Saturday, June 23, 2007

Verses Interrupt Us

For the past two weeks, I’ve been teaching a continuing ed course about poetry. The program, an “institute for lifelong learning,” is designed for individuals age 50 and over. The catalog describes its participants as people interested in keeping their minds active and engaged.

It’s a little odd that I’m doing this. Poetry has never been at the forefront of my graduate work; I’m lazy and prefer narrative’s instant gratification. But I’m also unemployed and not in a position to walk away from any place that will have me. The director warned me that the students were willing to do little or no work outside of class, so I had to abandon novels immediately and plan to work with more contained entities, like poems. I chose romantic love for a theme, and “Verses Interrupt Us” was born.

After I had beaten my Imposter’s Syndrome into submission, I searched for material that would be accessible but not without complexity. We started with Keats’s "When I Have Fears That I May Cease To Be.” The class as a whole liked it; some of them think frequently about mortality. In the sardonically jovial words of one older man, “I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t buy green bananas anymore.”

With a few age-sensitive modulations, a variety of recognizable student types emerged: the Chronic Hand-Raiser, the Skeptic, the Mistress of Non-Sequiturs. Ms. Non-Sequitur is about 90 years old. She wears giant glasses, gold costume jewelry, and 70s-era pantsuits. She tells us about her granddaughter’s German shepherd and how the Evangelicals want to send all the nonbelievers to hell.

One guy sits by himself in a row’s most interior seat. He scowls—at me and at everyone else. His sourpuss is only visible, however, when he lifts his eyes from his Wall Street Journal, which is not that often. Defensively, I wonder what makes him stay in a class that he appears to hate so much. Then I remember that I don’t know what his life is like outside, and I’m glad that he’s around. His attendance suggests an honest, if meager, effort.

After the Keats sonnet, we read Marvell’s "To His Coy Mistress.” This is when the thematic choice of love really began to pay off. Initially, the students resisted the poem’s antiquated language, but they persevered. In the poem, a man pleads with a woman to succumb to his amorous advances. Time’s winged chariot is at our backs, he argues--life is short. Smiles spread across the room as we proceeded through the text. We’ve all heard this from men before, one wizened woman rejoined. I heard a lot of giggles when we reached the section about the “youthful hue” that glistens like “morning dew” on the young maiden’s skin. You can forget that, someone in the room chuckled.

When I asked what the poet could have meant when he recommends that he and the mistress “tear our pleasures with rough strife/Through the iron gates of life,” an avid participant gleefully exclaimed, “He wants rough sex!” His blue eyes, though deeply set in a coronet of creases, were radiant.

Next class, after an all-too-brief exploration of Emily Dickinson’s "Wild Nights!” (With scansion! My professors would be so proud), I gave them Margaret Atwood’s "Variations on the Word Sleep.” I considered this a happy poem, one that could represent for us a transition from seduction to contentment. But the class found it cloying, patronizing, and chimerical. Many did not respond well to the speaker’s earnest desire to protect her vulnerable lover from harm. They had learned, perhaps, that such protection is impossible, and that wishing would not make it so.

I would love to shelter the people I care about from terrible things, I told them. One of my master students, a keen reader and critic, asked, “But can you?” I answered no. Then he asked, “What if my son’s a drug addict? I can’t do anything about that, can I?”

A number of people pulled the poem away from itself (as all readers will sometimes do) and rewrote it. Their “Sleep” was different than mine—theirs was brined with the salt of their experience.

One class remains. The course should have been four weeks, but the final Wednesday falls on July 4. It’s a shame that we don’t have more time.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

A Life in Cars

A Duster was the first car I can remember our family owning. How brown and homely it was. My favorite part was the decal near the tail lights: a little dirt tornado with happy eyes. It reminded me of Pig Pen from the Peanuts cartoons.

The Duster belonged to my dad; my mom drove a red Volkswagen Beetle. My parents were devoted to Beetles and had owned a green one before I was born. I used to look at its picture in an old photo album, this prehistoric car that I had never met.

