Tuesday, November 15, 2016

An Open Letter To My Congressional Representatives

I have just submitted the following letter to my Congressional representatives through their webpages. I suggest you contact your own representatives with similar messages.

Dear Senator Wyden/ Senator Merkley/ Congressman Schrader,

Like many Oregonians, I was deeply dismayed upon learning that Donald Trump had won the Presidency last week. This feeling only deepened when I realized that he would win despite having failed to achieve even a plurality of the national popular vote. Because he has won the electoral vote, the fact that Hillary Clinton received more votes than any candidate in history (apart from Barack Obama) is irrelevant.

I am a high school and middle school social studies teacher, and it was my responsibility to explain to my students the following day why Donald Trump would become our next President, despite having received fewer votes than Hillary Clinton. Many of my students come from families with immigrant members, or are members of the LGBT community, and so have good reason to be fearful of the next four years, and frustrated that our democratic institutions had seemingly failed to prevent this outcome.

For their sake, and the sake of every vulnerable and marginalized person in this country, I am counting on you and other Democratic members of Congress to stand up for human rights during Trump's administration. I am hopeful that Republican members of Congress will also step forward on behalf of those who may suffer devastating setbacks in the next four years.

In practical terms, there is not much that anybody can do to prevent Donald Trump from becoming President next year. However, recently Senator Barbara Boxer introduced legislation which would amend the Constitution to abolish the Electoral College and elect the President by popular vote. I ask that you support this bill and, should it fail to pass during this session of Congress, that you support or sponsor similar bills in the future.

The Electoral College is an antiquated system, designed deliberately to provide a counter against the popular will; to put it plainly, it is fundamentally undemocratic. It has outlived its era, largely because it has not usually contradicted the popular vote. However, it has now done so twice in my lifetime. Demographic changes suggest future splits between the popular and electoral votes may become more common, a development which would dishearten voters and undermine our democracy.

There is precedent to a major change in our procedures for electing federal officials. The Twelfth Amendment modified the Electoral College itself, while the Seventeenth Amendment provided for the popular election of Senators. Other countries have used and subsequently abandoned systems similar to our Electoral College. It is time we abandoned a system which can only hurt, and never improve, our electoral process.

Abolishing the Electoral College may not totally prevent a future Donald Trump from eking out a narrow victory. However, it would make it considerably more difficult, and empower voters who will not have to worry that their vote will be discounted by a tragic and embarrassing glitch in the system. I ask that you will make the passage and subsequent ratification of this amendment a priority.

David Miller

Wednesday, November 9, 2016


I always used to pity people who had bumper stickers from losing political campaigns on their cars. I always assumed that if a cause was doomed, I'd be canny enough to avoid plastering my vehicle with a daily reminder of failure. But to be perfectly honest, I was not canny enough at all.

People like me made several errors in judgment throughout the 2016 presidential campaign. Our two biggest faults were as follows: underestimating the appeal of coded white supremacy to disenchanted white folks, and assuming that Trump's endless stream of scandals, gaffes, and ill-considered impulses would matter in the slightest. As to the former, that was unforgivably short-sighted. As to the latter, who could blame us? Usually, when a candidate behaves as barbarously as Donald Trump, they fail. But then again, few in recent memory ever have behaved as barbarously as Donald Trump.

As results were returned on Tuesday night and it became increasingly clear that something was dreadfully wrong, I felt intense waves of anxiety pulsing through my heart. It hit me that with Trump in the White House, a Republican-dominated House and Senate, and the prospect of multiple nominations for the Supreme Court, the nation was soon to find itself walking a tightrope without a net. A lot of people are going to find themselves vulnerable, and suffering, in the coming months. All this from the election of a man who could not even achieve a plurality in the popular vote.

I felt sick to my stomach. And a precious few hours later, I had to wake up, drive to school, and teach a lesson on just what the hell happened to a class of confused and dismayed children. Maybe I'm lucky that my students are, by and large, anti-Trump. It spared me the pain of facing my tormentors directly. But as comfortable as my classroom walls made me feel, I never forgot that a house with Trump/Pence signs and a Confederate flag stood just a short walk up the road.

I've been critical and supportive of both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Right now, I sympathize with them completely, as I can only imagine that this turn of events has left them both feeling lost and humiliated. Obama's legacy is complicated and imperfect, but it was won with the best of intentions; now, all of its most admirable points are in danger of being swept aside. It kills me to think that what good came of his historic presidency could be lost; it pains me to think of how Clinton might have improved it.

This is not to say that all is lost, and that we should lay down and die. The only thing that can save us from being run over by a Republican agenda is concerted citizen action on the issues that matter most. I contributed to the Clinton campaign; from now on, I will be contributing to Planned Parenthood, to protect the health and rights of women from a man who thinks he's entitled to their bodies at his pleasure. I'll teach my heart out on the issues that matter most. And two years from now, I'll vote to support a Democratic effort to retake the U.S. Congress.

Donald Trump and his contempt for the rule of law are a direct threat to our constitution and our country. But as long as we hold dear to what matters, we have a chance to turn things around.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Poetries #9

I've been sitting on this post a while because, as a busy busy teacher man, I have not had time to write all the commentary you all love so much.

Well, I've had time. But I'm also enthusiastic using my freedom in the pursuit of nothing. So there you go.

But now that I have a lazy Saturday evening, it's time to hit you all with another hot mess of poems, scribbled from the depths of my soul-thing.  They're all from August and September of 2016, a fine pair of months in which good things happened and I was fairly creative.

Content warnings for some light sexual and supernatural happenings.



Lost touch
in a long dream,
continued dreaming
for ages after I woke,
completely out of touch.

Lost fingers
in car doors,
keys in slit
touch in mental illness.

Lost enough
regulation time,
lost the penalty kicks too,
forgot where
I left my left shoe.

On resetting the counter from six hundred and nineteen to zero days.

I will lie
awake for nights
in the deep of thought,
examining and dissecting
that evening
for the slightest sign
that I am guilty of a casual sin.

Over and again,
I will lie
on this bed and rationalize
until I am well convinced
that I didn't use her
without the noblest intentions.

I will lie
on a pillow my head doesn't fit
and recall, with perfect accuracy,
that she called it off
before I did.

With a thick, red grin,
I will lie
on my back
and take comfort in knowing
that I was the model
of a patient man.

Laundry Story 

I found an empty washing machine
with three quarters in the slots,
and without thinking, I attempted
the aggravated mortal sin
of stealing seventy five cents.

Mighty God was clearly watching
when I pushed the sliding lever
and found the coins would not go through:
I gave him such a blasphemy,
for wasting a cup of good detergent.

I loaded up the other machine,
and then I thought, at least I'll have
the last word - so I pulled a key
and pried the stubborn quarters out,
to stuff them in my cotton pocket.

Two of them came loose with ease,
but something struck me wrong about
the third; I took a closer look
and found the reason for the jam -
the face of Queen Elizabeth.

It feels strange, but I have never
even been to Canada; now
I have her royal highness on
a shelf, and fifty good American
cents to put towards a visit.


Pouring salt around our door
and chanting Anglo-Saxon,
you were not surprised
to have eluded their possession,
any more than I was shocked
that you had found religion.

Back when you were casting spells
with kitchen herbs and spices,
carving soapy talismans
and wearing black disguises,
your mother was convinced
that you were just a bit misguided.

Your father wasn't worried,
since you passed in all your classes,
and even when you bought grimoires
from alchemists and witches
he preferred to write your interests off
as adolescent wishes.

As long as no one else could see
the revenants and spirits
menacing around our dorm
with eyelids cold and viscous,
a quaint obsession with enchantment
wouldn't seem suspicious.

But I could not ignore
the spectral hellions' endeavors,
nor the lore you had amassed
in circles carved with scepters,
iron charms and sacred songs,
enchanted wards of heather.

