defeat.

Don't allow your fate to flower
in these fields;
hold your own and shake your head!
That's what father
in his wisdom

That is what I overheard while
listening that night
before the field was stained with red.

Glory is a Lie

Glory is a lie,
is a fiction that we tell ourselves
when other lies are stretched
beyond the breaking,

is the last resort of human minds
that must acknowledge truth
when they are murdered

by ideas - killed by politics,
immediate, abstract
and calculated,

bleeding out because of economics.
Glory is a lie,
a comfort to the ones
who face the Terror,

for the living and the dying, but
no comfort to the dead
or those who miss them,

or the ones whom Terror takes
without remorse.  The violence
is not redemption,

nor a path to everlasting lives
with noble, selfless friends
who've lost their heads and

hands and heartbeats, but retain their smiles
at their duties done.
Their death is death
and glory is a lie.

How to Talk about Scallions

How to talk about scallions
in a format that is not a cookbook,
garden magazine,
or esoteric journal?

The work of some alchemist
who wouldn't settle for less.
How to talk about scallions
in a way that

everyone would accept was worth the talking,
not a waste of alchemist's breath
or ink from inviscid pens?

How to talk about scallions
like a professional,
when what you really want to talk about is

and its flavors and its uses
and the peculiar facts of its

How to talk about scallions
without pausing to mention
without pondering the steps

by which an "a"
becomes an /i/
without anybody noticing?

Keep it focused, keep it flavored,
keep it peppered with the love
that is its due.

How to talk about scallions
in a poem about onions
that smells like a kitchen
preparing the most incredible soup
the chef has ever boiled?

How to say enough about


Memory is chemicals
and everything is chemicals
and everything we know and love's
a chemical illusion,
but we love it and
we wouldn't have it any other way.

Understand the chemistry
and everything's a mystery
in spite of everything you know:
the beauty of our love is
that the mystery
persists in spite of everything we say.

Memory is wonderful
for making love, and chemicals
can turn you on, and turn you off,
before you can remember
that you love it and
you've waited for those chemicals all day.


When I was young I learned from baseball
all I ever had to know,
that there was no sense in living fast, except
when chasing first or passing second,
rounding third or running home;

as long as there are sunny days
and summer afternoons for baseball,
standing still between the blades of grass
and hearing passing cars,
there is no sense in living faster
than the crack of bats,
no sense in speeding up.

Backyard Nature Reserve

The long grass rippling in the wind -
I will not mow the lawn.
This is where the deer have played,
and this is not my lawn,
this is no concern of mine.
Sun shines on the waving grass,
I will not cut it down
because I like to see it waving
on a blustery day;
it's no concern of mine, except
I hope the deer come back to play.

Against Solipsism

After careful thought,
consideration, and deliberation,
I've concluded that you're real;
on a leap of faith, I'd say the same
of planets, purple flowers,
stained-glass windows.

Their reality I cannot prove,
but yours is indisputable,
beyond a reasonable doubt:
for all my powers of imagination
and my skills of self-deception,
I could never hope to dream you
up from scratch.

You must be real,
or I must be perfect,
and, my love, we know
the latter simply isn't so.

Rockwell Court

In this old house of mine, where I was happy,
I was angry, I was sometimes just
depressed, I am spending one more night,
and I am likely never coming back.

My memories cannot do justice to
a home where I knew shame and found release,
through triumph, and through quiet maturation:
where I screamed 'til I was hoarse and learned
that screaming was against my nature, and
I lacked the time to practice.  Here I dreamed
about amazing futures in the stars
I fixed across my ceiling, and I held
her naked breasts behind closed doors, and made
ridiculous mistakes that will be haunting
me for years.  My poetry cannot
reveal the pain and comfort, or the loss
and joy of living here, of leaving in
a broken state and coming home to be
renewed.  I lack the words to say it right,
and all that I'm prepared to say before
I go is thank you, sorry, and goodbye.

The Tragedies

The truth is the way
things have been since the day
she was born, and the best
of the truth makes her ache
in her conscience and tremble
with rage in her chest.

So she prefers fiction
and speaks "revolution"
and makes life a chore
for the comfortable people
who settle for facts
that they ought to ignore.

The Last Song on the Album

With a few hours left
before I fall asleep again,
I wrote that song, you know the one.
It ends the album on a quiet note,
but gets louder in the middle
like it still remembers glories past
and doesn't want to fade away
like so much noise from little speakers
in my head.
It gets the usual chords and then,
as usual,
gets its melancholy lyrics,
then it fades against its will
before I fall asleep again.


Commentary is brief because I'm sleepy.

The title of Real Strange Genes comes from the lyrics of a Who song, and this is not the first time that has happened to me.  The Who are just really good, ok?  As for what the fingers in this poem are doing, I'll never tell.

Law and Order is my deep and meaningful commentary on our persistent vulnerability to improbable and unpredictable violent rampages.  It is very deep and meaningful.  Honest.

Cognitive Red, Keyhole Wisdom, and Glory is a Lie all go together like a triad.  A triptych, if you will.  Or maybe just a trilogy.  A very bloody trilogy about strife and fighting and dying and all that good stuff.  Like most sets of three, the middle installment is the weakest.  I do like the metrical work on the others, though.

How to Talk about Scallions is a poem about poetry and trying to write it when you have no idea what you're doing.  I never really know what I'm doing.  But also it's about scallions.

Chemicals and Against Solipsism are both love poems for Tara, of course.  I love her so much, I just keep writing her poetry!  Here I express that love in more philosophical and scientifical (?) terms than before.

My landlords went on a long vacation last spring and neglected to arrange for the lawn to be mowed in their absence.  Hence, Backyard Nature Preserve.  I honestly liked it better that way.

I wrote Rockwell Court fully believing that I would never again set foot in the house where I spent my teenage years, as my mom was moving out soon and I was on my way back to Oregon.  It turned out that, when I returned a few months later, I had to go back two or three times to help fix something before the new owners moved in.  Life is never as clean as poetry.  Anyway, it's a poem about being a sad, weird teenager in a setting that's doomed to disappear from one's life.  Or rather, being a grown-up (?) with all kinds of feelings about being that sad, weird teenager.  It's complicated and weird.

The Tragedies is sort of my tribute to girls (and other humans) who don't take shit from the crowd that says "that's just how it is."  Rock on.

You know the songs The Last Song on the Album is about.  If you listen to albums, anyway.  Does anyone listen to albums anymore?

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas in Korea

I remember learning when I was a small child about the various ways Christmas is celebrated all around the world.  A list of peculiar customs, however, can't really get across how different the holiday can seem when you step into another culture.

Here in South Korea, nearly thirty per cent of the people subscribe to Christianity of one kind or another.  It's not the kind of cultural domination I've been steeped in for a quarter century of life in the United States, but it's a minority to be reckoned with.  Churches stick out around here (there's one not far from my apartment), and I've rarely known Christians to be shy about sharing their traditions.

And yet, the grocery stores aren't blasting Christmas music today.  They aren't festooned with decorations.  The outside world looks pretty much like it did two weeks ago, and as I expect it will continue to look until the snow melts.  Things were different when we visited the city last week; Christmas K-pop and Christmas deals were readily found in the mall.  But here in the outskirts, one would hardly know it's Christmas.

As I've had it explained to me, Christmas is simply not a huge deal here.  It's known, of course, and people tend to get the day off from work.  But rather than the pole around which the other holidays revolve, a time when everyone goes home to be with their families, it's seen as being something primarily for young couples to enjoy.  

And that's ok, I guess.  We're a young couple, and we're enjoying ourselves.  But Tara and I agree that this Christmas, for us, is definitely different.

I'm not complaining, of course.  I think the omnipresence of Christmas festivities back home can be off-putting.  But it's also something we've become accustomed to.  It's probably the strangest difference we've encountered so far.

Tara's a little under the weather today, so we didn't go out today.  Instead, we stayed in and did Christmas the best we could.  We gave each other presents and watched Christmas movies (and also, Buffy the Vampire Slayers).  We worked together to make a delicious Christmas feast.  There's little snowmen on the microwave, and a strand of lights on our wall.  Bing Crosby's singing White Christmas.  There's a bottle of wine chilling in the fridge.  There's no fire, but it still feels about right.

