Log in

No account? Create an account

Can you pass the test?

See question 5, answer D

U.S. CITIZENSHIP TEST                     Your name: (in English only):
Xenophobia 101
Professor Trump
Test will no longer be in effect after Nov. 8

Part 1
Multiple choice

1. America should not allow the U.S. to be entered by people from:
a.     Mexico
b.     Countries with a Muslim population.
c.     Countries where terrorist acts have been committed.
d.     Countries without bankrupt casinos.
e.     Pretty much every other country, depending on the news of the day.

2. Dictators like Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un and the late Saddam Hussein are:
a.     Ruthless strongmen.
b.     Anti-American.
c.     Threats to global peace.
d.     To be admired for their strength.

3. This year’s presidential election will be:
a.     Rigged.
b.     Crooked.
c.     Dishonest
d.     All of the above.

4. Which of the following phrases applies to the American media’s coverage of presidential candidate Donald Trump?
a.     Not very nice.
b.     Crooked.
c.     Dishonest.
d.     Rotten
e.     All of the above.

5. Name the best way to begin a presidential candidate debate.
a.     Calling for Americans to debate issues honestly, openly and thoughtfully.
b.     Presenting a detailed outline of an economic plan that would put Americans back to work.
c.     Revealing a proposal for increased international cooperation to battle terrorism.
d.     Bragging about the size of your penis.

6. Which of the following countries has not been invaded by Russia?
a.     Canada.
b.     England.
c.     Ukraine
d.     All of the above.

7. Which is the following is a body part for FOX News’ Megyn Kelly?
a.     Nose
b.     Arm
c.      Foot
d.     Whatever
e.     All of the above

8. During a presidential campaign, what is the most effective strategy for a candidate?
a.     Try to appeal to black voters by speaking to all-white audiences.
b.     Spend 45 minutes handing boxes of Play-Doh to your vice presidential pick at the site of a natural disaster.
c.     Say something controversial and then claim you’ve changed your position.
d.     Call your opponents names.
e.     Urge your supporters to beat up protesters at your campaign rallies.
f.      Ally yourself with former New York City mayors who have forgotten the year of the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers.
g.     Say the best way to achieve peace in the Middle East is by holding meetings.
h.     Persuade Sarah Palin to endorse you.
i.      Propose deporting millions of people from America and ignoring the impossible logistics and questionable legality of that proposal.
j.      Release a photo of yourself eating a taco salad on Cinco de Mayo, blissfully ignorant of the stereotyping represented by the photo.
k.     Refer to a black man at one of your rallies as “My African-American!”
l.      All of the above.
m.    All of the above, and more.

Part 2
Spelling (correct the misspelled words)

Part 3: Essays (must be written in English)
What is the most effective use of bankruptcy laws to screw subcontractors you hire for your business projects?

Explain the use of irony as it pertains to someone who weaseled out of serving in the armed forces criticizing a U.S. senator who was held as a prisoner of war and tortured.

Define the phrase “nuclear triad.”

Discuss the likelihood of another sovereign nation paying for a massive public works project undertaken by America.

Explain why the First Amendment is no longer relevant because it fails to curtail media criticism of presidential candidates.

Part 4: Extra credit
Name the current president candidate who put the “twit” in Twitter.

Take 30 second to watch the related video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cHRlkSW9xEg

The United States is—contrary to what Donald Trump says—a great nation. Yet we are a flawed nation, too, when it comes to matters like the way we treat poverty (http://www.npc.umich.edu/poverty/,) childhood hunger, and mental illness (http://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-By-the-Numbers), to name just three topics.

Our nation is flawed if elderly people in the winter have to make choices involving how much they'll eat vs. how much they can afford to heat their apartments vs. how many of their medications they can afford to buy. We are flawed when we pay crap wages to our military men and women, subject them to terrible emotional and physical harm in wars being waged for dubious purposes, and then practically abandon them to deal on their own with post-service problems of homelessness (more than 50,000 veterans), mental illness and alcohol/substance abuse. (Go back and look at the Washington Post's story on the disgraceful conditions at Walter Reed Hospital.)