The wonder of it was,
the transformation was successful,
and how your tender form became
a shining, potent vessel -
an aegis from a goddess,
raised to infinite potential.


the lady of the parlor whispered,
join me in the parlor for an
innocent adventure.

the woman in the ballroom whistled,
see the way I balance on my
stylish, modern heels.

the maiden of the kitchen whispered,
find my kitten, I'm afraid the
little dear is missing.

the matron of the garret whistled,
let me out, I guarantee that
you will not regret it.

the disembodied spirit whispered,
the shadows called me by this name,
before they did me in.

On the Leather Seats

A dozen efforts
twenty penetrations
and several muttered curses,
then a loud, remonstrative


and then
a helping hand,
and then a satisfying 

Rock and Roll, and Other Children's Records

Maybe, when you think about it,
but what do I know?  I wouldn't know.

This is all I've got to add:
pop was a mistake, and rock

was always just a misguided attempt
to take it back.  But don't be sorry;

it turns out all we needed
was rhythm and blues all along.

"Caravan", Again

Three successive days,
strange versions of "Caravan"
lift the radio.

After Dark

Tuning out, I take a moment on my phone, I lean against a convenient pillar,
and then I see from out the corner of my eye a friendly, feminine face -
she looks at me with auburn eyes, expectantly, as if she were an old friend of mine.

And I am at a loss for words - I stutter, "hey", and ask if we could have met before -
I was confused, I said, because she looked as though she wanted to talk to me.

"No", she answered, before returning to her sisters, "I was waiting for you to talk to me".

She is gone, and with an instinct I depart across the room, to the open bar,
for now I have become a handsome man without a witness.

Before the Dawn, I Know of Such Release

Before the dawn, I know of such release,
as only joyful tension can provide.

The twists of night are settled down in peace,
and in anticipation, I abide
without the aid of any false alarm.

It is a blessing to awaken now,
because the day is scattering its charm,
and I am overcome with thinking how
I'll soon be gathered up in your embrace.

And like a rapid river I am free,
though miles separate me from your face -
a thousand millions couldn't hinder me.

You only need a little patience more
to find me flowing sweetly by your door.


Eye delighted, ear delights,
and mouth inebriated -
so delightful, says my skin
with liquid, cool detachment -
nose cannot reply, because
the scent has left it speechless.

Stubborn bees

Stubborn bees discover blooms in empty parks and gardens, growing from dead bushes.

On the Passing of a Hateful Poet

The best that could be said on his behalf
was that his politics, philosophy,
and all the record of his acts and deeds
were calculated cruelty - and yet
his book of poems named him "hypocrite".

Crying Out, the Cruelest Plunder

Soldiers, treasure hunters, mighty governments
have gathered at the bottom of a faded quarry,
further wearing out its porous limestone walls
with steam machines and lights like pale, imprisoned stars.
Their shovel-hands have come to excavate my bones,
my skeleton of ashes, middens, ancient graves,
and precious works of art, endemic to my soul.
They work in ceaseless shifts with automatic drills,
to separate the songs and legends, words and faith
(which they confess they never wanted anyway)
from out the rock and soil, bone from bloodied flesh.
They come again, from year to year, in search of plunder,
always something different, always something else
to feed on from the sorrows of my burdened body,
and never once in all the passing centuries
of scavenging from me, has any vagabond
been satisfied to wait until I'd truly died:
they'd gladly tear my ribs to see the living blood.

At Champoeg State Park

Held across the sky, a wind-blown barrier
stills with the lightness of the breeze.
With a step and a high vault,
I could reach across the threshold
and fall into the smooth sea of slim birds.
Cloud fire arcs across the rim,
burns leaves in seven shades of green;
half of them in the dangerous night,
another half aglow,
and I am born aloft on a circus dare
through bold canopies, sail in hand.


Left is a little dance of irregular lines, a short meditation on a typical state of my mind. That makes it sound more interesting than it probably is.

I kind of had to write On resetting the counter, though it may have been a little TMI. It's literally true, I did break my sexual dry spell this summer after six hundred and nineteen days, with the help of a woman who I have not seen since; she sent me a text two days later about just being friends. Having never been in a position quite like that, I tried to express my ambivalence about what we'd been through and how it ended up. My life has changed since then and I'm pretty over it now, but this is a good record for me to have.

Laundry Story is another one of those things that I think is pretty funny, and it's absolutely based on a true story, with only a few fudged details. I tinkered with the meter with all the love due to a really bad joke, and I will always be fond of this one.

Magick didn't turn out with all the majesty I'd hoped for. I had this idea for a rhyming story with rhymes that didn't quite work, and that is exactly what I got. The impact feels a little meh to me, but I tried.

I aimed for creepy with Wiss and I think that one succeeded well. It has a Victorian ghost-story feel to it, and while I'm unsure if "Wiss" is a real (or even plausible) name, the whole thing sprung up from an idle thought that it was a sort of creepy sound. Sometimes that's all it takes.

On the Leather Seats is a sexy little fake-out, the kind of thing that brings a smirk to your face when you've read it. Hopefully. I'm smirking anyway. I'm sure there have been plenty of real sexual adventures that started like this.

Rock and Roll is one of those weird sort-of-free verse poems that I sometimes write with the intention of sounding kind of sleepy and drunk. I swear, it really is on purpose. It's a little sermon on music, and the fake-drunkenness is a small attempt to make that more interesting.

There are two haiku in this collection. One, "Caravan", Again, was based on nothing more than an observation that I'd heard three different versions of that jazz standard in three days. Stubborn bees has a little more to it. It is both a reflection on nature and the seasons, as a true haiku should be, and also arranged as a single line. It is my understanding that this is the way of things in authentic Japanese haiku, and I thought a long line would be more interesting and less "choppy".

After Dark is another true story, pretty much exactly true. It describes an interaction that took place over perhaps twenty seconds, but was sufficiently strange to remember. I was also heavily under the influence of Whitman's Leaves of Grass that night, and tried to imitate the kind of free verse he used so masterfully.

Before the Dawn and Senses are very special poems, both being written for my new girlfriend, Ariele. I met her shortly after my aforementioned "adventure", so scandal-mongers be at ease! I wrote her a sonnet, as that is the most classic form of romantic poetry; though I tried to put a twist on it with a rethinking of the rhythm and  line arrangement. Senses is less labored over, but it's also pretty cute.

On the Passing of a Hateful Poet is a little clumsy in the meter, but it expresses a particular thought I had about people with shitty personalities who nevertheless produce beautiful creative work. I've actually forgotten who I specifically had in mind, and that's not a cop-out. Anyway, it bothers me that a person who thinks beautiful thoughts can fail to live up to them, and I feel it's a kind of hypocrisy if those thoughts come out as art or poetry. But hypocrisy, I fear, is inevitable for all of us.

Crying Out, the Cruelest Plunder is a solidarity poem, for indigenous people who continue to be threatened by colonization. It was written as I learned about the issues surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline, which threatens the Standing Rock Sioux community. It was originally to have been in free verse, but the first line led me to favor hexameters.

At Champoeg State Park is another nature poem, written on a school field trip to the place of that name. Just a short meditation on the look of trees and clouds, with a wistful imagined flight to provide some action. Bonus information: I learned on this trip that the customary pronunciation of "Champoeg" is /ʃæmˈpui/, which is just silly.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Less than a month

And then this will all be over.  Well, it really won't because Trump will contest the election (ineffectually, but noisily) and his legacy of outrageous fascism will live on... but at least I'll be able to call him and everyone who voted for him a loser, and then take a nice, peaceful nap for about a year.

I'm now as certain as I can comfortably be that Hillary Clinton will be the next President of the United States.  That means we'll have to reckon with all of her political baggage, but also that we will have averted a Trumpian apocalypse, and will have opened the door for qualified and inspired women to assume the Presidency in years to come.  So, that's cause to feel good.

