03 April, 2020

deadmachine retread: Thus Spake the Congregation


I knew something was wrong when Twila gave me the stink eye outside the student union. Divorces are difficult enough. Being young – too young, I remember my grandmother saying – made it that much more difficult. Having a three-month-old daughter made it even more so. Getting divorced while being married with a three-month-old daughter on a small college campus in Eastern Kentucky pretty much guaranteed that only Sisyphus had a more difficult load to bear.

Perverting common wisdom, a divorce has more than two sides to the story. There’s the usual… what one partner says and what the other partner says. Then there’s what really happened, which tends to be somewhere in the middle. And then there’s what everyone else says. And depending on who it is, where their loyalties lie, what their predilections are, and what their own (inevitably skewed) views on marriage are, there are any number of stories, all of which sound true enough to pass the gossip test regardless of how close to the truth it happens to be.

The usual unofficial morning kaffeeklatch of what was then called the Non-traditional Student Union was congregated in it usual corner spot in the upstairs student cafeteria. Woody, Shyla, Tammy, Jack, Ernie, Barb, Babs, and Shane were all in their usual spots drinking their usual coffee and having the usual conversations – all of which can be boiled down to how most college students have it easy. Marie and I gained entry to this group not so much because of our age, as our ages fell within what is (still) considered the traditional age, but because of our marital and parental status. Young marriages were increasingly less common in the 90’s, even in Eastern Kentucky with its sometimes self-proclaimed penchant for the traditional and the morally unambiguous. Both Barb and Babs, both of whom were products of failed marriages forced by cultural shotgun, applauded our decision not to resort to sin by partaking of marital fruits outside the sanctity of the marriage bed. Tammy, Shyla, and Twila didn’t say that in so many words, but Twila – who was a grandmother with granddaughters who hadn’t headed the words of Jesus since being baptized Old Regular Baptist style in a coal sludge dirty creek at the age of seven – demonstrated her clear approval by speaking often about how she wished her Becky and Sue had inherited some stiffer moral fiber like me and Marie.

Ernie, Shane, and Jack had no opinions on the topic. Or at any rate they didn’t express any openly. Woody asked me once when none of the others were within earshot – with no small amount of incredulity, I might add – how I could saddle myself so young when there was a campus full of beautiful young girls to occupy my time. Jack kept his own counsel about anything that didn’t involve the NCAA and Ernie, who was trying to be a writer, mostly talked politics.

Shane never said anything at all. But since I knew he was the guy Marie was currently fucking, I felt like I knew what his opinion was on the subject of marriage.

The group fell silent when I approached. When I sat down everyone but Ernie and Jack moved their chairs back a little… not like they were making more room but like they were afraid that whatever was wrong with me might rub off.

Ernie eyeballed the women carefully before uttering a neutral welcome.

What’s going on, he asked.

Not a thing. Just waiting between class.

Barb made a harrumphing sound and Babs just shook her head. Jack nodded at me, the way men sometimes do to show solidarity right before the bombs fall and its every man for himself.

I tried making conversation, though I didn’t much feel like it. I wasn’t sleeping and even the copious amount of drinking I was doing wasn’t helping.  Going to class was more an exercise of habit than purpose at that point and my professors treated me with increasing levels of shock, annoyance, or unsympathetic pity. I wasn’t doing anything. But I still made it to class. I was still working, if for no other reason so I could give money to Marie for Rhea. After we split up she moved out of the trailer we shared and in with a friend to help defray expenses. I was staying with friends who would ensure that, if nothing else, there would be beer and tater tots to eat and who could give me a ride to campus.

Barb made another harrumphing sound. You don’t need to be here drinking coffee like you have friends here, she said. You need to go and take care of your daughter.

Babs, Tammy, and Shyla all nodded and vocalized their agreement with Barb. Ernie and Woody shrank back into their chairs. Jack shook his head and kept his eyes on his coffee. Shane sat there rubbernecking and waiting for the actual carnage. It didn’t take long.

You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Barb went on, thoroughly encouraged by the congregation present. Your wife and daughter are living up in some shack with no electricity because you threw them away. And here you sit like you deserve to be around civilized people.

That wasn’t what happened. I knew that. Marie knew that. I’m pretty sure Shane, as amused as he was with the show, knew, too. The only thing that was true was that I left. The arguments and accusations, the yelling and recriminations by both Marie and me weren’t anyone’s business. The misery we’d inflicted on another wasn’t anyone’s business. And it wasn’t anyone else’s business whether Marie or I were screwing anyone else. I wasn’t, but that didn’t matter. It didn’t change the fact that the marriage was over, that my daughter would grow up never knowing her parents as being a married couple. It didn’t matter that nothing in my experience had prepared me for that level of failure – not that anything does, really. But I didn’t even know any kids with divorced parents when I was a kid. My parents were happy. My friends’ parents seemed happy. That was what I expected when I got married, for all of the right reasons. And in spite of what Twila thought, it wasn’t to stave of immoral carnal lust. I was in love… or I thought I was, anyway.

But none of that mattered. Just like it didn’t matter that I had just seen Marie and given her money and asked if she needed anything. No, she said, like I insulted her dignity. We don’t need anything from you.

If there was any real justice in this evil world, Barb intoned, someone would take you out to a deserted holler and show you how we treat men that abandon their babies.

