Sunday, January 30, 2011

This is a rough sketch of the crankier side of the male psyche done in bear-form. I've spent many years studying and evaluating the test subject (i.e. me) to come to these conclusions. I hope it can be of some use to others.

1. Mumbley Bear: This describes a state of slight grouchiness stemming from such causes as sickness, hangover, or loud children. Characteristics include confusion, slight detachment, and crabby looks. Mumbley Bears are somewhat sullen and withdrawn, but not viciously so. They will communicate, but not very well. It's a bad idea to pounce on Mumbley Bears with a lot of demands or whining, especially before they've had tea or coffee and a little bit of breakfast. Once a Mumbley Bear has had a little bit of peace and quiet and some toast, they will be fit for human interaction.

2. Smart-Ass Bear: The causes of this condition vary but usually include consumption of too much alcohol along with other factors including: a rough day at work, a general feeling of unease resulting from a lack of accomplished goals, seeing some asshole succeeding when I'm stuck here in the muck, etc. This state is somewhat deceptive in that Smart-Ass Bear can appear very outgoing, though his crabbiness will make itself apparent by the nature of his jibes and comments. If given too much attention, Smart-Ass Bear will reveal his crankiness, leading to rude behavior and sullenness. Once Smart-Ass Bear has had some time to think about things, he tends to end up apologizing to everyone or just throwing up.

3. Black-Stare Bear: Almost always spurred by financial and/or job concerns, Black-Stare Bear is given to bouts of dangerously quiet introspection. It's a bad idea to let Black-Stare Bear near anything breakable, because he tends to be aggressive and clumsy. Black-Stare Bear is best sent away to perform tedious tasks so no one else has to deal with him until he gets over it. Also known as "Fuck-It Bear" or "I'm Surrounded By Assholes Bear".

4. Blood-Tooth Murder Bear: A rare but dangerous bear to be avoided at all costs. Not much is known about Blood-Tooth Murder Bear because sightings are so rare. Perhaps it is created from a fusion of traffic, bills, sexual frustration, and personal failure. Perhaps it is hormonal in nature. Regardless, Blood-Tooth Murder Bear is territorial and may attack anyone hapless enough to wander near. Blood-Tooth Murder Bear craves solitude and is, in every way, tired of your shit. Blood-Tooth Murder Bear cannot be tamed or reasoned with. He will rip your fucking throat out if you don't shut up and leave him the hell alone. No one wants to be around a Blood-Tooth Murder Bear, not even himself.

Friday, January 21, 2011

1. Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, by Edwin Abbot.

I got this book for free. We were at the Book Bank in Old Town, Alexandria, right before Christmas, and they had a trivia question: what was Tiny Tim’s last name? I, of course, said Cratchit, and they gave me the book I was about to buy. It would’ve cost $1, but still…Flatland is a novella about mathematics. It’s also a satire on Victorian mores, gender roles, and the like. The narrator is a square in a 2-dimensional world populated by geometrical forms. He has a vision of Lineland—a one-dimensional world populated by dots and short lines. He also has a vision of a 3-dimensional world. Very dry and essay-like. The strangest thing about this, for me, occurred while I was in the waiting room at a mechanic’s. An episode of “The Big Band Theory”, a show I’ve never watched, came on and a character started talking about this book. I was impressed because I would consider this a somewhat obscure text.

2. A Very Bad Wizard: Morality Behind the Curtain, a collection of interviews with philosophers conducted by Tamler Sommers. A very diverse collection. I would consider this a good introduction into current philosophical trends for a novice. Towards the end, it started to lag as the interviewees retreaded some of the ground already covered in earlier interviews. Still, thoroughly enjoyable with lots of insights into process and motivation for the philosophers and researchers. Topics include the supposition that freewill is a myth, the theory that morality is an evolutionary adaptation, certain examinations of cultural morality mores, etc. Here’s a nice review by Joshua May in Metapsychology Today.

3. Dead Babies, by Martin Amis. I will admit that I haven’t read Amis before. I've gotten a certain impression of him which made me think that he might be a little too high-maintainance for my tastes. I was pleasantly surprised by Dead Babies. Very enjoyable. Quite a voluminous vocabulary. The eponymous ‘dead babies’ refers to grossly serious ideas that lead to introspection—basically, anything that takes one away from the decadence of self-refraction. The story follows a group of overly wealthy 20-somethings over a weekend at their country house. I can't help but flash on Withnail and I because of the subject matter and tone.

4. The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair. I read this because I’m teaching it. I enjoyed it, but I don’t think I’ll be teaching it again, if I have any say. If I do, it will be much excised. The bulk of the novel is a reverie on the miseries of immigrant life in Chicago around the turn of the 20th Century. By the last 100 pages or so, the breadth of the novel expands into an exploration of full-scale political corruption. The subject matter is certainly important and thought provoking, but after a couple hundred pages of descriptions of inevitable, unescapable misery, my students became desensitized. It is, of course, propaganda, I realize. Still, some very nice moments of real genius. I’m glad I read it, not so much that I taught it.

more to come...

