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Sometimes the clowns are mean

When the humidity rises along with the temperature as it has for the past three days, sweat runs off my scalp and down my face like water slick-sliding down the sides of a melting icicle.

This morning, stepping outside into the heavy humidity from the overnighted dark cool of my garage was like walking through the thin skin of fresh pudding. That was four hours ago. Even with leaf-flickering breeze, the day has chased me inside, where a floor fan whirrs the air enough to make it comfortable.

In the living room, back issues of Harper’s, The Atlantic and The Sun stack on an end table. I’ve been dwindling the pile for a couple of weeks. Another week and I’ll be caught up.

Yet, after being wintered indoors for months, a brain nag insists I put my magazine down, hit “save” and close this essay, and head back outside. “I suppose I could,” my brain tells me, but then I pause and remember working up a sweat this morning just doing some minor weeding. I stay where I am.

Sitting here inside and looking outside is a metaphor for my world and the world of who knows how many countless others. It’s more than physical places. It’s also a matter of mental places. Some days we’re a part of the world. Other days we’re apart from it. Sometimes it’s as if we’re lying on our backs in the lawn and the weeds are swallowing us, as they would swallow everything if our planet weren’t peopled. Other times we stand on peaks and can see for miles and miles.

In our carnival of life, sometimes the clowns are jolly; other times they’re mean old men terminally greasepainted. The high-wire walker smiles and poses at the end of the rope with her triumphant arms in air; other times she climbs straight down the ladder and holes up in her trailer. The cotton candy can taste sweet, or it can turn us into a sticky mess.

What’s the price of admission to the carnival? Once you’re inside the gate, you’ll know.

Fishing, catching nothing


"Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine," Patti Smith sang as the opening line to her song “Gloria.” The rest of the lyrics have me convinced the line expresses nihilism and is not a theological statement, although there’s this: Thick heart of stone/My sins my own/They belong to me, me, which could be read as a “mea maxima culpa” acknowledging that a litany of sin has led her to deny the possibility of salvation.

Although I was raised a Catholic, that line speaks to me in a shout. I attended Mass every Sunday until I realized the ceremony wasn’t speaking to me. The sacrament of Confirmation didn’t speak to me. Confirmation is supposed to strengthen a person’s faith, but in the moments after I was confirmed, I passed a friend, and our exchange went like this:

“Feel any different?”
“Nope. Do you?”

Salvation? I never felt that after the sacrament of Confession, either. I’d walk into church on a Saturday afternoon, slide into a pew, slip into the confessional, recite my most recent sins to a priest, say an act of contrition and the other prayers the priest prescribed for absolution, and then leave the church, feeling no different than I had when I entered.

Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.

Being raised a Catholic is like being a long-distance runner, a journalist, an editor, or a fisherman. Once you run long distances, you understand how the race is simple: you vs. yourself. Once you’re a journalist, you see everything, especially interactions with others, as stories. Once you’re an editor, you live with the continuous thought that your life needs revising. Once you take up fishing, you can’t drive by a creek or lake without wondering what kinds of fish live there—and the metaphor of fishing for something unknown becomes the central metaphor of your life.

I fish for salvation because I know I am inherently flawed. My life is a story. It needs much editing, but life is a first draft that can’t be rewritten, and the things I’d like to rewrite are sins and shortcomings in one form or another. Although I’m sure I’ve done good deeds, I can’t remember them, or I consider them insignificant. After all, I was raised Catholic, and for me, that faith wasn’t about pats on the back. Instead, it was like a divine sledgehammer striking my soul to the rhythm of “Thou shalt not, thou shalt not, thou shalt not.” I found no joy in this faith, only constant reminders that I was a sinner.

But Jesus died for somebody’s sins, not mine. This is my first thought the moment after I start to pray. I pray because I have caught glimpses of the transcendent; I believe in something bigger. And I begin to pray with the hope that something bigger, whatever it is, might fire a lightning bolt of such great power into my soul that I’ll more fully understand the particular place in life that led me to pray in the first place. I’m still waiting for the lightning, the enlightening.

So I don’t stick with prayers. I don’t finish them, nor do I repeat them. Despite his unwavering faith in his god, Jah, Bob Marley sang, “What to be got to be.” I don’t believe prayer changes anything for me, and even if it did, I don’t think prayer is intended to get God to deliver on something specific. Countless people who know me would disagree vigorously. Some might call me a heathen; some would try to convince me I am misguided; some would pray for my salvation.

