Before you speak, ask yourself, is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve on the silence? -Sathya Sai Baba

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Why I'm scared of being a teacher

I recall, with great vividness (and not a little shame), a conversation I had with my father when I told him my ambition was to be an artist (an actor, a musician, a writer, whatever). He looked at me and said, “And what if you can’t make a living doing it?”

I looked him in the eye and said, “Then I’ll die.”

It’s easy to talk about death when you are, as far as you can tell, immortal. I was sixteen, completely in love with myself, and not a little convinced as to my position somewhere near the rotational center of the universe. I knew that I wouldn’t have any problem “making it”, and that, if the world could possibly be so cruel and short sighted as to reject me, well then, that was a world that didn’t deserve me.

Regardless, my father, practical and far-sighted as always, insisted that I learn how to type. And learn I did, and though I may not be the fastest typist I know (my speed tops out at about 65-75 words per minute or so), my ability to put food in my refrigerator and beer in my belly stems, in large part, from the sapling planted by my father when he recognized that his son, while pleasant and sweet, was a bit of a flake. He did his best to prepare me and give me roots, and though he wasn’t entirely successful, he did manage to give me enough skills to keep me fed. For that, as for a great many other things, I am grateful to him.

Having said that, I can say that part of the assistant’s job (or secretary, to use the unfashionable term – probably in another age I’d have been called a “clerk”) is organization, a skill which anyone who knows me for longer than a few days will tell you I sorely lack. Lack might be a bit strong of a word – let’s say it’s underdeveloped, shall we? This underdeveloped skill, the ability to make order in an occasionally chaotic world, is the most highly valued part of the assistant’s trade. If I can keep my boss’s files in order, get him/her to meetings and make sure he/she remembers all his/her phone messages, then I’m a magician, and they pay me well for that. And though I suppose I can do these things, I really just don’t care. Order and harmony are all well and good, but I’m a bit indifferent as to whether anyone else has them. Yes, I am selfish, I admit it, and I have found that not all the promises of payment or the threat of punishment increase my desire to help other people get organized. I will occasionally plunge into the world of organization, but it pains me to do so, and I usually do it only for those that I love. I can often barely be troubled to organize myself, even under the most dire and necessitous of circumstances. Bears have better filing systems than I. Dogs bury bones with more forethought and are able to retrieve them with more speed than I could find you my paystubs.

So, part of the job that I can do to make my way in the world is unpleasant to me. Now, I’ve always considered that people who like to do certain jobs should, by all means, do them. A person who enjoys building should make bridges. A person who enjoys plants might make a good farmer, or a gardener, or an agriculturalist. And so on.

I also set great store by the fact that many jobs are passed down from parent to child. Fathers farming pass down the job to their sons, who may have some sort of genetic information coded in their tiny little genes (farmers have blue denim genes, like cowboys, with thick stiches).

I’m boring myself. Suffice to say, I hate my job and I want to do something else. Teaching is what you might call the family business. My mother and father were teachers (you might even say teaching is what brought me into being, since they met as science teachers at a middle school in Southern Illinois). My sister is a fantastic teacher of first graders, and her enthusiasm and grace with them is a constant inspiration to me to be kinder, to always say please and thank you, and to hold hands when I cross the street. I enjoy working with children (I’ve been a youth leader at church, as well as having been a teaching artist in Tucson and in New York), and I like to talk. So what’s the problem? Seems fairly straightforward, doesn’t it? Once Steph is out of school, I can go back to school myself, get a masters in education, get a teaching job, and that’s that. I’m earning my bread and butter doing something that is both noble and rewarding on a personal level. I’ve got a gift for it, and it would certainly sit well with my folks. Why not?

I’ll tell you why not. Couple reasons, actually. For one thing, I see teaching, not as something that you do to pay the bills, but as a vocation, like the priesthood. You teach because you feel that you want to make a difference. People teach because kids need teachers. Some of the most formative and influential people in my life have been teachers – Ms. Close, who told me I could write. Mr. McEaneny, who taught me to always remember who I am and what I represent, Mr. Siedel, who taught me that being a curmudgeon was actually cool, and that I have no idea how much I can achieve if I’m willing to push myself. The last thing this world needs is another teacher in it for the paycheck.

