Depression Mud

First Snow, from front yard

I’m busy. I love being busy all the time so I can bitch about how too busy I am and don’t have time to put my feet up ever.

If I could bear to read them (remind me to burn those things) in 30 years of journals I’d find biweekly accounts of how overwhelmed I was and exhaustive recitations of all I had to do: wash the kitchen floor, get groceries, answer twenty parent emails, go to the gym, make dinner, swear off sweets, lose five pounds, plan my classes, grade 150 essays, be up at 5, at school by 6:15 to run off the day’s handouts. I was also supposed to work on the great American poem and if I didn’t—often the case—my life was pointless.

In retirement I have adeptly managed to stay busy. Taught part-time, became a literary translator, started this blog featuring two 800-word posts a month, managed remodels of my study and kitchen. I quit teaching a class last year to take a job developing a university literary translation curriculum. That was fine: four months of too busy to complain about, after which I’d teach the class in January and be too busy again.

Meanwhile, the election happened. Winter arrived. The January class was cancelled. For over a month now, I have not been busy. As it turns out, time to put my feet up does not make me happy.

I know I’m depressed when I spend half my afternoon playing solitaire. I know I’m depressed when my post-election adrenalin rush dissipates, and the idea of more phone calls to politicians makes me want to weep. My Facebook feed is peppered with horrible cabinet nominations, threats to the Affordable Care Act, the environment, civil rights and….a Matsushima Bay tsunami washes over me.

After the election, I donated to the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, others. Now I receive daily emails from all of them and their cousins reporting that the world is definitely ending and they need more funds now. One sent me a photo of the Grand Canyon studded with oil wells. My depression curls up, decides to stay a while. Another round of solitaire. Or are there any new cat videos?

Maybe I should stand down and let the power-crazed Repubs dismantle half the government, all our social programs, ban people of other religions, build a stupid wall, turn our air and water dirty as China’s. Eventually, those actions will come back to haunt them. Eventually people will realize they have no better jobs, no health care, no new immigrants to do the work Americans refuse to do. They’ll wake up and say, oh shit, what have we done? I can play solitaire and watch it unravel.

Then I remember The Lorax:

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.

This month’s ACLU magazine has a photo of Trump on the cover and says, “See You In Court.” That’s the spirit. So this week I made myself call congressional offices to say they should leave the ACA alone until they develop a replacement. (They’re not listening, but what else is new.) I called my Republican senator and told him not to confirm Jeff Sessions for Attorney General or to hold hearings on nominees not yet vetted. I signed petitions and sent emails.

And hey, enough of us were doing that kind of thing to get a response. Republicans were feeling the pressure and delayed some confirmation hearings to allow candidates to be vetted. A presidential transitions expert said the Trump transition is further behind schedule than any other in recent decades. Billionaires have complicated financials and are slow to provide information. I also heard some Republicans are starting to feel uneasy about repealing the ACA without a plan to replace it. Huh. Go figure.

O.K. then. I may have to wade through depression mud to get there, but I’ll keep doing those phone calls.

I started looking for volunteer opportunities in areas under threat. Maybe environmental protection or teaching English to refugees. My neighbor volunteers at a local clinic, says Denver currently has many Eritrean and Ethiopian refugees. This will be a small gesture, the action one person can take. That’s fine, because I believe in Margaret Mead’s famous statement:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

I’m joining the Women’s March (men welcome) here in Denver on January 21. At last report, over 16,000 had signed up. We’ll march “to support social justice, human rights and equality, and to demonstrate that we will be vigilant in protecting these rights moving forward.” It’ll cheer me up. Civic Center at 9 a.m. See you there?

Posted in Humor, Politics | 5 Comments

On My Reading, 2016

                                                                        Literature is news that stays news.

Ezra Pound

A view of Hadrian’s Wall

Like José Donoso, I’ve learned much about life by reading novels. I read nonfiction and poetry too, but my mainstay is fiction. In stories, I get lost to find myself in another’s words, deal with others’ dilemmas, and glimpse the long arc of history.

