Wake Me Up

Fall semester 2013 I was already conscious that I was nearing the end of my life as a teacher. Though I hadn’t “set” a target date or anything like that, I felt it “in my bones.” I say that as if intuition were something special, but in my case it’s only my mind working things out on my behalf without allowing my consciousness to mess things up.

I had two classes in a building apart from campus in classrooms over Starbucks. Both classes were great and I was sure that they were great partly because we all felt a little less like we were at school. Both classes were alive and active and brave. In one of the classes was a student who was very attractive to me — no, no, no don’t get the wrong idea. Not that way.

As I got to know the kid I learned he’d been a junky. I learned the circumstances of that and how he’d pulled himself out of it. As with many addicts he was way more alive than most people. I sometimes think that some addicts begin using booze or drugs as a way to dampen themselves, to tone down their energy or intelligence, something just so they can fit in. Sure, lots of people use drugs or booze to have more fun, but I think others use them as a way to have LESS fun, if that makes any sense. This kid was one of those. So here he was, 33, back in school. He quickly fell in love/lust with a classmate, a hot and smart Russian girl who cheated on exams.

Driving to school one afternoon I heard this song by Avicii and I thought, “Wow that’s about the kid” and hearing it more often I thought, “Wow, that’s about me.” I heard the song often and eventually bought it. I was thinking a lot about addiction and intelligence teaching this kid. As the semester went on, I realized how much he looked like my brother,  another explanation for the instant rapport and fascination. “Look,” I said one day, pointing my laptop screen in his direction.

“Who’s that?”
“My brother.”
“Wow. That’s weird.”
“I know.”
“It’s like looking in a mirror.”

I walked to my car that night the song in my head, thinking, “But I am older.”
“You’re still not awake,” answered that random other side of my mind. “If you were you’d see things as they are.”
I began to wonder what I wasn’t seeing and I started to look for it. Finally I did see it. I had to. It wasn’t fun to look at; it was disappointing. It made me sad and frustrated but it set me on the path I had to take.

People have often asked me how is it that I’m sober when my brother was an alcoholic and my mom, too. Why? Well, seeing that would be enough to sober up anyone, but I also don’t think I am sober. I learned a long time ago that work away from home could give me independence financially and personally. It got me out of the house and helped me move my life forward. Teaching always gave me an incredible high — that is until 2010 when a student physically assaulted me over an A-. At that moment, part of me began waking up. Was teaching my calling or was it a drug? What would I have done in these 35 years if I had not been a teacher? My brief stint as a free lance writer taught me that I didn’t want to be a “pen for hire.” The expense of being a painter was one thing that kept me from being a painter. I think. Or maybe deep in my soul I knew (or simply dreaded?) that I was not good enough. One thing about addiction is that it lets the addict off the hook. The direction is clear. Get more stuff. One imperative. An addict can succeed at the one thing the addict cares about — the stuff to which he/she is addicted. In addiction an addict hides from the failure they fear.  I saw that while I might love teaching (I did) I was also afraid of other dreams. The imperative to earn a living is real, and I never stopped writing and painting, regardless how many classes I was teaching. That should have shown me something but I was not awake to it.

“I’ve really enjoyed being in your class, Martha,” he said. Most students called me Professor Kennedy, but coming from him, that sounded weird. He had sensed this and didn’t use it.
Usually when we talked the conversation went off in the same kinds of crazy directions my conversations with my brother had gone. I really liked this kid. I knew he had been in my class to teach me just as much the other way around. “Thanks. I’ve enjoyed knowing you, too.”
“I’m sorry I won’t see you any more and we can’t talk any more.”
Unlike the kid, I’d been through this thousands of times. A teacher is an important figure in a student’s life for a term, or a year, or a few years, very occasionally forever. “Me too., but you know, I don’t make friends with students any more. I used to, when I was younger, sometimes, but I haven’t for a long time.”
“I can understand,” he said. “You’d have a shitload of friends!”
“Yeah. I don’t even connect with most students on Linkedin.”
“You’d have what, like a billion connections?”
We laughed.
“Here’s my real email.” I wrote it on a piece of paper that I was sure he would lose. “We can meet up next semester for a coffee or something.” Beginning to end it was a gesture. He put it behind his drivers license in his wallet. In that moment I made the break. I took the first step out of the world in which I had hidden for 35 years.

I walked through the parking structure that night knowing that I would be teaching only a few months longer. I didn’t want to live in a world any more in which I was a role and a function. I woke up. A little. So here I am in the summer of 2014, cleaning, painting, repairing and packing, hoping to be able to quickly shed the chrysalis.



