Saturday, October 30, 2010

Pardon Me While I Scream

This is what happens to people like Ed.

We had a good rain last night for the first time since last spring. All is wet and happy this morning. From my glass office I watch my neighbors decorate their homes for Halloween as the broken clouds overhead play tag with the possibility of more rain.

When my daughter was young, I loved walking the neighborhoods with her. Then we moved here, to a housing tract on the edge of a tiny rural town, and we learned that every family in the countryside drives here for trick-or-treating. Said daughter didn’t want Mom to tag along anymore. I have been stuck for the past 12 years answering the insistent doorbell to hordes of ghouls and the occasional cute ballerina. It drives my dogs batty. And for some reason, it drives me batty too. My husband likes it, so he’s the greeter while I hang with the dogs in the bedroom and eat my own Halloween candy.

To ride the Totalfeckineegit’s internationally-famous Poetry Bus this week, we must deliver something ghoulish. I would like to deliver the hundreds of greedy children who will descend on us Halloween night. I would like to frighten them away from my house. But all I can do is howl. So I shall howl, and you may investigate other howlers on the Poetry Bus at devious Liz’s place.

Ed, You Talk Too Much

“Women of 20 are as mature as a man of 40,” Ed declares
perched on the edge of my couch in his gray running suit.
His hands play imaginary piano on his knees. The right leg
twitches. “But I wonder,” he says, “when she says, ‘Ed,
you're just not mature enough’—What does that mean?”
I stare at him, feeling the pen like a sword in my hand.
“I don't want to talk about that,” I say, taking a long puff
off the fake cigarette I have made from a shortened straw,
a bit of tissue for drag and a bright red painted tip.

When I ignore him, Ed crosses the patio and stares out
the barred open windows at Santa Barbara, then leaps
on the stationary bike for a furious ride. Schizophrenic,
he has spent the better part of the afternoon wailing
in his room, two doors down from mine. He returns
to my couch and stares at me, as I puff on my straw
cigarette and write about him. A girl wanders in
to start a load of laundry, tears puffing up her face
like they have mine, a soul sister of the broken mind.
Not a word is spoken. Ed watches her and I watch Ed,
and when she leaves, he smiles. “Alex is sure cute,
isn’t she?” he asks. “I wonder how old she is. Do you
think she’s 20?” The drugs have kicked in, and I feel
the cool, sweet Santa Barbara air, a hint of salt from
the sea to the west. I rest my puffy eyes on cypress
trees beyond the window, a procession of palms
running through them, and I admire the red flowers
on some exotic shrub I don't know, a rich blood red
amid the green. Ed’s mindless chatter splits the peace
of this place like a buzz saw tearing at the bushes,
and my pen becomes a sword in my hand lashing
at his mouth, writing my hatred on his face. Red
flowers bloom in his eyes when he understands
finally that silence is everything, silence is better
than contact with humanity, even his, even mine.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Not Such a Pretty Face Anymore, Is It?

Once upon a time, not too long ago, either, a nice girl got in trouble. She fooled around with something dangerous, and she got caught. A terrible fate then befell her: bad dreadlocks.

The ancient poet Ovid says she, that is, Medusa, was a pretty serving girl of the big-cheese goddess Athena. Lots of dudes wanted a piece of her action, but she just said no, like she should... until the big-cheese god Poseiden came along, in which case, Medusa was won over, or overcome, we don't know which exactly. Athena got wind of it and turned Medusa into a monster with snakes in place of her beautiful hair and with a face so horrible, people turned into stone at the sight of it.

But my story is different. In keeping with my recent theme of death by addiction, this is what happened to Medusa: She was a nice girl who got hooked on opium. Everything was fine until her supply ran out. In 55 succinct words, here is her lament:

Oh, nectar of poppy, whose long fingers
squeeze so sweetly, you drift to death, now
Oh, wretched need. Oh, snakes in your head.
No matter how you claw at them, they writhe there,
belonging to you, who let the darkness in.
You plead for release but the price is your head,
and it is squirming.
*************************************************
Not very pretty, is it? In honor of Halloween, please check out other souls who played with 55 words here. Thank you, Mr. Knowitall.

