Friday, September 29, 2006

Where have all the fucking poets gone?
I hope they're dead.

A few years ago, I came up with the brilliant idea to write every digit from one to one million. I thought it would be an interesting meditation and an exercise in wrestling with the actuality of a truly large number.* I planned to begin and end each number-writing session with a few paragraphs of writing, exploring any ideas that came from the experience.

I don’t recall exactly how far along I got. I made an early tactical error by computing how many digits would be involved. Writing every number from one to one million requires 5,888,896 digits, which really just sounds as abstract as one million. So, I converted that to time. Imagining that I could consistently write one digit per second, it would require over 1600 hours to complete the task, and even estimating the rate higher would only cut the time to 800 hours at 2 digits/second or 550 at 3 digits/second.

This knowledge was enough to dishearten me. It didn’t help when I began to consider how long between true milestones. At my highest estimated rate of 3 digits/sec, I would reach 100,000 after 45 hours of work, but would have to work twelve times again that long to make a million.

Regardless, the Sisyphean and essentially empty endeavor went uncompleted. I hadn’t even given it much thought in the intervening years. That is, until I was thinking about my repeatedly-stalled novel (which is also my thesis project, and my last major hurdle to graduation), particularly about the narrator and the distaste for idealism I share with him, and I wondered why I never write poetry anymore.

For years, poetry was all I really wanted to write. After drunkenly announcing to a group of friends from back East that had all ended up here together that I wanted to be a poet, that was my central, sustaining artistic goal for years. I’d try stories here and there, and wrote some sketch comedy (during which time I met TBO), but poetry was my love. I wrote it, read it, performed it.

I didn’t suck. Some of my work didn’t translate well to the page, and I’ve only ever had a few published, but even the harshest critics from my circle at the time had to admit that when I read my own work, it made for damn good art.

But, at some ill-defined point along the way, I stopped. I found I was relying more and more on poring through old notes to get something together for a show. The last bit I wrote specifically to be performed was a one-man poetry slam with layered costumes so I stripped my way from caricature to caricature of slam poets. Then there was just some noodling, and then really nothing. The last serious poem I wrote was for Liv’s first birthday, the second-to-last was for my friend Julianto’s memorial, each over two years ago.

There doesn’t seem to be a simple answer for why. I’m excessively cynical, but I always have been. I definitely grew to hate the poetry scene, especially the slams, and had the hatred reinforced all over again in grad school. I mean, fucking poets. Get a fucking life.

That right there typifies the change, though. That night, just before Christmas, a lot of years ago, exchanging cheap gifts with friends and getting hammered on a Jagermeister knock-off, when I announced I wanted to be a poet, it wasn’t a grand proclamation. I looked at my feet, gave the word half-voice, was almost asking permission. It felt so fucking romantic and right. I want to be a poet.

Now the word catches in my throat.

I even still like poetry, good poetry. Wislawa Szymborska. Carl Sandberg. Tennyson. Blake. Bukowski. Sometimes Ginsberg but fuck that Ferlingetti hack.

It is just such a mad enterprise, and one so lightly taken up by fools (and not the good kind of fools, the dumbass ones). It only works with dead solemn determination and in absentia of the artists themselves, who are insufferable. There is such a thing as a humble novelist, but there is no such thing as a humble poet.

For me, poetry came to occupy the same space the writing-to-a-million project. I only cared to engage it on the meta-level, thinking about doing it without actually doing it. Like poetry. I have poetic thoughts, I write poetic notes, I imagine single lines delivered, but I’m unwilling to engage its actuality. I would write to a million if it didn’t take so long, and I’d write poetry if I didn’t have to be a fucking poet to do it.

Were I still idealistic, or at list willing to choke down my gorge when confronted with idealism, then the actuality would be the thing, would be worth anything. But, it just isn’t anymore.

Maybe I am losing faith in art.

Though I appreciate more, I think, the irreproducible beauty of everyday life.

A cynical romantic? Yeah, that’s healthy. Morose and angry is no way to go through life, son.**

* - It was also inspired, I have to admit, by a friend who suggested, when I asked if he wanted to play rummy, that we play to a million. We made it up over the 50,000 mark, with multiple pages and pieces of moulding and walls and empty tape rolls as scorecards. We gave up shortly after I figured that with 380 available points/hand, even if one player scored every possible point every hand, which is of course not possible given the rules of the game, it would require over 2600 hands to complete the game. I just don’t think we liked each other quite well enough for that kind of commitment.

** - Bonus points if you can identify the classic movie this last line has been paraphrased from.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Just a thought I thought I'd share

I'd rather have a little bit more than I need than a little bit less.