They would ask me to accept Christ as my personal savior, to accept the idea that he loves me unconditionally, to accept their faith that he paid for all of our sins when he was crucified. When I think of Christ, I think of the crucifixion and about how I can’t fully realize what a brutish, hellish death it must have been. I believe in Christ as a historical figure, and if millions of other people see him and have historically seen him as the risen Lord and the light of the world, I am happy it brings them comfort and purpose. I never have and never will deny them their faith.

But their Jesus died for somebody’s sins, not mine.

Demon weed or herb superb?

Because of an upcoming vote in California, I’ve been reading news stories lately about legalizing marijuana for personal use. They lead me to ask myself if I’d get high again. I say “again” because during what I call my “Lost Decade” (1972-82), sometimes I’d get high as soon as I got out of bed in the morning—even before putting my glasses on. As a friend used to say, “The early bird catches the buzz!”

Some things go better with pot: half a dozen glazed doughnuts the size of life preservers, for instance. One last hit of the roach can lead to such life-changing events as listening to music and offering a profound “whoa!” at the end; looking at a clock and not knowing what 4 o’clock means; or becoming a more effective communicator by relying on the phrase “oh, wow.”

Levity aside, being high can occasionally be unforgettable: seeing the stunning colors of indigo buntings and scarlet tanagers for the first time; finding temporary respite from the worries of the heart and soul; or truly treasuring time with people. It can result in real enlightenment: more fully realizing how God is ever present, or discovering the complex beauty of the simplest elements of nature. These revelations change worldviews.
Time to fire one up?Collapse )

Ready to start

Yesterday the university held its first-ever Multicultural Stole Ceremony to recognize academic achievements of graduating students of color. The graduates will wear these over their shoulders outside their gowns at commencement today.

The program for the event read, in part, “Each graduate will select an individual who has played an instrumental role in his or her tenure at the university to present the stole.” Many of the students chose parents or other family members to present their stoles.

But Chernice Miller, winner of the Journalism School’s Woman of Promise award this year, chose me. During her many visits to my office to just chat over the past four years, I always would feel better than I had when she arrived, even if I had been in a good mood. She's one of my favorite people.

At the ceremony, when the individual presenters gave the 31 students their stoles on the Arts Center stage one at a time, the master of ceremonies read a couple of hundred words the recipients had written about the person they chose to present their stole. I was so overwhelmed by the moment that I can’t remember what Chernice wrote. All I remember was looking into her eyes and our huge hug at the end of it all.

I have spent the past week finally reaching peace with the idea that I’ll be retired as soon as I post final grades Monday morning. But yesterday was the peak accomplishment of my teaching career. As a colleague wrote in an email to me last night, “What a lovely note for you to leave on, that ceremony today. Even if you inspired no one but Chernice, and that’s clearly not true, that would have been enough to justify your efforts the last 15 years.”

Yesterday gave me permission to stop beating myself up for not doing better. I realized I have done my best. I have tried to nurture students and guide them, I’ve tried to show them how to learn, and, most of all, I’ve tried to help them believe in themselves as much as I believed in them.

I’m no longer going to lament leaving this part of my life behind. Sure, I’ll always have memories, but there’s other work to do now. I don’t know what it is, but I’m sure it’s there waiting for me.

Two weeks ago, I began my final radio show on the university’s student-run station with a song by Arcade Fire called “Ready to Start.” Two lines in the lyrics sum things up for me:

My mind is open wide
And now I'm ready to start

Yes, I am.

Journalism or stenography?

My local newspaper contained a story this week about the county legislature allocating $4 million for road repairs. The story listed which county roads would get money and how much road would be repaired: County Road 73, 2.8 miles, $240,000, for example.

Two problems: first, the story didn't list the road names, and second, it didn't say where the roads are. I live less than two miles from three county roads and have driven countless others, but I have no idea what their road numbers are, nor can I tell where they are just by number. I doubt any readers except for school bus drivers, rural mail carriers and UPS workers could have looked at the paper's list of 17 county road numbers and been able to say where half of them are.

I looked and looked through the paper for that information and didn't find it. I looked on the paper's website. No luck. I thought maybe the information would appear in the next day's paper. Nothing there.

My Facebook friend John Firkel breaks big stories nearly as often as the newspaper, and he's a postal carrier, not a full-time journalist. John: What say we start an online newspaper when we retire?