I've been putting off writing about the election for a while, because contemplating a future where Donald Trump is the President of anything is viscerally disgusting.  It's only in recent weeks, as the Donald's poll numbers have tanked miserably, that I've actually felt comfortable laughing at his buffoonery again. 

Donald Trump is only funny when his eventual humiliation is assured.  He'd be even more risible if he were marching off to prison for the sexual assaults he's all but admitted to committing, but the prospect of his losing decisively in November is also pretty satisfying.  Laughing in the faces of ignorant white men is also a fond desire.

I know I'm getting ahead of myself, and setting myself up to eat serious crow in the event that Trump does pull off whatever the opposite of a miracle is.  But I need the pick-me-up.

I actually did spend this Monday discussing the election with my students, including the reasons why I could not possibly support Trump.  Most of my students are in agreement that he is, to use a commonly cited phrase, "a racist asshole".  A consensus for supporting Hillary Clinton is less pronounced, but that's their business.  I really don't want to tell my students what to think - but it's imperative to me that they understand what a danger Trump represents to their futures.

How they'll feel after four years of Hillary Clinton, when many of them will at last be of voting age, is any one's guess.  I am content to see how she does, and try to evaluate her term in a fair manner.  I have my expectations, and she will probably fall short of some of them, while exceeding others.  But at least she won't be a tenth as awful as Trump's worst potential.

I'm going to shut up about politics (here at least) until after Election day.  But as busy as I am with work and stuff, I want to post some new poetry soon, and maybe even get back to work on that fiction I kind of abandoned last year.  Maybe when the last of my Trump anxiety has faded.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

What I Would Say To My Students

If the majority of you could vote, and you had the will to do so, I would feel much better about November.

Unfortunately, even the certain knowledge that the "right" candidate would win the Presidency this year, couldn't set me wholly at ease. The good intentions of a voter cannot account for the reality of elected officials, or the reality of the state we all suspect is looking to screw us. 

It's not my job - in fact, it's against the purpose of my job - to tell you what to think, who to follow, and who to vote for. But it would be immoral not to be honest with you about where I see this country is going (to say nothing of the world), and more so to deny where we've already come to.  I'll do my best in the classroom; if any of you should stumble upon this essay, I hope you will find it more useful.

Many of you know, or suspect, that you live in a medium tainted by political propaganda.You may not know it at a conscious level, but you've learned to suspect that official narratives can be manipulative and self-serving, that authorities can be wrong (deliberately or mistakenly),and that issues can be much more complicated than they appear. Much of what is not criticized or questioned is actually an illusion.

Unfortunately, the people who are most willing to "disillusion" you have only their own illusions to offer in their place. At a fundamental level, this is inevitable. If the veil could really come down, we would have torn it off the rings centuries ago. It's not that we prefer the veil of our illusory worldviews, but rather that in a practical sense there is nothing else to see.

At that fundamental level, people have lived in the illusions of their own worldviews for all of human history. Perhaps there have been prophets and seers who truly could perceive the world as it "really" is. In your life, you're more likely to encounter a series of alternative perspectives. Many of these will be illogical, unscrupulous, and sinister. They will also be dangerously appealing.

Let's get specific: I'm talking about the outrageous pet theories of racists, bigots, and misogynists. I'm talking about the people who cast aspersions on the characters of innocent Jews and Muslims; who proudly ignore the slow, tortuous genocide of indigenous people; who regard Africans, Latinos, or Romani people as racially dishonest and criminal; who interpret poverty and opulence as outward manifestations of human worth; who equate desperate need with greed, and aggressive greed with an admirable intelligence; who peddle inane theories about the size of women's brains and their fitness for an undomesticated existence; who obsess over the harmless sexual practices of their neighbors, and insist on policing and demeaning their habits, activities, and genitals; who treat children and women as a kind of property, to be "protected" or "targeted" in a proud struggle between men; who submissively revere power as expressed through arbitrary violence and self-destructive behavior; who muse on the possibility of improving the world by mutilating or murdering people they deem inferior, defective, or unproductive.

I'm talking about ideas which are repeated so easily, by people so parochial they hardly know why parochialism should be a problem, that the average listener may not even perceive their full implications. Lift up your eyes, and you'll find yourself engulfed in a sea of such nonsense. Or maybe you won't - I don't pretend to know how the veil looks from where you're standing.  Whatever your eyes see, I only hope you are listening too.

Now, this is the section where I tell you what to think, who to follow, and who to vote for.

In November of 2016, the voters of the United States will have their choice of being led by a woman with a problematic history of secrecy, obscurity, and inconsistency (the sins of a career politician); and a man who thinks that being rich and famous gives him the right to treat women and girls like toys. More broadly, Donald Trump sees all people as a means to an end, granting them conditional respect as human beings only to the extent that they resemble him, enable him, and embody his prejudices. Hillary Clinton is also ambitious, arrogant, and occasionally dishonest. However, there is nothing - absolutely nothing - in her history to indicate she is prone to the kind of cartoonish corruption which Trump openly aspires to.

There are basically three reasons why Trump has a chance of becoming the next President of the United States. Accounting for these reasons here cannot change the underlying reality. But for your own sake, you should study them, and understand them well.

First, the political system of the U.S. is highly polarized, and strongly favors two dominant political organizations over any upstart rivals. This is not to say that a third party candidate cannot become President, because if that candidate were to win a majority of votes in the electoral college that is exactly what would happen. But constitutional, psychological, and economic factors have conspired to turn Presidential elections into a bipolar tug-of-war, so that a third party candidacy can really only affect the outcome by sapping the strength of one side relative to the other. A vicious cycle maintains the duopoly of Republicans and Democrats on the White House, and Donald Trump is the Republican Party's duly chosen candidate this year.

Second, Americans have increasingly grown frustrated with the state of their country and its role in the world. They come by this frustration in many ways, but they mostly come by it honestly. The truth is, as a global super-power with an imperial (and expensive) military, an economic regime that encourages a huge gulf between the rich and the poor, and a continuing history of brutish racial oppression, there is a lot to be frustrated with. American voters are savvy enough to know that the two-party system and its conventional politicians are in large part responsible for this. Trump is unconventional enough to appear, in some circles, as a viable protest candidate.

Third, Donald Trump has shamelessly rooted his politics in prejudice and reaction. He aspires to lead the United States as a paragon of masculine power, respected for his wealth, physical prowess, sexual boldness, and his brash self-confidence. This is not necessarily a losing strategy in a country inhabited by millions of men who resent the erosion of traditional masculinity. Neither is it necessarily unwise to disparage religious and ethnic minority groups in a land full of paranoid white Christians, accustomed to being treated as "real Americans" and surrounded by those they see as usurpers and impostors. Trump affirms their parochial anxieties, and declares that he has the macho strength of will to put everything back in its "right" place.  Even as he is the candidate of radical change, Trump is also the candidate of traditional hierarchies and vulgar parochialism.

The Democratic Party, meanwhile, has nominated someone who largely stands with the political establishment, even as she upends traditional notions about the suitability of women for leadership. Under the administration of Hillary Clinton, the United States will not become a paradise of economic and social equality; neither will it cease in its role as a global empire, terrorizing foreign people with drones and manipulating the affairs of other nations. There is always hope that it may become marginally better, but a message like that does not inspire in so visceral a way.


I am voting for Hillary Clinton because I believe she is good enough: she is the best candidate the nominating process has produced, third parties included. I believe there is symbolic value in voting for a woman, even if she is not an avatar of feminist ideological purity. I believe that many people in this country could face grave danger if she loses, from Trump himself or from the reactionary politicians who take advantage of his rise. She doesn't represent everything I want in a candidate, but her opponent represents everything I do not want.  I must oppose him, and the best way I can see to do that is to support Clinton.

Most of you cannot vote in this election, but if our Constitution continues to operate for the foreseeable future, you will have the opportunity to vote in others. I can't foresee what those elections may look like, or what the candidates of the future may offer you. But this election may offer important lessons, which you would do well to learn.

