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Archive for June, 2011

It was bound to happen.  Eventually I would dredge up some memory from the past and it would work its way into something a little more serious. This week’s poem came to me while on a walk, with large sections of it coming to me at once. Of course, it would also happen when i didn’t have a notebook and would have to repeat those sections over and over until I could get home and commit them to memory. I’ve done that in the past with haiku, but these were much larger and I almost lost a line or two.

This being WordPress the formatting will be all wrong, but the lines will at least be sequentially correct. I should also warn, there is a single obscenity, repeated twice, for those who might be bothered by such things.

dogs playing poker

late july and august weekends
the men were up by ten
grandpa, dad, uncles
my aunt’s boyfriends of the moment
settled around the picnic table
on a separate patio in the backyard
shaded from the orange county sun
by grapevine walls and roof

five card stud, seven card draw
dealer’s call
jacks are better and
acey-deucy and
high-low and
indian poker
penny ante stuff
mountains of copper disks
surrounded by sweating tin towers
of schlitz
of miller
of olympia
of whatever was tall and on sale
down at ralph’s market

bored of saturday morning cartoons
we would drift out to the patio
allowed to stay if we kept quiet
if we’d take the empties away
if we could bring back fresh beers
without shaking them

the littler kids became mascots
tossing pennies into the pot
handling discards
learning to shuffle and deal
until they finally drifted away
leaving us older kids behind
to become adults

“i gotta talk to the man” and
“nature calls” and
“takin’ the lizard for a walk” meant
we could sit in for a hand or two
complete with name-calling, taunts
fake threats, accusations of cheating
and, if grandpa was at the table
the swearing initiation

grandpa, seven-foot-plus
handlebar mustache
tanned the color of stained oak
leather vest over a t-shirt always
the only man who ever wore the name ‘slim’
and could make it fit
insisted i call the bluffs
“say it”

i’d look around the table
uncles encouraging
boyfriends smirking
dad squinting
don’t you ever let me
catch you saying this at home
written on his face
“say it!” grandpa barked

“HORSESHIT!”

emboldened with excitement
washing back the aftertaste of swearing
with a bitter sip of beer
blanketed in howls and yelps of laughter
i knew at ten years old
i was officially a man

but
in the afternoon while the men napped
reclining on an old couch in the garage
beneath the painting of dogs playing poker
with a stolen shasta cola
i said the word again, a whisper

horseshit

memories of petting zoos and pony rides
adults pointing out nature’s land mines
road apples
horse biscuits
rump puckey
and what was so wrong about
that damp green smell of hay
sweet and warm and earthy
puzzling how these things
added up to calling someone

liar

all the while wondering
if the bulldog in the painting
was holding out or passing off
the ace secreted in his hind paw
under the table

Hey Diddle Diddle, it’s Poetry Friday on the Internets, and Anastasia over at Picture Book of the Day has this week’s round-up. Cut yourself in and watch out for the wild cards!

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I ride a bike. For most of the last 40+ years I have owned a bike. I have owned more bikes than I have cars, and they have outlasted several cars. When employed, they have been my primary form of transportation aside from public transit or walking. Don’t get me wrong, I love driving and road trips and the convenience cars can provide. I simply hate how much we as a society have come to depend on them, as well as the environmental impact on the planet.

A few months back I pulled my bike out of its forced winter storage and gave a look. I had stopped riding it almost a year ago when it started acting up – acting up being the term I use for mechanical problems beyond my scope of knowledge or ability. I took the bike into a local shop and winced in advance at what it would cost to get it road-worthy. Worse, they had a backlog of repairs and it could be weeks before they could get to my bike.

Weeks?  Seriously?

I looked around on the internet for other bike shops that did repairs.  As I couldn’t ride my bike to the shops I would have to bring it there by car. In any direction, no matter which shop I decided to take my bike to, I would pass a half-dozen gas stations with garages that performed routine maintenance and repairs on cars. It didn’t hit me then but it did today, as I was riding around on my new bike doing errands, that there should be more bike repair shops than auto shops.

And those bike repair shops should be at high schools.

In a large number of cities the police impound stolen and abandoned bikes and then sell them at auction. Sometimes there are beat-to-heck bikes among the weekly trash cans on the curb. And all over, people have non working bikes collecting dust and rust and cobwebs in their garages. But what if all these could be donated to a high school and become project bikes for students in a bike shop class? They could learn everything from striping down frames, painting, gear assembly, maintenance and repair. At the end of the semester students could (for a nominal fee to cover parts) purchase the bikes they have worked on or allow the school to sell them to the public. For advanced students there could be a bike clinic where they taught other students how to do basic maintenance on their own bikes – replacing flats and adjusting brakes and whatnot – and on weekends they could open the repair shop to local citizens and charge for their services.

