Friday, March 30, 2007

Green Tea with Peace

I meant to write "Green Tea with Peach" but the typo suits the morning. Leaving for a weekend with Ted at a B&B at Bellaire, MI. I've decided, as I wrote in an email to my colleagues/fellow alums of the wonderful Warren Wilson MFA program, that having had my say about Starbucks, it is better to argue over ideas, even truncated ones, even truculently, than to dogpaddle around in banality.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Outrage at Starbucks

I should have known better. I rushed through the Starbucks drive-through (or drive-thru, as they call it) this morning and didn't pay attention to my vente mocha until I got in to school. As I was turning on my computer and going through my mail, I took my first sip. Then I happened to notice the word "Darwinism" on my cup.

I looked more closely. In a quote filling up the side of the cup from "Dr. Jonathan Wells, biologist and author of 'The Politically Correct Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design,' are these words: "Darwinism's impact on traditional social values has not been as benign as its advocates would like us to believe. Despite the efforts of its modern defenders to distance themselves from its baleful social consequences, Darwinism's connection with eugenics, abortion and racism is a matter of historical records. And the record is not pretty."

Bear in mind I was on my way to work at THE UNIVERSITY, where we face ignorance and assaults on the whole notion of science and the validity of evidence, every day of our working lives.

I'm outraged and disheartened that this quote appeared, unwanted, on my Starbucks cup. I immediately called the local Starbucks to complain, and, taking the measure of my heated attitude, she gave me the customer service number (1-800-STARBUCKS). There, I vociferously explained to the young man that I do NOT want to read a quote like this on my coffee cup, and that, more to the point, the use of an excerpt like this, without context, without opportunity for real debate on a very complex issue, is offensive.

He said the quote is part of a plan from Marketing (whom he said would not talk to me) to "stimulate debate." I said this method trivializes the way meaningful discourse occurs. I said that's just what's wrong with the way my students think: they get their supposed "truths" in disembodied bits and pieces: they don't know how to judge. Deprived of context, of background, of actual research and discussion, they remain clueless. I said if Starbucks is really interested in meaningful discourse, they should endow a University chair, or fund a nationwide series of debates.

I didn't want this debate to begin (and end) with my coffee cup. I just wanted a cup of coffee. I should have known. Now back to trying to teach my students how to think, in a world where irresponsible corporate "coffee cup" fallacies are what pass for "stimulating debate." Starbucks should let its stimulation begin and end with coffee.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Mary Helen Blew Me Kisses

Sunday report: At 9 a.m., I rolled out of bed. I pulled on my "Minot Beavers" sweatshirt and old black pants, carefully backed the Honda down the driveway (always an accomplishment when I've just waked up), and cruised down Court. I timed myself just right: there was a train drumming along the tracks between Dort and Averill, but the last car slid by when I was a half block away. (I wish I could say it was a caboose because I love that word, was an ordinary greasy black oilcan. Well, there, I've said caboose anyway) The arms went up just as I got there, so I actually didn't have to brake. And then I got cafes mocha and NYTimes for my next door neighbor Mary Helen and me, enjoying the old Neil Young tunes they were playing. When I got home, I went through Mary Helen's back gate as I always do and I could see her up, padding around the kitchen in her PJs.

I love Mary Helen. Soon after I moved in and my first New Yorker arrived in the mailbox, my mail carrier casually said one day, "Did you know both you and your next door neighbor get the New Yorker?" I don't know if that's legal to say, but I appreciated it. We started comparing notes over the back fence. One glorious Sunday morning that first summer, we caught each other goofing off in our respective backyards. She called over,

Some keep Sunday going to church
I keep it staying at home,
With a bobolink for a chorister,
And an orchard for a throne.

Any lapsed preacher's daughter worth her salt knows that Emily Dickinson poem well, and I couldn't believe I had the great luck to have a neighbor who would quote ED over the back fence. I'm terrible at memorizing poems, but I ran inside and pulled the rest of it up on Google and gave it to her on a notecard:

Some keep Sabbath in surplice,
I just wear my wings
And instead of tolling the bell for church,
Our little sexton sings.

God preaches, a noted clergyman,
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of going to heaven at last
I'm going all along.