Addiction as a Means of Inspiration

The following is a guest post by Eve Pearce.

Origins of Addiction

Addiction is defined as a great interest in something or a need to do or have something, and the dictionary suggests that the word originated at the end of the sixteenth century. However, artists and writers for many years had been concerned with man’s addiction to certain personality traits. As such a relatable and sympathetic trait, it can be used as a fantastic tool when creating works of fiction. One of the primary traits of many classicist texts is hubris, a key example being Icarus, who flew too close to the sun: while considering his flaws, the addictive qualities of flight and adventure, coupled with the tremendous feeling of freedom must surely be considered addictive. Many such human flaws are defined by the addictive qualities of emotions, and those characters which have remained timeless are those which drive relentlessly towards fulfilling these emotions. Even as the idea of addiction seeped into the language of everyday life during the sixteenth century, the chief writers of the day could be said to have evolved the concept. Is Marlowe’s Faustus not addicted to power, redefined as a thirst for learning? Is Othello not addicted to the love of Desdemona, jealous that it might be enjoyed by another? Shakespeare’s own sonnets demonstrate a craving and a lust beyond the simple yearning of a lover. These emotions, when viewed through the prism of addiction, demonstrate how truly great characters can be utterly addicted to emotion.

Mainstream Addiction

As addiction became more quantified and understood, and especially as addictive substances entered the mainstream, humanity’s ability to cope with addictive substances is doubted. Hogarth’s 1751 painting Gin Lane depicts the evils of drink in England, enough to form part of the argument for the creation of the Gin Act, a political policy which worried about the addict qualities of alcohol and the effect this might have on an impressionable public. The characters within the painting as depicted as debauched and criminal; Hogarth’s work is a throwback to the portraits of hell painted inside medieval churches, where addiction has become the new and fashionable sin. Although only officially repealed in the Sixties, a nineteenth century amendment reduced the power of these licensing laws. By then, not only had Britain become addicted instead to newly-imported, non-alcoholic tea, but the effect of alcohol was far less threatening. In its place, authors had found new addictions. Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes was a character essentially defined by his addictive personality. We are offered two key examples: Holmes, when bored, relies and feeds upon his cocaine addiction; however, when a suitably challenging case is laid before him, this is instantly replaced with an addiction to mental vigor. This is one of the first characters demonstrating a literal chemical addiction, and it seems fitting that it should be placed alongside a character renowned for their own hubristic narcissism. Holmes is the paradigm of addiction in fiction; he feeds relentlessly and tirelessly in a manner which is utterly engaging.

Addiction Redefined

Throughout the Twentieth century and beyond, art and its approach to character has become a great deal more abstract. Now, thanks to post modernism, work is not only informed by the literal contents, but by the context, the creator and the consumer. Many works now concern themselves with humanity’s growth into a society of addicts. A notable depiction would be Huxley’s A Brave New World, wherein the people are in thrall to a drug called soma, unable to imagine life without the miracle medicine. But what about addiction holds such a sway for authors? What about the flaw makes us, as an audience, so fascinated, and how can this be turned towards the advantage of those hoping to write?

Addictive Personalities

Addiction is an exercise in wish fulfillment. Feeding into so many character traits, addiction represents a maximized desperation for a familiar emotion. However a character might need to fulfill that craving, whether it be for love or money, lust or power, their journey becomes relatable to an audience. Like so many emotions in fiction, addiction is useful to the writer not because it is necessarily a realistic depiction of human emotion, but rather because it is human emotion on full volume. The character has a need, a desire and is now filled with an utter compunction to achieve their goal. When creating the arc of a character, making them desire something is simple. Give them a small taste of what they could have, and then take it away. The withdrawal and the chase then become the main concern of the text. Heavily reductionist though it might be, addiction is the perfect means by which an author can demonstrate a character’s desire for an item or an emotion. While it may not be a textbook case of addiction, characters in fiction are typically written as fiends, driving relentlessly towards their goal; Ahab is addicted to his white whale, addicted to the chase and the glory. We are not necessarily fascinated by the goal (a whale) but by the addiction itself (Ahab’s desperate pursuit).

An Additive Plot

Addiction is also incredibly useful as a plot device. As mentioned above, as society has grown to understand addiction, the properties of addiction can be used by an author as a way of structuring a plot. Consider the book and film Trainspotting. All of the characters contained within are addicts, chiefly dependent on heroin. Their journeys are defined by their successes and failures in relation to battling this addiction. We as an audience understand addiction; we know the dangers of sharing needles and the other inherent risks of drug dependence. As a plot device, the character’s relationship with addiction plays a huge part. We see them battle with, beat and lose to heroin, and many of the characters are defined in relationship to their addiction. Tommy is corrupted, Renton is the corrupter. Addiction itself is the looming overlord, dictating the paths of these characters. There individual traits are exacerbated by the properties of addiction and we view their actions through the lens of their dependence on heroin. As part of a society fascinated by addiction – drugs, drink, tobacco and consumerism – we can relate to the concept of addictive personalities. Even though we may have never tried heroin, it becomes a heightened facet of humanity; the audience’s sympathy created and embellished by their understanding of human nature.

The Chief Concern of Character

Addiction is a traditionally fertile ground for fiction. Humans are essentially built as addiction machines; instincts and chemical conditioning program us to pursue pleasures and desires often to our own detriment. With so many artists themselves victims of addiction, it should be no surprise to see properties of addiction seeping into so many works of fiction. Indeed, art not only exaggerates addiction, but exemplifies it, redefining it as compulsion and obsession. When so many people are addicted to so many little things, when culture is so intoxicated with the fascination and fixation, it should be no surprise that addiction is a core tenet of the creative process. Either as a motivation device for characters, or as a pillar around which to build a plot, the properties and nature of the addict can be the key to creating wonderfully engaging works.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Be warned, there are some spoilers here!

I may be half a world away, but no matter where a person may find themselves on this planet, certain things remain constant.  In my case, that's Tolkien fandom.  So for our first full weekend in Korea, Tara and I made sure to ride into the city to watch the latest installment of the Hobbit, known around these parts as 호빗:스마우그의 폐허.  And I'll say this for the film; you have not truly experienced The Desolation of Smaug unless you've seen it as it was intended: on the big screen, in a packed theater, with Korean subtitles.

Joking and gratuitous Hangul aside, this was more or less the film I've been expecting since last year's Hobbit spectacle, truly spectacular in the most cinematic sense.  Some things left me disappointed, while others worked better than I had hoped they might.  It was often funny and never boring, which I suppose was the main objective all along.  It's still not quite a right adaptation of the book, but perhaps it's taking shape as something truly worthwhile in its own right.

So once again, the name of the game is running across the natural majesty of New Zealand and the artificial majesty of New Zealand's finest computer software.  Gravitas and fun mix in just the right proportions, keeping the setting both credible and bearable.  We get a few more battles than the book might have lead us to expect, including some epic wizardry from Gandalf and some bucklin' swash from Legolas and Tauriel, a new character who truly enriches Peter Jackson's Middle Earth.  Indeed, this movie makes even clearer the message that the Middle Earth of the movies has grown quite distinct from that of Professor Tolkien's own labor of love.  Existing somewhere betwixt the realms of faithful adaptation and ecstatic fan fiction, it can only be fairly judged on its own terms.

There are a lot of little ironies in Peter Jackson's approach to the Hobbit series.  The man who decided that Tom Bombadil was inessential and could be left out of the script, gives us a heaping helping of Beorn the skin-changer, whose presence in the book is not exactly critical.  Maybe if Tom Bombadil could become an enormous CGI bear, he might have warranted a cameo in The Fellowship of the Ring.  Legolas was one of the most fun characters to watch in the first trilogy, but while his insertion into The Hobbit does make a certain amount of canonical sense, the role of Tauriel in the story almost renders him unnecessary.  In fact, Jackson invents an entirely new orc fight sequence (in the streets of Lake Town, though most of its inhabitants seem to have slept through it) more or less to give Legolas something to do, while Tauriel contributes much more meaningfully to the plot.

