Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Surfing and Writing



            Because I think I have something to say.  – writer, Wonderful Town
           
            I have nothing to say and I’m saying it. – John Cage

            This summer I spent some time on a beach watching surfers and people learning to surf.  Individuals and families would wade out into the waves with boards.  They were happy to be out there, happy to be engaging in the activity just for the activity.  The novices were happy to be learning something new, but I don’t imagine any of them were thinking, “I’ll do this professionally” or “I have something to show people (like that guy on the beach over there).”
            I thought about the number of people who “want to be writers.”  They ask, “How can I be a writer.”  It’s an odd question because the answer is simple.  Write.  If you write, you’re a writer.  But that’s not what they’re saying.  They want something else.  They want to be published or read or known or admired or . . .
            I doubt anyone goes to the surf school instructor and asks, “How can I make a living at this?” or “How can I become known/famous/the equivalent of being a “published” surfer”?  The question doesn’t even make sense.
            If people ask, “How can I be a better writer?” that’s something the right guide or teacher can help them with.  But first, there needs to be the desire for the activity itself.  You have to want to spend your mornings willing to get up early, get your gear together, and get out the door (metaphorically speaking).  You have to be willing to get wet and tossed around and be tired and, frankly, to not have left a trace in the ocean when you’re finished. 
            Okay, maybe a better comparison is to my presence on the beach.  I’m a walker not a surfer.  And why was I walking the beach at 6 in the morning?  Because it’s a good career move?  Because I was driven to be there?  Because I had something to say?  No.  I was there because I thought it would be interesting.  Because it makes me feel good.  Because I’ve never regretted going for a walk.  I was there because I was bored waiting for my family to wake up.  Because I thought I might see something – like surfers.  I was there because I was exploring.  I didn’t expect to find a treasure chest.  I was there because it made me feel aware, alive, healthier, in short, good.
            Maybe this should be my question when someone asks the equivalent of whether they have “what it takes” to be a writer?  Do you like doing an activity for the activity’s sake?  Surfing?  Walking?  If not . . . then probably not.

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Call


This fall my fifth book of poetry “This Miraculous Turning” is being published.  Most of the work is about my children, but there are a number of incidents and experiences that aren’t in the book because I couldn’t shape them into what I thought were successful poems.

When the social worker called to announce our daughter’s birth, we were on vacation, but we had taken a bottle of champagne to be ready.  She told us the news, hesitated, then said . . . She’s black.
Having met the birthmother, this was no surprise.   In fact, the social worker had been at the meeting.  Was she healthy, we asked?  Yes, the woman said, then repeated, But, you should know, she’s black.  We were puzzled by this and only realized later what she was trying to say.

            Oh…black as in black black.

Since the placement had been for a bi-racial child, the social worker had assumed this might be important to us, that we might be adopting bi-racially in hopes of somehow mitigating our child's "blackness."  And we recognized she made this assumption because it was important to others.  My wife and I aren’t na├»ve; we know there is a long legacy of prejudice against those with darker skin, even within races. Still it was a shock to realize that some parents might get that far along in the adoption process and then halt a placement if the baby was not as light as they had expected.
We had known our joy would be tempered by the birthmother’s grief, and we had thought we understood some of what we’d encounter, but the social worker’s comment evoked an unexpected sadness and gave us a quick, brutal, lesson.  Our choices were going to be subject to misunderstandings and misinterpretations.  The very presence of our family would trigger all sorts of assumptions and judgments. 
We told the social worker how relieved we were the baby was healthy and how excited we were to meet her.  We hung up and poured the champagne into tumblers to celebrate.  We knew this wasn’t how most people thought it was supposed to be drunk.  So be it.  This was how we were going to do it.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