Blue Tits…

It was one of my favorite paintings. A model — a larger older woman with immense sagging breasts — had modeled for us at the pay and play modeling session at the (RIP and much loved) Muddy Waters of the Platte in Denver back in the VERY early 80s (like 1980 itself). I sat beside my great friend, Wes Kennedy, and sketched. From the sketch came a painting, gouache, this woman, headless, painted in shades of blue. The background was orange/red and made by painting through lace paper. It had the effect of a tile wall or a medieval fresco or a background on a Japanese dish.

Wes wasn’t happy when I got a show. He’d always planned to be an artist (so had I, if it comes to that) and he worked hard to finally get a show. His first show was in a gallery; mine was in a coffee house, Cafe Nepenthes (RIP and much loved) on the back side of Larimer Square in Denver. The owner of the coffee house liked the paintings because they were figurative art. “People aren’t doing figures much any more. It’s a nice change from abstract.” So the day came and angry though Wes was (envious? resentful?) he helped me hang the show.

Since I often ate lunch there, while the show was running I had the odd pleasure of sitting there over my sandwich (pita bread, jack cheese, alfalfa sprouts and seeded mustard, grilled — yum) and listening to patrons comment on the work. Usually it was entertaining but once it was so funny I nearly ended up with mustard up my nose.

“I like that one.”
“Which one?
“In the corner by the window.”
“Yeah, that’s nice. Go see how much!”

The guy wandered over. That was 1981 and $700/month was still a decent salary. The painting — which I didn’t really want to sell — had a high price: $250. The man looked at the tag and jumped back. “No way, no fucking way am I spending $250 for a pair of giant blue tits!”

Sorry I don’t have a photo of it to post — but that stuff is all packed.

P.S. I’ve noticed in the past that posts in which I use the “F” word are seldom read. I do not know if WP censors or these posts are flagged for language or not public or what — but no other word can possibly convey that guy’s intense reaction to the price tag. Not changing it. Not writing “effing” or any other squishy retreat from real words used by real people in (somewhat) real places.


Arrested Development? (BaZOOMS!)

“You’re Peter Pan. You have all these kids following you around. You know why? You never grow up.” A long ago colleague’s take on me.
I walk away from my office chagrined and confused. Thank goodness my friends are waiting in the back of the truck. “We going to Mission, Martha?”
“I have to just drop you off and go home and get the dogs unless you want to go home with me and get the dogs then go.”
“We’ll go home with you.”
“Yeah, I’ll go see my mom for a minute.”
“Cool. Let’s rock’n’roll.”
“I got this, well my uncle Jim made it, you’re going to like it.” Tape in tape deck. Air instruments deployed.

“You know what, Martha?”
“No tell me.”
“What’s weird is you’re just like us. I mean except you’re a lady and stuff and you’re smart, and you teach college and shit, but otherwise, you’re just like us.”
“What do you mean?”
“You just want to do this, don’t you? You just want to ride your bike and hike with your dogs and hang out with us.”
“That’s true, Craig.”

“Martha! Martha! Martha! Martha!”
“Hi Andy.”
“My horse pooped.”
“Yeah, they’re good at that. I gotta’ go grade papers. See you later alligator.”
“See you later blablerbater.”
He’s close to getting it.

And so I sit here, a retiree, a senior citizen, writing this prompt, thinking about the question, looking something like my maternal grandmother, wearing my favorite Clash t-shirt and wondering what I thought it would be to be an adult. All I ever thought it would be was inevitable. My childhood was serious. My teen years even more so. I learned during those times that without a spirit of play, a person is lost. I think what many think of as being an adult is someone without that spirit, without the ability to “Jump Death.”



Titties!!! I mean TITLES

Posts with negative sounding titles are “liked” and read by fewer people than those with more upbeat titles. My post on smells, “Diesel and Dung,” for example (though it’s an upbeat and friendly post) had relatively few readers and fewer “likes.” Today’s post, “Hell on Wings” (again a rather humorous and sardonic post) has had very few “likes” and few readers. The word “hell” doesn’t seem to bode well to people (ha ha) nor does the word “dung” for some reason . This is not to say that sad or negative posts are not read; my story about my brother the hardcore alcoholic garnered more “likes” than any other post I’ve written. The post “Is Each Generation Worse than the Last?” is kind of long and literary and doesn’t answer the question, but the title would turn off MANY readers (and did). I’m skipping the weekly writing challenge this week because I don’t like it — if I want to do what’s suggested I can just work on my novel (and I am). I may try some tricks with titles over the next few weeks just for fun instead.


Hell on Wings

Daily Prompt Middle Seat It turns out that your neighbor on the plane/bus/train (or the person sitting at the next table at the coffee shop) is a very, very chatty tourist. Do you try to switch seats, go for a non-committal brief small talk, or make this person your new best friend?

