Friday, August 28, 2009

I (Want to) Like For You to Move!

I Like For You to be Still

I like for you to be still: it is as though you were absent,
and you hear me from far away and my voice does not touch you.
It seems as though your eyes had flown away
and it seems that a kiss had sealed your mouth.

As all things are filled with my soul
you emerge from the things, filled with my soul.
You are like my soul, a butterfly of dream,
and you are like the word Melancholy.

I like for you to be still, and you seem far away.
It sounds as though you were lamenting, a butterfly cooing like a dove.
And you hear me from far away, and my voice does not reach you:
Let me come to be still in your silence.

And let me talk to you with your silence
that is bright as a lamp, simple as a ring.
You are like the night, with its stillness and constellations.
Your silence is that of a star, as remote and candid.

I like for you to be still: it is as though you were absent,
distant and full of sorrow as though you had died.
One word then, one smile, is enough.
And I am happy, happy that it's not true.

That Pablo...

Is it cheesy and more than a little emo to have a favorite poet? Especially a tragic Latin American poet of the unrequited loving self-destructive variety? Every time I read one of Neruda's poems and get that twinge of empathy I feel a little like someone who weeps at opera and fight the urge to slap some of the sensitivity out of myself, but in the end, it still gets me.

At one point in life, I read this and thought it was the most beautiful thing; the thought that a simple gesture from a romantic love could, in the midst of a void, swell into this crescendo of sheer joy that rescues you in glowing affection, and in some ways I still view the poem that way. In the context of everyday life with all of its cold, hard edges a smile or an unexpected expression of tenderness can be more meaningful than the most elaborate romantic plans.

But with some experience, I now view a darker side to what Neruda wrote. And I guess in the context of his life it makes a little sense. I mean, let's face it, Neruda is saying he likes to imagine his lover dead. Not much of a Valentine's Day card, is it? He's saying he likes to think of his relationship at the absolute apogee of despair. He makes himself imagine his love in the bleakest terms so that the tiniest sign otherwise becomes as huge as salvation. This all makes for very romantic expression, but it sounds like quite the roller coaster to me. Essentially, what he's saying is that he's willing to imagine his love being completely unreflected in his lover so that he can taste the delicious feeling of being rescued from his morbid imagination.

As much as I find this reading of the poem to be far from what I would want in a relationship, I have to admit, I know a great number of people who have been guilty of this in relationships, myself, unfortunately, included. How often do we create problems where none really exists and test our partners for that gesture, that smile, that word so that we feel affirmed? The thing about it, and in the way Neruda has written this poem I get the sense that he would know exactly what I'm talking about, is that simple gesture becomes addictive; once we've experienced it, we have to have that intoxicating feeling of reassurance. Neruda even says it at the end of the poem. He's happy, but not because the woman he is writing about loves him, but because she's not dead. Whatever he's built up in his head as the worst possible outcome is not true. But that feeling is just a fix, selfish even. The poem even echoes the fleeting salvation he feels. He spends the whole of the poem articulating how awful he's imagined things to be and then only gives one line to the joy of discovering they're not true. If the poem went on, he'd immediately have to start imagining things to be horrible again just to get back to that one brief moment of hollow satisfaction and, as I said before, it's not even happiness that he is loved by his partner. It's a hollow look alike for mutual love. Nothing about this is sustainable and what seemed romantic to me when I first read it seems dysfunctional now. And that's not even scraping the surface of what it must be like to be the one who is made to play dead all the time. Unfortunately, it also rings much truer to me than it did when I first read it.

Goodbye to all that. Thank you, Pablo, you're still my favorite poet, but I'd much rather commit to building something sustainable and real than wallow in imagining disaster in the hopes that the one I love will tolerate me imagining her dead so she can suddenly rescue me from despair. Maybe it doesn't make for world class poetry, but I bet it lasts longer.

Saturday, August 22, 2009


I used to have this student, we'll call him Damien, who, if not number one, was certainly high on the list of all time worst students. His file from the counselor's office was dictionary thick and contained every derivative of the ADHD acronym known to medical science. Some doctor somewhere probably started making up disorders to describe Damien and, I can testify, still fell well short of diagnosing him. You name it, he did it: Tardiness, outbursts, non-existent organizational abilities, sleeping in class, total disregard for the rules, anger. Having written that, I'm sure some of my former teachers are rolling their eyes at the irony, but this kid took it to a new level.