Let me make it clear that I am by no means saying everyone who transitions from military to civilian life has those problems; but even if it's just a hundred, they deserve more care and compassion than they receive. Here's one assessment of the extent of the needs of veterans: http://www.apa.org/about/gr/issues/military/critical-need.aspx

Here's another: http://www.endhomelessness.org/library/entry/fact-sheet-veteran-homelessness

Our flag symbolizes our values as a nation. But what happened to those values in the case of Freddie Gray, who died in the back of a police van that had six cops in it, yet none of them were charged in connection with his death from a broken back? (It must be he broke his own back.) What happened to our values when the thuggery of the Baltimore Police Department ran rampant? http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/investigations/bs-md-sun-investigates-0814-20160813-story.html

Should we ignore threats to our value of free speech? https://theintercept.com/2016/08/08/facebook-removes-potential-evidence-of-police-brutality-too-readily-activists-say/

As for Kaepernick's protest, the bigger question is this: How many people are not looking beyond what he said/did to consider the merit of his arguments? How many people are simply appealing to patriotism and stopping there? How many people are reacting to what Kaepernick said about race and saying, "Hey, not my problem," or "There's no racism in America"?

As I said, we are a great nation. But as a nation, we often do not live up to the values we espouse, especially as those ideals relate to the marginalized people among us. Debating what Kaepernick did and whether it disrespects the flag, America, the military, the police, etc., is a debate that will never end.

Maybe instead of criticizing Kaepernick, we should begin—each in her or his own way—addressing the areas where we fall short and show we can overcome them. What better way to show our values and strengths?

Under a cloudless sky one night this month, I sat on my deck and tried to see how far I could see.

I saw so far that I couldn’t understand how far it was. And if you try to see as far as I did, you can. You will end up feeling the same way.

Some moonless night, drive out to a country road where the only light comes from stars. Pull over. Turn off your headlights. Wait for your eyes to adjust to the dark (this will take a few minutes) and then look to the eastern sky.

You’ll see the Great Square—four stars—in the constellation Pegasus. (If you check a star map first, it will be easy to find.) The constellation Andromeda, shaped like a long, narrow V, is attached to the square’s left corner star.

Because your eyes have adjusted to the dark, you’ll see two dim stars about halfway between the point of the V and the open end of the letter. If you look slightly away from them, you’ll see a dim, fuzzy spot of light just above them. You can’t see it if you look right at it.

That light is the Andromeda Galaxy: the most distant object we can see without binoculars or a telescope. If you’re like me and have a tough time understanding large numbers, the distance between us and the Andromeda Galaxy is so vast that it can’t be understood.

To consider the distance, we need to start not by measuring distance, but by measuring time—specifically, seconds. Let’s work from there: 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, 24 hours in a day: 86,400 seconds in a day.

Now we can take up the idea of distance. Let’s say you’re on that dark country road and you look up. If you’re like most people, the easiest constellation to spot is the Big Dipper. While you’re looking at it, consider this: starlight travels at 186,000 miles per second.

That’s as far as I can take the math without my brain seizing up. I had to use the Internet to find much of what follows.

At 186,000 miles per second for one year, starlight travels 5,878,499,810,000 miles. It’s easier to call that distance a “light year,” just like it’s easier to think of 10,000 pennies as a hundred-dollar bill.

So: You’ve spotted the Andromeda Galaxy. Just how far away is that fuzzy spot of light?

Take a breath: The Andromeda Galaxy is 2.5 million light years away.  So, to find out how many miles it is between us and our neighboring galaxy, just multiply the number of miles in a light year—5,878,499,810,000—by 2,500,000.

Math that big hurts my brain. When I look at the Andromeda Galaxy, I cop out by saying the light I’m looking at is over 2 million years old.

And now we’re back where we started: thinking about time.

What was happening on our planet 2.3 million years ago? Well, humans build like us wouldn’t come around for another 2.1 million years. As the Smithsonian Museum of National History points out: “The species that you and all other living human beings on this planet belong to is Homo sapiens. During a time of dramatic climate change 200,000 years ago, Homo sapiens evolved in Africa.”

Here’s something else to think about: scientists say the Milky Way (our galaxy) and the Andromeda galaxy are headed for a collision.  We don’t have to worry about it, though.