Painting, "Medusa" by Arnold Böcklin, circa 1878

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Addiction's Different Faces

What I hope my Lady Banks rose will look like next spring.

“When you discover your mission, you will feel its demand. It will fill you with enthusiasm and a burning desire to get to work on it.”

W. Clement Stone

I’ve spent the better part of the past two days in bed and now sport wrist braces on both arms because I discovered my mission and it filled me with a burning desire to get to work on it. My to-do list is down to two items and both hands are messed up. My right hand and forearm are swollen. Both hands buzz with some kind of nerve pain, and the right hand is agonizing at night. I’ve also contracted a cold.

But my Cecile Brunner rose is now an architectural beauty, and the Lady Banks rose hedges are lean, clean, and rewoven. I have conquered and pruned the tumultuous herb shrubs into tidy mounds. Parts of the house are sparkling clean.

I don’t know how to work in moderation. I have two speeds: slow and 100 mph. Some of my sober friends blame their excessive behaviors on their alcoholism. I don't know about that. I just know that today I’m thankful I can work at all. In the past two days, we’ve lost two friends to the ravages of addiction.

On Monday, a youngish woman showed up at an AA meeting after an absence of a few months, tearful and thankful to be welcomed back warmly. She had made a decision that she wanted to live, she said. She was going to start calling me, and a sober newcomer became her designated driver so she could attend a meeting Monday night and another one on Tuesday at noon. On Tuesday at noon, she was found dead.

Wednesday evening, the wife of one of my husband’s good friends called to say he had died that morning. In the past six months, his heroin addiction had robbed him of the ability to walk, to eat, and to care for himself, but he spurned the offers of his sober friends to help him. All I could think of after Janet’s call was that day, years ago, when I called him for help because my husband was in a deep depression, and he came right away to our house.

My other friend, who spiraled out of control earlier this month on an opiate addiction, has decided for now that she doesn’t deserve to ask her friends for help in her struggle to stay clean. She wants to be left alone. So we don’t see much of her. Until she reaches out for help, there’s nothing any of us can do.

More than 20 years ago, before I got sober, an unsolicited manuscript came across my desk as editor of a fitness magazine. One of the associate editors had thought it worth consideration for publication. The title of the manuscript put me off because it didn’t provide a clue what the article was about. It was called “Cunning, Baffling, Powerful.” After a glance at the manuscript, I understood it addressed alcoholism. I didn’t like it, so I passed it back to the associate editor with a rejection note.

But today I know what “cunning, baffling, powerful” means. Substance addiction is a hard enemy to fight. It can strike when you’re weak and when you’re strong. It can go into remission and return with a deadly vengeance. It can conquer a person’s willpower for life. It makes you deny you have a fatal disease. It’s insatiable. It’s never cured. We live recovery one day at a time because that’s all we’ve got, this moment of freedom from addiction.

I’m thankful for freedom today. With my wrist braces on, I put my hands together and pray.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Meeting with the Devil


My to-do list is disgustingly large. The undone chores range from the imminent like bill-paying (the gas and electric people probably think I have died) to the esoteric, such as getting my mitts on a novel by this year’s Nobel Prize winner in literature, Mario Vargas Llosa, of whom I have shockingly never heard despite his being regarded for decades as “one of the world’s greatest and most adventurous writers,” according to my newspaper. I’m a Philistine.

So anyway, the to-do list is long. If I don’t dust pretty soon, all my little tchotchkes will turn into fossils. I still haven’t put away the Christmas stocking holders I bought on sale last December (I may as well leave them up now since it’s nearly Christmas anyway). And I think I’m growing enough penicillin in the far reaches of the refrigerator to inoculate most of the Third World.

That makes me think of Monkey Man’s Sunday 160 challenge, which requires you to write something of great literary value using only 160 characters and spaces. Here’s my effort, an acrostic poem:

Dust adorns your set of tchotchkes
United by its ridiculous paucity of value
Someday your grandchildren will not be
Thrilled to inherit its archaeological zilch.

