Friday, November 30, 2007

Three Beautiful Things 11/29/07: Loss/Gain, Fifty Cents, Handwarmer

1. WR 121 regular class meetings ended today for my Tuesday/Thursday classes. All quarter long we have been studying and discussing loss, survival, and reconciliation. In today's discussion, Coleen explained how she has learned from the books we've read that loss can often mean gain. I really liked that insight a lot.

2. I talked with Jake about a couple of his papers today at during our class' short break. I left my money at home. I asked him I could borrow fifty cents for a cup of coffee. He graciously complied.

3. I came in the house, plastic Albertson's bags hanging off my cold hands, and Snug ran up to me and licked my hands, warming them like only a dog can.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Three Beautiful Things 11/28/07:Croce, Clapton/Knopfler, Cale

1. Jim Croce revival! I spent a little time on YouTube tonight not only remembering and admiring Jim Croce, but trying to get beyond my nostalgic feeling for his songs and listening to how he shaped his lyrics and how he performed.

2. Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler! Until tonight I didn't they ever performed together. If you scroll down to my last post you can listen to them perform together: first "Layla" and then "Wonderful Tonight". I cannot get enough of Mark Knopfler's stylings on guitar and what I love is epitomized as he plays a quiet sideman electric guitar to Clapton's acoustic guitar and vocals in their performance of "Layla". Indulge yourself. Scroll down and listen.

3. J. J. Cale revival! Is there a more easy going, placid guitar player and singer than J. J. Cale? His face is cracked with wrinkles and character, but as he performs "Cocaine" on a YouTube video I watched early this evening, he was like a country-jazz Buddha in his expressionless calm as he leisurely worked his way through his subtle rendering of the doom cocaine use promises. "She don't lie, she don't lie: cocaine."

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler: Indulge Yourself


Wonderful Tonight

Three Beautiful Things: 11/27/07: Leon, Nilsson, Helvetica Redux

1. Leon Russell revival! While my students wrote their in-class essays tonight, I listened to "Tight Rope", "Stranger in a Strange Land", and "Back to the Island" and wondered why, or why, had I, without malice, banished Leon Russell to the fringes of my music listening for so long?

2. Harry Nilsson revival! While a different section of students wrote their in-class essays this morning, I listened to "Jump Into the Fire" three times and marveled, more with each listening, at Herbie Flowers' gnarly, cellar dwelling, rumbling bass line. I had never before nor have I since first hearing this song in 1972 heard such a growling, toe touching bass line that has excited me more.

3. Stepson Patrick came home from Corvallis. I think he came to do his laundry. I told him I had just watched the documentary movie "Helvetica" and he launched into a long, jazzy riff about the history of typeface and what fonts are sublime and which are the wretched, fraudulent scourges of the Earth, and suddenly I felt new pleasure for having cosigned for about $45 million in student loans so he could pursue a degree in graphic arts/design.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Last Good Day

I was very happy on Thursday, July 16, 1981. My first wife, Eileen, was coming home on one of her days off. She lived in Portland that summer. She was a copy desk intern for The Oregonian. I lived in our apartment in Eugene and took German and began to read in earnest for my English Renaissance Drama field exam, coming in April, 1982.

Eileen seemed happy, too, to have some time together. In fact, on Thursday, July 16, 1981, we indulged ourselves and bought fresh salmon filets and a bottle of wine and some fresh salad vegetables and a couple of potatoes. We overdrew our checking account to buy this food. We had a barbecue with our Hibatchi.

But, Thursday, July 16, 1981 also saddened us. Deeply. That day Harry Chapin, singer, songwriter, and warrior against hunger, was killed in a car crash on Long Island. The report came over All Things Considered and we were stunned.

We loved the two Harry Chapin concerts we had heard in the Spokane Opera House. The first was with a supporting musicians, part of a tour that was later released on a double LP, "Greatest Stories, Live", an album that became a soundtrack to our young married life. The second featured Harry Chapin solo and was a benefit to raise money for a Spokane group working to fight hunger.

Our favorite Harry Chapin songs were dramatic monologues. Harry created characters in his songs gave voice to the delusions, dreams, and sad failures of these characters. "Taxi" featured a cabbie whose fare one night is a lover from years ago whose dream to become an actress has come true, while the cab driver, who was going to be pilot, only flies when he's at the wheel of his cab getting stoned. "Mr. Tanner" tells the story of a man who works at a laundry and sings while hanging clothes: "He did not know how well he sang. It only made him whole."

We had splurged and bought the salmon and wine before we heard the news of his death. We remembered his tireless drive for social justice. We laughed at how funny he was and tried to make sense of his death, tried to believe that, like his famous song, "Circle" that maybe his death completed the circle of his life, since, as he sang:

No straight lines make up my life;
And all my roads have bends;
There's no clear-cut beginnings;
And so far no dead-ends.

He'd reached his dead end, and,we thought, desperate for meaning, the circle of his life had been closed.

We grilled the salmon and tossed the salad and baked the potatoes and put Harry Chapin on the turntable, as if we were having a last supper with him. We enjoyed a perfect meal and felt our grief at Harry Chapin's death and the joy of his music and having a rare evening together.

I didn't know it at the time, but this was our last good day together.

Soon, Eileen's trips to Eugene nearly disappeared. She preferred staying in Portland. I took a trip to Kellogg alone when summer school was out. I thought our being apart was a sign of strength in our marriage: we didn't have to be together all the time like lesser couples. We were strong. We could pursue our ambitions, independent of each other, with full mutual support. I thought we had the perfect mature and modern marriage.

In Kellogg, rumors flew in the Silver Valley about the Bunker Hill shutting down. Soon Uncle Bunker would die, putting hundreds of men out of work. Dad would soon lose his job. Things were falling apart.

