Friday, September 28, 2012

The Ballad of the Eagerly Terrified Poets

I'm teaching a creative writing class this year for the first time in several years. I have a great bunch of kids -- nice, eager and engaged. Still, I've been reminded of several things about teenagers and creative writing, but in a more vivid way than before.

Little children create without hesitation, but once we hammer them with a heapin' helpin' of schoolin' -- into their teenaged years -- they become terrified of it. I'd even go so far as to say they are embarrassed by it. Most of them anyway.

This is what I meant awhile ago when I referenced an American over-emphasis on science and math. As I said before, these subjects are important, on many practical (and necessary) levels, but they tend to bully away the humanities; science and math tend to become the rock stars and the humanities and arts are just the road crew: the show couldn't go on without them, but they never get the groupies or the spotlight.

My teenaged students are terrified of "doing it wrong" when I ask them to write a poem, even when I let them do their own thing; maybe especially so. If I give them a free-verse poem with no constraints and guidelines, they will write one and ask if it is "okay." All I can do is to respond by saying, "Of course it's okay." I make it a point of saying that before I look at the poem.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Critique

We all know life is weird. We all tend to figure that out on our own, after a while. There are only so many weirdnesses that can occur before we realize that it's not just a random series of events, but an indication that  somewhere up in the offices of heaven, there must be an Administrator of Weirdness, who sits at a computer and checks to see if each of us has gotten his daily dose of weirdness. If not, maybe his hits us with a crazy dream at night, just to make up for it. But there will be weirdness -- make no mistake.

The other night, when my band had finished playing, I was in the process of breaking down my drum kit (a process that always makes me wonder why I didn't choose the piccolo) and I heard a conversation off to my right. Two youngish guys were sitting there, ignoring the bartender's yelps about it being time to leave, and one guy was saying, "... classic rock, some modern rock and dance stuff. Yeah, they were actually pretty good."

Buddy Rich, who grew up to
be more not-crap than just about
every drummer, ever. . 
He was obviously talking about our band. And it just made me laugh a little about the absurdity of human endeavor.

"They were actually pretty good."

So that's it. Some random guy in a bar has spoken his opinion: we were actually (this was a surprise, apparently -- maybe because when we took the stage we looked like we would be horrible) pretty good. Not great; not excellent; not really good -- just pretty good. One man's observation.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Gift of Observation

Sunday nights sometimes make for the most melancholy posts; or, maybe just the sappiest ones. But I was thinking, today, about how people over-complicate one aspect of the ridiculously complicated job of parenthood: what they want for their kids. Me, I just want my boys to be happy. That's a cool place to settle into.

I don't wish for riches or fame for them. I don't consider it my duty to raise kids who "make a difference" or who become models of charity and goodness. I hope they exemplify good things, but I rather they be happy, in, at least, a "do no harm" kind of way. They must eventually decide if they want to be world-changers; that's the only way it can be sincere.

If I start plugging things into their lives -- things that I think are elements of future happiness for them based on what makes me happy -- I can screw up terribly. If I am going to help guide them into happy lives, I need to watch them. The best I can do is to point out, to them, what seems to make them happy. Because, isn't part of so many people's problems the fact that they don't recognize what really makes them content? -- and then that they replace what would be the true elements of personal happiness with some pale substitute? Sometimes, an outside view can clear up the internal lenses.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Scattered Backward

The very lighthouse...
During a recent morning drive, I glanced over and caught just a quick glimpse of a set steps -- only two of them -- set into the edge of a green lawn, facing the road. They were concrete and they were older; deeply gray and weathered. There was a trace of a stone path leading up onto the lawn, but it was mostly covered over with grass. There had been a house there, once, long ago -- full of living people trying to make the best of their lives, but now it was just a well-kept lawn.

That kind of thing give me a physical feeling of loss, like a little hole in my chest.

Years ago, while in Dover, England, I remember placing my hand up against the outer wall of a Roman lighthouse, the Pharos. I imagined the hands of the builders and I saw images of legionnaires leaning again the outside, making crude jokes or dreaming of heading home over the channel's waters. 

That same feeling -- "loss" is the best I can do.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

I'm Nice

That Biblical nice guy. 
Today, in my writing class, I asked the kids to write about the first memory they have of having felt proud. I asked  them to go as far back as they could -- to do a little personal archaeology -- and dig up a moment that still remains in their heads, no matter how trivial it might seem, and blow the dust off of it in order to figure out the nature of their own histories.

As usual, I wrote with the class, remembering a time in grade school -- a day on the playground. The children were being mean to a "new kid." He was a little chubby and he looked like he could have stood a bath, but I remember having felt sorry for him. I walked over, through his gathered tormentors, and said, in the wonderfully unpretentious style that only children can pull off, "Hi. I'm Chris. Do you want to be friends?"

He accepted my offer, and we were off to the monkey bars, walking through a crowd of kids whose chins were now resting on their sneaker laces.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Heart of Hope

Most people agree that it is always uplifting and jolly to have me as a Facebook friend. For instance, the other day, I posted this, in the wake of the recent American embassy attacks:

Let me get this straight: some ass in California releases an offensive video about Islam and those who are offended by it go on a killing spree against America. Explain to me, again, how it is that I'm not supposed to lose my faith in humanity?

My first friend to respond was Denise, who said, quite powerfully (and very sweetly): "Your children."

At first, this made me feel nice -- I got that warm belly feeling. I thought: Yeah. My kids are good people. They will do good things. Maybe there is hope. 