It’s not going to happen for another 4 billion years.

The harvest of the stars

When I took my dogs out before bed last night, I looked up, as I always do, and despite the light pollution, I saw the Milky Way streaming across the sky like a wavy stripe of luminous fog.

Instead of going to bed after I let the dogs back in, I headed back out to my deck. I’ve been spending a lot of time stargazing this summer because the planets have been putting on quite a show. If you look south just after twilight has died, you’ll see three bright stars close to one another. Two of them actually are planets. Saturn is uppermost. Mars is in the middle. Antares, the brightest star in Scorpio, is at the bottom. This week, Mars will drift east to where the three practically will be in a straight line.

Anyway, I went out to my deck and waited for my eyes to adjust to the dark while I tried to read the sky. It had been maybe 10 days since I had gone out to watch the stars, and in that time, the constellations had shifted. Cygnus, the swan, with its bright “head” star Deneb, was much higher in the sky. Aquila, the eagle, a dimmer constellation, also was now higher in the sky, but its bright star Altair makes is easy to find. And Vega, the second-brightest star in the summer sky, had shifted west of the zenith.

Incidentally, the brightest star in the summer sky, Arcturus, can be found by starting at the top left star of the bowl of Ursa Major—the Big Dipper—and working back along the bowl’s handle. Extend that line and, almost due west, and you’ll spot Arcturus.

Last night I was looking at the Milky Way high in the sky, but my neck quickly cramped from standing with my head tilted straight back, so I turned toward the east and lowered my head. As I did, I spotted something incredibly bright. The burst lasted maybe a half a second, but it was enough time for my brain to check off the things it wasn’t.

It wasn’t a planet; I’d been watching them all summer and knew where they were. It wasn’t a star; it was much too bright. It wasn’t a meteor; it was motionless. As I watched, it moved slowly south and dimmed to near-invisibility less than 10 seconds. It was then I realized what I’d seen:

A metaphor.



Trump is rigging his own failure

Business Inside.com

Donald Trump says if he loses the presidential election, it will have been “rigged.”

He’s been using the word for months. During the Florida primary in March, he tweeted that state Republican officials and Marco Rubio were “trying to rig the vote.”

Before the New York primary, Trump complained of “a rigged system.” He said the way Republican delegates were chosen in Colorado was “a crooked deal.”

And after Trump lost the Wisconsin primary to Ted Cruz, his campaign issued a statement that read, in, part, “Ted Cruz is worse than a puppet—he is a Trojan horse, being used by the party bosses attempting to steal the nomination from Mr. Trump.”

Media observers challenged his claims. As the GOP convention approached, Michael Cantrell wrote, “Trump might have a solid case about primaries being rigged if he managed to lose his home state by a significant margin, but seeing as how that didn’t happen, and how he’s in the lead, I highly doubt there’s a conspiracy going down to rob him of the nomination.” Cantrell writes for the website Young Conservatives.

Trump won the Republican presidential nomination anyway, even though he thought the system was, in his words, “100 percent crooked.” Yet even after the GOP convention, he “claimed that the Republican nomination would have been stolen from him had he not won by significant margins,” according to the website Conservative Read.

Of late, Trump is picking different targets. McClatchy DC reported he is “accusing Hillary Clinton and the Democrats of trying to stifle viewership for the presidential debates by scheduling them during NFL games this fall,” even though the debates “were scheduled in September 2015 by the same private, non-partisan commission that has organized presidential debates since 1988.” At that time, Trump was just another Republican candidate in a field of 17.

Now we have Trump using the R-word about November’s general election, saying, "I'm afraid the election's going to be rigged. I have to be honest.”

Trump seems to think everything that doesn’t go his way or might not go his way is rigged. Jim Geraghty, writing in the National Review, reports that in June, Trump said the economy is “rigged by big donors who want to keep wages down.”

Geraghty continues, “In July, he concluded that the FBI’s decision to not recommend criminal charges against Hillary Clinton was ‘the best evidence ever that we’ve seen that our system is absolutely, totally rigged.’”
As for the media, Trump tweeted Sunday, “If the disgusting and corrupt media covered me honestly and didn’t put false meaning into the words I say, I would be beating Hillary by 20 percent.”