Anyway, usually, especially in winter, I never go in when I drop off her paper -- just leave the decaf mocha and paper on the table in her sunroom, her two little doggies Nannie and Zooey barking exuberantly. They know me, which is nice. From the kitchen window, Mary Helen blew me kisses. It was raining, and I like that, too. The air smelled great. It was a heavenly Sunday.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Voyeur at the Round House

Every day when I'm in Flint I walk by the round house. It's on a corner lot down by Gilkey Creek, and it looks very odd in this neighborhood of colonials and small Tudors. Its single story is contructed of dark gray brick and has a flat black roof with two cylindrical brick chimneys, each with a conical tophat, poking up from the roof. There's a tall white fence around the back third. Unshapely, monstrous evergreens obscure all its windows, except for the front, next to an attached garage. Whose idea, probably back in the Sixties, was this architectural anomaly? For months it's been obviously uninhabited and overgrown, a hopeless "For Sale" sign up in front. Lately, somebody's at least trying to do something with it: it's been a big mess, trucks coming and going, a huge dumpster in the driveway. I always crane my neck when I stride by, having a big appetite to see inside other people's houses, but it has always been obscured by the dumpster or vehicles, or the curtains were securely pulled shut.

But yesterday, whoa, the round house sat completely open to view. The curtains were gone and the curved driveway was clear, with nobody in sight. So, after looking furtively over my shoulder, I walked right up to the round house and took a good long look.

What a weird place! Totally empty, inside it looks like a set from the Dick Van Dyke show. The one of the brick chimneys visible from the street is connected to a circular fireplace in the center of the living room, which has a carpeted, semicircular "conversation pit" and a step up to a circular carpeted area around and behind the fireplace. The whole thing is strangely set off by white cast iron railings separating the conversation pit from the rest of the room -- as if the residents or guests couldn't be trusted not to fall off the step down. Off to the left is a dark kitchen that looks more like a bar, and on the far side of the circular living room are big glass doors to -- a small, triangular swimming pool! I'd never have guessed it was there from the street.

What's so cool about peering into other people's houses is the way you can start to imagine a whole new life. What if I lived here? What would I be like?

I tried to picture the sensibility behind the round house -- not the hippie part of the Sixties, but rather something related to Hugh Hefner and martinis at 5 p.m. and men in black suits and skinny ties and glamorous women in tight dresses, high heels and beehives. At one point in my young life, that was how I thought sophisticated adults lived: not like my parents, who didn't drink, didn't care about clothes, kept the same couch for 50 years and favored digging homegrown potatoes over anything having to do with, say, New York.

This is a house from StarTrek, a house from the Space Age. Sixties architecture was fun -- so unlike our parents' predictable block structures, buildings like comfort food. It would be hard to get comfortable in the living room of the round house -- and you'd be quite exposed -- like those damn "open plan" schools that never worked.

Now, though, it looks, well, kookie. Some of it even was called, wasn't it, "Googie architecture" ? The round house doesn't quite ascend to that moniker, but getting a chance to peek inside made me smile. I know nothing about the people who lived inside -- whether they smoked Parliaments and had sophisticated cocktail parties or whether the woman of the house made rumaki and donned a skinny black dress. It does seem, in retrospect, as if the Sixties weren't about being comfortable, but about being...daring. It was fun back then. It was fun being young in the Sixties.

But I don't particularly miss the Sixties, except that I sometimes miss having a young body. And while I enjoyed picturing myself skinny dipping in the very private swimming pool at the round house on a hot Flint Sunday, I don't want to live in the round house. I don't particularly want to push the envelope or wear high heels or grip the cast iron railing to keep from falling into the conversation pit. But it's a deliciously taboo pleasure to walk up to somebody else's house, stare right in the windows, and imagine another life.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Meanwhile, A Peaceful Sunday Night

Trying not to stay in the dark place too long. That "a human neckbone at his feet" phrase, those four horrific iambs, became an obsessive mantra yesterday when I was pounding around the neighborhood, trying to walk off the effects of grading 40 freshman papers, and struck by a commentary from Iraq I'd heard earlier on NPR. And I'm so worried about the bees. What are we doing to this beautiful world?