Monday, January 17, 2011

James Earl Ray*
by CL Bledsoe

We didn't mind the day off
from school, but we refused solemnity, refused
to let them think they'd been proven right
by martyrdom; we were ashamed
of nothing.

We joked in the halls –
It's James Earl Ray Day, no school Monday!
And smiled when the black kids

I'm thinking about this years
later, in an ATM drive through—a sign says Closed
For Lee King Day. Who's he? I wonder
before I realize they've buried
Dr. King's name behind Southern

I'm older, now, but that dumb and mean
kid I used to be still has his friends
to hide behind. I consider moving
my account, but the bank is closed until tomorrow.
I have to wait,
and sit with this.

*Originally appeared in the Arkanssa Review

The Boys*
by CL Bledsoe

tied rebel yells to their truck antennas
when they cruised the loop at Sonic.
They drove up slow and made sure
they weren’t alone before turning in.
Couldn’t be too safe from gangs,
they said. If they caught a black kid alone,
they’d drop off their girlfriends for safety
and follow him, force his car into the parking lot
of the old Jitney-Jungle, two, three trucks
full of grinning, yellow-toothed white boys
with bats, brass knuckles, wrenches. A couple
carried ropes for a joke. Mostly, they’d laugh
while the black kids beat feet.

In the school parking lot, they untied the flags
from their trucks so they wouldn’t be suspended
and stalked the halls bragging about the tooth-necklaces
they were going to collect as soon as somebody
stood his ground. They talked about getting tattoos
but couldn’t decide between crosses
or flags—they needed something to set them apart.
They’d never hide their dignity under hoods
like their daddies, they said, never march
on city hall to be ridiculed. They smoked cigarettes
in the parking lot, picked fights
with the skinny freshmen, but dropped their eyes
when the older black kids strode by.

*Originally appeared in Pank Magazine

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Forrest City*

I was sweeping in front of the automatic doors when I noticed the bundle of fliers stuck into the payphone, off to the side by the soft drink machines. There were few cars in the parking lot, and the stores in the rest of the strip-mall were mostly empty.

I grabbed the fliers and unrolled them. A gritty Xeroxed picture of a burning cross dominated the top center of the page. Underneath, directions to a park on the edge of town. I knew the place. My band had competed in a battle of the bands contest there the summer before.

I re-entered the store. The manager's office directly to my right, was empty. A black girl was on register, but I was unsure as to whether to show this to her or not, how she would take it. I headed towards the back, hoping the manager would be there, though I didn't know what he would do about it, if anything. It just seemed like the thing to do.

I pushed the floppy plastic doors open and entered the stockroom, but the manager was nowhere to be found. This was not unusual. Joe, one of the butchers, was loading boxes into the box crusher. He was a thin, forty-something year old. We got along pretty well; he used to be in a local band that had a bit of a name for themselves, twenty years ago.

"Hey, you seen John?"

He shook his head.

"Look at this," I said. "They were stuck in the payphone," I added. "I can't believe this shit. I mean, what century is this?"

"They're not so bad," Joe said.

He dug his wallet out and showed me a membership card.

"I only went one time, with a buddy of mine."

I stared at him.

"What do you mean you went one time?"

"Just a bunch of old boys," he said. "They don't mean no harm."

* * *

Forrest City was named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate General generally recognized as a brilliant tactician who was also a founding member of the KKK. Growing up, I had heard tales of Forrest's exploits. Deemed a freedom fighter by many; legend had it that the Nazis had studied Forrest's tactics while formulating the Blitzkrieg.

According to the 2000 census, Forrest City was 60.9% black, 36 % white. Though my experiences in Forrest City occurred in the mid-nineties, I had been told time and again that Forrest City was violent. Rumors of gang violence circulated so frequently that we hardly bothered checking the papers to verify them. It was something we all knew. People were murdered in Forrest City, as surely as they were in West Memphis, which was only a few miles to the east. It was only out of desperation that I took a job there.

* * *

Back out on the floor, still looking for John, the manager, I found Kevin, a black coworker, stocking. Kevin was thin and smart in a way that made me think he should wear glasses, but he didn't. He was also a musician hoping to be a producer.

"Hey man, I've got to show you something."

We ducked into an aisle and I showed him the fliers. I explained my encounter with Joe, and told him to be careful.

"I'm trying to find John to tell him about it, but he's gone."

"That preacher's one of them too," Kevin said.

He thanked me for telling him and went back to work; I threw the fliers away and came back out and helped him.

* * *

John Calvin, the manager, was a Baptist preacher. He had a little church out in the country, and the story was he'd retired from managing years earlier, and had only come back to the new Sav-A-Lot grocery store as a favor to the owner, Mr. Edwards, who owned all the grocery stores in Forrest City, and a few in other towns. I was hired by Mr. Edwards directly, before the store was even open for business, and my first encounter with John was after I'd been working for a few days.

I was stocking the bare shelves, arranging and rearranging the aisles according to the will of whoever was around at the time, and I went to the back room to use the restroom. As I entered the room, I met three or four of the ever changing group of men who were referred to as "managers." I hadn't bothered to learn any of their names because I didn't know which ones would actually be staying with the store. Some were regional managers for Mr. Edwards, some worked for the Sav-A-Lot chain, and some were from other stores just helping out.

