Fave Books of 2018

Here’s my Top Ten list of favorite books read in 2018 (all are in paperback and only one was actually first published this year).  I’d love to see your list!

The Cartel by Don Winslow.  If you read his Mexican drug war novel The Power of the Dog, then you probably waited in line for this sequel, a brutal masterpiece that continues Winslow’s take- no-prisoners unmasking of the real culprits (allow me to name check the late first President Bush) in the ongoing narcotics apocalypse of North America.  This trilogy concludes with The Border, due out in February, and I’ve pre-ordered that, too.

The New Valley by Josh Weil – A debut novel (really three novellas) set in rural Southwest Virginia, its chiseled sentences and hard scrabble situations spark like a hoe striking stone.  Sent a copy to my friend in prison and he has not stopped asking me for more like it.  Sadly, haven’t found one.

Chattahoochee by Patrick Phillips.  I attended this serious young poet’s affecting reading at St. Phillips Church here in Richmond, then spent a week poring over his rich cycle of poems about growing up alert, hurt, and in wonder at the world about you.

This Young Monster by Charlie Fox.  Fierce, loving essays about monsters that had me rethinking prejudice, disability, my face in the mirror, and all the Others that scare and fascinate us.  Sent me back to Shelley’s Frankenstein, to Diane Arbus’ photographs, to David Lynch’s whole oeuvre with woke eyes.

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather.  Catching up on the classics, read this feet on the ground/head in the sky epic during a beach week.  Don’t think I’ll ever appreciate an Outer Banks sunrise more.

Walking on Alligators by Susan Shaughnessy.  Inspirational quotes by writers for writers, one to a page, glossed by short essay prompts.  Reading a page each morning became an essential element of my preparatory routine for writing.  Lacking a sequel, I’m starting over at page one now.

The Practice of the Wild by Gary Snyder.  The great beat poet is a leader of the Deep Ecology movement, and these essays may change how you walk in the world.  My favorite quote:  “An ethical life is one that is mindful, mannerly, and has style.  Of all moral failings and flaws of character, the worst is stinginess of thought, which includes meanness in all its forms.”

Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac.  Snyder the young zen acolyte, woodsman and poet is the star of this novel, which to my mind rivals On the Road.  Somehow had never read it before.  Here’s my take on the book from an earlier blog post:  On Reading a Worn Copy of Kerouac’s Dharma Bums at 62.

Collected Essays by James Baldwin.  A favorite birthday gift last year, this book burned up my bedside table.  No one has ever written with this intensity and rue about inequality in America.  Start with The Fire Next Time, a time capsule from the 1960s that speaks directly to now.

A Short History of the World by E. H. Gombrich – Yes, this is a children’s history book, and it has you feeling like a child again, sitting on your wise old uncle’s knee as he recounts a life well-lived.  Pipe ash flits onto your p.j.’s, but you don’t care, because the tale he tells has never been expressed so well.  Dare you to find another children’s book that risks a quote this profound:  We are like that.  Each one of us no more than a tiny glimmering thing, a sparkling droplet on the waves of time which flow past beneath us into an unknown, misty future.  We leap up, look around us and, before we know it, we vanish again.  We can hardly be seen in the great river of time.  New drops keep rising to the surface.  And what we call our fate is no more than our struggle in that great multitude of droplets in the rise and fall of one wave.  But we must make use of that moment.  It is worth the effort.

That’s it!  Tag you’re it!  In 2019, stay calm and read on!

 

 

 

This Poetry Thang

Last Summer, I was grateful to learn that a pair of my poems had placed in a competition held by the Virginia Poetry Society.  A few weeks later my award, a check for $50, arrived in the mail.  This stunned me.  Over the past 40 years or so, I’ve written at least a thousand things that I call poems, attempting to articulate nuggets of insight or awareness with an accessible line that yet rewards rereading.  It’s a fine line to walk, especially nowadays, when the poetry in journals seems divided between the warring camps of confessional blatherers and hermetically sealed puzzle makers.  Of course, the very  idea of spending time writing poetry is absurd, unless you may be one of the English professors who rely on occasional publication to keep your job.  So for me a passionate hobby, I guess you’d call it.  Sometimes I’d send out a batch (this has become easier over the years, thanks to online submissions), and occasionally one would get published.  But getting a check came as such a surprise!  Who knew that a lifetime of scribbling poems could be so lucrative!

