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31 May 2012

AD HOMINEM


"I've never been able to understand women who say something controversial and then get all exercised when someone disagrees with them and dares to say so.” [ad hominem]

In my first creative writing class I was encouraged to avoid abstract Latinates—words derived from Latin roots—in favor of more concrete words. You’re telling a story and the reader wants a real concrete world to envision. But in discussing ideas, in argument, those old Latin and Greek abstract terms defining rhetorical devices are very useful.

When you write persuasively, for example, you need a thesis. And to make your point you probably need logos (logic), and maybe pathos (emotional appeal). You always need to establish your own ethos (your credibility as a writer). This is pretty basic stuff.

Ethos is served by a number of good writing habits such as careful supporting details—in fact skillful use of logic and emotion can serve to bolster ethos. Poor spelling and grammar, on the other hand, are rookie mistakes that undermine your writing.

It’s tempting, when you believe you have personal knowledge about a person that seems relevant to a discussion, to bring personal details or personality into the discussion. When debating responsibility in government, for example, you’re tempted to point out that your opponent was once careless himself with a campfire. Once in a while it works. Usually, in a discussion of issues, ideals, or societal goals, such personal attacks are an inappropriate detour. It’s called an ad hominem, or personal abuse or personal attacks. It ruins your argument and your credibility. It suggests you are weak, that you don’t really understand what you are discussing. You have no ethos.

I react with confusion to ad hominem when I’m on the receiving end, and I honestly do try to avoid using ad hominem in discussions. I’m sure I’ve failed, but usually I catch myself in time. A good argument is not a personal attack on another person, and should not be taken personally or directed toward a person.

When, instead of discussing the issue you attack the person you are talking to, you judge the person rather than the idea, you use that person’s life and actions rather than their reasoning to debate their points, you name-call rather than look for specific details in the discussion to . . . discuss—that’s probably ad hominem. It’s a sign of weakness to use ad hominem—it shows you don’t know what the heck you’re doing. Ad hominem is a sign of desperation. It’s rude, stupid, and you need to resist.

This matters because when an idea is properly debated, it is possible to discuss widely disparate points of view without getting tangled up in personalities. It's possible to have an intelligent conversation, to think and consider and weigh issues. It’s possible to understand what another person is saying, and perhaps be persuaded or persuade people on the other side. It's possible the change your mind or at least come to understand what is in another's mind.

An abusive ad hominem response is not “disagreeing” with someone, it’s being disagreeable, something else entirely. And starting an statement with a crack such as: “I've never been able to understand women . . . ”, well, that’s pathetic.

Some people have never learned to debate an issue without being abusive. When you ask them politely to back off, they get all haughty and even more abusive. Ad nauseum. 

30 May 2012

TRAIN WRECK


May you live in interesting times.—Chinese curse

During the months surrounding my husband's fortieth birthday, in 1989, Gary's life took a dive. His heart dog, Manny, died. Gary stopped on highway 101 and was hit by an entire herd of elk slamming into his car. He got the shingles. An X-ray of his twisted ankle revealed a hole in his bone. They thought at first it was bone cancer, then a bone infection, and finally they did exploratory surgery to discover what it actually was. The orthopedic surgeon discovered a benign tumor that had resulted from a heavy gate slamming into Gary's shin more than eleven years before. An irritated elephant knocked that gate into Gary’s leg when he was working at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. That much of the story is funny, and I laughed when I saw the surgeon come to tell me what they’d found because from his face I knew it was something the doctor could repair.

There was nothing I or any doctor could do a few months later when Gary’s mother died.

This was Gary’s train wreck year. The year in his life when he could not help asking, What next? And then the fates showed him—this and this and this too.

I have no explanation for the terrible accidents of life that bring us too much stuff all at once.

Years ago there was a passing interest in so-called "stress points". So many points for changing jobs, so many for a move. More points if a relative dies, but also points for a promotion, marriage, or the birth of a child. Good events, bad events—change, loss, gifts in the mail. The point was not whether what happened in your life was good or bad, only that it was a change. There was a long list of events, and I recall taking the test in a magazine and finding that I had over 300 stress points. This was not good. According to the magazine, having too many points, even from good events, predicted something bad—a stress-related accident or illness. The theory wasn’t based on magic, but on scientifically demonstrated connections—an eventful life is prone to stress and stress is associated with Bad Stuff.

Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe began their research in the 60s, working with Cornell to develop their measurement of “Life Change Units.” The Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale is still around, in case you want to check how your life is going. There’s even a modified scale for minors. You could Google it.

My high school seniors this year have some serious points. Being a senior (42 points) and being accepted to a college of their choice (43). Even becoming a fully fledged member of their church (31) or a decrease in arguments with parents (26) can add points. Good stuff can be stressful. What can it mean? Maybe nothing.

When my point score was so very high, I don’t recall getting sick. As I said, sometimes there is just no telling. The year I completed my MFA degree in fiction and was class speaker and my mother died and my younger son married his wonderful wife, I had a score of nearly 300 points again. No sickness. No accident. I lost forty pounds and stopped writing fiction. Maybe that year was a bit of a train wreck, now that I think of it.

On the other hand, a girl Gary knew from Edmonds Unitarian Church went for a walk on the Puget Sound shore, wandered up onto the tracks, and was hit by a train. Sally died. She was fifteen in 1968.

Since his retirement, Gary has been waiting for boredom. He’s actually been so busy with home repairs and maintenance that boredom has eluded him. Whether he knows it or not, he’s looking for a way past the Chinese curse, for the world to slow down enough that he can again feel impatient for something to happen—didn't we all feel that way when we were young? Now he wants to slow the circle down. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older myself that I completely get that.

There are train wrecks and there are train wrecks. The worst ones might just be the ones we survive again and again. Even so, they're worth it. Stay on what I called the "mare-go-round" when I was a girl. There is a lifetime of amazing events I would have missed had I died at fifteen. Maybe some of them were bad stressful, but more were good.

Just this past week, Todd came by (of the famous chair-tipping story), an old friend from my own high school day, and my new daughter-in-law called to be sure that a Facebook post hadn’t hurt my feelings. This evening seniors from the high school where I teach will present their service projects to the community at the Seaside Convention Center. The juniors are figuring out how to write research papers. Last evening the sky held a blanket of curdled clouds as the sun went down. My dog sleeps on the foot of the bed. Image missing that!

Trust me about this: Sometimes it rains. You back out of the garage as the door is closing and snap the aerial off the roof. You gain twenty pounds. Your eyebrows start to turn gray. Some years are train wrecks. That’s just life.

Sometimes we need to be gentle with our weary selves. The sun rises in the morning and sets gloriously in evening, and that happens whether I remember to notice or not. Notice. 

29 May 2012

HOPE


Scratch a cynic and an idealist bleeds.

My husband, who is an incurable romantic, insists that women must have hope, that it’s built into us and that we need it for our children.

Maybe he has something there. (Though it ought to be clear that he has hope too. And he's a guy, so...)

Recently I was called a Pollyanna. Over the years I have been labeled many times as a dreamer, an idealist. As if being an idealist was a bad thing.

As if being a cynic, or “insidious, cynical, and defeatist” were virtues. As if anyone should be proud of labeling themselves those things. Those attitudes are a copout, a way to whine and shriek at the world without being obligated to contribute to it in any meaningful way. It’s so much easier to cry that injustice and cruelty will follow us all the days of our lives than it is to get up off our behinds and do something about that future. Too easy to say there is no hope.

Calling our political situation hopeless is exactly how we lose control. For several decades there has been a concerted effort to convince Americans that the government is beyond their control. When we believe it, the special interests win. I don't consider mine a "Pollyanna point of view." I find the prevalent view of government cynical and insidious and defeatist. Until we recognize that we do have the power to remake and control our own country, the special interests who have figured this out—corporations and the Tea Party, for example—will grab control. That can make us angry, but anger doesn't accomplish anything. Hope does.

I don’t have hope because I fail to see reality or because I am stupid or silly or incapable of struggle. It’s not because I am naïve or immature or living in a dreamland.

The world can change. I’ve seen it happen.

