Wednesday, August 27, 2008


The shrike (specifically the loggerhead shrike) is the name of a bird that I read about this summer in the paper and, after doing so, immediately wanted to find a place for in a poem. Here it is in this photo taken by Jon Gavin at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

The loggerhead shrike is often mistaken for a songbird, but the two couldn't be more different. Physically, the way to distinguish the two is by the hooked beak on the loggerhead shrike. Unlike the songbird, the shrike's beak is curved at the tip, like a bird of prey.

It's curved this way because it is...a bird of prey....a bird of prey so sadistically violent it has earned the nickname, "the butcher bird."

The shrike uses its hooked beak to break the necks of its prey--small lizards and other small birds--and then impale its paralyzed victims upon sharp branches, thorns and barbed wire.

Not only is the bird distinguished by the manner in which it kills its prey, but also by the sheer amount of killing it does. The article in the paper that I read (I wish I had saved the photo) showed one little shrike that had killed 40+ lizards, birds, and insects. It pictured the shrike and a stretch of a barbed wire fence in the background, along which the shrike had impaled all these creatures in a row.

The loggerhead shrike lacks the talons other predatory birds have with which to tear its prey apart, and this explains why it impales its prey-- in essence, it turns its victims into popsicles from which to peck at and sustain itself. However, as was mentioned in the article, the loggerhead variety of the shrike kills far more than it could possibly eat. It posits that the bird kills as many creatures as it does, and puts them on display, in order to show female shrikes what a vigorous and strong potential mate it is.

So, where the songbird sings to attract a mate, the shrike kills. How deliciously evil--this was my first thought, but then I wondered how evil is that, really? When all the killing is done, all the guy shrike is doing is trying to impress the girls. Aren't they the evil ones by being impressed with such carnage?

I read somewhere about a type of bird that seeks out shiny objects, e.g. scraps of aluminum foil and colorful bits of ribbon and cloth, to weave into its nest in order to attract the ladies. Are these birds any different from the shrike, essentially, in their behavior being a means to the same end?

And how different is the natural world in comparison to our own? I am reminded of a Dave Chappelle comedy sketch -- at about four minutes in, he delves into the question of materiality and male/female relationships -- in which he says (albeit in much coarser language) than a man would live in a cardboard box if only that would be sufficient to attract a potential mate. However, men live in nice homes, drive expensive cars, and pursue the lucrative careers with which they are able to obtain these things because this is what women find attractive.

Are then the material girls who are impressed with our society's dragons really that much different than female shrikes?

How I got from ornithology to Dave Chappelle I really don't's early...i need a cup of coffee...

Sunday, August 24, 2008

workforce rejoined

I received word last Wednesday that the NBC affiliate in Pittsburgh has agreed to compensate me monetarily for writing, editing and managing content on its website. So my fellow comrades, beginning tomorrow, I will be rejoining the workforce after a prolonged hiatus. No doubt, the time and energy that I have to do blog writing will lessen; however, I will endeavor to keep at it to the greatest extent possible.

When I find that my desire to do so is waning, I thankfully have several places in the blogosphere to look for inspiration. One is C. Dale Young's blog, Avoiding the Muse, the link to which I have had listed in my blogroll for some time. It is a one-stop shop for links to all kinds of writing relevant to the world of poetry, and by maintaining this shop with the diligence that C. Dale does, he has made himself a friend of the poetman from afar.

At one point I was in close proximity to the man. We shared a van from Bread Loaf to the Burlington airport last year, but I didn't introduce myself. I would have liked to, being both familiar and appreciative of his poetry, but I was content just to nod off during the long drive after drinking like a writer the previous night at the conference's send-off party in The Barn.

I passed up the opportunity to introduce myself at the airport, as well. After so many consecutive days of being literary at Breadloaf, I had already dimmed the lights in my head. Instead of introducing myself to yet another poet, I hung all of my hungover attention over a fantasy football insert I found in my copy of USA Today. (Am I the only one who always feels compelled to purchase a copy of USA Today whenever I'm in an airport?)

I woke up this morning and swore to myself that I would continue writing a poem called "Shrike" that I've put aside since my very first blog posting two months ago, but I've wanted to mention C. Dale's blog for some time and how useful it is in keeping abreast of what it being written about poetry, among other things. Also, I recently read a poem of his that reminded me of the beach at Half Moon Bay near to where Rob & Kate live. It's also close to the first beach I visited upon my first trip to San Francisco-- a story I intend to relate in a future post. I mention it now to serve as a reminder to do so later. Here's the link to "Infidelity" by C. Dale Young.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

robert frost's bed

My friend Tanya sent me this picture of Annex House, my residence for 11 days last year up at Bread Loaf. She is up there now, doing her second tour of poetry duty, and now that this year's conference is in full-swing, I find myself mentally projecting myself there. I opted not to apply again this year, thinking I'd be preparing to pursue yet another college degree and busy situating myself around yet another college or university campus. If only I had known then that I'd travel to India, change my life's plans, and not presently be working, I'd like to think I'd be there now.

