Sunday, August 30, 2015

THE ICE CREAM MAN

  A highway liberates, if you find yourself receptive to such things. The rhythmic clomp of the road slabs drummed by the tires invigorates and lulls at once. Radio stations drift in and fade along the breaks of mountain foothills. Even clouds can mesmerize in the way they differ from one part of the country to another. In the southwest, thunderheads sneak up along the circle horizon, daring the sunlight to break them apart before they can launch their monsoonal attack. In the north central states the clouds hang low, like a series of cotton candy puffs dropping in from some invisible street fair. And in the mid-west those clouds, or their cousins, languish between the airplanes and the rivers, waiting to be called into duty as crop savers or devastating tornadoes, as need will dictate. 
   I had neared the first half of my midlife journey. The university still sprawled in the center of Huntington, just as it had loomed decades earlier, when I had been just another gnat drawn to the glow of wisdom and decadence. I do not imply that I learned nothing from my six years at Marshall. Rather, I state it outright. That observation declares less about the institution than it does about the student. The majority of the professors radiated a kind of celestial brilliance. The students with whom I shared classes, carafes and pitchers were, on the whole, among the most enlightened individuals it has ever been my pleasure to know. The cafeteria food tasted fine and, to the best of my knowledge, never killed anyone. The football team, known officially as the Thundering Herd (and often as not referred to as the Trembling Herd) seldom spoiled their hard-earned reputation as the most even-tempered collection of inepts ever to don a uniform. Again, the deficiencies in my education emanated not from any component of Marshall University but rather from my own lack of preparedness for higher education, be it there or anywhere else one might mention.
   As I at last found a parking space for the Audi TT Roadster, I recalled that when last here I had been driving a Ford Galaxy 500 that I had purchased from my father. That had been late summer of 1982. Today was early autumn of 2003. My passenger, Molly the Cocker Spaniel, needed a bit of a stretch and I saw nothing inappropriate about leashing my well-mannered dog and touring the old campus. I entertained the fantasy that, while most of my old classmates had likely matriculated after twenty-one years, the possibility did exist that one or more of the once-middle-aged faculty might be passing from one building to another in search of someone to listen to stories about the old days. 
   Some people say coincidence does not exist. I may have said that very thing myself. If so, I was certainly correct for it was no coincidence that I had invested quite a considerable sum on such a foolish symbol of status, a level of achievement to which I had otherwise fallen far short of earning. The twenty-one years between visits to Marshall, in my case, had been filled with a breathless vacuity. While my friends from those six years had, on the whole, done quite well for themselves, at least as regards their occupational accomplishments, I had, on the same whole, managed to alienate myself from every conceivable employer in the state of Arizona, the territory to which I had located shortly after graduation. If I am not in error, I had by this time separated from nine companies, none of which ever communicated any interest in reconnecting with me in any lawful manner. But I had come into some good fortune through severe hardship and a bit of that windfall I had seen fit to spend on the sports car. It had been part of the same whim that had encouraged me to purchase the matching leather jacket, boots and belt. I had returned, at long last, not even worthy to the metaphor of the prodigal son, yet feeling an immeasurable freedom, a lightness in my chest, an unworried countenance, a Spielberg Glow, if you will. 
   I could tell you about how the names of some of the buildings had changed, about how the thrust of the educational system had mutated from liberal arts to business, how nobody gave much of a damn about me or my handsome dog Molly, much less my leather jacket, boots and belt. What is more interesting, I believe, was a flashback I had while sitting on a cold block of matter surrounding the fountain at the student union. Nothing in particular was going on. A few students wafted in and out through the doors of the main union, but they gave off an air of self-important preoccupation, similar, I admit, to what I had spewed forth years earlier. 
   So while Molly yawned with one eye peeled for scurrying squirrels, I found myself thinking about nineteenth century American literature, or with more precision, about a certain class for which I had paid money, one called Nineteenth Century American Literature. I remembered with surprising clarity the course description. It had promised thought-provoking discussion of the best works of Melville, Twain and Poe. I had approached this class with an uncommon sense of joyful anticipation. As an English major, I had already survived thirty other literature classes, none of which, it is fair to say, I had been prepared for in the slightest. But Nineteenth Century American Literature? That was more like it. I had been breast-fed on Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick, "The Tell-Tale Heart," and other classics of the period. In short, this class would emphasize material with which I had some considerable familiarity and therefore I would be predisposed to discuss with some authority, as opposed to sitting on my hands while graduate students ruminated verbosity about the chivalry of Castilione or the symbolism of Plutarch, or vice versa. 
  I hightailed myself to the student bookstore at least a week before the first day of class, deciding that this time I would spring for new books rather than ragtag used ones. I handed the course card to the kid working the cash register. He sighed. "That's gonna be eleven books, you know?"
   "Fine. Fine."
   I didn't care. Chances were I would have already read most of them.
   The kid brought the books back one at a time. With each delivery my will to live receded by another mile.
   Each of the eleven books had been stuffed to overflowing with nothing but poetry. 
   No short stories, no novels, no essays. Each of the eleven lay there on the cashier's desk, smirking his or her authorial insolence back at me without even the decency of iambic pentameter. "We are poetry," they scoffed. "And we are not even the kind of poetry you favor. No, indeed. We are the precursors of the imagistic poetics, the early voices of impenetrable cacophony about which it is fair to say that the more we make a reader feel obtuse, the more successful we have been. We are T.S. Eliot, we are Ezra Pound, we are Wallace Stevens! We haven't the good sense to be e. e. cummings or Carl Sandburg or Edwin Arlington Robinson! Pshaw! One could actually get to the bottom of those fellows. Nay, we are Emily Dickinson, hiding beneath her bed in obscurity, diddling off lines such as 'Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me. Our carriage held but just ourselves and immortality,' punctuated with pointless dashes. We are Robert Frost, but not the good Robert Frost who wrote well enough about blueberries and dark journeys on snowy evenings. No, we are the Robert Frost who occasionally lapsed into incomprehensible drivel. We are the transcendentalists--the intellectual fascists. Our only saving grace is that Walt Whitman is among us and, truth to tell, he was more of a prose stylist who just happened to find that he liked the looks of his books better if they resembled poetry. Boy, you sho is gonna hate spending the next sixteen years of yer miserable life with us, that's a damned fact, Jack."