40 Years of Blazing Saddles


This year is the 40th anniversary of the release of Blazing Saddles, a film full of cheap gags, puns, drug jokes, and sophomoric humor, including the famous farting campfire scene.  It also is a smart satire of racism and prejudice.  A reflexive film, one that breaks out of its own sound stage and spills across the studio, its meta-technique isn’t a gimmick or stylistic trick, but an incisive critique of the film industry itself.  Mel Brooks isn't satirizing the West, but Westerns and the way they have constructed “the West.”  In doing so, he emphasizes the racism that has been a persistent component of that mythic construction.  As he puts it, “the engine that runs Blazing Saddles is hatred and race prejudice.  Serious stuff for a movie with an on-going joke confusing Hedley Lamarr and Hedy.
            From the beginning, Brooks’ intentions are clear.  The whites in power are idiotic.  They demand, using racial slurs, that the blacks working on the railroad sing good old work songs.  They not only want the workers to work, but to act out stereotypes.  They want to control their labor and their identity.  When Bart sings Cole Porter’s “I Get No Kick from Champagne,” Lyle, the white boss, is bewildered and suggests “The Camptown Races” instead.  The black workers feign ignorance, so he gets down and sings it himself, complete with a ridiculous dance which the other whites mimic.
Those in authority – the law makers – are either corrupt or child-like.  Either way, they are intolerant, narrow-minded, and depraved while the “common people” are racist and in-bred (all of the citizens of Rockridge are Johnsons).  They spout and admire “authentic frontier gibberish.”
            The slapstick of some of the humor can make it easy to overlook the film’s skillful artifice.  When Bart, who has become the sheriff of Rockridge, meets the Waco Kid, the Kid is hanging upside from his bunk.  He literally has the opposite viewpoint and vision of those around him.  He doesn’t see the world or Bart as the people of Rockridge do.  Bart asks, “Are we awake?” and the Kid replies, “We’re not sure.  Are we black?”  He then says, “We’re awake, but we’re very puzzled.”  The use of the first person plural – we – unifies them, and whereas everyone else, including the old ladies, address Bart using racial slurs, the Kid doesn’t. 
When Bart asks the Kid if he needs any help, he says, “Oh, all I can get.”  The townspeople too need help.  They’ve begged the governor for a sheriff, then they’re scandalized and appalled by the person he sends. As the Kid tells Bart, “What did you expect? Welcome, sonny? Make yourself at home? Marry my daughter? You've got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know... morons.”
The friendship of Bart and the Kid, the respect and admiration they have for one another, is the core of the film, and it argues for the possibility of breaking out of the damaging, imprisoning, stories, and telling new ones.  I want to believe this, and, most days, I do.  Just as most of the time, I believe satire can be a weapon for change.  But, as the daily headlines show, some stories keep repeating themselves.
            Genres are easy to parody, but as Stephen Colbert has said “satire is parody with a point.”  Forty years later the point of Blazing Saddles – the pervasive prejudice of our story-telling and American mythologies – still stings.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

What Makes a Good Course Good


During advising sessions at my school, I’m sometimes asked, “Will that be a good course?” 
It’s a funny question, particularly when they’re asking about one of mine. Do they expect me to say, “No, that course I’ve designed and I’m offering is going to suck.”
Sometimes a course does end up being bad (and sometimes I’ll wonder what I was thinking putting certain works on the syllabus), but no teacher thinks it will be before the first day.  We’re fundamentally, perhaps delusionally, optimistic.  Each new term and year, we think, “This time it’s going to be great.”
But, what I actually tell students who ask, “Will that be a good course?” is “I don’t know.”  I hope so.  I’m excited enough about the material to dedicate sixteen weeks to it, but we won’t know until we get started.
            What makes some courses good is not just the professor and material, but the students who take it.  I can teach the exact same lesson, and it will go over great in one section and terrible in another.  Did I change in the ten minutes between classes?  No, the students did.  (Similarly, I can read the same poems in, mostly, the same manner, and one audience will be enthusiastic and one will make me wonder if the microphone is on.)
The engagement and commitment of the students contributes to the quality of the course and, consequently, to the quality of the education of those involved.  So, when someone is late or hasn’t done the work, they don’t owe me an apology; they owe it to their colleagues because they’re not just diminishing their own education, but also the education of those in the room.  Similarly students who make contributions and enthusiastically engage ideas are enhancing the experience of others.
Courses, particularly ones that rely heavily on small group interactions, are collaborations.  They are discoveries and shared experiences.   In this way, they’re similar to other things.  I’ve loved some movies because of the people that I went with or because the audience was into it. 
To ask “will that be a good course?” is like asking, “Will it be a good party?” “A good wedding?”  “A good marriage?”  It depends on the people involved.