Tuesday, March 30, 2010

you can overhaul the healthcare system, but you can't take the dumb-ass out of the insurance companies

I received this in the mail recently. They even took the time and money to translate their idiocy many times over so they could be cross-cultural morons. Click to make bigger.

Monday, March 29, 2010

next blog

Go ahead. Up there on the top bar. Have you tried it? Click “next blog” and see what you get. (Facebook people, you'll have to go to the “original post” link at the bottom first.)

It's “random,” of course. But I'm betting on some happier than happy white folk discussing the ins and outs of their various babies – the cast of characters depicted on the sidebar rimmed in scrapbook-like borders that could make the steadiest among us dizzy. It'll be called, oh, let's see...something along the lines of “The Hill Clan” or “Those Crazy Philipsons!” or “Our Days with Daisy.”

This is what I am a part of. Well, that and if you click long enough the “nexts” turn into Portuguese language blogs and, ultimately, gloomy black backgrounds alight in neon scripts about motorcycles. The connections in any of these three groupings aren't 100% clear to me, but then, I'm not an internet marketeer or a blog site host.

Any of you who know me well will get immediately that what bothers me most here is my affiliation with the first group. I get that people love their babies – hey! I like mine too! Every other day or so, at *least*. And that they want to share pictures and stories with others they care about and who care about them. And - dammit! - it's their right as Americans (and Brazilians and Harley riders) to do so. I just can't help squirming a little when they pop up on either side of my blog. Am I really any different than they are? The complex and uncertain answers to that one have kept me up nights.

I don't know if I'll ever get used to the mommy group part of being a mommy. Are there any groups you are a part of by default, or association, or some crazy turn in your life like having a child, that make you uncomfortable? What blows has your self perception sustained in recent years? What modulations in identity? What would you hope might pop up as your “next blog?”

Sunday, March 28, 2010

happy birthday, dad

This Is How We Find Out

I was old, already in school.
Probably I was five. Much later than five
and dad would be dead.
I tromped through the backyard gate sobbing,

ponytail swishing, eyes streaming.
I can’t remember what for. I ran
past the wood pile, the swing set, and my father
working beside the shed. He rose

from a squat in his khaki pants and white tee shirt,
put down the measuring tape and moved toward me,
all concern. He called out my name.
My back to him, I stared down the dirty grey shingles

in a stubborn pout before fleeing for the kitchen.
My dad reached for my shirt tail
too late; the screen door
slamming like the end of the world behind me,

his outline halted on the other side.
This is how we find out what’s important.
Each year of elementary school
I made father’s day cards I threw out

on the way home, like the one
in the shape of a suit jacket, glue showing
around the edge of the orange tie.
My father didn’t wear suits.

He lingered in sweaty work clothes
outside the screen door,
the shadow of a man making for the handle,
his arm dropping again to his side.

Friday, March 26, 2010

a chance to see

You start to see what everyone else sees. What they see in themselves. You start to edge over toward the rest of the world: defining them through their failures; defining them as their crimes. You start to write them off.

This is not what they need from you. They already have all of it in abundance. But they are good actors, solid in their stage skills. It's been a long drive, a long week and you lose perspective and believe their hype.

Until it comes back to you without any doubt: they are kids. Scared. Desperate. Kids.

They begin to write the poetry they swore they wouldn't. It is part hip hop rhythm, part suicide note. They find an empty corner of the room and whisper out the beats, getting it down. They write long pieces that start “I miss my dad,” and tell of horrors you can't imagine that make you think of them more as heroes than thugs. That make you wonder how the system ever expected them to make it out of this hole when the roots they send them back to are poisoned. That make you wonder who hugs these children. Or they arrive beside you, hopeful - “It's a song. The teacher in the next room has a guitar. Do you want to hear it?” You listen. And for a few minutes both of you are transported out of this room that smells of separation and obligation, to a place where two parents wait eagerly, they are alive and sober; everything around is soft; everything is okay.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Tuesday is the yellow-green of a cat's eyes (with apologies to my lawyer friends)

Each time I go into a new classroom and ask the kids to warm up their poetry minds by writing down what they think is the color of Tuesday, the smell of anger, the texture of sunlight, there are always those that smirk and squirm. They stare back at me with confusion, pity, contempt, or all of the above, exchange incredulous glances. If they are fortunate enough, they have a spokesperson: “What?! That's nuts!”

“Write it down,” is always my reply. “'This assignment is nuts.' I want to see it on the paper.”

I cannot help the Future Lawyers of America. They will have to fend for themselves in that murky sea of logic they've chosen to swim. They are not why I'm here.