Speaking of Tauriel, there's a lot I'd like to say about her!  Much as I admire the vision of J.R.R. Tolkien, there is no denying that women are hard to find in his works.  In fact, if memory serves then the only named female characters in the original text of The Hobbit are Bilbo's dead mother and greedy cousin.  Insofar as adaptation is about addition as well as subtraction, then the addition of more female characters is a perfectly valid choice for a more socially conscious age.  Tauriel is a good example of such a character done right: she fits credibly into the world of the male characters without seeming like an exception, as though it were perfectly natural that the captain of the Elven-King's guard might be a woman.  Legolas gets all the attention, but this movie could easily have been made with Tauriel as the central elf.

Now, amidst all the additions and other goodies, it can be easy to forget about poor Bilbo and the dwarves.  That's a crime, because once again Martin Freeman's one-on-one with a CGI character is the highlight of the movie: the mighty Smaug is not to be denied the limelight.  As glorious a computer graphic as was ever put to screen, Benedict Cumberbatch's voice work gives the dragon the simple fairy tale arrogance that defined him so well on the page.  Smaug is Gollum writ large, less complicated and more bombastic, yet alike in their fierce intelligence and sinister playfulness.  Compared to these, the Necromancer seems almost like a distraction.

I could go on and on about this and that, because The Desolation of Smaug is bursting with characters worth talking about.  I'd like to write about how Thorin's evolution into a tragic hero is handled so sympathetically, or what the social and political conditions of Lake Town imply for fantasy fiction into the future.  I'd really like to, but we could be here for days.  There is an awful lot to take in, and multiple viewings may be in order.

I re-watched An Unexpected Journey recently, and while it holds up a year later, there is little question that The Desolation of Smaug is the superior movie.  It still remains to be seen whether the third installment will tame Jackson's madder impulses and bring us a truly satisfying conclusion.  When all is said and done, will the whole work be worthwhile?  I sure hope so.  But even if it ultimately fails in its artistic goals, at least The Hobbit will have given us plenty to talk about.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Now Broadcasting from the Republic of Korea

The title says it all, doesn't it?  I've actually been here a week, as my other blog will attest, but I haven't had a chance to make an update on this blog.  Not only have I radically changed position on the globe, I've also radically changed employment status from "not" to "full time."  It's kind of exhilarating.  Kind of exhausting too.  But the point is, my girlfriend Tara and I are now living and working in Cheonan, South Korea, and will be for the next year.  What a year it's going to be!

Of course, as I mentioned, we have a blog for talking about Korea.  I imagine more people are actually reading that one than this one at this point, but that's all fine with me!  That's the exciting stuff, after all.  This blog has always been more about illustrating my occasional fits of creativity or exploring my myriad obsessions.  It will still be about that.  It's just that, now I'll be illustrating and exploring from our little apartment in South Korea.  You probably won't notice much of a difference.

Speaking of things like that, I saw The Desolation of Smaug yesterday, and you can be darn sure I'll write a review of it tomorrow.  In America or in Korea, Tolkien remains a priority.

Other updates... since coming here, I'm poor as hell for the time being (I don't get paid until January Tenth) and I don't have wifi, which is kind of like being back in the 90s.  All we have going for us internet-wise is an ethernet cable, which is actually pretty great!  It means only one of us can use the internet at the time, but at least it's fast internet.  So it's not quite like the 90s after all.  We're working on getting wifi, but we need money and our Alien Registration Cards before we can make it happen.  I miss using my tablet, but all things in their due course as they say.

Anyway, I'll be here doing my thing like I do, eating Korean food and doing my job (read about it on my other blog), and sharing my occasional brain stews with you.  I hope they're delicious.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

I think this is it (is it?)

When you make plans to travel abroad for an extended period of time, gentle reader, take some advice from yours truly: expect your timetable to be subject to change.  You may be one hundred per cent ready to go in October, but find that your visa application won't be finalized until the beginning of December.  Sometimes it's nobody's fault.  Other times it's somebody's fault, but you'll never know it because they can hide their face behind a filing cabinet a half a world away.

So again, even if you're ready to go, make sure you're hunkered down somewhere comfortable in the meantime.  Make the best of being left to your own devices.  You know... devise something!

As it happens, December is about to dawn and Tara and I, at long last, are within a week of finally seeing our work visas.  I just got back from Seattle, where I turned in the final application at the South Korean General Consulate yesterday.  Our visa issuance numbers were a long time coming (pending a much-delayed inspection of our work site), but they finally came through last Wednesday.  Assuming no further delays, we could have permission to work in Korea by Thursday.

So I'm happy.  I've been feeling fairly stagnant at her parents' home in Canby, Oregon, unable to summon much drive for anything besides cooking a few meals and gorging on Netflix.  Holidays have come and gone, and they've been nice, but they've also been reminders of the passage of time.  Sometimes, the job I knew was waiting for us seemed more fantastical than real.  But now I'm warming up and I feel like moving and doing again.  With such a big change in my life, I feel more acutely aware of all I could be doing in the time left to me in America.

Of course, it's not as if I've been totally inactive in this period.  I finally finished Dreaming of a New Set of Strings, and that's not nothing!  I've also been writing poetry, as well as book reviews on Goodreads (a site which is somewhat unfairly encroaching on the territory of the good old WFJ Book Club).  The Wave Function Tumblr is also humming along as it does.  But Tumblr is easy, and I want to get back to trying something hard.  Something to be proud of.

Hopefully, you readers will see that something soon.  In the meantime, here's a song that makes me want to be less of a lazy-ass writer guy.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Dreaming of a New Set of Strings

A young man began this story lying on his back, staring wistfully at a stationary ceiling fan on a cool afternoon.  His back rested on an old bed, which was really more of a mattress, and his legs rested on an old stool he rarely sat in.  Books about theories and stories sat on the shelf, recently unread.  It was getting dark, but not very.

And in his hands, the young man had a silver guitar.  It wasn't name-brand and it wasn't particularly expensive, but it was shiny, and when he strummed the strings they made happy sounds.  Well, mostly happy.  Sometimes his fingers messed up on their way to new chords, and no one in the building was happy about that.  They let him know with heavy thuds and muffled sarcasm, and he took their criticism to heart.  But of course he knew, it takes more than criticism to play a guitar.

So when it got just a little bit darker he swung up to his feet, ready to call it a night for practice.  But before setting his instrument down on the stand, he couldn't help playing one last solo; a few pretty notes on a couple of strings, sliding and vibrating to nowhere in particular.  It felt good, and it didn't sound horrible.

The young man smiled and closed his eyes as the strings bent softly under his fingertips.  He might have thought, "if I were just a little bit better, this guitar could really sing."  But you wouldn't know it, because he wasn't in the habit of saying things that corny to himself.  The hope was in the sound of the guitar, that it might reflect those thoughts.  With a little more practice, maybe.

"Seven thirty, seven thirty!" came the sound of a woman's voice, firm and flighty.   "James, I swear I told you to be ready by seven forty!"

Jim was confused: most people didn't call him James, especially people he didn't actually know.  But she stood there in his hallway, smoking a cigarette and tapping her smart phone with a vengeance.  Her eyes were fixed to the screen, but she was clearly waiting for an explanation.

"Umm..if it's only seven thirty, don't I still have time?"  His eyes lingered uncomfortably on her cigarette, questioning its presence in what was otherwise a very clean home.

"Not enough to get ready for the meeting with the label.  You expect to go in looking like that?  I swear."  His shirt was slightly-mustard stained, true.  But it was really good mustard, and besides, that didn't really seem like the big issue.

"I'm... meeting with a label today, huh?"

"Yes, some indie outfit.  Maybe they won't mind if you're all slouchy, I hope."

"I'm thinking there might be a mistake here."

"The mistake," she said, extinguishing her cigarette on the clean white wall in a showy gesture of exasperation, "was not checking up on you at seven twenty five.  Musicians, I swear."

"Well, I could hurry..."

"Don't bother, just go like...that, I guess.  Maybe they'll like your grungy, alterna-whatever style."

"I can honestly say I didn't know that was my style."

"You could have fooled me, Mustard Stain.  Now get downstairs!  I swear, if you blow this meeting..."

"I'm going!"  He didn't want to provoke her into swearing anymore, unsure of what it might lead to.  But as he quickly stepped into his worn tennis shoes and made for the stairwell, the woman grabbed a hold of his arm.  Gesturing with a new, unlit cigarette, she pointed to his room and said "aren't you forgetting something, James?"