Democracy is not just a mechanism for assigning power to individuals. It is also an ideology, a system of values. It is one which the United States, for all its faults and hypocrisies, has professed to support. It is a rebuke to tyranny and a defense of ordinary people, a declaration that they can manage their own interests responsibly. If you believe in these values, do not support a candidate whose only constant political value is "strength".

Democracy is only possible in a system that is ruled by laws. The laws of the United States are often confused and cruel in their execution, but in being ruled by them we at least are not ruled by the whims of a contemptuous dictator. Laws can be changed without bloodshed, but when a leader has no respect for law or custom, there is no guarantee he will not use naked violence to get his way. If you believe in the rule of law, do not support a candidate who sees it as an inconvenience or a joke.

It is possible to change the worst aspects of our political situation; however, it requires hard work and a concerted effort among responsible and motivated people. Resist the urge to treat any candidate, no matter how anti-establishment, as a savior who can fix everything in a few short strokes. Instead, look for candidates for Congress and the Presidency who will take responsibility for improving our infrastructure and our society. Do not support candidates who are wantonly irresponsible in all aspects of their lives.

Lastly, remember that even if politics seems alienating and irrelevant to your life, the outcomes of elections matter dearly to a lot of people. The rights of women, people of color, immigrants, the poor, gender and sexual minorities, and people with disabilities, are considered to be expendable in a society that does not care about the people behind those generic labels. If you care about the rights and the welfare of your neighbors, do not support a candidate who treats them with contempt, or open hostility.

Our politics work best when more citizens are engaged with them. But they will never work perfectly, and the United States may soon have its day of reckoning for its mistakes and its errors. For now, the best we can do is to try and govern ourselves with dignity and wisdom, to compromise when we must and defend what really matters.

Most of all, remember that world is always more than it seems to be. If you doubt your own judgment, take a good long time and listen.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Poetries #8

I think by now, a careful reader with an appetite for punishment will have figured out all my tricks and inclinations when it comes to poetry.  I like to think I'm fairly diverse with the forms and techniques I use, but I also know I'm not a genius at this.  Talented maybe, but clumsy, impatient, and definitely undisciplined.  Discipline is a requirement for great poetry, and you'll find little of it here.

It doesn't really matter though, because I had quite a lot of fun writing these poems.  Yes, even the mopey ones.  These poems are all from the month of July 2016, a month in which I had little to do and plenty of time to ignore it.  I think I had a few good ideas that came out in decent shape, so here they are for your reading pleasure.

As far as content warnings go, The Security System Fails makes reference to school shootings; Came to Grips and Coughing both have to deal with illness (nothing serious, I just had a bad summer cold); Honey Pot and We've Been Here Before have some kind of weird food/sex vibe going on.  Honestly I don't know why that keeps happening.

As usual, commentary at the end for the patient and forgiving.

Flashes of Light in a Terrible Drought

Embers sparking in the streets
of south Eugene at two in the morning,
close to where the bowling alley
went ablaze a year ago.

White and yellow, Chinese Lanterns
cut the deep blue night to ribbons,
down the street from the empty lawn
where Civic Stadium used to stand.

Candy coated reds and blues
pollute the darkness of the moon,
pursuing drivers on the run
across the bright Willamette River.

Advice for the Young Growing Old

Celebrate a life
of gentleness and kind words;
cultivate a quiet state of mind.

Find a peaceful home
within your heart for all the
wild, impulsive marches of the soul.

Love the entire world
as much, if you can manage,
as you despise its worst injustice.

Be as human as
your parents and your children,
breathing deep the air of growth and grace.


Hanging by his ankles from the wide
window, his feet betraying no concern -
a lazy smile, seven stories high
and over ninety million miles beneath
a nonchalant, recumbent summer sun.
A finely cultivated air of rapture
emanates from truly unrepentant
troublemakers in the prime of life.


Depending on you,
accidents will happen;
night bird flying,
capturing moods.
I found a reason
not to touch the Earth -
give it time.

Honey Pot

Honey, spread on flesh and seared to fine amber,
sprinkled fresh in batter, smeared with butter; honey
with agave, honey blessed with maple syrup.

Pure and unadulterated honey pot,
such impressive composition, say the judges,
spoonful after spoonful dripping cool with bliss.

Bursting spring, when nectar, honey are in season!
Honey pots are overflowing, spread on flesh and
baked in bread, a splash of lust, a blush of honey.

Came to Grips

I wore a bit of cloth between myself
and the cold night that whispered through the blinds.

He closed on my throat, pushed my shoulders down,
and drew my breath across the length of my chest.

The fine hairs on my arms ans legs protested,
they resisted being called to rise.

An urgent cough was satisfied, another
cough suppressed, another half released.

A hollow circle, whole and battered, swung
around, and dissipated what it stole.

The Ecstasy

Heaven is a faint cloud
of noble gasses, lit with ball lightning
an instant after closing time.


Her parents named her oldest brother John
in trust that God would fill his heart with grace;

they called her second oldest brother Rob
when they foresaw a future in his face.

Their youngest son was duly christened Fred
in yearning for the dawn of world peace -

and then they named their only daughter Hope,
that from her chains she would obtain release.

The Security System Fails

Hard iron blast shields
torn, shaken

          Black rivets
screeched, scattered.

          Charred fingers.

Dead blisters.

          Red bullets
struck twenty two students.


Cough so loud
the old guitar
beside me hums
in harmony -
cough so loud,
the sweetest sound
echoes through
her body like
a soft volcano,
trembling in
her hollow breast.

We've Been Here Before

Wet with citrus,
weighted down with sweet juice
in the steam of hot days.

Orange fruit
and lemons, ripe and palpable
through bright, dimpled skin.

A mist quickens,
percolating from the air
and sweetening the brain.

Baskets dip,
and liberated tangerines
burst loudly with color.

A hand is reaching
up, further through thick leaves,
claiming nature's touch.

Barely conscious
of the cool scent, the young picker
gladly obeys commands.

A whole day
to be lost, overcome with wet
desire, lost in the orchard.

Madame Owl

Silent feathers, silent talons clasping
electric branches in the urban dark,
and still she sings in lovely tones.

ripple forth from errant motorcycles,
and she calls them, hoot, hoot -

                              She calls
aloud, to wheels roaring, engines brilliant
with oil, hoot, hoot -

                    To sleepless city
lights with wild screams and candied colors,
hoot, hoot, she murmurs,

          She will be their mother,
sing the missing lullaby in gentle
measure, send them back to moon and stars.

My Heart

I forgave my heart for breaking,
Lord have mercy, I was gracious
in accepting tearful pleas
from a sad and stricken penitent.

I forgave my heart, but I
did not forget its base, craven
treachery, its sabotage
and painful, pitiful surrender.

I forgave my heart, and I
remembered why it broke, forever,
and I never let the sobbing fool
forget its shame and sorrow, either.

Five in the Morning

Sweat in my sore eyes,
I might never sleep again -
have to click "refresh".

She Looks Straight Ahead

The sky is clear and the day cool, but soon
you know it will be hot; you are prepared.
A fan positioned by the open window,
a pot of Arnold Palmer - your breast is bared
and the soothing breeze reflects across your shoulders.
Through your blinds, the common swimming pool
erupts with laughter, dazzling and delighted
with itself for hosting such a jewel.
She walks with such assurance, you could swear
she was Astrud Gilberto, her intent
to make love in her lithe, familiar guise
to someone equally magnificent.
The light across her shoulder blades is kind,
but oh, you watch her so sadly through the blinds.

Flashes is the sort of poem a Californian writes after watching Oregonians make merry with fireworks on the Fourth of July.  Aren't they afraid of wildfires!?  The police are of course pursuing drunk drivers, since the fireworks are totally legal.  Civic Stadium and Southtown Lanes in Eugene did both burn down a year ago, so this poem gets a little bit of historical dating in that regard.  I don't know if fireworks were involved.