Back in Eugene, Eileen began to talk about wanting to leave our marriage. At first, I thought she was being hypothetical. I was still feeling high from our dinner together on July 16, 1981 and was deeply committed to the idea that we had a failsafe marriage.

By December, our marriage was over. I'd been living a delusion. Eileen longed for a life of freedom that I couldn't or wouldn't understand. She wanted to move around, earn money free of our graduate student life, and, I suspect, to be free of my erratic temperament, single-minded academic drive, and drinking binges.

I think back to July 16, 1981 often. In my mind, it was our last good day together. It was a good day with a full range of grief, admiration, ambition, music, great food, wine, sadness, and pleasure. It was as if the whole complex of experiences that comprised our marriage were compacted into a single day.

I suspect, though, that I have fallen into the Emily Webb trap. In Our Town, Emily, after her death, can go back and relive one day in her life. Mrs. Gibbs urges her to choose an insignificant day, but Emily goes back to a day she remembers fondly, her twelfth birthday.

When she relives that day, she sees it from a perspective she lacked as a twelve year old. She sees her father being oblivious, concerned with mundane things, not Emily's joy. She sees her family taking moments for granted, not seizing them for the joy they hold. Revisiting her twelfth birthday chastens her excitement.

I've wondered too many times what would I would see if, after I die, I transported myself back to July 16, 1981. Would it really be my last good day with Eileen? What would I see decades later that I didn't see on July 16, 1981?

I'm pretty sure I know. Eileen was faking it. This was not a good day for her. I would see that she came home out of a sense of obligation, dreading being back home with me.

I would see that her grief for the death of Harry Chapin was genuine.

I would see the distance she was keeping. I would see myself as foolishly ecstatic, trying too hard, aware underneath my delusions that Eileen was unhappy. I would see the salmon and the wine and the salad and the potatoes as a thick quilt of temporary comfort I wrapped myself in to feel secure, but that isolated me from any awareness that our marriage would soon end.

On July 16,1981, I didn't want to believe what revisiting that day would show me was inevitable. I would see that the security and approval I longed for and that I thought marriage would guarantee me for life was a childish dream, ungrounded in actuality.

In his song, "Taxi", the cab driver, Harry, lets his old lover, Sue, off, "past the gate and the fine trimmed lawns", never to see her again.

The song's last moment reminds me of the last time I saw Eileen. It was in Portland in June of 1982. I moved the last of the furniture and other belongings that were Eileen's to her apartment in the northwest part of town and went to the Oregonian to return her apartment key. She took the key,

And she walked away in silence,
It's strange, how you never know,
But we'd both gotten what we'd asked for,
Such a long, long time ago.

Three Beautiful Things 11/26/07: Chapin, Helvetica, Alex Supertramp

1. Oh man! The memories and old feelings blew over me like a Bonner County blizzard when I played myself a Harry Chapin concert on Napster.

2. The documentary film "Helvetica" astonished me. I couldn't believe how fascinating I found this exploration of this ubiquitous typeface.

3. The movie "Into the Wild" has been preoccupying me over the last three weeks. I listened repeatedly to Supertramp's "Long Way Home", trying to imagine this song accompanying the journeys of Chris McCandless, who changed his name on the road to Alex Supertramp.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Three Beautiful Things 11/25/07: Paradiso, Fresh Insights, Iain Matthews

1. Ah! The "Cinema Paradiso" soundtrack pulling tears out of this old dog's ducts.

2. Reading WR 121 essays almost all day and enjoying every single one.

3. Pulling out Iain Matthews' cd "Pure and Crooked" and feeling emotion from sixteen years ago when I first played it, a gift from the people at "Dirty Linen", who gave the recording away to new subscribers.

Three Beautiful Things 11/24/07: SnugGate, Ennui, Comfort

1. Snug and I went to the Armitage dog park and Snug bounded all over the park, intoxicated by the crisp foggy air, the piles of leaves, and his races from one fence to another, zigzagging across the park. Unprecedented: Snug went to the park gate and sat, letting me know he was ready to go home.

2. It's an odd movie, "The Aquatic Life of Steve Zissou". After watching Wes Anderson's other movies, I had to see it. What to make of it? Wes Anderson's an ennui guy. His characters are unmoored. His movies' plots similarly are without secure anchors. Bill Murray is the perfect actor for Wes Anderson's existential wanderings, as is Owen Wilson. Part of the casting about in his stories is sweetness and tenderness. No one is all that admirable, but no one is incapable of kindness. No one is heroic and no one is irredeemable. It makes for an odd and refreshingly authentic experience, within the highly contrived and hermetic worlds he creates.

3. I found a pair of leather-bottomed half way up my calf wool sock slippers in my chest of drawers. Someone gave them to me as a gift last year. I'm embarrassed in my dotage that I can't remember who. I know this: I love these funny looking, warm and comfortable brogans.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Bible as Literature

Oldřich Kulhánek / Oldrich Kulhanek
litografie / lithograph
2004, 91,5 x 64 cm
23.000,- Kč / CZK

Under the headline "Should Bonners Ferry Teach Bible?", D. F. Oliveria, the steady hand at the wheel of Huckleberries Online (HBO), raised the question, "Would you support a public high school teaching the Bible as part of a secular program?", here.

I made a brief comment at HBO in answer to this question and felt like writing more, and decided to address this question in a little more detail on my blog.

I've been a Christian, sometimes barely having the faith of a mustard seed, my entire life. I graduated from a Christian college (Whitworth), spent a year working as a Chaplain's assistant at Whitworth, and taught English two different times at Whitworth. I also was part of the team taught course, Core 150, a survey of the Judeo-Christian tradition. I'm licensed as a lay preacher in the Episcopal Church.

My thoughts about this question grow out of a lifetime spent practicing and serving the Christian faith.

When it comes to the Bible, and understanding the Bible, I'm a pragmatist.