So, if I revere teaching so much, why not use my talents to make a difference?

I’m afraid I might be good at it.

I’m an artist. It’s how I’ve thought of myself since I was 15 years old. It’s what I’ve always wanted to be. If I were to be a teacher and be good at it, I’m afraid that I’d be like that Mr. Holland fucker. Admittedly, his music sucked (it took him his whole life to write THAT piece of trash? Buddy, you made the right decision to be a teacher), but the point is still valid. In fact, maybe more so. What if I find out that, hey, I’m a great teacher, I should have been doing this all along, and this whole art thing? Yeah, not so much. Learning that one has been fooling oneself for the past *ahem*20*ahem* years can be a bit of a jolt, and perhaps you, dear readers, might understand my reluctance to rip the veil of illusion.

I don’t want to find out I should have been a teacher. I don’t want to find out that I’ve been chasing an empty dream. Worse, I don’t want to get so involved in what I rightly believe to be a noble and praiseworthy profession that I lose sight of what’s really important – i.e. art.
Want to know the worst part? Part of the reason I want to be an artist – money. I want to be ridiculously famous and wealthy. At the very least I want to earn a decent living from art. I don’t want to starve for my art! Is that wrong? I’m tired of doing other things to earn my living! I’m an artist, goddamnit! Somebody fucking feed me!

Yes, I know the world needs teachers. Yes, I know that it is selfish to put my own goals and aspirations above the good of others and the world. There you go. I am not a particularly “good” person. I want success – money, fame, privilege – or, barring that, at least a home and a family supported by doing what I’m good at and what I love. Or what I think I’m good at. Oh, hell. I don’t know.

So I’m a little conflicted about the whole teaching thing. Lots of people are great teachers, and I know plenty of great artists who make their living teaching, but I’m a little scared that I’ll have to be good at it because it’s important, and I won’t have any free time or energy to make art, and then I’ll end up getting comfortable with it, and forget all about this stupid art thing, and I’ll have to work a regular job for the rest of my life. And really that’s the main thing. I just don’t want to work a regular job ever in my whole life ever. And yet it seems that’s all I’m fit to do. All anybody’ll pay me for, anyway.


Friday, February 24, 2006

Choices (or "If You're so Fricking Talented, Why Do You Work In Insurance?")

Never was a sports fan. When all the kids went around my elementary school with their Dallas Cowboys t-shirts or their Pittsburgh Steelers sweatshirts, I wanted to be like them, to fit in. Problem was, I wasn’t particularly good at it. I wasn’t interested in the games themselves. So, good geekboy that I was, I went with what mattered to me – how cool I thought their mascots were.

I remember liking the Dolphins and the Cowboys (was there a team called the Bengals? I recall liking them, too, since they were tigers, and from Ohio). I wore a Dolphins sweatshirt and people would ask me about Dan Marino and I’d pretend to know what the heck they were talking about. I remember feeling confused and trying really hard to be like the other kids and just not knowing how to do it. How do you pick a favorite team? What were the criteria? I knew that just liking the mascot was totally beside the point, in my heart I knew this, but I couldn’t figure out how it worked.

Being a rather strange child I thought about it fairly deeply (as deeply as a six-year old can think, which is sometimes pretty deep). My thought processes gradually evolved over many years and eventually went like this:

If you are cheering for a sports team, then you must like something about them. but what? It’s not like you’re playing the game with them. You don’t get fired if they lose and you don’t make any money if they win (this was before I became aware that people bet on sports teams, which seems incredibly stupid to me. Joe Montana has a bad day and you lose two hundred dollars. Brilliant. Gambling isn’t a sin because it’s immoral – God just hates stupid people).

Is it because you like the way they play, or you think they’re better athletes? My dad always talked about hating Knicks because he thought they played dirty ball and whined when their opponents played rough back. I thought that was a good reason to dislike a team, and that made a certain amount of sense, but there are plenty of people who liked them for the same reason. And as far as skill goes, there are many athletes of equal or, on some days superior skill on other teams, and even the most skilled team loses some days.

