The Cruel World

I’ve been out of the blogging world (I can’t stand “blogosphere”) for a few days for reasons I will not explore at this time.  I will say only, I went to a rather unusual memorial and ended up sitting on a cactus.  My life is a rich and varied pageant.

I will, however, write about the trip back from the memorial.  My friend Kyle Chaney and I carpooled to get to the event.  Kyle is a good driver and much more familiar with Albuquerque than I.  That’s why what happened on the way out of town was so great.  Kyle wanted to stop for a bathroom break before we hit the highway.  I’m always for such practical plans.  He just jumped off I-40 and headed in a random direction and ended up at a Circle-K neither of us knew.

It looked pretty well-maintained and nondescript when we parked, but things changed once we stepped inside.  In the middle of the store was an open cooler display of various cheap beers and fortified wines in 44 ounce containers. There was a line at the counter of folks wearing rump sprung polyester shorts and one of them had that little top-knot so in vogue these days.  Hideous.  There was a broom and upright dust pan full grayish oddments standing just beside the counter.  The place had an unusual perfume, a musty melange with top notes of old cigarette smoke and dust, a midrange of Colt 45 and coolant, finished off with the base of perspiration, urine, and ammonia.  But what really made the place special was the bathroom.

It was a unisex bathroom with a push hasp on the inside of the door.  The tile work was top notch but you wouldn’t notice that until you first noticed that the mirror had been scratched with great energy with words it’s best not to record here.  The toilet had the seat up and a glistening sprinkle of what I would call “boyish inaccuracy” on the floor in front of it.  On the wall was a condom dispenser that had descriptions of what types of condoms could be bought from it–ranging from something referred to as “like nothing at all” to basically a bullet proof “vest” for the more health and safety minded.  At least they had soap in the soap dispenser.

When we left and were back on the road, Kyle made an apology and said that he didn’t know why but he could always find some place terrible like that for a pit-stop.  I said not to worry about it.  It was not the worst place I ever saw.  I had used worse.  Obviously I had been to Europe and had been to campgrounds, so I have seen some stuff.  Then I thought, well, if you’re strictly talking about roadside public bathrooms in buildings, that one might be in the top five.  I’m not talking about latrines or port-a-potties.  Those are guaranteed to be terrible.  I’m not talking about home bathrooms or semi-private bathrooms.  Those are torture for other reasons.  Nope.  In the great world of quick-trip rest-stops with the public in mind, that one was probably my fourth worst.

Last night, when I couldn’t sleep, and I couldn’t think of anything good or beautiful in the world, and I couldn’t forgive myself for all the ways I have failed to give my students concepts that would save them, I decided to make a list of my top five worst public bathrooms.

Number 5 is an outlier.  It is the girls’ restroom that was at Gadsten High the semester I taught there while their regular English teacher was in the hospital.  The stalls were made with the doors too close to the toilets and the walls too close to the toilets.  I remember thinking, “I may not be able to get out of this.”  They also had the old-fashioned super low toilets so that when you sat down you fell the last three inches and your knees were near your ears.  You learned sympathy for Gollum in that bathroom.  Sitting like that is bound to make you villainous.

Number 4 I’ve already given you.  Number 3 was the old bathroom at Clines Corners decades ago.  They had metal walls with thick brown paint.  Only fifty percent of the stalls had toilets that would flush at all.  The smell seemed perverse.  That was probably heightened by the incredibly filthy graffiti scratched on the walls, all over the walls, like some obsessive-compulsive maniac spent every hour finding new and horrible ways to insult every female within the community.  I hated those stalls, but I had to use them a lot.  They scarred my psyche.

Number 2 (ha ha) was on the same highway.  In Vaughn, there used to be a unisex bathroom with the air of a square prison cell.  It was painted an industrial white, but there were inexplicable stains everywhere.  It had just the one toilet in the corner, and often they were completely out of toilet paper.  This is part of what made it horrible.  The other part was the rusty drain in the middle of the steeply raked concrete floor.  This probably contributed to the  horrifying experience of having the toilet tilt and wobble when you sat.  It was terrifying.  Complicating that was the distinct possibility the toilet would not flush at all, and the long line outside the door would have the opportunity to examine your deposit along with their own.  And the smell.  The smell was an assault, like being slapped in the face with a dirty diaper.  Yet, it wasn’t the worst.