Directly in front of me was a large man, boyish and round with curly light brown hair, wearing a white shirt, dirty slacks, and a tie. I didn't know who he was, specifically, only that he was a "manager." This was John. He stopped me and spoke with a Texas drawl. "Hey, there any colored people in the store?"

The question took me by surprise. He studied me with nervous eyes. After a moment, I answered truthfully, "I have no idea."

Another manager, whom I later learned was named Sam and managed the meat department, assured him that there weren't.

John picked up the intercom phone, hanging on the wall by the door, and spoke into it in a ridiculously exaggerated, vaudevillian black accent, as though he were about to tell an Uncle Remus story, "Massa Billy, we sho would appreciate it if you'se 'd come on back here wit' us white folks."

A couple of them laughed and the rest eyed me until I went back onto the floor. I was ashamed that I hadn't said anything to them about it.

One of them followed me out, an old grizzled man, and he caught up to me as I started back working.

"Quit that looking around," he barked. "Get to work."

"You told us to keep an eye out for spills. That's all I'm doing."

"Well, you look around too much."

* * *

Most of my conversations with John had to do with my sorry soul. Once he stopped me, right up front by the registers, and lectured me for twenty minutes.

"Your soul," he said, "is like an egg."

He talked slow and high, and put his hand on my shoulder.

"And your unbelief is like wax. Now you can dip that egg in wax one time, maybe two, and that egg's still pretty easy to break through. But if you keep dipping that egg in wax, you see, the Holy Spirit can't break through."

"How egg-xasperating," I mumbled.

Sometimes I brought books in to read during break. After a few months of John criticizing them, I gave up trying to impress upon him the value of reading. I would talk instead about reading things I knew he would disapprove of. I talked about reading histories of religion, Frazier's The Golden Bough, things he'd probably never heard of.

"I'm too afraid to dabble in that sort of thing," he told me. "You better be careful. You'll mess around and go too far. It's not good to know too much about things."

I hated John, not only for his preaching, but for the fact that he hired his own children, both too young to legally work, hated him as the months grew with a passion I had never experienced before. He seemed to represent everything that was wrong with this little town, this state, which I wanted desperately to break free of. I got into arguments with his kids all the time, especially John Jr. a teenager who looked sort of like an upside down bowling pin. He was a bully, picking on the black employees, ambling around the store like it was a playground, under the protection of his father.

As much as I hated John Sr., he hated me. I was a smart ass, young and brash, eager to lash out at a place I felt was holding me back. I looked at this job as being a mud puddle on the road of life, which made him, I suppose, the head guppy. Maybe he meant well by trying to save my soul, or maybe he was trying to save face. I looked at it as laughable at best.

Mr. Edwards, the store owner, came in about once a week. He was an incredibly wealthy old man, which was rare in the Arkansas delta, one of the poorest places in the country. He owned all the grocery stores in town and a couple in other towns.

Since Mr. Edwards had been the one who hired me, I felt as though I was really working for him. At one point, after I'd been working at the store for four or five months, I asked John about the criteria for raises. Normally, in retail jobs, I had found that there was an initial evaluation period, usually from 30-90 days, and after that, a small raise. When I asked John about Sav-A-Lot's policy on raises, I couldn't get a straight answer out of him, so I asked Gary, the district manager who worked directly under Mr. Edwards.

"I'm not even asking for a raise, I just want to know what the criteria are. How do you get a raise? How often? That sort of thing."

"How much do you make now?" Gary asked.

When I responded that I made minimum wage, he immediately gave me a fifty cent raise.

"I'll tell John," he said.

For days after this John avoided me, glaring at me from a distance.

Whenever Gary or Mr. Edwards were in the store, John took to hovering nearby. He would send me to the back room, away from them, but often Mr. Edwards asked after me. It wasn't so much that Gary or Mr. Edwards took a liking to me, as that I inserted myself into their awareness. The other employees hid, but I took no shame in befriending these higher ups and took every opportunity not only to talk with them, but to work in front of them. It seemed to me that by befriending successful men, maybe I could learn from them.

Mr. Edwards was also on the board of the local community college, and a few months after I started working for him, he encouraged me to go to college, even though I'd had abysmal grades in high school, and would have a hard time getting in. Gary would reminisce about his experiences in Fayetteville, which sounded like the stuff of bad college movies.

"You're a bright kid," he said. "You should go to college and get our of this place."

With Mr. Edwards' help, I started that summer, taking eighteen hours, working forty plus a week to pay for it. Due to the lack of employees, I took over managing the produce department. This meant unloading the truck at 7 a.m. stocking produce, running to class at 9:30, back to work at 12:30, back to class at 2, then work, for six weeks. There would be a similar schedule for the next six weeks. By the end of my first month, John came to me to talk about my performance.

"I don't know if you can go to school and still do this job," he said.

"You're right," I said. "Put me back on the floor."

"Well, I think you just need to-" he said.

