Monday, December 20, 2010

Here's to 2011

High points of 2010, in no real order:

Trip to Texas and Arizona last January. Saw my family in TX, saw my friends in AZ. Lots of sunshine – great way to start the year.

Several close friends survived, and thrived, after serious illnesses. What could be better?

I learned that Susan Rogers’ book would be published. Yahoooooooo!

Landed the tenure-track position at SUNY Oswego. (Giant sigh of relief, still exhaling.)

And, although I said these were in no order, this one outranks everything: my brother came home from Iraq.

Books

Fiction: Well, I didn’t read a LOT of fiction, but I really enjoyed a novel called The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, by Reif Larsen, which I can wholeheartedly recommend to anyone who a) likes graphic novels; b) loves maps; c) likes intelligent and quirky narrators. I’m not sure it’s rightly called a graphic novel – it’s just a very creative and charming novel. So yeah – that’d be my favorite of the year, although like Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, below, I wouldn’t have expected to like it so much.

Poetry: My favorite poems this year were written by my students. What would have been my favorite book was Nox by Anne Carson. Unfortunately, my copy was lost in transit, so I’m deferring my utter enjoyment of this book until 2011.

Nonfiction: Generally I read a lot of good nonfiction, so in no particular order:

Zeitoun, Dave Eggers

Reality Hunger, David Shields

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot

About a Mountain, John D’Agata

Vanishing Point, Ander Monson

Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, Amy Krouse

Best American Essays 2010 (special mention to Ryan Van Meter’s essay, “First”)

Movies: I don’t see a lot of first-run movies, but the one movie I adored this year, and recommend to all artists, is The Beaches of Agnes, a documentary by and about Agnes Varda, the French filmmaker, and so much more. Loved it from start to finish and can’t wait to view it again.

(On a related note: I felt a couple of widely-praised movies were really over-rated. 1) The Kids Are All Right; and 2) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Good performances, yes… but beyond that?? If anyone cares to explain, please do.)

TV I enjoyed: Men of a Certain Age, Damages, Friday Night Lights, and Modern Family. And although I usually fall asleep in the middle of it, and couldn’t explain the show if I had to, I’ve really come to like Fringe a lot.

Last but not least: High Points of Facebook: It’s actually hard to choose – I have a lot of writer friends and a lot of friends who don’t post about their endless fatigue, break-ups, hangovers, random whininess, etc., but here are some that stood out:

  • Susan Rogers’ posts from Tasmania and Wyoming;
  • All of Kimi Eisele’s blog posts and gratitude posts;
  • A short video featuring my nephews’ home-made game, the infamous “Sting Pong.” I rarely get a kick out of stupidity, but that one made me laugh.

If you have any year-end high points of your own, please feel free to comment here or on Facebook. And thank you, sincerely, to anyone who’s been reading these blog posts. I really appreciate it.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Sliding & Spinning

Early December brought our first significant snowfall accumulation. That phrase – “significant accumulation” – is subjective. Around here, anything less than 7 or 8 inches is usually shrugged off. We’re accustomed to regular – one might say unending – snowfall, and it’s typical that we receive at least a few inches a day when the season really gets rolling. To grab our attention, a good foot or more of snow is required, and some of us can ignore the onslaught until it’s measured in upper-body terms: up to my waist, my chest, my shoulder… Over my head.

Sometimes, it’s not inches or feet by which we measure a storm, but other factors, like wind chill, wind speed, and consistency of snow. The first two are self-explanatory – even a trace of snow, if accompanied by a wind chill factor in the single digits or below zero, will hurt. If you have to be outdoors when the wind chill dips that low, you get so cold that the slightest dusting of snow on exposed skin feels painful – more like hot than cold; even the lightest touch can burn. Wind comes off the lake and can literally knock you off your feet. Combine those gusts with slippery surfaces or walkways that are not shoveled, and getting from point A to point B can be an unpleasant adventure. Even my car, a small sedan, has been rocked on its wheels; a good body blow to the driver’s side has made me flinch as though being struck on more than one occasion.

What’s a little harder to explain is snow’s consistency. Everyone knows there’s a difference between powdery snow and wet snow. We get both here, sometimes during the same storm. There’s a whole spectrum of consistency that exists between those edge points, as well – snow isn’t just wet or dry, heavy or fluffy. There’s one particular kind of snow that locals refer to as greasy, and it’s as unpleasant as it sounds. I don’t think it falls from the sky in its greasy form or, rather, I’m not sure if its vertical form is entirely responsible for its horizontal slickness. I’ve heard that the phrase refers to snow that’s dense, almost slushy, and occurs when temperatures are right around freezing. It’s more slippery than other kinds of snow, and can make both walking and driving rather treacherous.

That’s what happened yesterday, and most of us were unprepared. By “most of us,” I mean everyone. The plows weren’t sent out early, drivers weren’t warned about the conditions, and my students, who walk to school, were taken aback by the deceptive intensity of the weather. It looked so pretty and, because it was the first real snowfall of the year, initially caused considerable delight. Delight, that is, for the indoor observer. Those who had to engage with the snow quickly felt their joy diminish.