When I was in high school I had fewer rights than the boys in my class. While their test scores came back with predictions about their future as doctors, lawyers, engineers, and architects, mine came back suggesting I would be a good nurse, teacher or secretary. I was paid less at work than the boys who were hired after me. Had I been close to retirement I could look forward to lower Social Security payments than a man of my age and experience. Women could only inherit top business positions from their spouses and when they discovered the helix shape of chromosomes or designed a study to examine mothering in apes, men they worked with or husbands won the accolades, not them.

But increased opportunities for women aren’t the reason I work hard at my job and insist on hoping for tomorrow. The reason I have hope is because I have a granddaughter. Having children changed everything in my life. Having grandchildren makes the future real. It makes the future matter. That future insists I work to make it better.

People belittle me for having hope. That’s a cheat from people too scared of what having hope might require them to do.

Stand up on your hind legs. Take a breath, find your heart and your courage. Get to work. Be a better citizen. Improve the world my granddaughter will inherit.

28 May 2012

SIGNIFICANT


“What has been most significant in my life had all taken place by the time I was six years old.”—Harry Crews, The Biography of a Place

Dinty Moore posted the quote on FB Friday and I thought about it all morning. I don’t doubt that it was true in Crews’ mind—that is, I’m sure he believed it. I found it pathetic.

It’s like the lie about high school being the best time of your life. For some people it’s true—I know people who spend their entire adult lives trying to recapture their high school experience. But how sad for them! Everything after eighteen is downhill?

Or perhaps after age six, nothing is all that significant.

Love, sex, children. Loss, remorse, tenderness. War, death, work. Birth.

Tragic, it seems to me, to focus a lifetime on those first years.

Of course who we are as personalities is settled very young—how we respond to challenge, success, failure, loss, frustration, kindness, love, frustration, passion, tenderness, pain, fear, loneliness—our most basic patterns of self are set in childhood. Are those reactions settled? Unchangeable? A Freudian or Jungian might argue that all we will ever be is set out in those years.

I would have to know what Crews meant by “significant.”

I shared the quote with my students, and asked them to write for a few minutes about their thoughts and then share if they wished. They wanted to know what Crews meant by “significant” too. They had their own opinions: "The first years shape who we will become," one student said. "Childhood develops knowledge and the biggest breakthroughs of what’s to come later." One student commented that if all we are is determined by our first six years, "we're all doomed." Another that we learn a lot after childhood, we can change—except "if something traumatic happens—but that still can’t be all there is to us, can it?" A student developed a metaphor for childhood as the foundation of our house—we grow and add on rooms, another story, and maybe we move around how we use our spaces, but no matter how large or tall, the house still rests on the same foundation. Adulthood brings understanding of "unconditional love and unbiased investigation" that we can't achieve in childhood. Over and over, "Why did he write this?" they asked me. "What happened to Crews by age six?"

I couldn’t answer them at that time.

I haven’t read the novels or essays of Crews. I haven't read A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, but Moore probably found the quote from that book where I did, in the daily blog post by Gary Hawkins at The Paris Review. You'll find his memories of meeting Crews and a video of the interview he did HERE. Crews died a few weeks ago and there have been many looks back at his work recently. He wrote the line above when focused on his childhood: the debilitating illnesses he suffered, the time he fell into a kettle of boiling water intended for processing pork. His father died in his infancy, his brother when Crews was only five. There was a drunken step-father, cruelty and poverty and little tenderness, it seems. It was a terrible childhood, in the literal sense—a childhood of terror. 

But his life after age six seems no less eventful, no less terrible. He joined the Marines at seventeen and fought in the Korean war, came home to hard labor, the GI Bill and college, a beating during a motorcycle road trip, marriage, fatherhood, and divorce while still in graduate school. He pursued a reconciliation and remarried his wife. They had a second son. And then his older son, not yet four years old, drowned in the backyard swimming pool of a neighbor. The marriage ended and Crews wrote about his sense of responsibility and neglect of his family, as well as his continued obsession "to the point of desperation with becoming a writer . . . " And he did. 

I would have to understand what Crews meant by significant. 

ABOVE: An image from The Rough South of Harry Crews.

27 May 2012

READING THE SIGNS


Right now my junior students "really hate" me, according to a senior student who doesn’t. She finds this funny. I find it sad, because I like my students a lot. They are bright and pleasant people. But it’s true that most of them are poor students—not dull or deliberately rude or lazy. They just aren’t very good at their job, which at this time in their lives is to be students.