"Put me back on the floor, I can't keep this up."

Later, I saw him already training his son to take over managing produce.

I had started working there in January. By early summer, John and I were the only employees left from the original bunch, including the assistant manager. Most of the others had been black. Late in spring the meat department left en masse, all but one, who stuck it out for a few more weeks. I had worked retail before, I knew about high turnover, but this seemed a bit much. They all grumbled about John. They talked of driving by the store late at night and seeing John’s turd-colored van backed up to the door. Things came up missing.

It took me a couple months to realize that the black employees were often fired a week or two after starting, usually for stealing.

I overheard John talking with the office manager, a sponge haired woman named Amanda, about one girl.

"Why are you hiring her?" Amanda asked

"We've got to," he said. "Don't mean she's going to last."

It didn't hit me exactly what he meant by that until they fired Tony.

Tony was a tall, broad-shouldered young black guy who smiled as easily as a lot of people in the store scowled. He was what my father would have called a bull-shitter from way back. I was friendly with him, liked to work with him. He played drums at his church. His mother came in fairly regularly, and he introduced me to her. We were nodding acquaintances. Maybe a month after he started, I realized that I hadn't seen him in a week, at least. His mother came in, and though I smiled at her, and tried to chit-chat, she wouldn't speak to me. After she left, I asked a black girl on register if she knew anything about it, and where Tony was.

"They fired him. Didn't you catch him? That’s what I heard."

"No, Tony wouldn't steal," I said. "Who told you I caught him?"

"He did," the girl said.

I had two tires slashed while I worked at Sav-A-Lot. I discovered the slow leak in the first one and when I took it to be repaired, the guy pointed out to me that it had been cut shallow, on the side.

"So it would blow out while you're driving," he said. "Someone's trying to fuck you up."

Late in the summer, they fired John and his sons. Mr. Edwards, Gary, and a couple other "managers" came in. I hadn’t seen this big a group of them since the first days, before the store actually opened. There was a weird vibe in the store. I went to talk to Mr. Edwards about my slashed tires. I knew who'd done it, everyone knew. The enmity between John and me had trickled down into his sons, but as is often the case in these situations, there was no proof. I wanted to ask Mr. Edwards if I could park nearer to the store, so that I could watch my car. He was distracted, and when I looked up, John and his sons were being marched outside by Gary and some others. I ran out to my car, and John revved, in his van.

"Come on out in front of me so I can run you over, you son of a bitch," he yelled.

I ran back to the store and he drove off.

The atmosphere in the store became like that of a scolded household. We all worked long hours, filling the void.

Maybe a week later, John came back with his sons to pick up, I assumed, his severance check.

"How's unemployment treating you?" I asked John Jr.

"Great," he said.

I walked off, and he stayed, talking to Kevin. Later, Kevin came up to me.

"He said he's going to slash your tire again," Kevin said. “Said you’re the reason they got fired.”

I went to the front of the store. John Jr. walked out to the parking lot and looked back at the store as he neared my car. He saw me, standing, watching him, and paused. We stared at each other for a moment, and then his father came out. They all loaded in the van and left, and that was the last I saw of them.

I heard conflicting reasons for John's firing. The story he told around town was that Mr. Edwards had tried to make John work Sundays. All Gary would say was that this wasn't the reason, and John was lucky that this was all that was done to him. Anita, the office manager, let slip that there was a discrepancy with the
books, but wouldn't say anything more.

With John gone, Anita moved up in rank, and I worked longer and longer hours. I stayed for the rest of the year, until the store deteriorated so badly that I gave up and quit. The next spring, I moved to Fayetteville, to go to college. I knew that I was lucky. Mr. Edwards had been good to me, encouraging and helping me to start college. The other employees hadn't had that. And the discrimination I had faced because of my aspirations and lack of religious fervor were nothing compared to what the black employees had faced. I was annoyed, they were unemployed.

I never told Mr. Edwards about Tony or John's possible Klan connections. I kept my head down, and I got out, which in some ways made me as bad as John.

The KKK, I had been taught, was formed as a last ditch effort to preserve southern traditions. They hid under sheets because, though they knew they were sinners, only God was allowed to know who to assign the sin to. They could be anyone, under that sheet. So you never knew who to trust. In a way, they were everyone.

I was reminded of something Kevin had said to me after Tony was fired. We were stocking the chip aisle, and talking about what had happened to Tony.

“That preacher, he’s a dream-killer. This whole place is. That’s all they study around here, keeping people down.”

*Originally appeared in The Cimarron Review.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

When I was a teenager, I thought the world was ruled by omens. I saw them everywhere--three rabbits darted across the road in front of my car and I knew they represented myself and my two bandmates, all of us safe because we were still running. Or a heavily pointed buck appeared as my friend was leaving for college and it, likewise, meant she was safe--still running wild. This dates back to an early memory of encountering a wolf (or so I thought at the time) one night on a camping trip while looking for a good place to pee. I took the wolf to be something of a spirit animal. It was probably a dream, but it made life more interesting.