But that’s a snide thing to say.  Millions of people write poems, fretting and sweating over the right word placed just so inside a matrix that doesn’t quite mesh, but let me try this.  When they could be binging Netflix!  Some of this work sees the light of day, so to speak, in journals nobody reads, but most of it collects on laptops or in little notebooks, destined for the dust bin.  A check for $50 would surprise these poets, my kin, as much as it did me.  It’s an odd cult, isn’t it?  At St. Phillips Church here in Richmond, sometimes hundreds turn out for readings by laureates.  In the past year, sitting on a pew at some of these events, I’ve been moved as much by the communal leaning in with ears perked as by the regally intoned prosody.

Then this.  One of my poems “Immigrant Reflection” piqued the attention of the judge in this year’s James River Writers/Richmond Magazine Shann Palmer Poetry Contest.  She’s a well-known, well-published poet, a person who can make a living doing this, a VCU graduate by the name of Tarfia Faizullah.  And what she wrote about my poem when it was (amazingly!) published this month in Richmond magazine touched me profoundly, as if I had been grokked:

I love the lucidity of voice in “Immigrant Reflection.” This poem showed me worlds that I’ve never visited but found warmly drawn and happily familiar.  It reminds me that life is both grand and quotidian at once:  “We never learned much,” the speaker recalls nonchalantly, before stating a number of life’s largest and most crucial lessons:  “How to catch a fish./How to dip in dance.”  The conclusion astounded me in its wisdom, and awareness of every immigrant’s strange inheritance: to be always both there and here.  This poem made me think “Yes, it is like that, isn’t it?”  And that is a very good thing.  The ending slayed me with its casual tenderness.  The narrower lines made for a very satisfying tempo.  I beamed!  Thank you for taking the time to reflect.

No, thank you, Ms. Faizullah.  I share your comment shamelessly, because it seems like such a miracle, and I can’t expect that it will happen again.  On behalf of all of us scribblers who yearn all but hopelessly for such a generous and attentive reading someday, thank you.  We should all be so lucky.

By the way, just learned that the winning poems from the contest are available to read online here:  https://richmondmagazine.com/news/features/2018-shann-palmer-poetry-contest/.  Enjoy!

On Reading a Worn Copy of Kerouac’s Dharma Bums at 62

Finished Dharma Bums, its final rapturous rush as Kerouac’s protagonist (clearly and baldly autobiographical) packed a Summer on a Cascades Mountains (Desolation Peak) fire lookout into half a dozen pages; the final page as innocently exalted as I have felt in my epiphanies, so many of them nature-driven, and heartbreaking since we know how his short life will devolve into alcoholism (his drinking a recurrent theme in the book, the Gary Snyder character deriding him for always needing a drink) and a sequestered death at his mother’s house in Florida. Coming off the mountain, believing he’s learned an ultimate truth through a Buddhist filter, all is right; he fears and yearns for the tumult of the cities, suggests that the lessons of his mountaintop solitary Summer will carry him through. I have felt exactly that, and wondered if I was the only one who had walked that path. Kerouac says, no, this is not an uncommon thing, it’s open to anyone; just let yourself turn towards that edge of madness depth perception, check your everyday cynicism at the door, and grin.

Can’t believe I’ve never read this book before. It sums up so beautifully a path I’ve trod (and you have to think this book influenced the music and literature and the whole cultural gestalt that led me along all these years – it certainly had to up the ante for the coming youth movement, almost seems a blueprint for hippiedom and its many offshoots, in ways that On the Road was not) (that classic almost a cautionary tale about the dread of aimlessness, whereas Dharma Bums, with its hilariously ham-handed and dilettantish Buddhistic flourishes, points the callow reader towards inward-seeking life goals Thoreau or Muir would have appreciated).

