Thursday, May 29, 2008

Sunday Scribblers #113: Curves


So, here is what I have to say about curves: when my son was in kindergarten and making his first efforts at cursive writing, he used to call it “curvish,” which I consider an ever so much better tag for a way of writing that most of us have given up long ago. I love my beautiful wife’s curves and curvaceousness, but I was so sad the day she understandably, and reasonably, explained to our son that the kind of handwriting he was learning was, in fact, cursive and not curvish. You know how some things you just want to continue, no matter how innocently misinforming they may be. I miss the innocent way he would exclaim over his curvish letters, like some little preschooler in Hobbiton.

I’m over the sadness—though I do still miss the term—and as long as my son will sing me “Christmas is Coming, the Goose is Getting Fat” with that little catch in his breath when he sings beyond the point of needing to take a breath, I will always be on cloud nine.

But what about that old curvish handwriting, in this day of word processing and myriad fonts? I gave up the stuff thirty-five years ago, developing that hybrid curvish/manuscript personal font that most of us develop if we’re not in the sorori-/fraterni-ty of second grade teachers whose curvish seems to come straight from heaven, or Rune-ville, at the very least. Not only can I not even remember the curvish version of certain letters, I couldn’t recreate them, even if I did. In my classes at the Instituto, we’ll sometimes gather round the board and see if any of us can still write a name beginning in Q. I find that I do love the Zs, upper- and lowercase. A few weeks ago, having finished her latest epic about a classmate and his traveling dancing tacos, The Divine Ms G informed me, in all seriousness, that she needed to develop a professional signature for her name; she found the curvish G problematic, and her first and last names (and made up middle name that I have given her—Garson, so you can imagine what her first name is) all begin with G, those curvish Gs looking way too much like a decal you might find at a truck stop in Dothan, Alabama. We labored for a good while: even LogoMaster NM failed, until Ms AB solved our puzzle and created a perfectly wonderful signatory logo for GGG. Grauman’s Chinese Theatre can chill now: we’ve got the future superstar ready for autographs.

A shout out to all you second grade teachers with your angelic scripts out there in Elementary-ville. Y’all make it look easy, but it ain’t.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

You Are Number 6...

Okay, we’re going to do this on the down low, by request (the doing, not the down-lowing).

I give you 6 random things from the bulletin board to the left of my desk.

1. Black and white picture of a Furby, with the caption “Got Q—,” Q being the subject of Q—Fest, a day on which we celebrated the demented hilarity of The Mighty Lord Q (I’m omitting letters to protect the absorbefacient), an eighth grader with a genius for rant that out-RobinWilliams Robin Williams. Here’s just a tiny piece:

“BUTTONS: Have you ever noticed that buttons are disappearing? They used to be everywhere—phones, switches, TVs. So, what’s next? HOLES? And what ever happened to knob or switches? Is mankind too good for the knob? Is it? We’ve got to save the buttons; they’re becoming extinct, just like US factories (meaning, we’re screwed). Then, what about a random button; we have an easy button: you press it while having a seizure about something and BLAM, easy. So, you press a random button and BAM, a clown car catches on fire. The most fun you can see and it’s something new every day.”

Across the bulletin board is a souvenir Q—Fest wristband, designed and manufactured by the LogoMaster of Q—Fest: NM.

2. A turquoise blue rectangle of paper upon which is inscribed the word “Friday” in black 12 point Title Case Times New Roman and the word “TARDY” in black 14 point uppercase Times New. Kids have been handing me these for the past two years of my employ at the Instituto, and I have yet to know what the color coding means, much less what I’m supposed to do with them. I’ve now taken to tacking them to my board, they look so cool.

And while we’re on the topic of Times New, can we just give a shout out to the new default font of Microsoft Word Vista? Calibri, is it? Awesomely clean little font: I don’t know what makes it so magnificently superior to its tiny Arial cousin, but it rocks. I know Vista’s come in for some horrible press, and I ain’t here to defend nothing but the Calibri—I’ve been wanting to retire TNR to Happy Font Farms for years. It is, in my book, just one step above the Darth Vader of fonts, Comic Sans. Students know there is but one way to fail in my classes—turn in a paper in Comic Sans. The aforementioned NM sez that I have post-traumatic Comic Sans disorder. NM is a seventh (now eighth! today!) grader.

3. A color photograph of Ms AB, departing eighth now ninth grader, who threw down a 20 page memoir for her very first paper last fall that ranks in the Top 3 of anything any student of any age has ever written for one of my classes. The narrative voice was wise, hilarious, maniacal, and heartbreaking, all rolled into one. A brilliant piece of writing. In the photograph, Ms A is sitting under an early evening blue sky, holding the very large head of her gorgeous horse Dante’s Inferno.

4. A pencil drawing by the Trapunk (his invented school of art) artist JS, of a young boy over whom the Flying Spaghetti Monster is hovering. The FSM is sporting the obligatory pirate regalia and its spaghetti tentacles are ensnared in the young boy’s hair. The young boy is either not the least bit worried or he is catatonic. With CC (author of the classic “How to Survive a Gnome Attack”), JS is the co-author of the three-part “Pirates of Panda-ping” epic.

5. Above center on the bulletin board, pride of place, if you will, is a picture of ManBearPig, who has inspired the religious conversion of well over half my students. Being a small private school, we are a small sect, but we make up for our limited numbers with ample fervor and strawberry Twizzlers.

6. A list, compiled by the aforementioned NM, of various taglines for Dr Pepper through the ages, including “King of Beverages,” “The Friendly Pepper Upper,” “America’s Most Misunderstood Soft Drink Ever,” and “Out of the Ordinary, Like You,” for example. NM compiled this list as part of his background research on the creator of DP, to assist him in completing a writing assignment in which we resurrected important historical characters and placed them in our lives. I, for example, resurrected Marie Curie in my story, which more than underwhelmed NM, resulting in the ascension of the Creator/Founder of Dr P. I quite see his point.