Number 1 was a gas station in Tularosa.  I don’t think it’s there anymore.  I hope it isn’t.  I only stopped in this one once.  This one had a toilet but no sink.  Understand, this scenario might as well be a woman describing hell.  The bathroom was perhaps three feet wide with a toilet but no sink.  No woman would use a room like that unless she was desperate, and if she is desperate, she is going to NEED A SINK.  Understand, this was a room inside a building.  It was supposed to be for public convenience, but only a man would think it adequate.  Heck, if I were a man, I would have turned around and gone behind the building.  Men can do that.  Women…only some can, and only at gunpoint.

All right.  All right.  I think this may be my single grossest entry.  If you made it to this, drop me a comment.  I promise I’ll respond.

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The White Whale

I am listening to the audiobook of Moby Dick.  It’s madness, of course.  In Melville’s day there was a different term for madness, monomania.  You can look it up.  We would call it obsession.  Obsession is interesting to writers.  We like to think about characters who have a single focus, unwavering as a star, that pours pain into their livers, into their jaws, into their souls.  What is drug addiction but obsession?  What is revenge but a dark and deadly obsession that rises from righteous fury?  In our distracted and distracting world our obsessions seem weakened, except on talk radio.  Monomania is alive and well on talk radio.

I know I shouldn’t listen to it.  What good does it do me to listen to these folks RAVE?  They do R-A-V-E!  Today I was listening to one of them, a pathetic fellow who has the idea he is talking sense.  He is so cracked that he might be funny, if his howls weren’t loaded with pure poison.  He said perfectly horrible things about everyone who disagrees with him.  Why?  My cynical side says he does this only to improve his ratings, to get other people so revved up and angry that they will continue to listen to him.  I also got the idea he might be doing it to drive people like me, who have been raised on good manners and loving thoughts, to feel just a sliver of the pain he feels all the time and every day, like Ahab getting the crew to swear vengeance against the white whale because the whale cost him his leg, as if the whale did something with malice.  The whale was just trying to live.  Ahab stopped seeing that.  He ascribed to the whale not only the loss of his leg, but the suffering and disappointment of his soul.

After considering Melville’s ideas about Ahab’s monomania, I have yet another theory about talk radio, even better that the other two.  The rage fills the maniac with POWER.  The rage intoxicates.  When Jesus says, “Come, let us reason together” is the answer, “Sure.  Let’s reason.”  Nope.  Rage comes howling back.  Rage pulls his beard from his face.  Rage beats him, humiliates him, nails him to a cross.  The maniac then foolishly thinks he has won.  Poor maniac.  He’s drunk poison.

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Never Got a Dinner

When I was a kid, they had this thing called a celebrity roast.  People got together and made fun of the guest of honor.  It had a weird, rough-handling vibe.  I think it may have come from a wise place in someone’s psyche.  Celebrities regularly have “smoke blown up their” fundaments.  A roast could remind them that they were, in truth, much like everyone else, and…a roast could be funny.  Many of them had genuinely funny moments.  (Though I think peoples’ feelings were hurt at these things, and the humor got brutal, and thus they lost their cache.)

I remember a comedian named Red Buttons going on and on about how dumb it was to give the guest of honor such a sparkling honorific since a whole lot of more deserving people “never got a dinner.”  This morning I want to steal Red Buttons’ routine because I just saw a writer on the CBS Morning News that definitely did NOT deserve to have national attention for the self-indulgent and negative claptrap she has put between two covers because the really great writers I have published and read never got such a boost.  None of them ever got a plug the CBS Morning News.

First of all, I want to mention this woman’s name and her book.  Her name is Mandy Catron.  Her book, a book which got a plug on the CBS Morning News, is titled How to Fall in Love with Anyone.  I did not buy this book, but I did look it up on, the evil empire, and read enough of it to know it is a collection of contradictions and navel gazing about how “stories we are told about love mislead us.”