In fact, as a group, collectively and not necessarily individually, they demonstrate many of the more unfortunate stereotypical characteristics of today’s teenagers. They do not listen to or read directions, or pay attention to demonstrations or details. I can show them how to do something, provide diagrams and written and oral directions, and they are someplace else. They do not reason problems out. They chatter nonstop. They are self-involved and entitled. They look surprised when called to account. They roll their eyes and make a comment to the person sitting next to them as if I were not looking right at them as they do it.

They ignore corrections on their assignments and keep making the same mistakes. They ignore deadlines and begin seriously working on assignments only after they are due. Some skip classes. They all have cell phones with them at all times, and even after months in my classes, I have to remind them every day to put them away. They procrastinate (of course—we all do). They also begrudge fifteen minutes to slap together an assignment that requires two hours of focused effort to do well. They spend hours at the last minute working on something they should have begun weeks ago. They want clean, clear, and simple answers because they do not know how to think and they are not anxious to learn how. They do not read except what they can’t avoid.

Sometimes I despair. Many complain about their difficulty reading as if it were a deliberate conspiracy on the part of words and not a lack of practice reading that causes their problems. Be willing to struggle, I advise. This is not what they want to hear. I am convinced that I am far more worried about their future than they are themselves. Some of them. Some of them are figuring things out

Some of them are fine. There are a half dozen or so that I would take home to my mother. “Here, Mom,” I’d say, “look what followed me home!” Some students recall that what I’m asking them to do is built on assignments they have been doing all along, going back to middle school. Others are too busy gossiping to remember anything much at all about their real job, school.

Their parents love them and want what is best for them. They've worked hard already (those parents), but here's my advice to those parents who soon will be paying thousands of dollars in college tuition:
·       Your sons and daughters do not “need” a cell phone with them at all times.
·       They don’t need a car.
·       If they aren’t doing well in school, it’s probably because they need to spend more time working on schoolwork and less on other things such as Facebook.
·       No student has six hours of homework every night from high school—whatever they may say. My Honors classes are notoriously rigorous, which means they demand a lot of homework, homework every night. And though they will have assignments demanding many hours of work, it’s also true that such assignments are begun well in advance of the deadline. If your son or daughter suddenly needs to spend an entire weekend completing an assignment for English Honors (or Chemistry or Physics), it's probably because they chose to procrastinate for weeks before now, not because they are suddenly overworked.
·       They should be reading every day—newspapers, essays, novels—and very few of them do, which means most of them are poor readers. Some can barely read at all from lack of practice. They are careless, half-attentive readers who misunderstand what they read and miss significant details. They have failed to become critical readers. The Oregon Department of Education recommends that high school students read at least a million words a year. They don’t mean stop signs. If they read every word I assign, they’re more than halfway there. But mostly they don’t read what I assign. They read text messages.
·       If you as their parents don’t value their education, there is little hope that your sons and daughters will. Make it matter, make it a priority.

Like all human beings on the planet, they have work they must complete, however unwillingly. Perhaps sometimes we would all prefer to lie like puddles on the floor and spend all day nattering about nothing. That won’t do. We need to engage with our world and our future adult lives as full citizens. It’s work, but often it’s interesting and meaningful work to care about more than ourselves, our hair, and weekend games. Students learn how to operate in the world eventually, sooner or later, and with more or less grace and success. Some of these students, perhaps most, will figure this out before they and their families have wasted thousands of dollars on their first years of college. 

My students don't have to like me as well as I like them. But they still have to learn for their own sakes. They have to think. They have to keep moving toward independent adulthood. Read the signs: DANGEROUS CURVES. SPEED ZONE. GO.

26 May 2012

DEFINING ART


I asked my Writing 122 class to define art. One used his pages to prove how difficult art is to define. One business-minded girl approaches art’s function to support the status quo in society. Another suggests quite the opposite. A boy who has a future in engineering, cautions that we need art: “To create a business, or design a bridge, sometimes a person needs to think outside of the box, and I don’t think that people always learn how to do that properly in math and science classes.” Art makes the world sparkle, it pushes us both outside ourselves and deeper within to find what we do not first recognize. Ourselves. There are a lot more HERE.