But, I rather have a bit less than I need than a lot more. And I'd rather have much less than I need than a whole lot more.

But that's just me.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Race, Fruit, & Survivor

TBP (The Beige Pain-in-the-ass) has been hounding me about my take on Survivor’s decision to break contestants into four tribes based on race. I threatened a blog post about this when the announcement was first made, but haven’t really been moved to actually write about it, mainly because I care so little about Survivor and believe my criticism will be misinterpreted.

But, I have finally been goaded into it by TBP’s repeated forwards of links with subject lines like “Preemptive rebuttal to your blog post.”

The problem I face in presenting my opinion is that my opinion isn’t reliant on actually seeing the show. Preposterous? I know TBP thinks so. But, my criticism is not about what the show will potentially do, that there will be, as some critics have said, inevitable editing choices based on stereotypes. So, as crazy as it may seem, and as much as it opens me up for easy counter-criticism, I haven’t and won’t watch the show.

See, my problem with the race-based tribes of Survivor is in the very concept of dividng people by race. I believe race is an illusion, a set of prejudices built upon the arbitrary decision to identify people by skin color.

Arbitrary in what way? Much like fruits, vegetables and plants. Ask anybody what the difference between fruits and vegatables is, and they will provide an answer based on seeds and vines and trees and such, but the truth is that fruits and vegetables are all just plants. We have made up arbitrary distinctions based on which part of the plant we happen to eat. The fruit/vegetable distinction actually says very little about the plant in question, and much more about us.

And, we’ve decided that skin color is a distinction that can predict other traits about a person. That skin color and hair color and eye color actually say something meaningful about who a person is and will become. And dividing people in a game show based on these traits reinforces the idea that these traits actually hold significance. But, they don’t.

Which isn’t to say that cultural distinction don’t exist, or that racism doesn’t exist. There are in fact cultural differences that have a high correlation to race, but not because of a necessary link but rather as an extension of our belief in the arbitrary significance of those traits. They matter, they correlate with culture, because we think they do.

And what we think means everything in this case. Besides reinforcing the idea that race is a meaningful way to divide people, that certain people have innate characteristics, this move by Survivor presents the opportunity for prejudices that individuals hold to be played out in a perceived “safe” venue. So, when Rush Limbaugh goes on about black people being poor swimmers and Hispanics being willing to do things other people won’t, he can shrug and say “Hey, I’m just sayin’, in the content of the game…”

What it comes down to is this – I think CBS played the race card to boost ratings. I think they were willing to support the idea that people of different races have different innate characteristics, which is the foundational idea of racism, to boost their audience and make a few more bucks. And I think that sucks.

I’m not calling for them to pull the show, or for advertiser boycotts, or anything like that. But, I’d sure like to see more in-depth discussion, a discourse that can get beyond the “c’mon, it’s not so bad, it’s just TV” rationale to which even Salon falls prey, one which would be the only (or at least by far the best) hope for any positive outcome from what host Jeff Probst has called “a social experiment.”

And, one more thing, before I get any of TBP’s flak about being a white dude and talking about racism when I should be “let[ting] minorities dictate amongst themselves what is or isn’t racist?” White is as much a race as black, which is to say not much of anything in my worldview, I’ll admit, but for two long has been seen as invisible, as being without race, which to my mind reinforces the idea of white superiority as much as seeing women as penis-less reinforces male superiority. The discourse on race affects everyone, and everyone SHOULD (I know, I know) take part.

Ideally, I’d like to see everyone take part in dismantling the idea that race means anything, as that seems to me the key to dismantling racism.

Interesting side note – The flap over whether a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable stems from the fact that fruit was assessed a higher import duty in the late 1800’s than a vegetable, and a tomato grower successfully petitioned the Supreme Court for the vegetable designation to improve his profit margin. Hmmm, reinforce arbitrary distinctions for financial gain – that sounds familiar.

Sunday, September 17, 2006


Our preschool has a set of rules that are the foundation of conduct in the classroom. They are all simple and direct, and one of the reasons I am starting to like this place.

My favorite? “You can only knock down what you build.”

This rule is pretty specifically geared towards the block area, of course, but I like its wider connotations. You can only tear down those things to which you have contributed, you can only take what you have given.

There is something beautiful and poetic and sweet about that sentiment.

I find as a whole that the co-op preschool we have joined is not nearly so fearsome a prospect as I imagined. I mean, yeah, of course. I’ve never really been able to adopt the maxim “Don’t worry - if that about which you worry comes to pass, you will have worried twice, and if it does not, you will have worried in vain.”

