Sunday, November 27, 2011

In the Interim

After wine, the investigation begins.
I sit down at the table and work my way
over the Braille of a thousand X-acto cuts.
Precise: China has no place here, nor eating,
only kanji of canvas and the strokes
that bought his daily bread gone stale.
These, his tools for living, brushes askew,
some tips the width of a spatulate thumb,
mustache-like tufts of hair,
each tip makes a special mark
just as each sip of Moscato
has its own dumb warming in his absence.
The best I can do is to make what music I can.
She's with the band. Give that girl
a tambourine! Rolled beneath the palm,
there is the staccato of the brushes'
metal cuffs on the wooden table.
There is her wine glass beside the
murky glass he cleans his brushes in.
Earlier, the cat lapped at the tinted water
with a tongue not unlike a brush.
The cat is now a comma on his pillow.
The girl is pouring another glass of wine.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Full Disclosure

Wordle: star spangled banner

Snowqualmie is calling
in a voice disguised as
It's still dark, and leaves
come in russet waves
across rain-slicked
pavement. Two days ago,
the breeze blew you in.
I hosted the feast,
but you fed me.
Now silence has fallen.
I fear the starting over--
the dread of again
being an only child.
Sister, each visit is diving
for the first time
into the deep end.
Each meeting,
the steep descent
into who I am
and who I fear I'll never be:
not brave enough
to live the way you do:
fully entrenched,
the mind's eye gleaming
with the next big adventure:
you are Teton winters and Hawaii
on the horizon, and I am lost
in some Idaho mist, fitful,
fretting over how long
the trip is and counting
on borrowed fingers how many
firsts I haven't had.
My stories are always filled
with last year,
and how powerful a foe
the past is. You seem
to have no history,
or if you do, you've
written it in a glorious
blaze the first time.
To my no-regrets sister,
I love you. I love your accent,
mile-a-minute mind,
frenetic hands fluttering
at the ends of arms
attached to body
in constant motion.
I look to the hands folded
placidly in my lap and think
clods, heavy, jealousy.
I'm ashamed in my sleep--
bad dreams, but I tell
you over coffee about
nightmares that aren't even my own.
When we meet again, I want
to be less breeze and more blow.
I want to be the steady light
of high beams but
also welcome night.
I want to pack lightly
every once in awhile.
I want the jumble of
maps I can't ever
seem to fold and the luxury
of choosing not to look.
I want not the reflection
in the rearview mirror
but open roads and
the courage to travel them.
I want you to play North.
Next time, you be host.
Smile your bright smile
and hug me when, tired
exhilarated, I make it
to your door.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Life's Little Elections

In explaining how to write an argument, I tell my students about the Toulmin model of argumentation. I talk about the 3 most common claims: claims of fact, claims of value, and claims of policy. Given the fact that my students aren't supposed to use outside sources, I often steer them away from claims of fact. I also steer them away from claims of value. I tell them I don't want them trodding down the same path as those who are trying to argue evolution versus creationism or gun control or abortion or stem cell research or wolves...all those have been argued to death.

Additionally, I try to explain that it hardly ever works to try to argue a matter of personal taste. For instance, there will always be the die-hard Pepsi fans and Coke fans. There will always be those who wear Nike as opposed to Reebok or New Balance, and you won't convince them otherwise. There are truck fanatics out there who wear their preference. Surely you've seen the Calvin and Hobbes stickers in which Calvin is pissing upon some brand name he doesn't like.

The point is, it's hard to convince someone to dislike something they like. And vice versa.

So having laid this foundation in which I try to encourage my students to deal mainly in claims of policy, it was a bit disappointing to have a student turn in preparatory work for his essay, an essay arguing that Spring is the best of the seasons.


It's not that I disagree, and because he is a farm kid whose argument stems from an agricultural standpoint, I'm even more biased and preferential. Nonetheless, I had to ask the student to start over. I had to ask him to offer up another, less subjective argument.

I wonder what kind of a world it would be if we philosophized on the level of Montaigne. What if we were in the habit of starting essays on whatever happened to strike us at a particular moment?

That student had written a meditation on Spring. And despite the fact that I couldn't allow him to do so as a means of demonstrating that he'd learned anything about classical argumentation, I think everyone should at least internally take stock of their preferences, their values, their rights and wrongs, their vote in life's little elections.