When I headed out in the morning, we appeared to be enjoying one of those stereotypical picture-perfect snowfalls. The flakes were large, no wind was discernable and, although it felt cold, there was no bite to the air. It was just a nice winter day. As is my habit when I leave home during the winter, I always test my brakes. I want to see if the road is slippery and, if so, gauge how far I’ll slide if I have to stop suddenly. We have lots of deer in the woods surrounding the house, as well as darting squirrels, chipmunks, and a whole menagerie of slower critters I could conceivably encounter in my path. My tires are good, and usually I’ll slide very briefly if at all. Yesterday, however, although the roads looked fine – just an inch or so of snow – I slid and fishtailed when braking at a very low speed. Odd, I thought. I guess it’s more slippery than it looks.

I intended to take my time getting to school and was, in fact, forced to do so almost immediately because I hit a white-out. White-out conditions are my least favorite and I try to avoid them whenever possible. Given where we live, however, it’s inevitable that several times a year I’m going to have to keep driving when I can’t see.

Driving in a white-out requires two things: experience, and faith. I mean faith literally – you have to believe, fervently, that some benevolent force in the universe is going to assist you in your travels. Maybe it’s comparable to the faith some must feel when getting on a plane or stepping into a church. You aren’t entirely sure how that machine stays in the air, you aren’t able to explain, really, who or what or why you believe in whatever religion draws you… Driving in a whiteout is like that: it seems impossible that all over town individuals are at the wheels of two-ton vehicles, maneuvering them blindly towards and away from one another with little mechanical or technological guidance. It seems, honestly, like a miracle every time I get out of the car after driving through the density and chaos of a whiteout.

As for experience, generally speaking, pulling over and waiting out a storm of this kind is not an option. For one thing, you can’t see where to pull over. Where we live, there’s often no shoulder and even if there were, it may not be safe to stop. Approaching drivers can’t see your taillights and you could be at as much risk while parked as you’d be in motion. So you learn to seek out potential markers – either actual landmarks that will indicate your location and help keep you on track, or moving targets, so to speak – other cars. I often feel relieved when I see another vehicle’s taillights or headlights, because they tend to mean I’m still on the road. It doesn’t always indicate that, however – I’ve watched one car follow another car’s lights into a ditch or into a field, unaware that the road had curved.

That didn’t happen yesterday. The ride to school is only seven miles, and I thought that the worst-case scenario meant seven miles of low to no visibility. That’s plenty – even a hundred yards of driving when you can’t see is frightening, no matter how many times you’ve done it. But I had a feeling that the white-outs would be intermittent, and they were. Although there were stretches where I couldn’t see the road at all, the closer I got to the college, the better the visibility became. I thought the worst of the drive was over as I approached the school’s entrance.

The entrance, which would be for me a left turn, is on a sloping road. When conditions are clear and dry, you’d barely notice the slope. Walking up it would require little more exertion than strolling on a flat surface. Even so, I’ve learned, over the years, that the road near the entrance tends to be slippery in winter; I always slow to a crawl on the approach. Yesterday, crawling was too fast. As I began to turn, I also began to slide. I quickly realized I couldn’t complete the turn and so continued straight, downhill, preparing to turn around and take another crack at the entrance. Because it was early, not many other cars were around. As I saw my first opportunity to reverse my course on a side street, I also spotted a mother and her school-age son walking in the street. I knew if I made that particular turn, I might slide directly toward them. I passed up that street and came to a second opportunity. No cars, no humans, no obstacles. I inched around the turn, pulled into a driveway, made my way back onto the main road. This time I was going uphill, just slightly, and could feel my car – all-wheel drive – slip just a tad. That was my second indication that the road was incredibly slick -- normally I’d have had no trouble. I took it slow and turned into the college. I was now on a minor decline that segued into a fairly tight turn. Way ahead of me, a car stopped, waiting to pull into a parking spot. I pumped my brakes, well in advance, I thought, of having to stop. My car began to spin.

I should mention, here, that I’ve been driving for over 34 years. I’ve been pretty lucky, but I’ve also been rear-ended by a preoccupied student; I’ve slid on black ice; I’ve cried after surviving an hour-long white-out; I’ve driven too fast and paid the price; I’ve had the misfortune of hitting squirrels and birds; I crushed my own taillight once when backing up in an unfamiliar parking lot. And, because I live where I live, I’ve spun out before. The last time was on a busy road, two nights before Christmas, and my car came to a rest after narrowly avoiding half a dozen other vehicles, nose to nose with another skidding driver. Our front ends were within an inch of each other; we smiled weakly, waved, and maneuvered back into our respective lanes.

Yesterday, although the road was lined with parked cars, there were no oncoming drivers and nobody was behind me. I was effectively alone, on my own college campus, two minutes away from my office. Although it hadn’t yet fully registered with me, the snow was greasy and, in addition, may have concealed a layer of black ice. I don’t know, to be honest, what was happening beneath my car’s tires; I only know what wasn’t happening. The wheels were not gaining traction, and so my car executed a graceful slow motion spin, sliding as it spun further down the hill. I concentrated on minimizing my panic, tried to assess my surroundings and guard, as best I could, against hitting anything. Eventually the car just stopped, as though it had thrown a sudden tantrum and grown weary of its own misbehavior. I drove back out the entrance – I was now facing the wrong way and the road was too narrow and too slippery to right myself – and went through the whole procedure one more time. I made sure, on attempt number 3, that no cars were around, no students were walking, and took the entrance super slowly. I lucked out this time, as a snowplow preceded me and apparently scraped enough of the surface to allow me to inch to a parking lot without further incident. I then did what every other person who drove to school did: repeated and relived my adventure roughly 30 times, and in return heard other slightly harrowing narratives of other early-morning treks to school. In that manner I learned that at least six vehicles had gone off the road where I’d spun out and the unfortunate drivers had had to wait for hours for tow trucks to assist them in getting on track. I guess, in retrospect, I was lucky.