A little older, a little more confused

Thirty years ago I bought an album called Blast of Silence by the Golden Palominos. Not many people have heard of this band. They’re so obscure you can’t find lyrics to any of their songs online.

The group was founded by a drummer named Anton Fier, whom I’d never heard of, and I didn’t know any of the musicians featured on Blast of Silence: Sid Straw, Bill Laswell, Bernie Worrell, and T-Bone Burnett, to name a few. Fier often changed the band’s lineup. Other albums featured players unknown to me at the time, like Richard Thompson and Michael Stipe. I know who they are now.

Back in ’86, though, I knew one of them: Jack Bruce, best known as the bassist for Cream, although blues-rock was just one of his musical accomplishments. I knew Bruce had played with the Golden Palominos, and that’s why I bought the album.

Two songs in particular stand out: “(Something Else) is Working Harder,” which features Bruce on vocals; and “Work Was New,” sung by another musician I didn’t know (Peter Blegvad). The first of those songs is chilling. It’s about the never-ending struggle of good vs. evil, sung perhaps from the point of view of Jesus:
I am my father’s only son
His ambition drives me on

The singer, regardless of his persona, realizes his task is futile:
People work hard to keep a lid on their anger
To see that justice will prevail
To no avail
Their efforts fail
Something else is working harder

“Work Was New” is a vein from the same mine of despair (here’s a video of the band performing it): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wZpoa0YaZAw
They oughta shoot me
Put the hood over my head and execute me
Put me out of my misery
Like a broken horse
I don’t mind dyin’.

I drink too much
I drink too fast
Prefer a bottle to the glass
From the finest French Champagne
To Thunderbird
I prefer my senses blurred

Two or three times a year, I’ll revisit those songs. More than anything else, though, one particular line from the album—the very first one, and very last one—never really disappears from my brain. It’s an insistent whisper. It’s not a song lyric; it’s seven words spoken by Dennis Hopper:
A little older
A little more confused

Thirty years ago, the first time I heard the album, the spoken lines were a curiosity: Dennis Hopper on a rock album saying something that surely applied to him, but not to me. Hopper’s been dead six years now, and my head has caught up with him. There are times I understand him completely.

I turn 62 this month and will retire in May. I’ve got no problem with 62, because my brain doesn’t feel like it’s any particular age at all. As for retirement, I was called to journalism, and then I was called to teach writing, but now something is calling me away. To what or where I don’t know, but as I tell my students, “We are riding in a car, but we are not the driver. We are passengers. Trust the driver.”

This trust means the ground beneath my mental feet is almost always steady. Most of the time, I am sure of myself and the surrounding world. But still the ground trembles on occasion. I let the smallest things push me into the pit of depression—sometimes for hours, sometimes for days. I often think of enemies as friends or think of friends as enemies. Worries consume me. Those thoughts are millstones, grinding my insides.

I’ve got headphones on as I type this, and iTunes just popped up a new song by Foo Fighters called “Iron Rooster.” I had to stop writing to look up lyrics I just heard:
I'm an iron rooster
Cold and still
Irregular sculpture
Held against my will

The line “held against my will” means someone is doing the holding, of course. With decades behind me, I’ve got some clear perspective, and I realize I may never have had had any will. Or maybe I've held myself back. I’ve been content to life happen. I’ve been like water on a hilltop, taking the easiest way to the river. I’ve been content to feel the breeze on my face instead of flying.

Perhaps there’s a counter-argument. I’ve always worked hard. I’ve always tried to excel—to be better than my fellow reporters, to be a newspaper editor who left things better than he found them, to be a writing teacher who worked semester after semester to learn more about writing and teach better. Mine may not have been the easiest path after all.

I tend to lean toward the former; that’s my nature. That’s one reason a poem by Peter Davison called “A Word in Your Ear on Behalf of Indifference” is, like those Golden Palominos songs, always just over my mental horizon, waiting to rise like a clouded sun. Referring to indifference, the poem’s speaker says:
My client gives us the power this side of death
To shackle ourselves, to live within our dimensions,
To ignore for hours at a time
The outrage and the dread
Of being no more than we are.

As I said, I’m pretty much mentally grounded, my brain steady on its feet, but existential questions linger: Have I ignored the outrage and the dread? Abandoned will in favor of chance? As I get older, will I become more self-assured or a little more confused? I’m reminded of what are reputed to be Marlon Brando’s last words:

“The fuck was that all about?”