Having never attended a writers' conference before, I did not know what to expect from Bread Loaf. I only knew it was the oldest and most prestigious writers' conference in the country, but since I'd never been to any other conference, I could not put this into perspective. Only once I received my information packet in the mail was I able to do so, to some small degree. I was shocked to learn that writers had been gathering at this retreat in Vermont for 82 (now 83) years--longer than the Pittsburgh Steelers (celebrating their 75th anniversary last season) had been playing professional football. I also learned the current recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry was going to be in attendance; here she is, Natasha Tretheway (right), drinking on my porch with Tanya (left), who has just informed the preeminent poet that she has a nice butt.

The one thing I did know about Bread Loaf, going into the conference, was that it had been parodied as "Wordloaf" on the Simpsons. And to answer Homer's question at the end of this clip, no. Bread Loaf does not have an open bar (which would be truly crazy the way writers drink) except for the party in The Barn at the very end of the conference (which was truly crazy the way writers drink). There was a cash bar that served beer and wine on a daily basis in The Barn, but it only opened in the evenings, late enough after dinner that my friends and I were forced to go into town to do some occasional shopping. Here's Maria with a couple of baby Heineken keggies and a cart full o' bottles and boxes of wine.

While there, my internal odometer rolled back to my college days, and just as then, after my afternoon classes, I liked to have a couple drinks before dinner. I had very little problem finding people like Maria who were of the same inclination. Our core crew was Maria Nazos, Tanya Jarrett, Jamie Iredell, and myself. We would sit out on the porch before and after dinner, and shoot the literary shit. Other attendees and faculty would pass by the porch, join us for a cocktail, stick around for awhile and then move on. It became an institution-- the porch at Annex House-- where you could be sure to get a drink, bum a smoke, hear a favorite poem recited, recite a favorite poem yourself, e.g. the best 9/11 poem ever written-- Martin Espada's "Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100" --engage in a discussion on poetic craft, hear Vincent "the baardvark" recite a spoken word poem in which he geniusly rhymes "Lake Wobegon" with "Pokemon", tell your best drunk story, listen to someone else's most disgusting sex story, watch a half a dozen people standing on top of the boulder in the field across the road which was the only place on the entire mountain where one could get a lick of cellular telephone service, have your picture taken by Adam Grabowski, skip a creative nonfiction reading at the Little Theater in order to listen to Jamie recite a poem recounting the evils of each and every one of his ex-girlfriends, hear Ames sing "I Had My Beer Goggles On", watch Laura challenge Maria to a beer-shotgunning contest and then shit-talk about her victory afterwards, participate in a late-night recite-a-poem-from-memory smackdown with Ilya Kaminsky, Major Jackson, and Matt Hart among others, admire the sunset shining in the mask of beer sweat on Jamie's face after drinking half a case of PBR, see Eavan Boland walk by on the sidewalk and feel your poetic soul pulled by the gravitational weight of her presence, or sit back in a rocking chair and just fucking rock.

Or you could hear one of several different accounts of what happened to me at the Frost summer house, a mile and a quarter off the Bread Loaf campus. The following is the definitive account.

Most of the rooms on Bread Loaf campus are doubles, including those in Annex House. The informational packet that an attendee receives upon acceptance to the conference forewarns you of this fact. I had my reservations about sharing a room with a total stranger. The last time I had been assigned a roommate was my freshman year in college, and he turned out to be a total cocksucker. However, I took some comfort in the knowledge that the staff at Bread Loaf makes every attempt to pair up compatible attendees at the conference. As it turns out, it couldn't have been a more perfect fit with Alex (far left in this picture).

A rugby player, a fiction writer, a helluva storyteller, a drinker, a nasty farter, and an all-around funny and personable guy, Alex was a more suitable roommate than I could have imagined. We bonded from the start, and with him, I attended one of the conference's first get-togethers-- a BBQ and Frost lecture on the grounds outside Robert Frost's summer house near Bread Loaf campus.

The highlight of this excursion was the opportunity to see Frost's summer residence first-hand. A national historic landmark, the house was tiny and must have been cramped even for Frost, who I learned (much more first-hand that I would have liked) was a surprisingly diminutive man. Emerging from the confines of this quaint dwelling must have made the natural landscape surrounding it seem all that much more grandiose and enthralling for Frost. The house consisted of four rooms: a small sitting room, a narrow kitchen, an almost airplane-sized bathroom, and a single bedroom. In the bedroom there was a small window, a framed poem hung on the wall, a nightstand, and a single bed. Robert Frost's small, single bed.

Alex and I had been the first to enter, and we breezed through the house while those behind us were proceeding at a thoughtful, museum-ish pace. They were still noting the titles on Frost's bookshelf in the sitting room, and weighing the quaintness of its few pieces of wicker furniture, by the time we had swept through the place and were standing in Frost's bedroom.