To be fair, Damien was also an entertainer. He was a gifted athlete, reluctantly bright (bright enough to know exactly how to get under his teachers' skin), and genuinely hilarious. I can recall a number of times having to stifle a laugh before disciplining him upon overhearing Damien rag on a classmate or let loose with some completely inappropriate remark during the lesson. Still though, his antics wore on me and, as a coach, I was flummoxed when the nuclear punishment of bypassing a parental phone call and going straight to his coach failed to effect the proper improvement in his behavior.

Eventually, Damien transfered to another school in another district and the other students in his Spanish I class, suddenly free from disruption, actually showed signs of learning Spanish. But as with any problem, foisting Damien onto some other poor educator did not solve the issue. After the Christmas break, I was informed that Damien had worn out his welcome in the other school and, after a brief stint in the "Alternative Center" (this is the Orwellian name given to the lock down boot camp school in the school district I used to teach), would be rejoining my class.

I met Damien at the door on his first day back and read him the Riot Act. One slip up and he was gone. At least, that's what I told him. I had only been teaching for a few months and I had already learned that in a public school short of actually beheading another student during class and running around the room wearing their decapitated head as a hat...naked there was nothing a student could really do to get expelled. Damien nodded his understanding of the new strictures, dropped a few "yes sirs" and took his old seat. As he walked passed me into the classroom, I could see the mischievous grin spread across his lips and I knew nothing that had happened to him in the last few months -check that - years had made any change in his behavior.

Still, I was cautiously optimistic after I had finished the lesson and divided the students into work groups and Damien had not yet done anything untoward. As the students began working orally on their assignment, I settled into my desk to grade a few papers before making rounds among the groups to offer help and instruction. And then I heard it, I'm not sure if you've ever been around a large number of people taking their first clumsy steps into learning a new language, but it isn't pretty. In fact, it sounds like a room of mildly retarded children mimicking animal sounds. I can remember my mother coming to a middle school band concert I was in and, after listening to our efforts to play carols, said as politely as she could that she had never heard Jingle Bells preformed as a funeral dirge. It's like that. So you can imagine, just as an actual rooster might sound in the retard example or how a member of the Boston Philharmonic might sound in the Jingle Bells example, a native speaker speaking his native language would ring out with crystal clarity. It took me a second to process what I had heard and who had said it, but as I looked up and saw the sparkling, devilish grin on Damien's face I cursed myself for not knowing better. Damien had indeed been practicing proper usage of the preterite and imperfect tenses, but what he had said was not Spanish and was most certainly not in the book.

I immediately stood up from my desk, pointed at Damien, and firmly booted him from the class. The other students reflexively hushed and listened as I instructed him to leave the classroom and go to the Behavior Improvement Center (another Orwellian name for what was called detention in my day), a referral would be waiting for him in the principal's office. He reluctantly stood up, threw his bag over his shoulder, and muttered something as he slammed the classroom door behind him. After he had left, I called the BAC and informed them that Damien should be there in a few minutes and sat down to write the referral. The rest of the class slowly eased back in to their animal sounds and the period ended a few minutes later.

Now, as a teacher, they tell you in instances where a student has said something inappropriate that you have to write down exactly what the student said so that a proper assessment of the crime can occur. This scared me a little as I imagined the principal's secretary, a woman eerily reminiscent of my conservative, Methodist grandmother, reading the referral and immediately going into cardiac arrest. I decided it would be better to deliver the referral first to the counselor as I was going to demand Damien be removed from my class.

The next period was my lunch period. I took the time to march down to the counselor's office and deliver the referral, reading it along the way to make sure I had actually written what I knew I had.

"I want Damien Ragsdale removed from my class immediately," I said as I handed the surprised counselor the referral.

"Well, I can't just do that," replied the counselor, "What did he do," she asked without reading the referral.

"Well, he said something inappropriate."

"Well, Mr. Smith, it takes a lot more than words to remove a student from a class. The student has to have done something exceptionally inappropriate like, for instance...". The counselor trailed off as she unintentionally began to confirm my suspicions that a naked decapitation really was what it would take. "What did he say?"

I took a deep breath and, with a straight face said, "So, I was in the shower this morning, right? And I was beatin' my meat with the two handed technique. You know, 'cause my dick's so big."

The counselor stared back at me with her chin on the desk. The office that had previously been a whirring hive of activity, crowded with teachers' aides, copiers, and administrators, fell totally silent.

I continued, "And he didn't say it in Spanish."

Damien was removed from my class.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Indecent Proposal

I was driving down the interstate today and, as I passed under a railroad bridge, I looked up to see "Will you marry me Lauren?" scrawled sloppily in dirty pink paint on the iron side of the bridge. I couldn't quite wrap my mind around this marriage proposal. Who drives down the interstate in a major city, surrounded by traffic and urban sprawl, and thinks, "This is the perfect setting in which to propose to my girlfriend!"