At the end of the day I was fortunate to have clean roads and clear traveling all the way home. Our driveway, although it had been plowed, had one last surprise in store for me. Although I’ve never hit anything stationary, bar one rear bumper after aforesaid black ice incident twenty years ago, my car slid at the bottom of the driveway – another slope, another curve – and before I could make the turn, rammed the passenger side up against a tree and rock wall that border the pavement. I absorbed the hit, heard the crunch, heard something shatter. I was fine, but a door was dented and a taillight busted.

Today I’m just the tiniest bit sore and more than a tiny bit worried. I’m not looking forward to driving in the snow again, something I’ll have to do today or tomorrow and every day for the next four months. I don’t want to navigate the route to school when the snow blinds me, or feel my car bashed by the wind, or fear that I’ll slide into another vehicle or a tree or a ditch. None of that is fun to contemplate. I won’t dwell on it for long, but since I’m still in the 24-48 hour range, I’m allowing the anxiety to take its toll and then, hopefully, it’ll dissipate and allow me to function normally.

In the meantime, I’m thinking about sliding, about spinning, about losing control of something tangible, like a car. Although it’s not fun, quite, there’s a built-in undercurrent that many might identify as a thrill. It’s thrilling to slide, to spin out, to wonder, in a concentrated and fleeting way, what’s going to happen next. It was so, admittedly, because I could assess, instantly, that the danger level was low. The worst thing that could have happened at school was I’d have hit another car. A bummer and a huge expense, to be sure, but had I gotten hurt it’d have been only mildly due to my exceedingly slow speed. And I probably could have taken out part of a fence at home, maybe some steps, if the car hadn’t hit exactly where it did. I could have crumpled my bumper but there, too, the potential for major damage or injury was low. I was free, in other words, to feel that momentary thrill. It didn’t translate into danger; had there been other moving vehicles or individuals, my reaction in retrospect would be considerably more sober. As it is, I don’t feel any residual elation. I feel low-grade fear and low-grade dread. There’s a dose of resentment, too, because I know I can’t indulge these feelings – I have to get through them, deal with them, tamp them down, shuffle them into the denial folder of my brain. You can’t be scared to drive here. If you are, you’re doomed. You’d have to leave this place, find a safer spot to set down roots. Danger’s part of the package and although I don’t like that aspect of my small town life, I accept it. I accept it the way I accept the blasts of the shots I hear as I type this – hunters stalking deer in posted (no hunting) areas that are, in effect, right outside my door. I accept it the way I accept the bitter cold and the battering wind. These things are facts of life, and there’s little to be done to mitigate or alter them. They’re the reasons for faith, perhaps. But I don’t mean faith in a god, or faith in the good will of human beings, or even faith in myself.

The kind of faith I’m talking about is, maybe, a faith in what I’ll call the sacredness of living -- a secular faith in our collective willingness to set out, day after day, on our individual quests for things we don’t often bother to properly define. “Why do we live here?” people ask, every winter, laughing in bewilderment after hearing or relaying yet another story of near misses on the road or superhuman feats of snow removal or unbelievable narratives of spending a week without electricity or having a tree land on your roof after an ice storm or watching a squirrel contemplate, with the focus of a physicist, exactly where to land after it leapt, blindly, from the third floor of a house to the drifting snow below.

“The heart never fits the journey. Always one ends first.” So wrote the poet Jack Gilbert and, although I think he’s onto something lovely and true, I also think that maybe he’s brushed up sideways against a definition of the kind of faith I know. It’s a faith of refusal – refusal to believe in that inequality. Maybe, despite all evidence to the contrary, the heart is a match for the truest, longest journey, and these beating, love-struck emblems of our very lives are up to the challenge of surviving every last ineffable and unimaginable feat along the way. If we come out with a few dents and bruises along the way, so be it. Part of the ride, part of the thrill of it all is the slipping, the spinning, the long slide towards something we know so little of… We drive in the dark, all of us, don’t we – even though it might look like light, even though we pray, this way or that, to come to a stop in one piece.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Thankful for (in no particular order):


Geese squawking overhead

The endless scribble of tree branches

Sunshine in winter

The sky, the lake

Green apples

Thai food

Sweatshirts and jeans

Newspapers

Poetry

Best American Essays

Writers

Breakfast

Photographs

Fargo, the cat

Shells and stones and bones

Anyone who makes me laugh

My students, colleagues, college, and education in general

Fleece

Leather (sorry)

My 16-year-old car

Bruce

The ability to daydream

Blue. And green.

Post its, paper clips, binder clips (colors!), narrow-lined paper, gel pens, pencils

Being old enough to have learned to type on a manual typewriter

Growing up in New Jersey (my family, the beach, ice skating)

Living in Arizona (the desert, the mountains, UA, Pima)

Life in New York (Leigh. Syracuse. Everything.)

Anne Carson

Autumn

My grandmother’s ring*

Memory

And my friends, who should be at the top of this list or, rather, should have each their own pages, with photos and quotations and video and long, beautiful anecdotes and plenty of sentiment. Je t’adore.







*That's my grandmother, in the photo.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

True Loves

If the sensory world – the world we see, smell, hear, touch and taste – is a wondrous story, and each element of that story-world the equivalent of a word, then the first word I fell in love with was water.