Likewise, I often used to feel deja vu frequently. I'd dream about situations, conversations, and then discover myself in the middle of them weeks later. I felt that this was a good thing--it meant I was on the right track. I explained deja vu like this: perhaps the theory behind so many science fiction stories was true, I thought, and there are multiple realities. This means there are an infinite number of me's doing their things in an infinite number of realities. Deja vu, then, was simply my meta-cognizent ability to sense what all these other me's were doing. If I remembered doing something before, it was because "I" had done it/was doing it an infinite number of times in an infinite number of iterations. So it meant I was doing what I was supposed to do.

Let me clarify a couple things about me as a teenager: 1. I didn't get out much. 2. I smoked a lot of pot. Clearly, there are some holes in this theory, one of them being the issue of time: how could I feel deja vu (meaning I sensed something happening) if these things wouldn't actually happen until weeks later? So time was an issue. The biggest hole in this idea, though, I think, is this bit about 'what I'm supposed to be doing.' I assumed I was on the right track because I was following the herd of other me's. This is really a quite sad idea. It could imply that I was simply searching for approval/justification, whatever. But it certainly implies a lack of free-will. I mean, especially considering the miserable state of my teenage years (refer to points above about the pot and the not getting out much) why would I want to be doing the same thing as all the other me's? How is that comforting?

Regardless, the reason I'm thinking about all this again, is that I've had a couple intense deja vu experiences lately. Both of them came from dreams which I'd shared with other people. One instance had to do with watching a specific movie with a specific person (who I didn't know when I had the dream) and a specific dynamic happening between us. This dream I told to my wife several months ago. The deja vu moment happened about a week ago. The other had to do with writing a specific scene in a book I only just started. This one came from a dream I shared with a friend a few months ago. The deja vu moment only happened today.

So what does it mean? There are a couple psychological conditions I'm boardering on, here, having to do with finding commonplace events more meaningful than they truly are. (Unfortunately, I can't remember the name of the main one. Do you think that means something?) Of course, isn't this what it is to be a writer? We see the extraordinary in the ordinary. I should also point out: I don't believe in any of this. Not really. I don't beleive in psychics or astrology or any of that. But it is certainly unsettling to be writing a scene, and realize you've dreamed it before. Or even worse, to be in a totally uncontrolled environment, and realize you've dreamed the reactions and responses of other people. One explanation for deja vu is that it is basically the brain misfiring. So maybe it isn't meaningful. Maybe there is no import, here. But, though reason may win, this is not a victory. Because that world ruled by omens is so much more interesting than the one ruled by death and taxes.
Learning the Ropes: What it’s like to be a new teacher in a boarding school.*

My mother was a public school teacher and instilled in me a love of learning at a very young age. What this means is that when I started attending public school and we began to learn the basics of reading and writing, I was already ahead of most of the other students in my class. It was my hand that shot up every time the teacher asked a question while the other students sat silent, confused and lost. That is, until she stopped calling on me. Then, bored and impatient, I began blurting out answers which earned me the labels of trouble-maker, hyperactive and unruly, when what I really was, was bored.

It is difficult for me to blame the teacher, who was, after all, overburdened with kids and under-prepared to deal with a student like me when most of the class didn’t know their alphabet yet. She tried to keep us all moving at the same pace, regardless of each student’s learning needs. This is not an uncommon experience for students, but now that I’ve followed in my mother’s footsteps and become a teacher, I strive to approach things differently.

One of the things that surprised me most about coming to an independent boarding school is how willing students are to seek help or enrichment on their own. Surprisingly, it seems that most kids know what they need from us, their teachers, and in the boarding school environment they are naturally encouraged to ask for it. Perhaps it’s because the ready access to faculty helps these students learn to self-advocate. We know each other on a variety of levels and so we become more holistic members of our community, rather than resigning each other to our “student” and “teacher” boxes. It’s much less intimidating to ask someone for help over lasagna in the dining hall than it is to face a teacher behind his or her desk in the classroom.

The closeness of the boarding school community helps teachers build relationships with kids outside of the classroom, which in turn helps us teach inside the classroom. If I happen to see a student score a particularly awesome goal, listen to her summary of a lecture she attended with her advisor or even serve as the faculty-mentor to a club, I have that much more power to connect with her in class the next day. I know my students strengths and difficulties as athletes, dorm kids, dinner mates, weekend-trip buddies and members of my English class. As a result, my students feel comfortable approaching me as a mentor, not merely as the distributor of grades.

The experiences of my students at our boarding school are shockingly different from my experiences as a student in a public school. Here, teachers have more access to their kids and can provide any necessary remediation at a time that’s convenient to both the student and the teacher. My students know where I live, and they come to me for help after sports practice, before dinner and during study hall. By the same token, those students who can move faster through a given subject can come for extra discussions and help on a more complex project. No longer am I forced to hold my more gifted students back while I work with other students to bring them up to speed!