The congregation was silent. So was the entire cafeteria. Ernie and Woody refused to look at me. Jack met my eyes briefly and I knew he knew what was what. But he also knew, like I did, that no amount of words would change anything. Sometimes you take your beatings whether you think you deserve it or not.

27 March, 2020

Social Distance Diary: A Walk in the Park

This near hollow tree is still standing. I take a lot of comfort from that.

For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. - Herman Hesse

We went on a walk in Iroquois Park last weekend, along the horse trail a bit. Just to get some air. Just to get a little daylight together.  We picked the horse trail because there were fewer people there; not that there were a lot of people, because there weren't. But with the outbreak and my wife's work, we're being super diligent about social distancing and have been... even before Andy asked us to.

I love being out in nature, and I count it among my blessings to live where I have access to a park system designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. He, like John Muir, had an inkling of humanity's relationship with nature, and of our need for it.  More people know that Olmsted helped design Central Park in New York than know he designed "The Big Three" parks in Louisville.  At the core of his design philosophy was an idea that may have come to him when he was traveling in secret across the Pre-Civil War south and writing the articles that would eventually become The Cotton Kingdom: that it nature should be left to be nature because that's how it best serves people. (Never let it be thought that he was some prescient eco-warrior, because he wasn't.) He was very much opposed to manicured landscapes that were very much in vogue... a manicured look that was meant to suggest mankind's dominance over nature.  

Iroquois Park was originally designed with this in mind; and even though some very unOlmsted-like things have been added over the years, the amphitheater is a boon to the south end and to the city, the playground is well maintained, and while I'm terrible at basketball, I don't begrudge anyone a pick-up game in non-outbreak conditions. A large part of the park is still maintained much like Olmsted imagined it. Fallen trees are allowed to rot where they fall as long as trails aren't blocked. During our walk, I noticed where a tree that had fallen across the horse trail was simply cut in the place that blocked the way but left on both sides.

As humans -- as monkey not long from the trees -- we sometimes can't help ourselves but to leave a mark. Amanda asked me on our walk if I ever carved my initials into a tree. No, I told her. I always felt bad for the tree.

This expression of hypersensitivity didn't surprise her; she knows me too well.  She pointed out, though, that as long as the carving doesn't go all the way around the circumference of the truck, that it will simply grow and expand with the tree.

She wasn't asking because she wanted to carve our initials into some poor tree; but she did notice I was taking pictures of some carvings that attracted my attention:




While I can't bring myself to make such marks, I do appreciate that the tree carries on in spite of it for the most part. I suppose if I felt like I had permission to carve into a tree, I'd consider it. But I'm not one that the trees have decided to talk to. Not yet, at any rate.


I was talking to an old friend recently who takes stunning photographs of far flung places. He told me  that a person gets some perspective when he stubs his toe on a 5000 year old tree. This tree may not be that old, and I (surprisingly) didn't tub my toe on it. But I derive a great deal of comfort from it, and the others being there. 


20 March, 2020

The undefeated: deadmachine retread fiction




In the spring of 1998, I called home this attic in a 131 year old house in Lexington, Kentucky. It was a decent place. I’d found it when the woman I was living with decided she’d rather fuck my friends and try to make money as a stripper than be my girlfriend. “You’re too moody,” she’d say to me. “You piss and moan like an old man, you read boring books, and you’re when you’re drunk, you get mean and grumpy and you can’t get it up.” I was heartbroken; she’d been my first real piece in two years since my marriage to Rhea’s mother fell apart. She was a full-bodied redhead, and every bit as crazy as people say redheads are. I was living at her place when she broke it off; she tried to convince me to stay and help her with the rent… to be roommates, she said. “I’ll have my life,” she said, “and you can have yours.” Now, I might have been heartbroken, but I wasn’t an idiot. She wanted me to stay because I was the only one of us actually working and earning a weekly paycheck, and she wanted to be able to fuck whoever she wanted while I paid the bills. I left that night and spent a few days with friends and realized that I needed my own space – if only so that I could get my shit out of her apartment before she abandoned it or sold it.

I found out later that my new landlord was schizophrenic and had nasty turns where she’d go through everybody’s apartments and steal things. She even stole a poetry manuscript that I was reading for a poet friend of mine. I’m not sure he ever forgave me for losing it, even though it wasn’t my fault. I don’t remember him giving me any manuscripts after that.

But the rent was cheap enough and mostly I dealt with Frank, who managed the property for her while she was “away.” (I later found out that when she was “away” she was locked in a padded room at Eastern State Mental Hospital.) Frank seemed like a good ol’ guy. He was a retired pipe fitter, and had known my landlady his entire life – his family and her family had been friends. He didn’t care much about what I did as long as I was quiet. A couple of times I was short on rent and he let me make it up. He was a stand-up guy. Frank knew Stanley from his long gone wild boozing days, the days before he found “God and the love of a good woman,” and he let Stanley move in to get him off the street and get him a regular address so he could draw a welfare check. When he brought Stanley in, Frank pulled me aside. He talked with a slight growl – the kind of growl common in men from the Appalachian part of Kentucky. “Watch out for him,” Frank said. “Now, “ he paused. “He’s a drunk. I won’t lie. But he’s HARMLESS. A good guy, really. I’ve known him for YEARS.” I looked at Frank and I saw what might have been a little sorrow in his eyes. “We’ve tried to get him to quit... but….”

My first conversation with Stanley happened about a week later when he bummed a smoke off of me. He bummed a lot of cigarettes in the little bit of time I knew him. I liked him immediately. Once, I was going somewhere or another… to work, I think… and I saw him walking down the side street.

