“There was this man one time,” an old friend recalls, “back in Montenegro there, and he had eight children, five boys, I think, and three girls. No. Yes. Five sons and three daughters. Or four and four. Something like that. And a lot of grandchildren, all good, except this one. One of his grandsons was always in trouble, always angry, causing problems, stealin’, lyin’, hurtin’ people. Everyone was afraid of him, you know what I mean? He had a lot of friends, too. His grandfather, he tried to talk to him, but nothing. No one wants to get him mad, and so he is ruinin’ life, you know, for every single one of them.” H laughs. “One time, when he was eighteen, he beat up two police officers. Yeah! He did that. Even that. He got 20 months in jail. Twenty months. When he got out, same shit. No different at all. So his grandfather—this old man, he was early nineties then—calls him over. ‘Why you do this? You and all these friends?’ And the grandson wants to just go, and his grandfather say, ‘How many friends you got?’ and the grandson say, ‘A lot,’ and his grandfather say, ‘How many? Five? Fifty? Ten? You got a hundred friends? How many?’ and the grandson figure it out,” and here H counts on his fingers, as if he is the grandson, “and he says, ‘A lot, twenty or thirty,’ and his grandfather say, ‘Good friends?’ and the grandson say, ‘Yeah.’ So one day, it was the Moslem holiday time, the grandfather tell his son, this boy’s father, ‘Go and find a sheep. Kill it, skin it, and bring it to me.’ And the son does this. The old man takes the skinned sheep and lays it out on a table in the back room, and puts a white sheet over it, so the blood soaks through, and he calls his grandson. He come, and old man takes him to the back room, and points to the bloody sheet. He tells the grandson, ‘I kill a man today, and I need to get rid of the body. I need your help. Call your friends. You go get one of your good friends to help with this,’ and the grandson starts shaking, and say, 'Grandfather! You, you kill a man?' and his grandfather said, 'Yes. Now go get your friends.' And the grandson, his eyes are like this, he can't believe it; he even shit his pants, but he goes, so scared, my god. He goes from one friend to the next, and no one will help, they tell him to forget it, and he comes back to his grandfather alone, and the old man say, ‘Where are your good friends?’ and the grandson say, ‘They won’t come,’ and the old man say, ‘No one will help you? Your good friends?’ and then he take the boy in the back room and lift the sheet. ‘Tonight we will roast this, and we will all eat it together.’ And that was it. The grandson got it. He got it. That was it. The old man, he couldn’t read or write, not even his name, but he was a genius. I miss him. He was sweet.” H lights a cigarette. “Oh, Lisa, mankind. Mankind my ass.”
Readers, I didn't kill a man, if that's what you think, or do time, because it's been too long, but I'll tell you this: your Miss O’s mind is all over the fucking place today, so many thoughts, my god. Between being months-too-long understaffed/overworked at work and going on a too-short week’s vacation with Quinn and Ryan and Jerry the dog (see last summer's Travelblogue for similar pics) up to Lake George (only to return early when a storm knocked out the power) and going back to work with a work pile-up, to say nothing of unanswered emails; followed by a month-long bathroom renovation that all started when a dear friend wanted to snake out my slow bathtub drain (don't even go there), and the snake went right through a corroded pipe into my basement, splash (I know, you went there), where he discovered that the years-ago contactors had packed all the pipes in cement (“go, now," he said, "and get me a hammer, those motherfuckers, who does that?”) and he also wanted to give me a new non-spraying bathroom sink faucet and then discovered there were no shut-off valves under the sink (“Lisa, this is shit”), and then learned, when he removed the toilet to replace the crumbling tile that was bugging him that the lead pipe leading to the sewer line was full of holes (“Lisa, we gotta big problem”--see photo above). The man is an angel. “Lisa, you are so lucky, my god. MY god. You know what coulda happen if you had an emergency?” I got the water shut off in the complex, and H changed out all the pipes in the faucet; and later the rest throughout the bathroom (where there were shutoff valves), and replaced and repaired it all (oh, the pipes! joints! plumber's tape! the sozas ("saws"), the sheer brute labor of it), and then laid new tile (the thin-set cement, the grout, the caulk…my hall rug…), and now I have an upstairs bathroom that works. (I have a bathroom in the basement, or we couldn’t have taken our time—our time, as if I did more than hold the flashlight and hand him the right wrench—thanks Stage Craft 101!)—and avash, avash, we have it done, one month to the day. Today, though, infrastructure aside, I want to say something about greed, and its offshoot of totally different motivations, hoarding. I’m also thinking about inhumanity in the form of screaming at buses full of abandoned immigrant children being screamed at like this is Little Rock in 1957. And Israel, now a right-wing warmonger, not unlike the right-wing of this country, full of hatred and cruelty, making Putin, another right-winger, look halfway decent by comparison. There has never been a positive policy suggestion or a positive result from the right wing. Ever. Will no one face this?