It sort of makes sense if the team you cheer for “the home team” but there are plenty of people who are from, say, Cincinnati, who don’t like the Bengals. Why not? Growing up first in Columbus, Ohio and then in Arizona, neither of which had a professional sports team, I myself was bereft of regional loyalties.

I finally came to the conclusion (and though the arguments are a little more fleshed out above, they existed, in nascent form, in the mind of the six-year old I was) that the choice was entirely arbitrary. I didn’t think of it in those terms, I just remember a feeling of loss. I understood something which confused and hurt me, but which I knew to be true. There was no real reason to like a sports team. You could like any team, for any reason, and it would be the right team, for the right reason. You could have arguments in the schoolyard (and, as we all know, kids did, with all the sophistication of a senate debate: “Cowboys rule!” “Steelers kick ass!” “Dolphins suck!”) until the last bell rang, and you would still never convince anyone of anything, and never prove it to anyone that Staubach or whoever the fuck was a better quarterback. This made me crazy, because now my arguments with my schoolmates lacked all conviction. How could I argue, when I knew that there was no way to argue someone out of an opinion that had no rational criteria?

This started to cause me problems in other ways, too. How do you make a decision about, say, ice cream flavors. What flavor of ice cream do you want? I don’t know – they’re all good. Which do I like more? How should I know? I haven’t tried them all, and anyway, what criteria would I use to say, “Yes, I like Huckleberry Crunch more than Rocky Road”? The question “What’s your favorite kind of ice cream?” could send me into absolute paroxysms of self-doubt and confusion. And then the kids who would try to argue the relative merits of one type of ice cream or another – oy! I had nothing to say. Oh sure, I’d argue, but all the other kids knew my heart wasn’t in it.

Then they’d ask me what I want to be when I grew up. When I was younger, it was easy. Space was cool, drums were cool. I wanted to be an astronaut, or a drummer. Eventually, though, I realized that any choice I made was, once again, entirely arbitrary. You could do anything! So how could you know what you wanted, what you were good at, unless you did it? And you clearly couldn’t do everything, or even most things. And what if you did it and it turned out you didn’t like it? I knew most people didn’t really like their jobs. So I’d pick things. A musician, a rock star (two different things, donchaknow), a marine biologist, a minister (I’ll tell you that story some other time), a writer (that one seems to have stuck, for some reason), a comedian. But my choices, again, lacked conviction, because I knew there was no reason to want any one particular thing, except that I wanted it, and that just didn’t seem like a good enough reason.

Maybe, my religious upbringing suggested, God had a plan for us, and each of us was specifically made to do one particular thing. This was comforting, and made a certain amount of sense. But after reading “Being and Nothingness” at the tender young age of 13 and realizing that even the concept of God was arbitrary, I realized I was well and truly fucked. The fact that a billion people in China didn’t believe in Jesus at all broke my brain.

Looking back, I think my failure to achieve any success or reach anything of real lasting value stems primarily from this. I knew that you could believe anything you wanted, do anything you wanted, eat anything you wanted, even die, if you cared to. So why do anything?

I’m still not sure I know. But I do know this.

Last night, a little after midnight, my toilet clogged and overflowed, sending shitty water all over my bathroom, soaking the rugs. I wanted to go to sleep, but I had to fix the toilet, or deal with the stench and filth in the morning. So I stayed up an hour or so, bailing out the shitty water, unclogging the toilet, mopping up the shitty water soaked floor, wiping down surfaces, hanging up rugs to dry. And I realized something.

Sometimes it’s not arbitrary. Sometimes you really have very little choice. Certain choices become unacceptable, and you know exactly what you have to do. Even if you don’t want to, sometimes you gotta clean up shit.

I pulled on rubber gloves, and behold, I was comforted.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Rocking the Suburbs (just like William Carlos did)

Read in Rutherford, NJ last night at a series honoring William Carlos Williams. My friend Ray, who was also reading, and I grabbed a bus at the Port Authority and amused each other talking about movies, the sets we were reading, and the Rate my Poo website (which I have yet to check out. Ray tells me it’s truly something to behold, but I guess I’ll have to take his word for it for the time being).