Her book is about love, and she begins with the story of how she was going to leave her current man.  Maybe his story wasn’t good enough.

My biggest objection rises in response to her statement that stories about love mislead us.  Maybe she should try reading a story rather than watching a piece of commercial soft porn packaged as a love story.  You don’t hear people objecting to the story lines in porn.  They know the stories are not based on truth.  This woman thinks Dirty Dancing is an attempt at truth?  (I will now resist the urge to refer to her as a moron.)  She might as well be complaining about being lied to about the tooth fairy.  GET OVER IT!  No one thought you would buy that past the age of five.  Everyone who saw Dirty Dancing knew it was just a way to get Patrick Swayze into sexy bed scenes with that skinny girl.  The movie had the line, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner!”  That would be a big red light flashing, “THIS MOVIE IS JUST A JOKE!”

Stories, especially written stories, that are genuinely dedicated to the exploration of love in its myriad forms do not try to mislead us.  Here are some titles this woman should try: Ballad of the Sad Cafe, Where the Red Fern Grows, The Great Gatsby, The Shipping News, Jane Eyre, Huckleberry Finn, Les Miserables,  Wuthering Heights, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, Gone with the Wind, Old Yeller.  I could write another fifty titles that are dedicated to love.  Now, all these are not about romantic love.  Some are about love in its other forms.  Nonetheless, the stories told by writers trying to create real art are not made to mislead.  (I will not go into scripture or fables here, though they also teach us about love.)

Among the books I know she (and everyone) should be reading are Joyce McCollaum’s The Last Sharecropper, Barbara Corn Patterson’s The Woman on the Table, Ralph Rivera’s Espiritu, MJ Johns’ Destiny Stone, Hedda P. Saltz’s Free Rain, Beverly Coots’ Gabby Care, Kevin McIlvoy’s Fifth Station, and Robert Wilder’s Nickel.  None of them ever got a plug on the CBS Morning News.

Look, if you want to know about love, avoid making it just about soft porn or simple-minded meet-cute stories.  Love is about suffering and sacrifice, about caring for someone other than yourself.  Love is about all the ways in which we attach ourselves to the world, and it can be simple and selfless or it can be complicated and commercial.  It begins and ends with the generosity of the lover.

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It Occurs to Me

When I was a Senior in high school, we moved, and I had to adapt to a new home.  This was not too burdensome for me.  We had moved at the beginning of my high school time, and I was at a school that was 85% Native American, 10% Hispanic, and the rest was the rest.  Being in the minority can be very instructive for those who wish to learn to read people.  When the entire culture operates on different unspoken systems, the individual must learn to look and listen in order to get along.

I say all that to reflect on a discussion I somehow joined in the new high school my senior year.  There was a girl there, athletic and clever, who had to ride the bus to get to school.  Somehow in Pre-Calc we got into a conversation about the rights of humans to live the way they wanted to live.  I found myself defending the rights of gay men to be openly gay.  This kind of discussion wasn’t nearly as common in those long ago days.  This girl was talking about how people had to behave, had to control their “evil impulses” (I believe is how she put it).  She described a scene in which men were dancing with other men, holding hands with other men, kissing other men–in public.  I was arguing from a strictly theoretical position.  I has gown up in really small country towns, and I thought she was being hyperbolic, but I still argued that if they were adults, they were surely allowed to decide how they wanted to behave, both privately and publicly, as long as it was lawful.  She threw up her hands.  She said she found that idea “personally disgusting.”  I remember those words exactly.  She was so madly vehement.  I was trying to reason.  I did not have strong feelings about homosexuality, to tell the truth.  I had strong feelings about the rights of the individual.

I was partly surprised by her unfettered and raw emotions because I had the distinct impression she “preferred the ladies.”  I didn’t have a problem with that.  She didn’t prefer me, or anything.  She just had a distinctly “tomboy” aura, which was what we called some latent lesbians in those days.  Given my understanding of her unspoken messages, I didn’t understand her spoken ones.

