The year of the cat

31 12 2009

My attitude toward 2009?

Don’t let the calendar hit your ass on the way out the clock.

I don’t usually care much one way or the other for end of year/beginning of year ruminations; my biggest issue is remember to write the correct year on any documents I have to date.

But two things happened this year which affected the absurd household.

One (tho’ the second thing, if you insist on chronological correctness):

Yes, the Odd Boy, Mr. Jasper himself, came to live with Bean and me. He’s been a sweet pain in the ass and a darling demon. I’m glad he’s here.

Bean continues to withhold judgment on the issue.

The second, of course, is the first:

My beautiful Chelsea died.

It was time. She’d been in a slow decline for years, but the end came quickly. She was in no obvious pain, and she purred to the last.

Still, even a good death is a death, and this was the end of a remarkable creature.

I miss you, Sweet Pea.


There would be no Jasper without Chelsea, of course, no entrance without the exit.

It’s not that Jasper replaces her (duh), but that the space left by Chelsea opened a space for another.

Would I rather have Chelsea than Jasper? I’d rather that Chelsea had stayed healthy for a few more years, that she had continued to fill her own space. Had she done so, I’d have never gone to Animal Control, never met that smelly little critter chomping on my fingers (shoulda been a clue) through the cage bars.

In other words, there’s no comparison between the two. One departed, the other entered. What was Chelsea’s will remain so; Jasper is creating his own way.

My sorrow at Chelsea’s death coexists with my pleasure at Jasper’s presence.

Time falls away, and leaves Chelsea, Bean, and Jasper. They all came, they will all go; they are all here, always.



30 12 2009

I don’t consider myself much of a movie person, but: I am totally groovin’ on Netflix.

Long ago, I watched movies. There were a couple of discount ($2 and $3) movies houses in Minneapolis that my (broke) friends and I would regularly attend, and my friend J. and I spent more than one Friday night wandering around. . . man, what was the name of that independent vid shop on Hennepin? Pandora? Pandemonium? something with a P . . . pulling VHS boxes off the shelves until we hit on something we were both in the mood for. And my friend and departmental director K. would often coax me to one of Montreal’s theatres.

But in Boston? No.

I could blame this on Boston, but, really, I just wasn’t in the mood. Not for years. Even when I lived with Paul in the unmentionable building in Bushwick—P. of the movie-hundreds—I didn’t watch many movies.

New movies, that is. I’d watch any old shit that flitted across cableland (how many times did I watch Independence Day and Peacemaker?), but actually investing myself in an unknown story was not something I cared to do.

But then I told my parents about Netflix, and they got on it and loved it and I thought, Shit, I’m tellin’ other people to do this, and I still can’t be bothered?

And I’m totally digging it.

It helps that I can watch it on my nifty external monitor (thanks for the Xmas $, mom and pop!), and I think that I have to go through this little ritual of maneuvering the monitor into place (I don’t use it for regular web surfing or writing), pulling my comfy chair forward, and dimming the lights, sets the mood.

I’ve also seen some good, really good, and even great, movies: A Christmas Tale. Blue. Let the Right One In. The Lives of Others (my favorite thus far). Rachel Getting Married. SerenityAway We Go.

I thought Syriana and Duplicity were only okay, but I don’t feel like I wasted my time in watching them.

And I watched a couple of old favorites—Hopscotch, Sneakers—as well as happily re-rotted my brain zipping through Armageddon and Notting Hill.

I think two things make Netflix work for me: One, the streaming. I was unwilling to pony up the dollars for cable, but had maintained that if I could get decent, limited cable or movie coverage for 10 bucks or so a month, I’d do it. Et voila: movies on demand and via mail, for under 10 bucks a month.

The second are the queues. I can find movies I want to watch at some point, and drag them into line. I don’t have to keep lists (as with books, which are on scattered bits of paper everywhere) on a movie I think I’d like, or might want to watch at some point when I’m in the mood for that sort of thing, but can plunk it into my queue and not worry about it.

It’d be nice if they had a search by-subject or keywords, but what search they do have is all right.