Jim looked back, and figured she was referring to his silver guitar.  He hurriedly packed it in his traveling case and rushed down the stairs.

Normally, the stairwell led to a common area, with a front door and street access.  As strange as things were, Jim had no expectation that he would find anything different.  But as things turned out, he had profoundly underestimated the magnitude of the strangeness he was experiencing.  There was no common area this evening: only an empty reception room at a tiny office.  Posters for hipster bands ringed the walls, and a fern drooped distressingly low in the corner.  A pathetic air conditioner was breathing its last breath.

All of the developments thus far caused Jim a fair amount of consternation, and he would probably have turned around and gone right back to his room if the stairwell had not disappeared when he wasn't looking.  He took a seat by the ailing plant, fiddling with the fasteners on his guitar case and wondering if he'd missed something important.

When Jim glanced up at the clock, he saw that it read three twenty.  It was much earlier (or possibly later?) than he had believed, but from the shadows pouring through the tiny office windows it didn't look like much time had passed.  Time didn't really seem to be passing at all, despite the determined tick-tick-tock of the hand around the clock face. 

The thought occurred to Jim, at long last, that he could be dreaming.  This wouldn't have been too surprising, as Jim dreamed quite often; more often than most people, most likely because he slept considerably more.  The sudden awareness of dreaming usually caused him to wake up, but that didn't hold true on this occasion.  The more he thought about it, the more he could feel the seat of his chair pushing up against him.  The groans of the senile air conditioner seemed convincing enough.  As for the fern, it was surely dying; a close look inside its planter box revealed a mat of dead leaves over dessicated top soil.  He probed the dirt with his finger, but couldn't go very deep.

Generally speaking, he didn't believe in lucid dreaming.  There wasn't any particular reason for that; he had of course heard plenty about its pleasures and benefits from friends and articles of uncertain origin.  But he couldn't recall that it had ever happened to him before, and the idea of being fully conscious in a dream just didn't seem very plausible.  Wasn't it more likely that lucid dreamers simply remembered their dreams more clearly than usual, and rationalized the experience after the fact?  A dream was a dream: if he were actually dreaming, then he knew his body must be lying down, his eyes closed, appearing utterly unconscious to anyone who happened to see.  But he felt conscious enough.

"If this is a dream," he said slowly, "I can probably make something out of this guitar."  Opening the fasteners on his case, he considered that it probably was a dream, because he really wasn't in the habit of talking out loud to himself.  But the guitar was more or less as it usually was: silver, and shiny.  When he strummed the strings, they still made happy sounds.  In fact, they sounded very happy; without really meaning to, he'd unleashed a fresh stream of pop chords, tumbling off the neck like a springtime romance.  They weren't just happy, they were ecstatic.  "This is a good dream," he said, keeping the joyful beat with the stomp of his shoes.

The air conditioner finally gave up the ghost, and the dying fern seemed to sag in mourning.  But the clock kept ticking and Jim kept playing, until the office doors unexpectedly flew open.  A busy looking man poked his head through them, wearing big glasses and an ironic tie.

"James, I told you this wasn't an audition.  Get back in here, the contract's all drawn up!"

It was only natural to follow the man in, but Jim hesitated, momentarily disoriented by the interruption of his song.  This man seemed like some sort of authority; by dream logic, he was probably supposed to follow that authority without question.  Then Jim thought about testing the limits of this lucid dream experience.  Rising up to his feet, he pointed the neck of his guitar toward the busy-looking man in an impromptu pose of defiance.

"And if I refuse?"

The busy looking man stared blankly for three seconds, then turned around and retreated briskly into his office.  "That sense of humor's going to be great on your records.  I'm sure of it."

Slightly embarrassed, Jim put his guitar back into its case and walked through the open door, closing it self-consciously behind him.

The busy man's name (as Jim could see from the sign on his desk) was Montana Market, and he was highly distracted.  Even as he pushed the contract across for Jim to sign, he was focusing intently on a real estate flyer that advertised mansions in Boca Raton.  The rolling hills of grass and palms were certainly very attractive, but Mr. Market had not even handed Jim a pen.

Outside the office, Jim heard the air conditioner dying.  Again.  "Mr. Market?"

"What is it?"

"I think I'm going to need a pen."

The mogul never took his eyes off of Boca Raton.  "Oh really?  Did you need one this morning?"

"Not that I remember."

"Well then, I don't see why you'd need one now.  I never find I need one, myself."  Market's cigar smoke floated lazily over affluent Florida, and Jim could not recall when it had been lit.

So Jim sat there a while longer, glancing first at the contract, then Montana Market's ironic tie, then back at the enigmatic contract once again.  He couldn't really concentrate on reading it.  The smoke from the cigar smelled like fine dark chocolate, but Jim could feel that somehow, it was contributing to the air conditioning's third and most violent death yet.  He wanted to stop it, but couldn't see how.

"Maybe I can dream it signed," thought the young man, for all the world to hear.

"Maybe," said the mogul, drowsily, "they'll have gators bigger 'an boots."


"I could use some gator boots."

"I could use a mansion in beautiful Boca Raton," said a voice from just behind Jim's ear.  It was his erstwhile manager; is that really who she is, he wondered?  "Now sign the contract, James, your show's in twenty minutes."  She walked slowly around the two of them, and the mogul turned away from his previous obsession, resting his feet on the desk.  She seated herself on his lap, and began tugging suggestively on his ironic tie.

Jim was sure that somehow, this was all wrong.  Wasn't this the sort of thing that got an artist screwed out of their royalties?  A manager really shouldn't be in bed with the label, he thought, taking special care to keep it to himself.

"You found us a smart one, Ms. Bette," whispered Montana Market, his hands wandering inappropriately up the length of her thigh.  "He'll figure out how to sign the contract pretty soon."

"Is...this part of my contract... Ms. Bette?  I have to figure out how to sign it without a pen?"

"Oh yes," she giggled, "always bet on the smart ones."  Jim thought the mogul might have been tickling her, but she could just as easily be laughing at some joke on her smart phone.  It lay resting on Mr. Market's bare chest, and Jim found himself wondering just where that ironic tie had disappeared to.

"Ms. Bette, are you really my manager?"

She laughed out loud, turning her head to be certain he got the point.  "What on Earth gave you that idea, Mustard Stain?"

Jim was increasingly annoyed.  It wasn't so much at the behavior of his hosts; he'd only just met them and didn't think it right to judge.  But he could feel himself losing control of what he thought was a lucid dream.  That didn't seem right.  The impasse was uncomfortable, especially as he watched the two figures who seemed to know more about the situation become increasingly interested only in each other.

How to sign a contract without a pen?  And suddenly it hit him, in a moment of true lucidity.  Reaching into his pocket, he found a sharpened pencil.  Whether it had been there all along or not, he couldn't say, but he cheerfully signed the document, eager to move along.  "I hope it's legal like this," he said, trying to catch their ears with his tone.

Ms. Bette took a moment from giggling into Mr. Market's chest to grab the paper and read his leaden signature.  "Brilliant work, James!"  She laughed again, turning back to the mogul.  "You were right, he is a clever one!"

"Cathy," mumbled the distracted label man, "if you'll buy me those shoes I told you about, I'll buy you that boob job, and the world's tiniest black bikini."  And from one moment to the next, Cathy Bette suddenly had both of those things, and could not have looked happier.  Incidentally, Jim noticed that Montana Market's feet were now clad in a shiny pair of alligator boots, roughly the size of luxury speed boats.  The workmanship was immaculate.

Jim frowned.  "I increasingly feel as if this is not my dream anymore."

"No, James, I'd say your dream is out there."  She indicated over his shoulder. He turned, and somehow the office door was open to a paradise of humidity and opulence.  "Somewhere out there, anyway.  First you'll have to get out of Boca Raton.   Now go, find your dream," she said, fiddling with an e-mail on her smart phone while Montana Market completely lost touch with reality, "or I will never forgive you, Mustard Stain."

So Jim stepped out of the office an into the wild suburbs of Florida.  Guitar case in hand, he scanned the scenery for a bus or a taxi that would carry him to his own dream, whatever that meant.  He remained fully conscious of the changing nature of the dreamscape, but that precious quality of lucidity remained outside his grasp.  There was no bus, no taxi, and no obvious means of introducing one to the dream.  Because it wasn't his? 

