Friday, May 26, 2017

Magnetic Poetry

While packing this week, I started looking at things I hadn't looked at in a while, the way you do when you're shifting items from one place to another. Since my head is too full of moving details to leave much room for topical inspiration, I thought I'd share something I found in my Magnetic Poetry Kit Book of Poetry, discovered as I was clearing a shelf the other day. A magnetic poetry kit may seem like a kitschy item, but its use fits in with my approach to poetry. More about that later, but right now here is the poem I wrote with it, at the kitchen table in my last apartment, if I'm not mistaken--which makes the poem nearly 20 years old.


the avenue to love
has summer in it
minute tendrils
grow from cracks
at evening
leaves blossom by morning
an immense and secret bouquet
a staggering work
of liquid song wind

and dirt

I don't think it's bad for a poem written, most likely, after dinner, one of the first I composed with the poetry kit. I'm not sure I could have written it if not for the kit, and I'll tell you why. It's my compression theory of poetry: the more constraints you put on writing, whether it's time, number of syllables, availability of words, or something else, the more an inner censor is silenced, letting you compose without restraint. I guess you could also call it the Poetry Paradox, and it applies to all writing, as far as I've been able to discover. You narrow your choices and make do with limitations, and the energy you don't spend ransacking the entire English language opens a third poetic eye. It's like all those frugal housewives making do with rations during World War II and somehow coming up with genius recipes. Some of the best dishes are composed of simple ingredients. It's the same with words.

I was writing about author's intent a few weeks ago, and although I can't remember exactly when I wrote this poem--I'm guessing sometime between Fall 1998 and Summer 1999--I seem to recall being in the grip of some passion, requited or unrequited, at the time. It's not a bitter poem, but rather a sort of celebratory one, and that's saying something considering how frustrated I remember feeling then. I liked it well enough that I left it on the magnetic poetry board, and when I opened it up, it was just as it was when I wrote it. It's been on my shelf ever since I moved in here. I remember that I was experimenting with growing kitchen herbs in windowsill containers around the time I wrote the poem, which may account for the botanical imagery.

It's a very summery poem and seems appropriate for ushering in the month of June. I like the idea of a secret garden taking hold imperceptibly and growing into something vast and wonderful, without permission and without fanfare. It's a little like Coleridge's secret ministry of frost, except that it celebrates a different season.

May all the avenues you travel this summer blossom with minute trendrils and fragrant bouquets in your wake and may they make a soft place for your footsteps to land. I'm hoping the same for myself.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Wordplay Gets a Move On

Is there anything more exciting than moving? I'm not being facetious, or at least, I'm only being partly facetious. Despite the amount of stress involved, it is exciting, if you lift up your eyes occasionally from all the details you have to attend to and take in the wider picture: where you've been, where you're going, and how it all fits into the larger pattern of your life. For most of my adulthood, I've lived in only two apartments, and my last move encompassed only about a mile as the crow flies from my previous place. It would be fair to say that I tend to stay put.

The last move seemed like a huge deal, even though I was only moving a short distance, simply because I'd been in the same place for so long. Once I got here, the adjustment didn't take as long as I'd thought it would. Although I had moved around a fair amount with my family and during my college years, in and out of dorms and the like, it just wasn't the same kind of undertaking as moving an entire apartment of my own belongings. Once you're an adult and responsible for doing everything yourself, a move takes on a whole new meaning.

This time, I'm finally carrying out an idea that's been in my mind for years, if not decades, which is to move to the West Coast. I've been on the verge of doing it a few times before and even had a couple of opportunities career-wise, but for one reason or another it never seemed right. What was once an entirely daunting prospect became less so over time, as I traveled to the area frequently and eventually attended graduate school in Southern California. I wanted to move five or six years ago, but I hesitated; it seemed a long way to go without a sure prospect of a job and definitely a much more expensive place to live. On the other hand, a nationwide job search didn't produce results, either. The interviews I did get tended to be in California.

