Friday, March 20, 2015

Where do we have room for people we would want to have a conversation with?

Here is the beginning of my list:

Hypatia, the scholar from Alexandria
John Wesley Powell, the Civil War soldier, explorer, classifier of Indian languages, conservationist.  He walked across Wisconsin when young.
Lieutenant Chamberlin, who defended his position at the Battle of Gettysburg, scholar, politician, and rhetoric professor.
Mark Twain
Malcolm X

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Everything I Was Told About Writing Was Wrong

Hi, there.

It is a pleasure to correspond with you, writer-a-writer.  I sometimes tell my students that no matter what else might make us different (my great height and musculature, winning smile and trust-fund confidence), what gives us all authority to participate in this course, as teacher or student, is our ability to write.

And then I backpedal.  Our culture has a great many weird ideas of being a “good writer,” and I should say up front that I’m not sure what that term really means, or even if it is useful.  Is a “good” writer someone who produces numerous books? One who writes in a way that makes you cry out of emotion? Or is it someone who writes technical materials perfectly?  Who gets the prize:

Thomas Jefferson
Steven Spielberg
Jonathan Franzen
Wendy Belcher
Louise Erdrich

Hard call.  And were they all always good writers?  Born that way?  A sort of Calvinistic predestination for quality prose? 

So I try to account for all these differences by saying that good writing arises out of practice.  It’s writing that meets its purpose.  Technical, creative, philosophical, reflective, pedagogical writing, whatever kind of writing, is good when it achieves what it came for.

Still, that doesn’t quite satisfy.  It just pushes the question back on “what’s a good purpose”?  And for me, a good purpose is like a good lens: it catches and focuses passion.  This passion may be in the form of an argument (scholarship is like this), an elusive plot or character (fiction), sound-and-image art (poetry), a need to re-see the world (parody and irony).

But here is the trick to it all, for me.  Writing daily and regularly brings forth this passion.  The process of writing turns a heavy inert observation into a question, a problem.  New questions branch off the line of inquiry.  Poet William Stafford said it best for me:

A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them.

Regular practice gives us time to use writing as a way to find things to say.  I know an artist who says to draw well you have to “put some miles on the pen.”  I know this is contrary to conventional wisdom.  I was always told to figure out what I want to say just write it down.  But based on my experience, I suspect that writers do best when they run out of familiar things to say and talk about, and, while running on fumes, take a leap and try to say something new, even to you, the author.  That is the process William Stafford (above) seems to be talking about: finding a process that takes you places, as opposed to clinging tight to familiar facts or emotions.  If you think you are a particularly generous and kind person, you might find that only when you can write a story with mean-spirited characters do you really start this thing called “good writing.”  You’ll feel it.  It will challenge you.  Arthur Miller put it this way:

The writer must be in it; he can’t be to one side of it, ever.  He has to be endangered by it.  His own attitudes must be tested by it.  The best work that anybody ever writes is the word that is on the verge of embarrassing him, always.

So this is what I mean about a level playing field for writers, no matter if they are teachers or students, experienced or novices, fiction or technical writers, introverts or extroverts.  What matters is that we are willing to be “endangered” by what we say and share, that we risk being endangered.  “Good” writers have to reboot daily to find that challenge.  It might mean taking on a new and complex topic, or just practicing using direct language.  It’s easy to write in extremes: desperate, agonized, cute, florid, impassive or gory.  The hard part is being strong and brave enough to develop a practice that will lead you to, not just proceed from, what you passionately need to understand.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Monday, February 11, 2013

Gopnick on Music

Thoughts about the Gopnick essay?  There is space at the bottom to share your thoughts.

Here is what I wrote in my email:
Thought you all would rock to this essay. The center of this attached article for me isn't really all about a new fancy technology for making stereo into 3-D sound, though that's very interesting.What's cool to me is that he's led to reflect on how we listen to music, how its meaning changes.He shows us what music can mean when it's in the foreground (old school), not the background (as my kids often listen to it, their earbuds hanging from their shoulders, distorting wildly as a thousand buzzing flies). He talks as a pianist, as someone who makes music, not just a distracted auditor.  In my book that gives him street cred. Plus, I own several fancy amplifiers and speakers, and sort of revere hi-fi, and so does he, I think, which makes him my stereo brother. Enjoy if you have time.

Here is the essay again:

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Day in the Life

I have the honor to work with a small group of committed teachers in the Seven Valleys Writing Project who have been thinking hard about their practice, their craft, in a way that's both generous and critical. We've managed, I think, to hit that sweet spot between our impossible aspirations and the easy "business as always" model. Like a carpenter or lawyer, trash collector or dancer, we wake up every day with the goal of accomplishing things. We have a plan, skill, experience and a lot of unknowns, and we are evaluated on our performance. I'd like to pause for a minute to say that, although it seems obvious,our work really is a "performance": we are operating on a tight-wire held on one end by our training and on the other end by the expectations of our students, colleagues, national affiliations, department, collage and discipline.

 I want to talk today about the challenges of their performance. We in Seven Valleys have been talking about ourselves as teachers, about our identity, the one we create through our practice and the one handed to us, and and how these two fit -- and don't fit.  Here is my reflective piece:

I suspect that the image of a teacher -- in my case that of a college writing teacher in a rural New York college -- is skewed, sometimes slightly and sometimes beyond recognition, by conventional images.  As a teacher-character, I would never make a compelling character in a movie or novel, I'm afraid, and a sitcom based on my teaching work would be both strange and more sit than com. It's hard even for those who have been to college to get a good snapshot of what a classroom day would look like.

My character does adhere to some of the conventions: I have a grey beard, I don't iron well or frequently, and sometimes what I am reading is as real to me as the hallways and offices where I spend most of my time. I get lost driving. I have trouble matching colors. I can quote from lots of dead people.

