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Togetherness

December 22, 2014

DogsOnLapThis holiday season I’ve been looking forward to relaxing in bed. Instead, I’ve become popular AS a bed.

This post is dedicated to all who experience the fine line between family togetherness and too much togetherness.

Would anyone like to borrow a dog?

Dear Author

November 4, 2014

One advantage of publishing in the distinguished Valparaiso Fiction Review, as I did earlier this year, is that Valparaiso University’s system sends you periodic updates about the readership. Here’s the latest message:

ValpoReportHey, that’s more people than I know, so it must mean that an actual Public out there is reading my work. Yay!

Just a minute, though. A “download” isn’t necessarily a reading. I sometimes download stuff myself, glance at it, say “What the hell do I want this for?” and discard it. How many people are trashing my work in that way? How dare they!

And 181 total downloads, that’s not much, is it? Hardly a bestseller.

Possibly this is a sad indication of the limited readership of literary magazines.

However, it’s also possible that other stories in the same issue are being downloaded much more often. That would be heartening. Wait, no it wouldn’t–who’s getting downloaded more than me, and why? Are some authors in the 200s, even 300s? Whatta they got that I don’t?

Maybe the counter isn’t right. Do I trust this technology? No way!

Now I’m all anxious.

Well, look, being listed in Valpo “Scholar,” that’s an honor, right? In there with all them university perfessers. For someone who hasn’t been a scholar in many years, that’s pretty, like, awesome.

OK, I’m at peace now.

But hurry up, number 182–put down the stupid comics and read my story!

A Philistine’s Complaint

October 31, 2014

Keats

John Keats, looking poetic in a portrait by Joseph Severn

In my day job I often work with contemporary poetry that I don’t understand. Far too much a prose guy, I like passages that start here and go there, and if detours are taken along the way, fine, but I want to be able to look back and see where I came from, trace the route, and if all I see is a jumble of trees and broken glass and pizzas and penguins and other stuff that doesn’t seem to belong on the same street or even in the same country—and to me much recent poetry is like that—I wonder why I began the trip. In other words, I want poetry to be like that preceding sentence, difficult to diagram but coherent.

Clearly, then, I’m an idiot when it comes to present-day poems, and the following catterel* could be called “A Philistine’s Complaint.” Instead, being pretentious, I chose a clumsy echo of Keats for the title. Today being Halloween, I present this as a tiny contribution to our holiday of horrors.

*Catterel, of course, is verse not good enough to qualify as doggerel.

On First Looking into the Esteemed Poet’s Latest Volume

I don’t get this poem, do you?

The lines skitter

this way and

that, with no reason I can discern

and naturally no

rhyme, except from time

to time, seemingly at

random

and the images dance even more

W * I * L * D * L * Y

about in fervid or perhaps ironic

f r e n z y     , punctuated

oddly:

and though I mildly admit my slavery

to logical thought, it’s hard to guess

what this mess

might signify.

It’s profound, I’m sure. In a way, dreamlike.

Yet in earlier centuries the author of such tum-

bling imaginations

would have been burned or be-

headed for witchcraft. Surely this punishment is too dire

for a poet who

teaches other poets

at a poetically

ivied university,

and yet one could hope for

a true witch to boil

this cauldron of wordy gratifications,

stir it, curse it,

drain it

down

revealing a single tough

idea

stuck

to the bottom, like a burnt strip

of meat.

That, I could get my teeth into.

A Very Tender Topic

October 5, 2012

Nobody HomeHaving ignored the political conventions this year, I felt a tiny obligation to subject my ears to the first presidential debate. To build motivation, I set up a project: jot down phrases from the candidates and use them to make a sort of “found” poem, like a sculpture of found objects. Of course I’m not a poet, but incompetence never stopped any writer worth his pint of lager.

As I arranged the phrases yesterday, drawing more or less equally from Obama and Romney, a couple of things surprised me. Almost by chance, the poem came out with each stanza one line longer than the previous—kind of like the way politicians grow windier as they ramble on. (Is there a name for that poetic structure?) More important, some nonsensical sense seemed to emerge from the jabberwocky, and maybe—dare I say it?—an element of hope.