I'm going now, not exactly kicking and screaming, but with some trepidation because all I have are a few leads; I still don't have any certain prospects. Six weeks ago, it seemed prudent to stay here because a number of jobs (mostly part-time) were opening up locally--though I had my doubts that any of them would pan out, based on my experience of the last few years. Still, I applied for a number of things, had one interview, and at the end of the month reassessed again. I reached the same conclusion as before: I wasn't getting anywhere by staying put. What had formerly seemed like a wild scheme--going to a larger city to seek out opportunity--now seemed like the only smart thing to do. I seem to have outgrown my current town, and it doesn't help to pretend otherwise.

It makes sense to go right now because, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment prospects have been improving in California over the last few months; I've also been encouraged by the quality of the positions I've seen advertised. I certainly don't go with the intention of becoming a drag on the system but rather with the intent of bringing something with me, a set of skills and knowledge that can't be filled by anyone else. No one in Kentucky seems to want a writer who's also a librarian and a myth studies expert with teaching experience and a background in psychology--but that probably won't be the case in a big city. They seem to find room for everyone.

So I'm both worried and excited. I have no idea how it will turn out and whether it will all go bust--but you know what? I'm tired of being told, not in so many words, but through basically being marginalized, that I have nothing to offer. Right there is the clue that lets me know, and really believe at last, that I'm in the wrong place. I had envisioned an entirely new career phase opening up once I got my PhD, not feeling that all that work had only saddled me with a liability. I had transferable skills before I got the PhD, and studying mythology not only gave me a new bank of knowledge and a language for talking about things, it gave me greater depth. I think a part of me that had remained stubbornly undeveloped grew up and blossomed out as a result of the entire experience and what happened later. I'm not like I was 10 years ago, and that's a good thing.

One of the worst things in life, I've found, is to feel unproductive. In some ways, I've worked the last few years to my advantage, pursuing some of my research interests and discovering my creative voice. Those were entirely good developments. Now it's time to seek out a place that will recognize what I have to offer and reward me for it. I have a little bit of the feeling of leaping off a cliff. However, knowing I've exhausted the possibilities here with nothing to show for it, I feel better about making the choice now than I would have before.

"Look before you leap" is generally considered good advice, and I have followed it conscientiously. But some people also say, "Leap, and the net will appear." I'm hoping that my instinct that before was too soon but now is the right time will be proven correct. For more details on how Wordplay survives the Big Move, stay tuned. Meanwhile, I'll miss the fireflies this summer, but I'm glad I was here for the dogwoods and azaleas. Spring in Kentucky is a lovely thing, but spectacular as it is, it leaves you a bit cold once you realize you've been traveling in circles year after year.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Rainy and Gritty

As much as we like to be timely at Wordplay, we have to admit to not having a clue as to the meaning of any of this week's political events. In fact, the longer I look at the political news, the more cross-eyed I get, and as to "seeing through" the week's events in a mythic sense, I'm leaving it alone. It's enough that I got caught in the thunderstorm of the year this afternoon while running errands and showed up in a government office downtown looking like a drowned llama.

The only thing I will say is that when President Obama was in his first term, I thought it ridiculous that people blamed him for not having the economy back in shape six months into his presidency. In fairness to President Trump, I'm extending the same benefit of the doubt, despite all the upheaval we're currently seeing and the fact that I disagree with many of his policies. It was such a tumultuous election that some of the dust hasn't cleared yet. I still think the archetype of a titanic struggle is the best description of the current political climate, but the faces of the giants are lost in the clouds.

And as to the thunderstorm: boy, what a doozy. I was driving east in heavy traffic when what had been a pouring rain turned into a full-on spring storm complete with dazzling lightning strikes to the southeast. I enjoyed the show, even though I was still sopping myself. I don't know why, but I seemed to see individual buildings along my route with exceptional clarity: they appeared to their best advantage in the rain, which softened everything just a little.