Now I think I may.  In Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” the Wife explains that people don’t like it when you criticize them honestly.  Tell people the truth about their faults and they will “kick.”  This seems to be what happens to people who are too vehemently opposed to things that later turn out to be their truths–the truths of which they are ashamed.  I think it’s true for me as well.  It’s salt in the wound.

I don’t know quite what made me think of this girl today.  I haven’t seen her in years.  I feel sad when I think of her.  She carried herself as if she were contending with a ferocious inner grief.  I hope she came to feel better about life, about her own interests and desires.  Is it presumptuous to think I have her pegged?  I really think Chaucer had her pegged, her and me and just about everyone else.  The truth hurts.

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Translation, Of a Sort

My nephew teaches Chinese and Spanish.  Yes, he’s very smart.  Anyway, I also consider him a friend, and we have begun, by baby steps, a translation project.  He tells me what the words in a Chinese poem mean, and I write a version of the poem inspired by his translation.  This is the first one.  It’s based on what he calls “a very famous Chinese poem.”

Chinese Goose

Gander goose, stretch

your neck to heaven,



Float your white feathers

on a teal green



Make your red webs trouble

clear turquoise ripples

across the light on which

you ride.


Short entry today.   This is the first Chinese poem translation-of-a-sort I’ve done.  I have two more I’m working on.  They are considerably harder.



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Locked up with a Superior Mind

I refuse to pay for cable TV, which means that I use a simple antenna to get whatever programming flows into the evening.  The other night I was wading through the TV wasteland when I came across an old movie I had seen multiple times before.  It’s titled Meatballs.  It was one of those commercial vehicles that made money for Bill Murray in his younger days.  It was much as I remembered it, though there was more sexual harassment and vulgar comedy than I recalled.  The big inspirational speech Murray gave at one point was vintage fun, and just as stirring as it was way-back-when.

The film itself did not have much of a story.  It was simple-minded, superficial, juvenile–perfectly tuned to the audience it intended to entrap.  I wonder now if Murray looks back on some of those scenes (and the ideas behind them) and cringes a little.  Maybe that’s why he and Harold Ramis made one of my favorites of his movies, Groundhog Day.

Those of you who do not like that movie can stop reading if you like.  I have to say, if you don’t get the humor and ultimate wisdom of that movie, you may have a very frustrating life.  Still–unwilling to read about Groundhog Day?  Go read about popcorn balls.

Groundhog Day takes a ridiculous construct of a man having to re-live the same day over and over until he gets it right.  Superficially it may seem repetitive, but that is central to the story.  It is the story of “learning your lesson” by being locked up with your own superior mind.  The idea is you have to keep being taught the lesson until YOU GET IT!  See, that’s one of the things we all have to face, and as a classroom teacher I face it several different ways.  First, I face it with my own shortcomings as a learner.

When I started teaching, about three times a week I would spend a half-an-hour and a good deal of my calm searching for my keys.  This is one of those simple lessons that MUST be learned or you WILL relive it regularly.  Pattern your behavior, and restrict your keys to very specific locations.  When I started teaching at the military school I had to learn the same stupid lesson concerning the stupid hat I was required to wear with the uniform.  How is it possible I didn’t learn this thoroughly the first time I encountered it?  Because, as Vonnegut says, “Humans are lot dumber and meaner than they think.” My superior mind eventually does function.  It has its off days, but often it solves problems quickly, and for that I’m supremely grateful.

With my students, repeating the lessons insures my continued employment.  (Not really.  It’s just that some people NEVER SEEM TO LEARN!)  I had a student who never put quotation marks on the titles of short works he referenced.  Over and over I would add the quotations marks.  Finally, I stopped him one day in class and said, “Why don’t you fix that?”  He explained he thought those marks were little smiley faces.  I wanted to choke him.  I didn’t.  I just wanted to.