In the movies, male college teachers teach with the confidence of Moses parting the Red Sea, usually on great literature that gives their students purpose. (There is a sub-genre of the college English teacher cliché where English teachers get disaffected students and heroically convert them to the discourse of high literature, represented always by the august plays of Shakespeare, and in result watching them drop their gangster ways and become deeply civil with each other. In one, Marky Mark makes a rap song out of Romeo and Juliet, gets married to a nice white girl and buys a Subaru. Ok, I may be exaggerating. And he was a high school teacher, but the cultural context still applies). In the movies the teachers are always trying to sleep with their students, get drunk, smoke pot and quote more Shakespeare.  I don't really fit well in those images.

But the reality for a college writing teacher, much like that of a medical doctor, is that we are actually bureaucrats. For every arresting moment, there is the academic equivalent of reading drug interaction warnings or driving around town in the squad car. I sit through endless meetings where we discuss how there is no money for the initiatives the college requires us to perform; writing recommendations; advising students; sending email. The last is the most uninteresting. Though it is technically "writing," my email writing consists of well-crafted five-sentence explanations of a problem and the necessary solution. My latest drama consisted of finding ways to get the registrar to lift the electronic block that kept a certain course from being offered in the fall of 2011 before advising. Finding someone with enough clout to change this situation took me most of a morning; writing the emails took an hour; calling on the phone took fifteen minutes; the followup to my colleagues, the chair, the registrar, the person-with-clout, and the potential teacher took the rest of the afternoon. That's why I take papers home.

If you made a film of my professional life and stayed in through thick and thin, eventually you would indeed get a picture of me standing, bearded, in front of a class of undergrads with my hand in the classic "holding the grapefruit" position. I do lecture. I sometimes do know more than my students about the history and context of things, and my job in some ways is to make connections between the things my students say and write. In fact, with James Porter in his influential article "Intertextuality and the Discourse Community," my job is often to weave together scraps of text--spoken and written--into an intertextual whole. But the point of the class is not--as is often assumed and well described by the two Thomases (Thomas Patterson and Thomas Crumpler) in "Slow Transformation"--to test students on their ability to interpret literature in the way I want them to. In fact--and this is rather radical and a good argument why tenure is needed--I don't teach literature. I love it, I read it, I hope to sometimes write it, but I don't teach it. So what, in the 20% of my time that I actually spend in the classroom, does this writing teacher do?

I teach students how to become writers by having them write, collaborate, revise and read.  I help them find things that need to be said about our reading and their lives  (and why those texts needed to be written).  The whole goal is not to increase their abstract "skills" but to help them learn those skills by writing important things.  They don't write great literature.  That's an absurd goal -- they haven't lived enough, written enough.   But they are absolutely capable of making meaning by assembling and ordering and explaining what they see as important.  For instance, recently we've been reading zombie fiction from Max Brooks.  That stuff is a lament, a reflection on a fallen world.  Me, I see it as stylized grief for the human and natural degradation we gleefully participate in daily.  Each of us is becoming less "natural" and less human.  But the theory isn't as important as these first-person narratives they write.  My students need to take on this voice -- they need to weave their own personal towns, friends, and griefs into these strange post-apocolyptic narratives.  In my class, these kids were able to produce some of the most exciting and powerful writing that I've read in years.  Several of them said that their zombie pieces were their "best writing ever."  Now, I'm sure that won't be true for long.  But the fact that they can identify something as their "best ever" implies a trajectory, a developmental arc -- and ability to change and grow, to improve.  And that, really, is what I do.  I help kids draw an arc of themselves as writers, attending to their "skills," abilities, interests, drive, audience and curiosity.  That is what I do -- when I'm not writing emails.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


(In 2010 I was lucky enough to sit in on the Seven Valleys Writing Project's first Open Institute, a six-day intense hands-on technology seminar -- my experience from that first day stays with me and made me think about stories in a new way, which I share below). 

The Open Institute was devoted to MAKING: teaching strategies, practical knowledge, connections with other teachers, radical claims about technology, ways to teach writing.  What struck me was the deep way the participants, all teachers, were thinking.  At one point we were discussing whether speech transcribed was writing — that is, what’s unique about writing, what’s special about it.  What does it do that speech (or video) doesn’t do?  Lots: it makes the writer’s understanding proceed word by word, creating an extraordinary sensitivity to the meanings of words (or just driving the writer crazy with the complexity and the surging surplus of it all) — their rhymes, allusions, homophones, histories, syntax, etymology, and the like.  Walter Ong lists a lot more of this in his articles, and Bob Yagelski picks up on this in his (  R.D. Walshe also adds some wonderful thoughts in this vein in his "Learning Power of Writing" (English Journal, 1987).  What got me enthused from stopping in is that the group was able to grab on to fundamental questions, not just safe ones such as “Does spellcheck make writers lazy” or “How do we protect kids from pornography on the web?” or even "Does Google make us stoopid?" 

Yet what struck me then and still engages me is the discussion about stories.  The teachers were saying that classrooms are really story factories.  That stories are attempts to make meaning, to find explanations for complexity and to arrive at satisfactory endings.  How stories are all we really share when we talk about process, history, development, reflection, and learning.  How stories are really the big challenge of FORM: finding a beginning, a buildup, a payoff.  I racked my mind looking for a genre that had no narrative.  A time-less collection of data with no beginning, middle, or end.  I guess painting might not “tell a story” sometimes.  An index.  A grocery list.  But just as any circle, no matter how un-face-like, will become very face-like if you put two eye-dots anywhere in it (try it, you’ll see), any list of more than one item starts to become a story, something that Stanley Fish discovered in his essay “How to Recognize a Poem When You See One."