I’m curious to know what anyone else makes of it. Here it is:

A Very Tender Topic

A very tender topic, it’s on the brink of collapse,
and the reason is, is because
there’s a reason that indicates the degree
to which there may not be as much of
a focus on the fact that the path
we’re on has been unsuccessful.

See, there is no better way of dealing with
a fight we needed to have
and this is an example of where
those people who are less fortunate
can make a difference because
to promote and protect those principles
occasionally you gotta say no.

The proof of that is that
you can look at the record,
people are really hurting today,
and what ends up happening
is some people end up not,
and if the determination of the American people
has not displayed that willingness to say no,
that’s how we’re gonna wind down.

The question here tonight is not
where we’ve been but where we’re going.
So let’s get all the doctors together at once,
because we’ve seen progress even when
we were fighting about whether or not
to create frameworks where
we care for those that have difficulties,
at a time when it’s vitally important
to pursue their dreams.

Math, common sense, and our history,
we all know that that doesn’t get the job done.
What’s happening is, America
may not be the place to clear up
the record, where everybody’s playing
by the same rules. Let’s grade them,
I propose we grade the creativity and innovation
that exists in the American people, picking
winners and losers, the vitality we can
step in and see, a whole different way of life.

Thank you for tuning in, I have no idea
what you’re talking about, but there’s
still a problem as Abraham Lincoln
understood, endowed by our Creator.
Let me give you an example: Gas in the U.S.
is up under any circumstances, the biggest kiss
that’s been given to a baby out of work
since May. Can you help us? At the mercy
of your policies, it’s simply not moral—
the course of America, the great experience,
the burden paid, the bottom line.

Precious Nonsense

January 7, 2012

PRECIOUS NONSENSE by Stephen BoothA couple of years ago, the University of California at Berkeley employed its marketing sleuths to track me down. Not that they have any idea who I am, but they get the fundraiser’s frisson of delight whenever they can tag someone by mail or phone. Recently they’ve shared their data with the English Department, which now sends me a glossy departmental newsletter for “alumni and friends.” The current issue celebrates Kent Puckett for winning the university’s Distinguished Teaching Award, and in a separate article boasts that department members have won the award as often as the “second and third most awarded departments … combined.”

I would like to think that the person who wrote and/or edited the phrase “most awarded departments” was not one of our graduates. However, the article got me thinking about the incidents I remember from the English faculty’s pedagogy. I recall Stephen Booth spending long moments chewing his fingernails and gazing out the window while formulating the perfect question for his freshman composition class. His skills earned him the teaching award in 1982, or perhaps the university decided to save his fingernails. Another fond memory is of Stanley Fish challenging his entire Milton seminar to a basketball game with him and his friend Booth. Those who know the height differential will chuckle to imagine Fish and Booth together on the hardwood. Our seminar members, though, were far too cognizant of Fish’s personality to take up the invitation; hell, he was aggressive enough around a seminar table—who’d want to try to stop him on a drive?

My best story from that time, though, concerns the final exam that Booth gave to his struggling, straggling frosh writers. His highly individualistic syllabus that year had included, among other motley items, several New Yorker essays by A. J. Liebling, Thoreau’s Walden, and Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus. (Since then, I don’t think I’ve met any nonacademic who has ever read any portion of Carlyle, much less a complete book.) Our final exam—probably administered only because an exam was required—consisted of two questions. One item presented the entire text of the Gettysburg Address (less than 300 words) and asked why it was a great speech. Many scholars have studied the Address—including Booth himself, in his book Precious Nonsense—but to 18-year-old undergraduates (actually, I was 17, with the astonished mind of an 8-year-old) the question was flummoxing. We had not studied Lincoln in class; we had not discussed oral rhetoric. Most of us had little notion of the historical context. How to begin an answer? If the famous G.A. was indeed a great address, we hardly knew that.