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008


[Tuesday morning, Junior English final exam. They'd already done their long writing projects: I wanted to offer something different. Here's what I came up with. Two members of our junior tribe are leaving us this year, not to return as seniors. This morning's exercise, then, was to write personal reminiscences of these two people in our lives. We then compiled the writings into books to take with them. Below are the two reminiscences I wrote for inclusion in the book.]


I caught glimpses of CD last year, his sophomore year: he was not in any of my classes, but he would periodically show up in the 168 for study hall, like an itinerant lunar eclipse who apparently had nothing better to do.

CD was an odd bird for this wild menagerie we call the Winston School. Sometime in October of that first year, I think it was, after an afternoon spent in unholy communion with several SAT Prep books at a local B & N (how I wish it could have been a B & J, the beloved purveyors of ice cream), I purchased about 25 frighteningly gargantuan tomes to utilize for my two classes of “SAT” “Prep.” Such is the beauty of teaching the “differently learned” denizens of the Winston School that they will consign anything that smacks of horse manure to the ash heap faster than you can say the words “essay prompt.” There was only one person even less impressed by my new purchases than the students of my two prep classes—me.

CD, on the other hand, asked if he could have one of the books to work with. I raised all four of my eyebrows at the strange request, but handed one over to him, despite feeling that I had just consigned him to 750 lessons of Scott the Piano Guy on Sunday afternoon PBS pledge time, complete with captioning for the visually impaired. And so, moved by the odd syncopations of his lunar stirrings, CD would appear out of nowhere to indenture himself to some guiding ideal of what it must mean to “prepare” for the SAT—one of the most demonic conceits to come out of Princeton, New Jersey since the wild-haired man dribbled out enough syncretistic code to usher in the carnival horrorshow of atomic annihilation.

In another time and place, CD would have been a monk in a windswept cell in one of the whitewashed and azure-roofed monasteries of the Greek islands. He has a passion for knowledge, discipline, dedication, earnest toil, organization, and the sacredness of learning and teaching. These are peculiar passions for one of his generation, but he has served them well, and they him.

This year, his junior year, CD was assigned to two of my classes—English III and the newly and slightly reconfigured “College” “Prep.” If I were to describe CD’s skull when I first met him in one of my classes, I would say that it was an elegantly square-headed block of wood: good wood, mind—mahogany, say, or madrona, or paela from Central America, but a wooded head not given to quick movements or deconstructions of misguided authority or racing whimsy. It was a head to stack your books upon, but not one which would necessarily soak them up. Stories and essays were long Herculean labors, or perhaps even midwifed labors in danger of being hauled off to emergency rooms to offer the exhausted birthing “mother” “his” reprieve.

I hope it can be said that CD was never belittled for his labors and their results. A “B” did come of his first term’s efforts, not the expected and anticipated “A,” but that was the only one for the year.

Good writing—well, interesting writing, at least—is not borne of good solid timber; it is borne of wormwood, mealy drift, termite hells. How to tap into the crumbling nooks and crannies of CD, to release the worm-ridden writer within?

Slowly, slowly, the classroom culture’s errant expectations of foolish whimsy began to riddle the stolid boles of CD’s prose. He discovered the joy of fictional road trips, in which he could resurrect and reconnect with friends lost to him through moves and school changes, or even just the simple tectonic shifts of day to day class scheduling. “My main man CJ.” Or “WH.” Or the wild bacchanalia of CN set loose in the streets and neighborhoods of Houston, Texas.

As glorious disarray seeped into his fiction, CD fancied himself a worthy heir to the genius of Brother N’s wonderfully surreal poetry. Early attempts were tentative, but still they showed promise: N was appreciative enough, through his own backhanded compliments. As his pen loosened enough to start allowing blank spaces in his lines, CD announced himself fully ready for the challenge of rhymed poetry, over and above the cautionary drivel of the snooty English teacher himself. CD erupted with wonderfully rowdy lines of Whitmanesque breadth, and with rhymes as slick as Doc Holliday winning the pot with Jack high nuthin’ to boot. Lovely Miranda had morphed into brilliant Caliban.

And then a few weeks ago, CD announced the saddest of news: he would not be back for his senior year: he would be going on SA’s other Winston School, the one that uses both of the old Brit’s names. It broke our hearts to see how heartbroken he was: few love this place as fervently and innocently as CD.

We will all miss CD. We certainly wish him well and we certainly expect him to do well at the other SA school named for the bloated Prime Minister. But, such is his legacy of good will and good-heartedness that I fully expect to see CD walk across the stage at next May’s graduation: the ghosts of tenderhearted whimsy always win out, never to be dismayed.

Rave on, CD. Rave on.


I first saw J on the first day of school last fall, out in the courtyard between the gym and the main building. She looked storm-tossed, like she’d been thrown up on the Winston shores by a tsunami that was taking no prisoners: she looked soggy, weather-beaten, on the verge of either tears or a rampage, or both. In my head, I thought, here’s someone I need to give a wide berth: I wasn’t afraid of her, but I felt sure that she needed room to breathe: she didn’t need crowding.

I learned two things about J very quickly: she was a very good writer, by which I mean someone who writes fluidly, organizing her thoughts and images naturally and, unbelievably for many of my juniors, in paragraphs. Good grammar seemed a natural part of her writer’s DNA. I also learned, however, that J would “really rather” do anything else instead of the writing assignment given to her. If she’d had a child to barter, I feel sure that she would have bartered the child to get out of a 1000 word writing assignment. She was one of the first to try the “a picture is worth a 1000 words, so how about I just draw you a picture?” option on me. I’ll admit that, while I haven’t bartered her future children, I’ve taken a few drawings in “payment” for assigned work.

I think J and I began to get a sense of who we were when she came to me to get “clearance” on a research paper on Anton LeVay, the founder and High Priest of the Church of Satan. I know the ripe, plummy smell of a good “let’s see if this’ll freak him out” proposition, and I also know the look of a young woman who needs to test her teacher to see just how much of a cookie cutter he is. “Go for it,” I replied, and go for it she did. She found certain things about LeVay and his church fascinating—“theological” things, mind you, not the mere titillating details that many others of her age might have seized upon. We had a few good discussions of what she found, and I came away from our talks with an even deeper respect for the breadth of her curiosities, curiosities not simply given over to the merely prurient.