But back to what I was doing with my time yesterday. Was I marking off anything on my to-do list? Nooo. I was outside on the patio grooming the cooperative Cecile Brunner rose that I’d been so beastly with earlier this week. That put me in such a Zen state that I moved on to the 20-foot-long Banks rose hedge that lines the rest of the patio fencing. I decided to untangle all three interwoven bushes, thin out the dead stuff, and then re-weave the canes into a nice lacy network of Banks roses. (*** See note below.)

Dear hubby came outside and asked, “Do you realize you’re pruning shrubbery at 10 o’clock at night?” No, I said, I had no idea it was that late. So I put down the pruning shears and went to our bedroom to scrub my hands. There, I realized that cleaning the double-sink vanity was on my to-do list, so I started scrubbing the sinks. Dear hubby, who was by then climbing into bed, said, “Why are you cleaning house at 10 o’clock at night?”

I thought, “He’s really hung up on that 10 o’clock at night business.” What I said was “I’m not cleaning house. I’m just doing a quick wipe-down here. I’ll be done in a flash” and I went on scrubbing. No time like the present, and all that. When I got out the water bottle and the rag to clean the mirrors, dear hubby made a groaning sound and stated the obvious: “Now you’re cleaning the mirrors!” I wiped much faster and said, “Look. See? I’m just about done.”

Dear hubby’s good-night ritual was a little grumpy last night. But I felt wonderful anyway. I got to scratch an item off my to-do list, and also scratch off another big chore once I added “Prune the Banks rose” to the list. That’s how to-do lists work: If you inadvertently do something that was not on the list to begin with, you add it to the list just so you can cross it off.

Also on my list was a poem for this week’s Poetry Bus, the Totalfeckineejit’s adventure in global poetry. He got Argent to drive this week because he’s busy basking in the glory of his debut volume of the Poetry Bus literary journal. It’s full of magnificent poetry by poets all over the world, and it’s practically free compared to what the Big Guns cost. Follow the link above to buy a copy of the premier issue for a paltry 6 pounds, a real steal since it's sure to become a collector’s item worth millions. At the same time you get to do your small bit to support the world’s grass-roots poetry culture.

Argent, meanwhile, instructs poets to tackle the topic of meetings if they want to hop aboard for this week’s world tour. Check out the bus riders at Argent’s Delusions of Adequacy blog. I met the challenge with a poem about meeting the dark side of the force.

Dancing with the Devil

The devil comes to me as I walk down a rocky trail
beside a small stream the color of sweet brown tea
in a broad avenue of sycamores towering high overhead
with their gray skin peeling away from their white flesh
and their russet leaves fluttering down like butterflies,
where the air smells of wood and stone and decay.

He appears to me with a sound like birdsong
and immediately my feet stop in wonder against my will
for I know the devil to be the devil, not a sweet sound,
yet I halt and listen. He takes shape, the form of a man
out for a country walk, a fellow seeker of the quiet
earth, and he hails me with a gentle call, naming me.

I know the devil knows my name but his voice is soft
as fleece against my ears, and against my will I turn
and wait for him to catch me on the trail, this prince
of darkness whose countenance is friendly, so damn glad
to see me in this solitary place: Why here? I wonder
that he should accost me in broad daylight, in serenity.

I know him and know he bodes me ill but momentarily
my arm rises with a will of its own to greet him
like an old friend happily found on the trail I walk.
My hand reaches out to him against my will to clasp
his hand reaching out to me, and it is powerfully strong,
his grasp, warm and muscular, with great endearment.

He draws me in against my will with one arm out
to encircle me as if we are equally welcoming,
equally glad to meet one another on this path,
which has turned suddenly cold, bitterly cold and
forbiddingly silent, and the only warmth is in his arms
one dropping to my waist and one grasping my hand.

We begin slowly with unconscious melody to dance
delicately there on the trail surrounded by sycamores
reaching to heaven and boulders buried in earth’s depths.
We dance, the devil and I, against my will, in a lazy
little box step, nothing fancy but intriguingly warm
as icicles grow crystalline on sycamore twigs.