Advice is really about me advising myself, though it is phrased as advice for others out of sheer, unbridled arrogance.  This is the best way to give yourself advice.  The poem arises from my continuing efforts to internalize attitudes that promote peace of mind.  Call it a therapy poem.  Maybe one day it will be found on a therapist's wall.

I'm not sure what brought on Indestructible, but I got the image and I had to write about it.  Just some troublemaker worrying the neighbors while dangling from a window, feeling the limits of freedom.  Hope he has sunscreen.
Playlist is kind of dumb.  Kind of really dumb, actually.  For starters, it's an acrostic, which is just... yeah.  An acrostic of the word "dancing".  And each of the lines is a song title taken from my iTunes library.  Ugh.  I did my best to choose titles for good effect, but let's be honest here.  This was a goof.  A goof from start to finish.  At best it's cute.

Mmmmmm, Honey Pot.  This is me in a sensual mood.  It's scary.  This poem is notable for its hexameter lines, which is longer than I usually write.  It's a little repetitive and draggy, but mmmmm.  Honey.

Came to Grips is kind of a strange one.  I had a really bad cough that was keeping me up at night, and I started thinking about ancient depictions of nightmares as demons or incubi that sat on people's chests and drained their life out.  Spooky.  The lines are pentameters, with a lot of long feet placed in for variety.

The Ecstasy comes out of my recurring fascination with the difficulty of properly rendering haiku in English, leading directly to misguided attempts.  Here I went with a 5/7/5 pattern of words rather than syllables, because everything is made up and the points don't matter.  Ball lightning is a very mysterious phenomenon, and noble gasses like neon glow with colors when electricity passes through them.  Pretty straightforward for a poem about transcendence.

Now I like Etymologies, but we should be clear that it is not much more than it appears to be.  I like the idea of parents giving names to children on the basis of deep research into the historical meaning of their names, rather than for silly reasons like tradition or novelty.  The three brothers only exist, of course, to set up Hope's couplet, which is a neat little bit of Feminism 101.  The whole thing came to me after considering why it is that so many girl's names are also abstract nouns like Hope or Faith or things like that, while the same is uncommon with boys' names.  Of course, once upon a time all names had transparent meanings in their original languages.

The Security System Fails was an experiment in spondees that went dark quickly.  I think the experiment was successful, as the ratio of stressed to unstressed syllables is two to three (more than that just would not flow).  It got kind of a scary mood, and turned into a vignette about the limits of visible security measures in the face of determined malice.  Twenty two was chosen for sound and visual purposes, and is not a reference to the casualties of any actual incident.

Coughing is another poem about this damn cough.  It's about trying to find beauty in a painful inconvenience, and was inspired by an actual guitar.

Oh damn, I got all sensual again and seriously abused the word "wet".  We've Been Here Before is about memories of picking fruit with a lover, poetically transmogrified into rampant debauchery.  Avert your eyes.  It also continues my recent fascination with the spondee.

Madame Owl is basically made up of pentameters, but I tried to give the lines a more interesting shape.  It's an attempt at describing the sounds I often hear through my window at night.  Not sure why I can't describe the lights on police and emergency vehicles without referencing candy, but I think it works.

Mopey shit in tetrameters, that's what My Heart is.  Kind of a cracked attempt at getting to the bottom of a heartache that never really heals.

Five in the Morning is just a regular old syllabic haiku about insomnia.

I'm glad it turned out to be last, because She Looks Straight Ahead is my favorite.  Lust, longing, and the Girl from Ipanema in sonnet form.  I'm actually kind of proud of the rhyme work here, especially intent/magnificent.  It looks almost wrenched, but it's really not.  Well done, poet.  The "you" in the poem is not me, but I think "you" and I are kindred spirits.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Bird Keeper

When I took the body of my pet lovebird, Zoey, to the veterinary clinic for an autopsy, I was nearly speechless.  At the earliest opportunity, I left the building and drove home, my throat twisted and my eyes raw.  That was the hardest time.

The thing is, it happened months ago, back in April.  I didn't write about it here at the time.  Zoey was a beautiful bird that I knew and loved from the moment she hatched from the egg, some fifteen years ago.  But after memorializing her on Facebook and Tumblr, I didn't know what else I could add on this blog.

Zoey only lived in my apartment for the last month of her life, but I had never seen her as an old bird.  It's true she had some apparent medical problems, but she remained lively, curious, and friendly as always.  I had honestly forgotten how old she was, assuming I still had a few years left to take care of her and enjoy her company.  Finding her gone was a shock, because I was so determined to do my best for her.

My family has had birds since I was a kid.  And like many kids with pets, responsibility was a lesson I was sorely in need of learning.  I truly loved that succession of small parrots, of which Zoey was the last.  Taking care of them was a chore, though, and what kid doesn't try to avoid those?  

So I took on the responsibility of caring for Zoey with some apprehension.  There was my own mental health to consider.  Though I'd seen myself on an upswing since landing my new job, depression has been a constant in my life for a very long time.  I knew its effects well, especially the way it sapped my energy for necessary tasks.  The last thing I wanted was to fall into a cycle of neglect.  

That did not happen, however.  In the time Zoey lived with me, I cleaned her cage once a week, and dutifully kept her well-stocked with healthy food and fresh water.  She saw a veterinarian for an infection in her nostril, which I applied medicine for, as well as for the bare patches on her shoulders.  I played with her nearly every evening, and allowed her the freedom to explore the apartment with careful supervision.  Zoey was a happy bird, and I felt like a responsible bird keeper.

Inevitably, finding an animal in your care to be deceased leads to feelings of guilt, in addition to loss and confusion.  Those feelings diminished somewhat, when I consulted with my sister and made a better estimate of Zoey's age; she had in fact lived a long life.  But I still remembered all the times I'd been less involved in her care, and the many years I'd spent living far away from her.  Zoey and I were friends in a way I hadn't been with any other bird, and I deeply regretted the time I'd lost with her.

Far from taxing my mental health, taking on Zoey was a clear benefit.  She was a link to happy childhood memories, as well as a perpetually cheerful presence.  Tending to her needs gave me a routine that helped me structure my day, an important part of my self-therapy.  Sharing pictures and videos of her with my students made me feel proud.  And I would not put this lightly: it can be absolutely wonderful to have a pet of any kind in the home when you live by yourself.  They may not talk back, but they are incredibly sympathetic.

A beautiful young bird called Zoey.
 By the time summer came around, my next move was obvious.  I liked being a bird keeper, and I wanted to be one again.  And since there were no more family birds to take on, it was time to look out to the world for a new one.  Or, as things ultimately turned out, two.

A little searching brought me to the website of Exotic Bird Rescue of Oregon, where I found an unexpected opportunity to adopt a pair of peach face lovebirds.  Going by the unusual names of Bondog and Sherbert, they are a bonded couple of presumed females.  Both are somewhat timid, and Sherbert has a common disability: widely splayed legs that make walking and climbing an awkward affair.  But both seemed like the perfect fit for my life, though their origins as "rescue birds" remain somewhat mysterious.

Bondog (yellow) and Sherbert (green) on the day I first met them.
Clearly, there's no replacing Zoey, who would playfully chase my fingers whenever I held an interesting object and fly to my shoulder unbidden.  With Bonnie (what kind of name is Bondog anyway?) in particular, I'm lucky if I can put my finger near her without receiving a hiss and a pinch.  They love to be together, but they need separate cages whenever they fall to squabbling.  They both seem perfectly content to spend all their time in one corner of the room, preening and eyeing me with suspicion.

Bonnie does not care for a camera in the cage.
I knew as soon as I met them, however, that adopting them was not a mistake.  A bird does not need to love being handled to be a source of joy.  Watching the pair of them enjoy each other's company is a satisfying experience all its own.  When they splash their little faces with water, or even when they dive heartily into their food dishes, I feel a calm satisfaction in knowing their needs are met.  When they fly across the room after a tasty snack of millet, it's gratifying to see they are healthy and strong.  