Some of my favorite memories of J came during our viewing of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” in our College Prep class. Unbelievably, she was probably the only person her age who had never seen the movie: she had classmates, not surprisingly, who had seen it so many times that they performed the script right along with the DVD, to the chagrin of all us, but no matter. J was absolutely delighted with the movie and burst out repeatedly with wonderful peals of giggly laughter that sounded like they were coming from an ethereal fourth grade fairy queen, not the Gothic High Priestess of her Junior Class. One day, we were joined by a class of seventh graders (we were “sitting” for the class next door); I looked down in mid-movie to see J in earnest conversation with a young male waif who looked to be the complete antithesis of J’s Dark Queen. Without really knowing what was up, I figured she was probably threatening to eat him, and made some off-hand comment to inject a little humor into the mix.

“I love that kid,” she replied. “He had the balls to come up to me one day and tell me to quit smoking. I love him.”

There are more sides to J than a Rubik’s cube gone berserk.

Lately, J has taken to hanging out in the 168 during seventh period, giving impromptu guitar lessons to P. Not only was the music they played generally quite soothing to the end of the day, but it was neat to listen to J teach in a very gentle and encouraging way. She clearly knows what she is about and is very generous in sharing her knowledge.

I will miss J, and I’m very sorry to see her go to the Holy Land of Waco, Texas, a place about as close to her sensibilities on the surface as, well, her seventh grade guardian angel once was—which probably means that Waco will just scarf her right up. I’ll miss her rough and tumble ways, her giggles, the ubiquity of her F-bombs (her favorite adjective), her lovely out of the blue surprises, her wonderful art, and watching movies with her—nobody watches movies with more passion.

May she bless those in her future as she has blessed us.

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Sunday, May 25, 2008

A "meme"-away, a "meme"-away

As in, "in the jungle, the mighty jungle..."

The memes they are raging again, folks. Time to duck. This, courtesy of and by invitation of Spirithelper.

Ten Years Ago: May 1998

Tina was three months into carrying the Babe of Babes, our now nine year old beauty of a son: he is growling Taz-like in the background and singing as I write this: it is best friend’s birthday party today—they are headed to the latest Indy Jones flick and camping out in friend M’s backyard tonight.

I was in my last days as a therapist, writing poetry like crazy, cracked open by my classes with Hoa Nguyen, poetry teacher extraordinaire, former student herself of Tom Clark out in San Francisco. I was reading poetry like mad as well, a “whateverth” generation offspring of an amalgam of the New York School of Poets (Schuyler and O’Hara, and later folk Ted Berrigan and wife Alice Notley) and the Black Mountaineers (Olson, Duncan, and Levertov), and making my way back through to Pound and HD and Mina Loy and Snyder and all the party that was 20th century rock and roll poetizing. I couldn’t get enough. As a fiction writer, I reveled in the instant gratification of poems, though part of me (a wee part, sure) thought such instant grat was straight out cheating. This was also when I discovered the joy of reading poetry behind a microphone and letting it rip. I learned the valuable lesson that poems are lurking everywhere.

The pageantry of Austin: there was Amy’s ice cream, sushi galore at Musashino, breakfast at Las Manitas, the utterly carnivorous debauchery of the Salt Lick, trips out to brother Vern at the ranch and the beauty of the emerald Frio River. We swam and baptized that uterine fish in practically every river in central Texas. Living on Bridal Path, just blocks from the river. Hiking in the glory of Austin’s Barton Creek greenbelt, something Tina did right up until two days before Mr. Baby popped (three miles that day). The guiding hands of midwife Suzi through the journey of it all.

5 Things on Today’s To Do List:

1. Lay Eucharistic Minister at Church, bidding farewell to the Influx Transposer Familia, que lastima.
2. Taking Mr. Baby to meet up with M at the Quarry Cinema.
3. Spectating at the Talent Show going away party for choir director Barbara at church.
4. Re-reading this awesome quote from Raymond Chandler’s The High Window: “She looked at us lazily as we came over the grass. From thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class. From ten feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from thirty feet away…the mascara was so thick on her eyelashes that they looked like miniature iron railings."
5. Why this here meme, cher.

5 Things I’d Do If I Were a billionaire:

1. Rebuild and staff LeRuth’s Restaurant in Gretna, Louisiana. And reincarnate Warren LeRuth, of course.
2. Run a publishing company that published unpublished writers who should not be on the outside looking in. On second thought, we’d have to redefine just exactly what “publish” means.
3. Hire Oprah’s trainer and chef right out from under her, BUT SHARE them with her for free.
4. Open an art space that featured the works of Tina Karagulian, San Meredith, Wild Bill Tick Tock, Ms Influx, and Tammie Lee, for starters.
5. Tear down at least one major dam that’s participated in the killing of our rivers: Snake? Columbia? Colorado? Pearl?

Three Bad Habits:

1. Rooting for teams other than the home team.
2. Amy’s Ice Cream.
3. Amy’s Ice Cream, while rooting for teams other than the home team.

5 Places I’ve Lived:

1. Moscow, Idaho.
2. Frankfurt, Germany.
3. Knippa, Texas.
4. Clarksville, Tennessee (yes, THAT last train).
5. Tres Leches.

5 Jobs I’ve Had:

1. Woodworking with the Hummers of Reagan Wells, Texas.
2. Archiving in and around Eudora Welty’s papers at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
3. Bush-hogging more pastures of gorgeous sunflowers than any human being should have in seven lifetimes.
4. Land surveying the Texas Hill Country.
5. Writing consultant for this project: Common Ground.

(5) Folks I’m Taggin’. The usual suspects, of course, some of whom could cut and paste their answers from a suspiciously similar earlier meme: ALT, San, Lee, and that traveling IT mujer. I don’t get out to many blog-parties, so 4 tags will have to do. Deadline is by the time that “End of Time” cycle comes around that the Maya and Terence McKenna have been talking about. You gotta a few more years, folks.