We dance although I know he bodes me ill
and against my will I like it. I melt into his arms
with one hand on his shoulder and one hand clasped
in his, and his soft endearing voice whispers Why not?
as we dance. The leaves crackle in the cold
and the sound of ice swallows my scream.


-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o
(***Sunday morning: I checked out my handiwork with the Banks rose hedge after last night's pruning interruptus. The "nice lacy network" of interwoven rose canes that I envisioned in the dark looks in fact like a bomb exploded in the hedge, spewing chaotic branches everywhere. My to-do list just got a little longer.)

Friday, October 22, 2010

Is That Your Feet I Smell?

Have you ever been obsessed with anyone? I’ve been happily married for two decades, but I remember what obsession is like as if it happened only yesterday. I’m lucky because I have a written record in my poetry, and I’m lucky because those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it.

In AA we say that the definition of “insanity” is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. I’ve been there and done that. In fact, I excelled at doing that. I was willing to do anything that might plug the vast hole in my psyche. And sometimes obsession accomplished that goal. It got my mind off me and centered on you. But in the end I was always stuck with myself again, and I wasn’t red-hot company back then. So the cycle would replay itself, until I finally found myself in an AA meeting where I heard my story told a dozen different ways by a dozen different people, and I discovered that the hole in my psyche could be filled in healthy ways.

I keep this poem around to remind myself what I used to be like. It’s 55 words long, which exactly fulfills the G-Man’s Friday Flash Fiction requirements. Fellow 55ers can be found here.


Woman Tracks Her Runaway Lover

Twilight falls on me
belly to cold ground
nose pressed to the
imprint of your foot
searching for the scent of you.
I am in hot pursuit:
However cold grows your trail
I’ll not abandon it.
I am the shadow
which trails behind.
I shall lay hands on you.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Trees Laugh


Early October

A new wind blows in from out of town somewhere
and sets the sycamores dancing. Their leaves flutter
like flocks of green birds rustling on the branches
and every leaf is the wing of a bird flapping. The cat

in the glass room stares up at the birds and everywhere
is a new bird landing. She slinks, little yearling lioness,
from couch to table to desk to table, yellow eyes wide
in that up-tilted head, bewitched by the spectacle

of birds, birds everywhere, everywhere she looks.
She does not remember last autumn, when the new
wind blew in and the sycamores started chuckling,
waving hello until they shook off those leaves.

She does not remember and so it is new, almost
more than she can take in, but look: a bird falls!
The cat freezes at the sight of prey and when
it lands, a dead curled leaf, she cries.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

I Fought the Rose and the Rose Won

A Cecile Brunner rosebud

I went to war against a Cecile Brunner rose yesterday afternoon and I'm not sure who won. Today I'm injured: three stab wounds in my hands, one in my arm, two festering thorns in my fingers, and a new, incredible pain that shoots from my lower back down my thighs. The Cecile Brunner looks fine. It's an antique climbing rose with canes that arc up and over the garden fence, and it's trying to take over the patio.

It started out pleasantly enough. I'm on a pruning binge after neglecting everything since my mother died. All the herbal shrubs, the sage, rosemary, and lavender that were outgrowing their spaces, got whacked in half. The stringy-looking rock rose shrub now looks like a bonsai tree, with its gnarly little branches all tidy and peppered with specks of new growth. Next to it, the Cecile Brunner flailed all over the place and seemed to beg for discipline, which I, with my pruning shears, gladly supplied. And supplied. And kept on supplying.

My husband emerged after dark to ask why I was out on the patio yelling "You suck!" every ten minutes. Cecile Brunner is a "nearly thornless rose" as they tell you in the garden books, but when you are wrestling with them, they pull thorns out of nowhere and stab you. And those thorns, I swear, are coated with some sort of poison that burns like fire when it penetrates your skin. So every time the rose stabbed me, I yelled, "You suck!" in pain.

But Joe's question sobered me up. Why was I out there after dark having a sword fight with the Cecile Brunner? I was a madwoman, that's why. The more the rose hurt me, the more I hacked at it. I had turned a helpful, peaceful act into a battle of will, and of course I was losing.