Anyway, this is an appreciation of Netflix, not a love song. (The usual demurral: brand-loyalty-is-for-suckers.)

And the appreciation is secondary, because, really, this is a love song to movies. I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed dipping into another fully-formed reality, how much stories and characters and lives could affect me so much.

I think I stopped watching movies both because they could affect me so much, and so often, they didn’t affect me at all.

It’s nice, just to come back to that, that affect—affection. Yes.

Tired of sleeping

30 12 2009

I do love to sleep.

When I think vacation I think: I can sleep in!

Weekends? Sleep in!

Days off? Yep, sleep in!

It’s not that I have anything against the morning (it’s afternoons I could do without) but my body and my brain have informed me—repeatedly—that they’d much prefer to remain tucked in and unconscious to any dawn awakenings.

When I was in high school, I could enjoy the early morning after a long night: after watching the moon rise red over Lake Michigan, rise into white, then fade away, we’d squint at the sprawling yellow elbowing its way over the horizon.

Or in Madison, I’d pull all-nighters before stumbling to class with that paper in hand.

Nonetheless, while I remain a night person, the last time I met the morning at the end of a long night was some years back, in Montreal, after hitting an after-hours dance club. It was March or February, I think, and a bit of shock to fall out of the dark club into a white, white (it was snowing) morning.

Can’t do that shit no more.

All of this is a very long prelude to the observation that even I, who in high school was known for my 13-14 hour sleep sessions, who will turn over if the damned radiator wakes me even minutes before the alarm goes off rather than get up, who requires a ritual to get out of bed each and every morning,  even I can have too much bed time.

I was mildly sick on Thursday, sicker on Friday, sicker sicker on Saturday, sicker sicker (with fever!) on Sunday, and, while recovering on Monday, was nonetheless still unable to rise with my alarm and go to work.

I slept. I got up, putzed around on the computer, then would take an hours-long nap. Read a bit, watch Netflix or Hulu, then to bed early. Repeat. Repeat.

All that goddamned sleep. When I finally woke after noon on Monday (after my abortive attempt to return to the working classes), I thought, God, I’m sick of lying down.

Fucking flu: Robbed me of one my one pure pleasure.

I actually didn’t mind getting up to go to work today.

I’m not too worried, tho’: I’m sure I’ll be silently cursing my fate when the radio blares tomorrow.

While I am trying not to die. . .

27 12 2009

. . . I recommend heading over to Andrew Sullivan’s blog, The Daily Dish, for the latest on what’s happening in Iran.

If my brain weren’t sizzling from fever, I’d offer some commentary on the ways politics is cracking against authority, and that authority’s transformation of the most prosaic of activities (e.g., honking one’s car horn) into a sign of resistance worthy of violent suppression.

(Perhaps you are glad my brain is frying. . . .)

Politics isn’t dead. And liberation, however unlikely, however fraught, is just. . . barely. . . possible.

Politics: The art of the possible.

Friday poem: Second Space

25 12 2009

I don’t want to cast aspersions, but:

Viruses are evil.

Do I exaggerate? Is it possible that not all viruses, are, in fact, evil? Do I moralize on a subject which has little to do with morality? Could I be taking this cold just a mite too personally?

Yes, yes, yes, and yes again.

Thus the cause (proximate and otherwise) for the lacunae in posting, tho’ there is always, head befogged by cold or not, more to be said.

Saved, then, by the Friday poem: sayings on another’s words.

Today is Christmas, and while I doubt that Jesus was born 2009 years ago on this date—I’m among those who think the early Church bogarted the pagan celebration of solstice for its own purposes—I’m not much bothered by the bad timekeeping.

After all, I’m neither pagan nor Christian, and tend to think of time as a useful construct rather than a moral force: that we may be wrong about times and dates  may cause chagrin scientifically, historically, but philosophically? A mere oops will suffice.

In any case, if Jesus of Nazareth was born, he had to have been born some time, so why not late December or early January (for all you Orthodox readers)?  Jesus-the-Capricorn: why not?