In my view, the Bible should be studied and approached in as many different ways as possible. The Bible should be studied from the perspectives of theology, sociology, psychology, history, literary criticism, historical criticism, mythology, linguistics, etc. I don't regard the Bible as a source of a single Truth, but as a source of countless truths.

When looked at from academic points of view like history or sociology, mythology, or literary criticism, the Bible can only be looked at as the Word of God, if "Word of God" means the word about God, not the word coming from God.

Thus, looked at from a secular point of view, studying the Bible has little or nothing to do with affirming or confirming the tenets of a world religion or of the church.

It has to do with an invitation: what is the text inviting us to understand?

For example, the Book of Job invites us to see Job as an unwitting pawn in a challenge set forth by Satan. Satan questions Job's faith. He says the Lord has put a hedge of protection around Job and Job is untested. The Lord responds by saying, in essence, destroy that hedge. Don't lay a hand on Job, but go ahead, take everything he's got.

Seen from a literary perspective, I would not take the opening of this story literally. To me, it's an invitation to experience what senseless suffering feels like, especially to a person, like Job, who has lived an upright life. He's done nothing to bring suffering upon himself.

In other words, the teller of the Job story might have thought about how much senseless suffering exists in the world.

The teller might have thought, "It's as if the Lord stands by and allows Satan to work destruction upon the upright."

This seems grossly unjust. Why should an upright man like Job suffer such loss and misery? Shouldn't a man as good as Job be rewarded for his service and devotion? Why should he suffer like this?

What are we invited to learn from such a story?

I think the story invites us to learn about the capricious, unwarranted, unpredictable, unjust, uncalled for nature of suffering itself. It cannot be avoided. It comes out of nowhere. That's Job's experience.

The story invites us to see how Job responds to his suffering and to how others respond to it, too.

Thus, Job's "comforters" become central. We are invited to see that in the face of Job's inexplicable suffering, they respond, not with compassion, but with superiority. One suggests that Job just needs to repent. Another tells him to quit complaining. The third tells him he needs to believe more strongly, that something in him is lacking.

None of them offers to share in his suffering. None of them considers this suffering as random, mysterious, or unjust. Each believes the suffering must be happening for a reason.

None of them understands Job's existential plight.

From a literary perspective, the timeless mystery of suffering, of life seeming pointless and absurd is at the heart of this story and we are invited to fully experience the misery of this suffering as Job rails about what's happened to him.

When I have taught Job in a literature course, some Christian students want to rush in and defend God and want to parallel the suffering of Job with the suffering of Jesus Christ.

They want to see Job as steadfast and patient.

But, Job's angry. He lashes out at his circumstance. He bitterly proclaims himself a man more sinned against than sinning. He cries out to Yahweh and Yahweh isn't all that comforting in response.

Yahweh, the story's supreme being, tells Job that he can't understand what's happened to him.

It's a classic existential circumstance and we are invited to see that not only do humans suffer without cause, but that often humans who serve a Supreme Being often know and experience and know suffering more fully than they experience and know the One who created the world and brought all into being.

It's a painful story. Seen from a secular perspective, it illuminates the harsh reality of suffering and how much occurs in the world that is senseless.

But, in the end, all is restored to Job. It's at this point that the story raises the question as to why Job is rewarded in the end.

If looked at from a literary or secular point of view, one way to see the story is that Job is rewarded for his anger, his honesty, his lashing out. It is as if the story not only narrates the mystery of suffering, but the mystery of its coming to an end as Job accepts that he cannot understand what has happened to him.

Suffering perplexes, enrages, and chastens Job.

It's a universal story that should have a place in a public school, not to bring students to believe in God, but to help students understand that from the beginning, beginning with the story of the Garden of Eden itself, storytellers have wrestled with the inexplicable problem of suffering.

Does suffering come from punishment? Is it random? Is it avoidable? Is it inevitable? Can it be explained? How do we live with it? How do we help others? What does suffering help us understand about human nature and the human condition? What is the nature of this supreme being in Job called Lord, God, Yahweh?

Is the Job story a hopeful story? Is it a story of despair?

Are not these the very questions that a liberal arts curriculum ought to be addressing, whether through the stories of the Odyssey, Gilgamesh, Beowulf, King Lear, The Ramayana, the Book of Job, the Psalms, or the story of Jesus?

If seen as another book of stories and poems in a long line of other ancient books told by a series of storytellers and poets trying to figure out what it means to be human in relation to other humans and in relation to a Supreme Being, I think it's foolish not to study the Bible in public schools.

But, studying from this perspective, persuading students to study from this perspective, and winning the trust of the religious and the secular community is much, much more easier said than done.

Three Beautiful Things 11/23/07: Corruption, Pork Chops, Not Much

1. "Murder on a Sunday Morning" profiles the work of Public Defenders Patrick McGuiness and Ann Finnell to reverse the conviction of fifteen year old Brenton Butler for the murder of a tourist outside a Ramada Inn in Jacksonville. The dogged work of McGuiness and Finnell reveals, yes, the laziness, arrogance, corruption, deceit, and violence of the Jacksonville Sheriff's detectives who coerced Brenton Butler to confess, but it portrays the lengths law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and the state attorney general's office go to in order to protect one another and insulate shoddy and violent and corrupt law enforcement practices from the public. Ann Finnell's statement in the DVD's extras interview is the most telling when she matter of factly tells the interviewer that to her this is not an extraordinary case, but the kind of case she sees all the time.

2. The Deke, Mary, and I ate a belated Thanksgiving dinner of stuffed pork chops, salad, Brussel sprouts, and potatoes. I had some Talking Rain sparkling water, too.