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Saturday, May 24, 2008

Sunday Scribble #112: Quitting

Well, for Scribble 112, the Scribblers want us to go on about the topic of Quitting. Tangential and oppositional as I tend to be in the face of assigned topics (I take after my students), I feel a relatively head-on approach coming on with this one. It’s a topic near and dear to my heart, in ways I can’t even begin to cover fully. For those of you out there who put up with the occasional agonies of bearing with my typically obtuse approach to most things, the curse this time is that, while I might make more “sense” in what I’m saying, I’m sure to be a damned sight more longwinded in what I have to say.

Be that as it may:

In the spring of 1970, my junior year in high school, I ran as a dark horse candidate for Student Body President at a recently integrated high school in Jackson, Mississippi. To be more precise, halfway through that year, the school went through a phase one desegregation; in the fall of my senior year, the more comprehensive, phase two desegregation plan for Jackson was complete, with major upheavals in districting, etc. The rabid cats who were damned if such a thing was to be shoved down their throats jumped ship, for the most part, with phase one: parents pulled their kids out and stocked up a handful of White Citizens Council Schools in the area.

I was a bit of an odd bird at my high school: when I arrived there my junior year from San Antonio, I couldn’t see what the big deal was about having integrated schools in the first place: as an Army “brat,” I had attended integrated schools all my life. In some ways, I felt that my “progressiveness” was a bit of a luxury, compared to some of my progressive schoolmates who had actually grown up in an institutionally racist city and come to their own convictions in that kind of crucible. At any rate, when phase one of the integration was announced and then implemented, my reaction was, “And why not? It’s a good thing.”

I ran for SBP against two other students, both football players, one the quarterback, who was under the delusion that people would actually love him as much as he loved himself; the other fellow was very popular and clearly the front-runner. I believe my election was entirely due to my campaign speech, in which I almost committed a faux pas that brought the house down, something to the effect of these being historic and exciting times for us, that we could go the way of a school simply falling apart with outrage at federal intervention, etc., or we could embrace what in fact was a positive step for all of us, by getting up off our a—: oops.

I think you see why I won the election, apparently by a landslide. Yes, I did carry the black vote, but I’m sure that many of my other votes came from other folks just tickled pink by a candidate who almost said “asses” in an assembled multitude of faculty and administration. It also didn’t hurt, I’m sure, that my Captain Kangaroo haircut bordered on almost hippie for those days in suburban JacksonMiss. High school students are nothing if not principled and dignified in their voting behavior.

This somewhat outrageously progressive and outspoken white boy in the midst of a still near-feudal Mississippi got a fair amount of media play in his senior year as the social experiment of integration unfolded—I was featured in interviews on all the local TV stations and served on a number of panels and ad hoc committees dedicated to growing inclusion in the face of the prevailing Mississippi winds. Summers back from college, I interned for the mayor’s public relations department: Jackson in those days was blessed with a mayor who, though white himself, was miraculously not one to cotton to the prevailing winds either.

That slab of stone was pretty much getting itself etched with what I figured to be the story of my life—political science major, law school, and then politics—until I wandered in to informally audit a college class some friends were taking during my freshman year: Religious Dimensions of the Modern Novel, taught by Father J. R. Barth, a Catholic priest and assistant professor of English at Harvard. A “lecture” class of about 150 students, say: Father John would sit on the table on the dais above us, slip off his loafers and read us excerpts from Faulkner, Kafka, Graham Greene, and Dostoevsky. The experience blew me away, and even though I spent two years officially listed as a Government major, my sophomore year was jacked full of literature classes.

In retrospect, the real “quitting” that was going on at the time, in addition to the drift of my major, was that I was moving from what I had assumed would be a very extroverted professional life to one that became increasingly cloistered, and remained so through many years as a psychotherapist in private practice. This once limelighting media hog was finding more and more of a preference for quieter and darker abodes, so much so that even the tiniest invitation to speak publicly was one that met with considerable resistance and, let’s be honest, fear.

In early 1989, I was newly working with a sex and marital subset of a group psychotherapy practice in New Orleans; this subset was very big on public dog and pony shows, except of course for one tiny subset within the subset itself—me. I much preferred to let my work with clients speak for itself, without parading myself around in public as some psycho-babbling know it all. I had also come to the realization through the years that I was not a sound-bite kind of person: I like to babble and go off on tangents and I had long maintained that the real experts in psychotherapy were the clients themselves. But, new to the little subset fraternity, I reluctantly agreed to give a talk on “Divorcing Your Family of Origin.” This notion, just another way of talking about “individuating” from our families, albeit in a more jazzy and pr-savvy way, was a notion that was big in the family systems theory of one Murray Bowen, and it was a notion with which I was in complete agreement at the time. Its dramatic under- and over-tones says a lot about therapeutic theories in those days, as well as saying a lot about my own life at the time in relation to my family.

I fretted mightily about giving this talk. The night of the talk, I stood in front of an auditorium of about 150 (hmm…) people and, five minutes (if that long) into the talk, I just froze up and went blank. Basically, I felt like there was nothing I had to say, wanted to say, needed to say, was going to say. I asked for the audience to give me a few moments to collect myself and that I would return to the stage shortly. I walked off the stage and went right to PR person Barbara who simply asked me what I needed. Being New Orleans, one of her first questions, of course, was “Do you need a drink?” I said no, but I also said that there was no way I could or would go on with the talk. I fabricated a faux explanation that I was under considerable personal duress that made it impossible for me to go on, and that I would happily reimburse any person who felt they needed a reimbursement of the nominal fee they had paid to hear me. Ultimately, three people asked for refunds. As the audience began to leave, several people came up to offer their support and commiserations; people were all very forgiving.