It wasn’t the word itself – my infatuation predated my vocabulary – it was the tangible liquid I encountered in creeks, swimming pools, hoses, spigots, the Atlantic Ocean, even bathtubs. In subsequent years I’d fall for tulips, deer, moths, clouds, trees, wind, waves, snow, fields, mountains, geckos… but the first love and, therefore, a defining love, was water.

The way my love manifested itself was simple: I wanted to be in it. Where there was water, my body wandered. I walked in the creek behind my childhood home, noticing how the light played below the surface of the water, how it created moving splotches that sparkled on the silt. I observed but did not understand the phenomenon of refraction when I saw that my leg seemed to shift at the ankle, precisely where it entered the water, as though I were a puzzle that didn’t fit quite right. We had no swimming pool, but I begged neighbors to let me swim in theirs, unashamed of my need, willing to use big eyes and a winsome smile to get my way. I later became embarrassed of my desire, but I learned to swim at 5 and needed – yes, needed – to be submerged. I needed to be not just in the water, but under the water. I wanted to be a fish. I wanted gills and fins. I wanted to live beneath the surface of the sea.

I learned that if the world is a wondrous story, and if an element of that story is the word love, and if desire is a component of love, then a component of desire is unrequitedness.

I would never be a fish. I would never be able to filter oxygen from water, I’d never have a two-chambered heart, never spend my days swimming rather than walking. I would not make a home in a coral reef, would never learn to look up at the light from my perch below the surface. But I’d learn to hold my breath for long minutes, scaring my mother when I’d dart under the ocean waves and surface, too long after, yards from where I’d submerged. I’d learn to dive from a dead stand, or from a ledge, or from my father’s shoulders -- from any solid plane. I’d spend hours in any body of water I could – a pond, a pool, a last-resort tub. Each summer weekend my family would go to the beach, a sandy strip of Jersey shore that felt like home, and I’d enter the water in the morning and exit at sunset. I’d cut my feet on crab shells and have my calf stung by a jellyfish; I’d swallow sea water and I’d tumble in the surf of more than one dangerous undertow. Twice I’d be pulled from the depths, seconds from succumbing to a fantasy of deep-sea life. I remember being held, at 6, in the arms of an uncle while my aunt tried to rinse the weight of sand and seaweed from my hair after I’d been thrashed by the undercurrent. I couldn’t hold my own head up; it was heavy with sand-laden dreadlocks, my swimsuit bulging with pockets of scratchy sand. It was like the sea had tried to claim me; it was like part of me was left behind.

The physical world is a wondrous story, and part of that story is loss. Loneliness is a recurrent theme; loneliness and loss are currents, like desire, like love. Fins filter what we need to breathe; lungs work in conjunction with the heart; dividing lines blur; water erodes even rock to smoothness.

*

Autumn leaves.

Yes, it does. It arrives full of sophisticated glamour and giddy flamboyance, it makes an entrance, it demands attention. Autumn feels, year after year, like I’ve found my soul mate. Year after year I pledge my undying affection, and every time, every time, my heart gets broken.

An unambitious elementary school art teacher introduced me to the art of preserving autumn leaves. We never learned about perspective or the color wheel or the difference between a shade and a tone. But we did iron leaves. All it took was one sheet of waxed paper, which we called “wax paper,” shiny side up. An assortment of colorful leaves –usually maple, some oak, some cherry – was arranged on top, followed by another layer of paper. It was important that the waxy side touched the leaves – the shiny side of the paper had to be facing in, the duller side facing out. Once it was all just right – a wax paper and leaf sandwich – a single page of newsprint was laid across the top, and then a warm iron run over the newspaper. This melted the wax and preserved the leaves. The effect was a somewhat duller version of a stained glass window, but to my kindergarten self it was high art and I never tired of creating the simple compositions. The process engaged me physically, emotionally and even intellectually or, I guess, as intellectually as a 5-year old can be engaged. I was enamored of the idea of preservation, of saving something that might otherwise be lost. For me, the process was absolute – I thought that my pile of art projects would be stored with the care a Smithsonian curator might store rare dinosaur bones. That they ended up on my mother’s refrigerator or, at best, in her hope chest, was sufficient to my understanding of permanence. Those translucent panes of art were forever. They were my first attempts to unite nature and art by my own hand, and they became, in a way, another version of submersion: immersion. Rapture was possible via art. I was five, but I was a poet.

*

What happens when you mix water and autumn leaves? The leaves become saturated or, to say it more simply, their colors explode. During October, the wooden steps leading to our front door are strewn with leaves. On a crisp fall day, the leaves are yellow, orange, red. Still-green leaves are in the mix as well, and sometimes a precocious leaf or two is already brown. When a breeze blows, the brown ones skitter across the stairs like crabs. Close up, most of the leaves are mottled; one color fades into the next, much the way an apple isn’t uniformly red or green but some appealing blend of colors. The leaves are dappled, they’re veined, they’re dead. When they cover the lawn in great drifts, there’s something both baptismal and shroud-like about them. Baptismal, I think, because they beg to be entered, they beckon a body to jump into them, to lie down in them, to be surrounded by a halo of color. Shroud-like because they can feel just as somber as they do festive. Fallen leaves are one of the great metaphors of death. Autumn, we learn in grade school, is the prelude to winter, one segues into the next, and in the catechism of elementary symbolism, neither season leaves much room for kicking up one’s heels. Maybe that’s why we find a pile of leaves irresistible though – it’s temptation, pure and simple. Rage, rage, against the dying of the light and all that. Autumn leaves are seductive and for a little while each year they make my few acres of the world more beautiful.