Eighteen years ago, Hillary Clinton spoke of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” to engulf her and her husband, then-President Bill Clinton, in scandals. Trump has gone her two better: a conspiracy by Republicans to deny him the presidential nomination, a conspiracy by a non-partisan organization to put him at a disadvantage in the presidential debates, and a conspiracy by Democrats to defeat him in the general election.

Geraghty suggests Trump’s attitude is a symptom of a broader problem: “No one ever just loses anymore. There are no honest defeats.”

He continues, “The philosophy of the disgruntled toddler has taken root, far and wide, across the political spectrum: ‘If I win, the game was fair. If I lose, the only possible explanation is that the other guy cheated.’” (I added the italics for emphasis).
This polarization contaminates political discourse, especially in social media. When Clinton is criticized, a frequent response is “Yeah, but Trump did/said A” etc. When Trump is criticized, it’s “Yeah, but Hillary did/said Z” etc.

That’s just one step up from “I know you are, but what am I?” because it doesn’t address the criticisms. Rather, it deflects attention from them.

Fortunately, there’s plenty of time to pay attention between now and November.

Photo from BleacherReport.com

The National Football League has suspended Marcell Dareus of the Buffalo Bills for four games for testing positively for marijuana. In response to the team’s statement, I am issuing this statement:

The National Football League’s policy on marijuana use is heavy-handed bullshit. I mean, really: four games for getting high?

This is a league that, week after week, dispenses painkillers like potato chips—substances that leave hurting players' bodies in a numbed-out sensory stupor, subjecting them to further injuries that they'll live with for the rest of their lives—and now the NFL can crack down on the menace of herb and act all "We Are Serious" about it?

This is reeking hypocrisy. It's Reefer Madness redux. The team statement sounds like Big Brother wrote it. There’s not a word in it that shows an ounce of concern for Dareus the *person.* Instead, it's full of pious bleating about the sacred Order of the Team.

Maybe he gets high as a distraction from the crippling pain football inflicts on players. But I haven’t seen evidence that this thought has even flickered in the minds of the “trade-this-bum” bleating sheep football fandom—and “trade this bum” is a mild summary of the remarks of thousands of people who probably haven’t done anything more strenuous than lugging a case of beer from the car to their couches every Sunday afternoon.

This suspension is a cynical ploy to distract us from the fact that the NFL is decadent and depraved. It lied for years about CTE and then, when it couldn't deny its culpability any longer, offered retired players a chump-change settlement that will have about as much effect on the owners' wallets as buying a can of pop would have on yours.

The NFL chews people up and spits them out without an iota of appreciation or compassion, knowing full well there are younger, healthier replacements waiting for their shot at the show.

This is a league that blackmails taxpayers into building stadiums by threatening to move franchises, knowing full well the rubes, I mean fans, will eventually cough up because eight home football games a year are so freaking *important* to a community's image and pride. And speaking of fans, there is nothing more pathetic than a grown man wearing a team replica jersey with a current player’s name on the back. Jesus H. Christ on the night bus to Utica …

The owners and their lapdog commissioner are arrogant, craven swine whose greasy obsidian hearts are driven by savage greed and treacherous mendacity. They have the ethics of hyenas and the social consciences of deer ticks and Zika mosquitoes.

So, to some, all lives matter now?

The words “all lives matter” are a common response to the Black Lives Matter movement. American history shows, though, that black lives never have mattered, and they still don’t.

The Declaration of Independence asserted all men are created equal. “All men” clearly meant “all white men.” African-American slaves weren’t legally considered people—sort of—until the Constitutional Convention in 1787. There, delegates voted that black slaves were three-fifths of a person, but this was all about political representation and taxes. Black lives did not matter.

That vote, though, didn’t stop passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. This required runaway slaves to be returned to their owners (note the word). Upon the slaves’ return, their owners had them whipped, shackled, lynched, beaten, burned alive, castrated, mutilated, branded, tortured and raped (men and women). The slaves’ lives didn’t matter to anyone but them.