The woodsy parties sound like Electric Kool Aid Acid Test fests, minus the LSD (not yet invented), no doubt emulated by all the hippie communes to come. I’ve been to parties like that – I’m thinking especially of weekends at Nora’s rundown Mississippi plantation. Young people at play with flowers in our hair, skinny dipping in the creek, at the cusp of some sort of revelation, and holding it there like a glow of pot smoke swelling our lungs. Those weekends, probably every day of my wild oats years in New Orleans, too, just another On the RoadDharma Bums derivative. And not just then and not just me, of course. Think of their influence on the searching, fulfillment-yearning, meandering way we have all lived in the sixty-plus years since their publication! Even if you never read them, they signified.  What culture shaking power Kerouac’s two great novels unleashed!

When is a Man a Man?

My friend Corey lives three hours away, yet I get down to see him just two or three times a year. He never comes to see me, and it will be at least another four years before he has the opportunity. For nearly four years, Corey has lived in a minimum security federal prison, so he’s not quite halfway through his “bid”.   Before he went to jail, Corey was a star among public school teachers, the guy who won the district’s golden apple every year. He surprised and impressed us all when he happily quit that job for awhile to be a stay-at-home dad to his newborn daughters, because his wife – a physical therapist – earned a larger paycheck. Funny, acute, unflappable, he was that guy who could tell from a slant glance that a student had lost his lunch money or that a friend had lost his dog, then stepped in to help.

Your image of a minimum security prison may include open fields, an honor system fence, maybe even putt-putt or golf.   That’s not where Corey lives. To visit him, a guard walks you through a fortress-like 20-foot high concrete wall topped with coils of razor wire and backed with a second razor wire fence and then a third all surrounding a compound of low-rise concrete bunkers with slit windows high on the wall, the compound itself set deep in a piney woods. Yes, there’s a ragged softball field surrounded by a jogging track and even a paved basketball court. I’ve never seen anybody on them. The most significant feature of the landscape is another bleak compound squatting just up the hill. That’s the medium security prison where any infraction can get you sent. The rumors of what goes on inside those walls are chilling. Corey says it’s the number one incentive for following the rules on his block.

The visiting area is a boxy room lined with folding chairs, presided over by a sleepy guard seated high at a judge’s podium. All the prisoners wear custodian-style beige uniforms, tucked in at the belt. They play checkers with their kids or nod helplessly at their wives’ stories. Nobody’s supposed to hold hands or touch, except on greeting and goodbye.  You’re allowed to bring in a baggy full of quarters, so your host can gorge on vending machine hot pockets and Hostess cupcakes he can’t get elsewhere. Watching Corey snarf down junk food is all I need to know about the quality of prison food. (Last winter I committed a five-alarm infraction, but got away with it. I hid a homemade Christmas cookie in a fold of my sock, slipped it to him as he ate, and marveled at the dexterous way he hoovered the contraband in one bite between chomps of potato chips, his only acknowledgment a quick wink.)

Here’s the weird thing and the reason I wanted to share this anecdote anyway. Somehow sitting with Corey for a few hours in that harshly lit bunker always raises my spirits! The guy is simply irrepressible. Five years ago, a SWAT team swarmed into his living room, wrestled him down to the floor and cuffed his hands behind his back while his kids were brushing their teeth for school. Since then he and his family have gone through a kind of Kafkaesque hell. But if you thought Beyonce could make lemonade out of lemons, you haven’t met Corey. Somewhere along the way, he looked squarely at his situation and decided there was nothing to be gained from moping. He calculated that a counter-intuitive role might help him navigate the thuggish middle school society behind bars, that role being the guy willing to help. So he offered to write letters for guys, shared the books and magazines some of us send him, angled for a library job where he could guide other prisoners to helpful resources, and parlayed these opportunities into a web of barter that would make Catch-22’s Milo Minderbinder blush.