This is all a long prelude to a poem by a poet who is rather more unsettled by God than I am. Blake? Auden? Ah: Czeslaw Milosz.

Milosz, the Polish poet tormented by Polish history, by all the blood and ashes so recently spilled in his land. He struggled with God, with his fellow Poles, with his fellow humans, with himself, breaking beauty against the hard and tumbling facts of existence.

In his early poems Milosz is easier with God, with his nearness and apart-ness; then again, in his early poems Auschwitz had not yet been called forth by the Germans,  was still Oœwiêcim, a small town southwest of Krakow.

This is one of his later poems, overtly yearning for God, in mourning for his absence. If he had been a sign or symbol early on, by the end of the century God was, for Milosz, a bruising reality—one  necessary for mortal life.

So I the unbeliever in search of something more give this space to a believer in the something more. Peace, in all things.

Second Space

How spacious the heavenly halls are!
Approach them on aerial stairs.
Above white clouds, there are the hanging gardens of paradise.

A soul tears itself from the body and soars.
It remembers there is an up.
And there is a down.

Have we really lost faith in that other space?
Have they vanished forever, both Heaven and Hell?

Without unearthly meadows how to meet salvation?
And where will the damned find suitable quarters?

Let us weep, lament the enormity of the loss.
Let us smear our faces with coal, loosen our hair.

Let us implore that it be returned to us,
That second space.

Friday poem (Sunday): Of Snow

20 12 2009

A Friday poem on Sunday?

Why not?  The point is the poem, not the day.

In any case, the Blithes were in town on Friday, and the day began disconcertedly early—the three delightful children lacked the capacity to sleep in—and lasted late. I fell into bed shortly after Mrs. & Mr. pointed their rental car toward New Hampshire, and, waking Saturday, felt the need for a second sleep.

I was knackered, in other words. I did manage to attend a birthday party (which the birthday girl herself did not attend) in a non-Upper East Side bar on the UES, but even then, was merely contentedly slow and warm.

In any case, C. asked if a Friday poem were forthcoming. Something to do with snow or friends, I said.

It snowed here, by the way: big midwestern flakes, floating and whirling and shooting down. A proper storm

So this, a poem by by Agha Shahid Ali, an Indian poet who worked in ghazals, poems composed of thematically-similar couplets, and which are a common form across Iran, India, and Pakistan. Although he died young—at 52—in his too-few decades he wrote and published well, and opened the United States to the beauties of the ghazal.

When I wrote poetry I rarely worked in formal structures, preferring to concentrate on the sound and rhythm over the particularities of meter and verse. I didn’t disdain such formalities (at least, not once I got beyond my eighth-grade Beat phase), but considered them something to work up to. The movement toward these forms ceased along with my poetry writing.

I was introduced to the ghazal and Ali through The Nation and The New Yorker, and, while thoroughly intimidated by the rigors of the ghazal, was nonetheless swept up by Ali’s poetry. There is a gracefulness in how the words become the structure, and in so doing, simultaneously transcend and fulfill the promise of the ghazal.

See for yourself, on this day in the aftermath of the storm:

Of Snow

Husband of Water, where is your Concubine of Snow?
Has she laced your flooded desert with a wine of snow?

What a desert we met in—the foliage was lush!—
a cactus was dipped into every moonshine of snow.

One song is so solitaire in our ring of mountains,
its echo climbs to cut itself at each line of snow.

The sky beyond its means is always beside itself
till (by the plane) each peak rises, a shrine of snow.

Snowmen, inexplicably, have gathered in the Sahara
to melt and melt and melt for a Palestine of snow.

Kali turned to ice one winter, her veins transparent—
on her lips blood froze. A ruby wine of snow!

If Lorca were alive he would again come to New York,
bringing back to my life that one Valentine of snow.

Do you need to make angels, really, who then vanish
or are angels all you can undermine of snow?

I who believe in prayer but could never in God
place roses at your grave with nothing to divine of snow.