How the heck is this not a win-win situation? You get more kids interested in bikes, who can then evangelize the benefits of bikes, and a community repair shop that supports kids, schools, and education. It’s got recycling built into it, it’s gotta be cheaper than a lot of other industrial arts to get running, and it sends the message that adults and educators believe that bikes are and should be an important part of lives.

Please, I beg you, tell me what could be wrong with this idea?

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Apparently, it’s potentially my fault.

Over the weekend the Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece (as news) examining how contemporary YA books had grown dark and whether or not it’s a good idea to be feeding teens a diet of kidnapping and incest and self-mutilation. The kidlit community went all a-Twitter as a result and began a counter campaign called #YAsaves* to prove that these books did more good than harm. Which has all been well and good, but I can’t shake off the guilt at my alleged contribution to the problem.

As an unpublished writer of contemporary and historical YA, I have had bad thoughts and included them in my writing.

I have written about a teen boy who has accidentally burned down a portion of his school while presenting an ecology project, vividly fulfilling a secret fantasy in the hearts and minds of many readers. Never mind that they haven’t yet read it, I have committed the words to the digital page and thereby one day shall be accused of having pushed that evil influence into the world. In that same story I have included characters of deeply questionable moral character – a teacher who dropped acid in the 60s and is implicated in drug dealing, a former student who became a radical socialist, another student who became a law-breaking monkeywrenching activist.

I have also written an outline for a future project where an abused teen boy runs away from home and finds life out on the streets can be harsh. Teen prostitution and petty theft, though not the main issues of that story, make an appearance. I have another story where a girl runs off to meet a man she’s met online, who steals a credit card to do so, and who at a young age in order to get attention falsely accused an adult of molesting her.

And I am currently involved with a contemporary story where a teen boy discovers through a series of summer jobs that some employers mistreat employees, break the law and take advantage of the elderly and disabled, and generally exploit teen ignorance of their own rights in order to save or make a buck. In these books I have included teens getting drunk, or high on marijuana, having or talking about sex, or breaking the law (sometime inadvertently) in my attempts to present a world a teen reader might find resonance in.

Yes, I have committed these thought crimes, and worse: despite how they sound above, some of these stories are comedies.

Would you like to hear some real tragedies?

As a public school teacher I once had a student who lived in or next to (it wasn’t clear) a crack house where the windows had been replaced by plywood because the glass kept getting blown out in drive-by shooting. That student came to school maybe once or twice a week and spent the rest of his time riding the city busses everywhere looking for someplace he could run away to.

I saw a fourteen year old girl who stopped doing her school work, stopped coming to class, and eventually dropped out before anyone could figure out that she had become pregnant and suicidal over the fact that her father had raped her.

And there was another student, a sweet kid who wouldn’t harm a fly, one day brought a gun to school because he’d been goaded to by other kids and ended up getting expelled as a result of a zero tolerance policy. After that, no public school would take him, and his parents couldn’t afford to put him in a private school or to do homeschooling, and who knows what happened to him after that.

And there was the girl who even on the hottest days of the year insisted on wearing heavy jackets because they were the only thing she owned that covered the welts and bruises from the beatings she received at home. When Child Protective Services was brought in the girl cussed out the teachers and administrators who were responsible for breaking up her family and preventing her from taking care of her younger brother.

If these stories are dark it’s because not all teens live in the light of happy narratives. Teens living in these dark situations need to know they are not alone in the world, and they need to see how others have come to articulate and cope with these issues. And for the teens who don’t live these dark stories, they, too, need to see what the world is like in order to gain understanding and empathy.

But while I’m apparently contributing to all this darkness in teen literature I have to ask the question: Why, when I talk to so many adults, do they say that high school was the worst time of their lives? Why do they say this and then as parents and guardians for the world of teens want to deny current teens the opportunity to realize they aren’t suffering alone?

Unlike “reporters” for the Wall Street Journal (and The New Yorker and The New York Times who have also done their share in the name of protecting the children) and all those ostrich parents with an unrealisitc view of the world, I remember what I wanted to read when I was a teen and why. I didn’t want Horatio Alger stories of lifting myself by the bootstraps into a better life, or fluffy fantasy tales that reinforced a Harlequin Romance view of finding a perfect soul mate (I’m looking at you, Twilight, and all the adult readers who love you), I was looking for a window onto the world that showed me what I suspected was true: that adults didn’t know everything and that the world wasn’t the perfect place the adults wanted me to believe it was. I wanted to know what to expect out in the world, I wanted to know the entire range of human experience beyond the scope of my home town.