Only once I saw the size of the bed in that room did I realize how tiny this giant of American poetry actually was. The mattresses in the bunk bed that I used to share growing up with my brother, while on vacation at our family's obsessively fish-themed lakehouse, seemed queen-sized in comparison.

The bed was against the wall, to the left of the door as you entered the bedroom. I was overcome with the inexplicable urge to sit on the edge of the bed. For whatever reason, I wanted to place my feet on the exact same spot on the floor where Frost would have placed his, waking up each day, in an effort to connect spatially with the poet. At least this is how I rationalized the urge after the fact.

With utmost care and gentleness, I sat. Alex was watching as I did so, nervously. Nothing happened. The bed, though small, was sturdy, and I let the bed frame take the weight of my ass. I mused upon my feet and grinned up at Alex. Outside we could hear people walking from the sitting room into the kitchen, at which point the expression on Alex's face told me that I should probably get up.

I reached back with my left hand, to help push myself up, when the back corner of the mattress dropped through the bed frame with a bang. I fell backwards atop my arm, my legs flying up spread-eagled in the air over the edge of the bed frame where they had been planted. Looking up from between my knees, I saw Alex standing over me, horror-stricken, as if I had just spontaneously given birth or asked him to lick drops of Tabasco off my perineum.

In an exhibition of behavior most unfitting a good roommate, not to mention a UK rugby player, Alex ran out of the room like a scared little girl.

Fortunately, for me, two of the first people he elbowed past, in exiting the little house, were Maria and Adam, to whom I am both truly indebted. Adam immediately extended a hand to help me up, and Maria barred entry to the bedroom, managing the scene. When someone asked, "What happened in there?" she responded, "Nothing!" and abruptly shut the bedroom door.

Panic-stricken, I got on my knees before the bed and began to examine what I could do as a means of damage control. Once there, I realized what had happened; the mattress rested on three pegs in the bed frame where there should have been four. The peg in the bottom right hand corner was missing, so when I had pushed back on the mattress with my left hand, it dropped through the frame and hit the floor.

I simply pulled the mattress back up so it sat level on the three pegs there. Like that, the bed looked untouched, except for its mussed covering which I smoothed out (carefully) with the palm of my hand. Then Maria opened the bedroom door to several astonished faces, and we walked out, trying to look deadpan. I must have looked like I had just had a physical altercation with Robert Frost's ghost.

The house that had initially seemed so small was now palatial and labyrinthine as we struggled through the querulous crowd that packed its square footage. Once through and out the door, nature had never before been so expansive and inviting. I took a deep breath of fresh, fresh air.

Immediately I found Alex, who was busy telling a group of people on the lawn outside the house how his roommate just broke Robert Frost's bed. After first questioning his manhood, then the content of his character, and finally calling him "chipmunk nuts", I put my arm around my roommate and confided to him that, if I had been in his shoes, I would have in all likelihood exhibited no less panic and cowardice.
As it turns out, the experience served as a boon for our Annex Porch get-togethers. People that perhaps wouldn't have stopped by did, just to meet the idiot poet who "broke" Robert Frost's bed.

While writing this, I was saddened to come across this article in the Middlebury newspaper detailing how on December 28th, four months after my attendance at Bread Loaf, the house was severely damaged in the wake of "a large, underage drinking party."

This passage from the article describes the damage that was done:

Police say vandals shattered a window to gain entrance to the farmhouse and proceeded to destroy tables, chairs, pictures, light fixtures and dishes, torch wicker furniture in the fireplace to warm the unheated building, discharge two fire extinguishers and urinate and vomit inside the building and on the surrounding property.

Surprisingly, Frost's broken bed is not included in this list of damaged furniture. Perhaps the reporter missed this detail, or maybe the horde of drunken teenagers, despite all their pissing and puking, had declared Frost's bedroom off-limits during their party, thereby preserving its sanctity and exhibiting a modicum of respect and common decency for the poet that I, by sitting upon his bed, had managed to lack.

I hope the bed remains there, as is, its mattress resting on three pegs, awaiting the next destructively over-curious poet to sit upon its edge...

Monday, August 18, 2008

mophunquis, pronunciation of

A few of the few readers of this blog have inquired about, or commented upon, the pronunciation of its name. Most assume it's pronounced moe-FUN-keys, and I suppose that is the pronunciation I had in mind when I first thought up the name.

Perhaps, if you're a little Frenchy, you might pronounce it moe-FUN-key, with the "quis" enunciated as it is in the Marquis (mar-KEY) de Sade.

Or you could go with either of the variants moe-FUN-kwis or moe-FUN-kwiz. (Personally I like to imagine the latter pronunciation, spoken with a thick Pittsburgh accent that sneaks a "g" sound between the last two syllables, as in... Yunz check aht dat website, moe-FUNG-kwiz?)

Or you could opt not to pronounce the "ph" pairing with its customary "f" sound and pronounce the first two syllables of the word, mop-HUN, and end with whatever variant of "quis" you so desire.

Or you could think of some other pronunciation altogether that I cannot in my geeking-out with the word, and that pronunciation would be as correct as any other.