My ego is pretty damned strong. I do not like to look like a fool or an idiot, but it was hard not to see myself as foolish, idiotic, and cowardly after the meltdown. I faced folks the next day with my trademark humor and self-deprecation, having sequestered the shame way way down in the deep limestone aquifers where we like to put things. What helped me is that I also fabricated an explanation that was equal parts sort of true and complete bullshit. From that night on I called the experience “walking out of the auditorium,” which became emblematic of anyone’s need to just up and leave something that in their hearts they could just no longer stomach or do. I “walked out of the auditorium” of dog and pony shows that night and refused all other offers for years, saying essentially, “that’s just not who I am.”

Which is bullshit. I am a complete and utter schmooze. And, as it so happens, as I discovered when I did my first poetry reading, I LOVE standing behind a microphone and listening to my voice rattle on. But, what is also true is that I like to stand behind that microphone on my own terms: in recent years, that means standing behind microphones to read poetry or short stories or to take a public stand for an issue that I feel passionately about: the full inclusion of LGBTs in ALL the sacraments of the Episcopal church, to tear down the institutional apartheid that is in place. Teaching is also “walking BACK INTO the auditorium,” as is, in its own way, this blog.

Let’s come full circle and hasten along, shall we? Monday of this past week, the principal of the upper school where I teach came to me and said that the graduating seniors had voted me their choice to deliver the faculty speech at the Baccalaureate service four days later. Would I agree to do it? Of course, I said, even as I felt the aquifer stirring, even as I knew that I am not a sound-biter, that I am certainly not an “imparting wisdom” person, and that I am certainly not one to come at things straight on.

I wrote the “speech” the very afternoon of the invitation. It was not a speech: it was a short story, inspired by my surrealistically-inclined students and by my son’s own third grade science fair project. As a story, I was very happy with it. But, as a speech? To departing seniors? To families, friends, colleagues? Tremors, not big, but still, tremors deep in the limestone. At one point, I was sitting in my classroom with the school’s security officer (a wise and observant young man) and one of my students, a brilliantly witty writer and not one to suffer fools. I posed the question of what folks might want to hear in such a speech. Sez James, “brevity, mainly, I would think.” My student said, “Just make sure that there’s plenty of Mr. Booker in there. That’s what they want.”

I took both statements to heart, and I thank them both for the immeasurable assistance they gave me. I cut the story down to about 7 minutes and I left all of me right in there. To quote brother Van again, “No guru, no method, no teacher.”

Yes, of course, I’m going to include the “speech.” I gave it last night: I loved doing it: the seniors loved it, as did, it would appear, just about everyone else: people were still coming up to thank me after today’s commencement ceremony. And the new buzzword around the Instituto is buoyancy.

Will I walk into the auditorium again?

You bet.

[Here’s all that needs to be said to set things up: the main building of the school where I teach is rectangular, with four hallways that form the rectangle: classrooms are to left and right. The rest is what it is…]

THE BACCALAUREATE SPEECH (I nicknamed it The Bacchus Speech)

Greetings to Families and Friends, Honored Guests, Members of the Board, Colleagues, Students, and most especially, greetings to the graduating seniors of the Winston School San Antonio Class of 2008.

I would like to start my speech tonight with a passage from my son’s recent third grade science fair project. The passage is entitled, “Facts about Buoyancy.”

Fact #1: Gravity pushes on a boat and buoyancy lifts it up in the water.

Fact #2: Buoyancy is what helps boats float.

Fact #3: Buoyancy is like an anti-gravity force. (You see the Star Wars influence here.)

Fact #4: When you stretch out flat in the pool, you float because more water is pushing against your body. (I find this fact reassuring.)

Fact #5: Buoyancy is used to travel in water.

With Fact #6, we enter the realm of theology:

Fact #6: If there were no buoyancy, ships would sink and people would die.

You may be wondering why I’m standing before you tonight on this auspicious occasion talking to you about buoyancy.

My English teacher colleagues are sagely nodding their heads and thinking, what a sublime metaphor for what we have been to these wonderful graduating seniors: we’ve been their buoyancy!

Well, they would be wrong. Here’s the real truth of the matter: my son’s exhibit was on the table behind my computer monitor when I sat down to write this speech.

But, you should be happy about this happy accident, because before it happened, I was planning to read Emily Dickinson’s poem entitled “Tell All the Truth, But Tell It Slant,” which goes a little something like this:

Tell All the Truth But Tell It slant

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—

Now, you all can relax, because I decided not to go with the poem. It just wasn’t the happy accident that buoyancy was, as I’m sure you will agree. And besides, it would require that I actually knew what the poem meant.

You see, the pure unslanted truth is that one day Buoyancy got tired of being a science fair topic. She thought long and hard about what else she might want to be. Finally, she went to her mother and said, “Mom, I want to shadow the Winston School.”

“Shadow the Winston School, B? That sounds a little morbid.”

“It just means I’d like to visit the school, Mom, to see if I might need to change my career path.”

“Well, sure, Honey B, whatever you want.”

Two days later, Buoyancy walked in the front door of the Winston School San Antonio. The halls were empty.

“Funny school,” she said. “I like it already.”

Two doors down, out popped a round and friendly face.

“Hello. My name is Mrs. Saboe.”

“Nice to meet you, Mrs. Saboe. Is the school always this quiet?”

“Only in late July.”

“So, where are all the little noisemakers?”

“We like to call them students. They’re off on a field trip.”

“Awesome,” said Buoyancy. “But, would it still be okay for me to shadow the school today?”

“Certainly,” said Mrs. Saboe. “You want to walk around and check out the school yourself?”

“Well, if it’s not too irregular.”

“Oh, it’s entirely irregular. But the little fieldlings aren’t expected back for hours. Be my guest.”

Buoyancy floated down the hallway in front of her. After about fifty feet, she came to what looked like a city of lost ruins. She climbed through and over urchin-sized mock-ups of the Roman Coliseum, the pyramids of Giza, the Parthenon, the Grand Canyon, a Whataburger A-Frame building, and Gwen Stefani’s star on Hollywood Boulevard. She hurried through this maze to a wall’s worth of macaroni sculptures and tie-dyed barnyard animals. Beyond that, she counted six American flags with chartreuse stripes. There were big bright stars on the rogue flags and smiley faces that said, “Good Imagination!! I like these flags even better.” The notes were signed Ms. Owen. In chartreuse, no less.