I am enough of an artist to draw freely on my imagination.—Albert Einstein

If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.—JFK

My role in society, or any artist's or poet's role, is to try and express what we all feel. Not to tell people how to feel. Not as a preacher, not as a leader, but as a reflection of us all.—John Lennon

I set out to create an imagery in which the female body could be the entryway to universality.—Judy Chicago

Every artist was first an amateur.—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.—Pablo Picasso

The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.—T.S. Eliott

25 May 2012

ON THE SPECTRUM

I was reading a review of the new book by Mark Haddon, the author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which is told from the point of view of an autistic child trying to understand a series of mysteries from a dog barking to what has happened to his parents. A teacher once told me he couldn’t get into that book, and I thought as he was talking: That’s because you’re on the spectrum.

I'd assumed this expression an example of what I dubbed “educationalese” in the 1990s. But in fact, it's been in use for some time now.
The New York Times used it as the title of an article several years ago. “On the spectrum” is shorthand for “Here is a person with aspects of autism.” I’ll remind everyone that I am not a psychologist, have not done clinical work with autism, nor do I have a degree in this field. I have been trained. I have taken workshops and I’ve read Temple Grandin’s Thinking in Pictures: Other Reports from My Life with Autism and other books about autism and Aspergers. I know what most teachers need to understand about how to work with children, including children who are autistic.

There’s a lot of concern these days that autism is approaching epidemic proportions. It’s maybe even a little trendy to self-identify as an “Aspie” judging by the many websites with tests for the syndrome. [Maybe I'll go take one later today.] The CDC tracks health issues, including this one. They find that perhaps one in 88 people are diagnosed as autistic as found in a
 recent report. But many see this concern about so-called increasing autism as the result of exaggeration and hysteria.

I’ve worked with students diagnosed as severely autistic, and with students who had not been diagnosed, as well as parents and teachers who showed specific symptoms and general behaviors I recognize from reading and training about autism. Some of these adults are decidedly "quirky" but most function just fine out here in the world. It is the behavior of these undiagnosed adults that most strongly
suggests to me that autism is not a growing problem, but something we have mostly learned to live with.

My favorite explanation of people with mild autism is that they are “cats living in a world designed for dogs.” There might be some good advice about how to work with autistic people 
available online. Be consistent, logical, and rewarding of good behavior. Provide a schedule. It’s advice that works for many who are not on the spectrum and makes all children feel safer. Anxiety interferes with learning. It causes children to misbehave and suffer. That’s pretty much true for us all.

It might be true, as the mother of an autistic child once suggested to me, we are all somewhere on the spectrum. Autism Awareness Day was last month, but perhaps we could all learn some lessons about how to make the world a better place for cats.

24 May 2012

WHO READS?


Obama’s favorite book is Toni Morrison’s Song of Soloman. On a list of forty favorite books chosen by “famous people” you will find the Odyssey and The Catcher in the Rye and The Secret Garden. Of the 40 people surveyed, 34 are men. Six are women. Of those women, five are actors and one is the model famous for making heroin chic. Among the men are a lot of actors, but also business people, politicians, sports stars, and musicians and millionaires. You can find the complete list HERE

Some of the books chosen are brilliant, some are safe classics, some clearly represent a reading habit that hasn’t grown past school days. Most of them were chosen by men.

That’s true in the publishing industry as well. Though many women are writers, many are editors, and most readers are women (perhaps as many as 80%), the decision about what is published is made largely by men. And men chose books written by and for men, which might actually be a problem for their readers.

There are women in publishing and you can find an impressive list HERE

You might understand the problem better by reviewing VIDA’s most recent statistics HERE

VIDA seeks to explore critical and cultural perceptions of writing by women through meaningful conversation and the exchange of ideas among existing and emerging literary communities…. founded in August 2009 to address the need for female writers of literature to engage in conversations regarding the critical reception of women’s creative writing in our current culture…. The individuals presently involved in creating VIDA are spread across the country, represent different identities, work from within a range of aesthetics, and share the common goal to create a forum at which all women writers may engage in much longed for conversations about literature being produced by women and its reception by the larger culture.”