Iraq: The Big Story of the new generation. My husband's two sons, probably immune; my stepson from my first marriage, probably old enough at 37 to escape. My nephew, an electrician, robust and smart -- probably immune. But these young kids whose names and pictures show up every night on the Lehrer News Hour and every Sunday on This Week with Stephanopoulos, damn, my friends, they are children, and most of them are from the small towns of America, as others have aptly noted. Children. And those who don't die -- come home carrying the memory of horror in their hearts. We will have something immense and dark and troubling with us for decades to come. I hope we have enough love to take them in and give them what they need to heal.

But I'd promised myself not to stay in the dark place. Listening to Dylan, "Love and Theft," my favorite cuts "Mississippi" and the sweet "Moonlight." Earlier, I let myself be awash in a gorgeous CD of Tongan music my San Bruno friend Emile Hons passed along a couple of weeks ago -- the soothing harmonies of Kuila -- with dogs barking in the background. Oh, that takes me back to those languid kava parties in 'Osamu's little oval hut of long ago. It makes me feel better to hear these peaceable songs and sip a little wine and relax. Here's to finding pleasure after a dip into the dark places. Here's to music that soothes the savage breast.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Villanelle For An Anniversary of the War

A human neck bone at his feet,
A soldier shudders in the sun.
The bees are dying in the heat.

The country chills in sickly sleet.
In Uruguay Bush rattles guns
A human neckbone at his feet.

A dying woman can't use weed,
the tulips sprouted far too soon.
The bees are dying in the heat.

The northern ice caps melt in sheets.
The oil man digs another hole,
A human neckbone at his feet.

A dying woman can't use weed,
The white bears starve and drift alone.
The bees are dying in the heat.

Can sense survive in these defeats,
when soldiers shudder in the sun
a human neck bone at their feet,
and bees are dying in the heat?

When It Began, A Foreboding Day in New York

Four years of madness. I was at 4Cs in New York City in 2003 when it was all beginning. What have we done?

VERNAL EQUINOX, 2003, New York City

Light and dark are supposed to be equal
but today in the caverns of New York
darkness seems to have the edge.

Across from my thirteenth floor room
CNNS's unlucky strobe flickers in every
office cube. I pull the red drapes shut.

I'm here to give a paper on failure, bad
joke. For airport safety, no laptop: revising
words come hard to the yellow pad. My pen

leaks blue splotches on my hand, blots
the insufficient page. My head's congested
from the half-empty flight, the ride through

Lincoln Tunnel, where guardsmen stood with guns.
In every elevator, tiny TVs report first casualties
while we stand, hypnotized and horrified, waiting

for doors to open. Tanks like buffalo graze
haunted sand, the only green the spooky network
night lights. We get on, we get off, brass doors closing

at our backs. I drink green tea and try to concentrate,
turn to books I brought for comfort: Rilke and
Marquez: "It was inevitable" -- again and again --

"the scent of bitter almonds." Then, a loud crash,
right here in New York. I run to the window, push
open the drapes, my heart a panicky fist. But

below, people walk unfazed, the busy night trade
seemingly unchanged. And then another boom,
and I understand it's thunder -- simply thunder

and a stun of lightning, and then
a deluge of rain, tarnished silver,
heavy and streaking the high windows.

(Thanks to Dunes Review, where this first appeared)

Sunday, March 11, 2007

A Winter Gig in Sutton's Bay

In line with my "Pentimento" entry below, here's an old poem of mine, from a time I went up north in winter to do a (rare) Creative Writing in the Schools gig for Duncan Spratt-Moran. The snow was so deep that I had to park on the road, and Duncan and his two daughters met me there with a sled to take my suitcase in, through a snowy path in the woods, to their beautiful house. It was dark and I remember starlight. One of Duncan's daughters, about six or seven at the time, endearingly took my hand to guide me. When we got to the house Duncan served broccoli, tofu and peanut stir fry in front of a big wood stove and the next morning made fresh ground coffee before I went off to meet the kids. It was a wonderful experience and I still remember it fondly. But I was a little homesick, too.