When it rains on those leaves, their colors don’t change, but they become more vivid. It’s like being inside the Wizard of Oz when the film changes to Technicolor from sepia-toned black and white. The leaves seem more dimensional, revitalized. It’s a little like they are coming back to life.

*

If under some imaginary cosmic regime I were allowed only three great love affairs during my immersion in this wondrous story called the world, I’d start with water, move on to fallen leaves, and end with the calls of geese. Their calls fill me with longing in a way that no other sound or sight ever has. What I long for is not clear; I don’t analyze the feeling nor wish it away nor encourage it. The calls of the geese in their sloppy V formations each fall, each spring, sound funny to some. Sometimes they sound like a pack of barking dogs, sometimes they sound too literal: there are a bunch of big, fat, awkward birds squawking in the sky. But usually, for me, when they’re making their trek from north to south, south to north, criss-crossing right over my house in the woods, sometimes ten or twenty groups a day, usually, then, they seem to speak to me in an inexplicable language, a vocabulary that I understand not intellectually but in my blood, in my bones. Do I want to leave with them? I do. Do I want to fly? I do. Do I want to navigate by unknown means to unknown places? What do those calls say to me, how can I explain why they move me so? I don’t know. I am drawn to the depths of the sea and the heights of the sky. That sounds extravagant, overly dramatic… but I am extravagant and dramatic about the things I love.

No love, perhaps, is ever quite requited enough. Maybe that’s what it’s all about: to see how far we can love, how deep, how much, how often, how long. To push it. To see what we can endure when the love returned is not exactly the love we had in mind. To learn how to persevere when our love is not returned at all.

The tide goes out, the geese depart, autumn leaves.

And the tide rises, the geese return, spring pings its way into buds and blossoms. It’s like the world’s story cannot be contained, sometimes. Like when you walk out of the water on a summer day and feel the sting of salt tightening your skin. Break out of your body, break out of your body…

Some things can’t be contained. Some puzzles take a lifetime.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Five


The first time I kissed a girl I was in college. I was pretty na├»ve for even a freshman; there had been no openly gay kids in high school and, in the late 70’s, there were considerably fewer representations of the “gay lifestyle” in popular culture. I had thought, for the first 18 years of my life, that I was straight. I liked boys, I’d had plenty of crushes, had fallen in love in that particularly passionate way that teenagers do. The guy I loved in high school was a little older than me, smoked cigarettes, had long blond hair that he always had to brush out of his eyes. We got into most of the kinds of trouble that teenagers tend to get into. I had no inkling – not a spark, not a sign, not a clue – that my attraction to boys would morph into an attraction to girls.

But so it did, and even then I was slow to catch on. I thought it was just this one girl, this one summer, thought it was just a phase… But then there was a second girl. And a third. And to my surprise I eventually realized that I was a girl who liked girls.

I’ve been pretty lucky over the last 30 years. Nobody ever physically hurt me, nobody singled me out for bullying. Sure, once I was walking near Syracuse University, happily smitten and holding my girlfriend’s hand, and someone yelled out “faggot!” And there was a brief period of time where I’d get anonymous phone calls from someone who would hiss the word fag! and hang up. A woman I once considered a friend told me she didn’t mind that I was gay, but she probably wouldn’t let me babysit her kids. All of those were difficult experiences – upsetting, rattle-me-to-the-core experiences – but overall, I was spared the merciless taunting and harassment that so many kids and teenagers endure.

This contemporary version of harassment puzzles me a bit, in part because I teach in a college and I’ve witnessed attitudes change radically in the last decade or so. Students today are often very supportive of their gay and lesbian classmates. This is true in many high schools as well. Young people are, in general, more educated about homosexuality, more open, and more accepting.

At the same time, it’s almost impossible to walk down the halls of any middle school, high school or even college and not hear someone use the word “gay” in what is considered, often, a joking manner. “That’s so gay.” “You’re gay, dude.” “Quit it; that’s gay.”

If I asked anyone using the word in the above manner what they meant by it, here’s what they’d say: it has nothing to do with being gay. It’s just the way we talk. We’re just kidding around. Everybody says it.

I believe them.

I also believe that they should stop using the word in that way. Why?

Because it carries within it an insult. The insult might be subtle, it might be meant as a joke, it might even be said with affection, but gay – used in this way – equals less. Less cool, less important, less macho, less desirable, less accepted, less good, less normal. Less than everyone who’s not called gay. Just less.

And guess what? We hear you. We – all of us who are gay, whether happily so, or confusedly so, or newly so, or proudly so, or enduringly so – we hear you. We hear you mock us, laugh at us, trivialize us, intimidate us, bully us, demean us… we hear you. Even when you don’t know we’re listening. Even when you don’t know we’re gay. Even when you’d swear up and down that you didn’t mean anything by it. We hear you.

And, to be blunt, it hurts.

The words you think are funny – just stupid, meaningless jokes – are hurtful. We – your sisters and brothers, your cousins, your classmates, your neighbors and colleagues, your coworkers – get our feelings hurt just like you do and sometimes, for some of us, it’s hard to get over it.

When you’re a 13-year-old boy and teased relentlessly for being WHO YOU ARE, it’s hard to get over it.

When you’re a lonely 15-year-old girl who’s harassed relentlessly for being WHO YOU ARE, it’s hard to get over it.