Here’s an example, and I can only hope to recount all its permutations correctly. The basketball court needed to have its lines repainted but a cranky guard refused to approve the work. The prisoner who most wanted the paint job gave non-smoker Corey a pack of cigarettes, which he parlayed to a laundry room attendant for an extra pillow swapped out to a shop attendant for a bucket of paint and a brush. Mysteriously, a whole row of toilets backed up while the cranky guard was on duty, and by the time he finished overseeing the swabbing of the bathroom floor, the basketball court wore a spanking new coat of paint. What did Corey win in this flurry of bargaining?  Respect.  Cred.  The fun of getting one over on the boss. That’s Corey. I call him the mayor.

It gets better. Frustrated at the ridiculous ethnic clannishness behind bars, he built a bridge in the form of a prisoner-led two-way ESL program where Spanish and English speakers teach each other their languages. Last I heard, the program was up to eight classes a day, and Corey’s Spanish had gotten pretty good. In fact, Bureau of Prisons inspectors commended the administration for the program, though they had done nothing to support it beyond grudgingly providing a classroom. None of this effort will reduce Corey’s sentence by a single day. It wins him no favors inside. But he says it keeps him sane. The metaphor he uses is the old tv comedy Hogan’s Heroes.

There’s a lot more. The best way to learn about it all is in Corey’s blog. He isn’t allowed access to the Internet, so he sends me the essays via snail mail, and I post them for him (http://federal-bidding.blogpost.com/). Reading some of them will give you a flavor of his wit, spirit and unflagging humaneness in a place intended to dehumanize.

So we sit on plastic chairs for a couple hours, and most of our talk involves the travails of maintaining some kind of relationship with his family via short phone calls, letters, and occasional visits. He’ll introduce me to a guy he’s written about in his blog, such as the Bird Man who communicates only in chirps or the flamboyant transvestite who somehow makes prison garb stylish (and who insists on vacuuming the floor every day at 4 am). He tells me stories that leave me shaking my head. And when he departs through one door while I go out the other, I find my mood lifted, all the silly things I fret about shrunk to their proper size. Corey’s dogged resilience in coping with the exigencies of the day shame me into a smile. I ran across a quote by an author named Stuart Brent that seems to apply. He wrote, “When is a man a man? Only when he can stand up to his bad luck.” By society’s yardstick, federal prison inmates may rank as the lowest of the low, but Corey, in squarely facing his situation, daily proves himself a man’s man.

Roads Not Taken – essay

As a joke, I used to take snapshots of bedraggled storefronts emblazoned with the first names of my friends, and send them off as pasted together greeting cards bearing the scrawled inscription “Road Not Taken.” So my attorney friend Mike would get a card with a photo of Mike’s Pipe Fittings, schoolteacher Sharon would get one with Sharon’s Curls & Perms, professor Al, Al’s Subs & Pizza.

A joke, yes, but in these early AARP eligible years, the twists and turns of what can seem like fate leave me wondering how easily all our lives might have gone very differently, with just a tweak here, a nod there. For instance, as a freshman at Harvard in 1974, I learned about this new technology, a desktop computer. A redneck from rural Virginia, I’d never seen any kind of computer at all, though I’d read about punch card machines and seen movies with refrigerator-sized boxes spewing ticker tape. At school I learned that if you wanted to do any real calculations, there was an old cottage on a side street that housed one of the state-of-the-art Fortran punch card machines, but you had to have special permission to use it as an undergraduate, and aiming for a coveted slot on the History & Literature track, that could not have interested me less. I visited once on a tour with my physics for poets class and found it like a set for an old black and white sci fi movie, all whirring sounds, flashing lights, a little tray for punch cards, and the rank locker room smell of geeks with little interest in hygiene.  I wrote it into a script for a Dr. Strangelove sequel I was scribbling, but never imagined going there to solve a mathematical equation.