“Flexibility in a school,” Buoyancy said to herself. “I like that.”

A quick right turn, and on her left was a room that appeared to have a giant Amazonian kapok tree growing in its midst. Nonsense, she thought, until she saw three tree porcupines scurrying down its massive trunk.

“Oh my,” said Buoyancy. “Flexibility AND reality TV. I like this school even better.”

She hurried down the hallway to the next 90 degree angle. She walked under mobiles that drifted gently in an invisible breeze.

“Hmm. Drifting. Now there’s something I know a little about. So maybe I don’t have to completely reinvent myself here after all.”

At the hall’s halfway mark, the mobiles stopped, as did all the hall decorations, save for one lonely Hello Kitty on a classroom door.

“Well now. This MUST be the Upper School.”

Two doors down, an open door gave on to a warehouse of dazzling gadgetry: Rubik’s cubes, Rubik’s donuts, Rubik’s cupcakes, Rubik’s calculators, Rubik’s hackeysacks, Rubik’s water skis, Rubik’s 3D glasses, Rubik’s yoga mats, and a Rubik’s Cheshire Cat sitting in the corner. The cat tossed a Rubik’s bouncy ball her way.

“You’ll love it here,” the cat said.

“You’re telling me,” said Buoyancy.

Another right turn and Buoyancy saw Mrs. Saboe at the end of the hall, waving encouragingly. B felt sure this was Mrs. Saboe’s polite way of saying, “Time’s up, girl,” but she felt that she must step into one last room before her shadowing day was over.

She slipped into the room on her left. On the opposite wall hung a rainbow flag honoring Pace, the local San Antonio picante sauce. There were oodles of bell work all over the room, but her eyes were immediately drawn to a line of 56 rubber ducks in a wholesome variety of colors, arrayed across the absent teacher’s desk. She was beside herself with delight and ran to Mrs. Saboe.

“Mrs. Saboe!” she cried.

“Yes,” said Mrs. Saboe.

“When oh when do I get to take Ducks? Is it Advanced Placement? Do I have to wait till senior year? Can I get dual credit? Please tell me I can take it as soon as I enroll, instead of German!”

“Fear not, my child,” cooed Mrs. Saboe. “Ducks are part of the core curriculum. There’s not a day here at Winston when you won’t be taking Ducks.”

“You’re kidding, right? This is just a sneaky way to get me to enroll.”

“No, it’s not a trick,” said Mrs. Saboe. “Ducks are core curriculum all the way—Physical Education, English, Math, Science, History, Spanish, Arts, Digital Media, and yes, Ducks. You see, you’ve come to the right place, after all, because in the end, Buoyancy, we want you to learn the very important life lesson of learning to advocate for yourself, but we also want you to learn just when it’s time to Duck.”

In closing, Good People of the Class of 2008: thank you for blessing us all with your Aplomb, your Charisma, your Enthusiasm, your Fandango, your Generosity, your Gregariousness, your Joy, your Jubilation, your Jurassic Park, your Karaoke, your Neutrinos, your Perseverance, your Romance, your Radiance, your Shimmering Shine, your Tiger Eyes, your Troubadours, your Topiary, and your inimitable Versatility. For those of you who were counting, that was one descriptive noun per senior, each first letter a match to the first letters of your names.

All of us at the Winston School wish you well, and as an old Celtic blessing would have it:

Deep peace of the running wave to you.

Deep peace of the flowing air to you.

Deep peace of the quiet earth to you.


Deep peace of the shining stars to you.


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Saturday, May 17, 2008

A New Blink

Please welcome Spirithelpers to the Blink-roll. Beautiful photographs.

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

Sunday Scribbling #111: Soar/Sore/(Psoas)

The Mighty Psoas of East L.A.

From lumbar to the
Pacific Rim’s
subarticulate articulator, mummified
flexor, intraterrestrial prankster:
are you medial or lateral, only
Ida knows for sure,
interrogator of the rectus
abdominus flux.
How ya been, she sez,
and all hell breaks loose: try
putting your finger in
the anterior superior iliac spine
& see if you don’t go all
postal in the territories.
The answer is, “it depends,”
& by that I mean
the femur is variable,
depending on your position.
Don’t ask you dog or cat
(or ferret) to do this, Dr. Ida
will contradict Bogduk any day,
& that’s the very day you’ll
wish you’d never seen
the advert in toddler profile
because you sure as dickensfire won’t
want to see yourself as the
evil sister of the very same thing,
awash in deregulated tissue
issuance, all floundered
beyond the ability to face
the reality of toady praise. My
anatomy trains are
neither local nor express, they’re
derailed and fossilized
beyond the west Texas fury
of distal adjustment, we’re not talking
12th century thoracic, we’re talking 21st
century pectineus base. Flouted, she
recoils, and the damage is done,
you’re in the manual, &
Feldenkrais himself will fusiform
you back to the beginning.
If your large bursa can
communicate with the cavity of
a hip joint, so much the better: I’ll
settle for fibrocartilage in 5
slipcovers, a sympathetic trunk
beats hell out of Beef Wellington,
your only option is Natasha Rizopoulos
& she’s only step by step,
light years beyond
the contents of the dark.

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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Out of the Closet

From a March 2000 interview with Philip Schultz (interviewed by Ricardo Nirenberg):

PS: The first stage for students at The Writers Studio: people realize that it is a form of communication, and that they are writing for others. If they are not, then they are not writers: they are keeping a journal, or a diary, and that's fine. Many people create a fantasy that they are communicating, but they are really writing for themselves. The second stage is to act on it, to start...what comes out is that people realize that there is such a thing as a persona, there is such a thing as craft. But the main thing is that what they are writing should be for others...fiction writers have to learn a trade, like carpenters. Second stage, then: struggle with the fact that there is craft. The ones who leave can't accept that. They want to take writing as an escape, not as work. But at the second stage you don't attempt to teach them about persona. Level three is a deepening or heightening of the process, where persona is for the first time taken seriously.