In the zen of pruning roses, you and the rose cooperate. Your job is to study the rose. The rose reveals its structural lines and you help it to grow along those lines. In struggling to dominate the Cecile Brunner, I had broken the law of thermodynamics. (Just kidding.) I had broken the social contract of the gardener and the rose, and I was being an idiot.

Living in recovery has made it possible for me to admit when I'm wrong. Likewise, when I recognize I'm doing something insane, I can stop it. Trying to exercise my will over a rose is just as disrespectful, and just as futile, as trying to exercise my will over a human being.

So I put down my shears, went inside, and nursed my wounds. Even my back feels better now. It feels good enough, in fact, now that I'm up and around, that I'm going outside to make amends with the Cecile Brunner.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Secret Life of the Closet

When I was nine years old, my parents moved us to a place out in the country, to a house made of rock on acres of woodland. It was a private park in the oak-shaded hills, surrounded by walnut groves and almond orchards (that’s an almond tree blooming on my header).

The place was called Resthaven. In the summers, we filled the enormous blue concrete pool and stocked the snack bar, and people came in droves for pool parties and picnics. In the autumn, we drained the pool and harvested almonds and walnuts. In the winters, rain brought the wild grasses that turned everything green, and we explored the woods, discovering a treehouse in a big old live oak that became ours. I named my blog after that treehouse. In spring, we ran through blooming orchards and made forts in tall wild oats.

Being the only girl, my room was a tiny one off the kitchen that had a matching tiny closet lined with unfinished sheetrock. On its back wall, I drew the control panel of a spaceship complete with steering wheel and there I would sit cross-legged, taking many voyages.

To ride TFE’s Poetry Bus this week, our driver NanU, the Science Girl Traveler, told us to change our usual writing environment. Something reminded me about that closet, so I took my pad and pen into my current closet and wrote this:


The Secret Life of the Closet

In the mind of the closet, memories are clothes
with soft edges, hung neatly in rows,
soundproofing the space. With the door closed
shouts don’t penetrate the padded stillness
of its thoughts. The closet can be a closet
with two hands tied behind its back, so it dozes
until the girl comes in.

It wakes with the snick of the opening door
and waits for the click of the closing door
before it greets the little elfin girl
with a shiver of its clothes. In the dark
she doesn’t notice. She squats on the floor
and sniffles for a time while the closet
leans against her like an old dog.

When the girl flicks on her flashlight
the closet rejoices with a subsonic hum.
When she parts the clothes and wades
on her knees through the jumble on the floor,
it’s waiting for her in the far corner,
a portal of light within a crude pencil sketch
on the wall. Every scribbled knob and gauge
glows on the dashboard of the craft. She takes
the wheel and soars away.

When someone looks in later, the jumble
on the floor in the far corner lies undisturbed
and the dark closet smiles.

Friday, October 15, 2010

So You Think You’re a Polyglot?

Does this happen to anyone else? You’re minding you own business when along comes some random word and it takes a dump in your head!

Slowly you become aware of that dogshit-in-the-house odor. You go in search of it, checking your shoes every 10-12 feet. You open the door into your head and there it is, the pile of crap, dead center on the carpet, soft poop on a mid-high shag. You have been dumped on and now you own it. It lives with you.

That’s what happened to me with the word “polyglot.” What sort of word is that to have stuck in your head? I had to look it up: When it's a noun, “polyglot” means someone who is fluent in many languages. Then it sat there in my head, stinking to high heaven, until I wrote a poem about a person who needs to speak several different languages but who is stuck with only one, and it is inadequate. Plus, I made the sections into 55 words each so that I could share the stench with the world-renowned G-Man, Mr. Knowitall Himself!


Languages You Don’t Speak

I.
Who is this stranger living in your home
eyeing you bitterly, wishing you dead?
who is this misbegotten manchild
who once flung himself into your arms
with a toddler’s faith in you, his god
almighty? Now you are his nemesis
you walk on broken glass
to say I love you, son
and you wonder: really?

II.
Your bedfellow, your partner
your opponent strikes the high lob
that sends you racing for the corner:
why don’t you… in reply you slice:
If you’d only… and then the backhand:
you’re so... all over the court
a series of mad dashes defending yourself
against the constant barrage
in a conversation of love, or war.