The point is, there is no definitive pronunciation, just as there is no definitive definition of the word. The name of the blog was chosen to be as unconstrained as the writing herein.

Saying that, I wouldn't even term the kind of writing I'm doing here to be blogging, per se. As I've been writing, I've moved beyond my stated intention of recording my awaking thoughts. I've noticed my thoughts, and commentary upon present-day events, have occasioned me to revisit my past. As one reader mentioned, several of my blog posts read like excerpts from a memoir.

I've decided to continue in this fashion here, loosely weaving my past experiences into my day-to-day thoughts, with the intention of writing in a new form altogether which I will call the "blemoir" because a) memlog sounds bad and b) I kinda like how Blemoir sounds like the name of a Lord of the Rings character.

In a future post, I'll flesh out what I mean by "blemoir" in greater detail, but for the time being, that will have to wait. I am anxiously waiting to hear back regarding my most promising job opportunity to date, and until I've heard one way or the other about this job, I'm compelled for some reason to keep my thoughts regarding all things mophunquis in check.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

ice cream & coffee

In addition to saying, I want to drive a choo-choo, I have also in my lifetime uttered the statement, I want to drive an ice-cream truck. I told my girlfriend this (to her absolute horror) shortly after being fired from my first job after college.

Unlike my choo-choo comment, though, I didn't say the latter purely in jest. For a few moments I entertained the possibility of this modest occupation. Its attraction lay in its innocence. My first job after college was tending bar in an Italian gentleman's club with not-so-subtle Mafia connections; the thought of peddling soft-serve to children in the community seemed ethically (not ethnically) cleansing after serving top-shelf liquor to retired criminals.

The idea lost its appeal, though-- not because I suddenly realized how foolish it sounded, nor because its mere suggestion sent my girlfriend running for the hills. Rather, I realized that it would be required, as an ice-cream truck driver, to listen to the same tinny, music-box jingle all workday long, and that this would erode my sanity, in all likelihood turning me into a serial killer over time. At the very least I'd become some weirdo, lingering around schools and luring girls into my basement.

So I've never seriously considered a career driving anything. Also (it must now seem apparent) I've never seriously been career-driven.

Up until recently, what I have been is experience-driven, dropping any sort of commitment whatsoever at the first opportunity to experience something new and different. From my current perspective I can see that I had been wired this way since childhood. As a baby, I've been told that I never had a favorite toy and, if I did, it never remained a favorite for very long. I lost interest in toys altogether at an early age and turned my attention to objects that were specifically not meant to be handled by me. I liked to get into the kitchen cabinets and swing pots and pans around. I liked to stack things, too, out of the pantry, especially things that didn't look like they could be balanced on top of one another.

No doubt my mother is the constant worry-er that she is today because I was the heavyweight champion of destructively over-curious babies. She made the mistake of losing sight of me once while she was making coffee. (I had always been drawn to the brown bubbles that percolated in the transparent nipple at the top of our old coffee pot.) My mother must have had her back turned to me, perhaps answering the phone, the day that I scaled the kitchen cabinet and succeeded in grasping a hold of the pot's electrical cord, pulling it close to get a better look. Though the scar has now faded, you can still see where the coffee scalded my left forearm as a child.

You'd think such a traumatic experience would have inhibited my curiosity, but as I got older, I only gave my mother bigger reasons to worry and collected scarier scars. At the very least, you'd think I'd have been put off coffee, but like most in our hyper-caffeinated country, I'm totally addicted. I have developed a hyper-sensitivity to hot coffee, though-- like that at Starbucks, which is served at a temperature just below that of magma. I can't grip my cup with any degree of comfort without one of those cardboard oven-mitt thingies. Or maybe I'm just being a wuss after being a danger to myself for so long...

...speaking directly to this point is the poet C.G. Hanzlicek, in the following poem from his collection, Calling the Dead, which I am reprinting here totally without his permission...

"To Be A Danger"

Just once I'd like to be a danger
To something in this world,
Be hunted by cops
And forced into hiding in the mountains,
Since if they left me on the streets
I'd turn the country around,
Changing everyone's mind with a word.

But I've lived so long a quiet life,
In a world I've made small,
That even my own mind changes slowly.
I'm a danger only to myself,
Like the daydreaming night watchman
Smoking his cigar
Near the dynamite shed.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Yesterday I returned to Pittsburgh after yet another trip to Lancaster, my second in three weeks, and fortunately this post is not a recounting of the experience driving home. I attended my friend Mark's mother's 65th birthday party, and as with every trip I make to Lancaster, I enjoyed myself immensely. There is a palpable ease that comes with being in the company of longtime friends. Simply passing time with Mark & Adrienne, even if we're just watching TV, is worthwhile, just as it is with my friends Rob & Kate. If I had a job that caused me as much stress as my girlfriend Tina's job does (or any job whatsoever for that matter) I would be visiting them for the sole purpose of maintaining my sanity. Just to keep my stress meter out of the red, I would find cause to seek out their company, even if just to watch Harold & Kumar escape from Guantanamo Bay.