The bus dropped us off at train station, and we walked the main shopping district up to the library, past a mix of small, funky little shops and the usual suburban whatnot. One store was actually a restaurant called CafĂ© Eros that billed itself as “funky, underground Greek dining” which I told Ray was actually code for cunnilingus with a Greek woman. We thought it was pretty funny, but in retrospect, probably not. Given that the suburbs are sort of my "hood" (since all suburbs are really the same), I felt right at home.

We walked past an enormous blue house which I later found out was WCW’s house, past an even larger stone Presbyterian Church that sat on a hill above the road and dominated the landscape, crossed the street and went down some stairs to the library meeting room where we were greeted by our friend John Trause.

The reading was small, and sparsely attended, but what people there were there seemed very attentive and glad to be there. An older, stooped gentleman started things off by reading a few golden oldies from the WCW catalog, and then John introduced Ray and me.

He spoke very highly of us, and I found myself almost blushing. It’s nice to be well regarded by people you yourself hold in high esteem. Sort of a mutual admiration society, but still, it’s cool. You get to say all those things that most people find themselves on their deathbeds wishing they’d said – really, how many people are going to wish when they die, “God, I really wish I hadn’t told all those people how much I liked what they do.”

Anyway, I get up, do my poems (including a brand spanking new piece I wrote specifically in honor of the period of WCW’s work I’m most familiar with, his Imagist work. It’s about a coffee mug. The idea was we’d both write a piece, no more than 10 lines, no more than 5 words per line, about something we saw everyday – I picked a coffee mug. Ray picked the pussin’-out-didn’t-write-it, which is OK, too). It was fun, the audience was tuned in, and by the end I really felt like I had them. My funnier, lighter stuff seems to go over better, and in some ways, it’s more fun for me to read. It’s more emotionally moving to me, too, which is sort of a switch. I always thought, maybe just because I’m immature, that pain is more interesting. Truthfully though, pain is boring, especially in poetry. How many more times do I have to hear a fucking poem about (pick one): a. rape, b. love lost, c. murder, d. child abuse, e. drug abuse, f. parent/friend/loved one/cat dying, before I die? More to the point, how many more times do I have to write those poems? I’m sick of it. The poems that have moved me the most over the past year have been triumphs and battle cries, prayers and hymns. Tears streamed down my face in Albuquerque at the National Poetry Slam, when the Washington, DC team did their poem about trees and plants - it was so beautiful that I cried. To all the poets of the world, stop trying to make me cry by showing me your bleeding hands, and show me something beautiful. We’ll cry together.

(/rant OFF) So I did, as my closing poems, Vanilla and the Nokia poem. Crowd pleasers both, and I was close to tears myself a few places in them. I just missed my lady, whom I don’t really see enough, even though I’ve seen her relatively often of late. Our schedules and our lives hardly ever match up, and I’ve been staying up too late reading/watching TV/answering email/surfing the web. I was heckled by a drunk guy, which is a first for me in the poetry world, and I finished up, plugged PARSE, and got the hell off the stage.

Ray did his set, a nicely structured bit of work in which he alternated thematically similar poems from WCW with his own work. The nearest I can get to describing what makes Williams so great is strength and clarity. There is something crystalline about his work that also bespeaks of great tensile strength. His words do not wilt beneath the weight of his vision. Sometimes, you can hear, even in the greatest poets, the vision overreaching the grasp of the writer, and the words sound inadequate and lost amidst the crushing space of what the author wanted to say. WCW never sounds that way. He always seems to be describing exactly what he sees in a way that conveys exactly what he wants us to see (and feel, and understand) about it. The strength and clarity of his work accented wonderful similar qualities in Ray’s work, and since Ray is such a great reader, himself, it was even more of a pleasure. Great work read by a great reader.