It wasn’t until 246 years after the first slaves were brought to Virginia that the 13th Amendment abolished slavery (1865). In the post-Civil War South, though, slavery still existed and, according to the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, “a tense atmosphere of racial hatred, ignorance and fear bred lawless mass violence, murder and lynchings.” Photographs show a smug nonchalance among white lynch mobs. Did all lives matter then?

Let’s turn to the 20th century.  Take 14-year-old Emmett Till, who made the mistake of flirting with a white woman in Mississippi in 1955. The woman’s husband and his half-brother shot him in the head and threw his body into a river. The men beat Till so severely that he was barely recognizable as a human. An all-white male jury took just an hour to acquit his murderers. All lives didn’t matter to them.

History books are full of chapters about black lives not mattering in the 1950s and ’60s. Those chapters are still being written.

Today, the Black Lives Matter movement is fueled further by the deaths of unarmed black people at the hands of police—Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Tanisha Anderson, Yvette Smith, and Natasha McKenna, to name just a few. Those cases, among many others, raise serious questions about police accountability for the use of excessive force.

In other ways, black lives still do not matter. Why, just last month, did a federal appeals court have to repudiate North Carolina’s voter identification law? The New York Times quotes the court as saying the law’s provisions “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision” in an effort to stifle black voter turnout. A separate Times story quotes a “blizzard” of similar attempts in Georgia, Alabama, Florida, and Texas.

African-Americans have been in America almost 400 years, but, as George Salis writes in Stetson University Today, a year-old New York Times/CBS News poll shows “nearly six in 10 Americans, including heavy majorities of both whites and blacks, think race relations are generally bad.” Salis quotes Stetson University education Professor Patrick Coggins as saying, “Ideologically, 10 to 20 percent of our society is locked in the past. There are people who still believe in segregation and defining others based on their race rather than their character.”

Responding to the Black Lives Matter movement by saying “all lives matter” sweeps aside 400 years of history. If all lives mattered, would there be a need for a Black Lives Matter movement?


Good books, good work

My favorite book, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, arrived in the mail today. I gave a new copy to a student at the end of the spring semester, and even though I hadn’t read it in years, I was sure the student would enjoy it.

Because I hadn’t read the book for quite some time, and because I have time to read now, I ordered the book (I had borrowed it from the library the first time I read it). I’ll probably start reading it again right after I post this.

This post is not a book review, though. My intent is to spread word about the merchant I ordered it from: a company from Boston called More Than Words.

The bottom of the packing slip says, “More Than Words is a nonprofit social enterprise that empowers youth who are in the foster care system, court involved, homeless, or out of school take charge of their lives by taking charge of a business.”

It sounded good—but as I used to teach my journalism students, “If your mother says she loves you, confirm it from a second source.” So I went online and found a link to a story in the Boston Business Journal. Here’s an excerpt:

As Executive Director Jodi Rosenbaum describes it, More than Words is a hybrid social enterprise. The mission is about helping at-risk youth — many in the foster care system, some homeless — find their way. The bookstore is the vehicle.

The youth who work for More than Words range in age from 16 to 21 and earn minimum wage to start. They are required to follow two basic paths during their employment. The “business job” means they sort and source books, organize inventory, fill orders and respond to customer service inquiries, among other tasks.

The “you” job means each one develops an education plan, applies for college, writes resumes and generally maps where he or she is going in life. They typically work for More than Words for nine months, but the organization supports them during the following two years.

“This isn’t just a job. Young people can find just a job,” said Rosenbaum. “You have to want more for your future.”

As for the book, I got what I thought was a great price on a book in a condition that was just as the website said it was.

Oh, one more thing: As I said, the book arrived today. I ordered it four days ago.

If you buy used books, please consider buying from More Than Words.

Mail from my colleague Sue Ciesla arrived today containing something I asked her for the other day: the nameplate from my former office door. As my friend Breea Willingham would say, “That’s a wrap.”