And just to cover the bases here for those who worry about the dystopic nightmares kids are reading about today, they were there when I was a teen and I gobbled them up just as readily. My favorite in high school was Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer, a story about what happened before and after a comet slams into the earth. There was also Stephen King’s The Stand, a jaunty little good-versus-evil story that covered the entire spectrum of human behavior. And if I really wanted to see the folly of human behavior on parade I went to Vonnegut, and his stories were funny.

So, yes, the world of literature aimed at teens and young adults is full of darkness. As a writer of stories for that audience I feel there is a sense of duty in sharing with readers a world that they can identify with, including the ugly parts. I make no apology for those adults who prefer to ignore their own past and would rather shove their kids heads into the sand when it comes to deciding what they should read.

Hey, do you believe in freedom of choice? More importantly, do you believe in teaching young minds how to exercise that freedom of choice by giving them opportunities to do so?

Essentially, do you trust your kids? And if you do not or cannot not, whose fault is that?

Stop blaming books.

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* a collection of others looking at this situation can be found at Bookshelves of Doom.

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Fear is a powerful motivator, especially when developing characters for children and young adults. Humor is the antidote, it is the one emotion we are born with and far too quickly abandoned as we get older. As a culture I wonder if we place too much emphasis on fear in the stories we tell young readers. If we condition readers to accept and seek out greater and greater peril in the stories they read then doesn’t that become the response they compare their lives against? If they aren’t being fed enough fear do they grow more anxious that, somehow, something is amiss in their lives?

Which is all a bit heavy as an introduction to a rather light-hearted poem this week. My writing prompt was “What’s the most dangerous thing you’ve done for fun?” but I wanted to turn it around a bit. When danger becomes fun, what becomes the most dangerous thing? And if you’re 12 years old?

at 12, the most dangerous thing

on roller coasters
I’ve thrown my hands into the air
to let the qualms blow through my hair
never screamed or betrayed a care
when joining all the boasters

wild in the woods
I’ve plunged my hands deep in the holes
and warrens of bullfrogs and moles
I’ve hunted fish with sharpened poles
and come up with the goods

at the quarry ponds
I’ve jumped in naked as a jay
cannonballed a mile of spray
a master of all I survey
the king of vagabonds

from scary movies
I have no fear of zomboid ghouls
demented clowns with power tools
poisonous bugs who prey on fools
or delinquent juvies

danger I dismiss
I ride my bike with eyes closed tight
or taunt the neighbor’s dog to bite
afraid of nothing day or night…

except a girl’s kiss

Well, we all get over these things eventually.  Too bad we abandon some of that free-spiritedness in the process.

And here we are, it’s Poetry Friday again, and last one in is a rotten rhyme! Looks like Toby over at The Writer’s Armchair has the roundup this week. Go ahead, plunge your arm deep and come up with the goods!

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The Deer welcomed a new Doe to their family and invited their good friend Fox to be the godfather. Fox was honored but wanted to share that honor with his good friend Sparrow, and likewise Sparrow wanted to share the honor with his good friend Dog. This all sounded fine to Deer but few knew that Dog was prone to drunkenness and had been tied up by his Master. Sparrow was certain that having Dog share godfather duties would help reform him and made quick work at the rope that kept his friend tied up. Together they attended Doe’s baptism and celebrated with a feast, at which Dog got stinking drunk.

Fortunately, Dog was a happy drunk and easily persuaded to leave the festivities before things got out of hand. Sparrow and Fox escorted their wobbly friend down the road to his home, which was fortunate because soon there came a Wagoner intent to run Dog down.

“Out of the way, Dog, or I’ll have you as wheel grease!”

“Don’t do it, Wagoner,” cried Sparrow, “or I’ll see to it that it cost you your life!”

But what did a Wagoner fear from a Sparrow’s threats? With a cry and a whip of the reigns the Wagoner drove his horses and cart right over Dog, shattering his legs. While Fox carefully dragged his friend the rest of the way home Sparrow flew around the head of the Wagoner.

“I warned you, Wagoner, and now this shall cost you your life!”

Sparrow flitted around the Wagoner’s head causing only mild irritation. Finally Sparrow landed on the head of one of the Wagoner’s horses and faced him.

“I warned you, Wagoner, and now this shall cost you your life!”