So the real issue becomes, for us as teachers and students, what do we want our stories to do?  Whatever the answer, I am pretty sure everyone wants their stories to be memorable, sticky (pace Malcolm Gladwell), even transformative and restorative.  But what would such a story look like?  I can be sure that it’s a story that develops over time and grows up—that is, starts to accumulate a history, the callouses and shine that comes from frequent re-telling.  It starts to play a role, the characters become mythologized, the act of telling the story is socially sanctioned (or creates a social situation) that is recognized by others.  In other words, our stories start to tell stories about us when they are taken up as a collective, not just by one storyteller in first person.  One way to think of the purpose of the classroom is not as a tarmac for developing skills or knowledge, but as a campfire meant to elicit the art of storytelling in teachers and students.  If we do this through technology, great.  But whatever medium we use, the problems ultimately are of storytelling, not of spellcheck or pornography (though those are the sorts of stories that are more convenient and lurid to tell).  This Seven Valleys group was able to push for better stories regarding technology, and I found that thrilling.

And this is my story of that event.

Monday, February 06, 2012


So I went into the basement the other night, back a long stretch of weeks ago, before my father died, and started rooting around in the tall metal stack of junk amps I have there, most of them found at the side of the road and hauled home in my trunk.  I dug for a while and exhumed this really lovely Kenwood amp, the same kind I used through college, but this one was my Dad’s and had been shorted it out at the speaker wires.  My dad really never understood how anything mechanical worked.  His wiring mistake had killed the power supply section.  It was powerful its prime (dual mono power amplifiers), rugged and mechanical all the way through (no computerized functions and twitchy delicacies like that).  It was amazingly heavy, an anvil of an amp, and I rescued it from his house years ago when he moved into assisted living.  When I got home to New York I just threw it into the basement.  Too nice to toss, too damaged to use, too expensive to repair.  So one day, given that I had tons of papers to grade, recommendations to write, emails to send and bills to pay,  pulling the amp out of the basement and plugging it up — just to test it, purely out of curiosity, won’t take but a minute — seemed like a sensible choice. 
I’ve been messing around listening to old music lately, mostly because of  I can aim my musical compass at one band or guitarist or song, letting the invisible algorithms shuffle songs all day long.  My wife and I set it to play on autopilot while we were preparing for Thanksgiving.  Cleaning the kitchen was done to a flock of songs in a Tommy Bolin vibe; the living room was vacuumed to Walter Trout and The Black Keys; the dining room got Bach and those guys.  We argued intensely through a Neko Case playlist and made up to Peter Green.  You cover a lot of ground that way.  Sarah Vowell says in her book on the Puritans that the Indians of the time – the ones the Puritans exterminated, of course – were in the habit of calling any excellent thing “Manitou,” the name of their Higher Power.  Any form of excellence would count: A great mountain lion (they were everywhere back then), a storm, a true speech, surprising immunity to smallpox – all Manitou.  I think of it as saying “There is spirit moving in there.”  So that’s what I heard while we were prepping for Thanksgiving – a lot of songs with the spirit moving in them.  It doesn’t seem a bad way to think of a Higher Power’s manifestations, as well-wrought tones, not stentorian voices.  As displays of power and grace in motion, not diplomas or assertions.  It was fall and the hillside behind our house was still senescent  and the light was weightless and fair, coming in now at quite an angle, the cusp of the season, the place between two worlds.

Tracing my mind over old songs is strange because they were first embossed in my mind when I was between 14 and 30.  I bet the same is true for most of us.  I heard somewhere that some species of birds learn songs not from their DNA, but learn them from their own species – which means birdsongs would change slowly over time.  Would we even recognize the call of a medieval North American meadowlark, singing to the oblivious mammoths and saber-toothed tigers?  What a delight to even contemplate the tenor of that ancient accent.  We are desperate to know the lyrics of our own species, that I’m sure of.  I remember ritualistically, intently, writing all the words to Neil Young’s “Needle and the Damage Done” on the side of a yellow forklift at some low-paying high-ceilinged warehouse when I was eighteen and working in Chicago.  I suspect these tribal songs perform a biological role, locking us in to a people and a history, marking us as members of a particular village or tribe. It’s a watermark on your heart that you can still see if you hold it up to the light just right.  Although the songs I know best were in fact distributed by mega-corporations trying to get rich, it doesn’t matter.  It’s still my history and it’s still the moment of history that shaped me. I’ve tried to be cool and avoid looking like I value things that might mark me as an nostalgic fuddy-duddy, but I don’t care about that any more.  I can listen to most old songs much better than I can listen to, say, the Black Eyed Peas. (I have no idea how one would actually sit down and listen to that music.  I think it is meant to play in the background while you aerobicize with weights or dance with drunk girls. Neither of these occasions presented itself recently at my house, so I have to admit to speaking without experience).  Traffic’s Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys, I can understand.  I know how to pay attention to the pacing and the suffering, their amateurishness and wonder. 

So I carried the heavy, dark, glinting, arcane, stainless-steel amp upstairs.  I flicked it on, waited impatiently, and turned it off.  Dead as a doornail.  But then it occurred to me.  Though the power amp part was dead, I really liked the front section of this machine, the part called the "pre-amp" that that controls the volume and tone, the expensive feel in the massive volume control, so I looked around online and found a post from someone who was thinking like me.  He said that he was able to open up a similar amp and cut the right wires, solder in a connection, and pipe the signal to an external power amp.  This is just the degree of Macgyvering and hacking that so appeals to me.  Nifty bypass. When I find a piece of furniture on the side of the road, it becomes mine only when I can take it apart and rebuild it, repairing it with paint, compression clamps, solder, glue or solvent.  If I just carry it indoors and set it down, what’s the point?  Unless it involves me in some way, why bother?  How can you care about something if you don’t have a history with it?