Up here it would break your heart to see how
the little cherry trees bend against snow.
My mother said purple is the color of grief.
These white hills cry out longing, longing
and the jagged row trees click and bow.

I miss you and your city eyes, our love
faulty neon where nature's on the lam.
I think these fields love their loneliness,
these chaste hills love themselves, wrapped
in Amish dresses of gray and brown and black.

The snow here is a missionary, too blessed
for my rough boots. At home with you again
I'll love my emptiness. This prim frost bites.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Pentimento on M-10

I don't often go north from Flint in winter. Thursday I did, traveling alone to Ferris State for a conference. Driving those roads gets me melancholy, thinking about my first husband. He spent blue collar summers up there and the scrubby lots and pines in rows and brown rivers all touched his heart and filled his poetry. Used to be the only time I'd go up there was with him, waiting watchfully for the sweet sadness to descend on him around Evart. I loved that part of him. Remembering his love for white birches doesn't go away with the end of marriage, now six years past.

But one lays down new memories, even in old territories, a pentimento. Is that the word? I look it up. Oh, man, yes, that's what I mean. Rooted in the Italian for "repent, " the artist changing his mind, painting over that hand that didn't look right, making the eyes turn another way, reangling the troublesome feet, paint over paint. Regret and trying again.

So, my trip a pentimento. MapQuest took me up 75 to M-10, as usual -- 85 miles an hour easy all the way to that cool rest stop at Clare with the cast iron sculptures and the good bathrooms. But after that, M-10 narrows down to a two-lane and if you've got any sense you take a deep breath, not try to pass every pickup or old Dodge, and just pay attention.

Going west in the late afternoon, I hit ochre sunset slanting off wide fields of snow. The brown this time of year is beautiful, every twig limned and distinct, every hawk feather, it seemed to me, sharply visible in the clear late winter air, shadows of the stone houses and outbuildings extending halfway back to the fenceposts, the stiff remains of cutdown cornstalks elegant contrast to sensuous curves of snow.

Last week when I flew back to Michigan from California, gloomy and resistent to my all-too-familiar Midwest, the view from the air after the Mississippi River was like a reverse Wizard of Oz, stunning change from technicolor to black and white -- or brown and white, really -- a shock of subtraction. But driving into the sunset the other day on the old roads, thinking about a lost marriage and heading toward something new and good, the land seemed rich and textured and full of lovely subtlety again.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Memories of Wendy's Manicure and Al Murray Shoes Make Me Happier in Cold Flint

Cantankerous this Wednesday back in Flint, 14 degrees with two inches of fresh snow on the ground, and I don't find it amusant. The second day of jet lag almost always the worst. So I draw a big deep bubble bath and sink in decadently. Remembering Jim Harrison's recent eminently sensible prescription for what ails ya: a huge porterhouse, a quart of the best bourbon you can afford and a long hot bath, then sleep for a day. But I gotta be at work in an hour. So, wrapped in Ted's big heavy white robe, the most I can get of Ted who's still back in San Pedro, I crank up Sam Cooke belting Change is Gonna Come, and after that, the Overture from the Marriage of Figaro, and after that, Harry Nillson wailing "Down." Aggressive and loud. I'm feeling slightly better, but don't catch me admitting it. Anyway, it's not even 9 a.m. yet.

By the way, Harrison's Returning to Earth is my favorite recent novel. I dig the way his main character dies midway, walking into his own freshly dug grave in Canada, dreaming of ravens and bears. And when I tried to post the cover for a little variety in the paragraph, Safari crashed and I had to start this all over. Must be crow magic in the air.

Anyway, two memories of Pedro warm me this day. There's a Vietnamese manicure place in a little mall off 25th where I always go when I'm there -- they're fast and friendly. I love the sound of the Vietnamese language bubbling around me in that room; to my ear, it's like frogs on a summer night, or water tumbling over rocks, or hens murmuring -- whatever, it's a lovely cacaphony. Wendy, a delicate woman with delicate hands, took on my Ohio paws, which looked huge resting on her table. I asked for the oil manicure and added the paraffin wax, and then she wondered if I'd like a flower on one of the nails. It's not my usual, but I said yes only so that I could watch her create the tiny white flower with four petals and a perfect stem on my left ring finger. Then she glued a tiny jewel in the center, and then she created a corresponding one on the other hand. This doesn't "look like me," but I loved them, and I loved watching her ply her remarkable craft, and they lasted for a week.