When he drinks in winter, Shahid kisses his enemies.
For Peace, then, let bars open at the first sign of snow.

No dark sarcasm in the classroom

17 12 2009

‘I love grading! It is the best!’

‘Grading has nothing to do with learning.’

‘Ay? No! Of course it does. It is the best way!’

‘Paugh. We do it because we can’t think of anything better.’

‘Because there is nothing better! This is what intellectuals have done since the beginning—the best, the smartest.’


‘Okay, no, so it was different then. But Karl Marx, Adam Smith—they all had to study! They all had to take exams.’

‘So. So did we. What does that prove?’

‘No, you are wrong. It is the most just and fair way to determine how much the students have learned.’

‘What does justice have to do with learning? Justice has nothing to do with learning!’

‘And you, the philosopher. You should love grading. Write a blog on how much you love grading.’

‘Hah, no.’

‘Grading is the best, I tell you.’

‘You only love grading because you can inflict pain and assert authority.’

‘True. . . .’ (Jtte. laughs)

Be like Johnnie too good, well don’t you know he never shirks

16 12 2009

Hate grading. Hate hate hate grading.

It’s not just the labor of it—tho’ it is also the labor of it—so much as the pointlessness of the process.

Identify this, define that, explain how this fits with that. . . oh my god, I’m falling asleep already. But don’t worry, I’ll rouse myself with coffee or beer (what the hell) and read every fucking word written before scribbling a number which just might bear some relationship to the worth of that collection of words.

Dot i’s, cross t’s, jump hoops, student and teacher alike. You get a grade, I get a paycheck.

So why bother with grading at all? Well, there’s that matter of the student needing a grade and my desire for that paycheck.

Practicalities, in other words.

Please don’t think that, if I had my druthers, I’d abandon all work requirements for the students. If you are not a prodigy or genius and you want to learn, you have to work. (And if you are a prodigy or genius and you want to be good, you have to work.)

The problem is that the work required for learning is only approximated by the work required for grading, and often, not even that.

I shape and cut and alter the course requirements, but, in the end, what I grade only partially captures what they learn, and, for that matter, what they haven’t learned.

A big part of the problem, perhaps even the main problem, is that most students don’t much care about learning. They care about grades, yes, performance, at times, but learning? Mm, no.

How do I know this? Besides the dearth of students who visit me during office hours to discuss the material, or who approach me wanting help puzzling through a problem I posed, or who show any energy at all in class or in the written work? Besides the slack look on their faces when I ask them the most basic questions about the material? Besides the utter lack of interest in finding their own way into the material?

Simple: because every once in a while, one of them does learn something, and he or she is overwhelmed—because they don’t expect to learn.

Understand? They don’t expect to learn, so when it does happen—when an insight or a question percolates up and into their consciousness—they are visibly giddy or discombobulated or even scared. I never knew. . . .Is this real. . .  ? How could this be. . . ?

I’m not exaggerating. I’ve had students stand in front of me with their mouths opening and closing  and their eyes wide and darting as they attempt to corral this feeling into words. They are agape in the presence of knowledge.

I let them work their ways through it, tell them they have something real, and that they should do whatever they can to make sense, that I will help them to make sense.

It doesn’t always work. You can see them back down, or let it go, or watch as they’re distracted by other matters.

But even then, with those who seem to have tossed their insights aside, you can see an angle to their thoughts, and you know it’s still in there, somewhere.

There’s no way to capture that, that abashed curiosity, in a grade. On the margins, maybe, but in the main? No.

This is why I hate grading. This is why I love teaching.

On the road again

14 12 2009

The Road: The movie.


Yes, our misanthropic cohort couldn’t wait until Christmas for the end of the world, so we trekked to a theatre Friday night and watched the man and the boy dodge cannibals and falling trees.

*Oh, have I mentioned there will be spoilers? Because there will be spoilers.*

There was no real change-up in the ending, although director John Hillcoat did end it a bit short, with the boy meeting the family, and his assent to travel with them.

Ct. was ticked at this. It’s a fucking Hallmark card!