A word in your ear on behalf of bad karma

Forty-two years ago, it was, and it still troubles me from time to time. I was a sophomore in college and dating a girl who was my first real girlfriend. Another girl came along, and I liked her better. I abandoned the other girl: no face-to-face breakup, no note to explain my actions, no phone call—nothing.

I dreamed about her three years ago even though she hadn't been on my mind for years. It brought back all of those memories—vividly, as dreams sometimes do—and I was beating myself up for months about what I'd done until I posted about it here and somebody commented, “Why don’t you just realize that you were young and not-so-smart then, and let it go?” I needed to hear that. It helped immensely.

I didn’t realize, though, that the bad karma from what I had done would not go away. Everything that goes around comes around, as they say. You reap what you sow. This karma harvest occurred earlier this month. I didn’t recognize it for what it was; when I did, it made perfect sense. The circumstances, as my friend Billy G. used to say, were “the same thing, but different.” The details are unimportant.

When I recognized the situation for what it was, it became less bothersome. I have reaped what I sowed a long time ago. However, knowing this has led to a state of acceptance, which sometimes is the best we can hope for during our limited number of laps around the sun.

Hold the front page

Thirty years ago today was the first day I laid out page 1 at the newspaper where I worked. I had been doing inside pages for months—selecting the stories, editing them as needed, and designing the page. But doing page 1 was special.

I got my other pages out of the way fast so I'd be able to put together a good front page. I would have been done about a half-hour early, but we were holding the page to await the story about whether the space shuttle Challenger would take off or not because of the weather. I had left space for a headline, a photo and the story at the top of the page. I even had the headlines written: "Challenger grounded" or "Challenger launches."

Then somebody came running into the newsroom from the advertising department: "The space shuttle exploded!"

In times like that, the Associated Press moves fragments of the stories in bursts: A first paragraph, then two or three additional paragraphs, then more. The page editor needs to move quickly and make sure the pieces are assembled in the right order. The story changes almost as quickly as it happens. The AP will move paragraphs to replace ones it already sent. History moves in fits and starts, in bits and pieces.

The editor—quite rightly—pulled me off the page 1 desk and moved in our most experienced page designer. I stood by and watched as he did a masterly layout job under immense deadline pressure. It wasn't until I went home and saw the TV news that I got an idea of just what it must have been to be watching the launch live.


My 90-year-old mother-in-law, who lives with Sherry and me, is in the living room watching reruns of The Lawrence Welk Show at about 98 decibels because her hearing is failing. Currently, a wholesome duo is singing about a "red, red robin" that is "bob-bob-bobbin'" along.

This same show was broadcast a week ago, too (lucky me), and ever since then, I've been puzzling about the song. Take, for instance, the "red, red robin." The robin is the first bird I learned to recognize as a preschooler, and lo, even these decades later, I am yet to see a red robin. They are a combination of a slate gray with dull orange feathers—not exactly standouts in the plumage department, like, say, the cardinal.

I don't understand how someone could write a song about a red robin. Maybe they meant cardinal: "When the red, red cardinal comes ard-ard-ardlin' along." For obvious reasons, those lyrics are problematic.

I also have never seen a robin "bob-bob-bobbin'" along. Now, if you've ever seen a goldfinch in flight, you've seen bob-bob-bobbin'. Maybe the song should have been "when the gold, gold goldfinch comes inch-inch-inchin' along." However, goldfinch in flight travel by yards, not inches. But a robin? They simply don't bob-bob-bob. They walk along the ground, tilt their heads to better hear insects, and the gobble the bugs up or take them back to their brood in the nest. They fly in short bursts of no particular distinction.

My point is that robins aren't red and they don't bob. A parent singing this song to an infant would really be messing with the kid's head. She or he would grow up not knowing what a robin looks like and not knowing what the phrase "bob-bob-bobbin'" means.

America's kids deserve better. Lawrence Welk should have known better. His callous disregard for our children's development is one of the reasons we need to make America great again.

The new planet has been named

Frank Zappa's theory of the universe: “Some scientists claim that hydrogen, because it is so plentiful, is the basic building block of the universe. I dispute that. I say there is more stupidity than hydrogen, and that is the basic building block of the universe.

With Frank Zappa's theory in mind, I am taking it on myself to name the just-discovered planet "Moronia"—and it seems citizens of that planet have worked their way into our field of presidential candidates. Talk about a birther controversy!