How many right-wingers does it take to screw in a light bulb? Fuck the light bulb. Shoot it the fuck up and then blow up the ceiling and then deport the HOUSE.
How many bloody sheets does a wise old grandfather have to lift up to the young to show them who their real friends are?
“I would venture to guess than Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.”
[Often totally misquoted as, “For most of history, Anonymous was a woman” in every link on the ever-unchecked Web.]
~Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, Chapter 3
“The notion of giving something a name is the vastest generative idea that ever was conceived.”
~ Suzanne K. Langer, who I’m convinced would be a more famous philosopher if she’d been a man, quoted in an epigraph in Reclaiming the Imagination: Philosophical Perspectives for Writers and Teachers of Writing, Ann E. Berthoff, ed., Heinemann: Portsmouth, NH, 1984, a compendium of cool articles about the imaginative life, my first book in my first summer at Bread Loaf School of English, summer of 1990. I graduated from there twenty years ago this summer.
“In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was made Man.”
~God, or someone imagining God
“Young children name their drawings only after they have completed them; they need to see them before they can decide what they are. As children get older they can decide in advance what they are going to draw.”
~L.S. Vygotsky, Mind in Society
What’s in a name? Naming names. Put your name on it. Sign here. It's anonymous. Years ago, while I was away in Vermont, a former student, between places to live (read: kicked out on his ass by his stepfather), house sat for me (house sat is not quite it; “infiltrated” more like, which I say after finding at least two old-fashioned green army men under my couch later that fall), and he was a dear kid, and really a doll, like a son, I tell ya, but nineteen, you know. So when I called the night before coming back, he panicked. “Why didn’t you warn me?” he cried, and I said, “It’s on the big note on the fridge—with the dates…” “What note???” and then “Oh….” Yes, that giant note on the 8 ½ x 11 sheet of paper with the black Sharpie writing in ALL CAPS with my return date on it. That one. And as I had nowhere else to go and really wanted to get home, I came. See, the deal was that he could house sit, which is to say live the summer rent-free, if he would paint my (very small) kitchen and replace a shower stall liner in the bathroom. Apparently not only had he done neither, but he was essentially living with an assortment of D & D friends and a girlfriend, and the house was a mess. When I pulled in at around 7 PM after an 11-hour drive, I found him sweeping up the kitchen after a long day of painting, and the bathroom had not been touched. His girlfriend was helping him, but I later learned (through his slip of the tongue) that a Tom Sawyer painting party had ensued, including the help of a colleague (another of his former teachers), who would never admit to it, even for a laugh. Why not own it? This dear kid really was furious with me, and then felt guilty; I’d upset his entire summer of fun. In the two weeks before I kicked him out, reminding him he had to get his own place ("Really, I will throw all your stuff on the driveway, and I say that with love"), it took all my energy to pull him away from his computer games long enough to get him to help me go pick up and install the shower liner. (I quickly saw why his stepfather had initially kicked him out, not that it was a nice thing to do.) This question of ownership, of putting a name on your work (and seriously, back in New York for a second, I even found initials in the cement (cement! around pipes!) “Lisa, who does this?…” Apparently "C.H." if I read that right) of saying, “I did this,” is really important to Miss O'. I despise, for example, the Koch brothers for their funding of the Tea Party not so much because it’s a right-wing fascist bullshit crap outfit, but more for their not wanting their names attached to the purse strings that fund it, because they know good and well that it’s a right-wing fascist bullshit crap outfit. Wall it off. Stonewalling. Wall-building. Border patrols. Buses of migrant children. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…,” and I think, what with all the disclaimers and lies and bullshit, how the longer we know people, or nations, the less knowable they become. With or without names.