   Sitting on that cold slab of concrete with Molly at my feet and the sputter of the fountain pricking at my spine, I observed my mind and its emotions transporting back to that classroom, one that in my recollection radiated an antiseptic whiteness along with a palpable weightiness of silence except for the lectures of William Ramsey, a fine man, if not a stirring spokesman for his subject matter. In some classes, the student must face the risk of being called into discussion about the reading assignments and so it behooves that person to be somewhat prepared. This was not such a class. Bill prattled on about the historical context in which these writers wrote, about the use of elite psychological visuals, and about the disdain under which many of them labored. My participation in the class, to the extent that such an effort existed at all, was limited to pretending to make notes in the margins of the poetry books. 
   I have never felt much tug to be fair in my recollections. They are, after all, my own, and I tend to shape them as I see fit, rather than as they might shape themselves, were they given such a chance. Nevertheless, I will confess that a very few of the poems to which we were collectively exposed--or which exposed themselves to us--have improved over the years. Just as Mark Twain once observed that he was amazed how much more intelligent his father became after Clemons himself reached eighteen years of age, so did a small number of those poems appear to have more value once the real world came yanking on my skin. So while I had, as a student, loathed the very sight of "The Emperor of Ice Cream," in the ensuing years the dastardly two-stanza dreck had morphed into something approximating genuine beauty. A similar transformation had occurred with "The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock," a poem about which, many years after first falling into its pit, I claimed for it the title of Funniest Poem in the English Language. But as for infernal snobs such as Ezra Pound and the others, I have continued to harbor a grudge that lingers to this day. 
   Sometime during the sixteenth and final week of this exercise that I silently thought of as the Calisthenics of Tedium, I decided to have an ex parte discussion with Bill Ramsey. I had considered and rejected bringing up what was bothering me right in the middle of one of his class lectures, but in those days I lacked the courage to risk bringing deliberate embarrassment upon myself, although I never shied from the accidental variety, rest assured. Therefore, inside that student union I did wander one morning in search of the man and indeed I found him sitting alone, stirring instant creamer into his coffee cup. John Bonham, the drummer for Led Zeppelin, had died recently and the two of us made polite conversation on that occurrence until there was nothing left to say except for those words that had brought me to his table.
   "With all the good writing from that period, Bill, why the hell did you make us read all this poetry jive?"
   Bill appeared to take no offense at this pusillanimous statement. Indeed, his was one of the most gentle of souls ever to seek comfort on this unwelcoming earth. He dumped the contents of another non-dairy creamer into his cup, smiled, and replied, "The last two times I've taught this course, I focused on prose. This time I wanted to give myself a break. Why? You don't care for it?"
   I met his smile with one of my own. "I despise it. I also don't understand it. And I don't get why people needed to write that way."
  "What way is that?"
  "Writing about one thing when they mean something else. 'Let be be finale of seem'--What a load of rubbish."
   "How is he supposed to say it? 'The old lady died and people brought flowers and pretended to care'?"
  I could no longer force a smile, although his never faltered. I said, "The point is that there's no good reason why anyone would bother to decode the poem--"
   "Decode? I like that."
   "Thanks. Because the poem doesn't care about the old lady enough to even give her a name. The poem only cares about showing off. For a song about death, it has no passion whatsoever. I really hate that kind of thing."
   He drained his cup and wiped his mouth on a sleeve. "That's a legitimate criticism, Phil. Wish you would have brought that up in class."
   How can you get angry with such a person? He was reasonable, calm, respectful. And I was none of those things. 
   Molly broke my recollection with a warning growl at a wayward rodent that had dared dart across the union in search of shelter from the first light snowfall we had encountered on our journey. I zipped my jacket as I stood to look around. These surroundings, once so familiar that I had known them as well as they had known me, now filled me with an emptiness that bordered on pain. Nothing here would resuscitate me from the grief I was struggling to ignore. I had hoped to slip into a cozy condition of nostalgia. Instead I had wiled away the better part of an hour shivering in the cold, waiting for old scents to return on the shoes of ghosts.
  Reasonable, calm, respectful. Those had been code words for maturity, a field of endeavor I had dodged with some skill in the years between visits to Marshall University. 
   As I write this, the year is 2015. Before she retired for the evening, I mentioned to my girlfriend that I have experienced what I call true happiness during three periods of my life. The first was when I was a boy in Ohio. The second was when I attended Marshall. And the third has been the last several years that she and I have lived together. What people sometimes think of as maturity is often linked with acts of romanticizing elements of the past, either through melodrama or humor, through embellished stories or tortured recollections. 
   A few years ago I had the considerable privilege of teaching some writing classes at a nearby university. To write well, I believe, mandates that one encounter material worth reading. Some universities these days have compressed the student experience into abbreviated duration, thereby limiting opportunities for a fulfilling education. As you have probably heard, some schools offer what they call online learning, where a computer, Internet capability and tuition is all one needs for the experience. The students I taught were, for the most part, adults who sought credentials in order to keep their jobs. One may be a human resources manager one day with only a high school diploma or Associates Degree, but as competition for jobs that pay actual money intensifies, so do the educational requirements become stickier for the people hoping to keep those jobs. People who had been working as teachers themselves in Head Start programs, or in personnel departments, or as assistants of this or that, had found themselves needing that ever elusive sheep skin. And so they had enrolled in college, or returned to it, with one eye on the practical application of attaining their degrees and with a second eye somewhat better prepared for the beauty of elucidation than might have been the case when that second eye was between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four. 
   Over the course of my two years at that college, none of my students had ever heard of Wallace Stevens. By the end of the eight-week course work, every last one of them had come to get some idea about what the poet had been getting at in "The Emperor of Ice Cream." 
   I guess some poetry matures better than others.