“Where ya going, Stanley?”

He turned and smiled his goofy shit-eating smile. He was shaking and his face that already looked like road kill was twisted pain. “Up the way.”

“You want a ride?”

He hobbled over to the car and got in. Up the way ended up being the liquor store. It was eight or nine in the morning and he needed his morning bottle. The woman behind the counter at the liquor looked down at Stanley over the edge of librarian reading glasses, and she gave me one of those looks, too, that seemed to say How can you encourage him? I wondered if she gave the same look to broken down grandmothers who spent their entire social security check on lottery tickets. Stanley bought his bottle… a fifth of Stoli… and when he got back in the car he cracked it open and took a swig like it was water. The pain was erased from his face. He offered me the bottle. “No thanks,” I said. I have to get to work.” When I dropped him off, he bummed a smoke and hobbled back into the house.

I took him to the liquor store when he asked and when I could. I was working as a clerk at a convenience store and my schedule was flexible. Besides, I liked Stanley; he was a nice old guy in the way old drunks can be nice. He had his moments, usually when there wasn’t a bottle handy, that he could be a real asshole. But he was small and wiry. Eaten away. So even when he got in my face, it was harmless because in that condition a steady wind would have pushed him over. The short car trips gave us time to talk, and Stanley liked to talk. He was touched—afflicted really— with nostalgia. I’d be driving him to the liquor store and he’d point to trees that lined the street. “I planted them trees,” he said. “Had me this job, got paid fity cent an hour. I liked that job. Got to be outdoors, like when I was a kid and all this was open. No buildings. No streets.”

Once when I was bringing him back from the liquor store with his morning bottle, this old guy approached the car. He looked old and tired, too, but he was cleaned up. Shaven. Showered. He was driving an Acura and he wore the ugliest Hawaiian print shirt I had ever seen – which was saying something since they’re all uglier than sin. He knocked on my window. I rolled it down.

“Yeah?”

He talked past me. “Stanley? Stanley, that you?”

Stanley looked up and smiled.

Then the Hawaiian shirt guy talked to me. “I love this guy,” he said. “I’d heard he was living here.” He looked over at Stanley. “We used to run together, didn’t we Stan?” Stanley kept smiling and nodded his head. “Yeah,” the guy said. “I knew Stanley back when I was on the street. Good guy, Stanley. A real good guy.”

I looked at the gold-plated watch hanging on his skinny wrist. “So how come you’re not on the street anymore?” I asked.

“Settled out,” he proclaimed. “Found me a good woman with a nice house and warm bed. She doesn’t care what I do so long as I don’t fuck around and I drink at home.”

Class act, I thought. “Cool.”

“Listen,” he said to me, “you take good care of this guy. Stanley’s one of the best.”

Stanley smiled. The Hawaiian shirt guy got in his pearl colored Acura and drove off. “You know that guy?” I asked.

Stanley nodded. “Yup. He’s WEIRD, though.” Stanley rolled his eyes a little. “WEIRD. If you know what I mean.”

I didn’t ask any more questions. It was the 90’s after all. Don’t ask don’t tell was still an acceptable social concept.

On another one of our jaunts he saw a book laying on car seat next to me. “You read?” he asked me.

“Yeah,” I said. “I like to read.”

“You been to school?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I went. Don’t know that it did me any good, though.”

He looked a little sheepish. “I never learnt to read,” he said. “Dropped out and ran away from home when I was a kid.” He kind of shook his head. “fity-five years old, can’t read shit.”

The only thing that surprised me more than the fact that he couldn’t read was that he was only fifty-five. He looked much older, but a hard life will do that. He’d spent forty years drinking and working odd jobs, failing at relationships and living in alleys and homeless shelters. He never once mentioned trying to sober up. He never once indicated that stopping had ever crossed his mind. I never mentioned it because I didn’t want to be a judgmental prick, and well, it wasn’t like I had any room to talk. So I kept taking him back and worth whenever I could, let him smoke my cigarettes, and when I had a little food left over, I offered it to him. What the hell, I figured. He is who he is.

Eventually he drew some friends. Frank had apparently figured out that if he moved people into the house who drew a check and controlled their money for them, he could actually start turning a profit. He moved in another old buddy from his wild drinking days, got him in the system. I later found out that all the checks went to Frank and Frank’s wife, who “kept” their money… paid the rent and gave them each a weekly allowance, so they wouldn’t “drink all the money up.” The new tenant’s name was Clarence. Clarence was a big ugly drunk, and something of a bully. He liked to push Stanley around when they were drinking, and it bothered me, but I didn’t interfere. He and Stanley were old friends, had done a lot of drinking and sleeping in alleys together. I figured if he wanted Clarence to stop, he’d handle it himself. They even drew a follower – some dark haired kid whose name I never bothered to learn. He tried bumming a smoke from me once after he’d seen me give one to Stanley and I told him he could when he was old enough to buy his own fucking cigarettes. They would give the kid money and send him on errands for booze or food or whatever. They started hanging out on the front porch. Stanley didn’t need a ride from me anymore, but he still bummed smokes when Clarence wasn’t looking.

