Category Archives: concrete

Life is no way to treat an animal

How beautiful it is to get up and go out and do something. We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different.
– Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country

I’ve been thinking about cynicism and poetry. It has to do with how we spend our time. (“we have all these instruments for slicing it up like a salami, clocks and calendars, and we name the slices as though we own them”) And what we notice when we get up and go outside.

According to the original cynics, all that you need to be happy is to get up, go outside, and search out where the hell the world hid its virtue. Not suffering is just a matter of finding value in what matters. I know that sounds redundant. It is. I suppose that’s poetry. 

To find value in what matters… tell me that you haven’t  intensely felt the difference. I don’t believe you. That’s poetry, too, I guess. 

Cynics today are pegged as cranky skeptics. This doesn’t surprise me. That the original cynics were compared to dogs doesn’t either. Both have a flat, “yeah kinda” side to them. 

Let’s say that I’m a cynic. Each day I walk out my door, seeking virtue. Seeking happiness. Seeking value in a  proudly ignorant, surprisingly humorless, fantastically selfish, war-seeking world. It takes a poet, a hero – hell it takes a dog – not to return home convinced that virtue set sail for another, more deserving planet. 

Still, at times I leave the house. At times, I walk out into that same, infuriating world. And I see something beautiful. Not just that, though. That’s easy. But beautiful, in a way that kind of… matters.

In A Man Without a Country, 145 skimpily worded pages that took him five years to write, an 82 year-old Kurt Vonnegut said that there were only two things that made his life worth living: music and all the saints he had met, “who could be anywhere.”

Vonnegut was an original cynic, seeking virtue in a country where everything was pretty much crap.

“A sappy woman from Ypsilanti sent me a letter a few years back… She was about to have a baby – not mine – and she wanted to know if it was a bad thing to bring such a sweet and innocent creature into a world as bad as this one.

“Don’t do it! I wanted to tell her. It could be another George W. Bush or Lucrezia Borgia. The kid would be lucky to be born into a society where even the poor people are overweight but unlucky to be in one without a national health plan or decent public education for most, where lethal injection and warfare are forms of entertainment, and where it costs an arm and a leg to go to college. This would not be the case if the kid were a Canuck or Swede or Limey or Frog or Kraut. So either go on practicing safe sex or emigrate.

“But I replied that what made being alive almost worthwhile, for me, besides music, was all the saints I met, who could be anywhere. By saints I meant people who behaved decently in a strikingly indecent society.”

Decency in an indecent world. Tiny moments of perfect.

Sometimes language is evocative, and meaning is beside the point.  I mean that literally; it’s right beside it. The abstract is rendered. Moments when virtue either lives or dies are imprisoned and then freed. Breathed without giving a damn about logic, unless it’s the kind that is intensely human. Meaning is kicked to the side and only its entrails remain. Because logic – the inhuman kind – would tell you that virtue doesn’t stand a chance. Would tell you that there are no saints. Would tell you to stop going outside altogether.

In poetry, everything matters. Poetry is the stuff of entrails. That’s the point.

There is always some dispute about poems and what they are or what they should be. Modern cynics might say it doesn’t matter. Original cynics, I think, would say the same. My favorite is the Polish guy who thought it was either about two things finding one another other, or it was about a state of mind. Like most academic opposites, I think it’s both. Something that matters bumps up against something else that matters, giving spark to rage or joy. I know this from my state of mind, which suddenly gives a fantastically giant shit about something.

Virtue is either powerfully living or painfully dying, and I am its witness. I stumble upon entrails; I put meaning beside the point.

I want to go back to Vonnegut and why, at 82, music was one of two reasons for staying alive.

“That specific remedy for the worldwide epidemic of depression is a gift called the blues. All pop music today – jazz, be-bop, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Stones, rock-and-roll, hop-hop, and on and on – is derived from the blues. 

“… The wonderful writer Albert Murray, who is a jazz historian and a friend of mine among other things, told me that during the era of slavery in this country – an atrocity from which we can never fully recover – the suicide rate per capita among slave owners was much higher than the suicide rate among slaves.”

Beating skepticism – not the cranky but the tragic kind that convinces us that we should probably stop reproducing – requires the faith of a cynic and the despair of a poet. It requires us to find and fight for something of value and then just flat-out refuse to watch it die yet again. It requires music. It assumes that we have felt the genuine value of something at least once in our life. So much so, that its death was our pain. Its life was our joy. Don’t say you haven’t felt it.

We still might not be happy. “Blues won’t drive depression clear out of the house,” after all, “but can drive it into the corners of any room.”

Farting around is the best way to find what matters. Farting around is serious business. Some people are experts in farting around, and I respect the shit out of them. You can be at the end of hope and still be farting. We’ve all heard music and met saints that remind us just how much all this farting and sniffing around matters. Let’s be cynics and skeptics and poets, and dogs.

Electronic communities are ok, despite what Vonnegut thought. But we need to also step outside, digging up virtue as it sinks into the ground. And when we come back here, like dancing animals to the keyboard, we need to fight for it.