When you’re an 18-year-old boy who’s videotaped and mocked for being WHO YOU ARE, it’s hard to get over it.

And so what, right? Everyone gets their feelings hurt, everyone has to learn to toughen up, everyone has to navigate a whole architecture of social constructs and social pressures and social cues and isn’t that what growing up is? Don’t we all have to deal with situations like this, where someone makes fun of us and we have to figure out how to get through it?

I guess so. Sure. Okay, yeah, lots of us go through it.

But for a significant number of gay and lesbian kids and teenagers and young adults, the difference is that they see no end to their struggle. They can’t imagine that it will get better. Plenty of adults, after all, are homophobic. It’s not uncommon to hear an adult mutter “faggot” or “homo” or to warn their kids that they better not turn out to be gay when they grow up. How can these kids imagine that it’ll get better, when grown-ups seem just as bad, or worse, than their peers? The adult world, in their eyes, doesn’t appear too promising.

I don’t know if I could have withstood being mocked or harassed or teased or bullied. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have. I’m pretty sure I would have become withdrawn and depressed and maybe even suicidal. I know I wouldn’t have been able to talk to my parents about it. Whether I could have confided in a friend or not, I don’t know. I don’t remember everything about my 14-year- old self, or my 18-year-old self, or even my 25-year-old self. But I’m pretty sure I wasn’t resilient enough to endure what some kids endure these days.

It seems like it takes a tragedy to wake people up. We have to hit bottom before we can find ways to improve. Well, five teenagers are dead this fall, all suicides, all gay. That seems like the bottom to me.

I don’t think it’s enough to reassure a depressed or frightened kid that it will get better. I believe it will – I know it will – and I love the campaign that celebrities have begun to support gay youth by telling their own stories and affirming that it does, indeed, get better. We have to do more than that though. We have to change our ways.

So I wonder… How hard would it be to start changing on the level of language? Would it hurt anyone to stop using the word “gay” in a derogatory or joking manner? Would it hurt anyone to stop calling people fags or queer? Would anyone’s life be diminished by taking that one baby step?

I’d appreciate it, from the bottom of my heart, if you could try.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Late Bloomers & Caught Leaves

Nearly October, and butterflies flit around as though the autumn leaves were flowers. I’m sitting on rain-soaked wood, enjoying a balmy afternoon that feels like summer but looks like fall. Morning showers left the ground saturated with dampness and color. The rain knocked off hundreds of maple leaves, and as they dry the edges curl. Dragonflies dart through the air and perch on the hydrangeas, which retain some of their summer pinks and blues but sag under the metaphorical weight of the season and the literal weight of rain. The potted red impatiens has seen better days, too. It looks garish and weary, an odd splatter of red against the yellows and oranges. Here and there in the yard a flower blooms – the last of the year, stragglers By all rights the summer flowers should have ceded dominance to the chrysanthemums, but one purple clematis climbs the trunk of the sumac, one primrose shoots a flower six inches into the air, the myrtle lets off a single violet star and one last rose taunts us with its tight fist for a week – will it, won’t it? – before bursting into aromatic dimension. I’m in love with these late bloomers; I check on them every day and pray they linger. The rose is so delectable I want to eat it like a coral-colored lettuce, but I content myself by just sticking my nose into its soft center. As I do, a gust of wind brings leaves and raindrops down upon me, and I see a pair of white butterflies twin and swirl in an updraft like scraps of fabric caught in a local tornado.

Everywhere, leaves get caught. Cradled, impaled, stuck – impeded in a hundred ways on their course from tree to ground. I see one maple leaf crucified on a dried out lily stem, several plastered to the mailbox, one twisted in some cable wires, several hung like laundry on a resilient piece of spider web. Everywhere leaves catch other leaves. They collect on the roof as though waiting for a sign; the sign is the wind, which sweeps them to the deck. When I walk across that deck the leaves catch in my sandals, flapping like clown shoes until they dislodge. I’d like to keep them near me – paste them to my arms and legs, tattoo myself with them. I’d like to be an autumn leaf magnet, and as I walked they’d drift to me, cluster around my ankles in eddies like land crabs. I’d like to live in this liminal zone, the zone that is both summer and autumn, literal and metaphorical, early and late. I’d like to live in a world where I could fall… and be caught.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Fall


Summer is giving way to fall, and although autumn is my favorite season, it’s hard not to lament, just a little, the cliched lazy days of summer as they slip into the loose weave of memory. Today is a blend of seasons, as though time itself, weather itself, can’t decide on identity, is having trouble moving on. The air is warm, in the 80’s, and the sky clear. But in the yard already-dried leaves skip across the driveway, scratching at my feet while above the trees rustle in the balmy breeze. If I stayed outside long enough my skin would burn, but the morning will be chilly enough for a sweater.

I’m in love, today, with the various weeds and mosses that insist on growing where they’re not wanted. I love the dandelions that push up through fissures in concrete, the moss that continues to carpet a crucial stone step leading to our deck. Years ago I’d mow around tall and flowering weeds in the yard, leaving oases of overgrown grass to protect what had been, arbitrarily it seemed, designated pest when they could have just as easily been called flower. Who decided? I didn’t know, but on my own acre I could reclassify and shelter.