What else is pissing me off? (There's a lot to love, too, sure, but today I'm indulging in a little old-fashioned curmudgeoning.) Contraception…women’s rights…the vote…a sick race of people who call themselves “pro-life,” when what they really are is “past hope” in their own lives, so they try to destroy the lives of women who are making harder choices than they can imagine. Whether it’s the unpunished raping of women in India, or the bombing of Gaza by the right-wing fascist outfit that Israel has become, H and I more and more know that it’s religion and misogyny at the root of it. If H had his way, “The world would be run by 95% women.” His religion would be the Mother Goddess.
Religion and money. Money and religion. Here’s the story of the greatest religious fraud in America, L. Ron Hubbard, and Scientology, his baby and his cash cow, as told my his great-grandson. Listen and be sickened: How Scientology Started. (This is how I spend my time. Who's really sick?)
The Parable of the Crappy Money
“So my father tells this story—I don’t know how truth it is—but it could be,” H begins. “This boy wants his father to sell the family farm in Montenegro. He’s always wanting money from his father. Money, money, more money. The father keeps money in a basket tied to a beam, in the house there, and all the time his son keeps stealing it, so one day his father decides he'll leave some money there, but hides most of money in a new place. Then the son beats them for more money, so finally the father says, ‘There is more…,’ and he directs him to the outhouse, says, ‘It’s behind the outhouse, in front of a fig tree, two meters down.’ So the son takes the shovel, and he digs for two meters, and then three meters—but no money, he can’t find it. His father says, pointing to the outhouse, “The other one is full, and we need a new hole, and you dug it. That’s where the money goes—you work, you eat, you shit.” H smiles. And you will be buried there. There it is.
Thirteen Dumpsters, Plus Three
H emptied out an old super’s apartment, stacked with jars, cans, papers going back to the Nixon Administration. “Lisa, three containers. Forty feet long. Three, for one apartment. Dead rats. I’m so sick, my god. Pigs. I'm sorry to say it. How do people live like that?” The neighbor of a friend in New Jersey died recently, leaving a house that it took thirteen (13) giant dumpsters to empty out. I think Hoarding and Greed are brothers, but kind of opposites. Hoarders spend with abandon, the greedy take money and keep it all for themselves—one can’t bear to part with anything, the other can’t bear for anyone besides themselves to have anything. All I know is everybody else is forever cleaning up after their shit—the legal acquisitions of hoarders, the sneak-thievery that is greed. And those people are exhausting us.
The Parable of the Rich Man with the Island
“There was this guy, a rich man, and he was looking a place to build his house for himself and the family,” H says, “and he hire a couple experts, they say ‘this is the place,’ or they don’t like it, high mountains, flatland, whatever it was. The rich man’s idea was to build his house in the middle of the ocean, where there are no snakes, only fish, and only his family. They will be completely safe. So his wife gives birth to a boy, and his son turns three, and he says, ‘Daddy I want grapes.’ No grapes there. The rich man had boats and slaves, so he sends a security guy in a boat to go and buy a grape, and he came back, and says, ‘Here’s the grape.’ They give them to the boy, and in the grapes, was little tiny snake, and the snake bites the boy’s tongue, and the boy dies. The rich man learned there is no safe place in the entire world. ‘I am being punished, something took my son away,’ and that was it. So the rich really live in a lovely way, and then the biggest thing they have, no matter what they try, is a headache anyway.”
Rules of the Playground
The rules of the game: “If you hit this,” explains the little boy on the handball court on the playground that abuts my building here in Queens, “you win World Cup. If you don’t, you’re a loser!” Apparently a ball goes amiss. “Hey, scooter,” he shouts, “send it back! Hey, scooter!” [beat] “I’ll chase you!” And the noises stop on the other side of my trash alley-perched porch wall. For a while.