Today was the sort of day where I might have cast my vote for winter. Cold clearly won. It kept me in bed until 11 a.m. It held me hostage in the kitchen most of the day where it became my goal to cook things that would warm the insides of those I care about. It was the sort of day where the cat laid on top of technology, which whirred beneath him and kept him warm. It included a neighborhood walk wherein I saw a gentleman performing all manner of ninja kick in order to rid the undercarriage of his car from icicles. It was a walk in which I shuffled along, alternately unsure of my footing on top of ice or plunged deep into a snowy park. I marveled at the ghost of activity--the footprints of man and dog and bird once here but now gone. I enjoyed the quickening of my heart, the chill not quite fended off by coat and gloves. And I was all in favor of my rosy cheeks and the opportunity some don't have--to come inside out of that cold.

Yes, winter. I stand whole-heartedly behind it. Today, anyway.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Lions, Tigers, and Bears...Oh My

It is said that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach. And I'm pretty sure that the way to a girl's heart is via anything adorable, be it baby or furry, or if you're lucky, a furry baby.

Or maybe that's just me. I'm a sucker for a good kitten or puppy YouTube video. In real life, I sense the presence of animals, honing in on them like a heat-seeking missile. And I can't leave them alone. I must 1) squeal with delight, 2) talk to the owner about every last detail of his/her pet, and 3) love up on the animal. Likewise, if I see an animal without a proper human guardian, then I'm all worried and can't stop thinking about it.

So Tobe scored mad boyfriend points for deciding that we should go on a date to Spokane, Washington's one and only zoo dedicated to big cats: Cattails. Located just off the Newport Highway, Cat Tails is tucked into a stand of pine trees, and it's about as far from the animals' typical habitat as you can get. The driveway is fence-lined with blown up pictures of the sorts of big cats housed in the zoo itself. There was also a banner announcing that you could spend Thanksgiving at Cat Tails, where they apparently have a turkey toss. I imagine that being initially fascinating for spectators and then becoming a bit too grisly for the young and the squeamish. It also brought out the first fascinating debate between my boyfriend and me: are the turkeys frozen? Do they literally toss them at the animals? If they're frozen might it not result in a concussion if mis-thrown? Most certainly it would be a Thanksgiving to remember.

For $8, visitors get to walk within 8 feet of the animals. Visitors can wander around on their own, or they can take a guided tour. We happened to arrive shortly after a group of children and their stroller-pushing Stepford mothers (the zoo's blog promotes that "infants that cannot possible escape from the stroller or infant seat" get in free). We could have broken away from the crowd of little ones, but we decided to tag along.

It was snowing, and I couldn't stop thinking that the majority of these animals weren't meant for snow. A tiger from India is not supposed to know cold like this. And the cold made for finicky cats. The tour guide called our attention to a bobcat. We all peered into the 10' x 10' enclosure and saw nothing. The tour guide remarked that it was cold outside and that this particular cat was old. Eventually the old girl came out and rubbed herself along the chain link. She struck me as stiff, humped up against the cold, and bored.

Over and over, we heard similar stories of origin from the tour guide. The key theme in most stories was hubris or God-Complex. Men thought they could have a wild animal as pet and then eventually realized they were in over their heads. The cute cougar or tiger cub later grew up and became harder to handle. Over and over, she told stories of human ineptitude. She told of animals confiscated from places where animals were in small, dirty, "excrement-filled" cages. I wondered how much of this the small children were taking in. I didn't hear any of them gasping in horror. I didn't see any of them looking for comfort from their mothers. In fact, I'm not sure how much the kids were taking in except that I could hear the words "cute" and "pretty" being tossed around liberally.

The children did notice some things. When the tour guide asked if there were questions, it seemed the children most often noticed physical troubles. One noted that a spotted leopard had a "ouchie" on the end of its tail. The tour guide explained that sometimes they get bored and worry the same area too much until they make a sore, or the hair falls off. There were too many stories about things falling off. None was more disturbing than the cougar with the stubbed tail. When one of the children pointed out how the cat seemed to be lacking in the tail department, the tour guide told the story of how it had gotten frost bite on the tip of its tail. The frost bite perhaps bothered the cat. The next morning, it had chewed of 8 inches of its tail.

Among the things I'll remember: wondering what it would be like to be a tour guide, my back turned to these beasts, feeding them chunks of chuck roast on what looked like a dull skewer. I wonder if I would be tempted to call them cutesy nicknames like she did. I wonder if I would be comfortable clanking my keys against their cage in order to get the animals to make an appearance.