The plane is packed. It isn’t even “my” plane. It’s a plane I am put on because snow in St. Louis made my connecting flight late. By the time I reach JFK, my plane to Milan has left and I’m on this one, this helllsh flight to Charles de Gaulle from which I should get an Alitalia flight to Milan. Well, I’m glad to have a seat. In front of me is a family with a baby. The baby is in a carrier and in front of them is the movie screen. My row, six seats across, and I’m in the middle. To my right is a thirty-something French woman. To my left a twenty-something JAP, Jewish American Princess. I wouldn’t know this, or mention it now, but they become defining elements of their characters as we push our way through 10 hours of air space and, for me, ten hours of hell. The two women had begun talking in the terminal and had brought their strident argument onto the plane.

“Would one of you like to trade seats with me,” I ask, hoping to to get out from the middle of their discussion.

“No,” they both say.

“You could continue your conversation more easily if you were sitting together,” I say, pointing out the good points of my plan.

“I don’t want to be in the middle.”

“Neither do I.”

“Ze average Jewish woman in New York is a beetch. I know zis. I work at the cosmetic counter at Bloomingdales and every day zey come in and complain about something. Zey even complain zey cannot understand my English.”

The air conditioner doesn’t seem to be working and the cabin is hot.

“If you knew what we went through in the war,” says the young woman who did NOT go through any war or through anything, “you would be a little more understanding. You French are the most intolerant people in Europe.” In fact, she was flying on her mother’s frequent flyer rewards to Paris where she would go shopping.

The JAP’s French was decent and at a certain point their exchange of insults slipped into French and back again to English.

The cabin is even hotter.

The stewardesses pass through, grumbling, passing out whatever it was they passed out. Not dinner. The plane took off too late for dinner, but a snack, I suppose. The move is “Armageddon.” I put in the earphones and yet? All the noise in the film does not drown out the ranting harpies beside me. Movie over, I decide to sleep, but the cabin is so hot and I’m so thirsty.

“Excuse me,” I say to the girl  on my left who seems somewhat less hostile than the woman on my right.

“What do you want?” she says.

“I want out. I want to get some water.”

She pulls her legs in slightly as do the people to her left. I go to the stewardess’ station and ask for water. The two stewardesses are engrossed in a conversation about something in their private lives and are clearly annoyed.

“Here,” says one, filling a small glass.

“Could I have a bottle?”

“No,” she says. “Our instructions are two passengers/bottle. We’ll be through the cabin in a few hours with drinks.”

“Can you do anything about the heat? It’s incredibly hot in the cabin.”

“No,” she says. “Our cabin is climate controlled.”

“Could I have some more?” I proffer my now empty plastic glass. The stewardess more than a little begrudgingly fills it.

“Please return to your seat,” she says when I’ve finished. I return to my row and try to return to my seat without disturbing anyone. When I sit down beside the French girl, I hear a frustrated, “Mon dieu!

In spite of the heat, I scrunch down in my seat with a blanket and try to sleep. There’s a lull in the shit-flinging between my neighbors and I think for a moment they’ve exhausted themselves, but no.

“Look what you Jews are doing in Palestine! How can you complain about Hitler when zat is what you are doing to ze Palestinians!”

Merde,” I think. “Ze merde is going to hit ze fan now!” And so it did. For the next two or three hours they harangued at each other and then, finally, they went to sleep. After a while the dawn of a European morning began to push its way into the cabin. The loudspeaker crackled into life and I heard — in French as we were not in Kansas any more — “Nous viendrons dans la cabine avec un petit déjeuner de yaourt, une brioche, et café.” I tapped the women on the shoulder and said, “They are going to serve breakfast.”

The French woman said, “How do you know? Ze announcement was in French.”

Less than two hours and this ordeal would end. Well, this leg of this ordeal would end. What happened next is also a good story, but for another day.



War Horse

Steven Spielberg is not my favorite director, but I recently saw War Horse. Masterful film at pulling and pushing all the buttons at the right time. Cliché characters and predictable types but there is a horse. The horse is all the great movie horses combined into one. And, if I hadn’t fairly recently developed a friendship with a member of this species I wouldn’t have believed any of the horse/person and horse/horse communication in this  story. But…

The horse is brave and smart and better than any of the people in the film except, of course, one beautiful boy who trains him. Through the vicissitudes of fate in the form of WW I, boy and horse are separated. The horse leads a horrific war life. With a brief and unbelievable interlude of grace, the horse endures a series of heart-wrenching and face-turning-away experiences until he…

Wait, I won’t spoil it. Let’s just leave it that I turned away several times when the horse was in danger. Oddly, I didn’t mind so much the men in the trenches or charging into battle or anything. Maybe I’m jaded, seen it all before, or maybe I think a horse shouldn’t have to be involved in the sad waste of war.