3. Aside from doing laundry, and watching a superb documentary, I didn't do much today. I like that.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Three Beautiful Things 11/22/07: Gold Star, Knowles Creek, Crisis Line

1. Snug and I went to the Coburg dog park and Snug was the best behaved he's ever been. He responded to my commands, he calmed down after getting too rambunctious with one dog, and he was good to the children running around in the park, who should have never been running around in a dog park.

2. Snug and I took a gorgeous drive and stopped at Knowles Creek and here are three of the pictures I took. I really liked the dim slate late November light.

3. InlandEmpireGirl sent me installation #1 of Thanksgiving Disaster at her house where she is hosting Mom, and Silver Valley Girl's family. Let's see: busted toilet, still frozen turkey, malfunctioning satellite dish . . . .hmmmm....time to bust out the booze!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Three Beautiful Things 11/21/07: 49- UP, Editing, Student Support

1. I watched 28-UP about twenty years ago and became entranced with Michael Apted's project to interview a group of English men and women. The project started when they were seven years old, with 7-UP. Someday I'll watch the entirety of 7, 14, and 21 UP. I've seen 28 and 35 UP. Somehow I missed 42UP, but this afternoon I watched 49-UP and what a pleasure to see these people twenty one years after I first saw them and to see how they have grown so fully into themselves. It's moving and reassuring.

2. I watched a second documentary today: "Cutting Edge" is a most revealing look at the art of film editing for movies. We owe every moment we enjoy in a movie to the editor: they create the memorable moments, give the actors' performances their shape, and give overall shape and structure to the movie's plot.

3. I was punch drunk with fatigue this morning as I conducted my WR 121 class and a handful of students took the lead and helped us explore and study riveting passages from Louise Steinman's The Souvenir.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Three Beautiful Things 11/20/07: Dude, Where's My Car?, Kellogg Friend, Sorghum Head

1. I got a good fifteen minute walk in today. It was unexpected. I was looking for my car in the Lane Community College southwest parking lots.

2. My student Kellie used to live next door to an old family friend and she and I talked more about Bob Scrafford this evening. I regret that I never went out to Sweet Home to visit him before he died. I'd had another student, John, who lived in the house Kellie lived in next to Bob. When John told me about Bob, I just never got myself out there to visit.

3. Tiffanee emailed me to tell me that the question I raised at the end of WR 121 this evening sent the wheels in her head spinning overtime. I was glad to hear this. I had one of those nights tonight as a teacher where I felt like my mind was in a tub of chilled molasses. That Tiffanee was stimulated and bothered and wrote me about it helped me salvage some self-respect after I'd been feeling pretty dismal about my work tonight.

Sibling Assignment #44: Unusual Thanksgiving

My siblings and I are each writing about an unusual Thanksgiving in our past. InlandEmpireGirl's snowbound story is here and Silver Valley Girl's story of immeasurable heartbreak leading to a clearer sense of her mortal self in relation to God's mysterious designs is here.

I gave this assignment and then realized I had already completed it a year ago. If you go here, you can read about our family's infamous Gratitude is an Attitude Thanksgiving in 2001.
But, I have another unusual Thanksgiving Day to write about:

Back in 1986, I was despondent all through the fall months and into the New Year. I had a girlfriend who was living in London and she took up with another guy and I was crushed to the point of instability.

I was desperate to find ways to just feel better, to relieve my mind of the obsessive preoccupation with this loss and to somehow be able to breathe freely and unknot my stomach.

I thought a Men's Group would help.

I had some male friends at the time who also thought that we should do what we knew a lot of women were doing at the time: get together and talk about our gender.

It was an earnest undertaking. We talked well into the evening a few times about our frustrations and how we wanted to be free of roles and behaviors we felt had been ascribed to us because we were men.

We talked with passion and vented our anger.

We shared feelings.

We hugged.

I continued to feel despondent about my love life.

Thanksgiving neared, and three of us didn't have family around and weren't travelling, so we decided to have Thanksgiving together.

We also decided to invite any other Thanksgiving "strays" we knew to join us.

We decided, in the spirit and unwritten rules of a Men's Group, that we didn't want to have a traditional Thanksgiving. Somehow it seemed revolutionary and gender bending to us if we kept it vegetarian. As evolving, independent men, no one was going to tell us we had to eat flesh at Thanksgiving.

We also decided this Thanksgiving would football and alcohol free.

I spent the morning and early afternoon baking a barley-cheese-vegetable casserole and making a big pot of black bean soup. The others brought their dishes. Someone brought a Grape-Nut bake of some sort. We had grapes. We drank fizzy apple juice. Some one brought a dessert, probably some kind of soft tofu fake pumpkin pie.

No one was going to tell this group of evolving independent men that we had to have real pumpkin pie.

One of my students accepted my "stray" invitation and brought his mother.

She was in her late forties, a divorcee, a spiritual person, and she really liked to idea of being part of an evolving independent Men's Group having a vegetarian football-free Thanksgiving together.

I think we held hands over dinner before we ate and invoked the blessing of a non-gendered Higher Power. I think we went around the table and shared what we were thankful for, giving each other vigorous nods of approval if we used the words "expanded consciousness" or "feel more connected".

We talked and laughed and congratulated ourselves for being evolving, independent, and authentic men.

The mother liked this. She told us we were very special men, that the world would be a better place if there were more men like this.

She also kept tracing her lips with her fingers. I have no memory at all of what the mother looked like except she was slender. If I saw her on the street today, I would walk right by her as a stranger.

But, she kept tracing her lips with her fingers and her fingernails. Her lips were attractive. They must have felt soft under the touch of her fingers and fingernails.

It was weird. Her son was at the table. We were all fifteen to twenty years younger than she was. It just didn't seem to fit well with our evolving independent Men's Group vibe.

It wasn't until about a week later that Doug and I acknowledged that the mother had seemed to be sort of seducing us.

Neither one of us wanted to bring it up. We were both kind of turned on by her.