Just before I left this past Saturday to visit them, I completed a test assignment for a freelance writing job that I've applied for. It involves producing content for a particular company's websites. The test assignment was to write a general information piece for one of its online education clients, which describes to a potential online student what a Bachelors in Business Administration degree is...what courses are typically required, what skills are acquired...very basic stuff. In doing my research for the test assignment, I discovered that the BBA is also known as the Bachelor of Science in Business Administration (BSBA) degree, and I wondered how different my life would be if I had pursued a Bachelor in Science rather than my Bachelor of the Arts.

According to every standardized test that I've ever taken, my aptitude in math and science far exceeds my verbal aptitude. How would my life be different today if I had embraced this natural proficiency rather than playing around with words like a kid with fingerpaints? Would I have a job right now? A wife and family? Be a homeowner? (marriage, carriage, and mortgage -- note: the common denominator in these three words) Would I be markedly further along in the game of life than the individual described in this poem I wrote more than four years ago?


Your problem is
You don’t know how old
You are, or if
You do know
You’re in denial.

You can only sit for so long before
You can’t sit any longer; the phone
You should see it for the corpse that it is, but
You don’t.

You keep thinking it will jump to life any minute with something for
You to do, interesting, and when it doesn’t
You press buttons, coax friends like coma patients for a little something visceral
You know they can no longer provide.

You have not yet come to terms with what
Your life has become;
You no longer belong in a convertible while
Your friends’ SUVs ease off exit ramps, turn signals blinking. Somehow

You never learned the art of coupling; coagulation was never
Your forté; now that
You’re alone, lone passenger on the highway
You have no one else to blame for not being parked in a garage, in a home
You own at the end of a cauterized cul-de-sac.

You only have
Your hair tossing about
Your still baby-face,
Your cheeks pinched capillary pink by the breeze,
Your eyes full-on bloodshot, staring into
Your rear-view mirror staring back at

Again the question of nature vs. nurture. Though my mind was wired (now atrophied) for math and science, my experiences in high-school led me away from embracing this aptitude. As I recall, the definitive point of departure came by way of Ms. Martin in my AP Chemistry class--not Mrs. Martin, as she would quickly correct you if your tongue slipped in that direction. Nor was it Miss Martin; there was nothing miss-y about her. She was a blunt tool of science instruction and, as such, had the personality of a beaker (not the Beaker--the Henson muppet--who had loads more personality.)

She was controversial, though--a character trait that is often mistaken for "having a personality." (Think of a person you would call "controversial" and ask yourself, "Is there really anything more to him or her than that?") Ms. Martin was controversial bee-CAW-zuh her zealotry for science, and all things scientific, was coupled with an abhorrence for the arts and all things artistic. The first meeting of our AP Chemistry class began with her saying, "If you kids don't apply yourselves seriously to studying this material now, you'll end up going to college and becoming English majors."

Of course, she could not have anticipated the scope of her error. She was most likely oblivious to the fact that I was an editor (in one capacity or another) in every publication (except yearbook; too pop) on campus, that I would in a few short weeks win our class's English award, that I had all but proudly declared my intention to major in English at college. (Ironically enough I wouldn't do so, but that's another story.)

She could not have known how her words, in effect, weaponized me.

I began by targeting certain members of our class that had laughed at what she said. I looked past the incorrigible brown-nosers who couldn't help but laugh when they sensed the teacher was attempting a funny. (I could recognize them immediately, having been an incorrigible brown-noser myself, up until my sophomore year and my intellectual expansion sessions with Jon.)

Instead, I targeted those in the class who truly seemed to share her perspective. The absolute scientists. The next generation of Oppenheimers who needed to be checked early on in their careers. This was how I rationalized sabotaging the chemical solutions in their lab drawers before class when no one was around, substituting acids for bases, etc... until I realized I was doing nothing more than creating a nuisance, and not the cataclysms that I had envisioned occurring during lab period. Nothing ever blew up or corroded through a desk because I had no access to the chemicals needed to do so; they were always locked in a cabinet behind a locked door in the back of the lab.

Without chemical weapons at my disposal, I resorted to conventional guerrilla warfare. In our class, each lab station had a pressurized sink that shot a laser-thin stream of water from its faucet directly down into its drain. One day, with John Michael (my lab partner-in-crime), I loosened the nut at the base of one of these faucets, causing its chrome pipe to launch skyward when its hapless user (I forgot who I had targeted back then) turned the water on. Utterly stunned, the poor poindexter flailed in shutting off the geyser of water that was erupting from his lab station, causing his (and his lab partner's) textbooks and notebooks to be soaked beyond legibility.

Neither John nor I were fingered for the crime, but Ms. Martin had begun to suspect me as the culprit bee-CAW-zuh I had developed an increasingly combative attitude in class. Also I was the person that everyone in the room would turn towards, trying to hide the smiles on their faces, whenever she said one word in particular.