I realized there's something I like about the Winchester Road/New Circle Road area, even with its commercial and industrial flavor. I think it's because of the retro quality to the grittiness: the Parkette Drive-In is there, and the space-age winged roof of the Paul Miller Ford building, still extant amidst warehouses, storage companies, industrial concerns, small businesses, an Asian market, and a place advertising fresh ceviche. There's a handsome flatiron building that's been well restored on Winchester Road, a brick bakery famous for its doughnuts, and a few places that have seen better days mixed in with thriving businesses. As I passed the lighting store, I tried to remember if it was the location of the skating rink I remembered from my youth. I couldn't recall--it hadn't occurred to me to wonder in quite a while.

Maybe a sunny day shows up too much fading paint and too many harsh lines, whereas a rainy spring day gentles everything a little. There have been many changes to Lexington over the years I've been here, though some of the heavily groomed suburban areas reveal less of a timeline than Winchester Road does, with its wildly diverse mix of businesses, longer span of development, and lack of pretension.

I am not often out that way, but I used to travel it regularly, and probably it was bits of my own past I was seeing as I looked through my rain-flecked windshield and thought about the smell of peanut butter from the Jif factory, the way the campus office tower dominates the view as you approach town on U.S. 60, the futon place that is no longer around, the taste of a yeasty doughnut on a cold Saturday morning. Far from being a mere errand, it was a drive that celebrated memory.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Feet of Clay on the Stage of History

A couple of years ago, I started hearing about the controversy over the Jefferson-Jackson political dinners and the fact that many people wanted them renamed because the less honorable aspects of these presidents' careers were too troubling. Likewise, the debate over whose images should appear on American currency was sparked by discussions of diversity, exclusion, and the relative merits and demerits of various figures from America's past. I want to say first that I think these kinds of debates are healthy and in some cases overdue. I have to admit, though, that my first reaction on hearing about the Jefferson-Jackson controversy was: "Why try so hard to wipe the slate clean?"

I was almost sorry for both Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. Can it now be that even people with genuine accomplishments are completely beyond the pale because they were people of their time, not ours? It's painful to consider that slavery and the ill treatment of Native Americans were supported by people who contributed in important ways to the building of American society. Painful, but true--and we can't change it. Can we admit to the complexity of a troubled but occasionally glorious past without trying to shove people off the historical stage?

We are still plagued by some of the injustices whose roots were established earlier in our history--racism and poverty, among them--and we've been frustrated in our attempts to solve these problems. I think many people are genuinely concerned about the message it sends to honor people who were slave-owners and killers of Native Americans. I'm wondering if it might not be better to focus our efforts on dealing with injustice in our own time. Demoting people on whose shoulders we stand (in some important ways) doesn't seem to do much toward helping the present situation.

I started thinking about all this when I read an Andrew Jackson quote someone posted to Facebook the other day. He said: "It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes" (Veto Message of the Bill on the Bank of the United States, July 10, 1832). This is a very American sentiment and a reminder of what's best about the American spirit and the democratic society we are still aspiring to build. If it seems ironic that a slaveholder would utter such a sentiment, how much more ironic is it that Jefferson-Jackson dinners may be banned but institutional racism, inner-city blight, unemployment, and poverty rage on unabated?

Some people honestly feel that the demerits of some of our nation's historical figures outweigh their contributions, and this is an area reasonable people will disagree on. In some cases, I might agree with them: some people have been given too much of a pass. But instead of removing the portraits of those with blemishes on their character from the gallery of history (which I fear will result in some rather gaping holes), I'd rather see the debate roar on front and center while the portraits remain in place. Considering everything, I think it's a miracle that so wonderful a thing as democracy ever managed to take hold in the first place. If the people who gave us a push in that direction failed to uphold their principles fully, maybe it's time for us to see what we can do about putting things to rights in the present.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Zeus, Hera, and Author's Intent

This week I read Mary Higgins Clark's recent book, As Time Goes By, which features a murder, a woman's search for her birth parents, illegal trafficking in prescription drugs, romance, sleuthing, and family drama. Ms. Clark's reputation as a writer of popular fiction is well established, and I'm sure some of my readers are more familiar with her than I am, but I was interested in certain domestic themes that appeared in her book. It may sound grandiose to suggest that they are mythic, but indeed, they are; works of popular fiction are often the place in which mythic themes first appear.