I am here for the girl in the fourth seat back, second row from the windows, that sits up straighter and catches my eye with her wide ones. She nods, ever so slightly. She has been waiting, waiting through grammar lessons, through book reports, through essay assignments, and oral presentations, and now she has it: permission. And so she begins, forgetting this once to dot her i's with little hearts, which really just began out of boredom, that silent killer. She writes and she writes and she writes. The hour speeds by and the prompts change, but she does not lift her pen. When class is dismissed, I watch her go. Her shadow is made of stardust.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

poet in the schools

I feel like it is too close to report back even with partial truths on the workshops I'm teaching now. So, instead, and in the tradition I began a while back, I will include bits from my journals from the last time I taught for Poets-in-the-Schools.
At the time, I was teaching a class of group home guys just out of juvenile hall, and a class of teen moms. Essentially, I was teaching the gangsters and the gangsters' girlfriends. And by the way, I'd take the guys any day. They're all bark. The girls? Well, they'd kill you with a LOOK; no remorse.
from February 18, 2004:
As I walk around the room glancing at papers I find “Poetry Suck!” at the top of one.
“You forgot the 's',” I tell him.
“Oh yeah,” he says earnestly, and while he hunches with his pencil to fix it, I slip a copy of another poem on his desk and move on.
from February 25, 2004:
As the acacia blossom dies to a stale brown on my dashboard, I drive -- through high wind advisories and flood warnings under the swirling gulls who know better-- dancing through the drops they sail like wind is helium, the rain slight strings of ribbon they use to hover and bob. Work waits for me on the other side of the Bay, on the other side of this gray and, oddly, I want to go. So I follow the painted lines, since the horizon vanished long ago, and I pretend that when I arrive, I'll be greeted warmly praised without restraint, that my students will tear from my hands the poems of famous and infamous writers I've painstakingly chosen to present to them, absorb the words through bright eyes before sitting to etch their own world onto paper, wild and undefined like the sky today, the rain outside harmony to this melody, beat box to an interlude that can only bring clarity. And I pretend -- that these girls all named for saints will rise like the gulls, their black curls aloft in the wind, the rain on their faces holy water.

Monday, March 15, 2010

poetry under the many-pointed stars

There was that time last year, camping, when the unthinkable happened. I forgot Isaac's books. Nothing for the bedtime ritual. No Piggy Wiggy Firefighter. No Mike Mulligan and the Steam Shovel. No “Chapter IV, in which it is shown that Tiggers don't climb trees.” No poems like “It is widely known/That grown prianhas/Are long on teeth/But short on manners.” (“The Piranhas” from In the Swim).

And so I did the only thing I could think of. I read him my books. One of the books I happened to have with me was Billy Collins' Sailing Alone Around the Room. I was grateful to have the king of colloquial verse with me, the man that can turn the most mundane of things into poignant stories that look like poems. And so I carefully picked a few and preread, hoping to engage my then-four-year-old in the ways of the word.

I read him “Morning.” It's a poem is about how the speaker likes mornings. Not too complex, I reasoned. And if on the way my son hears phrases like “night with his notorious perfumes, his many-pointed stars” well then, so much the better.

I read him “Walking Across the Atlantic” (“I wait for the holiday crowd to clear the beach/before stepping onto the first wave.//Soon I am walking across the Atlantic/thinking about Spain/checking for whales, waterspouts...”) Imaginative, funny even. My boy has a sense of humor.

I even tried a bit of “Afternoon with Irish Cows” and “Fishing the Susquehanna in July,” the latter perhaps to follow on the ocean theme. All the while, Isaac snuggled in his new orange sleeping bag blinking quietly, trying to make sense of his mother's odd habits.

I imagine the scene often enough: Two decades have passed. A jaunty 20-something sprawls with his lunch on the grass, a backpack close at hand, a few others of his kind lounging in the new spring air. A bridge in view, a cafe or two, a small car goes rumble-bump over the cobblestone.

And as he takes a bite out of an apple, this grown Isaac tells his friends “Yeah, when I was growing up, my mom was always reading poems, poems on the refrigerator at our house. I launched my Lego space ships from a fat pile of them on the coffee table. I thought every house was filled with words, fed on metaphor.”

“Did she make you write them?” a pretty girl with cropped red hair will throw out.

Grown Isaac shrugs, chews his apple.

And somewhere inside his grown and growing heart, this Isaac of the future will know that there in that scene he is inside his very own poem.

Monday, March 08, 2010

where it all begins: thinking about parenting and teaching, again

It's weird, really. How often on dates Mike and I end up in a toy store, milling around. I liken it to lesson planning. It's the perfect state of things – the time of imagining, before the people (the students or the boy) take those things (the lessons or the toys) and do what they will do with them.

It's before your best laid plans lie crumpled at your feet, shredded and bleeding. It's a beginning. I am obsessed with beginnings – mornings are my favorite time of day, before the fog lifts and the traffic is audible. My essays are all confused and muddled because I can't pick one way to start them, instead there are three or four introductions competing with each other.