Vexed, the Wagoner reached for his ax and quickly dispatched it toward Sparrow. But Sparrow was quick to jump out of the way leaving the ax to cleave the skull of the horse, killing it instantly. The Wagoner stopped to retrieve his ax, cut free the dead horse, and proceed with his other two horses. Sparrow watched and waited from a nearby tree until the Wagoner was underway again then flew back and perched himself on the second horse’s head, and the third, as each time he repeated his taunt to the Wagoner and each time the Wagoner dispatched his ax.

“I warned you, Wagoner, and now this shall cost you your life!”

With no horses left the Wagoner abandoned his cart and walked the rest of the way home with the Sparrow following close by. Once home he sat down by the oven to warm his bones and chill his temper. Sparrow watched from the window until the Wagoner was calmed then began again with his promise.

“I warned you, Wagoner, and now this shall cost you your life!”

Instantly enraged the Wagoner grabbed his ax and hurled it at the window, shattering the glass and allowing the cold night air along with Sparrow into the room. The Wagoner grabbed a mallet and began chasing Sparrow around the room. Wherever Sparrow landed the Wagoner would bring down his mallet with a crushing blow that would destroy all it touched but always missed Sparrow. The mantel, the oven, tables and chairs, all of it destroyed in the Wagoner’s fury. Finally he tossed aside the mallet and caught Sparrow with his bare hands.

“Now I’ve got you!”

“I warned you, Wagoner, and now this shall cost you your life!”

And without a moment’s hesitation the Wagoner swallowed the bird whole. But Sparrow pecked and clawed his way around the Wagoner’s stomach, scratching and climbing his way back up the Wagoner’s throat until he was able to perch on the Wagoner’s tongue and safely avoid his teeth.

“I warned you, Wagoner, and now this shall cost you your life!”

Desperate, the Wagoner grabbed his hunting gun and handed it to his wife, who had watched the entire proceedings with horror. Taking aim she fired the gun but only managed in taking off her husband’s head allowing Sparrow to fly away into the night.

.

That’s it? What of the rest of it?

What do you mean?

What happened to Dog?

I think that we’ve had enough story for the evening.

No! Tell me!

Very well, but I warn you, it isn’t pretty.

.

While Sparrow was tormenting the Wagoner, Fox managed to bring Dog back home but not without a great deal of painful moaning on Dog’s part. When Dog’s Master came out to investigate Fox ran off and hid as he knew humans thought little of him.

“What happened here?” growled Master.

“I was run down by a Wagoner in the road.”

“You’re a drunk and a liar and it serves you right for running away like that. If you’re still alive come morning we’ll see whether your wounds are worth tending to.”

Fox could not believe the Master’s cruelty and in his anger came running from his hiding place yelping wildly in his friend’s defense. When the Master saw the Fox coming for his throat he reached for his gun and fired. Without taking aim his shot went wild and struck Dog dead, silencing his pain and yelps instantly. Blind with rage Fox brought down Dog’s Master and tore away at him as he would a chicken in a coop. Afraid that he would be hunted for his crimes Fox ran back to the Deer for counsel. With his muzzle and fur red and glistening with blood Fox explained all that had happened and Buck Deer listened with great seriousness.

“We must hide you, for we cannot risk anything happening to our Doe’s new godfather.”

Buck led Fox deep into the woods and stopped at a small train in the undergrowth.

“Follow this trail all the way to the other side of these woods.  There you will find a stream where you can clean yourself and a cave in which to hide. Come back in three days and we shall see how things stand.  But hurry, we can’t be certain the humans won’t send hunting dogs looking for you.”

Grateful, Fox followed the trail cut in the undergrowth as fast as he could. Buck stood and only jumped a little when he heard the fatal snap of a huntsman’s trap catch and kill Fox. When he returned to his family he found that Sparrow had arrived to tell his version of the story. Once again Buck listened with great seriousness as Sparrow hopped around on the ground in great excitement. At one point Sparrow hopped just behind one of Buck’s hooves and with a quick snap of his leg he sent Sparrow sailing into a nearby tree. Buck nudged gently at Sparrow to make sure he was dead, then turned to his wife.

“We must do better in choosing godparents for our children in the future,” Buck said.

.

Now, off to bed with you.

.

“The Fairy Tale About the Faithful Sparrow” (1812) by Jacob Grimm is story #258 in The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm translated by Jack Zipes. It always amuses me how many of these stories start so innocently – a birth and baptism in this case – and then quickly become violent revenge stories. The “child’s” voice asking for the rest of the story is, obviously, me wanting answers to some pressing questions. I tried to fill in the missing details in keeping with general tone of the tale. I imagine that Sam Peckinpah would have like this one in particular.

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