It's tricky to try to infer an author's intent. Even if they tell you their purpose, there may be ideas in their work that appear as if of their own volition: that's the way the unconscious works. By the time you untangle your interpretations (which may be brilliant but almost inevitably involve some degree of projection) from the author's own intents and purposes (as far as they can be known) you are left with an explication that may bear little resemblance to what the author was thinking as he/she sat down to write. I'm inferring that Ms. Clark intended Delaney Wright to be her main character since the prologue begins with the story of her birth. However, this is somewhat belied by the fact that there are several intertwining stories in the book, some of which offer more drama than that of Delaney's search for her parents.

This at least is my perception. Ms. Clark certainly has a Demeter and Persephone theme going in which Delaney plays the Kore role, although she is a particularly well-adjusted Persephone. In her case, a successful life is shadowed by her need to know her origins but is not consumed by it, and this may be the reason I didn't sense as much dramatic tension in her part of the story. The real center of the action, it seemed to me, was the murder plot in which a wealthy woman is accused of murdering her husband, a victim of Alzheimer's disease, in order to marry her old flame. Betsy Grant is loved and respected by a wide group of friends, but the circumstances of her husband's death make it very difficult for someone who doesn't know her to see her as anything but guilty. Most people believe she snapped under the pressure of her husband's illness, a perception largely influenced by the fact that the only other person with a clear motive has an alibi.

It wasn't until the various subplots began to fall together into one storyline that the identity of the guilty party became obvious, and that was late in the novel. To try to ascribe mythic personalities to the characters involved in the murder plot would be to reveal too much to those who haven't read the story, but it's true to say that the motivation behind the crime is different than it appears to be. I noted in passing the motif of "three," common in folk tales and fairy tales, in this case embodied in the character of Dr. Grant, the murdered man, and his two partners, all three of them orthopedic surgeons. The theme of healing is turned on its head by the murder; ironically, Dr. Grant is killed by a pestle, a symbol of medicine given to him as an award for his professional accomplishments. There's even a deus ex machina of sorts in a talkative burglar named Tony Sharkey.

What I really think this story is about (and Ms. Clark might contradict me) is marriage. I say that because most of the characters appear most often in conjunction with their spouses (or former spouses), in a series of more or less successfully--sometimes much less successfully--matched pairs. The story jumps from one to the other of these private dramas in succession. Delaney's not being married is one thing that sets her apart from all of this domesticity.

Actually, I was reminded of nothing less than Ingmar Bergman's Scenes From a Marriage. Bergman's theme was the public face of a seemingly successful couple and how greatly that can differ from married life as experienced by the couple themselves, especially as the relationship unfolds over time. It struck me as curious that the purported heroine of As Time Goes By so often takes a back seat to these other characters. She is a Persephone surrounded by Zeus and Hera types, a circumstance that certainly underscores her "orphan" state. Maybe that's the point, but for me the pathos of her story paled somewhat in comparison to the theatrics of the married couples, which I found more entertaining.

I doubt if it was Ms. Clark's express purpose to throw the limelight onto a secondary character, but I was most interested in the relationship between Dr. Grant's former partner, Scott Clifton, and his spouse, Lisa, for whom the phrase "trophy wife" seems appropriate. Lisa has given up her successful pharmaceutical sales career to marry Dr. Clifton and is in the process of realizing how empty the relationship is when we first meet her. She first tries to save the marriage, but when she realizes it has all gone south and is not coming back, she calls up the movers and arranges to get her old job back. Nothing wrong with a can-do spirit; she is one of the few characters who refuse to be constrained by circumstance.