There was an open mic, with a few people reading their work. The poems were of, shall we say, varying quality, with John reading off a few great ones, and my drunken heckler getting up to do his thing. There was an amazing moment when he stood behind the podium, and it was as if he suddenly realized he was drunker than shit, and he was ashamed. It was an amazing moment, I never thought I’d say that shame could be beautiful, but it was beautiful seeing a man awaken from a dream, even for only a moment. Beautiful and painful. He read his own work, and a couple of Poe poems (which makes me smile – I wanted to say “Poe’s a New Yorker, my man! Come back with some more NJ poets, and we can talk.”) which he read with such passion and abandon that I was momentarily stunned. His own work wasn’t great but the way he read Poe was really something: tears and fury, rising cadence and

After the reading we wandered back to John’s car, got a ride back to Penn Station, NY. I loved walking through Rutherford, since I am truly a child of the suburbs, and I had a great time just being out of the city, doing a reading with such a great audience, and hanging with friends. Plus, I got to see WCW’s house, which, given that he was one of the first poets I ever “discovered” and read voraciously, put the capper on a great night.

Thursday, February 2, 2006

Stephen King and the Devil

I’m re-reading Stephen King’s On Writing and my suspicions are once again confirmed that King signed a contract, not with Simon & Schuster, but Satan. Now this is a book about writing. A good chunk of it is a style manual. Boring, right?

Wrong. It’s a barn-burner, a page turner. The ideas in it eat away at my brain, and I find myself thinking of them at odd moments during the day, excited for the next time I get to read it. No way does anybody have this sort of effect on folks (and I know I’m not the only one) without some sort of deal with His Infernal Majesty.

Here’s the negotiations on the contract as I imagine them.

“Mr. King, we’re prepared to offer you our standard contract on a lifetime basis. Now, there will be no need to renew or review any of the terms once you’ve signed, as this is a non-revocable contract, not subject to cancellation by either party at any time. As I’m sure you’re aware, the head of our Company is sometimes unfairly characterized as a, well, as a bit of a cheat. Regardless, you’ll be happy to see all the terms laid out here in black and white.”

The board room is tastefully appointed with dark wood paneling and indirect, subdued lighting that glints off discreet brass accents. The giant wood table dominating the center of the room seems to suck the light deep inside it, where it dimly gleams beneath the almost black, glassy surface. The lawyer from “The Company,” wears a simple dark suit. His skin is tan, almost leathery.

“Um, this is great. Just great. But, for the record, what will I get again?”

“Mr. King, let me assure you, no one is more concerned for the success of our clients than The Company. Your success, is, you might say, our success. The greater the rewards in the form of earthly joys and privileges, pleasures of the flesh, as it were, the greater the dividends paid to the head of our Company on fulfillment of the contract.”

“Yeah. Could you just lay it out straight for me there, fella?”

The lawyer laughs a dry, papery laugh. “Mr. King. You are quite the direct one, aren’t you? As we have discussed, upon execution of this contract your writings will become as popular as any author in history.”

“Can you really do that? What, are you gonna round people up and make them buy my books?”

“Oh, Mr. King, there will be nothing coercive about the means which the company uses. There never is.” He paused for a moment, as if amused at some private joke, then continued. “The company prides itself on the fact that all relationships with clients and end-users are completely consensual. In fact,” he says, his voice deepening to almost, but not quite, a growl, “we can’t do business any other way.”

“So how’s it work? Step by step.”

“Well, yes, then. An end-user will voluntarily purchase one of your books, based perhaps on a review or an advertising campaign coordinated by any one of our many operatives in publishing. Once they have opened the book and freely accepted participation in the reading process, we will have an opportunity to be slightly more, shall we say, persuasive. They will not stop reading until they have finished every page.”

“And how do you do that?”

“Well, that is proprietary information, but I can describe the effects of the process for you in a little more detail. At first, the book will be nothing more than a pleasant distraction, something to while away a few hours. With our help, however, that will quickly change. The ideas, the tone, the situations and characters, will begin to echo in the reader’s mind. They will think about reading your book when they are working, or showering. They will read your book deep into the night, dismissing sleep and sex and all but the most rudimentary contact with the outside world.

“Now, this is the most exciting part: once they have finished, we implant a residual energy signature that sets up an emotional resonance whenever they see your name on the cover of a book. It’s a very basic Pavlovian response mechanism, but extremely effective. This creates a ready-made market for additional books, and assures a long life for books already in print.”

Stephen pauses for a moment, staring at his hands. His voice is thick when he speaks again.