This study and list exist because there’s a problem. It’s not new. Tillie Olsen (1912-2007) began writing Silences (1978) at the birth of the modern women’s movement in the early 60s. She surveyed the work published and found that women’s and other voices were underrepresented in publishing. They had been silenced:

“Literary history and the present are dark with silences: some the silences for years by our acknowledged great; some silences hidden; some the ceasing to publish after one work appears; some the never coming to book form at all. What is it that happens with the creator, to the creative process, in that time? What are creation’s needs for full functioning? Without intention of or pretension to literary scholarship, I have had special need to learn all I could of this over the years, myself so nearly remaining mute and having to let writing die over and over again in me. These are not natural silences--what Keats called agonie ennuyeuse (the tedious agony)--that necessary time for renewal, lying fallow, gestation, in the natural cycle of creation. The silences I speak of here are unnatural: the unnatural thwarting of what struggles to come into being, but cannot. In the old, the obvious parallels: when the seed strikes stone; the soil will not sustain; the spring is false; the time is drought or blight or infestation; the frost comes premature. The great in achievement have known such silences--Thomas Hardy, Melville, Rimbaud, Gerard Manley Hopkins. They tell us little as to why or how the creative working atrophied and died in them--if ever it did. Kin to these years-long silences are the hidden silences; work aborted, deferred, denied--hidden by the work which does come to fruition. Hopkins rightfully belongs here; almost certainly William Blake; Jane Austen, Olive Schreiner, Theodore Dreiser, Willa Cather, Franz Kafka, Katherine Anne Porter, many other contemporary writers. Censorship silences. Deletions, omissions, abandonment of the medium (as with Hardy); paralyzing of capacity (as Dreiser’s ten-year stasis on Jennie Gerhardt after the storm against Sister Carrie). Publishers’ censorship, refusing subject matter or treatment as 'not suitable' or 'no market for.' Self-censorship. Religious, political censorship--sometimes spurring inventiveness--most often (read Dostoyevsky’s letters) a wearing attrition. The extreme of this: those writers physically silenced by governments. Isaac Babel, the years of imprisonment, what took place in him with what wanted to be written? Or in Oscar Wilde, who was not permitted even a pencil until the last months of his imprisonment? Other silences. The truly memorable poem, story, or book, then the writer ceasing to be published (As Jean Toomer, Cane; Henry Roth, Call It Sleep; Edith Summers Kelley, Weeds). Was one work all the writers had in them (life too thin for pressure of material, renewal) and the respect for literature too great to repeat themselves? Was it "the knife of the perfectionist attitude in art and life" at their throat? Were the conditions not present for establishing the habits of creativity (a young Colette who lacked a Willy to lock her in her room each day)? Or--as instanced over and over--other claims, other responsibilities so writing could not be first? (The writer of a class, sex, color still marginal in literature, and whose coming to written voice at all against complex odds is exhausting achievement.) It is an eloquent commentary that this one-book silence has been true of most black writers, only eleven in the hundred years since 1850 have published novels more than twice. There is a prevalent silence I pass by quickly, the absence of creativity where it once had been; the ceasing to create literature, though the books may keep coming out year after year. That suicide of the creative process Hemingway describes so accurately in 'The Snows of Kilimanjaro.' He had destroyed his talent himself--by not using it, by betrayals of himself and what he believed in, by drinking so much that he blunted the edge of his perceptions, by laziness, by sloth, by snobbery, by hook and by crook, selling vitality, trading it for security, for comfort. Almost unnoted are the foreground silences, before the achievement. George Eliot, Joseph Conrad, Isak Dinesen, Sherwood Anderson, Dorothy Richardson, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, A. E. Coppard, Angus Wilson, Joyce Cary—all close to, or in their forties before they came published writers; Lampedusa, Maria Dermout (The Ten Thousand Things). Laura Ingalls Wilder, the 'children’s writer,' in their sixties. Very close to this last grouping are the silences where the lives never came to writing. Among these, the mute inglorious Miltons: those whose waking hours are all struggle for existence; the barely educated; the illiterate; women. Their silence the silence of centuries as to how life was, is, for most of humanity.”

You can find more about Tillie Olsen’s life and work HERE.

Even better—listen. Go read a book by a woman.