Hail! Hail! Hale!

“HALE? Which one?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Oh I guess Ben Huberman just wasn’t paying attention.”
“Who’s Ben Huberman?”
“A guy at WordPress who’s putting up the Daily Prompt.”
“Oh, Gracie. For the love of Pete. You and your stupid blog.”
“But he should spell that right, don’t you think? I mean it’s the entire TOPIC!”
“It doesn’t matter, Gracie. No one really cares and it isn’t important. You’re retired, remember? You don’t have to worry about anyone’s spelling any more. Let it go.”
“It’s difficult. I doubt that guy’s seen hail. I’ve seen hail, hail as big as cantaloup, grapefruit, cow-killing hail, town destroying hail, two nights in a row. Crawford, Nebraska — and you know what?”
“I don’t care, Grace. Let me read my email, would you? There’s a very interesting coupon here from Rite-Aid.”
“Hail always comes out of no where. Those poor guys in Russia.”
“What poor guys in Russia?”
“Those poor guys at the beach in a hail storm.”
“I was just about to read about it before you interrupted me.” Julian was miffed. “Why in hell did you get me this iPad if  you’re not going to let me use it?”

Gracie stood up from the breakfast table. She left her own iPad where her plate had been and made a brief small show of collecting the dirty breakfast dishes. As she loaded the dishwasher she thought, “Well, it’s not like I can go to school this morning and escape Julian and his bad moods.” She had a momentary beatific vision of post-adolescents staring at their phones.  “I have to stay here. Cranky old man, that’s what he is.” She returned to the dining room in silence, picked up her own iPad and took it out to the patio with a cup of coffee. She first opened her email, choosing, “New message.” She wrote, “Dearest Desmond, remember that lunch invitation? Can you meet me at 1 at Le Repas Désire? I am free all afternoon.  Á plus tard!”

She pressed “send” and then went on to write the WordPress Daily Prompt, hoping that someone who mattered would read it and correct the misspelled word. “HALE?” she wrote, “Which one?”




Is “Each Generation … Worse than the Last”?

Ay-ya! Each generation is worse than the last.”

What’s that, Lamont?

From a story by Lu-Xun,“Storm in a Teacup.” That line has been in my mind for the past month or so. The grandmother gets annoyed at her grandson, hits him on the head with her thimble and says, “Each generation is worse than the last.”

Do you believe that?

I think I might, actually. I’m a bit fearful that I do, but at the same time, I’m sure I don’t. I think we older people look at young people and we DO think that. We forget how reckless we were, how ignorant and how sure of ourselves. That was true of me, anyway. I know I thought it was really awful when that newscaster came out with his book The Greatest Generation. How to label an entire generation of people like that and then douse them with a superlative? I’m 100% sure when they were kids their grandmothers were hitting them on the head with thimbles and cackling, “Ay-ya! Each generation is worse than the last!” No question they rose to the occasion(s), growing up in the Depression and fighting in WW II. It was hard for many of us having them as parents, but I think they were pretty awesome people and I’m sad to see their grand march into eternity. I’ll miss them

What about your generation?

Oh, we and the guys immediately before us had stuff to deal with, too. We wanted to change the world; we took survival for granted. Our parents saw to that. Those were the days of a strong middle class which, I think, “they” have been trying to squash since the late 60s.

Are you going to come out with some weird conspiracy theory now?

No. I have too much to do today, but I do think the activism of the late 60s scared “the powers.” Whoever’s in charge has made very careful choices and changes in our social and political structure to defuse the likelihood of people “taking it to the streets.” It was interesting during the Wall Street meltdown of the late 2000′s that public rage was almost non-existent. The passivity of the people was chalked up to the popularity of violence simulating video games and the internet.

So now that you’re 62 do you think that “Each generation is worse than the last”?

If it’s true, it’s the parents’ fault, our culture’s fault. It’s human nature to work for a better life for our children. The paradox is that strife and hardship bring out qualities we generally regard as virtues — patience, faith, loyalty, thrift, generosity, compassion, for example. People today complain about our young people feeling “entitled” — and they are — but how did that happen? Still, I wouldn’t wish hardship on anyone. While I don’t think my parents’ generation was “The Greatest Generation” they were truly amazing. Still, there was much swilling of martinis, smoking of cigarettes, popping of Librium among that great generation. They were pretty well anesthetized. My mom, for instance, freaked out when she learned I’d smoked pot with my brother but at the same time, she was chasing narcotics with Bourbon. The only difference was that her behavior was socially sanctioned and that of my brother and I was not.