When I was six, Mom left Dad and drove us away in the red Beetle. The engine made a funny sound—almost like a cowbell. I strained my ears to hear it on Sunday afternoons. “Visitation” had become a new organizing principle; my mother had custody, but my father insisted on seeing me as often as possible. I would watch TV downstairs, and he would stay in his bedroom, reading.

I knew that if I made it inside the red Beetle and had time to fasten my seatbelt, we had escaped the house without a scene. (I remember a particularly nasty argument when my mother started arriving at 5:45 instead of 6:00. My father wouldn’t have it.) Next, my mom would make the quick left on to Queen Street, never failing to signal. To this day, when I sit at a light or at a stop sign, and I listen to the click of my own turn signal, I feel a tiny bit of mother-calm.

We first lived in various apartments around Woodbury. Eventually, we moved into a townhouse in Marlton, and riding in cars developed deeper significance. Woodbury and Marlton were only about twenty-five minutes apart, but kids' time moves at a glacial pace. I memorized all the signs along the tight bead of road that connected my new existence: I-295 North, Exit 1B/Trenton, 34A, Route 70 East. My dad complained about the traffic. I liked it best when we sat quietly and listened to Fresh Air.

One weekend night, he nearly ran a woman off the road when I was in the car with him. We pulled into a parking lot, and the two of them got out and yelled at each other for ten minutes. I remained in the passenger’s seat, with the window rolled up and my stomach contracting.

A few years later, my mother had a boyfriend who drove an attractive hunter green MG. He had carefully restored it, and he and my mom loved to take it to the beach or to New Hope. She asked him, though, to park it across the street from the townhouse on the days that my father would be around. He agreed to this request initially but concluded that doing so was unfair to him and unhealthy for us, so he stopped. When he asked, I told my dad that the MG belonged to one of my mother’s coworkers.

When I was 14, I told my father I didn’t want to talk to him any more, but I didn’t stick to that resolution. The first visit after our rapprochement, we stopped at an Encore bookstore, and he drove over a curb as he parked. He hastily backed up. The Duster was long gone by then; he currently leased a gray Nissan Sentra. It needed a wash, and the door locks stuck.

Driving itself didn’t interest me. I rode a commuter train to high school in Philadelphia, and I took the subway everywhere in college. I got my first car the summer after sophomore year, a used burgundy Honda Accord. My mother didn’t feel like driving me everyplace, and she wanted me to get a job. I complied, and on my days off I used the car mainly to get to the Speedline station; I wanted to see friends in the city. I would only drive to the one who lived in Society Hill, just on the other side of the bridge.

I met a hunky fling in a downtown café that summer. He was from Syracuse, but he had recently joined the Navy in order to “straighten himself out.” His aqua Chevy Vega needed constant service, so we spent a number of muggy nights in the parking lot of the Sears Auto Center, drinking ICEEs from the little cafeteria housed in the main Sears. I liked the cherry ones.

He tried to show me how to change a tire once. You might be out with your girlfriends one night, he told me. What would happen if I got a flat, and he wasn’t around? While I thought he was sweet to offer, inwardly I judged. His gesture seemed quaint, provincial. On what possible occasion would I have a tire to change? I couldn’t imagine living in a place where I couldn’t take a train anywhere I wanted to go. I felt beyond suburbia and wrenches and jacks.

I still have yet to change a tire, but in my late twenties, I did move to a place where it was necessary to drive each day. This was new for me, and I definitely felt more at home in the passenger's seat. I discovered that I couldn’t handle driving’s constant stimuli and its sudden, unpredictable threats. As I squeezed the brakes, my breathing turned rapid, and it came in great gulps. An intersection in a busy area could cause me to palpitate.

My dad’s manic depression may explain it; I had gotten in the habit of thinking I could be attacked at any time. Another driver cutting me off or not letting me on a highway ramp summons the old fear, the old vigilance. I liked trains because they were more predictable, and most of the time, someone fairly trustworthy is in charge.

I painstakingly rehearsed the new route to work, gradually introducing myself to each half-mile. Repeated exposure helped, and I slowly adjusted to the randomness of the wheeled world.