Finding the schematics for the Kenwood wasn’t easy.  People want to sell that sort of electrical information to you, not give it away for free, so I searched until I found a discussion list where I caught wind of a Russian website that might still carry the info.  I went to Russia from my living room, got a password, and started searching for my particular amplifier’s info.  During my time following down clues on the computer, sitting there as I do for many hours a day at work, watching the screen, I was thinking about a conversation about music I had with a friend a few years ago (you can tell that by now this minor project of just “plugging up the amp” has become a side project).  This guy—a good singer, very knowledgeable about bands, songs, artists, dates, instruments—he and I were listening to some Wal-Mart-quality blues guitar – no one memorable.  The guitarist would make some runs in one key, then make some runs in another with all the grace of someone setting a table – fork here, knife there, all correct – but there was no development, no call and response, no storyline to the music.  The tone was generic, the statement was muddy even if the notes were clear and I complained about this to my friend – the guitarist was hitting the correct notes, but not really saying anything.  If he were a writer, we’d say he had no “voice.”

But my friend, he had no idea what I was talking about.  He doubted all this “development” or “storyline” stuff.  He had no concept of the blues “completing” a statement or coming back to reiterate a point. It was all just a package of notes, just sound, a notch above noise.  He reminded me of my college kids who read a poem and think the figurative language is just padding to the poem’s Real Point.  The guitar, to my friend, was padding, a bridge back to the singer.   So I’m thinking about this, amazed that this guy didn’t get it, and wondering what he did hear when he listened to guitar music.  And I’m thinking of the guitarists who can haunt, celebrate and testify with their guitar, vindicate with their guitar, quote Scripture with it.  They can carry on a conversation and yet assert the Noble Truth that human suffering is undeniable and demands to be confronted.  What is and what should never be – that is what Mr. Page laments as eloquently as Mr. Plant.  What Dicky Betts and Walter Trout understand. 

So I got the schematics. They were in English, not Russian, but it hardly mattered.  They were still a maze.  They had the same abstract relation to the actual amplifier wiring as subway maps have to the subway tunnels, but without labels, colors, or people sitting around to give me advice about taking getting off at the next stop.  The schematic diagram was simplified, and, of course, two dimensional.  The actual wires dove into and under printed circuit boards, thorough obscure knobs and switches.  They emerged unpredictably as a snake popping out of a woodpile.  But after a while it started to make some sense.  I sought and found the three wires, right, left and ground, that passed through a gap between the front and back of the amp, between the controls and the power, three thin threads that carried the decisions about tone, volume, balance and such to the primitive cerebellum of the machine, the power amp section.  They were thin as nerves, and I was thrilled to find them.  I could almost touch the solution.  As I closed in, I noticed how well made this whole thing was inside – neat and thought through. The source selector was on a long rod that ended in a delightful device in which a ball bearing rolled inside a ring under a taut metal tongue; to make the right connection, the bearing would snap into a little indent in the inside of the ring, held there by the tongue.  The ball bearing was a perfect conducting surface – it was metal, it rolled, so it wouldn’t get gummed up, and it would be impossible to break.  Very cool.  Some Japanese guy thought of that while in the shower one day and probably burst from the shower shouting “Eureka” and running naked through the streets of Fukuoka.  I would have done the same, I’m pretty sure, but might try shouting “Manitou" because an eloquent jig like that definitely reveals a spirit moving through it.

So on Craigslist (another apostrophe dies) I found this old Onkyo power amp to take over for my Kenwood’s power amp, a huge monster with giant VU meters that glow yellow while the huge capacitors are filling and then changes to green when everything’s ready.  Powerful, yeah, but it’s those old-school meters that I wanted, big as a billboard and expensive.  I called the guy, talked him down, figured it was hot, and before I went over to buy it, I decided to give the Kenwood one last chance.  With a pair of little bookshelf speakers, I plugged the amp in and turned it on.  Nothing. 

As for my dad’s death, there are rivers of words and plains of silence to explain that, but in the end, I can’t really.  This is what it felt like, though: "nothing you can say."  I feel silly for even mentioning it since I’m not exactly the first child to lose a parent and because the event was, any way you look at it, a tiny bit more tragic for my father than for me.  But somewhere in this narrative he died, and it might well have been here, while I was standing in the room, in an empty house, listening closely.  Waiting patiently, playing with my childhood toys.

For at least a minute, nothing.  But deep into the second minute, deep inside the steel box, a loud “ping” sounded. After fiddling with it, the room was filled with music.  There is no way this can be, but it works [now some weeks later, it still works.]  It works!  Wonderful!  I suspect it always worked — I was just never patient enough to wait for it.  In my rushing, forcing myself through the last few years of raising kids and watching my parents decline, buying houses and falling in love and climbing the ladder at work, I assumed the amp was broken because at no point could I stand still like that, in an empty house, listening.  So I unplug it all, find some stainless steel polish, Q-tips and a steel wool pad.  I clean it meticulously.  It shines like a wet rock.  Ok, I know it might be slightly wishful thinking, but right now I’m listening to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and the detail and separation are great.  Here is what I think: the past sounds better through this amp than any other.  I think: it’s a machine for reverence.  Against the backdrop of dark chords I quietly sing:

Far away across the field /
The tolling of the iron bell 
Calls the faithful to their knees /
To hear the softly 