We sit in the quiet. H tells me about his favorite singer, Croatian, I think: “There was this lady, as far as guitars, named Fatima Sukoly, and she created those songs for the government; she was the best artist history remembered, and not even happening today, but everyone remembers her. Literally she make a guitar cry, and sorry she had to die so young, but her voice, the best—she sang songs, had to make them for government and leaders, Communism time, she didn’t really want to—beautiful songs about the president, and in the end she say, ‘How to read Fatima?’ (which was her); many different ideas, and the president himself loved her. You can’t do that, not without practicing—no one could become the artist she was without the work.” In this song on YouTube (thanks, YouTube), H translated the words: “Mother gives them birth but guns brought them up.”
Rules of the game.
The Parable of the Lie/Religion
“‘What do you believe?’ This guy ask me what I believe. Who asks that?” H will sometimes open his wallet and show a dollar bill, but not this time. ‘Nothin’,’ I tell him. ‘You don’t believe nothin’? Aren’t you Moslem?’ he says. And I say, ‘No, I’m nothin’.’ One time a police officer says to me, ‘What are you?’ This is right after 9-11, and he stopped me for speedin’, on the Taconic there, an’ it’s dark. Nobody out. He look like he wants to shoot me. ‘I’m American, like you,’ I say. ‘You were speeding,’ he says, ‘get out of the car,’ an’ he puts his hand on his gun. I take my time. ‘You want me to shoot you?’ he says, an’ I say, ‘I can’t stop you.’” H takes a drag off his cigarette. H knew he could stop him, use martial arts and quickly, leave him there and no one would find him for hours. But instead he’s cool, shrugs, waits for his car to be “inspected.” “Not everybody is a liar, but everybody lie,” H observes. “It’s an old business.”
The oldest, right after hooking. In this conservative climate, anything made that shoots to kill, whether in open carry or open skies, is the equivalent of the fucking flag. I’m so sick of it. “What do you believe?” How about, “What do you SEE?”
Meanwhile, Education, and Why I Sometimes Think I Am Wasting My Life
I’m not a writer who pays much attention to theme. In my experience, thinking about theme instead of about the mechanics of story and the truth of characters leads to false and self-aware work. My opinion is that “theme” is another word for “things the writer believes to be true about the world.”
~ Bo Wilson, playwright and classmate at Virginia Tech. (He graduated a year ahead of me.) His work is opening everywhere lately, and this is awesome.
How does one learn to write? First one must read. How does one learn to read, and read well? One of the big subjects in education today is Common Core State Standards (CCSS), the instructing to which is my current writing task at work. Forget testing: I hate standardized testing, and CCSS should, too, because all the real stuff they target makes for the opposite of testability, which should be a good thing. So here’s the point: The biggest key to CCSS as far as English Language Arts (ELA) is concerned is something called “close reading.” I learned all about close reading over the five summers I attended Bread Loaf School of English up in Ripton, Vermont. At the time I began there, in 1990, the idea of canonical reading—the old early 20th century practice of reading select “classic” books written by white men (and one by Jane Austen), and being told via lecture, from a white male professor, what exactly it was that the writer “meant” by that text, and which passages were the most important. To demonstrate a deeper understanding students wrote papers (now called “research-based formative assessment”) in which salient passages were quoted from various texts (comparative literature-style) and the opinions of various critics were strung together, all of which was supposed to “prove” your own “original” thinking. My generation wrote research papers like this all the time (and I continued to do some of this at Bread Loaf, until I finally learned to stop). Students of this school memorized the dates, themes, and salient passages and were given a comprehensive final exam (now called “summative assessment) to demonstrate their mastery of the lecture material and texts. It’s not an awful thing—I gave tests like that as a teacher. But the idea of reading a text deeply and getting out of it whatever you get out of it was an alien concept until a group called The Deconstructionists came along. Their work took off in the 1970s, but not until 1990 was a revolution brewing on the campus of my graduate school. Venerable and famous teachers of literature, including Alvin “The Death of Literature” Kernan and Walter “Bongo” Litz (I’m kidding about the “Bongo”), felt that the place had gone to pot when exams were replaced with papers, and the papers asked of the students were to include their actual own ideas and reflections on their own understanding of the texts they read. I attended a panel discussion of the Canonicals vs. the Deconstructionists, summed up perfectly by one professor, Britain’s Michael Armstrong, who at one point flew at America’s Al Kernan: “If you tell me there’s only one way to read a text, I’m going to tell you to go to hell!” Michael was to become one of the most important teachers of my life. Here’s what I know: Once I learned to have ownership of the material, I discovered that I actually did have real ideas and real questions, and real engagement. The secret? What I was doing was close reading. I was applying my understanding of concepts such as theme, structure, semantics, grammar, syntax, literary devices, and word meanings, and combining these with my own life experiences to make meaning out of the texts. Doors opened, the earth moved. I’d never go hungry again.