Anyway, A Man Without a Country. Read it.

New York Times


toss up

i fear fiction. the thought of charactors taking control…it’s matrix-like. anarchy. and it will happen. once

in college, i wrote of small heroes. let them be who they were, grow hairy or mean or fleshy or fluid. but i never

let them do stuff. ever. i didn’t want to lose them. my charactors grew bountifully inside their cages. sentences

design their own shape. whether or not we intend to let them. when we sit down (or run or stand) to arrange whole thoughts, the ends stand tree like, nudging us

backwards, “out of doors”. they pour out like spores over the page in quiet insurrection. we think that we have written stones, but they stare back at us as sponges. the point

is to let them.

futile art of speaking

one’s breath makes rough thought monotony. coy rattle of a routine question.

what is it we hoped to find?


in the spirit of altered books and reinvention, practicing the sometimes futile art of looking for myself in others, while still-life like paused on the more often futile art of speaking.


sankófa, the “bird who flies while looking at history.”

(he says.)

“…i’m living a life I have no wish to live.”


then rain ate some lines on a paper
i never recalled

i lost a friend’s second name
in the untraceable directories of childhood


i’ll watch the seasons pass,
and i’ll remember how strong I once was.

                     there is a map and how often we leave it behind.

From worthy reads (in this order)
1 2 3 4 5


grandad’s perpetual smile

my grandad died on august 11, 2006. nearly 3 years today. i don’t remember dates well. in fact, i forgot my mother’s 60th birthday, even with a two-day reminder from my dad. but i thought of him today. not because of any notion of time. i thought about something he wrote me, and something i ended up writing to him. i thought about how i don’t believe in fate, but i do believe in providence. providentia “foresight, prudence”, “ahead” + “to see”. i thought about sight and about vision. not of the unknown, but the known, in other phrases.

actually, first i thought of jenna’s little boy. how he held my hand at the wake as we walked up to the casket. catholics are always keeping their boxes open. i imagined then it was so that grandma and i could clutch each other and giggle at the absurdity of the coroners perpetual fixing of grandad’s hair. i used to cut grandad’s hair. he was always refusing to wash it, i think to make grandma smile her “frustrated” smile. their smiles always playfully meeting half-way, below surfaces.

i held kalen’s hand as i returned to grandad’s side for the third time that day. kalen was tall, brave and wide-eyed. i felt small, like i was reaching up to hold onto him instead of the other way around. we approached the lacquered finish, the colored lilies, the green vinyl kneeler, my grandad’s tie, his freshly washed hair, his ironically motionless smile.

“man…things sure do get fancy when ya die,” burst kalen.

i stretched taller by some involuntary string and suppressed a giggle. heard a snort. auntie may. high-heeled shoes, door slam, laugh in the hallway. cousin linda. a knowing glance with creased edges on grandma’s eyes. how i loved her. how we knew we loved him.


this was the first of the many times i would understand my father. or the unspoken structure that falls into our family, which on most days is in a joyfully age-irrelevant chaos. i was the first granddaughter. he was the first son. no one made choices, just fell into rhythm, filled holes without speaking. knew who to look at and when to walk. no one argued. no one spoke. on normal days we doubt ourselves. on any extraordinary one, we  know our strengths, their strengths. we succumb.

my dad and his 3 brothers. all boys. all helped me learn to love by tender, witty insult. there are many types of acceptence. many glows of pride. many unforgettable moments. four white-handed gloves on the side of the casket, mine the smallest, first in line. shaking. strong.

words carry in old catholic churches like the footprints of memories that echo in your chest. cousins lined up beside me. all of us sad and awkward for the vast emptiness and sound. when i lost my shaking voice, they each, in turn, took over and read. at least, that’s how  i remember it. it wasn’t the best poem i would ever write. but it will always be the strongest.

starting from the creases
of your wily grandpa eyes
a laugh on your cheeks
pulling upward;
sometimes you would wave
a calloused hand
in loving dismissal
or shake your head low.
Both of which seemed to say,
“You, my grandchild,
are a sight I am proud of.”

Searching through photos for you;
just seconds, really, strung out tight before us–
and so much between the lips
of my grandad’s perpetual smile.

Even when we finally realized
that actually…your own teeth were very few.
Or while we listened to you slurp your supper,
snore quietly in your favorite chair,
call to grandma from the doorway that,
“Dot!”, it was time to go,
or complain about washing your hair before I cut it;
we knew that your grandad smile lay waiting to bend.

I’ve been spending some time, you know,
in these past few days and hours,
trying to picture your laugh…
the less silent edge of that smile that can’t escape me.

For a moment, grandpa,
I thought it had gone.

But I heard it
just now
spilling from the depths of this crowd around you;
escaping from my own lips–
this Joy you have given us.