My memories are getting watery.  I think I recall long ago sitting in the basement room of my parents’ house listening to that song in the middle of a winter night, my back to the sliding glass doors, thinking about the future and the past.  I seem to remember the pattern on the couch, the taste of the cigarette, the way the light played on the wall across from me.  As a young man everything was the future, and the future was opaque. It was like driving into fog on an unfamiliar road, and you’re late, and you’re not very sure you even want to be there. And then one day, after enough people die and you start to see the mortal rhythm, after you sense a time signature emerge from the noise, you see that the latest wave of musicians — those generations at their song — have grown old and failed to prove themselves immortal.  And you’re surprised!  —which itself seems strange to you, since you saw this coming, even then, even now as you are standing there in an empty house in one season or another, waiting for some sort of resolution, for your life to fall into place and start making sense.  And do you at that solitary moment sense the way ahead coming clear, more clear maybe than you want it to be?  Do you know when you pass over that moment?  When you hear the spirit moving through it? Is that where the belief starts, when you start to suspect that learning to play the blues, learning to bend your oh-so-suffering heart to the living day seems not so much a cheap cliché as a schematic for living rigorously?  And with joy?  


didn’t appear with angels,
though they’d be nice, all that hubbub
and buzz and the onerous nod from above.
It’s more like the flump at the top
when the stair runs out of steps
before you do, or the basketball
you threw in desperation
that hits the rim for three
bounces, then finds its way
through the simple middle.
Or it appears this morning,
unfolding myself from a dark bed
like a letter to the day
and knowing what to do,
happy to carry a thermos of coffee
to the car and stand under the vague sky,
stars letting in light like bullet holes
over new snow, over
the car that starts while the heater
does its good work.  A straw of dark
steam rises from my chimney 
and the ashy light falls down on us
( & x 1000 sleeping houses), 
all my brothers and sisters and me.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Honeymoon Sharks

Honeymoon Sharks

I learned to swim in Iowa, a skill that’s about as useful there as knowing how to skin a platypus.  There are no lakes in Iowa, or if there are, everyone assiduously avoids talking about them.  I suspect that’s because you can’t plow or plant a lake, and as we all know, Iowa is crops. Lakes are anomalies and appear on their maps as large blank wet useless blotches.  I’m not sure they are even named. Just: blotch, as if someone set a wet coffee cup on your new oak table.  Lakes are a faux pas in all that rich cropland.  A true Iowan's attitude is: Yes, it happened.  Now what, really, is there for a person to say about it?

I was wrong about all that, about the problem with lakes.  The main reason we eschew lakes, I came to realize on summer evening in 1975, walking out of the theater, clutching a strangled box of popcorn with both terrified hands, is that in water, as the movie Jaws had just amply proved, is where large, really large, really really large hungry animals can and routinely do swim up from the unnamable dark grainy depths to eat people.  I can still feel on my skin the shift of temperature a swimmer must realize as cooler water is pulled up behind some great carnivore. I can picture the glimpse of the line of fin or tooth just under the rippling surface.  I can enter the realization that you are going to die in stereo -- both by being pulled under the surface gripped by the creature’s enormous teeth until you drown as well as being simultaneously torn limb from limb in water so deep there is not even enough light to see your own blood.  This is all scary, but the final words in your head would be “Gee, I could have lived if I had only stayed on land.”  But you chose instead to sit there, bobbing up and down like a cork or a worm on a hook, your little legs dangling down and kicking feebly.  No matter what horror you feel, there is no way can you climb on top of the waves, no way to outswim this cylinder of muscle that is squeezing its way through the water to your defenseless thigh.  You’re screwed.  Rather than learning to drive a tractor, you chose swimming lessons.  Great choice, white boy.
For me, this image slowly hardened into one small lesson: don’t swim in the ocean.  Lakes, streams, and even bathtubs were suspect, but swimming in the ocean was just asking for it.  I never looked at this very hard.  The choice between violent wet death and a long dry life seemed pretty stark and simple.  Furthermore, if you make it a rule never to swim in the ocean and you live in Iowa, there’s not much to lose.  As I grew older, though, I found that not all the things that scared the bejeesus out of me were geographically sequestered.  Getting married, for instance, made me pale with anxiety for about a decade. Raising kids, and, later, getting divorced took a long time to accept as part of my path.  I drew it out as long as I could, with agonizing slowness.  I never was one to plunge into something new.  It took me thirty years to quit partying, which is the pace of a glacier, especially given the amount of evidence I had to work with that it was time to stop.  But the biggest challenge, even bigger than eating sushi for the first time or dancing in public, was getting remarried.  I had met a woman I couldn’t ignore, one who was a lot less cautious than I was, and a lot less interested in figuring it all out than I am, and I found that delightful.  After eight years of courtship, we had moved in together, mixed our books together (a shockingly intimate gesture, it turns out), and even gotten married. 

I am standing on the lip of a ship with my huge black foot fins bouncing inches above the cold Pacific ocean. I’m wearing a wetsuit that makes me look like a seal and my face is crammed into an scratched and translucent snorkel mask.  Below me the water is broken into loose triangles, like pieces of pie, and we’re surging up and down.  I’m the next-to-last passenger on the boat but for my new wife, and I think how ironic and irresistible a story it would be if we were eaten by a great white shark on our honeymoon.  I reflect back on our wedding presents, some still unwrapped, our thank-you cards just begun, her wedding dress still hung up in our closet.  Everyone would say what a great wedding it was and someone would give all my vinyl records to my brother, who would cry a little and probably play Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper” really really loud in his own little cathartic ritual.  Everyone would be so sad.  But before I can really complete this fantasy, a guy pops out of the water and yells to the first mate SHARK!

I take a small step back from the edge. 

Soon, the boat is full of parents and kids, honeymooners and tourists, all talking but also scanning the water, looking for the thin line of a fin or tooth just under the water, or breaking through the water, or a dark shadow travelling under the boat, perhaps nudging it just a little, enough to make the bell in the crow’s nest ring once or twice.  We all know the narrative.  We all saw the movie, and some of us had expected this all along.