I started working a regular white collar job – I’d dug myself into a clerical job at the University, the first job I’d ever had with paid vacation days, PTO (paid time off) plus medical and dental. I saw Stanley less and less… mostly because I was working during the day and hanging out with friends at night, spending my new money in the bars. I passed Stanley on stairs sometimes when I’d be stumbling home, and we smiled at each other said hello. I saw him trying hobble down the street towards the liquor store on crutches once or twice. He went through two bouts of TB, one crazy skank who followed him home from the bar, and a few tumbles down the stairs. I was spending less and less time at home because the summer turned the attic into a sauna.

I came home from work one afternoon in late August and Clarence, the kid, and Frank were all standing on the front porch. They had been crying. Or at least, Clarence had been crying. As I approached Frank asked me if I’d heard.

“Heard what?”

“Stanley,” the kid said.

“What about him?” I was expecting to hear that he’d either gotten arrested or had settled out with a nice woman who would dress him up in ugly shirts.

“He died,” Clarence said.

“Huh? How?”

Clarence couldn’t answer me because he was too broken up. The kid was clearly high. Frank broke the silence. “He was walking to the liquor store, and he tripped and fell into the street. He was run over. Dead.”

“Dead?” I repeated.

Frank nodded. Clarence looked at me with deep baleful jaundiced eyes. “Did they get the guy who did it? The car?”

Frank shook his head. “Nope. Probably not going to either.”

I stood there for a couple of minutes. I didn’t know what to say. Death, as an inevitability, usually invites comment – but only because nobody knows what to say. I turned and went upstairs, and took a shower. Then I opened all the windows. Then I sat down at the kitchen table with a bottle whiskey I’d been saving for no particular reason, and drank until it was late into the night.

13 March, 2020

Social Distance Diary: cat food

You can't tell he chonky. But take my word for it. He's a tick with fur.
It's not the run on toilet paper and hand sanitzer that surprises me. It's that it's still (at this writing) still possible to find Twinkies (including CHOCOLATE FLAVORED ONES, thank you very much ironic junk food gods that put these on Earth AFTER I gave up sweets for good) and Doritos... even the  questionable favors (anything but nacho cheese)... are still on the shelves.

We are not prone to panic; my wife's work in a mens' homeless shelter pretty much assures that if COVID-19 hits the homeless community that we're front and center for exposure. And... it will. That is, if it hasn't hit already but no one knows because the state of Kentucky has 120 test kits... that's one for every county for you Social Studies folks. Add to the the fact that the executive management of #Trumplandia is blocking states from using Medicaid to pay for testing. I'm sure they'll call this a cost savings issue, and Mitch McConnell will flap his throad waddle in passionate agreement, even he flops his eyes back agreeing with the trillion dollar drain on the Fed to bolster up the corporate cronies in the military-industrial complex. But again ... not prone to panic.  We are planners and preppers (of a sort) by natural inclination, so we're more or less ready if River City experiences a serious lockdown.
So we plan, avoid panic, and accept that while we will do everything we can to avoid exposure, the fact is, our chances are better than average. 

But we DID notice yesterday that we were low on cat food for our chonky little trash kitty, Wasabi. And we noticed that we were dangerously low on cheese. And honestly, I figured that, being Thursday, the next wave of panic shopping wouldn't hit until today (Friday) when most everyone gets paid. So we went to the store last night after a lovely dinner with her mom and some friends we see maybe once or twice a year.

Dear Friends and Readers, I was wrong.
The Kroger on New Cut only had two check out lanes open, and pretty much everyone but us was pushing around carts that were loaded down and roughly 100 times their individual body weight.  Of course, there were tons of Self-checkout Lanes available, but I personally don't like encouraging wage theft and no one pushing around 1000 metric ton of groceries is going to scan all that themselves. 

We used a small cart and bought cat food (double coupon!),  yogurt, cheese, a few incidentals for upcoming meal planning, and some seltzer water.  And then we waited. The three carts ahead of us were loaded down with apoclapyse supplies: frozen pizzas, chicken nuggets, sugar cerea, milk, pop. No one had toilet paper or hand sanitizer because the shelves were empty from the previous wave.  The cashier's eyes were glazed over and there weren't enough people working for either register to have its own bagger... which mean the cashiers had to do double duty.

But, we survived and made it home in time to go to bed. And we we woke up in plenty of time this morning. 

I'm not hearing anything about mass riots over bungholio paper, but I have heard that bidet sales are doing well.  I suppose there's that. And to be honest, when all this is over, I can't say that I won't think hard about buying one for The Hermitage. 
   

28 February, 2020

Abandoned Garden Update/Plumber, but?

Between true-to-form pure Kentucky Fool's Spring and the various indignities of being closer to 50 than to 40, it's taken longer to get started than I would prefer. And since I'm getting ready to head out of town... taking the old gray dog down to San Antonio to AWP, the annual confluence of academics, writers, and publishers of same, I wanted to at least get started on the Abandoned Garden by working on what we have here: the bones of it:

1. move and prepare the raised bed
2. start clearing out the shed so it can be torn down
3. begin prepping the ground to plant red clover.


What we got done was moving and turning over the soil in two of the raised beds. That took considerably longer than I planned, if only because we made the huge mistake of not keeping the beds covered since we harvested the last garden two summers ago. Between the time weather, breaking up the soil was like breaking up layers of shale in places; but the soil... which had nice mixture of compost as well... is, once broken up, rich and plant ready with very little work, which Amanda and I were both pretty excited about.  