And then he found himself walking, and found furthermore that it seemed like the right way to go.  Down the row of tacky houses, past three cul-de-sacs, seven palm trees and one well-fought basketball game, and around a street corner he went, and suddenly it didn't look much like Florida anymore.  In fact, before him stood the familiar marquee of Bruno's Bar and Indie Theater.

It was his dream to play Bruno's, after all.  He was sure of that.  Ever since that night, three years before, when he'd ordered that rum and coke.  It had spilled out of his hand for no good reason at all, drenching the lap of a burly, ill-tempered stranger.  The resulting brawl somehow consumed upwards of twenty patrons, but left Jim mostly, miraculously unscathed.  From that day on he'd wanted to play Bruno's, if only to prove to that burly stranger that he was more than just a "weaselly little bitch."

But would the stranger have the last laugh?  Jim squinted to be sure, and concluded that first impressions were true: the marquee proudly announced the one-night engagement of the up-and-coming star, Jimmy Jim Stain.  Never having called himself by that moniker (or heard another use it to his face), he asked the bouncer if there'd been some sort of mistake in the billing.
"Not on our end," said the bouncer, who bore an uncanny resemblence to the burly, ill-tempered stranger, though he wore a more outrageous mustache.  "That's the name the promoter told us to run."

Things were not much better back stage, as the count to show time rapidly decreased and the strings of Jim's silver guitar bristled at his clumsy attempt to tune them.  "Soundcheck was great, Jimmy!" called the stage manager, "I know you're going to break their hearts!"  But Jim could not remember soundcheck.  He could not remember ever seeing the stage manager's face before, or his ridiculous patchwork suit.  And he could not remember how to play guitar.

The dream was changing faster than Jim could keep up.  He drank three cups of bitter coffee that appeared (piping hot) out of God knows where, but not one drop of caffeine could calm him down.  "Is this lucid dreaming," he asked the dark red curtain that draped inches from his face, "or just a pants-wetting nightmare?  Oh God, it's another one of those, isn't it!?"  Must the show go on, or would it end if he just woke up?

And as the curtain parted, and the audience clapped with uncommon enthusiasm, and the lights reflected off the silver body of his guitar, Jimmy Jim Stain knew that it really would all be over if he just woke up.  But in that moment, the true lucidity came back to him.  "If you let it," he found himself saying into the red hot microphone, "your guitar can really sing."  

He led the set with an original composition, a mid-tempo song he couldn't quite remember writing, but felt confident he knew every word:

"You can play the same old chords on my heart,
You can sing me songs about pearls and rings,
But sooner or later, you know I'm a-get smart,
And you'll have to buy yourself a new set of strings."

The chords flowed freely from his fingers to his frets, with a fluency that would have startled him if the sum of the experience did not leave him so happy.  It was not a caricature of rock n' roll success, a thunderous breakthrough into packed arenas and hedonistic after-parties.  That was not this dream; in this dream, Jim was in control, Jim defined his own success.  The crowd loved him, but with gentle affection and warm appreciation for his craft.  They applauded for each new song, called for an encore, and he even thought he could hear a few tender voices singing along to his version of "Smokey Mountain Rain."  And for the first time, Jim really felt he'd played it well.

"Sweet lucidity, where have you been all my life?"

The positive vibes followed Jim back stage, and enveloped him once again with every back-slap and raised bottle as he made his way to the bar.  The passage of time was still erratic, and though he seemed to recall having played thirteen songs, it didn't seem like time had passed for more than two or three.  Bruno's Bar and Indie Theater was sadly deficient in windows and oddly deficient in clocks, leaving precious few indications of time.  It was always dark in a bar like that.  But Jim felt good, and wanted the good feelings to last as long as liquor laws permitted.  "I'll have a rum and coke, please."

And for a while, that was the dream too: drinking a rum and coke in peace at Bruno's, his consciousness steeped in happy details.  The fake gaslamps that looked like real gaslamps in the shadows made his drink glow like a magic potion.  The air conditioner was alive and robust in health, keeping the room crisp and cool despite the abundant human bodies.  Music filled the theater and danced along its walls, quiet enough to permit conversation but loud enough to hold its vital edge.  Everywhere, beautiful men and women shared stories and jokes, laughing into each other's eyes.  Jim neither envied nor resented any of them.  He felt much too good.

After a while, he noticed the presence of a woman at the bar, next to him.  He did not know her face, but she wore the same patchwork suit he'd seen on the colorful stage manager before the show began.  The greens and purples of her costume practically required the attention of every thinking person, yet somehow attracted none of them.  Without quite knowing how, Jim had entered into conversation with her.

"That was a good show, man," she said, taking her drink from the bartender with an experienced smile.  She had a rum and coke as well, though it didn't gleam like Jim's did.  Nothing really could.  "You really broke their hearts out there."

"Oh, I'm sure their hearts will be fine in the morning."  He was getting cornier with each passing sip.

"Of course, it wasn't really the grungy, alterna-whatever style we were expecting, was it?"

The phrase stuck in his craw, and it seemed like the room had risen a few degrees.  He looked at her, halfway hidden by his glass.  "Umm, I don't want to sound forward, but can I ask you a personal question?"

"If you must," she replied, eyebrows intrigued.

"Is your name Cathy Bette, by any chance?"

"As chances are, it is not, " she laughed into her second drink.  It glowed no brighter than the first.  "You don't really think I look like her, do you, Jimmy Jim Stain?"

She didn't, but Jim thought it was hard to be sure, all else considered.  He didn't regret asking, at any rate.  He tried a jolly affectation.  "To be honest, you look more like Cathy's clown."

She smiled the same experienced smile.  "And you look like you ought to be the tiniest bit more careful when you eat sandwiches.  Oh, don't be sad," she said, as warm embarassment spread across his cheeks.  "You aren't a hundred per cent responsible for everything you do tonight.  I'll give you thirty percent for the shirt, anyway."

"Maybe."  Silence seemed wiser.

"Those songs, though, I'll have to give you credit.  You really came through back there."

Jim looked back at the theater stage where the lights had felt so much like love, and smiled in spite of his shame.  He realized then that he'd left his silver guitar behind the curtain, but it seemed alright for the moment.  "I'm just trying to live my dream.  Or dream it, anyway."

"Do you mind my saying," she intoned, "that your dream comes across as a little modest?"

"No, I don't mind it," Jim said, though in truth he was a little annoyed.  "But you know, I've been trying to keep this dream on track all night, and it's not exactly easy."

Her smile came more naturally now.  "I guess the success hasn't gone to your head, not too much anyway.  You're right, you know.  It's hard work to dream something right."

Jim tried to set his glass on the bar, but found that both were gone.  Instead of Bruno's Bar and Indie Theater, the setting was Grady's Restaurant.  The food was upscale and the upholstery expensive.  "Tell me about it," he sighed.

"Your name isn't really 'Stain,' is it, Jim?"

"No, thank God."

"A name's just a name," she chuckled.  "What kind of name is 'Grady's' for French cuisine, after all?"

"I guess in some small way, I've always wondered."  He tasted a bit of what he assumed to be escargot, and found it tasty.

"Compliments of the Chef," announced a stentorian waiter, as two of his comrades appeared to present Jim with the case containing his guitar.  For a moment, he could only wonder why.

"Don't worry, don't wonder," said the woman in the patchwork suit, dabbing her lips with a serviette.  "A dream's a dream and no matter what any one says, it's still a dream.  But real life's the same way, if you think about it."

He looked back at her, and considered for a moment whether she was not in fact wearing an elegant evening dress.  "I can't disagree, but I could do with a little more control."

"What we all couldn't do," she replied, thoughtfully.  "But for what it's worth from me, I think you have as much of an opportunity as anybody else.  Keep practicing, and maybe work on being a little less corny, and you'll play Bruno's again some day."

Nodding absently, Jim found that the silver guitar was in his hands once again.  He strummed a few chords.  They weren't much, but they sounded pretty good.

"And look at that," she giggled, "your shirt is clean!"

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Poetry Jam #13

Indulge me once again, unlucky readers, for my thirteenth batch of fancy poetry.  These poems were not meant for such an unfortunate designation; they just happened to have been written between December 2012 (you know, when the world ended) and February of this year.  By this ill chance they were cursed to be a part of Poetry Jam #13.  Apologies all around.