Undoubtedly, Ms. Clark was more interested in telling an entertaining tale than in anything else, but I found the way in which all of these married couples kept stealing Delaney's thunder to be so pointed that I had to wonder if the author was being at least slightly satirical. I can't say for sure. I went so far as to look at the author's picture on the back of the book, and she does strike me as a person who is fully in control of her material, so who knows, maybe she was pulling our leg a little bit. I also noted with approval how well-groomed, poised, and successful she appears, all good characteristics in any writer, and qualities to which we may all aspire.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Recipe Fail, Walking Shoes

The good news is I'm not at the Salvation Army; the bad news is I got excited about making a potato soup recipe from the Old Farmer's Almanac that turned out to be quite bland. I'm not sure if it was the chef's fault or the recipe's. I like potato soup, and it was an award-winning recipe, but somehow the sum of the parts added up to less than spectacular. Maybe I should have added parsley or used a different kind of potato, but thrift demands that I eat all of it, and so I am. I added a little cheese to it, which helped. Maybe I shouldn't say this, because I know bacon isn't good for you, but if ever there was a situation that cried out for bacon bits, that soup was it.

Despite the recipe fail, life goes on, interspersed with time spent applying for jobs, wondering about the future, and cleaning the bathroom. Almost every day, I see a job posting that I'm qualified for, and some of them I get excited about. Even the ones I don't get excited about are ones that I would gladly do because I see them as stepping stones to get where I want to go. I can honestly say that as frustrating as my job search has been, it has also been revealing. When I step back and look dispassionately at the types of jobs that intrigue me most, they are not what you might expect. Looking in one direction is just too limiting.

I've sometimes thought about how much fun it would be to have someone pay me to recommend books--I could be a one-person reader's advisory. You tell me a little about yourself and I'll tell you what I think you would like; thanks, that'll be $50. I actually have a decent track record of recommending books to people without charging them anything, but in times like these, you like to be compensated for your talents. I could also do movie reviews or free-lance dream analysis (strictly subjective, of course, but I think it often is). I could be a travel consultant; hand me a list of your hobbies and interests, and I'll tell you where to go. For an extra fee, I could tell you which books to take with you and how to pack everything you need for a three-week trip in just a tote bag.

Speaking of dream analysis, I took a nap on the couch this afternoon after doing my laundry and dreamed I was walking around the UCLA campus, talking to people. In the dream (as in real life), the campus was quite sprawling, and I was just getting to a part of it that looked familiar when I woke up. I don't know what brought this on, but I've been thinking about walking shoes a lot this week, so maybe that preoccupation carried over into my dream. I could almost see the campus library from where I was standing near the end--almost, but not quite. Is that an indication that my dream job will have something to do with books but may not be in quite the spot I was looking for? I don't know, but that's the kind of question I ask about those types of dreams, just in case you were thinking of hiring me.

There are times this week when I've been reminded of the anxious period I went through just before graduating from college. I was going to graduate school that fall, but graduation still felt like stepping off a cliff. So many people already had jobs and knew exactly where they were going, but the way ahead for me was much less clear. I didn't even know where I was going to be living that summer. As it turned out, I ended up with three part-time jobs and a roommate off campus who introduced me to an entirely new group of people. It was one of the most active and social times of my life, and it all took shape in the last couple of weeks before graduation. You never really know what's around the bend, and as anxiety-provoking as that can be, the seeds of positive change are sometimes already at work before you even know they're there.

Friday, April 14, 2017

If This Is a Movie, I Demand to See the Script

Yesterday I was taking a walk when I realized how tired I was, tired in an achy sort of way. I remember feeling much the same way at the end of the summer before my last semester of library school. That was a very intense term centered on two demanding classes, both of which required multiple projects and presentations; we were also adjusting to a move to the new campus library. At the close of the summer, after the final day of my assistantship, I walked home feeling completely washed out: I'd been holding in so much tension that all of my muscles were sore. It came on me all at once, as soon the last assignment had been turned in and the term was officially over. Rather than experiencing immediate relief, I felt like I was coming down with the flu.