My self-imposed 800-word, four-minute-reading-time rule for this blog permits covering a thin slice of all I read in 2016. (For those interested, a list follows.) Some delightful finds, like the selected stories of Lucia Berlin or the selected poems of Joseph Hutchison, have had their mention excised. An 800-word piece involves more line editing than writing.

Much of the new work I read was originally written in other languages. Seeing Red, (Spanish), The Vegetarian (Korean) and A Spare Life (Macedonian) are startling and illuminating novels. A Spare Life’s story of twins joined at the temple is dense and hypnotic, the twins’ surgical separation paralleling the bloody fracturing of their country, Yugoslavia. You cannot read a society’s literature and continue to regard its people as alien. Now I need an Iranian novel.

I mostly read in bed, in the last hour before sleep. To ensure a good night’s sleep, they say you should power down all your devices two hours before, and read a physical book. We must specify a book’s physicality these days. Black print on bone-white paper. The turning page. Works for me most of the time.

I tend to alternate books. After the unrelenting intensity of The Vegetarian, I read post-apocalyptic Station Eleven, a fast read in a fascinating world, measured hope at its end. Between two of Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, the stories of two women, their troubled friendship and painful attempts to escape the poverty to which they were born, I read Dunning’s Denver. Italo Calvino said a classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say. None of these may become classics, but they’re worthy reads. Dunning’s noir story is set in 1920s Denver, at the height of the Colorado KKK’s power. The color line of those years runs through my neighborhood. Fact: Denver Mayor Ben Stapleton was a Klansman. He also accomplished major civic projects. It seems no cloud lacks a silver lining. We can only hope.

Waiting for the Barbarians, Memoirs of Hadrian, and Ragtime certainly have not finished saying what they have to say and I’d meant to read them for decades. Another joy of retirement: catching up on your reading. Excerpts from these three reflect my current concerns.

Like Coetzee’s South Africa, Waiting for the Barbarians’ fictionalized country builds barriers against the feared people whose land this was, or the unknown hordes looming at the borders. As all such defenses have in the past, these ramparts soon fall into absurdity.

“Empire has located its existence not in the smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons but in the jagged time of rise and fall, of beginning and end, of catastrophe. Empire dooms itself to live in history and plot against history. One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era.”

So the American empire. Or the Russian. Or the empire of coal. Or of oil.

Ragtime is full of historical characters, including the anarchist Emma Goldman, who writes to actress Evelyn Nesbit and gives—way back in 1975—the best answer I’ve seen for why people voted for Trump:

“I am often asked the question How can the masses permit themselves to be exploited by the few. The answer is by being persuaded to identify with them. Carrying his newspaper with your picture the laborer goes home to his wife, an exhausted workhorse with the veins standing out in her legs, and he dreams not of justice but of being rich.”

Memoirs of Hadrian:

“All nations who have perished up to this time have done so for lack of generosity: Sparta would have survived longer had she given her Helots some interest in that survival; there is always a day when Atlas ceases to support the weight of the heavens, and his revolt shakes the earth. I wished to postpone as long as possible…the moment when the barbarians from without and the slaves within will fall upon a world which they have been forced to respect from afar, or to serve from below, but the profits of which are not for them. …even the most wretched…should have an interest in seeing Rome endure.”

Despite the insights attributed to him, the Roman Emperor Hadrian also built a wall, in Britain, started in AD 122. Local tribes overran it in AD 180, and perhaps a hundred years later, its stones were scavenged to build churches and houses. Portions have been preserved, made a World Heritage site. You can stroll along them, no barbarians on either side.



The List, 2016

The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed

Voices From Chernobyl, Svetlana Alexievich

The Best American Essays 2015, Ed. Ariel Levy

The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell

Dalva, Jim Harrison

Waiting for the Barbarians, J.M. Coetzee

Making Toast: A Family Story. Roger Rosenblatt

Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston

Dust Tracks on a Road, Memoir, Zora Neale Hurston

Dibujos a lápiz, Agustín Cadena

Seeing Red, Lina Merune, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell

Ragtime, E. L. Doctorow

The World As Is: New & Selected Poems, 1972 – 2015, Joseph Hutchison

Memoirs of Hadrian, Marguerite Yourcenar, translated from the French by Grace Frick