III.
It was like a dream, she said
the corners of her mouth bloody
your mother, emerging, soon to walk
on that new hip, and later
her dream becomes your nightmare
as sundown madness steals her mind
and you say please doctor
do something besides tie her hands
this is my beloved mother
this infantile lunatic

IV.
The sound of you
is the sound darkness makes
spreading from a lake of streetlight
yet you rise, greet the day
endure the day, then return
lie on your sleepless bed
for a night of marauding thoughts
the sound of your groaning
so weighted with silence
you could hear a fly drop
to its knees


(Click on the G-Man's link to see what others are doing with their 55 words.)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Rested and Refreshed



A crazy week came to a close yesterday. In quiet happiness I watched with the rest of the world as the trapped miners stepped into freedom, one at a time, emerging with a relief I can’t even imagine into the open sky with bear hugs and joy.

First thing, we got my husband resettled after an early-morning medical procedure and got a little food in our bellies, and then I stayed glued to the Web all day. Every other pressing issue was laid aside. I had turned in the last of my assigned magazine articles the night before. Like the miners, I could take deep breaths at last.

I’d had to shut out the world for three days between Sunday morning and Tuesday night so I could do the work I was assigned to do. The emotional eruptions that developed late last week were still in process but they went on without my help. The phone was off, literally and figuratively.

A couple of dramas have been unfolding, and it’s curious to see how hard it has been to step away and not participate in the anxiety and speculation. On Tuesday morning, the hospice bereavement counselor made me stop talking about the issues. She had me put my feet flat on the floor, close my eyes, breathe in and out, and become aware of my physical self centered in my seat. After a while, she sent me home with instructions to engage only in the things that took care of what I myself needed. Like finishing the articles I was responsible for.

Now it’s a new day. I can check in with my loved ones and see what I can do to help today. I can encourage and listen. With a little respite from the drama, it’s easier to see that of course I’m powerless to fix anything, and I don’t need to wail and wring my hands over it. All the people who worked to rescue those 33 miners helped each other to explore solutions one step at a time. What I CAN do is stay calm, surround myself with a good team, and do whatever is in front of me to do today with graciousness.

Today’s meditation started with a quote from Galileo: “The sun, with all those planets revolving around it and dependent on it, can still ripen a bunch of grapes as if it had nothing else in the universe to do.”

I’m going to take it easy today and see what I can do to help ripen a few grapes.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

This Is Insanity


A crazy dahlia called Bed Head

I've spent the past three days working to get a very sick woman friend into a distant hospital for severe opiate addiction.

Day 1: Confront the lies and find out if she wants help or not (YES!), then locate the right kind of hospital for her and make arrangements.

Day 2: Work with family, hospital, friends, and a very messed-up woman to get her on the road and through the ER admission process.

Day 3: Cope with a now-unwilling sick woman who is clamoring to go home, she’s fine, she's not really demented from fistfuls of narcotics every day for the past four months, so come and get me! she says, this once-beautiful woman who looks like she is now 80 years old and who doesn’t know reality from a hole in the ground. Sigh.

My husband calls opiate addiction "dancing with the devil." It is impossible to extricate oneself from the grip of the devilish disease by sheer willpower. It is impossible to make someone else want to be free of the grip of the devil. Until a person wants to be sober more than she wants to be loaded, there is nothing anyone can do, not her, not friends, not doctors, not the U.S. Senate.

Today I am enormously grateful for the grace of my Higher Power. I don't know why I was blessed with that willingness. But blessed I was and am. If you say prayers, please pray for a sick addict today.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

News Flash

Me as newspaper editor

All my plans have gone awry. I was going to blab more about tainted news in America and vent some frustration about the news stories of this past week. Didn't get to do that. I need to do a few phone interviews for writing assignments due this weekend (I do NOT procrastinate; I just like to work under pressure). Didn't get to do that either.