Even such little birds can have out-sized personalities.  Bonnie is a brash character,  eager to be in the lead of things and sometimes treating her friend without consideration.  Sherbert is more shy, but she is very gentle.  She uses her splayed legs to great effect, even if her landings are always a little clumsy.  I've never seen a bird more determined to keep up.  It's true they can get to fighting sometimes, but when they start cuddling, you'll never find a sweeter pair.

Still not a big fan of that camera.
I was very clear in my intentions to have lovebirds in my home, as opposed to any other parrot species.  Over the years I came to appreciate their cleverness, their enthusiastic voices, and their sheer capacity for affection.  Bonnie and Sherbert are gorgeous animals who I look forward to caring for, years into the future.  And it will be years; one of the things they stress upon adopting a parrot is their potential longevity.  Lovebirds typically live about fifteen years, but twenty is not unheard of.  As far as can be known, Bonnie and Sherbert are both about three, so with proper care I can expect them to be in my home for at least another decade.  It's a big responsibility to take on, but I feel big enough for the task.

Yes, sometimes they are good enough to sit on my shoulder.
Already, I feel myself falling in love with these birds.  It's a wonderful thing to love an animal as a pet, to bond with a creature so different from oneself.  I believe it testifies to the remarkable reaches of the human capacity for empathy, to see and respond to something almost human in a non-human creature.

Netflix and chirp.  They're just like us!
Zoey and I had a bond of friendship, one I will always miss.  Bonnie and Sherbert are bonded with each other, but I am pleased to be a vital part of their little world.  Or, at least the part that provides millet.
Millet for days.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Pokémon Go: A Trainer's Report

This is an unusual review for me, because Pokémon Go is a very unusual game.  I'm not accustomed to games that require me to leave my house; those are usually called "sports", and the less said about my relationship with them, the better.  But if catching pocket monsters is ever classified as a sport... well, that's actually a more disturbing possibility than I thought.  Best not to pursue it.

If Pokémon were a sport, my Lapras would be the best there ever was, maybe.
Pokémon is a series of games that seems to have been waiting for the technology of "augmented reality" from its earliest days.  The original Red/Blue versions for the Gameboy were essentially games about amateur naturalists, enthusiastic plant and animal lovers who combed the long grass looking for specimens to complete an encyclopedia.  The combat aspect is really only a means to an ends within the conventions of the genre: the thrill of Pokémon is in the collection, not in the fight.  Now, by removing the monsters from fictional long grass and replacing them amongst real human communities, the engagement of the player is theoretically even stronger.

You may also discover your home is full of ghosts, which just raises more uncomfortable questions.
Granted, it is technically possible to play the game without leaving home, in a limited way.  Certain items can bring the Pokémon flocking to your location, and if you happen to live next door to a Pokéstop (lucky me!), you can easily replenish basic items like Pokéballs and potions.
That really is about the limit of it, though.  To really engage with the "augmented reality" of Pokémon, you need to find a way out into the sunlit space of ordinary reality.  To play this game to its full potential , you need to learn to engage simultaneously with both.

This purple Pokéstop is just within range of my apartment, which I consider its primary value as a residence.
Once you've physically placed yourself in the right locations, Pokémon Go becomes a little more interesting.  At designated locations called gyms, players can battle the Pokémon left by other players, and capture the gym in the name of one of three teams.  Following the map, you can see where other players have established lures, hot spots for Pokémon activity.  And the game encourages long walks with the egg-hatching mechanic, essentially a reward for going to new places, or even just moving around in a big circle.

I walked 10 kilometers for you, egg, show me what you've got...
But what about the other world?  The one where most people can't see the colorful monsters we're chasing around?  Due deference to this reality is required, not least because it is full of cars and creeks and other unfortunate things to walk into.  The stakes of Pokémon Go are pretty high when you consider an outing might end in some sort of real-world disaster.

Someone tell this Venonat not to play in the street!
Prudent players must keep their wits about them, not only for safety but for etiquette as well.  Pokémon Go may lead you through busy pedestrian areas, so you've got to be considerate in sharing your space.  If the gym you're battling for is adjacent to a local restaurant or coffeehouse, perhaps the polite thing to do would be to patronize it now and again.  And if you chance upon a real animal on your journey, it's considered good form to let them in on the action.

No, cat!  Look back at the bird!
By far, my favorite aspect of Pokémon Go is how it has affected the way I see the city I live in.  I moved to this town about six months ago, and social anxiety has mainly kept me indoors during my free time.  With the excuse of a video game, I'm not only going outside more often than before; I'm also visiting locations and seeing remarkable sights that I might easily never have known about.  It turns out that there are beautiful parks, ponds, and architecture all around me.  And as a bonus, they're all just filthy with Pokémon.

It would be inhumane not to catch this one...
 Is there a downside to this?  Well, we already knew being outside was dangerous; it's probably best to play in nice safe groups.  Public spaces aren't always very accessible for disabled people either, which can keep them out of the potential fun.  And as any rural resident can tell you, the game is a bit less exciting when you are miles from the kind of landmarks that get marked as Pokéstops and gyms.  So unlike most video games, Pokémon Go cannot provide an identical gaming experience to all players in all places.  That might be mitigated in the future, but for now it seems like an unfortunate consequence of the basic design.

There's no guarantee you'll find a Meowth chilling in your friend's place, but it's always kind of nice when you do.
If you do have the means and the time, catching Pokémon on your phone is a great pastime.  Battling for the glory of your team, training up an impressive roster of fighters, or just stumbling upon rare Pokémon in unexpected places, all evoke the childlike excitement this franchise carries so well.  It still has some bugs that need to be worked through, but the core experience is solid.  At least when it's not infested with Rattatas...

No, Rattata!  That's unsanitary!

Friday, July 1, 2016

Poetries #7

In my excitement last month to start posting poems again, I forgot about three that I'd written on my phone.  Having this ruined my carefully cultivated chronology, I must resolve to carry on amid this tumbled heap of scattered words.

So the first three poems are a little bit older, the first from February and the other two from March.  They are fairly solid (for me) and thus I am sure I did not leave them out intentionally.  I would never want to deprive you, after all.  The following twelve are of fresher vintage, starting in late May and continuing through to the present.  Once again, the backlog is defeated!

My usual obsessions remain obsessed upon, sex and depression, all that good stuff.  Poison Control hits kind of hard (to the extent that it isn't just maudlin) in the direction of abuse and self-loathing, and Hung Over, Body Scanned is sort of in the same vein.  As usual, I blather on at the end with commentary.

Luna, Rising Sweetly

Luna, rising sweetly -
a section from a circle,
arching eighty five
degrees, clad in silk
and silver, all composed
of warm, selenic light;
gathered in repose,
posessing grace and awful
power over all
of me, of night and morning,
waning never, even
as the sun completes
its circuit of the Earth;
I am hour, she
is day - twenty four
times I'd live and die
to let her shine, in darkness
or in one degree
of blinding, glorious dawn.

The Firmament

In this total sphere of darkness
I can feel my head expanding,
feel my teeth expand against
my teeth; they sound like blunted chalk,
and all around, within this hollow
firmament of shape and silence,
my eyes can turn from left to left
and see the shadows of my soul.

Black, invisible upon
the starless dome of sky, they seethe
and bubble in an unmistakable
prelude to a renaissance,
anticipating narrow dreams,
and filling them with shade and ether.

A Rare Confession

Bless me, pop, for I have sinned
against your pomp and pieties,
satisfied my lust across
the altar of your vanities,
and all that I have reaped from that
are squawling improprieties
who crawl across the kitchen floor
and toddle through their nurseries.
And pop, I must confess, at times
I've contemplated surgeries,
but I enjoy my sins too much
to disrespect my ovaries.

Sweaty Sunday

Gently ill, the ghosts are resting uncomfortably,
like tea and chocolate at the back of my throat.