What became clear quite quickly is that this will be a fun experience for me, because I really like the kids. I was worried about my interactions with the parents, but that isn’t why I am there when I am there. It’s about the kids, and I like kids, actually play with and talk to, never at or down to, kids.

And I can even say this after being called in the very first time I was listed as the sub, at the end of the very first week.

I’m trying not to develop favorites or prejudices, but they are there.

The little Danish-Asian boy I call Chah Li after a character in a long ago favorite novel about Vietnam, who never speaks but understands and communicates incredibly well with his body and face, and likes to play catch with me.

Or little Pinhead, a sweet and doomed little girl that was the first one to ask me to take her to the potty, and told me I was nice at the flax seed table.

Or ACAC, the Alpha Cool Asian Chick, that everyone loves and yet clearly harbors a malevolent streak, and told me flat out that I wasn’t funny while she was laughing at me.

Or The Game, named unfortunately after a famous sci-fi character and apparently completely unaware of the concept of discipline, with whom I can already see the conflicts and the possibility, which I won’t be able to shake, of breaking through and making a connection.

There is the buoyant Swiss Miss, and crazy blonde Eraserhead that loves him some Jim, and Heartthrob already wooing all the girls and waiting to be pie-eyed for a decent piper.

It is already easy to ignore pSAM (the pSeudo-Alpha Mom) that tried three times to take over my table and tell the kids what to do, or OldLoon, the grey-headed uber-Lib that snapped at me when I asked her mean little prick of a boy to put on a coat for outdoor playtime in the rain (apparently, I was limiting his creative expression by suggesting that a t-shirt and leggings would be a bit cold). They don’t matter, the kids matter, just as their opinions of my parenting don’t matter, only Liv does.

But, since I’m sounding all fucking noble here, I have to admit something. Because, really, I don’t want to mislead anybody into believing I’m a twink. I am, as one friend nailed perfectly, a son-of-a-bitch. And part of me, when I’m playing with kids, treating them like people, always dropping to their eye level, being charming at the same time as being authoritative, which kids just naturally respond to, dropping their attitude like a barista will drop her panties when confronted with the same confidence, part of me just wants to be better in that room, with those kids, than any of the parents I’ve already tagged with self-righteous worldviews.

Nice guy. Good with kids. Sick fuck. Jim Jewell.

Why don’t they make a pill for me?

Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Corrie Calls Begin

I fielded my first Rachel Corrie call today.

Rachel Corrie was a student at Olympia’s Evergreen State College that was killed by an Israeli bulldozer while protesting the demolition of Palestinian homes in Gaza. Her journal entries and emails home have been adapted into a play called My Name is Rachel Corrie, which the Seattle Rep is producing in the spring.

Other productions of this play have already sparked protests from the Jewish community, and the same is expected here, especially in light of the recent shooting at the Jewish Federation’s offices in downtown Seattle.

The call that turned out to be what is likely the first of many Rachel Corrie calls started out innocently enough. The man on the phone asked where we were located. Potentially odd, as we have no shows currently running, but it didn’t raise any red flags. I told him we were located on the northwest corner of the Seattle Center.

“Is that part of the Pacific Science Center, then?”

“No, we’re are on the opposite end of the campus from the Pacific Science Center.”

“But, you are still a part of… what do you call it?”

“The Seattle Center, yes.”

“So, you are a public organization, run by the city.”

“No, we lease the building from the Center.”

“So, you’re an independent organization operating on public land?”

“Well, leasing from…”

“But, you are an independent corporation?”

“I’m not sure I am the right person to give you a detailed and definitive answer.”

At this point, the red flags began to appear. The questioning was just too pointed.

“Can you tell me how you can justify using public land to promote this Rachel Corrie play, which is going to generate a lot of hatred for the Jews?”

“Uhhh… I think there is probably someone better equipped to answer that than the weekend receptionist.”

What is going to kill me about fielding these calls is the fact I can’t really engage these knuckleheads. This man, for example, I wanted to educate on how appallingly little artistic input is actually solicited from the monkeycage staff. I wanted to wonder aloud whether he had actually read the play. I wanted to tell him to go fuck himself. But, I couldn’t. There are some unfair limitations placed on us monkeycagers.

“Who should I call, then? The mayor’s office?”

“I’m not sure that the mayor’s office would have much to offer, sir.”

“Aren’t you using city property to produce this Rachel Corrie thing?”

Apparently, what he is hoping for is that the mayor’s office or Seattle Center will pull the longstanding lease from Seattle’s largest producing theater because of our spring play selection. Nobody that calls and harasses an innocent monkeycager is looking for reasoned debate. And his desire to suppress a play that is based on first person accounts of a historic event made me hate him just a little more.