The second warming memory had to do with buying shoes. Ted wanted to buy a new pair of New Balance sneakers, and we went to Al Murray Shoes off Western Ave. in Pedro. The service was so great I decided to buy a pair myself. We spent 45 minutes there, the clerk lovingly measuring our feet, leisurely talking to us about our feet (I'm serious -- I've never had any shoe clerk do this) and making suggestions for the best shoes for us. He said my poor aging arches are falling and that can lead to back aches and headaches and all kinds of other malaise -- "The feet," he said passionately, "the feet affect everything." When we put on the shoes he selected, complete with arch-supporting inserts, we walked around the place feeling 20 years younger, floating like angels, while he beamed at us. Then he gave us a good talking to: "you must walk," he said. "Forty-five minutes a day. You must sweat." We nodded compliantly. "You'll feel so much better, and now you have the right shoes for it." I felt so...loved. What a pleasure!

So I'll put on my blissfully good fitting sneakers and stride out into this frigid day.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Pellucid Days in the City of Angels

1. Rains and sea winds last week made the San Gabriel Mountains from our apartment in San Pedro stand out as I'd never seen them. Here's how they looked when Ted caught them Friday. So this is how those mountains might have looked to a tall ship pulling into the harbor 150 years ago.

2. Tuesday: Dinner at Taix and Brahms chamber music at "The" Disney downtown. Ted used his new Onstar for the first time to get us to the restaurant; the voice of a nice young man and his helpful computer helped us make all the right turns. And yes, regardless of politics lurking behind the bar or in the kitchen, Taix DID deliver that anise-flavored Basque drink amer picon for my friend Teddy, who likes it as much as did my stepson Eliot who got me to try it at his wedding in Reno last year. I opted however for a sour gin gimlet. Later, we froze our asses off in the 50-ish LA night, but couldn't turn down a chance to sit on stools at the Pinot Grill outside the Mark Taper Forum for shots of Bushmills before sprinting across the street to The Disney. Fabulous acoustics for a round of Brahms songs, a clarinet quintet, and a piano quintet. But why, for the millions of dollars overbudget that place cost, are the seats so uncomfortable? Might as well be imprisoned in a Northwest Airlines middle seat. REALLY!

More to come.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Celebrate the Sentence Day

Happy March Fourth! Don’t forget to observe my self-declared holiday: National Celebrate the Sentence Day. March Fourth is a sentence, and if you think about its homonym, March forth, it is the only date of the year which works as a sentence outside the numeral structure. Okay, just go with me on this and stop your quibbling.

In Los Angeles, thousands of runners literally are marching forth for the LA Marathon, THE most appropriate day of the year for such valiance. All the rest of us, all around the world, from dawn to dark, are crafting sentences for every conceivable reason: to declare love or war, to buy pomegranates, to negotiate a lease, to call a loved one out to see the hawks in the palm tree, to complain that our feet hurt, to comfort a baby, to support our candidates, to ask for a kiss, to give thanks for a kiss, to mourn the dead.

I celebrate the powerful reassurance of one complete thought put into words. I celebrate the miraculous structure of human language: the stolid march of subject-verb, subject-verb; the riffs and infinite improvisations of sensual adjectives, sonatas of adverbs, the bringing-together of conjunctions, and the spritely prepositions, pointing every which way. I am grateful for how the sentence orders my life experience – a structure that makes it possible for you to read this, wherever you are, and understand a little of what I have to say. I’m grateful for the architecture, varied and elaborate, that helps me capture my experience and visit the life houses of other writers.

I’m thankful for the workhorse sentence; I’m awed by how my human language has given me more joy and gotten me into more mischief than anything else about me. It’s good to be alive on this March Fourth, the day which is a sentence, and to have the words at hand to reflect on being human. I celebrate the boundless majesty and possibility of the sentence. Here’s hoping we use our words, our sentences, to protect the earth and find a route to peace.