RN: I read some of the material on The Writers Studio, and it seems to me that your main thrust is psychological: to get people to come out of their egos. In a way, that's similar to certain spiritual disciplines, Zen Buddhism for example.

PS: Right. And another way of saying it is that egos are extremely powerful, and unless you can distance yourself from yours, you cannot fashion an esthetic object that will interest others. The need for attention and acclaim is healthy; there is a good narcissism and a bad one. The latter is the urge to write something that's private and of no interest to others, a private deal. A pact with the Devil.

RN: I read in the brochures of The Writers Studio that if the strong desire is there, anyone can write successfully. Do you believe that? Yet, obviously some people are more talented than others.

PS: The proviso in that statement is that anyone can learn to express themselves; now, how good they're going to be, that's up to them. What I mean is: enough so as to write. As far as talent goes, I think every child is talented and imaginative. I don't know anything about DNA, but I don't think God anoints one child over another and says, this one is going to be talented and this one isn't. Proust is all desire. How many people could totally isolate themselves for half their lives, and be that focused. I think it's too easy to say some people are born with talent. If you have a burning desire to communicate and to be well known, and you're intelligent enough to find your style, and able enough to arrange your life so as to do so much work, and selfish enough to put it first, then the talent is there. Talent is created. So if students continue to work seriously, no matter how long it takes, I won't give up on them. I have so many cases of people who apparently didn't have any talent at all, were told that, and five years later they are totally different writers.

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Saturday, May 10, 2008

Fresh from the Newsdesk...

Fresh from the Newsdesk: Backstage meddling has caught up [with] "American Idol" favorite David Archuleta's dad, who's been banned from rehearsals, a person working for the TV talent contest said Friday. [Editor’s Note: What’s the world coming to?] [Managing Editor’s Note: To what is the world coming?]

Idol Threats

Davey’s hometown celebration is a Murray mess,
chiseling lyrics to beat the band,
scummery times ten,
additional costs while
streaming past the limousine—

is it any wonder
the perks are
snizzled? bleeding hearts
are never cured,
it’s all your ordinary backstage
blues. “Wow,” he

exclaimed by me,
daddy two-shoes ambling by
without pass, passless, passed over:
attempts, as always, were
unsuccessful. You be
the judge.

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Friday, May 09, 2008

Sunday Scribbling #110: Telephone

What? No “mother” prompt?

Tripping over the wires of unseen dormitories, the flit-flies of cereal doom, the imaginary coasters of insignificant wiry. We’ll call for room service, say the elvish bears, but do they really mean it, have they ever come through over the wire service, the APs and Reuters and cash cows of the rest of yesterday’s seminal mess, the mythology of connection, the ancillary capillaries that encapsulate and irritate the fleeting fluster clustered ‘neath this and every other aviary, chirp chirping till dawn, midnight hours long gone to Radio Luxembourg, in the whispery whispering whispers, non-negotiable unredeemable redemptorists, as if you even needed that kind of doom to settle upon this that and every other kind of willing sorbet, the netherdreams dreamt way out beyond the carnal aspects of why we don’t do that any more. Why else do you think they’ve flown beyond all recognition? AGB called for Watson: did he really care, or was it just hopes of a paycheck, a stock split, dividends, pension plan, lime green parachute, visual do not play, or just maybe nothing more than AGB’s last unopened package of stale white powdery donuts, played out way beyond the bend in the river. Naipaul, he said, but that was a long time ago, wives ago, with London calling. London never even calls now, misgiven, misguided, misdirected, misinformed, misaligned, misquoted, misinterpreted, and oh so misrepresented. It isn’t what you think: it never was, never will be, was never intended to be in the first place.


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Monday, May 05, 2008

Philip Schultz: "Husband"

What could be more picturesque
than us eating lobster on the water,
the sun vanishing over the horizon,
willing, once again, to allow us almost
any satisfaction. William James said
marriage was overlooking, overlooking,
yes, but also overlapping: opinions,
histories, the truth of someone not you
sitting across the table seeing the you
you can't bear to, the face behind
the long fable in the mirror. Freud said
we're cured when we see ourselves
the way a stranger does in moments.
Am I the I she tried to save, still lopsided
with trying to be a little less or more,
escaping who I was a moment ago?
Here, now, us, sipping wine in this
candlelit pause, in the charm of the ever
casting sky, every gesture familiar,
painfully endearing, the I of me, the she
of her, the us we only know, alone together
all these years. Call it what you like,
happiness or failure, the discreet curl
of her bottom lip, the hesitant green
of her eyes, still lovely with surprise.

[Again, from PS's Failure.]

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Philip Schultz: "Failure"

Awesome poem from the Failure man, Philip Schultz:

To pay for my father's funeral
I borrowed money from people
he already owed money to.
One called him a nobody.
No, I said, he was a failure.
You can't remember
a nobody's name, that's why
they're called nobodies.
Failures are unforgettable.
The rabbi who read the stock eulogy
about a man who didn't belong to
or believe in anything
was both a failure and a nobody.
He failed to imagine the son
and wife of the dead man
being shamed by each word.
To understand that not
believing in or belonging to
anything demanded a kind
of faith and buoyancy.
An uncle, counting on his fingers
my father's business failures -
a parking lot that raised geese,
a motel that raffled honeymoons,
a bowling alley with roving mariachis -
failed to love and honor his brother,
who showed him how to whistle
under covers, steal apples
with his right or left hand. Indeed,
my father was comical.
His watches pinched, he tripped
on his pants cuffs and snored
loudly in movies, where
his weariness overcame him
finally. He didn't believe in:
saving insurance newspapers
vegetables good or evil human
frailty history or God.
Our family avoided us,
fearing boils. I left town
but failed to get away.

[The poem "Failure" from his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Failure.]

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Friday, May 02, 2008

Sunday Scribbling #109: Family

Love is an ocean I can't forget...