Now that I’ve made a point of studying my craft, I have the language to articulate the major problem I encountered as a student in a public school. It wasn’t that my teachers were “mean” and it certainly wasn’t that I had an undiagnosed case of ADHD. Instead, the problem was the lack of differentiation in the classroom. My teachers simply couldn’t allow me to move at my own pace. Unlike my public school peers, I don’t face that same challenge to the same degree. Simply put, I have way more time to spend with my students and thus, every one of them is able to get what she needs.
Yes, this means that even when I’m exhausted and just want to collapse on the couch to watch a movie, there is that tap on my front door that means my day isn’t over yet. But would I trade the next hour of intense conversation and guidance for a frustrated student in an unproductive classroom? Not in a million years.

*Originally published in Seen Magazine, credited to Jillian Bledsoe. There is a strange story behind this article. Basically, Jillian was tasked to write it, didn't have time, so I wrote at draft for her. She edited it, and it was published under her name. She wanted it to be credited to me. I wanted it to be credited to both of us because she edited it pretty thoroughly.
Edgar Allan Poe and the Great White Whale*

I’ve never read Melville's Moby Dick, but in high school, I wrote an essay on it and made an “A”. The same is true of Sense and Sensibility and half the books I was supposed to read. If they looked interesting, I read them, but if they seemed plodding, I moved on. Regardless, I could write about them and discuss them in class, whether I'd read them or not.

It was easy. Most of the plots of these books had been "borrowed" by TV shows I'd seen, and a scan of the book jackets filled in anything else I needed to know. There were always movie adaptations, but that could take upwards of an hour and a half. Who has that kind of time?

This was in the 80s, back when students had to physically go to the library to plagiarize a paper. Still, I spent most weekends there anyway, reading Clive Barker's new one, or discovering Tolkien. Why bother reading Melville? It’s a guy chasing a whale. Just like that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Picard wants revenge on the Borg, except they’re cyborgs and Picard isn’t missing a leg, though his bald head is very white. Still, close enough.

Don’t get me wrong; I am, and have always been, a reader. It’s something I got from my father; my whole family are readers, rarely to be seen without book in hand, and even taking into account the odd book I skipped over, I was still a widely read teen. Many of the books we studied, I'd read independently, often years before. Sometimes, our class discussions became so interesting that I'd actually read the books I'd just been arguing about. Mostly, though, I was content to bluff through classes. A “B” is a respectable grade, better than I deserved, and if it meant I could stick to reading Bradbury, Asimov, and King, so be it. Did I sleep nights? You bet.

About halfway through my junior year, Mrs. B. gave us a list of books to choose from to write papers on for extra credit. I scanned the list, but nothing struck me.
“How about Edgar Allen Poe?” I asked. We’d read “The Cask of Amontillado,” in class. I could stand a novel-length spate of bricking people up in walls.
“I don’t believe he wrote any novels,” Mrs. B. said.

But he had written one. It was called The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. I had to order a copy from Jonesboro, the nearest town with a non-Christian bookstore. I took it to her, and with a shrug, I was allowed to follow my bliss.

According to the back cover, the book is a sea narrative following the stowaway Pym in two very similar, and yet increasingly disturbing storylines which eventually lead him to a more and more unfamiliar world as he tries to find Antarctica. It is something like the Ancient Mariner's story in novel form, a haunted, dreamlike world full of savagery. It looked interesting, so I started reading it.

As described by the introduction, at the center of the book is the "hollow Earth" idea, based on the then hotly debated theories of John Cleves Symmes' who believed that the Earth was not only hollow, but that the center could be entered at the poles and inhabited. It made me think of A Journey to the Center of the Earth, a book I'd devoured, along with everything I could find by Jules Verne, and I discovered that Verne had actually written a sequel to Poe's book, entitled Le Sphinx des Glaces and was inspired by Pym to write Journey.

Even more interesting, an expedition was led by one Jeremiah N. Reynolds to the South pole in the 1830s, ostensibly to map the continent, but with the ulterior motive of finding an opening to this hollow land. Poe was so struck by the idea, that six years later, as he lay dying in Baltimore's Washington College Hospital, some of his last words were reportedly, "Reynolds! Reynolds! Oh, Reynolds!"

The grotesque portrait of Poe I kept encountering as the stumbling addict who drank himself to death also appealed to my morbid teenage psyche. It was with some disappointment that I learned that it was mostly caused by posthumous character assassination, and not genuine debauchery. The real Poe was a tragic and clearly tormented figure, orphaned at the age of two, raised by an overbearing merchant who refused to pay Poe's way through college. He married a young cousin who died of tuberculosis, echoing his mother's early passing; death stuck to Poe's clothes like pollen, going with him everywhere. He became famous for poems like "The Raven" and yet lived in poverty because poetry and short stories, much like today, simply didn't sell. Still, the man could write.

Parts of the first section of Pym were published in the Southern Literary Messenger as fiction credited to Poe, himself, and were later collected in the novel purporting to be a nonfiction account, credited to the fictitious "author" Arthur Gordon Pym. This was a common conceit of the time, and though Poe included many true incidents, basing much of the early sections on his own experiences, it was a thin ruse, and when exposed, damaged the reception of the book (calling to mind Swift, who was met with scorn by reviewers who claimed that "not more than half" of Gulliver's Travels was as true as he claimed it to be).