Ms. Martin was a native Bostonian, but her accent was somewhat difficult to discern until she pronounced this one word. In brainstorming conventional means to disrupt the class, I happened to notice how this word was inflected differently than I had ever heard it before, and I called John Michael's attention to it. We began to share smirks across our lab station, each time she used the word in explaining something in class.

Soon enough, the two of us had the entire class keyed on to her pronunciation of the word. It had become a game--even among those who didn't find her zealotry overbearing--to try to ask questions evoking a response that included this word. If you could get her to say bee-CAW-zuh twice in responding, you would bring the entire classroom to its knees, and this became a goal recognized as worthy of achieving, even among the most serious scientists in the class.

More so than any of my other classroom tactics, this was the most consistently effective disruptor. I took an added pleasure-- as a fore sworn English major -- in knowing that this chaos was being achieved using linguistic, rather than chemical, means. How apropos.

The day when she said bee-CAW-zuh four times in responding to a single question (asked in earnest, not as a joke, regarding a homework assignment - thus making it even funnier) it was like watching a dam break. With each bee-CAW-zuh, each face in the classroom cracked some more, until every one finally crumbled in laughter with its fourth utterance. Dumbfounded, Ms. Martin had no clue what everyone--even her prized coterie of favorite students--could be laughing about. All she knew was that I had to be at the bottom of it and told me so in private, after class. And though she had no proof, scientific or otherwise, I received detention.

From that point on, every time someone audibly snickered at a stray bee-CAW-zuh uttered during class, Ms. Martin dismissed me on the spot to see Mr. Hall with a detention slip. My game had developed a life of its own, running amok, a juggernaut beyond my control. The new game became who could get Todd detention. Even John Michael, that turncoat, laughed once at my (literal) expense, thereby sending me off from class with a detention slip. In the end, I received detention more times in that class alone than I had received in all of my other classes combined throughout four years of high-school.

Once the AP exam date drew near, Ms. Martin had the class motivated and prepared. No one even smiled anymore whenever she said bee-CAW-zuh; it had simply become because in their ears. Everyone was too focused on getting at least a 3 on the AP and the tangible reward of testing out of a required class in college. Her mantra had finally sunk in. She had won.

In turn, I had stopped receiving detention, and I had ceased devising means by which I could disrupt the classroom. I had no hope of getting a 3 on the AP test; that was certain. But I could still get a B in Ms. Martin's class, and I convinced myself that this was a goal worth attaining.

On our last day of class, I rose my hand and told this to Ms. Martin before everyone in the classroom. I told her that I was even inclined to seek out tutor help and, if I put my nose to the grindstone, I thought I'd be able to eek out a 3 on the AP exam. With everyone looking at me, absolutely dumbstruck, I confided that I had had a dream the previous night. I told her that, in my dream, I didn't go onto college and become an English major. I told her that, after studying with her, I was going to become an engineer.

After saying this, for the first time that I looked at her, I saw a human being. Her face reddened. Her eyes watered. She told me, in front of the class, that that is precisely what a teacher lives to hear. She then proceeded to ask me what kind of engineer I intended to be when I went to college. Structural? Electrical? Chemical?

"None of those," I said. "I want to be a train engineer."
"A what?"
"A train engineer," I said. "I want to drive a choo-choo."

She was so upset with my response, and the laughter that immediately filled the lab afterwards, that she forgot to give me a detention slip after dismissing me from the room.

Now that I think about it, I had no longer been upset about her derogatory comment regarding English majors at that point. Nor did I mind the detentions, which had given me a bad-apple Breakfast Club cache. I said what I did simply because I didn't want her to win, and though I had been weaponized, it's no excuse for me being the lesser person I had been in allowing myself to be. (?) If that makes sense... I need a glass of wine...

Thursday, August 7, 2008

why i blog

Getting back to why i blog-- the topic I brought up, and then abandoned, in my morning biertje posting-- there is something unique and enticing about writing in the blog form. It's special, in part, because it is a paradoxical sort of writing--a writing that is at once both private and public, and as such, very contemporary.

We live in a culture that has increasingly erased the line between private and public--not only technologically, with the state monitoring and recording private conversations and consumer preferences, etc., but socially as well. Socially, this is reflected in our mirror, the television. The popularity of reality TV shows, which offer the viewing public a look inside the walls of a house into people's private lives. Shows like Jerry Springer, where the public (and the studio audience first-hand) gets involved (often vocally, if not physically) in a couple's private domestic squabbles. American Idol might be the best example, though. People are no longer content to simply sing their favorite songs in the privacy of their showers; they want to sing them and be judged by the American public. And the American public wants to judge and watch the performer's private hopes and dreams be fulfilled or (even better) dashed by harsh criticism and/or the vote of the watching public.

So it is no surprise that blogging--as a form of expression that is both private and public-- is popular. What is a surprise is that I have embraced it. And in order to understand why that is, it's necessary to look closer at its paradoxical form.