The exam’s second question was worse. It consisted of a passage by Thoreau describing the experience of reading Carlyle. Though I can’t be certain, I think it must have been this paragraph from “Thomas Carlyle and His Works”:

Such a style — so diversified and variegated! It is like the face of a country; it is like a New England landscape, with farmhouses and villages, and cultivated spots, and belts of forests and blueberry swamps round about, with the fragrance of shad-blossoms and violets on certain winds. And as for the reading of it, it is novel enough to the reader who has used only the diligence, and old line mail-coach. It is like traveling, sometimes on foot, sometimes in a gig tandem; sometimes in a full coach, over highways, mended and unmended, for which you will prosecute the town; on level roads, through French departments, by Simplon roads over the Alps; and now and then he hauls up for a relay, and yokes in an unbroken colt of a Pegasus for a leader, driving off by cart-paths, and across lots, by corduroy roads and gridiron bridges; and where the bridges are gone, not even a string-piece left, and the reader has to set his breast and swim. You have got an expert driver this time, who has driven ten thousand miles, and was never known to upset; can drive six in hand on the edge of a precipice, and touch the leaders anywhere with his snapper.

The task was to explain how this passage reflected the styles of both Thoreau and Carlyle.

OK, one might think, Carlyle is indeed varied, unpredictable, sometimes difficult, emphatic and lyrical by turns, with odd broken rhythms; Thoreau of course is highly metaphorical, a guy who would rather take you on a jolting ride through an alpine mountain pass than tell you straight out what he means. That’s not very deep; what else can you say?

For this exam you have three hours to scribble in your blue book (literally blue, purchased for this express purpose from the college bookstore). Your output should reflect intense thought and careful writing, all that you have learned in the course. Are you getting nervous? Have you bitten through your ballpoint yet?

Man, I was terrified, and I left the room knowing I’d failed. Till then, to my surprise, I’d managed an A in the class, and now I had to hope for an overall C at best.

At that time, the system for discovering your final grades was simple and highly impersonal. Along with your blue book, you handed in a self-addressed postcard with two lines on it for your grades:

Grade in Course: ______
Grade on Final Exam: ______

Some week or ten days later, the news would arrive in the mail. A highly expressive instructor might write one or two extra words on the card in addition to the two all-important letters.

So I waited. The cards came from other courses: success! But from Professor Booth? I imagined him mauling his nails as he contemplated the collection of precious nonsense that 25 pimpled idiots could write in three hours. From my current perspective, I wonder how any instructor can bear to read three hours of drivel from a single freshman.

The card arrived. At this point I don’t remember whether any of my roommates saw it first; if they did, that surely increased my embarrassment. Slowly I inverted the post-office-smudged rectangle to reveal the back. It read:

Grade in Course:      A      
Grade on Final Exam:  Forget it!

That’s when I knew I led a charmed life.

After all these years, thank you, Professor Booth.

Keeping Up with the Ancestors

December 24, 2011

In keeping with the holiday tradition of honoring ancestors, even those long forgotten, this item from the 12/9/11 edition of the Gridley Herald (published in Gridley, CA) caught my eye:

75 Years Ago (1936)

Following complaint by W.P. Smith of Live Oak of violations of the State wage act, Sam Gridley, local grower, appeared in the Live Oak Justice Court yesterday settled his account with Smith in full and paid a $15 fine.

Though I’m not aware of any Gridley relatives in that part of California (near Yuba City), I’m happy that my namesake was brought to justice. If he has any remaining debts, I disown them and him. I swear that the only field hand I employ is my wife, who makes the garden grow and always exacts a fair wage from me for the basil and parsley she produces. Peace and good will to all.

In All Candor

November 30, 2010

On my other, more static website, Gridleyville.com, I’ve long concluded the introduction with a joke:

“It should be obvious by now that this website has nothing to do with the hamlet of Gridleyville, situated near Candor, New York. Sam Gridley greatly admires the name of that town but, in all candor, has never been there.”

The pun always makes me laugh rather than groan, which is all anyone needs to know about my sense of humor. As my wife often grumbles, no one else finds it funny.

But, come to discover, the jest has a deeper layer of meaning. It seems that about 1919 the eminent writer and philosopher Kenneth Burke rented a summer cottage in Candor for $5, from a man named Sam Gridley.

Although the price matches my idea of good commerce, that wasn’t I. Nor was it an ancestor of mine, I don’t think. We’ve never had real estate moguls in the family.

But wait, there’s more: In 2007 the U.S. Navy commissioned a ship named the USS Gridley, and it belongs to the Burke class of destroyers.

This is enough for a conspiracy theory.

But the truth remains: I still haven’t set foot in the real Gridleyville. Perhaps I will, though, to see whether the Burkean aura suffuses visitors with a deeper understanding of human nature—and of weird coincidence.