It is the creative part, the wide-open. It is possibility and sunrise. This sounds pretty dramatic when you think about wandering around a store front turning boxes of Legos over looking at prices. But there it is. The hope. I don't subscribe to the parenting method of buying and over-buying stuff for your kids. Yet, maybe I can muster some sympathy for those parents if I imagine them becoming caught up in a dream of possibility over and over. You don't see at this point, the Clue Jr. game abandoned in the closet, its box smashed on three corners. Each made-in-China plastic piece of junk perhaps not a substitute for love and understanding, but a seed of hope for the realization of this small being whose lighted with them for a brief era. Of course, it would be misdirected. We are all misdirected, sometimes down the most harrowing of paths. But I am speaking now of intention.

I drive past the hospital, the parole office, juvenile hall, out toward the hills, toward my next class. There is a sense for me of a not so subtle evolution, or devolution, that is brick and mortar real. I have been thinking about the students I am teaching in relation to the students who used to sit in their chairs when I taught six years back. Six years ago, these kids, the ones here today, still had time to go anywhere, else, away, from here. They had innocence, if not shiny and new, at least to some degree intact; they had the chance of anything possible.

Frequently enough, I can't wait to get the real Isaac to sleep, freeing me of the vigilance of motherhood for that brief space, only to stay up half the night talking to his dad about him.

Am I an idealist happiest when I'm divorced from reality? But we create our own reality. This is never truer than when speaking of writers. If I share with you the story of the magical invisible alligator that Isaac works with to deliver toys and picture frames (?) to houses, will you think all of my days enchanted? If I tell you about the years of lack of sleep, the demanding voice that barks about food and play and socks and now, will you know me as cursed? Writing takes everything – it is as egalitarian a vocation as you can get – you are well, you are sick, you are rich or poor, you have 10 dogs, you hate animals. The story can start anywhere. But you don't have to put it all down at once.

I think it is why so many students get stuck writing – they don't know they can select out the pieces they want to talk about, leave the rest. That they can even ruminate, perhaps forever, in the beginning, in the land of potential, in the moment before the gun goes off and their heel presses sharply against the starting block, in the moment before the gun goes off, period. In the time when they were kicking it with their buddies before the lights of the police car came like ugly streamers around the corner. That what happens afterwards, is just that – an afterwards. That whole worlds are made and broken in the dark of a nascent fog. That to sit outside your story, to tell it, creates another reality. That to write, all you need is a moment.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

mysteries of another time

like how the bathroom in this cafe smells strongly of men's cologne and soap, though the bulk of the morning customers are construction workers and mechanics, men with tools on their belts and five-o'clock shadows, the early blear of morning in their eyes and seemingly no use for sweet smells. I accept these contradictions in life as best I know how, though they often burn and bump on the way down, like riding on a bus through the Andes when you're sure that around the next curve you'll tumble off the cliff into the scenery, which is gorgeous beyond any you'd witnessed to date, the old machine rattling and spewing, the “excessive speed” light over the rearview forever lit, the poster of la Virgen serenely taking it all in. And you hope only that when the bus goes over you'll miss hitting the woman with the long braid and felt hat, the bright skirt, who is walking laden with baskets along the edge of the sunlit abyss. And you know you have nothing to fear because the old women across the aisle jabbering to each other in a language you will never penetrate, the ones with chickens under their seats, will be praying at the tops of their lungs as the bus tilts and plummets. And how beautiful it will be though there'll be the usual dust clouds and weeping. How beautiful.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

an audience for poetry

“Kathryn, man, why you always writin' poems? Why don't you play basketball or somethin'?”

That was William. From a 12-week workshop I taught for Poets-in-the-Schools some six years ago.

William would pin on me a hard sideways stare each Wednesday. “You comin' next week?” his second question so powered by suspicion you just knew this child had been raised on a pile of broken promises deep enough to slice you open from the inside.

I have just recently put myself in the position to answer those kinds of questions again. I'm back at it. NOT basketball, of course, but poetry workshops. And I get to meet class after class of Williams.

When I arrive at the first school the first day I recognize it immediately, though I've never been here before. I pull in and park next to the parole officer's car. The school is a dilapidated mess of concrete. The few kids I find wandering around have their pants sagging so low you'd wonder why they bothered to put them on. A sign titled “Rules” hangs in the room where I'll teach. “1 – Be nice. 2 – Be safe. 3 – Don't give up.”

I meet my classes. The kids bubble and joke, they love poetry, they hate it, they can't make up their minds. By third period word's gotten around – a visitor among them. A tall, lanky senior with space for a small barge between his front teeth slides into the classroom and confronts his teacher. “Tell me it's true!” he demands. “We writin' poems in here today??”

There is the one kid, whose sullen doesn't match the rest of his sulky brethren hiding in hoodies. You can't quite put your finger on it, so you speak to him softly while the others write or don't, offer suggestions he doesn't take, touch his arm as he leaves and tell him you'll see him next week. He looks at you almost as if he wishes it were true. You'll find out later he's the one whose cousin was murdered by gangs over the weekend. There is always that one.

Isaac asks me when I'm going to be a “real teacher” and get a “real job.” How can I explain to him – this is as real as it gets. How did I get so lucky?

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