It's a private sort of writing insofar as it is essentially personal. It is a person's "web log," and the content of its dated entries is necessarily of personal interest to the blogger. It may record only brief summaries of what was done with each day, or it may go into the explicit detail characteristically found in a personal diary or journal. Its point of view may be very self-centered (like this blog) or it may be farther removed (like my friend Megan's blog) in speaking more professionally or academically to a larger audience. However, regardless of its content and the point of view taken by the blogger, the blog writing is of some personal interest to the blogger, or else the blogger simply wouldn't bother. And in being personal, the writing is private to a greater or lesser degree. Something private--a personal interest, a political opinion, a sexual orientation, etc.--is revealed either implicitly or explicity about the blogger in a blog's published postings.

It's public in that the postings are published, and published with immediacy. As soon as I click on the "Publish Post" button at the bottom of the screen, this blog entry will be viewable to whomever wants to read it in the blogosphere. The degree of immediacy with which it is published is within the blogger's control, however. I could save my blog entry as a draft and wait as long as I wish before publishing it, or I could choose not to publish it at all.

Every aspect of each posting publication is also under the blogger's control. It's not like each post is published like the newspaper, fixed in print, on every front door step in the morning. It can be edited, whenever and however the blogger wants, and re-published, re-named, and re-edited again. The scope of its publication is also controlled by the blogger. It can be restricted to a small audience of a few close friends, or it can be expanded to a worldwide audience using various means, such as meta-tagging, bloglisting, flickr-ing and shit I haven't even begun to start looking into.

It is the malleable nature of this published form of writing that I find so appealing. It provides a freedom of expression that is restricted in any other form of writing. You can write freely in a traditional diary or journal, but it is solely private. Only under rare circumstances (e.g. the diaries of celebrities) does such writing find publication and a public reading. Any other form of writing is not free--be it academic, professional, literary, etc.-- because it requires the writer to obey particular conventions for each type. Only writing that obeys these conventions (or flaunts them in some genius manner) has a chance of publication through traditional channels. Try, for example, to publish an essay without a bibliography in an established academic journal. You can't. The act of citing one's sources in an essay is a convention that must be obeyed in academic writing.

Liberated from traditional forms and traditional publication channels, blog writing can be whatever the blogger wants it to be. It can be a log of your daily activities (as many blogs are) or it can focus only on particular aspects of your day (what I ate for breakfast) or on particular subjects (politics in the office) or it could be a blog about the most bizarre shit you can imagine (a record of how many drops of Tabasco you lick off your significant other's perineum in a given day.)

Blogging is a multimedium so you have the additional freedom to do things like drop a medical diagram of a cunt into your text on a whim or link to another webpage for a definition of a term like perineum. You can say words like cunt, as well as all of George Carlin's other dirty words you can't say on TV. You can be self-referential in your blog and provide a link back to your very first blog posting in which you mentioned George Carlin. You can describe things however you want to, even the act of blogging, with words that you make up yourself (mophunquis) You can choose not to use punctuation if you don't want to,, or use it twice as often,, shift tenses however you felt like doing, and no editor will mark your words with a big red pen. Yu cahn mispell evry wrod inne ai sentance rong. And the posting is still going to be published whenever you click the red button.


Saturday, August 2, 2008

intellectual expansion pack

As I'm writing this, my friend Jon (Oakes, not Carver) is driving the turnpike west from NYC for a visit. It's been awhile since I've seen him, and I'm looking forward to his company. Not only is he one of my oldest (high-school) friends, but he's also one of the few with whom I can converse about artistic and literary concerns. I only hope he doesn't experience an accident like I did my last time traveling westbound on the PA turnpike. Here he is, this picture taken by me while we were in Finland during a layover on our high-school arts exchange trip to the USSR back in 1990.

I've been reading Jon Stallworthy's biography of Louis MacNeice, which I find to be a thorough recounting of the poet's life. It dovetails nicely with MacNeice's autobiographical The Strings Are False, which I read some time ago. In particular, the biography does a great job of describing MacNeice's relationship with his high-school friend, Anthony Blunt, and his influence upon MacNeice from their days at Marlborough.

(I wish I still had my copy of The Strings Are False to read alongside this biography, but I gave it away to Bob Rainey, an Irish poet who I met after reading at the Dactyl Foundation in Soho (wtf happened to the emerging poets series here btw?). He was visiting NYC from Belfast, which he told me has a wonderful poetry scene, and after hearing his poetry at Dactyl--well-read, self-effacing, and genuinely moving--I have every reason to believe this is true. When he mentioned that he'd not read MacNeice before, I gave him my copy of TSAF (which I happened to have just finished) on the spot. This was after we read at Dactyl and were drinking across the street at Toad Hall, where the three of us --myself, Bob, and his American girlfriend-- were sitting at the corner table when Mike Myers and his wife came in and sat down at the bar. It was one of a handful of celebrity sightings for me while living in NYC... I must remember to dedicate a later posting to the time I met Uma Thurman...)