We thought such feelings and their accompanying yearnings were base, certainly below the station of evolving, independent Men's Group guys like us.

Monday, November 19, 2007


I have been working hard keeping up with my workload at Lane Community College. My workload is simple, but not easy. Read and respond to essays. Read and help students dig deeply into books. It's been rewarding this quarter. My students have written perceptively and intelligently, sometimes even spiritually, about the books we've read. Most of them have written honest, sometimes nakedly honest, essays about questions that rise out of these books and how they work out these questions in their own lives.

It's the blessing and the curse of teaching writing. The blessing is being a part of students arriving at deep knowledge of the world and, more important, discovering deeper levels of self-knowledge. Many make new sense out of their experiences and work out new insights about themselves and what has happened in their lives.

It's really too strong of a word to say curse. It sounded right when I wrote it, but it's not a curse. It's a weight. This is heavy work I do. That's a fact. I become privy to a wide variety of losses, abuses, crimes, heartbreaks, disappointments, and other things that my students have suffered or commited.

As weight, it starts to weigh on me. I suffer fatigue.

It's a fatigue I know well. As I grow older, it weighs on me more. I have grown more sensitive to the difficulties I read about in my students' papers and I seem to take more of it in each year.

Oddly, a consequence of this weight is that my class sessions are lighter. The more my students write and they more they know that I know and the more I encourage them that they are writing more honestly, more cogently, more expressively, more thoughtfully, the more trust between us grows and this trust spills over into the classroom.

We joke with each other. We laugh a lot. We discuss serious ethical, emotional, intellectual, and philosophical subject matter, but in our shared trust, laughter is always just a wise crack or a quick story away.

I don't think it's unusual to be fatigued by what I love. At one level, it's my love that engenders the fatigue because I pour myself into my work and I give my students all the energy and attention I can muster.

But, it's tiring, and while my work and my service to my students doesn't suffer from my fatigue, my writing has suffered.

I've had many ideas about things I'd like to be writing about on this blog and I've imagined pictures I've wanted to be taking.

But, I have to draw the line somewhere. I can't let my work suffer, so my blog has.

So I thought I'd write a post about why I haven't been posting much writing.

Three Beautiful Things 11/19/07: Starting *The Souvenir*, *Hustle and Flow*, Get That Paper Done

1. We started our discussion of Louise Steinman's memoir, The Souvenir, in WR 121 today and began to discuss ways that this book helps us see the way the history of the United States, and particularly war, is inextricably connected to the lives of families and how they behave with and understand one another, or don't.

2. I watched Hustle and Flow and deeply admired the acting of Terrence Howard and Anthony Anderson. I'd first been impressed with Anthony Anderson in his role as Antwoine in The Shield and once again experienced him as a profoundly emotionally open and available actor. It's a complex movie, juxtaposing its central character DJay's cruelty and exploitation as a pimp with his tenderness and poetic fire as a man who wants to break into world of making rap recordings.

3. I was very happy to work out things with Shelley today. She's been a student in three of my classes and lives in poverty with two children. She's absorbed a lot of hardship and hassle since I've known her and she's determined to graduate from LCC. She contacted me over the weekend and today we confirmed that she's going to write the last paper she needs to in order to complete the WR 122 course she started last winter and this will enable her graduate in the spring.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Three Beautiful Things 11/17-18/07: Great Essays, Sobering DVD's, Buffalo Joes

The two days of this weekend have been like one day. I've spent many hours grading essays for my three sections of WR 121, which leads me to the first of my three beautiful things:

1. My students have read Dan O'Brien's Buffalo for the Broken Heart with unusual depth and insight. Even though reading these papers has been very time consuming, each paper excited a different thrill in me as I read their different ways of understanding O'Brien's ecological vision and his struggles to find purpose and meaning in his life.

2. Before I started reading these papers, on Saturday morning I watched the last of The West, the Ken Burns produced multi-hour PBS series. It's been very sobering. The series gave particular attention to the conquest and relocation of the many Indian tribes in the west, and nothing about that story was good. I learned a great deal from this series and am left hungry to learn more and have several books piled on my desk that will help me do so.

3. My fellow English instructor Pam Dane has turned sixty-five years old and she threw a party for herself at a local bookstore this evening. Kate brought buffalo sloppy joes and it was the best sloppy joe I've ever had in a career of sloppy joe eating that goes back to Frontier Days and the Silver King elementary school PTA booth at Ferd Stadium in Smelterville and even farther back than that.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Three Beautiful Things 11/16/07: Stubborn, More Introductions, Murderball

1. Hyun Kyung Chang, who goes by Julia, is in my WR 121 class and when I asked her to read the introduction to her latest essay, she asked me to do it for her. We playfully sparred about it. I came to where she was sitting and sat next to her and read her introduction. I stayed in that seat for the rest of the class session and it was fun to conduct class from among the students rather than in front of them and to continue laughing with Julia about her stubbornly refusing to read her paper out loud. We both had a lot of fun, as did the class.

2. How about those other paragraphs students read aloud? Terrific. Each student's introduction was unique in style and approach and artfully opened the way for his or her paper to move more deeply into the paper's exploration and argument. When I left class I had to go to my office and quiet down the adrenaline that had been jolted by my students' writing.

3. I thoroughly enjoyed the documentary film "Murderball". The movie's back stories, player and coach profiles, and footage of the game being played introduced me to a whole world of athletic competition I knew nothing about. Wheelchair rugby is not only highly competetive, but it's a physically fierce and mentally demanding sport.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Three Beautiful Things 11/15/07: Starts, Taxes, Conversaton

1. My evening WR 121 students wrote wonderful introductions to their next essay, and going around the room and hearing them all was uplifting.