Monday, August 10, 2015

THE GOBLIN OF DUMBASSES

EB: Good evening. I'm Ernestine Borgman with iNterview and tonight we are humbled, as well as chagrined, to have as our guest, one of the leading candidates in the upcoming Presidential election, Mr. D.J. Thump. Good evening, sir.

DJ: Good evening, Ernestine. 

EB: We might as well begin with--

DJ: It's all right if I call you by your first name, I hope?

EB: Certainly. We expect this to be an illuminating yet informal--

DJ: They ever call you Ernie at home? The reason I'm asking, you don't really possess what you might call the feminine qualities prevalent on the other networks.

EB: I was going to ask--

DJ: You know what I'm talking about: bushy blonde hair--

EB: I was--

DJ: Inflated boobs.

EB: I was--

DJ: Little black dress. Eye shadow. Pearls. Pouty lips. You know what I'm talking about. The people watching your show know what I'm talking about. I certainly know what I'm talking about.

EB: That's what I was going to ask, Mr. Thump. What is your impression of yourself these days, in light of a certain amount of criticism from some quarters? 

DJ: I say what I say, I am what I am. I'm the Thumper! As for the criticism you referenced, all I can say is that I have to be what I am, I have to say what I say. What you perhaps disingenuously ignore is that my message resonates with people who are tired of following the Political Correctness Playbook.

EB: You've made mention of the PC Playbook before. Do you actually believe that such a thing exists?

DJ: Do I? I know it exists! Back in the early 1980s, some very well connected friends of mine and I sat down one night over a few bottles of Dom and wrote it. A dear friend of mine in the publishing industry in Washington State told me, she said, DJ, you can't do this. I told her, of course I can. We printed up sixty million copies in hardback. We literally had that many pre-orders, but some people who really could have benefitted from reading the manuscript mistook some amphetamines for Quaaludes. They got a little upset about me and my excellent ideas and they burned down the publishing house and all 60 million copies of the book.

EB: That must have been some conflagration.

DJ: You've heard of Mount St Helens?

EB: The volcano?