To his credit, the first made suited up and jumped into the suspect water.  I waved goodbye and wondered who would get his vinyl records.  I was also proud of him, doing his job like that.  When he finally emerged, he was ecstatic.  “It’s a Thresher Shark,” he exclaimed.  “You never see them! It’s got to be four feet long! I haven’t seen one in years!” At some level, I shared his excitement.  It had been a long time since I had seen a Thresher Shark – my whole life, in fact.  But at another level, I thought he was being careful to leave out some important information.  “Tell me,” I said to him quietly, when he returned alive to the deck.  I leaned in so as not to embarrass him or cause him to lie if he didn’t want to share this information with the others onboard, “Have you ever heard of anyone, anywhere, ever being hurt by one of these sharks?”  He paused just a second and said “Nope.” I looked back at my wife, and at the one other guy in the water who seemed as scared as I was, but kept trying to convince his wife to jump in as a way to conceal his own nervousness.  “That’s good enough for me,” I said.  And I jumped.
It’s hard to breathe.  The mask blocks your nose. The snorkel is full of water and when you come to the surface you have to blow all that water out, not inhale, it’s unnatural, you desperately want to look down to see the shark coming up at you but you also want to look up to see where the heck the boat is.  You’re a lot further away than you expected.  There is a forest of kelp here, leaves sliding across your goggles.  Breathe.  Breathe – you can hear your breath in the tube.  Words "esophagus" and "trachea" come to mind, as do works such as "blood," "calm," "swim," and "air."  The splash behind you is your wife -- you hope -- and when you whirl around you see she’s having trouble with the mask, can’t make it work, doesn’t breathe right.  You bob alongside of her and wait for her to figure it out, your four legs dangling down, mindful that you are ignoring everything below you, and you wait to feel the rush of cold water that you’re sure precedes the inevitable attack. Her hair is tangled up in the fittings.  You wait.

It’s still tangled up and she tells you to go on, but you wait more and you can see that she is grateful.  When it’s worked out, you both turn your faces to the depths and immediately lose track of each other, watching instead the desultory schools of bright yellow fish that wander like strange goldfinches in the undulating clumps of kelp.  The yellow fish give way to blue ones, bright as flowers or jewels, and they seem neither afraid nor inattentive.  I realize, suddenly, that I’m in a forest, at the very top, and the water is clear all the way down, 30, 40, 60 feet to giant rocks that have rolled out of the hills from the nearby cliffsides and ended up here eons ago, now covered with green and yellow plants I can’t name and have never seen before. The school of blue fish slip silently and frictionlessly along the bottom.  I see green mottled fish that look like the mottled green clouds before a storm -- “maculate,” I think they call it.  The fear of the shark has faded.  I’m in an ancient forest of water-trees, staring down at the wild animals, and they don’t care.  I’m starting to regret, just a little bit and in the abstract, not seeing the shark.  Maybe just a glimpse of it as it shot out of this area toward deeper water.  Or the manta rays they say scuttle along the bottom of these waters or even, maybe, just saying, a whale, for there are supposed to be whales all over around here, and I’d like to see one, just for a moment, lying on its side, sliding by, making me feel how light and insubstantial my body is in the water, how unprotected all these animals are, and because of that, how beautiful.  

Thursday, September 08, 2011

What I do for a living and why I do it

Today was the my college's first day for Tuesday/Thursday classes, and I went in excited after the summer, full of more ideas for our first day than you could shake a stick at. I am one of the few people I know who can honestly say he has "good work." I know what I want to do, I know what the challenges are, I know what not to waste my time on, and I know what a good risk feels like. But what puzzles me is something simple: how is it that my understanding of what I do and others' understand is so very different? Or to put it in another way, what sorts of assumptions do my students and peers have about what I do that don't match up to my own experience? Even more simply: why do people have such odd ideas about this job?

First of all, I should come clean and admit that I'm a writing teacher. I might be called a "comp" teacher when I teach comp, a "tech" teacher when I teach technical writing, or a "creative writing" teacher when I teach that. For each role there are some subtle differences in the picture. The creative writing teacher might be expected to elicit people expressing their inner selves, a sort of Dr. Phil with a degree in English. A tech writer might be expected to teach one rigorous and methodical quiver of invariant forms for gaining Success in the Workplace, the holy grail. And on. Each role has its own costume and clichés.

But as a writing teacher, the biggest umbrella, I think of myself as a rhetorician.

What's that? Since "rhetoric" usually means showy style, the opposite of substance, I should take a minute to defend the choice of the word "rhetoric." It doesn't mean bullshitting people, nor does it mean tricking them, being self-serving, or being insincere. Plato comes out and condemns rhetoric for these things (and implies them) in such dialogues as the Gorgias, the Phaedrus, and The Seventh Letter, and he was not exactly a fuzzy thinker, so there is a lot of momentum to this assumption. Today it is almost impossible to use the word "rhetoric" without it carrying a pejorative spin, as in "Johnny told the truth, but Billy just used rhetoric." Like the words "liberal" or "intellectual," it's difficult to say what you mean when you use these words.

But the tradition and the potential for useful meaning is such that I think "rhetoric" is a word worth using. For me, rhetoric, straight from Plato on down, implies a love/hate affair with our own power to use language. It's a frightening thing when you think about it to realize that we as humans live in a world that is more made up of the words that people use together, oral and written, than the physical world itself. We live in a world of signs, surrounded by human sounds and sights. If someone says something particularly nasty to you, probably that will be as real as (or more so) than the sting of a bee. It's in skillful language that the Hitlers and the Ghandis galvanize great change in huge populations. Skillful use of language is volatile. These folks are powerful. Rhetoric -- and here I'm thinking of it as "the ability to get others to take you seriously" -- is dangerous.