My brother missed the turning of spring to summer; he missed the summer; he missed major time markers in the lives of his wife and kids. Christopher held his first summer job, working with animals in a no-kill shelter. Jordan entered high school and made the soccer team. Jess seemed to grow a full inch taller and read so many books she can’t recall them all. Cassie learned to horseback ride, and my brother’s wife, Lori, figured out how to get the kids, week after week, month after month, where they needed to be, figuratively and literally. Every night the whole family sat in front of the big computer screen and talked via Skype. It wasn’t much, but it was something, a way of keeping in touch, a way of saying everything’s okay even though everything’s different.

My brother missed a lot, and his family missed a lot but they – we – are lucky. The kids’ father, Lori’s husband, my brother, my mother’s son… he’s coming home. He’s out of Iraq and, I think, on a brief layover in Europe.* In 48 hours he’ll be in the U.S. Lori will pick him up at the airport and take him home. The kids think he has another week in Baghdad; they each arrive home from school at slightly different times, so they’ll be surprised sequentially. Part of me wishes I could be there, just hop on a plane and miss a few days of work, witness the reactions of the kids as their father’s presence registers. But another part believes they deserve their privacy, deserve to freely respond with tears or laughter or disbelief or who-knows-what. Military families contend with absence all the time, contend with hardships most non-military families don’t. My brother and I disagree on almost every political issue, but we agree on this: his work is important and he does it well. He’s proud of what he does and I’m proud of him.

So here’s a little thank you for that which persists. Here’s a little thank you for the oasis of family, to naming that which is cherished, to the quiet shifts of season that tell us time is passing and we should pay attention. Here’s to Rob and Lori and their kids…

Although I know it won’t happen, can’t happen, hasn’t happened, I wish – I deeply wish – that all families with loved ones far away could say, sooner rather than later, welcome home.



*This was written a few days ago but couldn't be posted because of the planned surprise. Major Robert Scott is at home with his wife Lori and their children.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

On a Tuesday in September

Far as I’m concerned, America is home to Muslim, Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, Confucianist, atheist, agnostic, short, tall, thin, fat, brown, black, white, red, gay, straight, transgender, bi-sexual, the uncoordinated and the athletic, the fashion-challenged and the super model, nature-lovers, city-dwellers, southerners and northerners, those who hug the coasts and those who love the plains and prairies and deserts, the tired, the hungry and the poor, the wealthy and the middle-class, the employed and unemployed, the homeowner, the renter, the homeless, the student and the teacher, the uneducated and the self-taught, the Mexican, the Arab, those with documentation and without, the male and the female, the young and old, the Springsteen fans, the hip-hop fans, the classical music lovers, the jazz aficionados, those who drive SUVs and motorcycles and foreign imports, the pick-up driver and the Prius owner and the walker, the couch potatoes and the health nuts, the vegetarians and carnivores, dog people and cat people, those who prefer Pepsi and those who prefer Coke, the potheads and the addicts, the alcoholics and gamblers and risk-takers of all stripes, the cautious and the timid, the bold and the beautiful, the agoraphobe and the horder and the aesthete, the poets and the artists and the scientists and the mathematicians and the secretaries and the chimney sweeps and the construction workers and the lawyers and those with children and those without, those who love the real Jersey shore and those who are left-handed and the right-brained, the Democrats and Republicans, the insomniacs and those-who-have-yet-to-awaken. Come on, people. Walk the walk. Get out and vote. Say hello. Open the door. Grow up.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Beauty of the Bowed Head


My cat, Fargo, has a ritual that charms me. Every morning she will jump onto my desk chair and then onto my desk. She positions herself next to the lamp and waits for me to come upstairs from the kitchen, where I’ve fetched my tea. I check email and read the Times online while having breakfast, all of which I must accomplish one-handed (alternating between mouse, teacup, keyboard, cereal spoon), because my other arm is claimed by the cat. She curls herself into its curve and tucks her head into my elbow, where she purrs for 30 minutes or so before leaving me to the rest of my morning.

Sometimes she’ll sit and face me before heading off to her other endeavors. This is my cue to stop staring at the computer screen and pay attention to Fargo. I’ll put down my cup and place both hands on her sides, scratching or petting behind her ears. “You’re the best cat in the world,” I’ll whisper, finding the sweet spot on her neck. “The best cat in the galaxy,” I’ll say, as she leans into my hand. We’re usually just an inch apart, eye to eye, and her fur has been warmed by the lamp and my arm. It’s just about perfect happiness, but it gets better. On certain mornings, if I’m really lucky, she’ll bow her head in the midst of this ritual. She'll sit directly in front of me, still and silent on the desk, head bowed as if waiting to be knighted. I'll lean in and bow my head, too, so that my forehead is touching the crown of her head. Then we just stay like that, Fargo turning up the purr, me wishing I could purr, until the world shifts and the moment ends.

Maybe it’s a remnant of a mildly Catholic childhood, but there’s something about that posture -- shoulders still, breath steady, head bowed -- that I adore. It’s the posture of prayer, of deep thought, the posture of sorrow and of nodding off to sleep. When one is writing, the head is bowed – and here I realize I must clarify, because it is true only when writing with a pen and not when composing on a keyboard and screen. It is that position – pen or pencil in hand, head bowed, concentration utter – that combines all of the above. We are praying, we are thinking, we are in some reverent half-sleep half-dream half-wide-oh-so-wide-awake state. We are writing, and sometimes, if we’re really lucky, it feels like we are touching, in both solitude and total communion, the perfect reader, the perfect other.