I didn't ask for the nameplate earlier because I didn’t clear out my office until the start of July. Some consulting work I was going to do for the Journalism School didn’t pan out (my price was too high), and I had planned on clearing out after finishing it. And I suppose that subconsciously, I didn’t want to empty my office because I didn’t want to let go of something I had been doing for 15 years. But now there’s nothing left but a desk, a chair, and some sheer, sky-blue curtains that I put up in 2001 to replace the industrial-quality Venetian blinds.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve found that I’m just fine with retirement. It was time. I teach journalism classes, but I haven’t worked in a newsroom since the summer of 2001. I know how to write, but I don’t know how to write for today’s media. Sure, I know the theory—but the difference between theory and practice is immeasurable.

In addition, increasingly fewer students are interested in the kind of journalism career I had. And most importantly, I’m 62. All this means I’m not well suited to guide today’s students—people who are less than a third of my age—into their communication futures. I’m not singing Warren Zevon’s “Poor, Poor Pitiful Me” here, but rather from George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass.”

I like my new life. It’s been great to not be constantly thinking about how I would teach the fall semester’s courses differently and better than the semester before. It’s been great not feeling compelled to read books and online newsletters about effective teaching.

Teaching and the between-semesters stuff were stressful for me, because I put a great deal of pressure on myself to do well, and I was tough on myself for what I thought were shortcomings and mistakes, even though now I see them as not being the disasters that I thought there were at the time. Without all of that stress, I’ve been able to get my diabetes back under control (there’s a proven link between the two). That reason alone made retiring worthwhile.

Without carrying around a bundle of stress, things like people cutting me off in traffic or heading obliviously toward a collision with me at the supermarket don’t bother me anymore. I have more time to read for pleasure. I’m going to start writing a column for the local newspaper.

It’s been almost three months since I taught my final class, and that time has given me perspective on the work I did as a teacher. As I said earlier, I’ve always been tough on myself, but now that I’ve stepped away, I’m able to see that I did good work. This assessment ultimately boils down to my relationships with students. Did I help them learn? Was I enthusiastic in the classroom? Did I make the classroom a non-threating place to learn, a place where students could laugh occasionally and not be afraid to speak up?

Yes, I did.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to pour myself a Bombay Sapphire and tonic, go out on my deck, sit down, tilt my head back and watch the clouds. As my friend, mentor and English professor Dr. Rick Simpson once said, “The sky is always interesting.” And now I have time to watch it.


Show some respect, Sen. Warren

This excerpt from a New York Times article about Elizabeth Warren bothered me when I saw it last night:

"Ms. Warren cuts an imperious swath through the Capitol, striding down hallways, her jewel-toned jacket swaying behind her, refusing to speak to or even make eye contact with reporters. Small talk with elevator operators and other staff? Not her style. "

Look: I understand disdain for the press. I really do. But while it's easy for us to get distracted by the egos of national superstar reporters and think they're all like that to some extent, many others don't seek the spotlight and are simply trying to get the story straight. They deserve a modicum of courtesy. As for ignoring people like elevator operators and staff, that's flat-out rude and disrespectful.

I like and respect Elizabeth Warren and her work. But I like her and respect her a little bit less today.

I wish God would leave me alone

The trouble I’m having with believing in signs from God is that I’m starting to see them everywhere. That tiny cloud way up there: It’s shaped like an eagle! This means—no, wait. It’s starting to evaporate. It’s gone. That means—

Here’s what it means. God is messing with my head. Big time.

“Look, Pat,” God is saying. “Here’s a sign. No—over there!—that’s the sign. Or this one! Or this one! Try this one: What do you think it means?”

I tell God what I think it means.

“Ha-ha! Fooled ya!” God says. Then God shows me more signs and ask what they mean.  I start to answer, and God says, “They don’t mean anything. Ha-ha! Fooled ya!”

 “I’ve had enough,” I tell God. “You’re making me feel like a fool, all right.”

“I know you are but what am I?” God replies.

“C’mon,” I grumble. “That doesn’t even make sense.”

“Okie-dokie,” God says. “How about a few riddles?” Like I have a choice.

God asks me riddles. They are unfathomable. I answer them by saying, “I don’t know. I don’t know that one. I don’t  know that one either.”

God smirks.

“I knew you wouldn’t get them. Ha-ha!”

God, of course, is a He. If God were a She, She wouldn’t mess with my head. God and I would sit down and talk in a beautiful, quiet garden, and She would tell me answers to questions I was about to ask Her. I wish God were my therapist. She couldn’t heal me—some of us are beyond help and healing—but at least She could help me see how to accept and live with my imperfections.