We moved and turned two beds, leaving two beds left to move and turn. We also moved he compost bin over, giving us a chance to turn that over to get it ready to use for our planting this year. The raised beds tend to work well for greens (like chard), herbs (basil, mint, thyme), peppers (Banana, Serrano,  and Jalapeno primarily, but we've done ok with sweet poblanos, too), and one summer of rampant cukes that nearly undid the peppers and taught me to NEVER plant viny plants in a raised bed and expect them to share. The two beds to the right are the ones we moved. Anticipating some upcoming weather... because, you know, Fool's Spring... we covered those two beds with cardboard and weighed them down with some cement edging that's pretty much useless in its previous position of keeping critters out from under the shed. 

Tearing down the shed will end up being it's own mini-project; there's a huge hole in the roof (not visible in this picture) and we're thinking of using the space to either expand the garden or add some chickens to the menagerie. 

Domestic Amiss: plumber, but?


One of the things about an old house is that you inherit not only old house problems, but also the "fixes" that previous owners made.  This issue, though, is a fairly common one, and not one  I can blame (really) on the former owners. Faucets wear out. drains and pipes need to be replaced. In our case, we also need to remove the garbage disposal because it's no longer functioning as such and we are, for now, replacing it with a regular drain. We don't have many food scraps because we're pretty good about composting what can be composted and using what can be used.

Also, because the pipes need to be replaced and the disposal is basically
just something for water to drain through, we use buckets under the sink to catch water. Also, the faucet handle, while functional will not stay attached. And the faucet itself drips constantly... which is not only annoying, but expensive.

So, it's time. Past time, really. And I was intending to do this today while the Amanda was at work and the house was empty... but my recently mostly healed foot decided to remind me that I use it a lot getting down on the floor and standing back up... so, it's getting done tomorrow when Amanda's home and can ensure that I don't end up wallowing on the floor like a flipped over turtle.







21 February, 2020

Refrain: A is (still) for Adjunct*

As of this writing, I haven't stepped into a college classroom in a teaching capacity for almost four years.  Although I wrote about my exile and failed attempt to get back in great detail at the time, I haven't really written about it much since.  I think maybe I was too close to it all; too angry about it all; too focused on what I lost beyond a job I cared about -- maybe the last job I really cared about. A job for which I believe I had (and still have) a genuine calling.

Four years after National Adjunct Walk-Out Day and the Louisville Teach-In, very little about the plight of adjuncts has changed. Every late summer or early fall, the same stories, or rehashes of the same stories, cycle through the media. Stories of teachers living in their cars, living on the street, skipping necessary medications and meals in order to do the work they love to do.  Four years after and I'm not angry about it anymore; there's no room for anger when all it does is burn. My anger burned everything around me and almost burned me alive; it almost burned me, but it did nothing to burn down the injustice. I'm past the anger.  All that's left is the story. 

And even though I'll be posting bits of it here as it comes, a story has too much weight to just live in the digital world. It's time to bring it forth, like all buried titans.




Officially, I separated from the University of Louisville on April 20th 2015, of my own volition. But by then I'd been isolated from my colleagues and been subjected to increased scrutiny by the department.  Everything was fine at UofL until I tried to write an article for LEO Weekly about the working conditions of Part-Time Lecturers, also known as adjuncts.  By that time I'd already been banished from every Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS) campus after the marketing and legal teams stalked me across social media in order to find the slightest pretext to get rid of me. And why did they even bother with one more disgruntled, underpaid, overworked, and generally exploited adjunct in a statewide community college system?

Because I was the most visible organizer of The Louisville Teach-In: a two-campus educational action in conjunction with National Adjunct Walk Out Day (#NAWD).

Up to this point, the fact that I have all the documentation to back this up hasn't meant much; I did my due diligence. I inundated them with FOIA requests. I gave my story to a local reporter, along with copies of all my findings.  I went to the Kentucky Labor Cabinet. I contacted the National Labor Relations Board. I reached out to at least one fellow colleague, a tenured humanities professor with local status some activist cachet for help. None of it did any good. The reporter wrote a very nice story and did nothing with my FOIA research. The Labor Cabinet was only concerned about whether I was being denied Worker's Compensation, the NLRB informed that because I worked for a public institution, the NLRA didn't cover me, and my esteemed colleague took a pass because he was too worried about fighting for people who already had health insurance (i.e., full-time faculty).  I took it as far as I could without hiring an attorney – which, since I couldn't afford an attorney, meant the end of the road.

Before I even really begin this story, I'm going to tell you how it ends: with me not teaching. Goliath stomped David. The Philistines still run the once golden kingdom.

But it's not that simple, either. It can't be, because this is an American story – one of the few truly American stories, stripped of bootstrap and Manifest Destiny mythos, where the plucky activist  gets steam-rolled by a giant, mindless machine. Maybe not Horatio Alger. But definitely Frank Norris.

And a canary or two.
______________________________
* Title originated from this LEO Weekly article by Laura Snyder

14 February, 2020

Calling in well

artwork by Darrell McKinney
Maybe someone should give those Madison Street marketing cutthroats a cigar, because it's three decades on and I still think about those Sunday morning retirement commercials on television. Do you remember them? Sandwiched somewhere been Archer Daniel Midland commercials, Meet the Press, and Sunday Morning with Charles Osgood like cheese in a Dagwood?