The Neapolitan Series: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, The Story of the Lost Child, Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

Denver, John Dunning

The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson

Rilke Shake, Angélica Freitas, translated from the Portuguese by Hilary Kaplan

Our Obsidian Tongues, David Shook

The Best of Connie Willis: Award-Winning Stories

A Long Day’s Evening, Bilge Karasu, translated by Aron Aji and Fred Stark

The Vegetarian, Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith

Yo, la peor, Mónica Lavín

A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories, Lucia Berlin

A Spare Life, Lidija Dimkovska, translated from Macedonian by Christine E. Kramer

The list does not include the books I read in the process of developing a literary translation course in 2016.



Posted in Education, Writing | 1 Comment

Moments with People

Sunflowers along the road to Boulder, 2016

Sunflowers along the road to Boulder, 2016

At Sprouts, a woman and two pre-teens. A boy and a girl, they alternate between picking at each other and asking Mom to buy something. “Mom, Mom, let’s get this.” No, she says. No and no and no. She’s at the checkout with a full cart when the boy brings a package of cookies. At wit’s end, because apparently they aren’t getting it in English, Mom switches to rapid-fire Spanish that is basically “What did I tell you? Are you even listening? I’m not buying another thing so me dejen en paz.” The kids stop immediately. Leaving her in peace indeed, they go to the entrance to wait, still elbowing each other.

Delivering the neighborhood newsletter, I come upon a black family moving out of a duplex on 30th, helped by a brother visiting from back east. “In New York,” he’s telling them, “you can buy a case of umbrellas for $13, take them uptown and so long as it’s raining, people will give you $5 or $10 apiece for them.” I calculate: profit of maybe $140 for a long day’s work in the rain. And since he’s bragging, it must be better than folks do around here.

A couple from Manual High School, Hispanic, slender and good-looking, leave the campus and cross the street hand in hand, scarcely waiting until they turn the corner to pause for a kiss before lighting up. On the alley, a bunch of sunflowers is in full bloom. The girl slides her phone out of the back pocket of her jeans and takes photos of these bright beauties, also brown-eyed children of the sun.

I’ve been idly gazing out my window at Ocho, my neighbor Jenn’s cat, perched atop the privacy fence between our yards. So called because he already lost one of his nine lives, he’s part Siamese and loves high places. He walks the top of the fences, leaps up and down easily. Jenn steps into her yard and Ocho immediately paces toward her, making as if to jump, hesitating, meowing pitifully. She coos, encourages him. He remains on the fence, meowing. Eventually Jenn stretches up to reach him, upon which he scrambles away from her. “Watch,” Ocho says. “I can make her come over here.”

The coffee shop closed so we went across the street to the old Greek diner to meet. “We’re back in America now,” Marilyn says. Basic eggs and pancakes, no lattes or scones. None of the coffee shop regulars join us: I presume they opted for the nearest Starbucks instead. I have the temerity to ask if I can get blueberries in my short stack. “No, honey. We have strawberry compote.” “That’s good,” I say, although I know it won’t be. “You were being too fancy,” the waitress snaps. Yep. Back in America.

I go for a quick swim at the motel. Besides me, there are only a father, sitting in a chair and his daughter, perhaps seven, bobbing in the pool. She has what Henry Louis Gates describes as “good hair,” a loose curl; an angelic face, large shining eyes. Are you coming in, she asks eagerly. If there are no choices, small children are not particular about who they play with. Old white ladies will do. Is it cold? I ask. No, she says. I step in. You lied to me, I reprove. No, you just have to get used to it and then it’s not cold, she tells me wisely. As we swim the length and back at a leisurely pace, I learn that her name is Grace and they are from Houston—Ten minutes, Gracie, Dad calls—and they went to Royal Gorge today and tomorrow they’re going to Garden of the Gods, and she really loves swimming—five minutes, Gracie—and after this they’ll go to Yellowstone and look, how the water is warmer here on the deep end by the lights—time to go, Gracie. Ten more minutes, Gracie asks automatically, in the way children do when they know the answer already and have accepted it. You already had ten more minutes. Mom’s waiting for us. Grace, I say, I’ll race you to the stairs. When we get there she observes, you slowed down at the end. Adults always do that.