It's also natural. We can't avoid our attempts to get others to take us seriously. My kids were literally born with the skills and desire to get their mother and me to take them seriously. Still are! When they are young, rhetoric is all about making sure the self is fed, clothed, and loved. Without getting to far afield, it seems to me that rhetoric is also about giving love, too, as that seems to be a fundamental human need (not just a nice thing to do).

So if rhetoric begins as persuading people to take you seriously, that has two big implications. First, it seems pretty selfish. Getting humans to do what you want (using that unique system, human language) is an interesting, challenging, endlessly engaging activity, but it has little to do with their well being. It's all about maintaining and increasing your individual capital. In this, rhetoric is power, like muscle power or military power, to get what you want (though of course you can get what you want by cooperating with others, too, the motive is the same). What do we do about this rhetorical selfishness? Is there room to look at motives and ethics with rhetoric, or is it all manipulation? Is teaching kids "rhetorical" skills the most crass sort of education?

Secondly, if rhetoric is about getting people to take you seriously, what sorts of things do you want to get people to consider? That is, how do you know what you want (even when you want it for others) is a good thing? How do you choose your battles? How do you choose your words?

These are not new questions. Plato asked most of them, and there are entire continents of interesting stuff done in the 20th century that revived these questions [need bibliographical link to starting places here]. What this implies for me is that 1) rhetoric can be deliberately developed through education. 2) In fact, education IS rhetorical in several senses, and it is rhetoric that brings up these questions about ethics, motive, and judgment 2) writing is where the rubber meets the road in questions about expression, learning, developing a concept, etc.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Old Month, New Place

September: Wrong to call it timid,
I remind myself, shambling
into work.  More of an alertness
reflected in the bright black eye
of starlings.  Flocks massive and light
in the sumac at the edge of the lawn.

Or Tibetan prayer flags attentive
to the smallest change in breath
coming now out of the door
labeled north.  I can see
the whole valley as the leaves
give up.  Morning is dark. The heart
crumples and expands
like a paper bag.
It wakes in a dark room, 

my September body,
with light trickling in

the windows of my eyes.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


Got it going, the 100,000 BTU furnace.  Something primal there. Saying HEAT to the cold, saying NOT HERE to the phlegmatic winter. Watched them set the tank full of propane with their small crane.  A beluga whale full of liquid gas explosive. It is smaller than I thought, and I am actually rather fond of it, sitting like a good dog next to the storage shed. I could take a picture, but there are so many dumb details of the actual reality that a photograph would distract you with: errant blackberry branches, bits of wood, irrelevent tufts of grass, shanks of broken pipe. If I were to paint the scene of tank-and-shed I would clean it up by running it through my consciousness, and that would organize the scene, simplify it. Maybe attention is like an ore, needing to be refined and tempered. It takes a long time to learn to do that, and then it gets called something voodoo like art or skill or expertise or taste or wisdom. Observing simply and simply observing is an accomplishment. 

All this is to say that I know I’m a bit strange in my enthusiasms. Rather German, perhaps. The register boots are new and when you look down the grates you can see light—reflecting back from the shiny new tin. The boots are in turn connected to new big pipes, also shiny, running in parallel between the joists. They are connected to square heat runs from which the runs sprout. The whole thing is sort of like a very shiny beetle with pipe-like appendages extended everywhere. The entire assembly links up to the furnace, of course, and it’s a very good furnace. When it’s on, you can barely hear it, and it sucks new air through a 4 inch straw from outside and vents through an identical pipe.  It’s amazingly efficient at putting heat into the air, leaving none to slop around, so the exhaust can run through PVC pipe (!) to the outside. The blower ramps up very slowly and then, at eight minutes, kicks in to high power, all very quiet, though the force is so strong it actually blew one of unscrewed register grates off the wall upstairs to clatter into the hallway and scare the kids.

I enjoyed that very much.

So we have heat now, very fancy, state of the art, but down in the basement we also have an old inefficient wood-burning stove that will, if you keep it stoked, heat the entire house and it smells good – though consuming literally tons of wood and creating piles of ash. I’m going to use it this winter. I look forward to overcast days down in my newly created high-ceilinged basement, six-foot florescent lights and 1,000,000 lumens falling from between the free joists, banks of screws, bolts, caps, pipes, boards, nails, screws, springs, washers, and tools all on one wall, books on the other, a chair, a table saw, a big-ass vice bolted to a sturdy workbench, fire in the woodstove, and all around me the silent and odorless backup of propane heat, thrumming through the pipes over my head, running heat to my family above me while I work on interesting solutions to interesting problems written in wood and wire (and paper). Re-threading, leveling, connecting. Breaking things down and making things coherent. There is a certain joy in that, leaning against all that is insubstantial. 

Monday, September 27, 2010

Wheel inside a Wheel

This morning I parked my car in the lot and got out into a light rain. Nothing surprising. The sky was low and the asphalt was riddled with dots. In contrast to the car’s coffee and exhaust, the parking lot, near a stand of trees, was fresh and sharp, wet and cold. Fall in the air and the same sort of feeling that drives the geese to array themselves and travel hit me as it does every year. Must be the slant of light, the cold, the smell of autumnal weeds fizzing at the margins of fields and yards, the colors: raspberry and yellowpurplecrimson, the sort of colors that make me think of dyed wool and medieval celebrations (not sure where that last one comes from). Doesn’t matter. At my age there is a certain resonance to fall that gets deeper every year. The urge to travel, to find horizons, to build fences and fires. Maybe I can blame it all on my pituitary gland. Circadian rhythm. The earth is a drum.