But then I thought about it more. They are good kids. But guess where their worst behavior happens? In groups.

They're not bullies. They're not evil. In fact, they are so exceptionally well-behaved, I often find myself wishing, just once, they would do something wrong in school -- just for the sake of establishing a little bit of a sense of power and a tiny pinch of healthy rebellion in their hearts.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Symbolic Stupidity

I’m an informal type of guy. Jeans and T-shirts are my favorite. I hate formal functions. Oddly, though, I find myself repeatedly arguing for formality in certain areas, especially manners. So here is the new one: education. We need more formality; more classicality; because, I will me honest with you, I can’t take any more ridiculous attempts at “statements” or “symbolism.”
A few years ago, I was watching a show on TV about a tattoo parlor. Tattoos are not my thing -- not unless they have real meaning. I respect the talent of good tattoo artists, but the only way I would permanently put a picture on my body is if it meant something big. Like, I understand getting a tattoo if all of the people you fought with in Afghanistan got the same one. I dig why people get portraits of departed loved ones. That works.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m also cool with someone getting a tattoo because they like the aesthetic -- no meaning; just making one’s self look the way one wants. That’s fine, too.
But, in this tattoo show, a bunch of people would come in and utter something like: “I want to get a tattoo of a tarantula, because I have been through a lot of change and the tarantula represents that.”

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A Somber Decree

I write a column for When Falls the Coliseum every Tuesday -- the link is at the right. It is a satirical, often Dante-esque thing in which I utter "decrees" as self-proclaimed "Emperor of the World." Most of them are silly -- they start with a social problem that I decree against and then a punishment (the Dante-esque part) is given for violators of the decree. Yesterday, I spoke to 9/11 with an unusually solemn decree. I thought I would cross post it here for readers of H&R. -- Chris

I have been declared Emperor of the World. Let us not waste time explaining why or how; let’s all simply accept the fact that we are better off, as a result; hence, my next decree:

Monday, September 10, 2012

On Earning One's Eternal Rest

I've managed -- despite having read lots of books, and despite, in the course of my formal studies, having been submerged in a sea of sideways-smiling intellectuals who think me rather quaint -- to have held on to my faith in God.

That faith has evolved, for sure. My concept of God has become more and more complex as I have grown. I've long since left behind the simplistic perspective that many hold on to until their deaths. But, it is nice to go backward, if only for the sake of exploring an idea. So, let's look at it this way:

I hope, when I see God some day -- hopefully after a good many years (Father forgive me, because I do love this world) -- he will give me the thumbs-up, because I tend to wonder if I have made the right choices. 

I toss and turn about it. I really do. I live under a set of self-imposed standards that make things difficult as hell, at times.

Friday, September 7, 2012

So You Think You Can Be President

[This is an oldie, but I thought it was the appropriate time to bring it back. The more I think about it, the more it seems like a good idea -- Chris]

This is a proposal of the most grave and honest intent.

Here it is. We have two years to get ready for this. I propose that we replace our current system of electing the President of the United States. Instead of the campaign/election process, the President should be chosen based on the call-in votes of Americans during a reality competition television show called So You Think You Can Be President. I submit that we will get better, more reliable results than we get with the current system. Voters will know their candidates much more deeply and they will be more confident and informed in their ultimate voting decisions. But the show must be carefully planned to yield the most reliable results.

First, there will be no party affiliations. Let's get that done from the start, because that is an archaic idea and parties cause more troubles than they abate. Parties are a smokescreen for cowardice and laziness of thought.

Second, all candidates must be over the age of forty and they must carry a master's degree in an academic discipline. (This helps to insure their potential as learners and thinkers.) Career politicians are welcomed to apply, but so are, say, English teachers, laywers, doctors, business people and librarians, etc.

Stage one of the competition:

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Master Thespian (A Parable)

He'd prepared for this all of his life. He'd studied The Method. He'd read The Bard at bed time each night since the age of nine. He'd glowed in front of the footlights while still in diapers. He'd become a master of his craft.

Then, it happened...

He was given his dream role in the greatest play in the history of the world. It was to run for six months on Broadway -- longer, perhaps. The show was guided by the most successful director of all time. He would live his dream; there would be a movie offer; he would make a fortune.

But, after the first rehearsal, he realized this all meant nothing. His love interest -- the other lead -- was the worst actress he had ever met. Their kisses were like organizing the silverware. Their scenes of jealous passion were exciting as oatmeal.

She was the worst actress ever born. She was also the producer's daughter.

Performance after performance was like playing a one-man tennis match. Still, he served and served again, only to watch the ball hit the back wall and die after a few bounces, fuzzy and nauseous green in the shadows.

This would be hilarious if it were not a terrifying truth of so many lives.

Monday, September 3, 2012

College Kids Today!

Kids today. When I went to college, we were forced to spend 23 hours per day in a dirty cell
(they called it a "dorm room"), surrounded by the corpses of previous students who couldn't survive their freshman year. If we got anything below a ninety-percent on a test, we were made to lick the bottom of the professor's shoes clean. If we were lucky, he'd forget to step into his personal kitty litter pan full of poisonous dust, before-hand. We used to study twenty eight hours a day, standing up, with a seventy-five pound backpack full of every volume of the Oxford English Dictionary on our shoulders -- barefoot, and on broken glass (dipped in mercury).

If we ever tried to call our parents, the dorm room phones would shoot steel spikes into our ears. If we went to the campus doctor about it, he'd say, "Serves you right for being weak, cretin," and he would make us wash his car and then drive his son to soccer practice. On Mars.