But though it comes off as a marketing ploy, this hoax is just the beginning of Poe's game-playing. The book is, itself, a kind of cipher, one part adventure story, one part psychological journey, Pym is an exploration of the duality of human existence—the "falling angel meeting the rising ape", and only when Pym has faced the horrors of living (disaster, cannibalism, murder) can he begin to approach his white Utopia, which is also his death.

At the time it was published, Pym was considered a failure, and Poe himself later described it as "a silly book.". Perhaps this is why he never wrote another novel. Readers weren't quite sure how to take the book. Though it is obviously intricately structured, critics called it sloppy and loose. The images in the book become increasingly unearthly, which make its "true story" premise hard to swallow. Unless you reconsider the idea of "true story" to mean the description of a psychological journey, which is what it seems to be.

It has long been recognized that Poe invented the detective genre. Likewise, though published in 1837, before the modernists, even, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket .might be the first American postmodern novel. But it took over a century for anyone to notice, except the French (which is just like them). The novel inspired not only Jules Verne, and other French writers, but the strong undercurrent of psychological horror would eventually inspire HP Lovecraft in stories like "At the Mountains of Madness".

Of course, I didn't understand all of this at the time. Describing the book as "difficult" for a high-schooler would be an understatement. Pym got me thinking in ways only a handful of authors ever had before. And when it came time to write about it, I was still struggling with the ramifications of what I'd read. My essay was a mess of tangential ramblings, much like reviewers accused Poe's novel of being. I made a lower-than-I'd-hoped-for grade. Maybe I was so used to stealing words that I couldn't write my own. But I enjoyed the book too much to care.

Poe's novel was important for me not only because I enjoyed it, but because it led me to consider the larger themes of destruction and rebirth. It made me consider my own life. The closest thing to spiritual literature I'd read in a class was Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown", which, though accomplished, seemed to be mostly obsessed with the repression and fear of ramifications for spiritual questions. Poe's character spent nine months on a voyage, witnessing terrible things, and emerged only to die and yet, the implication of the "missing final chapters" seemed to spell out that the story wasn't entirely finished. There was life after rebirth.

Poe led me to writers like Lovecraft and D.H. Lawrence, another early defender, and these authors, in turn, led me to still others. Poe was my first true entrée into the Great Conversation of Literature. He taught me that great literature can be just as entertaining as trash, more so, even. From there, I went back and discovered that I'd missed a lot of great reading.

I never did get to Moby Dick**. I still have it. I found it when I was looking for that old copy of Pym. One of these days, I'll read it, but first, there's a new Terry Pratchett book out. Maybe I'll get to it after that.

1. Beaver, Harold, Introduction: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. New York: Penguin, 1975

*Originally published in Schuylkill Valley Journal's special issue on Poe.
**Shortly after writing this, I did read Moby Dick. I stick to my original conclusion: it is just like that episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Picard's head is very white.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

So I'm a little obsessed with Kirk Cameron.(Scroll down) I admit it (scroll down). I'm not ashamed of it. So, of course, when Anderson Cooper interviewed Kirk (I like to call him Kirkie-Pooh) about the recent fish and bird deaths in Arkansas, wasn't I surprised that K-Dizzle came across as damn near sane. Way to go Kirk Cameron. Oh, and as for the weirdness, here's a little blog post someone else wrote about it. I don't know if it actually clears it up or makes it seem worse.

**Sorry about the .pdfs. Seems to be the new thing. Here are the poems I linked to:

Growing Pains by C. L. BLEDSOE (from 42 Opus)

Mother lying on the couch coughing fire,
the death of applause. Father puddled on the floor,

paycheck spent on modeling glue. Sisters, brothers.
Burn the couch, the television,

memory. My room had two windows, one opened
so close to the ground, you could step through, the other,

an ankle spraining drop. This is why we never took Mom along
when we snuck out. She was always one for falling, propping

herself over the deepest gorge and waiting for the sensors
to push her over. Dr. Seaver, you never came for me. Mike,

you bastard I trusted you. Sat through Left Behind, for your special message
at the end, and it was all about marketing. Carol, I waited,

studied hard and wore glasses till my eyes were ruined
but you disappeared yourself. And Maggie, what is there to say

between the two of us? Is your hair even blond? Your eyes, empty and waiting?

* * *

The Book of Kirk by C. L. Bledsoe (from Mud Luscious)

Kirk Cameron’s pet monkey loves bananas. He’s got a direct line to God: listen, the perfect curve reminiscent of a sheathed phallus, the fingers arc; the lips pucker just so to receive it. The exposed anus. It’s in the bible: look it up the next time you’re in a hotel. Kirk Cameron’s pet monkey knows: it could be worse. There could be no bananas. Worse still, rational thought, an understanding of agriculture, fleas.

Pizza Den by C.L. Bledsoe (from Neon)

Kirk Cameron works at Guido's Pizza Den; that's why I get a discount on pizza. He is researching a role for a movie about an out of work actor who works at a pizza place. Kirk Cameron lives in an apartment he rents from a troll in a cave under the
bridge in front of Pizza Den. When I cross the bridge, it rattles and Kirk knows a customer is coming. I'm not the only customer he gets, but I'm the best looking. He told me that during a screening of "Left Behind IV: Son of Apocalypse." He told me that so I would tip more. I am not a fool.