Friday, July 23, 2010

July, Rain


When it rains all day I feel like my senses need to be reset. Usually when I’m working at my desk, the window to my left is wide open and I hear, dozens of times an hour, the wings of hummingbirds coming to sip from the feeder. If the day’s breezy, leaves from the maple and locust and cherry trees rustle, and in the background I’ll note the irregular punctuation of bird song and an occasional car. Most of that is blocked out with steady rain. All I’ve heard for the last few hours is rain hitting various surfaces – the sturdy leaves of the hosta below my window; the stones of the rockwalls in the yard; the wooden slats of the deck; the rooftop shingles. Every once in a while I catch the buzz of the hummers’ wings… but most of the customary sounds are gone, replaced by thousands of drops meeting dozens of obstacles. The raindrops that hit grass in the yard or the fresh dirt of the new flower garden are soundless from indoors. But they make everything shine. As the leaves and flowers become saturated, their colors appear more vibrant.

I look up from the keyboard after that last line and see that I have to adjust my perception. The clouds have grown so gray that any brightening highlights on the ground are diminished. It looks more like 8 in the evening than 10 in the morning. The world is dark and wet and cold, and although it puts a literal damper on any outdoor activities for us humans, the steady rhythm of rain is a joy.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Vast Embrace

i. Bird nests in the brambles cup chalices of snow. A scrap of blue scarf caught. (The tenderness of the scrap.)

ii. When I was a kid, I thought it would be fun to walk the plank of a pirate ship. I could swim. Danger was a foreign concept. Figured I’d bob in the water until the ship was out of sight, then head for shore. I’d show those pirates.

iii. Letter from my brother, age 10: Dear Donna, How are you? I’m doing very good. It’s only 11 days till you get here, and I’m still counting. Ever since Momy said I could type on your old typewriter I have been on a craze for typing. The office had a new typewriter. IT was great typing on it. It could type any way you wanted, because you can change this little ball-like object with different types of lettering. When I first started yesterday I was using one finger, and now I almost now the key-board by hart, and am using two hands, pinkies and all….. PLEASE WRITE (type) back soon. (if possible in my name) LOVE ROBERT

iv. Envelope saved from my brother, age 23. Scrawled on the outside, to the postman: PLEASE DO NOT BEND THESE BEAUTIFUL PHOTOS OF OUR NEW SON. HE WAS BORN ON NOV 9TH. WE LOVE HIM A LOT!!

v. My brother is deployed to Iraq. We write messages in ink on the insides of orange rinds, leave them in each other’s pockets. When I find one in the future it reads: I will always meet you someplace else.

vi. “What are the two most important parts of an essay?” I ask. In unison, the class responds: “Openings and conclusions.” “Is it okay to bend the truth, twist the truth, leave out details or add details to the truth?” I ask. They fidget.

vii. His boy is 16. He thumb-texts. On my answering machine, saved messages cover his whole life. Hear his voice crack. Hear his voice change. I made the team, he says. Would you read this poem I wrote, he says. Call me back, he says.

viii. Nabokov, in the story with the funeral: “And I want to rise up, throw my arms open for a vast embrace, address an ample, luminous discourse to the invisible crowds. I would start like this:

ix.

x. (The tenderness of the scrap.)

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Valentine's Day


The icicles outside the front door are dripping. Where the drops land in the snow it looks like constellations, shallow indentations that seem significant, like if I recognized the language I could understand the meaning.

Next door, the little neighbor boy is shoveling snow onto his dog. The orange plastic shovel is bigger than the boy, and he finds it unwieldy because of its size but also because he is bundled in a fat jacket and snow pants. He and the dog are playing a game, and the game is called Joy. He scrapes up some light snow, tries to lift the shovel over his head – he’s only about 3 years old – and dumps the snow onto the dog’s ears or back or tail. The dog yips and leaps and the boy laughs. And then they do it again.

Outside in the yard, fallen branches poke up out of the snow. They look like skinny arms reaching toward the sky. It’s as though a contingent of stick figures was buried in the drifts, and the rescue party has yet to locate them.

I’m reading a book about writing memoir, and the famous author says “Voice is everything.” Another well-known writer says “Point of view is everything.” Sometimes I hear myself telling my students "Theme is everything." Really, I think nothing is everything.

But many things are enough.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Spin


Three crows wick powder from the throat of a fat maple. January ground looks like a Rorschach, swatches of earth against swatches of snow. We had a bit of a thaw, a week or so with flurries and squalls but not much accumulation. It’s rare to see the ground at this time of year, but the occasional patch of green makes me happy. The green feels like a promise, an implied guarantee that winter will, eventually, end. It’s a reminder that’s welcome on a day like this when, despite the sunshine and the glimpses of hard ground, the temperature stalls below zero. I write wearing gloves and a scarf, a bulky jacket. We keep the wood stove stocked, burn level set at ROAR; periodically throughout the morning it’s necessary to go stand right next to it in order to warm up. For backup I’ve got a little space heater in my study that sits at ankle level. My feet are encased in boots made of sheepskin and suede but the heat wafts up and keeps my legs warm. It’s a lazy day in the heart of winter, and I can’t help but think of the beautiful title of the last novel I read: Let the Great World Spin. I sit and stare out the window, watch the crows and the shivering trees. Wood pops and shifts in the stove. My cat curls a paw over her eyes, a casual defense against the confrontation of sunlight. I drink it in, thirsty for light at this time of year. Even in the middle of the night, I stand and watch the wolf moon as it glazes the sky, feel the glow on my skin, watch shadows drift across the kitchen floor.

Let the great world spin… It’s cold out there, but time and again we find our way to warmth.