ABOVE: That's Tillie Olsen as a young woman who served on the PTA when she wasn't being a wife, mother, and author of Tell Me a Riddle, which contains one of my favorite stories, "I Stand Here Ironing."

23 May 2012

BIRD IN HAND

In the summer of 1997 I was privileged to participate in poet Janice Gould's workshop at The Flight of the Mind. Janice sang for us, she introduced poetic forms, and she waited us out until we wrote what mattered. Walking to lunch one day I found a dying bird in my path. The poem I wrote would be published by Manzanita Quarterly (then in Ashland, later Santa Fe), my first published poem. That was in 2000.



BIRD IN HAND

The bird is alive when I first see it, 
just there in the tangle of damp June grass. 
Wings and legs neatly folded, perhaps
dead or dying.  Perhaps only stunned.
I have seen dead birds, but the shine
on these black eyes gives me hope. 

When I curl my fingers under it,
I feel fierce heat and the bird half-closes
its eyes.  Precise fine feathers on its back
shimmer copper, peacock green just above
the twinned tail.  I carry the bird
away from its home, to mine.
The cooling body tells me. 
Something dies in my hand. 

Weather and windows have left me
birds before.  The oystercatcher lived. 
Greebs, storm-battered gulls.
Once a hummer, trapped in the atrium,
allowed me to carry it back outside. 
A finch, a robin.  A crow took berries
from my fingers.  They do not always die. 

But when they do, the greater
heat of their body presses into any hand
which holds them, as the pretty swallow
has passed its heat to me. 

I am a stranger to this bird, now
still and straight in my palm.  I did not pass by;
I need not mourn.  I am not afraid, not
to blame.  This is my only swallow.  I place 
the body under hydrangea, nearly in bloom. 
The iridescence of feathers in shadow.  

22 May 2012

IN LOVE WITH COLOR


Since last summer I've been putting a series of wool warps on my little loom and weaving shawls and baby blankets in a range of colors—mostly two things from each warp, using quite different wefts for each. Thank you, Toni, for the loom, and Koigu for the yarn.


21 May 2012

ART SAVES LIVES


Scrolling through TV Guide, I noticed Bill Moyers’ new show yesterday featured activist/guitarist Tom Morello of The Nightwatchman. I called down to Gary to watch it and he already had found it on his own. (Morello was and is part of the band, Rage Against the Machine.) It was encouraging to see Morello speaking and singing about social justice. It was wonderful to hear someone talk about lost potential and speak up for working people. You can find him HERE singing Woody’s song “This Land Is Your Land,” and HERE, singing one of his own, "Black Spartacus Heart Attack Machine." The man has something to say.

He’s not alone. Lately a lot of people have had something to say about the way our country seems to be drifting off course. 

Ironically, a better funded and more insistent voice is also speaking. I’ve heard loud claims from the wealthy minority claiming that they are the victims of "class warfare." The wealthiest people in America pay a much smaller percentage of their income in taxes, they benefit from our free market and often from our wars. Their sons and daughters do not go to war, and their homes are locked and barricaded and policed and cleaned by others. They send their children to private schools and they attack others for wanting schools as fine. They want to deduct the expense of sending their children to these elite schools, but they are quick to point out that “throwing money at it doesn’t solve a problem.”

Money seems to have solved their problems with safety, comfort, opportunity, and education. It seems to have kept them safe from war, while the poorer parents of America see their sons and daughters bleed.

Is anyone still unaware that while they are more productive than at any time in history the middle class is strangling; that the gap between rich and poor is as wide as the Pacific Ocean; that we are not inferior to any nation on the planet, but 24% of our children—our children—live in poverty? We are a wealthy nation with an embarrassing record compared to other industrialized nations when it comes to healthcare. It isn’t the poor who have benefited from this injustice.

But the wealthiest citizens in the most secure and proud nation standing for liberty and justice for all, these wealthy individuals complain of class warfare? As people demand justice and fairness, the right to jobs and decent wages and opportunity for their children—the wealthy whine about being abused?

Isn’t this a little like the fox complaining when the hens lock the gate on their pen?

ABOVE: That's the great Woody Guthrie with his guitar labeled "This machine kills fascists." Just below is Tom Morello in the color photo. My old car used to have a bumper sticker: "Art Saves Lives." 
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