I will remember the black bear whose nose seemed like an ant eater's. I couldn't get over its range of movement. They found him in the Spokane area in an orchard. I remember two boys having a snowball fight. I remember the white tiger taking everyone by surprise by sounding a growl that no one expected from cats gone docile in captivity. I remember 3 Siberian siblings pacing their cage in unison. It looked like Vegas showgirls or can-can girls, and I expected them to put their paws on each other's shoulders and kick and perhaps to don a top hat. I remember the flocks of birds in the tiger cages and wondered if the cats ever killed birds. I marveled at how the birds didn't seem nervous. I noticed the tiger sleeping who opened one amber eye to gaze at us. I will remember the huffing sound of the lion and how his mane reminded me of an 80's hair band. I will remember the dreadlocks hanging from his belly. I will remember Tobe's plan for his own zoo. He said he wouldn't have any animals at all. He would simply lead people through, and when they asked where the animals were, he'd make excuses...that they were sick or sleeping.

It's crazy, but it just might work.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Life Is Good

There's nothing like a visit to a nursing home to make you realize life is good.

Is that mean?

It's true. You are out here and not in there (for long). It's a locked facility. The keypad lets you in and keeps them from leaving.

Once inside, you note that it's the Cadillac model, not like where your mom worked. You'd walk there after school and wait for her in the TV room, where you'd sit on a scratchy plaid couch and twitch a bit when residents sat beside you and found no good reasons to touch your young skin. The selling points back then were the quarters in your pocket, the soda pop machine, and the potential for TV remote domination. You'd find Benji or Lassie and nurse your bottle of Orange Crush until your mom got off shift.

Then you'd walk down the waxed hallways and try not to stare at the grown ups gone the way of babies. They were all sitting out in the hallways in their wheelchairs, airing out, as it were. Those who couldn't sit upright laid in wheeled contraptions that reminded you of big city flower carts. There was all manner of moaning and drooling and palsied hands. When you left, the smell of overcooked vegetables and urine clung to your mother's polyester uniform--a smell it took you years to disassociate from her.

You're a grown up now, and supposedly mature--

It's a straight shot to his room, but it's also a gauntlet of sentimentality--touches meant to say this is home (now). Outside each room, there is a locked curio cabinet. A time capsule. When I teach my students how to write profiles, I teach them about dominant impression. I teach them to interview an individual and boil down all the data into a dominant impression--the one overarching characteristic of the individual. A stereotype. That's what the curio cabinet displays do. They are memorial to the person this person once WAS. What would my wall decoration look like? What will it all boil down to at the end of my days?

It boils down to a big screen TV that no one is watching, blaring. It is a single bed. It is a son-in-law remembering to trim the hair inside your ears. It is veal parmesan displayed beneath a glass dome outside the cafeteria and not remembering that's what you had for lunch. It is a dish of pumpkin pie with coconut sprinkled on top, uneaten and congealing. It is the lone man in the dining room still chewing. It is the dog you no longer own but who remembers you still. It is the woman with the barrettes in her hair, who scuttles along in a walker with tennis balls on the legs. The woman fears the dog and loves it. She says, "You love me, don't you?" to the dog, who cannot sit down and whimpers at the end of his leash.

It is a tour of the last resort, of sorts. Here is an empty movie theater that will play Top Gun at 6:30. Here is bingo. Here is the mailroom, the library, the vastly underutilized computer room. Here is arts and crafts. Here are photos of the Veteran's Day ceremony. It was beautiful. Here are the chairs gathered around a piano for singing. Here is an in-house coffee shop with a latte and popcorn machine. Here is the game room, with its ski poles and fishing nets tacked up just so. Here are the pool tables, poker tables, shuffleboard. Here is the place where only the family plays games. Grandkids play Wii casino games. Here is a self-serve ice cream shop, where the treats are for residents only, please. Here is an ice cream sandwich that someone unreels for you, and it feels awkward in your hands and sets you to worrying a napkin in your hand. Here is the place where your grandfather remembers you were once married and and not to this girl. You are the new girl he keeps trying to place. Here is where he says, "So it didn't work out, huh?"

All this, and then the long walk down that hallway with its locked door. This is where he wants to go along, and you say you'll be back tomorrow. Outside you've never seen anything as beautiful as a sky threatening snow. You are thankful for knowing November and all its idiosyncrasies, its balm and briskness, its temperamental leaves and sunshine. You give thanks for the giants on the hillside--windmills churning what isn't visible into precious energy.