And Heather is in there, as clear as she sleeps
in the book of my mind, her eyes and her skin
like tea and chocolate woven together, delicate.

The cat is inside, circling in place, holding the groove,
holding the bitterness down like milk and honey.


Green, the sound of mandolins
and soft, the scent of cinnamon -
alas the taste of pale ale
puts a chill between my lungs
and sets me with a phantom trail.

Dead, the swallow still returns
until, at last, the mission burns;
but where have gone the mandolins,
and where have gone the calling birds,
who sing as sweet as cinnamon?

Bright as golden pale ale,
orange blazes, smoking trails
where stones and silken feathers burn,
sifting through the ashen trees
until the calling birds return.

I remember mandolins,
recall the scent of cinnamon
and fire from the pale ale,
green with life beneath the trees
and wet with dew along the trails,
nourishing the calling birds.


Out of the walls
and up from the floor
the enemy comes,
the sentinels spawn -
unlimited parts
with unlimited power,
the factory builds them
from morning 'til dawn,
attaching their armor
with lasers and rivets,
mechanical beasts
with nuclear brawn -
and hate in their grey
little clockwork hearts,
wroth with the living
until they are gone.

Poison Control

Stop hitting yourself, I whined, and hit myself again,
and again, until I stopped; because I had forgotten,
In all the long distraction of hitting myself, the reason
why I had begun.

                                        And looking in the glass
I saw a cheek as red as a peeling, sunburnt child,
sobbing while his older brother sneered
stop hitting yourself, stop hitting yourself to his older,
wiser self in a dungy glass.

                                        I saw another cheek
without as many blisters, pink as innocence
in the months after its irrevocable loss.
And I remembered, and I hated this, the lack
of brutal symmetry, and started up again -
stopped hitting yourself, I urged, when at last it feels right.

Ash Swale

"Ash Swale", almost a river,
a toponym that seems to augur
a dryer, more defeated future
from a gentle morning'summer.

Red Spot

The oceans of Jupiter,
sleeping beneath
the ancient typhoon -
after all of this time,
the calescent gales
are barely considered
a real disruption.
They ripple and rage
across infinite seas,
they generate surges
of shimmering hydrogen;
they storm, and they pass,
and the infinite seas
have returned to placidity.

The Same Old Bad Lover's Song

I crept out of your window like a guilty spider
and noisily shuttled down to your garden,
my hand full of seeds, but with no real intention
of planting them in your irrigated soil;
I only wanted a chance to enjoy a snack
in the cool of a sunflower garden, without being
expected to give back, or to stay awake until dawn.

The dirt on my hands clung to my blue shirt,
it smeared the threads with brown and cream particles,
wet with worms from under the flowers' salty roots.
I did the smearing, because the dirt tasted
better on packaged sunflower seeds.

You watered the garden flowers at dawn,
so I dreamed of powerful monsoon rains
And woke, with mud in my teeth and my socks,
after several minutes of the gentlest assault,
coupled with curses of deep, abiding regret
from the sweetness of your heart and your soil.

Odysseus at the Last Gasp

Weep your tears with sympathy
for my corrupt integrity -
the grisly, corpse-like separations,
skin discarded through abrasions,
teeth and feet from gum and bone
disjointed, foamy hair-clumps blown
in salted mats along the shore,
mingled with Ulysses' gore.

Have mercy on the castaway -
a sheet of grass, a bed of clay,
before my courage falls to pieces
and my haggard frame releases
me, like berries from the vine
to putrefaction, past their prime.


I could never be the kind of person
certain kinds of people want to be,
to keenly wrap their hands around his leather,
run their fingers down his golden spine;
but I possess a certain quality
of stiff resilience to the kind of weather
certain kinds of people find attractive,
though it simmers them in skin and sweat.

If you could reach a hand across my brow
when I am fresh from swimming briskly through
the morning, you could find me firm and ready,
cool and steady, just as certain kinds
of people strive entire lives to be,
if you should chance to find me in my dreams.

The Author Discovers the Watermelon Margarita

O Tequila,
wait a,
wait a minute,
Tequila, how'd you,
how'd you
get so fine,

Hung Over, Body Scanned

Reaching out for health,
I reach with many thousands
of small, invisible hands
and eyes of mindfulness,
across the furthest reaches
of my body, of
my skin and teeth and hair.

I start from good advice
among my toes, advancing
to the fingertips
I spread apart, above
my head, across my bed,
experience the reach of
raw sensations through
the flesh that thrums between.

I reach inside my chest
and count my heartbeats,
try to time them, try
to synchronize my lungs
with them, to hear the blood
that reaches to my pale
extremities and back.

Further, caress my face,
the skin between the hairs
along my scalp, the hair
across my thighs, my arms
and genitals, before
the goose bumps rise.

A vast expanse of stomach
reaches up, and down,
and deep within its core
it rages with metabolism,
fierce machinery
of acid, wine and strife.

A sour taste between
my gums, a pinch behind
my head that reaches down
my shoulders, bends my spine
and weighs upon my ass -
I reach for these, my dear
sensations, to believe
in poison, to believe
in blood, survival in
extremis and despair.

Turtle Doves

Turtle doves squabble
on bright slopes of dusty hills -
scorched in long shadows.
Luna is a sweet little love poem, I think, for no one in particular.  Its form is pretty simple, an unbroken chain of three foot lines, something I just sort of fall into when I try to do something stream-of-consciousness like.

The Firmament doesn't rhyme, but it's pretty obviously modeled on a Petrarchan sonnet form, with the crucial distinction that its lines are four feet rather than five.  I was just trying to get my anxiety out on paper, so I guess I wasn't really thinking about form.  I certainly didn't know it was going to be fourteen lines when I started.

Amongst my writings, it rarely gets sillier than A Rare Confession.  It's a very pure case of rhyming getting totally out of control, until it forces something resembling a cracked narrative out of what was once merely an idle scribbling.  The cavalier narrator of the poem does not seem to be aware of less extreme forms of birth control, or maybe she's just really really Catholic.  I don't have all the answers here.

I'm looking at Sweaty Sunday again, and I'm really not sure I can explain to you what I thought was going on with the rhythm.  I can tell you that it is sort of a still-life, based on several elements to be found in my living room as I lay panting in the heat one afternoon.  Heather is a character in the Ursula K. Le Guin novel The Lathe of Heaven, and that's probably the only reference worth explaining.

Greensounds is a similar sort of still-life, heavily influenced by musings on California's fires and swallows and, by a tangential connection, the R.E.M. album Green.  It is a little awkward in spots, working with those repeating words, but I like it.

Sentinels is a little slight, and was inspired by an evening playing the video game X-Men Legends.  The rhythm is very particular (I was going for an "industrial" feel), hopefully evoking the tension of facing off against an endless army of killer robots.  If not, well, move along to the next one then.

Oh god, Poison Control.  I was going for profundity, which led me directly to melodrama, but hopefully the point comes across.  Structurally I was interested in doing something with longer lines (six feet here) without relying on rhymes.  It's not autobiographical or anything, but it does reflect a kind of obsessiveness in my personality.

There is an "Ash Swale" sign on my drive to work, which prompted me to look up the definition of "swale".  This led to brief musings on landscapes and climate change.  There's not much more to Ash Swale.

I like Red Spot, mainly because it taught me another fine vocabulary word, "calescent".  The image of a wave of liquid hydrogen isn't bad either, don't you think?  I mixed in some short feet with long ones, very intentionally I assure you.

If The Same Old Bad Lover's Song is anything, it's a free verse metaphor for a self-centered onanist who doesn't know how good he has it.  Well, it might also be an absolute mess.  You decide, gentle reader.

I was actually reading The Odyssey, specifically the part where Odysseus lands on the shore of the Phaiakians' island, when I wrote Odysseus at the Last Gasp.  It's another Petrarchan pseudo-sonnet, with a closer claim to authenticity than The Firmament because it rhymes.  I use the name "Ulysses" in the body of the poem itself for metrical reasons, as "Odysseus" just doesn't fit.