What I did do was very cool. I got wrapped up in the drama of a sober friend who just about killed herself with narcotics while swearing to her closest buds that she was just mysteriously ill. After being confronted with the facts by the friends for a few weeks now, she finally told the truth today after consuming about 525 mg. of opiates in the last three days. I heard her yell over the phone at me: "I want to LIVE! I want to LIVE!" Amen, sister. There is a solution.

So we'll be taking a long drive into Southern California Thursday to get her into a hospital specializing in psychiatry and addiction. A year ago today, I was the one being transported to a pyschiatric facility for a hopeless depression. Now my experience is benefiting my friend.

There go the plans, though. But I think God will help me to accomplish the most important jobs He has before me to do. I believe He'll give us everything we need in due time. And I could always use another lesson in the pitfalls of procrastination.

(Written much earlier Wednesday...)

There’s a good reason why I don’t sit and ponder the newspaper, and I remembered it in the past two days, after I had pondered the newspaper.

A couple of decades on magazines and a few years on a weekly paper taught me everything I need to know about journalism in America today: It’s news because something is apparently wrong with it, not because something is going right. The corollary to that it is: If it’s not really news because nothing’s seriously wrong, you’d better make it news with a twist. Spin is king! Find a hook, a threat, a controversy that will grab!

Marketing firms can prove this statistically: The public pays more attention to material that shocks, scares, and outrages, and the competition for the attention of the consumer is fierce. You have about three seconds to capture someone’s interest, so the hook better be good.

Dedicated journalists are out there working in the world, keeping the people informed and ferreting out the truth. It’s the “fourth estate,” as important as government and justice, a cornerstone of democracy: the press exercising the sacred freedom of speech, which includes the right to gather information and ideas and to spread the word. The profession has honorable ethics—like truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, fairness, and accountability.

Unfortunately, the press doesn’t run the press. The CFO does. Or CEO. Or Sales and Marketing. Or, as in one case I know, the VP of Finance, who doesn’t know ethics from economics. We used to call these guys "The Suits" because they'd stroll through the offices, looking at us as if we were zoo animals, and then issue edicts to the chief about stories we needed to run to further their cause. I’ve actually been instructed to fire a good reporter because he wouldn’t slant the news to favor the newspaper owner’s view. When I refused to do that, the publisher fired him and put me on “probation.” I was out of there in two weeks, which was a shame because editing that paper was a well-paying job.

Which is why even good reporters will slant the news to manufacture the hook: To keep working, they have to keep pitching the kind of “beefy” stories that win assignments, which is hard to do on slow news days, or they receive assignments from “on high” that may well have come from the marketing guy, a lobbyist, or an owner with an agenda.

So I read the news with cynicism. And the past year or two, I just scan the headlines to see what the paper is printing. I don’t believe any news story anymore. It is far too easy and tempting for a writer (or his editor) to bleed his bias or his firm’s bias into a story, and he has lots of tools to choose from:

***Which “expert” or “spokesperson” he quotes and what he calls that person (“official” and “expert” are authoritative words, “source” conveys undercover credibility, while “spokesman” and “according to so and so” are about as low as you go and still be in the building). Other quote tools are how much he lets them say and where he places that quote in the story (the second to last paragraph is the dead zone, whereas the first and last paragraphs are the ones people will remember);

***How thoroughly he investigates and discusses the opposing viewpoint;

***How many inches of copy he devotes to any particular topic within his story (the more inches, the deeper the bias). Say, for example, a big-box store applies to a city for an expansion permit, but the city has an ordinance barring that much expansion. The reporter can easily influence public opinion by devoting a lot of space to the big-box store's argument in favor and only briefly refering to the ordinance against expansion without discussing why that ordinance was passed in the first place.

*** Subtle word choices that create any emotional impact he wants to have on readers, such as using the phrase “he alleged,” for instance, instead of “he said.” The first choice creates instant suspicion. The second appears impartial. It’s amazing how many words in the English language convey a judgment or an emotion. Think of “grisly scene,” “he claims,” and “raging fire.”

I’m coming back to this topic later. For now, I leave you with this:
“Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.”
(Seneca the Younger, a Roman statesman about two thousand years ago.)