The beginning of the end

Tomorrow is going to be a strange, unsettling day, but it also will be a day full of anticipation for what's next. Monday is the start of the spring semester—and the start of my final semester as a full-time college writing teacher. The end of the semester will mark 15 years of helping students learn.

The thoughts of packing up my office, dealing with students for the final time, and working no more with respected colleagues is a sad one. That is offset, however, by the feeling I am being called elsewhere. I don't know where "elsewhere" is, but I'm reminding myself of what I tell students when they talk to me about their educational and career doubts:

"We are on a car ride. We are not driving the car. We cannot make it go faster or slower, nor can we steer it. We just need to trust the driver."

It's going to be an interesting ride.

40 years of Bowie (and my life)

The cover of Bowie's album Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)

Although I’ve been listening to David Bowie’s music for more than 40 years, I didn’t think of the arc of his work when I heard he died. Nor did I think exclusively about the great music he made during those years. I also reminisced about specific times and specific people.
Love and existential dreadCollapse )



Finding you in the mail, I’d smile.
I’d feel your glossy cover’s warmth and
Make reservations for a quiet night,
Setting aside time for inside stories.
I would open you and see the ink
Tattooed on your pale paper—
Photos, prose, occasional poems,
Timeless other worlds in print.
Now, the mailman brings you late, and
Months go by between editions.
I’m finding that I hardly notice.
When you arrive, your lines imply
You barely care if I am reading.
Unread copies stack on my desk.
Soon, you’ll send a message saying,
“Renew now at this one-time rate.”
I’ve closed the cover on those pages.
I’m letting my subscription lapse.

“A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” — Paul Valery, as paraphrased by W.H. Auden


Louder, meaner, dumber, and ...

Several years ago, a friend and I were talking about how America had changed during our lifetimes. His choice of three adjectives nailed it, I thought: Louder, meaner, dumber. What words would you use?

(They both begin with M and end with O)

Frank Zappa's theory of the universe: “Some scientists claim that hydrogen, because it is so plentiful, is the basic building block of the universe. I dispute that. I say there is more stupidity than hydrogen, and that is the basic building block of the universe."

On the local entertainment front

Scroll down until you find the picture of Ronald McDonald:

Donald Trump, he of the "ready-fire-aim" school of political discourse, doesn't think it's a big deal at all that he appears in an Al Qaeda recruiting video: “What am I going to do? I have to say what I have to say.” It might help if he, um, thought first before speaking—but his troubles are all the media's fault, as this article notes at the end: (Ass-hattery)

Going, going ...

Yesterday I wrote a blog post, worked on a poem, and did all sorts of other things that having a few days off allows. I found myself thinking, "I could get used to this"—and then remembered that in another five months, I'll be able to.


Latest Month

May 2016

Wish I'd Said It

Nota bene: “Fear has governed my life, if I think about it. ... I always feel like I’m not good enough for some reason. I wish that wasn’t the case, but left to my own devices, that voice starts speaking up.” – Trent Reznor

“I hate to say this, but not many people care what you do. They care about what you do as much as you care about what they do. Think about it. Just exactly that much. You are not the center of the universe.” — Laurie Anderson

"The path's not yours till you've gone it alone a time." – William Carlos Williams

“Filling this empty space constitutes my identity.” – Twyla Tharp

"My definition of peace is having no noise in my head." – Eric Clapton

"The wreckage of the sky serves to confirm us in delicious error." – John Ashbery

"We are all here by the grace of the big bang. We are all literally the stuff of the stars." – Dwight Owsley

"For my part, I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of stars makes me dream." – Vincent van Gogh

"It is only with the heart that one can see right; what is essential is invisible to the eye." — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

"Forget about being a perfectionist, because entropy always wins out in the end." – Darren Kaufman.

"Impermanence. Impermanence. Impermanence." – Garry Shandling

"Fame is a vapor; popularity an accident; the only earthly certainty is oblivion." – Mark Twain

"There is no realm wherein we have the truth." – Gordon Lish

"Actual life is full of false clues and sign-posts that lead nowhere." – E.M. Forster

“Some scientists claim that hydrogen, because it is so plentiful, is the basic building block of the universe. I dispute that. I say there is more stupidity than hydrogen, and that is the basic building block of the universe." – Frank Zappa

“I try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” – Elmore Leonard

“The secret of being a bore is to tell everything.” – Voltaire

• Journal title and subtitle: Ian Hunter, “Man Overboard”


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