2. Property tax bill paid. Well two thirds of it. More later.

3. A wonderful discussion with Kendall about Into the Wild.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Three Beautiful Things 11/13/07: Denali, Pictures, A-Rod

1. Today's Media Commission meeting hashed out the future of the college's literary publication, Denali. I enjoyed the discussion. I enjoyed the give and take about several issues surrounding the magazine. I enjoyed that we came to a reasonable and workable conclusion in our work. I admired the others I was working with and could say something I rarely do: "That was a good meeting."

2. I went to Into the Wild for the third time tonight. I'm ready to go again. This movie is growing on me. I love the movie's pictures and how they are framed. Again and again, this movie presents pictures of a variety of American places and presents them in a variety of styles that enlarge the story and work beautifully with the music soundtrack, which I absorbed more deeply tonight. That's all I can say for now.

3. I'm unusually and unpredictably happy that Alex Rodriquez is negotiating on his own to try to rejoin the New York Yankees. I actually thought this might happen. To me, the good news is that he must have found out that other teams he's interested in were not willing to shell out the millions of dollars he and his agent were asking for, and without that kind of money available elsewhere, he's back knocking on the Yankees' door. I wouldn't be surprised if he works out a deal with the Yanks. It would add relish to the already weird world of Major League Baseball in the 21st century.

Three Beautiful Things 11/13/07: Mormons, Tight Writing, Noble Cattle Ranching

1. My 10:00 WR 121 class got into a loud discussion, voices yelling across the room, about whether the Mormon church sanctions adult men having sex with thirteen year old girls. It was pretty funny as three lapsed Mormons worked to explain to one student who had heard this was the case with Mormons that he was wrong.

2. I enjoyed, probably more than my students did, reading passages from Buffalo for the Broken Heart just what a mindful writer Dan O'Brien is, especially when it comes to structuring his book and working to make each piece of it, paragraph by paragraph, hold together.

3. While discussing Buffalo for the Broken Heart, we've discussed Dan O'Brien's criticisms of cattle ranching and Joleen talked about her upcoming essay which is a discussion of her mother's side of the family. They have been cattle ranchers for five generations on land near Weiser, Idaho. She explaining in her paper that theirs is a noble undertaking. I was proud of Joleen. She was risking disapproval. I was proud of my students. They listened intently to her and some might have had ugly thoughts about cattle ranching made more complicated, thanks to Joleen.

Three Beautiful Things 11/12/07: Megaflood, Flood Prevention, Heavy Lifting

1. The geological history of central Washington state is stunning. The scablands were carved out by an incomprehensible flood when a great glacial lake in western Montana broke through an ice dam. I learned about all of this watching a Nova DVD today. Stunning.

2. Stepson Patrick decided to blow off his mother's wishes that he clean the leaves out of the back rain gutters. So I did it and it was satisfying not falling off the ladder, not having the ladder tip over, and not having the ladder come back on me as I flopped around on the ladder scooping leaves and other roof gunk out of the gutters.

3. Stepson Patrick has never taken care of his post-Burning Man plastic tubs. I want the space they took up in the garage back, so I grunted them on the shelf above the garage door. It was gratifying to know that I could do some heavy lifting without landing myself in the hospital in traction.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Sibling Assignment #43: Veterans Day

InlandEmpireGirl assigned us to write a post in honor of Veterans Day. InlandEmpireGirl's is here and Silver Valley Girl's is here.

To fulfill this assignment, I'll write an imaginary letter from my Uncle Bill to his mother. Uncle Bill was killed aboard the U.S.S. Selfridge at the Battle of Vella Lavella in waters near the Solomon Islands in October, 1943.

September, 1943
Somewhere on the Pacific Ocean

Dear Mama,

Our days out here are pretty long. Nothing much to do. I help keep this old tub runnin, but a lot the time I sit around and make jokes with the boys and we play lots of cards. Sometimes it don't even seem like we are in a war. I'll tell you one thing; I get mighty tired of these engines bein so loud. All the time. Never heard anything like it. You'd think I'd get used to it. Never do.

I think about you everyday. I hope Ray and Harry aren't bein smart mouths. You keepin those boys chasin Ruth off the porch. I'll bet she's gettin pretty.

Last night the boys asked me to sing for them. I was down doin my job keepin this ship runnin right and I started singin Maria Elena, my ole favorite. I didn't think anyone could hear me, over them engines the way they make so much racket but just my luck I got carried away on that last part "A love like mine is great enough for two.To share this love is really all is ask of you." and a couple of the boys heard me and so they want me to sing for them during mess.

Anything to help the time pass, I guess.

Sure do miss the Y. I think about scoring that 300 game. Guess I shouldn't brag. You were proud of me. Meant a lot.

Well guess I ought to stop yammerin so much. Sure miss Kellogg. I haven't met no one like Kellogg people on this big old ship. I thought people were the same everywhere. I learned different. I can't wait to get back and go with the old crew out to 3 Toots.

I love you, Mama. Keep writin' to me. Means a lot.

And don't worry. I hear we'll be helpin out some other ships here pretty soon at somewhere called the Solomon Islands. Never heard of em. I hear we have the enemy on their heels so maybe we can in there do our business and get out real fast. Somethins gotta go fast out here.

I just wanna come home.

Your loving son,

PS They gave us picture of this old tin can the other day to send home. Pretty good size old gal, huh.

American Dream (Part 1)

Stamped deep in the character of the American sense of identity is the idea of the rugged individualist. Put another way, a deep feature of the American Dream is the idea of going one's own way, against all odds. Oddly, though, it's these very individualists who draw the most criticism for being the very thing that is so very deeply American.

The American Dream is on my mind because of two books I've read and two movies I've watched over the last week. On the face of it, the two movies are eerily similar.

Timothy Treadwell, the man featured in Werner Herzog's documentary"Grizzly Man", struck out on his own for thirteen consecutive summers, with occasional company, to commune with the brown bears at Katmai National Park on the Alaska Peninsula, south of Anchorage.