Usual commentary and nonsense, post script:

Susan's Thoughts

If America invaded Florida to
rebase the moon,
repair the seniors' homes
and hospital gates,
and save the alligators,
the world would be happy for us,
history would be kind.

Blue Sparks

That satisfying plug of entry;
now I know we're cooking with fire!
Put it in, plug it in, blue
and silently, before the hum
of industry, cool electricity
coursing through our wires
like the dawn of time and after.


When winds and waters sharply thunder "stop,"
reveal a polished path of ancient rock
and stand completely still, then
who will be so bold
to take the walk?

Not I, say I,
I don't intend to live so long that all
Those secrets shall be willingly unlocked.

My Lover's Favorite Song

My lover's favorite song is done
and I've forgot the melody;
I wrote it in the margins but
I can't remember how I did,
and anyway the paper's gone.

If she will keep the memory,
perhaps not all is lost, perhaps
the song will still play on for her
without my voice to hold it up.

Perhaps the echoes of my love
will keep the music in her heart.

No More Secrets

Relax my love, don't stop, hold still,
we have nothing to be scared of
from the open door beyond;
let the beams of sunlight bare
our secrets to the world, darling,
let our freedom burn the air
around us.

Night to morning break
and dawn to dusk I'll hold you near,
so don't you mind if someone sees;
we have no need of shame or fear,
and neither will we bother with
as long as they can see us clearly
through the open door.

The Song Incomplete

The music fades at the bridge,
and where am I left?
Among stars and vapors,
alone again in the mists,
as silent as then
when the music started:
before the beginning,
the strings in tune,
the precipice

Medieval Gloria

His face, she thought, was not too bad, and how
his armor shone beneath the sun!  She sighed
and thought of Europe in the Middle Ages:
home of glory, inequality,
its castles and its squalor and the plague,
and how an Irish girl might fare with luck.
Determined not to be forgotten once
she'd had the chance to wear that shining armor,
would she keep the charge in her defense?
Apart from time, between the light and dust
of the museum, she could still believe.

Idle Questions of the Sky, Questions Soon Forgotten

How shallow is our misery
when up above the clouds
the sun is either shining
or replaced by brilliant stars?

What shadow on the surface
can compare to all of this?
Why bother with the rain
when you can fly?

Trouble Sleeping

If you're having trouble sleeping,
watch the flame give up the ghost
and think; if this is only fire,
if my consciousness will burn
until it smothers and no longer,
won't these blankets put me out?

Then sleep, and know that waking
will be kindled by the sun;
the light will surely come again,
and even if it doesn't
you will sleep.

Paper Soprano

"Sketch of Spain and Catalonia,
shadow on the paper sea,"
the sweet soprano sings to no one,
but her genius reaches me;

Across the false Atlantic sea,
from years ago and years above,
and scribbled on this manuscript,
a living map to someone's love.

But how I come to hear the sorrow
of the charter, I remember
nothing much, except the summer
that emerged from her December;

Trumpets in the afternoon
and clarinets as evening falls,
with sweet soprano lyrics hanging
on the paper concert walls.

A Simple Goal

I have a simple goal for us:
to love in spite of sadness,
and the onward march of days and years
that tread across our hearts.

A simple goal,
for people very much
in love today
who wish to be in love forevet,
love and never stop.

Abandoned Homes

Somewhere in my town,
between the woods and hills and
other houses
Is an abandoned home.

I don't know if it's safe
to go there,
but I've been there once,
and between the other houses
this one looked alone.

There may be pests inside,
or chemicals,
or insulating foam;

There may be traps,
there may be treasures
in abandoned homes.

Broadcast Day

Both of us have gone asleep
with the radio on;
tonight the DJ is playing
the strangest things
that I have ever heard.

Bossa nova, indie pop
and a tremulous jazz,
with static falling around us
like powdered snow
unfrozen in our hair.

Mournful trumpets in the air,
an incredible pause
and then the analog murmer;
the broadcast day
has ended like a dream.


Thirteen poems, we'll never live it down!

In my mind, Susan's Thoughts is not actually a poem I wrote.  Sometimes I dream about teaching, and in one such dream I was teaching some sort of elementary school art class.  One of my imaginary students put these words on a poster board for a project.  In my dream, I gave her a high five.

I swear to god, I did not mean to write Blue Sparks as a sex poem.  Scrub your filthy mind!  It's clearly about the miracle of electricity and nothing else.

No More Secrets is pretty sexful, though.  I was home for Christmas, and I was lonely.  Loneliness also accounts for My Lover's Favorite Song, but that one isn't all that sexful.

Discovery is all about that cute little ending.  Everything else is justified by the ending.  MOVE ALONG NOW.

The lack of final punctuation in The Song Incomplete is intentional.  Look at the clever guy!

I wrote Medieval Gloria shortly after reading Malachy McCourt's History of Ireland, having been impressed with the author's apparent eagerness to tell the stories of the island's most interesting ladies.  It seemed to me that people ought to be inspired by the best examples of history, whatever their gender.  The girl in the poem looks beyond the ordinary, male-dominated presentation of history and sees an integral place for herself in the story.

Trouble Sleeping is one of my candle poems.  Sometimes, I am obsessed with candles.

I *love* Paper Soprano.  I don't even think it's perfect.  I just love the idea behind it.  Art to emulate, art to recreate, never quite recaptured.

I know there's nothing simple about love, but I don't think that's love's fault.  A Simple Goal is another poem for Tara.

I wrote Abandoned Homes after I walked past one on an epic hike with my friend Bau.  We were trying to find the richest homes in Eugene.  We found them, but first we found a sketchy, empty dwelling that I'm sure the neighbors were thrilled about.

I recall writing Broadcast Day on the whiteboard while subbing for a math class at Willamette High School.  I was bored during study hall and thought about how nice it would be to nap with the radio on.  Childhood memories did the rest.

Monday, September 2, 2013

A Test and a Decision

If you've ever had the notion that the United States of America's place in the world is fundamentally untenable, you are doubtless concerned by what is happening with regard to Syria.  Once again, we find ourselves on the brink of what we call "intervention," a term that can encompass all things from occupation to a few cruise missiles, artfully placed to make some kind of point.  The future is open ended, but none of the ends are attractive.  And in the era of the Imperial Presidency, we have become much too accustomed to being led into this sort of adventure.

Something a little different is happening this time.  President Obama, who has thus far seemed to accept the premise that a president may make war as he sees fit, has invited Congress to make the decision of whether to punish Syria for the use of chemical weapons.  That this seems new and different should be evidence enough that our system has plainly gotten away from us.  Congress is not presently in session to make that decision, but it will be very soon.  And when our honorable senators and representatives do finally meet, the ensuing events will matter hugely.  This episode will make a fine case study in the role of constitutional government in foreign policy, and will say much about how our constitution and our nation will change in the future.  But it will be even more significant for the people of Syria

Imperial Power

America teaches its children that we are powerful and that this is a good thing.  But while it is obviously preferable to have some power rather than none, occupying the hegemonic status that the U.S. does is inevitably problematic.   Hegemons hurt weaker nations almost without meaning to (to put it charitably), and they invariably rest upon institutional inequality on all scales, global and domestic.  Our power was bought with a bitter price, that will grow more unpleasant with time.

America believes its power to be a good thing, because it enables the doing of good things.  In principle, I believe in that.  How could I not, educated as I was, brought up in the midst of star-spangled flags?  But in acting as the Great Bastion of Freedom, the U.S. has changed itself and altered its constitutional system.  The words on the parchment stay the same, but the system has grown to address the concerns of power.  For example, the Congress may hold the exclusive right to declare war according to the text, but the Cold War taught us to accept that a war was sometimes only a "police action," and that a declaration of war was usually superfluous. 

So what will Congress do about Syria?  Honestly, the question nearly makes me cry.  Obama has asked Congress to give him the authorization to make an initial strike, apparently against the judgment of his cabinet.  But this Congress is objectively terrible, and the only sure thing is that its members will use this opportunity to make fools of themselves.  It is very possible that they will give the president what he asks for, simply because the subject intimidates them.

But suppose for a moment that they do not say yes.  The idea of intervention is unpopular, and the Republicans might well deny President Obama out of their usual spite.  What happens next?