Monday, October 4, 2010

A Good Day to Live


Thank God that the Totalfeckineejit’s Poetry Bus is on its way to my bus stop today! I am happy, joyful, delirious with good cheer, and this without a single drop of the booze I once needed to feel merriment! Oh, it is a good day to live!

All those exclamation points in one paragraph make the cynical Me nervous. Optimism itself makes that person uneasy. In her car is a stuffed Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh, a gift from a friend who found her dismal outlook funny. “It’s sunny today, but it will probably rain tomorrow” is her creed.

But today the optimistic Me finds a reason for smiling. It is Monday, and the marvelous Poetry Bus riders gather for another world tour, celebrating the Eejit who brought us all together. That dark but goofy fellow from over the pond has actually created a collection of our work! We are now in PRINT! It is a good day to live!

If you have spare change for some outrageous poetry, please go buy the premier issue of the Poetry Bus. It will become a legend. I promise. You will laugh. You will cry. You will be invigorated beyond belief! Please visit the great blog of the Bus and see for yourself.

And here, with no apologies, with laughter even, is my Poetry Bus ticket for this momentous day:

Day Dawns

At 6:25 on an autumn day
when the night sky lightens
the hope of morning swells in me
like a red balloon.


Inventive Bus Riders will be found here.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Diamonds, Vultures, and the Pulitzer Prize


Yesterday was a lively day. Two exciting outings: lunch with my auntie and then a visit to a local thrift shop. I’m telling you, they were the epitome of liveliness. Especially when I found the bargain of the decade: a diamond pendant on gold serpentine chain, marked $2.

Nonchalantly, I strolled up to my favorite jeweler’s shop with the diamond necklace in my pocket, practicing what I would say: “I just want to confirm that these ‘diamonds’ are glass….oh, really?....10 beautifully clear diamonds?....Worth HOW MUCH?....Can you believe I paid $2 for the necklace?....What extraordinary luck!”

But alas the jeweler wasn’t open, so I came home and rummaged around for the magnifying glass to read the symbols on the gold clasp. There was an O….an N….something like an A at the beginning….ah, crap, that’s a V next to it….AVON! It’s a blasted AVON necklace! Well, pooh. They were diamonds for an hour.

But God had something better in store: a red sunset on storm clouds, a glorious light show in the southwest, jagged bolts of lightning followed by reverberations of thunder. Lightning lit up the darkness, and thunder rumbled its way up my legs.

As the light show crackled around me, I came inside and dashed off a poem that I dreamed would someday earn a Pulitzer Prize. The whole day was about transformations of simple things: glass into diamonds, blue sky into evening wildness, vultures into hawks. Does it get any better than this? If it does, I will have to swoon.


Buzzard

She looks up and sees you riding the wind over the landscape,
and something—your freedom? your effortless wings lifting you
where she wants to go, on the updrafts straight to heaven?
—something about you makes her gasp Oh! A hawk!

She sees you not as you are but as she dreams you are. She’s busy
rewriting history in her head, remaking the whole world. A new
creation arises from her dying brain, and it is all so miraculous,
she needs a new language to speak of it. Nouns become verbs,
gerunds grow wings, words take flight in the midst of a sentence
and escape through open windows in her mind.

Oh, hawk! she cries, mesmerized by the circles you carve in the sky,
by your wide black wings like arms outstretched and fingers reaching
to grab onto God. She transforms you with a word. Vulture no longer,
you are majestic. You are not a scavenger, seeker of the putrid dead.
You are now the great hunter who has harnessed the wind
and she would ride you, if only you would please snatch her up.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Water, Water, Everywhere


When I'm beside the water, I'm always doing something at its edges. Photographing it. Picking up things. Tossing things into it.


I like bodies of water, from rivulets to oceans. From dew drops to rain drops, from pools to lakes.


Water makes me feel fresher than I am when I'm busy on sidewalks, in rooms, on roads, in shops.


I like water being water, sometimes serene, sometimes moving somewhere.

I've written about the sea and about rain. The sea depends on rain. Rain depends on the sea.


Today, I'm thankful for water, a fluid friend, a reflection, a plaything, an ever-changing sign of God.


Albert Einstein Quotes