Not everyone is enamored of the idea of reading anything, let alone reading it closely. They (we all know "them") see long-form texts as “dry and boring” (actual words of people I actually know), and see the kids as balls that need to be bounced. Activities! Gadgets! Lookee here! (Now test it?) It’s depressing, because that was how I was “trained” as a teacher—keep the kids busy!—and I was always baffled as to the point of it. Today’s kids like the gadgets, flitting from one screen to the next, one moment to the next, faster and faster, and then, what, explode? And in school, write? How? But to paraphrase Truman Capote’s comment about Jack Kerouac, they aren’t writing, they are typing—unless there is real instruction, real focus, real depth to the reading they are ostensibly responding to. So sayeth Miss O’.
And then I got to thinking: Why do I think I am right? Why not a world of “more activities” and less depth of connection? Why not? And then I thought about three reasons.
What Do Bruce Lee, Elaine Stritch, and Muhammed Ali Have in Common?
It sounds like the set-up of a bad joke, but wait for the punch line. One evening, I asked H, “Who is your greatest cultural hero?” He didn’t hesitate: “Bruce Lee.” So we went to YouTube so he could enlighten me. Take a look yourself: Bruce Lee and the 1-inch punch. The sheer power of it—it’s beyond impressive. You see the total concentration of him. There are also really interesting interviews—he was really an astonishing man. What about me? My hero of the moment, as I had just seen the documentary Shoot Me, was Elaine Stritch, who had just died. I showed him her seminal number. You watch, too: Elaine Stritch and the Ladies Who Lunch. Her singing wraps total focus and control around the music and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim, but more than that, she IS the songs she sings. And curiously enough, we both have one idol in common: Muhammed Ali. You watch, too: Muhammed Ali boxing. Watch his footwork, his grace, and the astonishing quickness when he avoids the punches of his opponents. He wore them out, and then went IN. Sure boxing is beastly, but my mom, Lynne, adored The Greatest, even as my dad, Bernie, moaned about the “rope-a-dope.” What the three of these disparate stars share: That inner strength, the depth of the feeling and energy—they reach into their deepest capacities, they train, they practice, they perform, and they do it for themselves first and then for us. Here are three more videos: The great Bruce Lee playing ping pong with nunchucks is staggering to watch—that is the training. Now watch the late, great Elaine Stritch At Liberty at age 78—that is the training. She can own a stage—only a brick wall behind her, a stool as a prop, and her dancing tights and big white shirt as a costume. No dazzling lights—no blue follow-spots. All these are in full, flat light. No tricks. The people themselves front and center and alone. (The only young performer I’ve seen who has this is Adele.) This interview with Muhammed Ali in 1971 with England’s premiere interviewer Michael Parkinson (sadly ironic, his name) is one of the most compelling discussions I’ve ever seen. Ali is fully great, and the greatness of his complexity shows us that greatness is not about niceness, not about being easy, though charm is crucial, self-awareness the linchpin. Bruce, Elaine, and Ali devoted their waking professional lives to training to be the best at what they do, and they did it, and we all are better for it. They were not gadabout scatter-shots, flitting from activity to activity. Instead they were masters of the physical equivalent of close reading. Everybody rise.