I felt a bit the same way during my walk yesterday, though it was actually a beautiful afternoon. It's been a week of catching up on doctor's appointments, filling out applications for jobs and public assistance, figuring out who to call for what, and sitting in waiting rooms waiting for my name to be announced. Yes, I did say public assistance. With the costs of private medical insurance getting to be too much for me, I figured the least I would need would be a medical card in case none of my pending job applications yield results. Hence the doctor appointments--I decided it was best to get yearly exams, etc. done while I still have access to my regular doctors. I'm told that Medicaid is actually good insurance, but the patient is limited in the choice of physicians.

I can tell you that after looking into the welfare services available for people, I'm amazed at the stamina it takes to get yourself into the system. I was also surprised when I went out to the Human Services office at how healthy, well-nourished, and well-adjusted everyone was looking in the waiting room that day. This is not a snide way of saying that I think there were a lot of people there gaming the system. (I can think of a lot easier ways to provide for yourself than jumping through public assistance hoops--like working, for instance. Normally, it's much less draining.) No, it's just an observation, apropos of what I'm not quite sure.

Part of me felt like I was in one of those made-for-TV Lifetime Channel movies, in which some heart-wrenching but ultimately solvable drama plays out, peopled by adorable, big-eyed children, single mothers in desperate straits who still manage to be well-coiffed and color-coordinated, and unemployed men who look just a little too middle-class to be anything other than Hollywood equity. Is this a tribute to how well Kentucky is taking care of its needy citizens, or did I happen in on a day when the relatively well-off happened to make up a large portion of the client base? I'm asking an honest question, because I don't know. The thing is, I've seen needy people before, and this group did not resemble them. I could almost have been in the gate area of a major airport rather than in the welfare services department (and, hey, nobody was dragged away with a concussion and a broken nose either, so that's a plus).

I decided to plan for the worse case scenario (actual homelessness) just in case that's what happens, so I've been exploring as many options as possible. I can tell you that here in Lexington, people without resources often end up at the Salvation Army. While I certainly hope that doesn't happen to me, I tried to plan today for that outcome, wondering how long I could afford to keep my belongings in storage in case no one had room for them. It's certainly cheaper to pay storage costs than to pay rent, and some of the storage outfits even throw in moving trucks these days. I also started packing an imaginary suitcase, thinking about what I would need to have with me in a temporary shelter. Not a cheerful thought, perhaps, but one it's best to entertain ahead of time in the event of no job offers.

I have come to a few realizations over the last couple of weeks, or maybe it's more accurate to say confirmations of things I realized some time ago. One major realization is that I'm not so much discontented with where I am as discontented with my circumstances. I ditched one tentative plan to move to the West Coast (where there seem to be a lot of job openings of late) when I decided that not only was it too risky without a firm offer of employment but that I prefer to be in Kentucky. I've yet to see California roll out the red carpet for me jobwise (if they do, well, that's another story).

I still sometimes feel restless, as I've always liked traveling, but getting the PhD seems to have changed me. I seem to have more inside of me now so that wherever I am, I'm able to take a wider view of things. I noticed this when I was visiting my hometown the other day. When I was growing up, I wouldn't have been able to look at some of those streets with as much aesthetic appreciation as I have now. But times have changed, and so have I, and even if it's difficult for me to imagine living there again, I can appreciate a nicely restored house, an inviting porch, and a garden full of spring flowers.

The saga of Wordplay's long period of self-employment is still in progress, the outcome uncertain, so any of my interested readers will have to check back on the story as it unfolds here. I would like the last few years to have been vastly different than they were; at the same time, I don't see how they could have been. It is perhaps a case of "needs must," and in the end I may decide that this experience, too, has enlarged me in unexpected ways. I think I now have more understanding of people who stay for years in loveless marriages, watching as the years pass them by but deciding that they can't do anything other than stay the course. In the end, maybe, many of these people have few regrets either. I know very few people, for instance, who would go back and do things differently if it meant never having had their children.

Well, fellow mythologists, the word is that tough times don't last, but tough people do. My feeling is that, cliche or no cliche, this is probably right.