So what? How does this follow?

Confucius-001Well, “best” or “greatest” or “worst” is always going to depend — at least a little bit — on the lens of social acceptability. Lu Xun was quoting from Confucius in having the old grandmother say, “Each generation is worse than the last.” His point was to show that the “old” way of looking at things would not fit a new China and that this perspective — very common as the Analects of Confucius were memorized by everyone for hundreds of generations — held China back. The grandmother is ignorant and brutal. The grandson is high-spirited and full of dreams. They are symbols more than family members. The other side of the coin here is Cicero, “Who knows only his own generation remains always a child.” He didn’t mean child in the good way as Lu Xun did. He meant immature, demanding, ignorant and self-absorbed.

Does this rambling rant have a point at all, Lamont?

I don’t think it does. I think that the dynamic I’ve described is built into human beings. Our young are pretty helpless for a long time. I imagine many of us feel that helplessness is frustrating and prison like. We might reach a point when we want to assert our individuality against the totalitarian regime of our parents. We might want to know something else or be something else or look at something else. I did. That moment does make us monsters. It’s a revolution, often violent and absolute. How could a parent not say, “Each generation is worse than the last!” in that moment, possibly having forgotten their own revolution so many years before. I know my parents both rebelled — my mom dyed her hair, smoked cigarettes and drank liquor, all activities my Mennonite grandma would have disapproved. My dad? He just ran away from home. It’s the whole Youth, Identity and Crisis thing Erikson wrote about.

Have you actually read that, Lamont?

No. But I have looked at the pictures.


Martha and Dusty

Stuff I Like

Ask a friend? Dude, come here. What “things” do you associate with me?

Your water bottle, your back pack and your laptop. You seem to spend a lot of time around those things. They must be your favorite.

Not my favorite. Well, I do like my laptop. Those other things have been essential to my daily life up till now, that’s for sure.

It’s a really nice water bottle, with a filter and everything. You do really like that, right?

Yeah, I like it but I don’t think I “really” like it.

And your backpack? You have to have been the last teacher in your age group to use one of those instead of a little bag with wheels. You must really like your backpack.

I would’ve used the bag with wheels but they’re not designed for short people. When I get to steps, it’s pretty difficult to lift one of those high enough to clear the risers.

Definitely a heightist world, Lamont. So if I’m wrong and I’ve just listed a bunch of expedient tools, what do you think are your favorite things?

My Bialetti, my lap top and my art-shed and my dogs.

That’s four things.

Six, actually. I have three dogs.

I could’ve said that, too, if I’d taken a little time I could’ve gotten it right.

Well, voice in my head, you’ve always been impulsive. Not the calm clear-minded critical and logical judge of reality I so sorely need.

It’s a poor workman blames his tools, Lamont.



Diesel and Dung

1983, winter. I’m standing by the lotus field (pond) beside the field (pond) of “Xi Yong Chai” (Western Green Vegetable) or watercress, waiting in the rain for a large, battered, diesel bus. Pigs wander by as do the occasional water-buffalo and boy making their way along the dyke that keeps the fields apart. Flooded, of course, rainy season and rice planted in the field to the right, I imagine, anyway, I’m not an expert. The few lorries and mopeds and three-wheeled motor-bikes carrying cargo honk and chug past, exhaust from their pipes lending something to the atmosphere, flavored, also as it is, with the smoke of charcoal cook fires, ginger, onions and fish. The eucalyptus trees add their unmistakeable camphor fragrance to all of this as the leaves are battered by rain and wind. I hold the umbrella at a slight angle to keep the rain out of my face and, like the others, stand sideways on tip-toe for a moment to see if the bus is coming.

The underlying, never changing, smell in the miasma of South Chinese odor is that of human excrement with which the fields are fertilized. With nine hundred trillion billion gazillion people that’s a plant food never in short supply. Because these fields are near three universities and each of these universities has one or two foreign experts — non-Chinese foreign experts — the “honey-buckets” that carry this waste are never where we can see them. But they are there just as in the countryside (and here, in the suburbs) the public toilet hovers on the edge of the field.

Anyone would say that all these smells together make a good argument for wearing a perfume scented face mask and some of those standing around me hold such things to their noses, but I am unconsciously forming a memory. Such things are most profoundly connected with smells. It is the smell of South China, of my life’s first great adventure. To me it smells like life and ever since, in the few occasions when a waft of something similar has passed quickly by, as in Tijuana or a broken pipe in a local park I feel homesick.