In the movie Meatballs, Murray’s character befriends a lonely boy and helps him to be successful, accepted and admired.  It only takes a few vulgar jokes, some blackjack with peanut stakes, and early morning jogging.  It works.  Everything works in the end.  In Groundhog Day Murray’s character indulges in all sorts of self-pity, excess, conquest, and navel gazing, but he learns lessons.  Finally he tries to save a doomed man, and no matter how hard he tries, the old fellow still dies.  It’s heartbreaking.  It turns out that sometimes meaning well isn’t enough.  Trying hard isn’t enough.  Love and concern is not enough.  People suffer.  People fail.  People die.

Why?  (Stony superior silence gazes back.)

Fine.  Have some faith.  Do what you can.  Fart around and find your bliss, and f— ’em if they can’t take a joke.

There are problems with owning a superior mind that learns lessons and eventually faces the abyss.  One is that you recognize when other people haven’t learned their lessons.  You watch friends and neighbors go through the world, stumbling over the same exact rough spot in the concrete, over and over and over.  Maybe you try and save them.  Sometimes you do save them.  But, only sometimes.

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Teen Bird

On 15 June I wrote about a family of mockingbirds that had roosted outside my laundry room window.  I think it only fitting that I tell what has been happening of late with them.

First, they only had one chick that hatched.  This one chick was guarded ferociously.  During the hottest parts of the hottest days (and they were HOT–110 hot) the mama bird would sit on the nest with her mouth gaping and her wings spread shading and fanning her baby.  There were days I felt sure her little one would not make it.  A baby bird only has about half a teaspoon of blood.  Even with its mother’s best efforts, how could it survive?  But, it did.  In fact, it had some actual mature feathers the day it fell out of the nest and held statue still by the back door, trying to make itself invisible.

I discovered that sometimes the internet is right.  Last year when we had the terrible drama of the babies falling out of the nest and dying, I studied up on the mockingbirds on the internet, and the most authoritative sites gave strict advice to leave the little guys alone.  Their parents would remain in the area and care for them until they could fly, and even longer, but we must not meddle with the babies in any way.  This year when I saw the semi-floppy fledgling on the ground, I followed the advice.  I made sure we stayed away as much as possible.  I even tried to avoid looking for too long.  I made the cat move out of her window when the parent birds (yes, they did stay around) flapped at said window with crazy protective instincts just to scare her away.  Here’s a picture showing the evidence of their close dives.

wing marks

There is dust on the outside of the window from some little sprinkles of rain.  There are little dabs where the cat presses her nose to the window.  The things that look like scratch marks are actually wing marks.  They’re pretty, in a way.

Since I already knew how young birds sound, I would keep my ears tuned to their call, and I would hear the little guy, hopping around in our yard.  The parents talked to him (or her, I have no idea of the gender).  Every little bit I would spot the baby taking short hopping flights, either around our gazebo or under the trumpet vine.  Sometimes I would doubt that the little thing was still there, but every day I would hear the little begging song of the baby, and I would sigh–pleased to know it had made it another day.

It’s now a flying teen bird.  It still uses its baby call, and it’s still fed by its parents, but now it can fly into the limbs of trees.  I had to shoot these two next pictures though a window screen, so that’s what makes them look a bit misty.

The mother bird is perched above her offspring.  The teen bird has fluffy and speckled breast feathers, but it is almost as big as its parents now.

It makes me feel happy to know it’s this far along.  It has begun to show some funny behaviors all its own.  The grapes on the vine where is was born are ripening, and all sorts of local birds are coming in to partake.  The teen mockingbird does not like it one bit.  He hops around in the vine and complains of thievery.  He was born in the vine, and he considers it his property.  (Not so different from we people, of course.)  Maybe it is his property.  Maybe not.  I don’t mind his attitude.  I really don’t think he belongs to me, but there is a kinship in my heart.  He has come into my life.  He is funny and cute, and he’s full of his own importance.  He’s lively and his parents are bossy.  He could be in one of my English classes.

teenage mockingbird

I hope he lives to be an old and very wise mockingbird.  I hope he has a brilliant career and has a nest of his own, a fledgling of his own to guard.  But there are no guarantees, are there?   What he has is fleeting, and he doesn’t own anything.  Nothing, that is, but the sky.

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