“And what do I have to do?”

Again the dusty laugh, like insects scurrying across dry, rotted wood. “Oh, Mr. King! Don’t worry! You have nothing to fear from us. At the appropriate time, we will merely continue the process you yourself have already begun.” Stephen starts a little at this, wipes his nose furtively. “No, by the time the contract comes into force, you will hardly notice any transition at all. Perhaps by that time you will have become so adept with your skills, since, after all, we will merely be amplifying what talents you already have, that you will be able to join our organization in a more…” he pauses, considering his words carefully, “…permanent capacity.”

An idea occurs to Stephen. He waves his hand as if brushing away flies. “Now wait,” he says. “Wait. Now, wait a minute. If you’re just ‘amplifying’ things that I can already do, what do I need you for?”

The lawyer frowns. “Mr. King. We are the foremost representatives of those who wish to be independent and successful. We choose only the most driven, the most talented people to be our clients. If we did not see the potential latent within you, we would never have approached you. You have a formidable gift, Mr. King, there is no question, but natural gifts will only take you so far. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of writers, all of them talented, some of them perhaps even more so than you, who will never reach their full potential. Do you wish to be one of them? Do you wish upon your wife and lovely children a life like the one you had? The poverty, the crushed dreams and deferred ambitions that weigh upon the mind and body like chains? Is this what you want?” The lawyer’s voice seems to acquire a weight that it did not have before. The room grows even more quiet, everything listening to this small, leathery man’s low, urgent words.

He leans in close to Stephen. He is almost whispering, now. “And let me also say, Mr. King, that it would not be wise at this juncture in the proceedings to walk away from the table. No, Mr. King, not wise at all. Our clients include many people in your industry. Many powerful people. It would not do, Mr. King, to acquire a reputation so early in your career of being a difficult person. I do not think that would be wise at all.”

The lawyer leans back, and there is air in the room again. He brushes an invisible piece of lint from his sleeve and smiles brightly. “So Mr. King,” he says, “are there any other questions I might be able to answer while we’re here? I’d like to make sure you’re completely comfortable before we finish our negotiations. I think, if you’ve had your lawyer look over the contract, that he will find it to be,” the smile widens, “completely fair.”

Stephen sits without speaking. The lawyer continues, “I must say, Mr. King, you’re quite the negotiator. Very sharp. I can see why The Company pursued you with such interest. You’ve asked wonderful questions, and really, you’re getting one of the best deals I’ve ever seen.” The lawyer lays a pen on the table parallel with the edge of the contract. “Now, if we’re quite done here, I think we’ll just need your signature to begin our work together.”

Stephen picks up the pen, and it feels incredibly heavy in his hand. The barrel looks like it’s made of the same material as the table, as if it absorbed and held light deep within itself. He stares at it blankly for a few moments, fascinated.

“Mr. King?”

Stephen shakes his head. “Yeah, fair.” he says. He fumbles the cap off the pen, and signs his name at the bottom of the document.

“And sign here, just another copy. Initial here, here, and here. And just one more signature here, your standard indemnity clause. And we’re done!” The lawyer sweeps the pages from the table with one hand and taps them into a tidy stack. Stephen stares at the space where the contract was on the table. Now there is only his reflection staring back at him. The face looks unfamiliar, floating somewhere deep inside the darkness, down there with the light.

The lawyer quickly puts the contract into his briefcase, and snaps it closed. “Alright then, Mr. King? There will be no further need to contact me in the future, but you have my card, nonetheless. It has been a pleasure meeting with you, and I wish you success in all your future endeavors. I’m sure you will be successful. Very sure indeed, Mr. King.”

Stephen continues to stare at his reflection, pale and white far below. Finally, hearing the words, he shakes his head. “Um, yeah. OK.” The lawyer stands, and Stephen stands as well. He still clutches the lawyer’s pen in his hand. He looks at it like he’s holding a snake he is afraid will bite him if he lets go, says, “You want your pen?”

The lawyer shakes Stephen’s hand, smiling a smile somehow wider than the confines of his face, and full of teeth. “Please keep it, Mr. King. With my compliments.”