“Sure, maybe you should call the mayor’s office.”

And, here’s the thing. I’m entirely conflicted on the Israel-Palestine issue. There is plenty of blame to go around.

And, further, I see little reason to consider Rachel Corrie a folk hero. She was a privileged white girl that spent her entire life in Olympia, WA and got herself killed by getting involved with someone else’s fight. I have a love/hate relationship with idealism.

But, I absolutely think the play should be produced.

Then I wondered why. I’m suspicious of issue plays for the same reason I am suspicious of protest poetry – so much of it sucks on an artistic level (though, when done well, I believe they are powerful agents of social change). And, much as I suspicionated about my Corrie caller, I haven’t actually read the play. Maybe I had no right to get internally uppity because in fact Rachel has a two-page monologue starting on page twelve that ends with “Death to Satan’s bastards! Death to the murderous Jews!”

So, now I’ve guilted myself into reading this stupid play, and if it sucks as much throughout as it does in the first few pages I plan to start protesting along with the angry Jews.

Anybody got the mayor’s number handy?

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Breaking the Silence

Clearly I need to find some way to break this writing drought. I wish I could say it was only in this venue that I’ve fallen silent, but that is sadly not true. As much as I’ve been able to muster lately are my typically snarky and “nuanced” (read “spin-doctored”) comments on the blogs of others.

I could write about my attempt to enjoy a ballgame with a couple of guys from work on Friday night. Beautiful evening, tickets waiting under my name at will call, creeping along the viaduct toward the 1st Ave S exit, fully in the midst of gameday traffic and just blocks from the stadium when the transmission begins to slip. And then, nothin’ but revving, no power. My momentum just barely carried me to the top of the off ramp, and I coasted down to an hour-long wait for the tow truck, followed by a long truck ride to the auto shop, all of which rendered it impossible for me to get my or anyone else’s tickets. An evening fairly typical, if to an extreme degree, of my luck these days.

Or I could write about where I was five years ago tomorrow, though there was little special about it. My wife, then just the woman with whom I lived in sin, was in California for the week for work, so I was likely hungover. My mother-in-law-to-be called me around 7am, I wondered what she was babbling about and went back to sleep. Eventually woke to find the whole world gone crazy. Smoked and played chess in Discovery Park watching the jets circle Seattle and a frigate pull into Elliott Bay. But, if I wrote about that I’d digress into a story about WWF Smackdown two nights later in my favorite family pub and how much more caring and human and reasonable the messages from the wrestlers between bouts were than anything the talking heads were spouting on cable.

I could even just go off on Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, which I just read for the first time, and which was the second satisfying fantasy story I’ve read recently, along with Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, that fell apart with ridiculous resolution in the final pages. L’Engle’s dash from mortal danger to I-can-win-with-love-oh-there-I-have-Papa!-Mama!-TheEnd in six pages was the most ham-handed conclusion to an ambitious and engaging work since young lit phenom Nick McDonell had a maniac walk out of the bedroom with an uzi four pages shy of the end. And, please, Ray, you’re a fucking genius, you could have come up with a better way to destroy the darkness than laughter. Why does it seem like you are ripping off Peter Pan?

But, what is really at me right now is Livvie starting preschool. We joined a preschool co-op nearby, which I am already beginning to fear may be as noble and doomed an effort as Communism. The thing about the kind of people that join co-ops in Seattle is that they are progressives who are very proud of themselves for being progressive. They are the root of my anger with “should.” For secular humanists, they are very Christian in their condescension at times. And where my little girl is concerned, I just don’t take kindly to being told how it should be, much less when it is passive-aggressively inferred.

Yeah, I think it is safe to say that I have built up some ridiculous fears and prejudices going into this experience.

And, really it is more about me than them. I’m incredibly hard on myself as a father. I’m sure I’m doing a terrible job more often than not, and that really isn’t a cry for affirmation, I swear, because I wouldn’t believe you. I worry about giving too many treats. I worry about not giving enough. I worry about finding the line between listening to my daughter and being conned by my daughter. I worry about giving her enough access to things that will help develop her wicked smart brain, getting her enough exercise, shielding her from acquiring my anti-social tendencies.

And I’m really worried that suddenly exposing myself to a community of other parents is going to needle every one of those vulnerabilities.

Of course, I’m also going to get a couple hours to myself twice a week. I shouldn’t be bitching, which just makes it a little more pathetic that I want to.

She starts tomorrow morning at 9:30. And thereafter September 11th will be known as the day our whole lives changed.