Wishing the World Away
Sometimes, as I have felt the past few months, I want nothing but quiet—no human sounds and no human-made stuff, is what I mean by quiet. Keeping to my own. But what is that? One of the big troubles with “keeping to your own” (here I reference Muhammed Ali’s expressed desire at the time (1971) for the separation of races, his logic of “pigeons hang out with pigeons” and “Mexicans like Mexican food and Chinese like Chinese food” notwithstanding) is that, for example with Ali, that view doesn’t look past looks, really. Ali doesn’t consider social inequality in terms of money and education and opportunity, which humans have to contend with, and pigeons don’t. When poor only stays with poor, for example, and rich only with rich, something terrible is happening—a kind of rot to the flesh and organs of the human world. There is no other species that can think in these terms, or act with calculation in this way: purposefully to better or to weaken not only their own species but also the world of plant and creature species around them. There is something romantic about “faraway places with strange-sounding names,” as the song goes, about seeing brown old men in fezzes smoking hookahs on stone-lined narrow streets, while you yourself walk about, white and in wonder at it all, en route to a café. It’s not only a question of living separately, utterly bounded by race or religion, as if this must be natural. What about rural and urban? In America, Northerner vs. Southerner? When I was a teacher in rural Virginia taking kids on a field trip to NYC, one young woman got off the bus, looked around the grime, glamour, and grit that was that city in 1988, and said, “Now I know why I’ve been unhappy all my life.” So as I say, I’m thinking I need to think about changing it up, get out of myself for a bit. I mean, without booze.
The Bottle Cap on the Ground
Possibly I am channeling “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, or Virginia Woolf and her story “The Mark on the Wall,” or that habit we have of taking lint off of someone’s shoulder—the feeling of fixation we get on the tiny thing we can fix when everything around us is chaos. My fixation is bottle caps discarded on the ground or floor where anyone might slip on them. It might not be a bottle cap, but could be a small bolt, a skate wheel, perhaps: any seemingly harmless but potentially lethal obstruction. My fixation then moves to action: I remove it. After I slipped on one during a rehearsal in college—and we’d all noticed it, and no one had moved it—and broke my right ankle cleanly in two as a result, I became mindful of how such a tiny object can upend a life. I’d like to think I’ve made a difference dozens of times over, and in a good way.
Here’s another fixation: Rudeness. Last week while working (and this could be trying to contact Comcast or your insurance provider--make it into a parable), a fellow off site emailed to say there was new material available on our server, but declined to say where precisely it was. I asked for a link to the folder. He said I didn’t need one. I replied that I did, and would appreciate it. Knowing what was coming, I shrugged and left the office, but was so angry, not only about the dismissive reply, but about all the time he was about to waste. And waste it he did: After I left (which he didn’t realize) he shot back a disparaging email along the lines of “you need to learn to find things for yourself,” he “hasn’t got time to link out to the path all the time,” and the non-swearing equivalent of “fuck you.” About fifteen minutes later (according to the time signature), he wrote back an apology, and sent the path—but not the direct link. Still no link. (He, I suppose, has his hubris to consider.) By now—the first email came at 4:41 in the afternoon and the last at 5:59 PM—an hour and eighteen minutes of time has passed. When I followed the path that led to the folder the next morning, I had to open nearly every document in it to find the material he’d referenced, because the information he identified was not to be found on any document where you might, by the title, expect to find it. I wrote him a very kind note to explain that his file structures are not intuitive to anyone except him, because he creates them, and are in fact often baffling, and that sending a direct link is a professional courtesy; we bookmark these links for future efficiency. LINKS. LINKS!
It’s these little obstructions that are killing me, slowly, because I cannot kick ALL of them out of the way. But what I can do is take the tiny victories—a bathroom that functions (since we dug a new one, but found no money), a Bic pen kicked out of aisle (no link needed)—and realize that at least I didn’t have to kill a sheep and bloody a sheet to try to get someone to see sense. H and I really could use a year or ten by the ocean, and in it. Surely there’s a scratch ticket somewhere, with our names on it. And not two meters deep.
Kids, here's to plumbing that works, and refreshment in all things,