Obama's secretary of State, John Kerry, said today that the President has the right to strike whatever Congress says.  He's plainly not the only one who thinks so.  But what does Obama think?  If Congress tells him no, would he change his approach?  Having overruled his administration on seemingly constitutional grounds, will he stick to that principle come what may?

It is obvious by this point that the Imperial Presidency is alive and well in the Obama administration.  It evidently takes more than hope to dismantle the rationale of power, and it is that rationale that informs Kerry's opinion, to say nothing of the NSA's adventures in domestic spying and the persecution of whistle-blowers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.  Syria's President Assad has called Obama weak already for deferring to Congress.  An empire must abhor the appearance of weakness. 

But Obama can do a great deal of good for the United States by respecting the decision of Congress in this matter.  He can show with firm evidence that the spirit of constitutional government has not been fully choked in the thin air of global hegemony.  If Congress tells him no, he should not attack Syria.  If Congress modifies the plan he sent them, he should respect those changes.  And if Congress rubber stamps him, the precedent of his having asked could still be useful.  In any event, the effort to walk America back from an imperial foreign policy will be tasking.  It would be wonderful to set a positive example of cooperation between the branches of government, especially given all the inexcusable nonsense that has made these years so hard.

I have advocated for changes in our Constitution in the past, on the grounds that such changes are desirable and necessary over time in any nation.  It is not the Constitution of 1789 that is really at the crux of this issue, but the more general principle of constitutional government.  This principle, not the text, is what sustains the republic.  Thus far, Obama's approach on this specific issue is consistent with this principle, but much depends on what comes next.

Syrian Troubles

All of this talk of principle, however important, ignores a crucial consideration.  People are dying in Syria, and the situation is only growing more monstrous.  Chemical weapons have been used and may well be used again.  Assad is unacceptable, and though we've tolerated him in the past, that is no justification for tolerating him now.  The rebels, should they succeed, may prove problematic down the line, but what could be worse than a hundred thousand dead?

The United States, for all its problems, is extraordinarily powerful.  Sitting on all this power, it is hard to look at all this suffering and bloody stalemate and accept that nothing can be done, or that nothing should be done.  Whatever consequences we create, there seems to be a moral imperative to do something to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people.  If power really can enable good deeds,  then why should it be of no use here?

But there may be no good to be gained, even by firing a missile straight down Assad's throat.  We can't afford another war like we had in Iraq.  We can't afford to take responsibility for Syria's reconstruction.  And we can ill use another cause celebre for al qaeda should order break down after our intervention.

What the people of Syria need is a strong cease-fire agreement, with international peace keepers to hold back any breaks.  It is not obvious how any purely American intervention will accomplish that.  It's also not clear how we can move the United Nations to impose a peace, especially given the behavior of Russia.  Any responsible observer must agree that our choices our dire, but inaction is no less so.

I don't know what we can do in Syria, or what we should do.  I don't think anyone really does.  But for us, this is a test of our historical character, one of many points that will influence where we go from here.  We cannot lose sight of the big picture, and we must be prepared to deal with whatever consequences arise.

So watch what Congress and President Obama do in the next few days.  You will learn a lot about where this world is going by how they conduct themselves.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Things I will miss about living in Eugene, Oregon

I first came to this town in 2005, and through college and other experiences it's become a true second home.  But an eye to the calendar reminds me that on the 17th, I'm boarding a plane to San Diego.  From there I'm off eventually to live in South Korea for at least a year, and whether I come back to live in Eugene for an extended period again is an open question.

Over the years, Eugene has been more than just a place to live and lay about: it's offered a series of distinct blessings and pleasures to me.  I got the best part of my education here, and met the love of my life.  Different things have occupied my focus at different times, but they all made Eugene a place where I felt comfortable.

So with naught but ten short days to go, here's a list (in no particular order) of the things I will miss about living in the second largest city of our twenty seventh largest state:

  • Live music and open mic night at Cozmic Pizza.
  • Easy access to the products of the Oakshire, Ninkasi, and Widmer Brothers breweries.
  • Hiking at the Mt. Pisgah Arboretum.
  • Eating salmon and chips at Newman's Fish Market so frequently that the whole kitchen staff knows me on sight.
  • Playing bass guitar in the company of my friends.
  • Taking a nap on the couches in the EMU on campus even though I graduated in 2009.
  • Substitute teaching at Elmira High School (among others).
  • Drinking a little too much on Fridays at the Starlight Lounge with my grad school cohort.
  • Walking around in light rain without a hood on and acting like it's all good.
  • Strolling by rivers and creeks, looking for nutria and wishing they were beavers.
  • Ordering movie-themed Eggs Benedict at the Studio One Cafe.
  • Watching anime and playing video games all night with my friends.
  • Camping in the prettiest woods in the world.
  • Hanging around the Smith Family Book Store without necessarily buying anything.
  • Sitting on the porch with a gouda cheeseburger at Jiffy Market.
  • Watching hippies do strange things in public.
  • Stalking the deer who stroll nonchalantly down my street.
  • Listening to 91.1 KWAX, 89.7 KLCC, and 91.9 KRVM while driving around in my car.
  • Taking long walks with my best friend while discussing issues of great import, or just nerdy nonsense.
  • Ordering huge pizzas from Sy's and eating them with my friends until we feel like dying.
  • Filling out my music collection with visits to House of Records.
  • Feeling like a six-year-old on the rare occasions when it snows.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Maitreya Heart Shrine Relic Tour

One of the many curious details of my life in Eugene is that I happen to live up the street from a Buddhist temple.  Most days I ignore it, because I am not a Buddhist and am not presently in search of a religion of any sort.  But the Saraha Nyingma Buddhist Institute is there, and frankly I like that it is there.  It's a beautiful part of my community and appropriately placed amidst trees and hills.  It is quite serene, because as far as I can tell not much is usually happening there.

I visited Saraha today for the first time, because I became aware that something was happening this weekend, and my curiosity was piqued.  Presently, the temple is hosting a collection of Buddhist relics on tour.  I decided to have a look at the Maitreya Heart Shrine Relic Tour, for the purpose of educating myself, and experiencing closer a part of the community I had essentially neglected.

When I approached the building, I already found it in a much different state than usual, with cars crowding the curbs and a huge line of people (and shoes) pouring from the entrance.  In fact, I spent nearly an hour standing in that line, barefoot, trying not to feel conspicuous amongst a crowd of very serious people.  Most of the people were older than me, but there were a few parents with small children, as well as a few dogs who were allowed in to be blessed.  An older woman behind me was speaking German, and though I don't know much German it sounded like she was describing a Buddhist legend.  I don't know how many of the people were Buddhists and how many were interested outsiders like myself, but everyone was very respectful and patient.  I tried to be equally patient as the line slowly advanced into the main chamber.

The staff and volunteers were kind and welcoming, and they took the time to explain what was going on to me.  The Maitreya relics inside once belonged, they told me, to various Buddhist leaders and teachers throughout history, including Shakyamuni Buddha, Gautama himself.  If this is true, and I have no particular reason to doubt that it is, then the oldest stones and fragments of bones on the display table are about two thousand and five hundred years old.  The relics are displayed in small, beautiful glass containers, and certainly looked the part for their antiquity.  I entered with the expectation, of course, of dispassionately viewing some artifacts in a museum-like context.  This experience was much more religious than that.  People were actively meditating and worshiping to the side of the viewers, and the artifacts were plainly presented for veneration, not just idle display.

Though I am not a Buddhist, I was invited and encouraged by the volunteers to participate in a few basic rituals.  While standing in line, I copied a line from a sutra (though I did not quite understand what it meant).  I poured water three times over the head of the Buddha's statue, and lightly rang a couple of bells.  I spun a small prayer wheel (incorrectly, as the little girl in front of me pointed out).  Finally, I was invited to receive a blessing.  As the woman who blessed me asked me to pray silently, I contemplated my upcoming journey to Korea with my girlfriend, Tara.  Though I doubt its practical efficacy, the good will I felt from the temple during the blessing was heart warming in the best sense.