All sorts of things seem wrong with this. Firstly, what if Lauren doesn't look up to see what you've written on the railroad bridge? This was a tollway. How do you explain exiting the tollway at the wrong exit, paying the toll, turning around, paying the toll again, exiting, paying the toll AGAIN, and driving the same stretch of highway to give Lauren a second chance at eternity? If Lauren is anything like my girlfriend, I think she'd be pretty pissed at this point to have wasted a good twenty minutes on her travels for reasons that you, for obvious reasons, cannot divulge. God help you if she misses it again.

So what if Lauren does catch your proposal the first go around? It's not like you can stop and put a ring on her finger. I mean, you are in heavy, highway traffic. Do you settle for a peck on the cheek and then pull over at the next truck stop to get on bended knee? Do you high five and keep driving? Do you pull over to the shoulder and get a picture with the bridge in the background? I can't see any good answer to the logistical quandary proposing to someone on an interstate presents.

And that's just if you decide to go through with the interstate proposal in the first place. I know a lot of women and I'm pretty sure none of them would, given their druthers, want to be proposed to via highway graffiti. It's unromantic, illegal, unsightly, and the sort of half-baked idea a high school Casanova would dream up. Which, I suppose, could have been exactly who came up with Lauren's proposal in the first place. Still, I can't imagine dangling upside down from a railroad bridge over a torrent of speeding traffic with a can of pink paint thinking, "This is gonna be GREAT!"

And what if it didn't work out with Lauren (and I have a sneaking suspicion it may not have)? Both of you, unless you're seriously committed to avoiding an entire thoroughfare, have to pass under "The Bridge" until someone puts the final nail in the busted relationship coffin, scales the bridge, and dangles back over the tollway to blot out all those bad memories. Somehow, erasing railroad bridge graffiti to mend a broken heart seems even more ridiculous than creating railroad bridge graffiti to win one.

I say that...I can think of one thing more ridiculous: The guy who thinks, "Damn, that was a great idea! All I have to do is climb up there, cross out 'Lauren,' write 'Amy,' and I'm set!"

Friday, August 14, 2009

But The Ground Pulls At My Feet

My father is fond of telling me that as you age opportunities to make "easy decisions" fast begin to fade. Clear choices get muddied by commitments and intricacies and complexities and fear. I guess you sort of wade into life, taking steps confidently, and then suddenly the shelf starts to drop off and you can't see the bottom as easily as you used to be able to and those confident steps turn into hesitant, searching probes that move farther along into deeper water. At 29, a set of floaties would be nice. Ridiculous, but nice.

I'm starting to feel stuck again. The more experienced I become (I enjoy the adjective "experienced" much more than "old") the more I realize this is a pattern with me. I'm sort of like a rock that tumbles down a hill for a while and then finds a place to rest. It's refreshing for a time, but then the lichen starts to grow and I feel uneasy. Potential energy builds up and I just want to tumble again. Sometimes the tumbling is just a slide a few feet in another direction, like moving across town. Sometimes it's crashing, bounding, underbrush shattering ricochets that last for months. Maybe it's a job change or a relationship change or a complete shift of outlook. Regardless, it's a change. The irony of it is that if you asked me where I would be most comfortable, I would tell you some place where I feel settled and content. But in saying that, I have to accept the fact that constant movement isn't the answer, especially if I indulge the rock metaphor once more and speak of movement of the tumbling variety. Who the hell can control that? Plus, there are a lot of people in my life who would suddenly need a "watch for falling rocks" warning.

Not to get too Zen (and with the naturalist wading and tumbling metaphors I'm probably already there), but I know I'm not going to get that warm, fuzzy feeling until I'm happy with where I am -and I mean that in the non geographical sense. It's just that sometimes I confuse being at peace with settling. There's a great scene in the movie High Fidelity where John Cusack's character is trying to explain an epiphany he's had about his relationship. He starts to tell his girlfriend that he fantasizes about other women and the underwear they're wearing and how he now realizes that the reason he can fantasize about them is that he never gets to see their granny panties. He doesn't really know them and in not really knowing them he's keeping himself from being happy with either another woman or his girlfriend. I suppose I'm guilty of that as well. Not necessarily with women's underwear, but with my career and my finances and my city.

So there's the challenge. That's where I am. Do I not really know where I am and just want to tumble off somewhere else because of the fantasy of it all? Or am I consciously realizing that I am not where I want to be and just need to overcome all of those complexities and intricacies and commitments and fears that age - er, experience - has encumbered me with.