He lives among the bears, talks to them, even gets close enough to touch them. In the end, he and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, are mauled and eaten by a bear. This incident was not filmed, but recorded in audio. The audio is not played in the movie.

Herzog crafted the movie by selecting scenes from the one hundred hours of video tape Treadwell took of himself and the bears, interspersing these scenes with interviews of people who knew Treadwell and with Alaska officials who try to figure Treadwell out.

In the spirit of the American Dream, Treadwell had a vision of what he wanted his life to be and went after it. It was not a dream of material gain. Far from it. It was a dream of finding his own true soul by being in communion with the brown bears and their habitat, a dream of striking out in the wilderness and being free of all societal constraints. It was a dream fashioned around protecting the bears, of living out a connection with a life force deeper and more powerful than any found in civilized society.

In the end, Treadwell's dream was the source of his own demise. The dream had a dark side. That dark side was hubris. Treadwell believed he had become so at one with the bears that he could tell them what to do, could protect himself with out electric fencing, without pepper spray, without a rifle.

It takes a certain amount of hubris to enter unknown territory, whether charting unknown waters or launching astronauts into space. It's the American way to hunger for exploring the unknown, but that hunger has to be tempered with caution and respect for the unknown.

Egotistical, immature, self-aggrandizing, Treadwell scoffed at caution and disguised his disrespect for the brown bears behind his rhetoric of doing what was best for the bears, and it killled him.

The American Dream can be fatal.

Chris McCandless found this out in his death.

Similar to Timothy Treadwell, Chris McCandless had become entirely disillusion with the hypocrsies and lies of civilized society. He dreamed of stripping his life down to the barest of essentials as a way of living truth, truth uncluttered by any material things or societal constructs that would come between him and the purity of his soul.

Chris' dream was to live absolute authenticity.

Chris struck out on his own, drove west, abandoned his car in Arizona, and hitchhiked, hopped freights, and kayaked his way through much of the west before heading north to Alaska to venture into the wild and live off the land with a bag of rice, a rifle, some ammo, a machete, a fish net, and his books, including one on the flora and fauna of Alaska.

Chris strove to be as close to being an individualist as he could. He believed, in the depths of his American soul, that a person can determine what he wants and will himself to have it. He believed a person could do this on his own.

Chris was driven by his dream of going west, of living beyond all the limits that money and family and society tried to impose on him, to grow into as fully human a person as he could, to throw himself headlong and recklessly into every new experience that came his way.

Chris sought no publicity. Quite the opposite. He sought pure anonymity and autonomy, as best he could. His desire was not driven by a self-aggrandized dream, but was a spiritual quest for that most fundamental of American dreams: he wanted to be absolutely free.

Tragically, Chris' three months and several days in the Alaska wild left him little room for error. He underestimated and was ignorant of the cycles of nature, when game would be available, when rivers swell from glacial runoffs, and how fatal it is to eat the wrong root plucked from the land.

Chris died. He died soon after he realized, through his reading of Tolstoy, that true happiness is not found in isolation, but in communion with others. Learning this moved him to surrender his isolation and return to the society of others.

But he never got out. Chris lived as authentically as he could, but, in the end, he was no match for the rigors of nature.

He died as a young man as fully committed to the American Dream of asserting one's individual will and searching unfettered freedom as any American I have ever read about, let alone known.
Chris saw the light of a truth larger than he imagined. We need each other. Nothing spoke as clearly on behalf of this truth than his death.

Three Beautiful Things 11/11/07: Grizzly, Revisiting "Into the Wild", Anguish

1. I came away from viewing the remarkable documentary "Grizzly Man" with high regard for the film, but low regard for its subject, Timothy Treadwell. While Treadwell's video footage of the bears in the Alaska Peninsula were astonishing, his self-absorption, immaturity, and deceit left me cold. His death was awful, but his on-camera persona created little sympathy in me for his project.

2. I came away from seeing "Into the Wild" for the second time with a deeper understanding of the movie and an even higher regard for how beautifully made it is and for the way it portrays the life and death of Chris McCandless.

3. I found this video portraying Iraqi war veteran James Blake Miller astonishing. I wasn't that crazy about the epilogue, but the two parts focusing on Miller are riveting in their exploration of his anguish.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Sibling Assignment #42: Ghosts

Beneath the Post Street Bridge, below the falls, Tony Bamonte found the gun that was most likely used to murder George Conniff.

Silver Valley Girl assigned us to write about ghosts. I'm way behind, but I'm going to get caught up. You can find InlandEmpireGirl's post here and Silver Valley Girl's post here.

I think about ghosts all the time. It's because I don't think history is a reality that is behind us. I am certain that what we call the past lives with us all the time. It's in the present. My way of understanding the ever present reality of the "past" is through ghosts.

I've just finished reading two books that I think are about ghosts, although the writers never put it this way. One is set in Spokane and the other in South Dakota.

The book set in South Dakota is entitled Buffalo for the Broken Heart. Dan O'Brien, South Dakota rancher and writer, chronicles how he slowly, but surely, decided to transform his ranch by no longer raising cattle and turning his efforts to the raising of wild buffalo.

In his book, O'Brien listens to the ghosts of the buffalo. He looks to the buffalo that are no longer on the land and thinks of their ecological relationship with the lands of South Dakota.

The ghosts teach him that as a species indigenous to the great plains of South Dakota, the buffalo has a relationship to the land that enriches the land rather than destroying it the way cattle do. The cattle are imports to South Dakota. They have not evolved to graze the land of the plains. The buffalo did evolve this way and the ghosts of the buffalo, that is, the fact that they have the same relationship to the land in the 21st century that they did in all the preceding centuries, begin to prick O'Brien's conscience.