Cool is a full-fledged pentameter sonnet at last, though it eschews rhyming for the bolder choice of, well, not rhyming.  It's also basically a dirty joke ("stiff resilience" indeed), which I trust you won't judge me too harshly for.  All the cool kids are writing poems about erections.  For god's sake, look at Shakespeare.

Next up are two alcohol-soaked poems.  Margarita is just some drunken babbling about the miracle of fruit juice and sugar mixed with harsh tequila.  Hung Over is, obviously, a little more serious.  I found myself severely hung over after a night out drinking beer with my cousins (not margaritas, they didn't do me any harm).  I tried to manage my pain and suffering with a mindfulness technique, the body scan.  The results were mixed, much like this poem.  It's also another of those three-foot-per-line rambles I love so well.

I always feel silly writing haiku, but Turtle Doves is a fine one, if you ask me.  Like all good haiku, it was directly inspired by an observation of nature. 

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Reflections Following the First (Half) School Year of a Real Goddamn Teacher

I don't know how long I've been a teacher.  It's not because it's been a long enough time for me to have forgotten.  Neither has it been because of some crack philosophical musing over the meaning of words or the concept of identity.  I mostly mean that I don't know how long I've been a teacher, because the state of my life since starting grad school in January of 2010 has been deeply confusing to me.

The semester of February to June 2016 was the first time I ever held a full time teaching position in the United States.  But when you consider that I taught for nearly eight months while living in South Korea, or that I was a substitute for two years, or a lowly teaching intern before that, it is difficult to call this my "first year" as a teacher.  When you further consider that I have not yet completed teaching an entire school year, it is even more questionable; nevertheless, I can't really consider 2016/2017 my first "first year".  In this warped mind of mine, in which I am unhealthily obsessed with milestones and categories, all of this is deeply confounding.

But none of it really matters now, because I am a teacher today.  I have my own classes and curriculum and I even get paid for it.  I no longer have to explain my life to people with qualifications and caveats.  As a matter of fact, I don't have to explain anything to anyone.  I'm on summer vacation and that means no teaching until September, suckers!

But it is time, I believe, to reflect on what I have accomplished this year.  Not merely because this is a significant milestone for me, both professionally and personally; I feel I owe myself an account of my achievement.  There can be no resting on laurels: I have to make a career of this, both for my survival and for my satisfaction.  There is so much work to be done, and as the students march on it is plain that the work can never really be finished.

The really good news is that, as some have suspected, I'm pretty good at this job.  I'm not great at it yet.  I don't have the deep wells of self-confidence needed to launch myself into legendary status by force of will.  But my skills and talents are neatly attuned to the task at hand.  Whether it's researching for lessons, facilitating discussion, or building relationships with students, I have met with fine success all semester.  I've met with frustration as well, but my colleagues have indicated that they respect what I am doing, and my weary spirit has not yet flagged from any such discouragement. 

My theory of good teaching is being refined all the time, as I observe the needs of different students and try to adjust myself to them.  In fact, I've needed to be flexible, as I now teach students of virtually every age from seven to eighteen.  This is by no means an easy job, and the fact that I am enjoying myself while doing it is something like a miracle.  Pride comes easily at moments like these, and it's not unjustified.

But I have to be realistic, and I have to be critical of myself too.  As I said before, I'm not a great teacher, and whether I can append the word "yet" to that statement is still only a presumption.  I learn more about the craft every working day, but my weaknesses are apparent and they don't all have obvious solutions.

Perhaps my greatest difficulty thus far has been differentiation, or the adjustment of my lessons to meet the needs of students with different skill levels.  This is a challenge every teacher faces, because students of the same age and grade are not necessarily alike in ability.  In my case, the challenge is multiplied by the peculiar situation of my school.

The school where I teach is a charter school in a small rural community; we have a little over forty students in total, with the majority being high schoolers.  This year I taught three classes of high school, with compositions of 12th and 11th, 11th and 10th, and 10th and 9th graders.  I also taught a single middle school class composed of 8th, 7th, and 6th graders, as well as an elementary class with two 5th graders, a 4th grader, a 3rd grader, and a 1st grader.  So to begin with, every class I taught was composed of students who were already of different ages, which made striking a balance with appropriate material a constantly evolving challenge.

Complicating the problem is the relative unpredictability of their skill levels.  Students come to our school for a variety of reasons.  Some have parents looking for smaller class sizes; some have older siblings with positive experiences in our setting; some have had trouble with socialization, often in the form of bullying in harassment.  Many of them, however, come to us because they lack the skills to succeed in public school, due to learning disabilities, mental health concerns, or personal issues.

I have 5th graders who read more fluently than some of my 8th graders; I have 12th graders who are not truly literate.  Since my subject area is social studies, it is extremely difficult to teach in the traditional way if I cannot count on my students' ability to decypher simple texts.  There is only so much instructional time in the day, and I can become frustrated when I must pass over content in order to perform what I might see as "remedial" skills instruction.

My frustrations in that area, however, may hint at a more fundamental issue: my anxieties over forming working relationships of children from different class, race, gender, and sexual backgrounds from my own.  This is another challenge that all teachers must face; I would argue that is a special concern of social studies, as these factors are consistently relevant to the content of our lessons, in addition to the meta-content of a typical day in the classroom.

It's a fact that I'm a straight, white, cis-man who, despite making a spectacularly awkward and protracted entrance into the working world, has never had to live in a state of genuine poverty or deprivation.  I have my struggles, but my struggles are of a different order from those of my students who cannot relate to the arc of my life.  Likewise, it is dreadfully obvious to me that I cannot always relate to their experiences.

The issue of social class looms especially large over my door.  I have many students who live in real poverty, the kind that needs no qualification or caveat.  Some of my least accomplished readers can be found in that group, and I know that this is not an accident of fate.  Poverty disadvantages children at every stage in the educational process, gradually alienating them not only from the school environment but from the social values that promote academic success.  Then along comes the son of a wealthy professional who has been a precocious reader longer than he can remember, and it's difficult to see what basis a relationship can be formed on.  When I become angry or frustrated with a student who will not even make an attempt to do the work I have assigned, it's hard not to see the failure as mutual.

And there is a stickier patch to consider: when my frustrations spill over from the strictly professional to the personal.  Have you ever believed that a teacher simply did not like you?  You may well have been right: teachers are very capable of disliking children, particularly those who make their jobs harder.  Untangling my animosity for a student who does not know any way to relate to me other than through insults and slurs, from my obligation to educate them to the best of my ability, is as hard as it sounds.  Failing to do so can aggravate the tensions of class and race even further, as well as the old prejudice that adults often have toward children in general.

It became clear to me this year that, for all my youthful pretensions, I really am too old to fit naturally in the head space of a teenager anymore, no matter what their background.  Relating to any one of my students requires an impressive leap of imagination, one that may be neither encouraged nor welcome, and is not assured of a successful landing.  I have never been particularly good at socializing with my own peers; assuming an air of leadership and authority is not a comfortable stance for me, and when I have nightmares they are often driven by a loss of leaderahip.

A great teacher is not beyond these concerns - they are fundamental to the practice of teaching, and every teacher is always engaged with the fundamentals whether they want to be or not.  Nevertheless, I take it as a sign that I am not (yet?) a great teacher that these fundamental questions are my worst stressors.  It would not be accurate to say I have not found the solution: rather, I have not yet become fully conversant in the ever-evolving language of the eternal problem.

Some day, I will know what works and what doesn't; how to assume my role in a manner I can perform with no regrets.  My successes will grow and my failures will further my education - the mantra we all hope to establish as a solid belief, teachers as well as students.  I feel confident predicting this, because despite my struggles I am still having a great time.  I could easily go another ten rounds, however long that expression translates to in the count of years.