At the KUVO donor appreciation night, Steve Chaves, one of the DJs, takes us back to the studio for a visit because we’re first-timers. He nods to the DJ on duty, says it’s bigger than most control rooms, shows us the extensive music library. Suddenly he says, “Shh, listen, he’s doing a transition.” We go silent as the song ends. The DJ grins at us. “And now we’re going to hear Etta James doing the Eagles. She’s taking it to church.”

The Eagles have never been so holy.

Posted in Memoir | 2 Comments

Three Weeks

This reminder appeared at our local coffee shop the day after the election.

This reminder appeared at our local coffee shop the day after the election.

Three weeks. Three weeks since 2.5 million more of us voted for Hillary than him and it didn’t matter. I’ve calmed down since then. I’ve been comforted by a gathering of friends for Thanksgiving, good food and conversation. At the table, we signed “Not Bannon” postcards to send to Trump. Richard signed his, “your friend.” I hope Trump gets many.

Some people have made me laugh, including my former student Tim: “I feel like Trump is going to replace the Constitution with the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition.”

I’ve been revived by swift actions many have taken. More than 20,000 donated to Planned Parenthood in Mike Pence’s name. He gets a certificate for each donation. That’s special. Ben was one of those 20,000 and he also thoughtfully signed Pence up for the newsletter. Rumor has it some Planned Parenthood staff were so impressed they put a photo of the Vice President-elect on their wall.

Professor Jim, on learning of a possible “watchlist” to expose professors promoting leftist propaganda: “I presume I will end up on the list for teaching that evolution is real, that the main mechanism of evolution is Darwinian natural selection, that climate change is real and driven by human activities, and that we are living in the sixth Anthropocene mass extinction. So be it.” saw a surge in shares. Normally they get 80-100 a day. On November 8 and 9, “more than 550 people tweeted out poems with 720 people retweeting those links.” Popular poems included Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise.” I have always known that poems matter, that, as William Carlos Williams said, “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” It is heartening to this old poet to hear so many turned to poetry for solace.

I was revived by the grassroots revulsion at Trump’s cabinet and staff selections, by how people drafted statements, listed congressional phone numbers, gave tips on calling. Some were my former students, a generation that doesn’t make phone calls, found it hard to do, but did it. I did it myself, got to talk to real people at Democratic offices, mostly recorded messages at the Republicans. Hmmm…

I was revived by New York Mayor De Blasio’s great anti-hate speech, and San Francisco City Council’s proclamation. Go read them. They’ll cheer you up too.

And I was delighted with everyone who declared, “if they establish a Muslim registry, I’m signing up too.”

More than three weeks. I’ve had time to think. Trump changes positions daily, appoints billionaires who will damage things I care about, like public education. I’ve renewed my lapsed membership in PEN America. Trump’s not holding press conferences, berates journalists. I’m a writer, care about freedom of speech. PEN has for decades fought to get writers out of prison in other countries. Now they’re starting to monitor what’s happening here. In case.

I’ve thought about The Divide. I believe not all Trump voters are racists, hate other religions and think covering our national parks with oil wells is a fine idea. I believe those of us in the struggling middle/working class have more in common than we currently realize. We must make an effort to cross The Divide. I don’t know how yet. In my diverse corner of the world there are no Trump supporters.

December is giving month. This year Phil and I are asking for donations to charities/non-profits in our name. We’re doing the same for those we usually give gifts. (Children get a pass.) I have to support the American Civil Liberties Union: they bailed me out of jail in 1967. Beyond that, I haven’t decided. There are so many worthy organizations trying to protect the environment, immigrant rights, health care, election reform. All of them need volunteers. Look at what Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are trying to do and support those causes. Whatever you care about, now’s the time to step up.

I’ll make what donations I can, call congress people, send letters, repeat jokes. (Ferengi Rules is a good one, Tim.) I’ll wait until this man’s in office, see what precious thing is threatened first and then focus my efforts. There’s a reason Maya Angelou’s poem topped the list: hers is the spirit we need now.

You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

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