My driving is mildly enjoyable these days. My current car is a cobalt blue Acura. I like the satellite radio and the hidden compartment for change. It has some scratches on the front bumper—I have inherited my father’s knack for parking, apparently. Whenever I slip into the driver’s seat, I involuntarily toss my purse lightly into the back, exactly the way my mother used to do it.

***My sincerest congratulations to david for rising to the Nantucket Limerick Challenge!
(He is poetry in motion as it is.)***

Friday, June 8, 2007

When in Rome

In the interest of preserving conjugal felicity, I decided to forgo a full blog entry this week. Patrick and I are in Nantucket to celebrate our fifth wedding anniversary. Since he and I spend enough time at home patiently waiting for the other to detach his/her eyes from a monitor, I thought I would offer a brief pictorial and present a challenge instead:

You are familiar with Nantucket and limericks, right? (If not, a quick Google will tell you all you need to know.) Should the creative urge strike you, compose a Nantucket limerick. Or a limerick about any subject. I'm on vacation.

Leave your limerick here as a comment. If you want to collaborate with other writers, contribute one line and see what happens.

There will be recognition and prizes for all participants. At the very least, I promise to oooh and aaah.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Hurricane Chloe

June 1 marked the official beginning of hurricane season. Four have visited my neighborhood since 2004—Frances, Katrina, Rita, and Wilma. With the exception of Wilma, all of their barks proved worse than their bites (at least while they stopped here).

Stormwise, the fall of 2005 did not relent. Patrick and I were not prepared to go without power for so long. It took us two hours to boil water for morning coffee. We first lit a tin of Sterno for heat, which worked about as well as rubbing two sticks together. We switched to a candle. Sable ashes spilled onto the floor.

Not surprisingly, next Christmas we gave each other a propane grill and an outdoor fireplace. We also purchased the Black & Decker StormStation: a small rechargeable generator with a radio and a lamp. But the 2006 season passed quietly. Nature abhors a plan.

Last week, Patrick encountered a six-month old golden retriever in need of a home. Her face reminds me of a dolphin’s—this is likely because of her long nose. She moves about the house like an ebullient baby cyclone. We named her Chloe.

We used to talk about a dog the way we talk about a baby: it was a “some other day” project, infinitely postpone-able and conceptual. But Chloe’s here now; she engenders a profound sense of nowness. She buries her head deep in the sofa cushions, and she mauls my purple socks (ugly, anyway). She tries desperately to befriend Sybil, our cat. Via strong hissing, Sybil has made it clear that she isn’t interested.

Some Atlantic hurricanes begin as minor disturbances in the “Intertropical Convergence Zone,” a band of low pressure that circles the equator. This explains why Florida and the Caribbean are such popular landing spots. When a storm gets “organized,” as forecasters describe it, I scan the website of the National Hurricane Center for information. In addition to the Saffir-Simpson scale, it measures hurricanes in terms of millibars, or units of air pressure. I’m always temporarily mollified when I hear the word “millibar.” Anything that sounds like a piece of candy can’t be harmful, right? The lower the number of millibars, the more powerful the storm is, but before I have the chance to remember that principle, I automatically assume that a shrinking number is a good sign. I’m never correct in this assumption. I await the NHC’s advisories (issued every three hours) and avidly monitor the column of strike probability percentages.

These are all the things that I do. The cane comes if/when it comes.

Similarly, Sybil seems to think that if she watches Chloe closely enough, she can prevent the unruly intruder from disrupting her well-ordered kitty life. Sadly, this is not true. She climbs the three-quarter wall in our kitchen anyway and stares balefully down at us and at the dog. Her lemur eyes track every canine movement.

Chloe was the name of an Atlantic hurricane in 1967. She was born in mid-September off of the coast of Africa. She was headed towards North America, but she bumped into Hurricane Doria and retreated east, eventually hitting Spain. She reached a minimum pressure of 958 millibars and achieved a wind speed of 95 miles per hour. She was a Category 2.

Hurricane Wilma snapped one of our palm trees in half when she arrived. Yesterday, in the backyard, I showed Chloe how to play Tug the Frond. She gripped the palm leaf tightly between her little jaws and pulled.