And as I get out of the car I’m thinking vaguely of Yeats’ political theory about the gyres, two intersecting spirals that represent the apposition and opposition of everything, that explain history and my place in it. I think it’s cool Yeats found an image, a figure, an emblem to crystallize his feelings about growing older in troubled times and the poet’s role in that turmoil. Such a literate mind at work, it invents an ideogram.

My ideogram is a wheel inside a wheel inside a wheel. These appear in clocks and car transmissions as far as I know. There is a complicated mathematics to the synchronized wheels, as any kid using a Spirograph can sense, but my feeling as I get older is that there are many, many wheels, maybe an infinite number, that all spiral, spin, and revolve. At times, a master wheel – in this case, the seasons – pulls the contraption around to a particular notch and the inner and outer wheels turn madly on their frictionless pivots in response, compensating and adjusting. So the wheels today are being 50, fall, the beginning of the day, the end of rain, the opening up of a new part of my heart work in my new house, the death of my acquaintance Matty, the end of the book, and the like.

This entire system can be ported to language, where rhymes (slant, rich, and full) stand for the various synchronicities that the wheels carry. Where characters and their motives are the distances between stars. Where genres are the toothy wheels. (Caution: Extreme number crunching needed to communicate between these two systems. See the formula at the right).

Regardless of the system, today I felt in the balance. I remember learning to ride a bike and realizing that it’s not in the hands and head, it’s in the butt. You drive with your ass. It’s correcting on the fly, not pointing, stiff, white, and vector-like, at the end of the driveway. It’s pointing and cycling, spinning and wobbling. Balance is dynamic. Look again at the formula above. It’s obvious.

Sometimes in poems there is attempt to talk about the plentitude of accepting what’s around us. I remember the Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young lyric “Rejoice, rejoice, we have no choice / But to carry on” or the poems of Stevens, and I found it again recently in a poem from a friend of mine, Brian Fay:

The sun shines over the bare branches of trees
unconcerned with autumn, unafraid of the cold winter,
focused only on buds, blossoms,
and cool green leaves in all this sunlight.

So for me, this morning, there was a moment when the constellations aligned. When my age was exactly the time of year, of day, of the decade, of my waking hours.

Locking the car, I hefted my books and walked inside.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

White Geese

In the beginning, just the barn. The barn and the old house, left there by the absent owners, a broken and fascinating thing, an artifact lit by bare bulbs over a floor my father forbids us to walk across. You might fall through. Falling through a floor is absurd. Behind the kitchen sink, outside the window there, a high pile of cans and weeds, broken glass and blue-bottle flies, tall nettles, wild hemp and ragweed grown over my head, a forest during the day, stalks thick as my arm.

They never spoke. Or I don’t remember them speaking. My father rented a dumpster and worked hard in the way parents do, invisibly, on the periphery of a child’s awareness. My mother stayed home, I think. I spent most of my time in the field of the new farm, tracking down a litter of rabbits who died one by one in my bedroom later. I would also walk down to the fence where the bull used to kill people. Or that's what they say. Down the way a ways was a thin vein of water and I followed the creek, oblivious to the mosquitoes, hoping to get ticks I could pull out of my scalp when I got home.

It was weeks we drove out to work around the abandoned farm, pulling up nettles and bed springs, rotted clothing and chicken bones, plows and gears and cardoors, milk jugs and tin pans burnt thru. Manure three feet deep in the barbed square paddock where they cows had been kept and ignored until they starved was fuel for the weeds that grew madly there, their enthusiasm and joy arching over the kid paths we created. My parents kept working silently on the cinderblocks and broken chairs, and we kept getting warned about exploring the dilapidated house until one night my father drove off with a red tin can of gas in the trunk of his Dodge Dart and that evening the whole farmhouse—the bare lightbulbs, the pornography stuffed in the walls, the swaybacked floors, the whole flimsy tinderbox of it all went up in a scorch of fumes and fire and light and burned for three days even after the tornados and rain came. He said teenagers in a white car did it, and I believe him. The heat made the air ripple hard, it radiated too hot to stare at even through the carwindows and you had to turn your head as if seeing something shameful.

My parents separated and then got back together and she said her nose broke from tripping on a toy or a chair. And we went back to the farm to continue working, my mom more gone this time but me left with new pants striped all the way to the ends of the bell-bottoms but they are the wrong size but they fit. We are ported to Bible camp where we learn how to believe and about true faith. We learn about Muslims and Jesus and memorize daily verses for a prize at the end -- a framed picture of Jesus -- and I find thrilled smile and there may be a picture of skinny me somewhere smiling with long hair and striped jeans with Jesus looking sidewise at me over my head in a box in some little Iowa church in Altoona or Napier or Nevada or Boone, but I’m pretty sure there is no way to find it, I hear the whole town was sucked up in a tornado, the windbreak poplars and the buildings and mobile homes and the spare junk we leave lying around.
That tornado stepped around our farm. The barn stood empty, that is what we were told by the former owners. There are many more days of cutting and hauling, trees to cut up. Not till long after dad he bought the place do we finally fight down the debris and underbrush and my dad he is at the barn door, exploring, and opens the door and inside he is horrified, he sees a dozen white geese penned up for weeks no water no food burst out of the half door screaming for water this is what I saw and clamor down to the creek there this is what I remember and drink and flutter and crash about I saw this they have been there all along weeks now this is true, we ignored them, our derogation, terrible to contemplate and I feel inside what it means to be captive and the barn is empty finally, the door hanging open and blackness inside and the geese escaping down the creekbed, white bodies smudging the creekbed and for years the dreams that burst out late at night in the summer that the white geese are penned and waiting for me, still there, and I should do something but it’s too late, should have rescued them, should have opened the door to something I did not yet know how to name.