It’s hard at this late date to express how weirdly new desktop computing seemed at the time. In a back room of the sparkling new Science Center with its tall glass atrium sat ten of these machines on a row of tables. We were told they were the brain child of a Harvard-MIT consortium and that they could make computing accessible even for knuckleheaded freshman. Using a typewriter keyboard, you typed commands onto a blippy green tv screen. Conditionals such as if this, then that, etc. made the punch card world of computing easier to comprehend and act on, though our teachers made clear to us that much was lost in translating the beautiful logic of Fortran and Cobol to coded English. Everybody wanted to play with these gizmos, and lo and behold, the administration made this possible. You could sign up for a course in introductory computing and try your hand at getting the machines to simulate thought. Because everybody wanted to join in the fun, they ran a lottery. To my surprise, I won and found myself signing up for an hour each day in the computer room, typing statements like IF A=0 THEN GO TO 20; LOOP: B_? that caused the machine to carry out certain assembly line functions.  For my semester project, I decided to see if I could get the thing to write poetry.

Looking back all these years later, I realize that this was a difficult problem that has still not been satisfactorily solved. My primitive method was to type in a memory bank of cheesy words categorized by noun, verb, etc. and get the computer to select from the lists at random to build poetic lines. This hooked me more than I’d thought it would. Before long I was sub-categorizing my lists so the program would pull from rhyming words to end lines, building in a randomized choice of rhyme schemes and meters, and dog-earing my thesaurus to generate three separate word libraries for the type of poem you wanted: love, nature, or (just becoming an avid Poe fan) gloom.

Surprisingly, the program sort of worked. About every third or fourth block of words the computer generated made sense, in an autistic sort of way. I thought not that different from some of the word salad lyrics in David Bowie songs of the era. Here’s one of the better examples:

WITH AFFRIGHT YOUR SIGHT LIGHTS HIS LUST

OF A DEMON AND THE BLACK SKY

WITHIN THE UNCLEAN FRIGHT MISTRUSTS

BECAUSE OF A DEMON A NIGHT SIGHS

Fun, cute, what a neat toy, this computer thing. I wondered if you could make it play checkers. As the fall semester wore on and Boston’s weather surprised me in its relentless icy march, I trudged through slush in my Converse Chucks to the Science Center for my allotted hour at one of the computer terminals each day and found that other students had taken my little musings a step further. The windowless room grew funky, smelling more and more like that Fortran fortress down the street. I noticed sleeping bags rolled up in the corner. One morning, I walked in and found classmates sleeping under the tables, waiting for whatever little program they’d created to finish its calculations. We’d been warned not to do that, but these rebels had discovered a teenaged obsession that made more sense than the rest of the college experience so screw the rules.

We all benefited in the next decade from that obsession. One of those geeks under the table was Bill Gates. He dropped out of college shortly thereafter, so he could spend all day in front of the green screen with no fear of being bumped off by a no vision can’t see the forest for the trees dumb ass and his poetry program (and so he could bathe when he felt like it). In California, the two Steve’s, Jobs and Wozniak, played the same game. And then there were the rest of us, who took the class, got our inflated A’s (hard to get less than a B at an Ivy League school), and shrugged.

Could I have been a Bill Gates? If I’d offered the smelly guy under the table a candy bar from my stash, maybe dared to strike up a conversation, asked for a second eye to think about my rhyme schemes, might I have camped onto the runaway train percolating behind his rheumy eyes? Instead of steering clear, equating him with the homeless guys roaming the city streets outside, thinking weirdo, get a life loser, dude who’d never get a date smelling like that?

There were endless other opportunities to catch that train down through the past half century, of course. Eventually, I tagged onto the caboose, learning how to use smartphones and smart home devices as assistive technologies for people with cognitive-behavioral challenges and trying my hand at computer game development, prototyping a life skills program for kids with disabilities. And no, I don’t imagine my own Road Not Taken card reading “Microsoft”.

That’s the equation I could never compute. The one that goes something like: brilliance + vision + opportunity + grueling labor + dumb luck = genius. All of us lined up at those ten terminals in NS 110 in the fall of 1974 had the opportunity. The rest of the equation, not so much. We went on to other opportunities, other visions, tilted with whatever intelligence and fortitude we could muster at other windmills. Some of us got lucky. The other day, I stopped and took a picture with my iPhone of a roadside mall storefront: Tony’s Computer Repair. And another at the edge of the mall, Bill’s Barber Shop. Then drove on thinking about contingencies, paths diverging in a yellow wood, there but for the grace….