Strangely enough, given my brief yet tangential history with the Scribblers, I’m drawn to meet this prompt head-on. And then again not. When all is said and done, I’m sure I will zig and zag, but it will still likely be more head on than slant. I’m not looking to be comprehensive: what feels like being said will be said.

I’ve spent enough time in self-exile from my original family (for two different extended periods) that the usual “blood pabulum” doesn’t mean much to me or carry much weight, when it comes to considerations of the blood tribe. I may experience a webbing, but in some cases, there is little sense of anything beyond the “accident” of shared early residence. At this point in my life, I feel a very strong connection with one of my sisters and my surviving younger brother. I was once very close to my youngest sister, but this is a relationship that has winnowed over the years: I suspect my most recent self-exile may have eroded whatever was left of her feelings for me: a trip back to Mississippi this summer will help us see what may still be thriving on the vine. I would welcome a renewal of our relationship, but I’m also willing to accept the possibility that some hearts may bear just so much of people moving in and out of their lives—particularly people who once meant a great deal.

Over the past year, I’ve re-established communication with my mother and her husband of 39 years. I cannot blame them for any hesitation or reluctance or skittishness they might experience with me, but I think we’ve all made a brave go of seeking out the safer territories and gentling in the rougher waters.

With these exiles, I have lost contact with a host of nieces, nephews, and cousins, some of whom were very dear to me at the times of my departures. Casualties of war: there is no gainsaying the point.

All of this by way of saying that I’ve lived long enough to see that, all the encomiums to “family, through thick and thin” notwithstanding, there is time, in the lives of many of us, for families to take circuitous and even lengthy journeys apart and then come together again. There is such a tendency when it comes to family for folks to hold on to what they’ve got, no matter the level of pain or skirmish, but I’ve seen that some families are pretty rugged and rough gods: it takes a lot to erode those mountain deities. We can journey on and journey back. I’m not recommending it for everyone, but I’m not “un-recommending” it either. I’ve spoken earlier in this blog of the grand and subtler cycles of time that the Maya have mapped out, not just time as chronological and linear ticktocks, but time as discrete energies and cycles—there is a season, turn, turn, turn—energies and cycles that may include delineations of the times families may expand and contract, an awareness we may have lost, if we ever had it at all.

Two members of my family I have experienced throughout my life as hauntings: the father I knew but a mere five years, before he disappeared after my parents’ divorce. “Knew” for the five years, but “felt” for many more, experiencing a deep yearning for connection and discovery that lasted up to and beyond his death, right on through to the writing of my first novel thirteen years ago, a novel which, for all its other intents and purposes, was also an imagining of a landscape of his invisible life. He peopled this novel, Scarred Angels, in its heroes and its villains, and with its completion, we found a peace, both of us released from the ghost of the other.

My middle brother, four years younger than I, died twenty-eight years ago, at the age of 22. Simply put, he was the victim of a hit and run incident, struck by a motorist in the early morning hours on a Mississippi interstate highway. But simply put doesn’t really tell the story of the two years of a descent into madness that culminated, I think, with his walking out onto that highway to make his fate. I was haunted by the bright spirit of the brother I had known and loved, before the descent into his waking death, and for a good two years after his “official” death, I would see him every where in my life: the backs of heads, the builds of bodies, the instantaneous knowledge that yes, it was he, but then again, oh yes, not…Funny how the heart defies all logic in its renewals of faith.

I suppose, now that I think about it, the most profound familial haunting was one whose impact I could only truly feel at the moment I stopped denying it. Right up to the age of 44 and right on through to just weeks before my life would change irrevocably, I was pentecostal in my denials of any desire to have a child of my own, blissfully uncled and cousined, blah blah blah. Instead, by all subsequent evidence, I was haunted by a crater of oceanic proportions that I have been filling ever since with the love I have for my son and his mother, my wife.

This past week, I watched the movie “There Will Be Blood” with my junior English class: we were all struck, perhaps more than anything, by the love Daniel Plainview showed for his adopted son HW: in the gentle touches and embraces and looks exchanged between them, I felt as if I were looking at myself with my own son. The derrick explosion that renders HW deaf is devastating to their relationship, as it struggles through to right itself out of a desolation of guilt and loss, but the biggest lies Daniel ever tells in his life are those he tells his son in the film’s penultimate scene.

In this past week, I also finished reading Ian Macewan’s Atonement, yet another pavane for the living and the dead. In its sweep, it too showed both the time that is there for families to move to and from each other, as well as the quickness with which we can disappear.

[stray door]

how many fathers do you father
at 14 on a Detroit horse track
lost in the downtown rivers
the look he throws you across
the ground at play, seventeen winters
or past the time of worry
a time of sensible wear

go to saint anthony
walk the gloom of travis park
invent a snow day in march
all your hearts melting in
blue noon, orange flame
playland in feral bloom
calliope seated in her white chapel
her marble knees

picture instead grey corridor
cedar mounting his eyes stray
door to door, the gloom of west
commerce infecting, dreaming his
dreams for him, beyond the greengrey
hills, beyond all west texas
on the sands of india
gandhi salt, not his taking

death by drowning, she says,
he lay in wait, act of mercy
stone cold on the floor
flurry of grease in the air
no more waiting
in a field of white teeth
no songs but a different chatter
ankle deep.

[son up]

supersonic son
upward blasting blaster
eucalyptical ferryman:
reckon me past all ways
soundless, all ways reckless deep.
out of the mouths am i washed
newly mown, newly
inked, stained past
crested waves fading,
seeding all fallow times
o my solar boy, my
neverending crackling fate.

honey 7: east/west

simplicity was merit I
treasured. you were known
in the increments the heart measures
calendrical a presumed way of
knowing in which time and we are lost.

yes would and did insist
down through nostrils flared
angels blistered in
retreat , death another
kind of saturn to our

wishes. this i know.
i am weighted by
life that lives you—
destiny is a small word
for our communion

love is the tiniest approximation
of the space we fill.
rest in this.

home was counted
out years ago
not to deceive or
elude, but to anthem the
yearning in our midst.

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