DJ: That's what the government told the people it was. They couldn't run the risk of admitting the truth, which is that those drug addicts got together and burned the books, filled the atmosphere with ash and dust and filth for weeks, circled the earth. To this day, very few people realize that Mount St Helens was a farce. So most people never got to read my book--my first book. Everybody in the world has read The Art of the Squeal. I defy anyone to deny they have read that. Ask anybody. Ask everybody. Ask me. Next question.

EB: I wanted--

DJ: Come on, Ernie. Ya gotta be fast.

EB: Some people have suggested that your candidacy is less than one hundred percent serious, that perhaps you are trying to make some points, to ignite a base, to attach your image to various causes.

DJ: Look, Ern. I'm not a politician, all right? These politicians--what do they do? They puke up all these facts and figures. I have my own facts and God knows I've had my share of figures, if you know what I mean. And I think you do. I guarantee you this: when the votes are counted, I will do extremely well with statisticians and fashion models.

EB: So we should consider you as serious a candidate as any of the other people running for President?

DJ: The others? I hope nobody lumps me with those losers. I mean, I personally like all of them. I've slept with most of their wives. Now, I will admit, as a gentleman must, that I've never slept with Carly. She's so vain--she probably thinks this interview is about her. But no, I've never had the pleasure, if that's what it is. I celebrate that fact every Thanksgiving. The last thing I need is frostbite of the penis. 

EB: Let's talk about your opponents for a moment.

DJ: Jebidiah. Let's start with him. What a bore. Pfizer should clone him, put him in a bottle and sell him as a sleep aid for insomniacs. Thinks because he speaks Spanish, which he learned from his wife, by the way, that he gets to capture the Latino vote. I got news for Jebidiah: The people who live in Central America and the Caribbean don't get to vote in our elections, at least not yet, unless the other party wins, in which case the Castro brothers will be voting in Wyoming. 

EB: Who else comes to mind?

DJ: Regarding the election? Randy, he's a nice enough fellow, at least when he's seeking campaign contributions. He called my office just last year, told me he was either going to run for President or become a professional wrestler working for Vince McMahon. I'm tight with Vince, as everybody knows, so I told Randy to forget that idea. He said okay then, would I give him a million dollars to finance his Presidential campaign? I told him I'd do better than that. I offered him two million to not run. He never got back to me.

EB: Mr. Thump, for some reason, people tend to associate you with sarcasm.

DJ: There's all kinds of sarcasm, Ernie. I say what I am, I am what I say.

EB: What does that mean?

DJ: What does that mean? What, are you new or something? Hey, I'm only kidding with you. You know that, right?

EB: You've mentioned for months now that you can solve many of our national problems. Some people have suggested--

DJ: Let me guess. Some people say I'm short on specifics. Let me tell you something, pal. Specificity is the goblin of dumbasses. You can quote me on that.

EB: The goblin--

DJ: The goblin of dumbasses. That's a Thumper original. But what I was saying before you somewhat impolitely attempted to interrupt me, Ernie, is that I am a billionaire several times over. Being a billionaire, I delegate most of the heavy lifting to my associates, to my apprentices, if you will, and you probably won't. Those are the people I demand tend to the details, to the specifics, to the minutiae. I don't like minutiae. In fact, I don't even pronounce it with confidence. My job as the president of my highly successful company is to have vision, to generalize a grand strategy, and to fire with extreme prejudice anybody who fails to come up with a successful approach at carrying out what needs to be done. I intend to operate the same way as the President of the American people, no matter who they are, or where they come from, unless they aren't nice to me, in which case, look out below.

EB: So in terms of Mexico?

DJ: My first day in office, Mexico is fired. No severance package, no wait until the end of the week. Boom. Out the door, don't look back, don't expect a favorable reference.

EB: You do understand that technically Mexico does not work for the United States government?

DJ: Ernie, you are so naive.

EB: Taxes?

DJ: Part of the problem we have in this country is that wealthy people--most of whom are very sweet and dear friends of mine--resent like hell being asked to pay their fair share.

EB: So the Thump Plan would be what?

DJ: The last thing this country needs is to have all the rich people mad at their President. The poor people get angry, I understand that, of course. I'm not some monster. But when the affluent get pissed off, they move to the Mediterranean and don't pay their taxes there. When poor people get mad, they burn down their own neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods have to be rebuilt. We're talking jobs, Ernie! Am I the only person running for public office these days who doesn't understand how to negotiate with the world?

EB: We have been speaking this evening with Presidential candidate, Mr. D. J. Thump. Please join us next week--

DJ: Remember, people. If you want a President who likes what he says and says what he likes, then cast your vote for the only man who matters, the best-looking, smartest, most successful magnate in the history of human civilization. We're talking about me, of course. Next question.

EB: I'm afraid we're out of time.

DJ: Only if you don't vote for me.

EB: Until next week--

DJ: Vote early and vote often.

EB: Good night!