He realizes that his cattle are costing him a lot of money because he is always having to compensate for the cattle being out of place. The cattle need more food than the land offers; the cattle cannot find water on their own; the cattle are not mobile grazers: they do not spread themselves over the land.

O'Brien loves the land of his ranch. The buffalo ghosts teach him that his land will prosper if he brings wild buffalo to his land, if he brings the animals who belong there to graze it.

O'Brien listens to the ghosts and takes a leap of faith. He goes against the South Dakota status quo. The ghosts of the buffalo were right and O'Brien observes in wonder how much easier the buffalo are on his land and he goes into the business of selling wild buffalo meat, meat that the buffalo produce by eating the natural grass of the land, not by being grain fed and meat that is harvested only in the fall, not year around.

In other words, O'Brien's buffalo produce meat that is the result of the cycles of nature, meat that comes from sweet spring and summer grass. Unlike grain fed cattle, the buffalo produce lean meat, low in fat and cholesterol, and meat whose taste holds the varieties of the land, rather than the sameness of grain.

The way I look at it, these buffalo are deeply connected in time to their ancestors; so connected, in fact, that it is as if time did not pass between the buffalo of the 1800's or the 1900's, but rather a continuum of time has passed, and the reality of those older buffalo is alive in the present in their ghosts.

The other book I just read is Timothy Egan's Breaking Blue. It tells the story of Tony Bamonte, a Gonzaga University graduate student and Pend Oreille County Sheriff, who becomes obsessed with the unsolved murder of Newport, Washington marshal, George Conniff. Conniff was killed when he checked up on a robbery in progress at the Newport Creamery. The robbers were stealing butter, a valuable commodity during the drought of 1935.

Bamonte, through meticulous research, concludes that Spokane police detective, Clyde Roston, has been the ringleader of a Spokane syndicate that has robbed creameries and profited from the sale of black market butter.

He is certain that Clyde Roston killed George Conniff.

He listens to the ghost of that murder, the ghost of George Conniff. The murder does not recede into the past. George Conniff's ghost speaks through the consciences of a variety of people who have kept secrets about this murder over the past thirty-four years. As they unburden themselves of these secrets, Bamonte listens to the ghost of George Conniff and, for all intents and purposes, solves the crime.

I can't help but think of the ghosts of the living, too. My second wife, Annette, and I bought the house I live in. I haven't seen Annette for over ten years. Few things we owned together are here. But she is. Annette's ghost hangs around; she's still here bustling around, laughing, coughing, crying, filling the house with stuff, baby talking to the five now dead cats whose ghosts wander around.

The past doesn't go away. It's here. And ghosts aren't supernatural.

They just won't go away.

Three Beautiful Things 11/10/07: Victory, Led Zeppelin, Violence

1. The long time underachievers of the Big 10, Illinois, rose up and conquered the undefeated Ohio State Buckeyes today, 28-21. Will the Oregon Ducks rise to #2 or, gasp, #1 in the BCS standings this week? I'm on pins and needles.

2. I discovered today that XM Radio has a new channel that plays Led Zeppelin 24/7. I feel a whole lotta love.

3. I spent much of this evening going deeper and deeper into Ken Burns' program "The West". It's all about violence. It's unnerving just how violent the history of the west is and how alive that violence continues to be.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Three Beautiful Things 11/09/07: Alive, Fascinated, Relieved

1. On November 9, 1999, the Deke called friends to take me to the emergency room and I was diagnosed with bacterial meningitis. I was fortunate to have survived it.

2. I don't know exactly why, but several very complicated Mormons have come into my life and I'm beginning to become fascinated by how my preconceptions of Mormons as being totally straight, almost pure people has been challenged. Funny it's taken this long.

3. I came home today between the end of my office hour and a three o'clock meeting. I lay down and fell asleep and woke up panicked, thinking I had slept through the meeting. I hadn't. And, when I went back to the school for the meeting, I didn't sleep though it then, either.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Three Beautiful Things 11/08/07: A-OK, Corruption, Stellar Students

1. My good friend and faithful Kellogg Bloggin reader, Bridgit, emailed me today and wondered if I was having troubles because I hadn't posted on my blog for a few days. It was very thoughtful of her to ask and, happily, I reported that I've been busy with school and reading and for the first time since I started this blog, I took a few days off.

2. I finished Timothy Egan's remarkable and unsettling book "Breaking Blue". It was a perfect book for my tastes in reading. It was a Spokane and the Inland Empire history book; it was a book about conscience and the remarkable ways that long-held work on the human soul and body; it is a book about the lawless ways of the area where I was born and raised, ways that I find fascinating, if not mysterious.

3. In both my WR 121 sections today, students wrote analysis essays about Dan O'Brien's remarkable book "Buffalo for the Broken Heart" and then discussed the content of their papers. I am still ecstatic about the shrewd and sensitive insights my students have into this book and how beautifully they articulated them. Their sophisticated and deep thinking is a source of great joy.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Three Beautiful Things 11/1-3: Sean Penn, Go Ducks!, Safety

1. The movie "Into the Wild" left me speechless. I went with friends and had to say, "I can't talk. I have to go home. Good-bye."

2. Oregon's speedy, gritty Ducks beat undefeated Arizona State, 35-23.

3. I learned at a division meeting safety presentation that when I come to LCC to work, I shouldn't be worried about getting shot.

*The Autzen Stadium photograph is from

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Three Beautiful Things 10/31/07: Work, Bijou, Chili

1. Some of my fellow instructors and I got together again and tried to figure out what's going on in our work place and I enjoyed it a lot.

2. Scott and I got together and watched "The Darjeeling Limited" and I thought about the countless number of superb movies I've seen at the Bijou of the last twenty-five years or so.

3. I had to go out and buy some dog food after I got home and treated myself to a guilty pleasure: a can of Nalley's chili and saltine crackers with a pint glass of icy Diet Pepsi.