Anyway, reading about the friendship between MacNeice and Blunt reminded me of my friendship with Jon in high-school. Just as MacNeice found Blunt to be an inspiration to his work, as well as a compatriot in defying the establishment (as much as a preacher's son could) in his schooldays, I found the same in Jon. Without him around--to act as a soundboard for my writing--to drive my interest into different avenues, such as art, and see how creative expression in different mediums can speak and influence one another--to provide a sense of being a part of a larger artistic community and not feel as isolated and alone in a stuck-up, rich-kids' high-school--I simply wouldn't have been the same moderately confident, moderately out-going person that left high-school for college.

Instrumental to our high-school bonding were our "intellectual expansion" sessions. This was the name Jon gave to the nights I'd stay over and we'd drink fat glasses of his step-dad's whiskey, smoke Merits out his bathroom window, and talk pure rot--really nothing very intellectual about most of our conversations; we were in high-school, and these evenings more often than not devolved into thoughts of the girls we knew who could perhaps be coaxed up to the back door of Jon's house late on a Friday night. Occasionally, though, once the effort of trying to convince girls to risk curfew in order to drink cans of Rolling Rock in Jon's bathroom proved Quixotian, we found ourselves talking about our creative endeavors, and we succeeded in convincing ourselves that these set us apart from the high-school herd. We only wore the sheep's clothing required by the school dress code; outside the fences and walls we were a roving pack of reckless artists, who emulated Bukowski and Miller and Pollack, and sought out the visceral and authentic in life while the herd chewed its cud and regurgitated the norm.

Just like Jon and I, MacNeice and Blunt kept in touch after their formative grade-school years together, though going on to different colleges-- Oxford and Cambridge, respectively. At Oxford, MacNeice went on to meet a cast of other characters who would influence his writing in even more profound ways, perhaps the most prominent of these being W.H. Auden and Dylan Thomas. Here is where any similarity between MacNeice's life and my own ends. While I, too, went on to meet a cast of characters in college, I would hardly describe their influence as profound in a literary sense.

At the beginning of my sophomore year at Vassar, I attempted to draw together a pack of like-minded writers by starting my own campus literary journal, "Prototype." I announced the first meeting of the journal in the college news daily. I made posters advertising the meeting that I hung outside the student center, the library, and the cafeteria on campus. These were either graffito-tagged or torn to shreds. I made new posters, only to have them vandalized or destroyed outright again. I learned through the grapevine that editors and staff members of the current, established campus literary magazine, Helicon, were responsible for these actions. As soon as I heard this, my initial discouragement became genuine satisfaction. I was already threatening the establishment; this was only the tip of the iceberg.

When I hosted the first meeting of Prototype magazine, my large, double dorm room was packed with interested students. Apparently, word of the Helicon staff's vandalism of my posters had circulated and soured many people's opinion of their magazine. They had come to check out the competition, divine its artistic mission, and see if it ascribed to their aesthetic. And this is where I lost them.

Where soda, cookies & cupcakes were served at Helicon's first meeting (I had been in attendance, my freshman year) I opted for a gallon jug of dago red wine and nothing but, served with a sleeve of styrofoam cups. When I was asked about my aesthetic by an inquisitive attendee, I pointed at the jug on my coffee table. That was it.

I had had big hopes for the meeting. Not only was I counting on meeting people like Jon to whom I'd be linked from that day on, people with whom I could share an artistic sensibility as well as a case of Piel's, but I was also hoping to meet the editorial and artistic types that would do the heavy lifting of the magazine. They'd edit, design, and layout while my cadre of like-minded writers and I would provide its raw materials in fits of inspiration. I had already naively envisioned this happening; my title was to be "founder/consluting editor." That's no typo. Consluting.

Not a single person joined me in drinking from the jug of red wine. Granted, it was a weekday afternoon, but I still expected a few people to do so. At least one. There was not one to be had, though, and perhaps there was a Wystan Auden in attendance or a Dylan Thomas (well, if Dylan had been there, he most certainly would have drank wine; he most probably would have been drunk when he arrived) but I would never know. I decided if no one else was going to drink, then I would drink for the lot of them. A large, uncomfortable silence developed around me as I stopped answering questions about the magazine and proceeded to drink a full cup of wine for each person there in attendance. The meeting ended when I started muttering to myself and dribbling red wine on my shirt. My roommate Jon (Carver, not Oakes)-- being the good roommate that he was-- joined me in drinking afterwards and hearing me out as I kept mentioning Vassar's 65/35 ratio of women-to-men and asking him if he knew just how many pussies that meant went to our college.

Until now I didn't realize it, but from that moment on, I really didn't do much writing throughout the rest of college. The little writing that I did was done in a vacuum and very little of it ever saw the light of day. In fact, for the next decade (from 1992 to 2002), I didn't bother to write much at all. Where MacNeice's writing blossomed after high-school, mine wilted. Not until after I moved to NYC for the second time in my life did I start writing again with any frequency, and I would never find myself in a pack of like-minded writers as I had once aspired to. Not until Bread Loaf, which I attended almost a year ago, did I even come close.