Maybe it's because I'm turning 47 next week and it's getting that
What's a Dagwood?
period of life when people (I'm told) start paying closer attention to their retirement nest egg... assuming they have one to look at. Maybe it's because I'm looking forward to being someone's grandfather when my granddaughter makes her appearance sometime in the next 6 weeks or so. I've been thinking about my dad a lot lately, and maybe that has something to do with the fact that he didn't live long enough to meet his grandchildren, or with the fact that I'm getting older and seeing less of him in how I make my way in the world.

I've written about this before, so I don't want to hammer in on it too much. Instead, I want to talk about calling in well.

I first heard the term from Utah Phillips, on The Past Didn't Go Anywhere, a collaborative album put out by indie icon Ani DeFranco's  on Righteous Babe Records. Utah was talking about his friend, the musician Mark Ross, "America's most famous unknown folk singer."  Calling in well is what Utah called Mark's decision to stop trying to live someone else's life and live his own... which meant making music, no matter what.

The notion stuck with me... sort of a dream, an unarticulated goal.  As peripatetic as my employment life has been, except for a 2 1/2 year stretch as a full-time composition instructor at Arizona State University, you might be surprised to know I didn't call in decades ago.  As a matter of fact, most of my working life has been an attempt to do things The Right Way.

No. Really. Honest.

I think in the end it's all about the platitudes you choose to give your life over to. Most of my working life was given over to Give your life over to the work you love to do and you'll never work a day in your life. That's primary mantra of job coaches, HR reps, college admissions counselors, and my high school Guidance Counselor Mrs. Click.   And as much as I fought it, and regardless of how much my own experience kept shoving my face in the contrary, I still tried for that goal. Teaching was close and so was journalism; those jobs, even though I was largely underpaid and certainly unappreciated in both fields, came close to matching my skills and my need to be useful. Both teaching and journalism -- the real kind, not what passes for the press most of the time -- can be noble endeavors, and I know people who engage in them nobly. 

But it didn't last. Some of the reasons were my fault, but I still believe I was written off by both higher education (for having the temerity to suggest that economic exploitation is wrong) and journalism (for not game playing and politicking in a political town).  The part of both of those situations that was my fault is this: I'm not good at the whole "play the game" thing. 

That's another one of those platitudes, most often uttered by parental types and sports fans. Play the game... which is code for "compromise for a paycheck." Now I do enjoy watching a good baseball game, but I never understood treating my working life like trying to get to third base, only to be tagged out sliding into home.

Maybe it's a temperament issue. Maybe it's about my birth order. Maybe it's about my middle class upbringing that translated into a disregard for money. Maybe it's the chip on my shoulder that, chip away at it as I might, I can't seem to get rid of.   All I know is this:

I'm calling in well. Now. 

It doesn't look like I wanted it to look; I was hoping to have a slightly better idea where the little bit of money I'd like to make would come from. But I'm done with platitudes that don't work for anyone except a larger system that's built to exploit and hold out the promise of retirement as the time to "really live."  I'm a poet, a writer and teller of stories, and a collector of stories. I'm a wordslinger. I write Word-Things. I fully expect to take on gigs from time to time, but copywriting gigs aren't going to define my life. 

So, to borrow and edit from Charles Osgood... really the best part of Sunday morning when I was younger... I'll see you in between the words. 

07 February, 2020

Hard skills: driving

Dad taught me to drive. My experience with driver's education wasn't a particularly good one. My instructor was more interested in his Mountain Dew in cigarettes, and I had to drive with a car load of bullies and other kids from school who didn't like me and would do things like flick my ear and kick the seat, all while the instructor chugged his green pop and chain smoke Basics.

So when it was obvious that I needed more practice before the driving test, he took me out in his 1989 Chevy S-10 Blazer. This was no small thing. He special ordered it from a dealership in Indiana. I remember the day we drove to trade in his truck and pick it up because I remember the cicadas. Walls of fat insects flying hurling themselves against the giant plate glass windows, flying and hurling and either falling dead or bouncing until they fell dead:

on the ground
in a rotten ankle tall pile
of failed cicadas.

 And then one of them flew into the Blazer and hid under my seat. The sound it made sounded like it as waiting to devour my kicks.

Dad loved to drive and I think he wanted to be able to share that with me. Because he was sick most of my childhood, there were a lot "father/son" kinds of things we simply weren't able to do.  But I WAS worried, because even though my driving instructor was a bully ignoring, Mountain Dew chugging, chain smoking USE LESS instructor, I did manage to scare him at least twice to the point that he nearly choked on his Pepsi product. And my Dad wasn't exactly KNOWN for his calm nature.

But he talked me out of the driveway and away. He took me down back roads near the house; very little traffic, but narrow and windy in places. And he talked to me about why he liked to drive. It was a chance to let his mind go, he said. He could focus on driving and not have to think about anything, or he could think about things, decompress, or just listen to the radio. Dad was the only adult who had told me it was OK to listen to the radio while you drive.

He never used the word meditation. But that's what it was about for him. A meditation. And yes, I'm sure he also felt those feelings of independence I used to feel when I drove. But he didn't attach driving to his freedom, his masculinity, or his economic status. He drove because he loved to drive.

I don't know how he'd feel knowing that I don't especially like to drive. But I do like to be in motion. This sometimes takes the form of travel. A lot of times it just takes the form of walking. I like to walk and meditate, or walk and think, or walk and listen to music. I like to walk and take in the world in small, deep draughts.

I like to think he'd understand.

Thanks for reading! If you like what you've read, please consider clicking on the BE A PATRON or DONATE tabs and showing some love. I'm a working poet and scribe and I believe what I do has value. If you do, too, please support the arts by supporting an artist.