When I search for tangibles
of grandpa,
I find them in these faces.
My most favorite faces,
of which you are pinnacle;
a unit built from unique cuts,
upon the bedrock of your smile.

shaped by the ridiculous

Somewhere in Tom Robbin’s book, “Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates”, he makes an unfortunately cliché mention about how the ridiculous shapes us. Thankfully, Robins is a genius wordsmith. I can’t find the quote right now among all those other words. However, I feel nary a stranger to being “shaped by the ridiculous.”

For the sake of example…this morning, for no specific reason (yet no doubt several vague ones), my eyes did that watery thing that they do in inoportune moments. These things sneak up on you. It’s enjoyable, and surprisingly healthy, to fool yourself into thinking you’re strong enough, good enough, smart enough (and you typically are), but at the end of the day (or month or year), tears were still invented for a reason. They get shit out, regardless of what or why the hell.

Of course, for most of us that like to think that we are on the sane side of a fuzzy line…getting all watery-eyed for no reason is not exactly something we want to print on our private resume. Or, more accurately perhaps, tears go all liberal on us when we least want to show them, while in solitary moments we get stuck with some kind of optical constipation. In these cases, the universe typically (irony being the most “typical” aspect of the universe) steps in.

In my case, by providing an extremely painful crack to the skull on a water spicket, while innocently (albeit somewhat sadly) doing laundry. Now pain and the scary sight of red stuff…that is something we can cry over without requiring validity. And I did. It still does the trick, you know, crying. The universe takes that fact for granted, and it shows no regret at making our heads bleed (or hearts for that matter) in order to afford us the opportunity. That’s a surprisingly sane statement…which, not at all ironically, most will understand.

self esteem is for sissies

i just re-read yesterday’s chronobabble. it’s sort of ridiculous how easy we can bend the exact same day into joyful, frivolous, nostalgic, or glum. we edit the present, we can alter the past, we will choose to erase entire memories at some point in the future. in fact, i think we edit other people’s days as well, convincing ourselves that they are where they should be. words spurt parallel lines from an often concealed wound: perspective. it means we are, at least partially, in control.

i just read a great line in fierce invalids from hot climates. tom robbins is simply divine at this particular game. it’s one of two books i’ve read in the last weeks that were spontaneously lent by friends. the other was science fiction for literary nerds. i’ll quote that later.

“Self esteem is for sissies. accept that you’re a pimple and try to keep a lively sense of humor about it. That way lies grace–and maybe even glory.”

take it from an 80 year old computer hacker. just once, let perspective beat the shit out of fate.


an accounting of my day in the various spanish terms for time, gleefully studying. i am not this disenchanted.

3 de la madrugada – nothing really happening; i just wanted to write “de la madrugada”.

6 de la mañana – hit snooze, pull a cat off my face.

6 con 4 – hit it again, wonder why all alarm clocks don’t have a standard seven minute snooze, pull a cat off my face.

6 y 9 minutos – pull another cat off my face, start thinking about the fact that the definition of crazy is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, but am interupted by a cat knocking something large and complicated off the top of the tallest dresser.

6 y media – decide not to run today for no particular reason, other than that my hair looks really good and i don’t want to ruin it.

a las siete en punto – while staring at a wall, i decide that not showering was a fool idea. walk to the store that opens at 7, say hello and buy milk and butter, overpriced toilet paper and a sponge for no reason. wave to the guard on the way home, who likes me now because i pay him 24,000 c each month not to tell people to rob my house.

8 menos 15 – between now and the time i leave for work, i decide on a hat, realize i have nothing that looks normal with a hat, decide that i never look fully normal anyway, feed my ferril cats, make toast and coffee, put the coffee in a thermus that will surely leak because my car is a mini monster truck and the street is swiss cheese, translate something for later destruction by my small but fierce spanish writing coach, set off my car alarm in my garage and forget how to turn it off until just before the point where i am murdered by the old lady who quite possibly lives next door.

8 y cuarto – am late to pick up d. which is irrelevant because she hasn’t showered today either. play with my stupid alarm all the way to work until i remember that i’m also driving herbie the love bug and he sometimes doesn’t like me. remember that boys are stupid.

8 y media – pay my car insurance in the lobby to a guy called Roy Odio, which translates to Roy I Hate (seriously, it does). remember that my last insurance guy was called Skeeter Daniels and then wonder what’s up with that.

de las 9 de la mañana hasta no se que – write stuff that seems to be useful, translate it for later torture, sum up the notes of a brutal meeting with the ‘DI’ department which i don’t even know what it stands for. respond to a couple of irate emails about one thing or another. attend a departmental meeting in which we spend one hour discussing the answer to a complicated question which eventually results in the canned phrase “it’s in progress”.

skip ahead because everything else is even less exciting than the above.

después de las 5pm – fight traffic, feed my ferril cats, feed them again becuase i am suspicious they might turn on me and eat me. eat the last portion of soup i made on sunday in order to not be quite so sad as to eat instant every night. read a thrilling book on how to write HTML. watch the news. watch the news in spanish. watch the news in japanese because i have it memorized now so it doesn’t matter. watch my cats destroy stuff until i can’t stay awake any longer.