As I made my exit, I passed a container of holy water, blessed with the "energy" of the relics on display.  A sign instructed me to take some of it home with me, to add to some water at home and use as part of my daily routine.  Being from a Catholic background it had never really occurred to me to use holy water in this way, but I duly filled a small paper cup, walked back to my house, and made myself some tea.  I don't know what effect I was supposed to perceive from the energies of the relics, but I have to admit it tasted good.

Today was the final day of the Maitreya exhibition at Saraha, and I'm glad that I took the time to do something a little out of the way.  No matter how ordinary a neighborhood may seem, at times it may be touched by something larger.  Rarity appears in surprising places.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Poetry Jam #12

Today's round of poetry, containing works both light and not-so-light, was written between August and December of 2012; quite a time to be alive, as I recall!  Our President was re-elected, and I was frantically trying to move out of a house I'd only been living in a few months.  That's...pretty much it, as far as noteworthy events.  I probably don't really need to sit on my poems this long before releasing them to the eyes of the world, but you know me.  Lazy.

As always, a few notes and commentary at the bottom for those who like that sort of thing.  Lord knows I must.

My Face

I was surprised to see my face;
I thought that I looked different,
but I guess I just forgot myself
from looking in a mirror,
and now I can't believe my face
is who I'll be tomorrow.


The right of self-destruction may be ours,
it may be plain for all to see
but isn't it odd that we claim it?

The right to misadventure for the young
wherever youth runs stray and free,
but isn't it odd that we claim it?

The right to burn our organs to the ground,
to douse our minds and light the smoking oil,
as evident as things could be,
but isn't it odd that we claim it?


How fine to see an hourglass alive
and dwindling, not diminishing, but turning
sand from top to bottom, bulb to bulb;
descending, frozen in a fluid moment,
stopped in space and passing time by time.

How fine to be reminded of the glass
that has been turned, and hasn't been, but will
again if someone finds it standing steady.
Every space an endless era, filled,
and emptied, spent, and wasted, filled again.

Mary Jane Around the World

Mary Jane is not at home;
tonight she sleeps in the arms of the sun,
blinded by the light of stars,
eyelids shut across the eyes
of Mary Jane and her beautiful one.

Mary Jane is far away;
today she lightly embraces the moon,
glides along the beams of grey,
silver on the glittering dress
of Mary Jane in the embassy room.

Mary Jane is gone for good;
a lonely thought in a wandering mind,
corresponding to a girl
gone to England, France, Japan:
the Mary Jane who has left him behind.

Music Machine

Noise and silence break the filter,
and that's the way the first song ends
like lightning crackling through a tube:
broken sounds like blues.

Thirteen songs to go before
the fade out
crackles out again.
Noise and silence break the filter,
split the speaker end to end.

Nightmares of Mine

I read your book before I went to sleep,
and yes, I liked it.  But it gave me nightmares:
trees came tumbling from the sky, and saws
flew loops between them; women's faces sprung
from mirrors on the bathroom walls at night.

But I still liked it; yes, I mean the book.
I found it gripping, and I couldn't stop
myself from reading, even when my dreams
began.  I'd turn the page, and owls would peer
from windows hid between the words and call:

We know that you'll be sleeping soon; good night,
and don't mind us, we'll just be sleeping too.

The Notable Gift

You've got the gift, and every one will love you for it,
everyone will love your gift,
They'll come from miles in all directions
Just to watch the way you kick.

So now you've earned a cheer, a kiss,
a headline in the student paper
for your single notable gift.

Una Vez en Español, Por Favor

El alma de mi fuego, levántate,
vuela tú sobre el sonido
de mi corazón ahora.
Esta noche, tú me levantas
y me duermo;
sueña tú juntos conmigo.

A Larger Fire

Our evening hasn't lacked for candlelight,
we burn beside a fire
many stages larger than the flames
of little wicks and wax.

Those candles melt away
but ours will burn until it ashes
several forests worth of wood
and brings this little restaurant down.

Train Tracks

Angry trains at midnight
break the silence of the station
with their unrelenting whistles
and their endless clicker-clacks;

This town could stretch for miles, 
but we'd always be in earshot,
and we'll never get to sleep 
until the trains are off the tracks.

Tara's Eyes

If I were writing of your eyes
I couldn't keep my hands from shaking;
discipline and self-control
are stupid notions when I think
that I could see you and be seen
by you, reflected in your lovely,
loving, incandescent eyes.


Painted on the sidewalks
and the uninspected walls,
sprayed across the concrete,
over bricks and private roads:

Omar the Relentless
keeps his head below the tall grass
so the public doesn't see him.

Tower Defense Queue

Four or five to go, I think,
perhaps as few as three; I hope 
that I won't have to settle...
Only two?  While we could play
with two, this only seems to
raise the question, if I 
really need to play with you.

Wax Shell

There is life inside this shell,
but its lifespan is determined:
there is no escaping that.

Every second that it lives
and consumes its precious matter
is an ash along the path;

When it slowly flickers out
there might still be a reminder 
of the life it hasn't lived,

But the shell will be alone.
It will only be remembered
for the light it didn't give.

Shatter-Colored Window

Now you are broken glass on the floor,
strained like sand and water and a chore
to gather up, a hazard for our feet,

A color-crusted window to the door
beyond perception,
the subjective,
the release.

Something Important to Say

Natalia warned the speaker to
beware of falling icicles
when speaking in the frozen room:

"A single block could crush you dead,
the smallest point could split your head,
and then your speech would never carry
promise like it did before."

Natalia smiled, then she sat down
without betraying her dread.
The speaker bravely said her peace
because it had to be said.



I don't think Rights is very elegant as far as meter goes, but I like everything else about it.  The middle stanza is weak, but I think the third one more than makes up for it in terms of content.  I'm not a teetotaler, but I do think that our bodies are worth taking care of, and I have never been comfortable with the notion that being young is not only a license, but an invitation to hurt yourself.

Hourglass has some nifty metaphysics and philosophy going on, but mostly it's about word sounds.  "Turning sand from top to bottom, bulb to bulb?"  Sometimes I impress myself.  I am easily impressed by plosive consonants.

Mary Jane Around the World, on the other hand, is more about images and feelings.  Loss and liberty, you might call it, if you were allowed to title it.  I have half a mind to re-title it right now.  But I won't.

My notes indicate I was drunk when I wrote Music Machine.  I don't want to give the impression that I always drink when I write poems, but I do often feel the urge to scribble when I've had something to drink.  Sometimes, it's halfway decent.

Nightmares of Mine is almost a story, written as it is in blank verse.  The title is literal: those are images that used to recur in my dreams when I was a small child.  Some of them even feel like actual memories, even though the laws of physics preclude them from being possible.  I wanted to give them a little touch of immortality through verse.

The Notable Gift touches on anxiety, about being hailed as brilliantly talented for being able to do one thing sort of well.  I have this problem sometimes.

I am almost a little embarrassed to be presenting Una Vez en Español, Por Favor.  Yes, I wrote it in Spanish.  I didn't write it in English and then translate it, I went word by word in Spanish.  If I've fucked it up in the grammar, please let me know and I'll fix it.  I just really wanted to try something different.  I don't know much about typical meters in Spanish poetry, so I treated the stress more or less as I would in English and did my own thing.

A Larger Fire and Wax Shell were both originally untitled and are both, more or less, about candles.  I was surprised at how sexy the first one turned out to be!  But the second is not sexy.  Not sexy at all.  Anyway, I like candles.  I like the way they smell and I just like the way they burn. 

Tara's Eyes is for Tara, but you guys can read it too.  She really does have beautiful eyes.  It's the biggest cliche ever for a poet to compliment a woman's eyes, but at least I successfully avoided the word "limpid."

"Rumo?" is based on some actual graffiti I saw in the park one day while I was walking home.  The same person seems to have made multiple tags in different places.  It looked like they were spelling "Rumo," but it was so stylized I couldn't be one hundred percent sure.  So I reversed it (sort of) to Omar in the body of the poem, and I liked the mental images it gave me.

Tower Defense Queue is about StarCraft 2.  In case you were wondering.  I'm not often moved to wax poetical about online games, but it was a silly day.

I wrote Shatter-Colored Window to give myself something to do between classes when I was substituting for a ceramics teacher at Springfield High.  You take some of the things you see around you, and sometimes you can make something really pretty out of it.

Something Important to Say appears, at first glance, to be heavily laden with allegory.  It totally is.  Trust your instincts.