31 January, 2020

Domestic Projects: The Abandoned Garden

Besides cleaning toilets, yard work is my least favorite thing to do, mostly because yard work, like cleaning toilets, is a never ending job. Grass is a pernicious weed that always needs mowing and is good for next to nothing. But if you don't keep the grass manicured, then neighbors complain and municipalities get involved.  I have one neighbor who mows maybe twice a season; the neighbor on the other side mows twice a day.

The truth is, I'm not a good homeowner. I'm just
not. manicuring lawns that serve no purpose other than giving me something to do and judge my manhood by hold no interest for me. It's not for the lack of trying. The futility of it drives me crazy. It's reflective of the futility of middle class pretensions, the futility of the so-called American Dream, the futility of living a life defined by a collective notion of success that's convinced us we're exchanging time in our "working years" for a well-earned "rest" when our working days are done. It's chasing a commercial... a manicured, curated, and fabricated lie.





Lately, I'm starting to think there may be art in maintaining a relationship with the space where you live. As it happens, I've wandered into home ownership. Amanda and I have had fairly successful vegetable gardens in the past and we are going to take a run at it again this year.  I keep thinking, though, that there has to be more I can do with the bit of space I've been given stewardship over besides the bare minimum to keep the city off my back.

So I've decided to create a garden. A real one. But since I don't have piles and piles of disposable income around, I've got to do it on the cheap. 

I'm calling it The Abandoned Garden.

Over the next few weeks, I'm going to posting sketches... probably not good ones, since I can't draw for shit... of my initial plans. My goal is to use materials we have on hand, things we can trade for, and materials that are other people's leftovers, or things that are found or abandoned.  My goal is a garden... and a yard... that is both beautiful AND functional -- and something representational of the life Amanda and I are building together.

The core of The Abandoned Garden project:


  • a simple but well planned vegetable and herb garden;
  • a rain garden along left fence;
  • small red clover instead of grass; and
  • a demarcated stone path.


We're also going to be tearing down the shed, which is barely a shed at this point, anyway.

I hope you keep reading and follow the journey. I'm starting with very little knowledge of the process, but I'm a good researcher and not afraid of work I care about. 

Poetry is found in all kinds places, in all kinds of forms. I hope you'll come along as we work to compose this one.




Like the blog and podcast? Please consider a one-time donation

REALLY like the blog and podcast? Be a patron!

17 January, 2020

from Louisville: Another city on the make

2.

There's a coffee shop walking distance from the shelter. These days I haunt coffee shops like I used to haunt bars. I went to Freddie's on Broadway because it was a cheap, cash only dive bar that asked no questions and only required people not to offend the general atmosphere. That place was also a wonderful archive of all things masculine from the 20th Century: hand drawn wrestling posters, beer steins, collector booze bottles from the 1970's, I hung out at Rubbie's because it's a neighborhood bar close to home, the happy hour prices are good, and the well bourbon was tolerably good. That bar was also a good bell weather for the last Presidential election.

Angry white men
trying to hold back
a changing world
like they grip their beer

Now I rotate between a handful of coffee shops in the city. When I'm scribing for pay or working on my own words, I go to noisy coffee shops, like the one close to where I live, or the one close to the shelter. When I'm meeting people, I go to one of two Heine Bros. On Bardstown Road because the white noise doesn't distract my ears from conversation. When I want to hang out and read, or talk to people who have also either stepped off or were pushed off the wide path , I go to Highland Coffee. They each have a thing I like better there than any other coffee shop. Heine Bros serves a turmeric chai with black pepper I really like. Highland has a nice selection of herbal teas and makes a cup of coffee. Sunergos, in my neighborhood, has the best cappuccino in the city and serves delicious cheddar chive drop biscuits that make for a good lunch.

Pockets of warmth
in an increasingly chilly cityscape
regardless of the season
regardless of the temperature.

Please & Thank You on Market and Shelby is a short walk from the shelter. They have wonderful herbal teas and the best blueberry lemon muffins in the city. I go there to scribe or to work, and to eat a muffin after I finish my short shift in the shelter coffee room. Lately I've run into K, a woman I met when I volunteered with one of the local homeless outreach organizations. She's usually sitting out front, a few steps off to the side away from the corner. When I can afford to, I get her a cup of coffee. Sometimes she's flying a sign. Sometimes she's waiting for her boyfriend J, who is always either off trying to find work, off trying to do some good deed that will, when he tells the story, never be repaid in kind. J has a demon in his gut like I do. When I see her I ask whether J has been drinking, so I know whether I'll see him or the demon. They are always in a state of emergency... being moved on, lost a tent, stuff stolen, scrambling to avoid snow, rain, cold, heat. Their home camp in Butchertown was bulldozed a few years ago to make room for a soccer stadium. The investors through money at the city to house the residents of Camp Campbell quickly for the good PR boost. Nearly all the former residents of Camp Campbell are no longer housed now. But there aren't any news cameras around to notice.

Erasure – delete a line
delete a camp
delete a person
a collateral damage
for the marketing collateral

Part 1 posted on Instagram. Check it out!

13 January, 2020

“Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”*

I had recent conversation about higher education and my thoughts on returning to the classroom, and while digging through some old files (looking for something else) I found this word collage. Names have been changed, and I apologize to the family of A.A. Milne and the creators of The Flintstones.