Kirk Cameron drives a Volvo. He bought it when he worked on "Growing Pains." Kirk Cameron doesn't buy American, but he plans ahead. Kirk's favorite song is "Time is
on My Side," by the Rolling Stones. Usually, Kirk doesn't listen to rock, but a techie on the set of "Growing Pains" used to listen to the Stones. Kirk likes it for the memories. He likes to think back to when he felt things. He's not a romantic, but he's familiar with the concept.

Kirk learned to make pizza from the troll, who is the owner of the Pizza Den. The troll's name isn't Guido; it's Terrence. Kirk thinks of Terrence as a sort of grudging father figure. Terrence considers Kirk a has-been, really, a neverwas.
Kirk pays his rent. He makes pizza. The customers like him; they come back. This is what Terrence cares about. Terrence doesn't think about the way Kirk's body moves under his uniform. He doesn't stay late, sifting through the soiled aprons, trying to catch Kirk's scent. He doesn't daydream. He counts pepperoni, turns the thermostat down, and thinks about the martini he's going to make when he gets off work. He'll drink it in the hot-tub he bought with the money he stole from
Kirk's tips. The boy can act, Terrance will admit, but he can't count.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

In preparation for the birth of our first child, Jillian and I started putting together the nursery over this past week. It's interesting and extremely fulfilling to see it growing like the baby is growing (I don't like the f-word, the one that rhymes with beat-us). Some of the things in the nursery we've been collecting for months, maybe even years--we have a series of watercolors on the walls which have been packed away since last Christmas (By "packed away" I, of course, mean "sitting in a pile in the closet"). We have a couple stuffed animals we've had for a couple years. Much of the clothing is either second hand or gifted. The crib is brand new but a gift. The other furniture is mostly older hardwoods, mostly gifts, or inheritance. So the room already has a sense of history.

I've become aware, recently, that there is an incredibly large industry built around babies. I'm talking about Stuff--clothes and toys, sure, but also more esoteric Stuff one wouldn't think of without witnessing the need for it. Like a Diaper Genie. Some of this Stuff is obviously useful and even necessary, like a Diaper Genie. Other Stuff, less so, like a changing table, for example, which seems so inherently useful, and yet several experienced mothers have consistently told us that it's more or less useless--because you're so rarely actually in the room where the changing table is to use it. But even eliminating that one thing still means you've got a lot of Stuff to buy in order to have a baby. Some of it, much of it, you don't need, sure (cut to the image of kids unwrapping an expensive present on Christmas and then playing in the box). We have "friends" who insist that to be a responsible mother, one has to buy an SUV. These are the kind of people who believe salesmen. But there's no avoiding the fact that life will be much, much easier with lots of Stuff. And it's intimidating to approach the baby Stuff industry from the outside, until you realize one salient fact: recycling is okay. We honestly didn't know how we would afford all this Stuff, but then friends and family members began stopping by with bags and boxes full of Stuff--clothes, toys, etc. We actually have pretty much everything we need, with a couple minor exceptions (the Diaper Genie) and we haven't paid more than $50.

Which brings me to two points: 1. how do these companies stay in business? I know there are gullible people out there who have to have the newest everything, but just about every parent I know has inherited or been gifted just about all the Stuff they acquired for their babies (except obvious things, like diapers...and Diaper Genies) 2. what a wonderful event is birth. Much like Christmas, birth offers an opportunity for the negative qualities of mankind like greed, sure, but it also offers an opportunity for sharing. Since Jillian became pregnant, friends who we would barely expect a Christmas card from have been sending us things for the baby. Of course, the question becomes one of storage, but let us not complain. It's easy to be jaded. It's easy to listen to the whining--"Your life will change!" "You'll never have personal time again!" To this I say: What are you, retarded? Of course our lives will change. We're having a fucking baby.

The one unfortunate element, here, is that this is the only time this spontaneous generosity will happen, probably. People will not drop by, in ten years, with tennis shoes for the kid, or, in 18 years, the aunts won't pool together to buy baby's first car. I say 'unfortuante' because I'm cheap, but, again, the singularity of generosity surrounding birth throws everything else into sharp relief. It's important that people are so generous because it only happens one time, is what I'm saying. Every time I think about it, I flash to the ending of SCROOGED. When most people think of the birth of their first child, they probably don't think of Bill Murrey singing "Put a Little Love in Your Heart", but I hope you'll give me the benefit of the doubt.

Once upon a time, hand-me-downs were much more acceptable. Siblings, cousins, passed clothes on to each other. Nowadays, we never save things long enough for that to happen, unless, perhaps, this has been replaced with yard sales.

So, anyway, back to it. I've got to track down a Diaper Genie, unless you know anyone who doesn't need theirs anymore. Our lives are about to change, apparently, though our paychecks aren't... "Tulsa" and "The Rye". You have to scroll down...

These are two of the better poems I've written in a while.