I said, Ct., have you ever actually read a Hallmark card? Because while the movie ended on a less grim note than the book, it was still pretty fucking grim.

But I see her point: in uniting the boy with the family, you’re left with the sense of some possibility. In the book, however, there is none. There is only what is lost:

Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed mystery.

I know of at least one person who thought the ending of the book was hopeful. Hopeful? I asked. How on earth could it be hopeful when everything is gone and not coming back?

The boy meets the family, she said. And the fish.

The fish are gone. Gone: could not be put back. Not be made right again.

Anyway, back to the movie. I think the problem is that the only folks likely to see the movie are those who’ve read—and liked—the book, so we’re all watching the movie with the trajectory of the book in mind.

And, frankly, not much happens. The movie is juiced up a bit with color-ful flashbacks (intrusive in the gray movie tones in the way they’re not in the book: the color and light really do overwhelm onscreen), but, really, it’s a road movie with only a vague destination and in which the main purpose is merely to remain alive.

Scratch that: It doesn’t really fit the conventions of a road movie, precisely because there is no real destination and the flight of the father and son cannot really be characterized as a ‘meaningful’ journey. They’re on the run (or walk, as it were), staying alive just to keep staying alive.

Yeah, there’s that talk about carrying the fire, and some Christian imagery and words (in both movie and book), but the man stays alive to protect the boy, and the boy stays alive because he’s a boy.

The road is a trope for the road itself, a question of why live, at all?

Well, that’s another post, I guess, and one for which I’ll have to haul out my Camus.

Back to the movie: Because so little happens, but what does happen matters so much, you end up scrutinizing the screen so that this even or that can be checked off. Hillcoat cuts one notable event and substitutes another (pointless) scene in its place, but the rest pretty much unfolds as in the book:

  • Shoot the cannibal? Check.
  • Share meal with old man? Check.
  • Stupidly enters basement? Check. (And not nearly as awful a scene in the movie as it was in the book.)
  • Starve? Check.
  • Find underground cache? Check.

Et cetera.

What would it have been like to have seen the movie without knowing what would happen? Without turning your face sideways as the man enters the basement? Without knowing about the ship and arrow and the family and endless gray?

What would it be like to watch it not knowing how bad things are, and how bad things will remain?

The problem of foreknowledge is always an issue with book-readers who watch book-movies, but because The Road is so much about the stillness and the terror and not much else, the problem is exacerbated. With a book busier in plot, character, and backdrop, there are more pieces to juggle and interpret, more for the viewer to see and miss and absorb.

It’s not that The Road isn’t complex, but it is in many ways ‘merely’ a contemplation of the endless, horrifying, present.

That could work as a movie, but not, I think, if you’ve read the book first.

Especially not this book.

Friday poem: in Just-

11 12 2009

e.e. cummings is a great poet for kids.

Not because he’s simple—he’s not—but because he’s gleeful and serious in a way that kids understand is not a contradiction. He breaks rules not for the sake of the rules, but for the sake of the poem. He liberates the words, not into chaos, but that they may be formed into something which makes its own, perfect, sense.

And he sounds wonderful. You want to sing his poems, or laugh, or cry, or whisper, in the telling. I’m not a fan of most spoken-poems: the speakers too often sound like Speakers, intoning and pausing meaningfully and making sure that all who hear are in the presence of Art, or they err too far in the other direction, as so many spoken-word poets do, jamming and hamming and, again, drawing all too much attention to the spoker.

No, read a poem for the poem. Read the poem to hear the poem, not yourself reading the poem. Yes, pay attention to the line and stanza breaks, but, remember, this is its own language: This is poetry.

So, one of my first, and still favorite, cummings poems (w/a tip o’ the lid to Poets’ Corner)

in Just-

in Just-
spring       when the world is mud-
luscious the little lame baloonman

whistles       far       and wee

and eddyandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it’s

when the world is puddle-wonderful

the queer
old baloonman whistles
far       and       wee
and bettyandisbel come dancing

from hop-scotch and jump-rope and


baloonMan       whistles