I get lost in this thought for a moment, and then something taps me on the shoulder. It’s God. He’s holding out something in His hand.

“Pick a card,” God says. “Any card.”

"Can't you just leave me alone?" I ask.

"Oh, noooooo," God says. "That wouldn't be any fun now, would it?"

Losing a friend from days of cool past

My senior year in high school I took 10 weeks of English from a teacher whose obituary was in the local newspaper yesterday. I don’t remember anything about his classes; all I remember was that I enjoyed those 10 weeks, and back then, during my rebel without a clue days, this was rare.

One of his sons, Mark, and I had been friends since seventh grade—not fast, best friends, but pretty close. Our paths diverged after high school, as was the case with me and most of my classmates, but I saw him at two high school reunions: our 25th year and our 40th. It didn’t take much for us to fall into a comfortable conversational groove.

In reading his father’s obituary yesterday, I learned Mark had died last year. I kept re-reading the obituary, hoping I had misread it, but eventually it sank in.

Even though we were the same age—in fact, I was one day older—I looked up to him in school. For starters, he was cool. He wore a derby hat from time to time—have you ever seen anyone wear a derby?—and looked good in it. He had hip, round, gold wire-framed glasses, and back then, wire-framed glasses were the essence of cool. He listened to better music. He was self-assured. He was smarter than I was, even though I wouldn’t have admitted it at the time. The thing I envied the most was that he was good with girls. I was so shy that talking to a girl’s shadow was about the best I could do.

My favorite story about Mark was when we both were hired to work in our town’s new McDonald’s. This was in 1972, our senior spring in high school, and like Mark, my hair was long. The supervisor at McDonald’s told us we had to get our hair cut, so I did, so extremely that a friend told me he thought I was joining the Marines. Mark, though, bought a wig that made it look like he had shorter hair because he could tuck his real hair under it. His cool remained intact. Me? I had to walk around campus my first semester in college looking decidedly unhip when compared to the guys who had hair that made them look like Leon Russell or Robert Plant, or guys who wore big Afros and Izros.

I am seeing an increasing number of former high school classmates’ obituaries in the paper. Some of them prompt an “oh, I see so-and-so died.” Other produce an emphatic “what?!” And then there’s a much smaller number of names whose deaths feel like a loss. This was the case with Mark, even though I had only seen him twice since we graduated.

I looked up his obituary online yesterday. It included a photo, and he looked 99 percent like he did in high school. That’s how I’ll remember him.

The roaring silence

I don’t drink much—a beer, maybe two, after mowing the lawn or with a meal. Two is my limit, because I immediately go from two to “too many.” Even at events where social drinking is going on, I often will drink diet cola so I can remain clear-headed.

During the summer I enjoy gin and tonic, although this summer, I’m substituting raspberry lemonade and a bit of lime juice for the tonic. I’ve had perhaps half a dozen of them this month.

Last night, though, I had a hankering for a whisky sour. It was late. Everybody was in bed, but I was still up, and I thought a tall drink would shake some thoughts out of my brain so I could write about them. Sometimes it works. Last night it didn’t. The more I drank, the less I felt like writing, so I decided the best thing to do would be to sleep and write with a fresh brain in the morning.

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been dealing with a couple of mental hangnails. Each night, as I lie on my back waiting for sleep to come, their discomfort grows more acute, and only sleep makes it go away. Last night, though, I must have poured more into my glass than I thought, because the whisky numbed the ache. The never-ceasing interior monologue had been muted, and I realized I couldn’t remember the last time I heard the roaring silence.

I want to hear it again.

Sometimes the clowns are mean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fishing, catching nothing


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

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

“Feel any different?”
“Nope. Do you?”

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

Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Demon weed or herb superb?

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

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

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

Ready to start

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, I am.

Journalism or stenography?

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

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

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

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


A little older, a little more confused

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The fuck was that all about?”

Latest Month

March 2017

Wish I'd Said It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Impermanence. Impermanence. Impermanence." – Garry Shandling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Powered by LiveJournal.com
Designed by Tiffany Chow