Word Collage / RE: ANNUAL EVALUATION

"During this review period (... one calendar year [January 1, 2008- December 31, 2008]...) your TEACHING SCORES -- RANGING FROM 1.17 TO 1.37 AND AVERAGING AN OVERALL 1.25 -- ARE BETTER THAN THE DEPARTMENTAL MEAN FOR BOTH YOUR RANK AND THE LEVEL OF CLASSES YOU TAUGHT. Students comment on your entertaining style and your pedagogy. "
/splice/
Your annual performance evaluation for this year is as follows:
Teaching: 2
Service: 1
Professional Development: 1
Overall: 1.8
{NOTE:  3=Meritorious performance. 2= Satisfactory performance. 1 = Unsatisfactory performance}

/splice/
"Your self-evaluation with no supplemental materials offers little evidence of service contributions and no evidence of professional development..."

/splice/

{NOTE: ON COURSE EVALUATONS, the lower the number the better. So a 1 = to an 'A'}

/splice/
From:
To: The Grand Pooh-Bah
Sent: Wed Mar 04 07:37:20 2009
Subject: Meeting to Discuss Annual Review
I am sending my annual review back signed, via campus mail, and I have saved a copy for my records. However, as you will notice, I would like to discuss it in more detail sometime soon. My score for Service does not reflect my contributions on the Steering Committee THIS academic year – which I did mention (and I thought, at some length) in my self-evaluation. Also, as with my evaluation last year, I am at a loss as to what I can do about Professional Development, as most of the opportunities that might apply are either not conducive to my schedule or too expensive.
Moreover, I am still left with the impression that being a good instructor means little or nothing… which seems ironic to me, since that’s what I was hired to do.
I am on campus on MWF and I teach from 7:30-12:40.  Is there a time soon that we could sit down and chat?
Regards,
/splice/

PLEASE RETAIN ONE COPY OF THIS LETTER FOR YOUR RECORDS AND RETURN ONE SIGNED COPY TO ME BY MARCH 23.

_X_ I will schedule an interview to discuss this review.
__ I will not schedule an interview to discuss this review.

From: The Grand Pooh-Bah
Sent: Wed 3/4/2009 10:29 AM
To: 
Cc: Pooh-Bah No. 2
Subject: Re: Meeting to Discuss Annual Review
Main Office staff makes my appointments.
--------------------------
Sent from my BlackBerry Wireless Handheld

/splice/
____________
* Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

10 January, 2020

"Give me things that don't get lost*" (Why retirement is a myth)

I never really noticed Dad's age, even when he got sick. He still went to work. He still attended Cincinnati Bengals home games. He was still both deeply loving and sometimes deeply intractable. There were lines that should not, could not, would not (not on his watch) be crossed. My brother and I both knew what those lines were without being told. But he loved my mother with a tenderness that could sometimes be embarrassing for little boys and he was never afraid to tell us he loved us to demonstrate his love, sometimes in generous and sometimes in terrifying proportions.

As far as I was concerned my old man was God's Hammer, and just as immortal. He wasn't afraid of anyone and didn't kowtow to anybody.  I watched him stand resolute against church elders who questioned his faith and against family members who disagreed with my mom going to college instead of staying home. He wasn't progressive, but he was pragmatic... almost to a fault.

When he and my mom talked about him retiring early after my brother and I were both out of high school, I didn't question it. Dad had always love Florida and them talking about moving there made sense. Mom would retire from teaching early and they'd go spend their days on the white sand beaches around St. Petersburg.

He'd already taken up cooking. He was learning photography. He was endlessly curious, endlessly forward thinking in his unsentimental and pragmatic way. He was an early adopter of most things technological and never once expressed nostalgia for "the good old days." My old man was a man of his time and his place and he always seemed just fine with that. He wasn't what you might think of when conjuring up an image of someone living in Zen…. as a matter of fact, he would have vociferously argued why he wasn't -- but he was the only person I knew who seemed to know his place and know what he wanted. He'd traveled enough to know.

He wanted the Florida sun and my mom and to see his sons make their way in the world -- which made him endlessly critical of both of us, though in very different ways. He wanted for us what he didn't have and hadn't achieved, though it took me a long time to understand that.

Experiencing my father's death taught me that certain "facts" I'd taken for granted during the whole of my very inexperienced 17 years were wrong, because my dad did everything right. He worked. He made plans. He had his somedays all lined up.  Seeing God's Hammer dead nearly killed God for me and it made me question the point of having somedays. By the time I graduated high school, I'd already stopped planning anything. There wasn't a someday. There was now. And now. And now.

I'm turning 47 next month and whatever anger I've wielded against God and the universe has become something else.  No matter what anyone tells you, that demon in the belly never really goes away. But it has taught me how to counter the fear I was raised embrace. Dad would maybe put it different. I don't think he wanted his sons to be afraid of the world, but maybe to be wiser walking through it. 

But I'm a slow learner. 

The one thing I know, and know for sure, is that somedays don't mean anything. I want to live now, in this moment. It took me more than 20 years to find the love of my life and while I could wait to live fully when we're retired, the fact is I don't want to waste time. When the hour glass runs out on this life, it runs out. And yes, I have faith that something passes on after we ditch this skin suit, but I refuse to let anyone use that against me by telling me it's a someday. My most fervent hope is that whatever of me survives after death will melt into everything else. 

And when that happens, I want to take the fullness of a life lived with me to share.... much in the same way I share it now.

*Neil Young