Now you've got the chance
You might as well just dance
Go skies and thrones and wings
And poetry and things.
--Neil Halstead

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

The Box Life

I recently delivered my first-born child unto choir camp. All-State Choir Camp, for the uninitiated, seems to follow the same format, regardless of which university it's at:
Bruce said the worst part about
camp (besides homesickness)
was standing up for 45 minutes
during viola choir I was like,
"DUDE! I beg you, do NOT 
say that in front of Eleanor.
She may end you."
  1. Wake up early.
  2. Stand up and sing for 12 hours.
  3. Go to bed.
  4. Repeat for 3 days.
  5. Go home and sleep for a week.
I mean, they do let them sit down to eat, but that's pretty much it. (They claim it has to do with breath support, but, as a seasoned parent, I suspect it also has to do with wearing them out so they're easier to supervise.) In addition to standing, they get to do some hiking around campus in the middle of a Texas summer. Plus, there's a fun dance, where the more energetic and social kids actually dance, but where my introverted alto (I realize that may be redundant) made a beeline for Starbucks and watched YouTube, declaring it "best evening EVER." 

Choir camp registration also starts first thing in the morning (so as to allow more time for standing and singing), so we drove to Denton the night before and explored the downtown area. For those who haven't been, one of the key features is a three-story used bookstore housed in a former opera house. There are nooks and closets and rooms and alcoves and balconies. You could be looking at a bookcase titled "European Period Horror" and look around the corner to find a small room of "Metaphysical Fiction" beyond which is the "Marine Biology and Maths" closet. There was a shelf of "Nude Male Photography" that we walked quickly past on our way to "Philosophical Biographies" and "Blacksmithing."
Really. One wonders whether the wee folk often stop by Denton on holiday from the Shire and whether there was a Hobbit-sized Pipe Lore section we missed by not going to the basement, perhaps in a closet behind a round door. 
Unfortunately, we got there 30 minutes before closing time, so we didn't get too much time to explore. (However, dinner at GreenHouse is HIGHLY recommended. They may not be able to spell bruschetta, but dammmmnnn, they can cook it.) But in that 30 minutes, I was able to find two books on my reading list.

The first, A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini, was beautifully written, compelling, immersive...and just plain brutal. By about page 300, I was like, "I am going to keep reading this book until I finish it because YOU OWE AT LEAST ONE OF THESE CHARACTERS A HAPPY ENDING AND I'M GONNA KEEP READING UNTIL THEY GET IT!" If you count "rebuilding an orphanage after your family is exploded in front of you, you're almost murdered, and you have to abandon your goat" qualifies as a happy ending, SCORE!

The second book, Loving Day, by Mat Johnson, was significantly less gruesome, but just as powerful, though in a fantastical, witty style. The book deals in many ways with the boxes we shove ourselves (and others) into. The main character Warren, who is biracial, looks "white" but identifies as "black" and is constantly trying to pick a side, with often hilarious consequences. When he finds a mixed race group, you'd think he was finally on the path to self-acceptance...but what happens is the group subdivides itself, using a ludicrously sketchy test, into "oreos" and "sunflowers." By the climax, you have a very segregated group inside the walls of the compound being picketed by blacks who feel they're too white and whites who feel they're too black. 

In a way, the book is a microcosm of America. We reduce our identities to bumper sticker slogans and then treat any difference of opinion as a betrayal of the group. Yet, if we were to take a few giant steps back off the emotional ledge, we might start to see that we are too big and complex for the boxes we're trying to cram into, that trying to fit into one category (liberal, conservative, whatever) forces us to dangle important parts of ourselves over the edge. When Warren and his daughter are sitting together, staring down into the id of an empty cellar, you get the feeling that maybe he's finally grasped the ridiculousness of all those boxes and that, ultimately, the only box that matters is love and that isn't a box at all. 
Bob, however, can cram himself into any box and still look adorable.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

The Sound of Music and/ or Muzak

We're a pretty musical family. In elementary school, I played the acoustic guitar. When it was time to pick electives for junior high, I wanted to be part of a group, but I couldn't figure out where my guitar would fit in. I knew orchestras had violins and cellos and such and definitely wouldn't have guitars, so I went with band, figuring that lots of bands had guitar players.

PSYCH!

I found out on instrument selection night that this wasn't that kind of band, and wound up with the clarinet, which became my passion for the next eight years or so. The kids' dad has a great singing voice and took the choir route. So, a love of music definitely is in their DNA.

The kids are taking their own paths through music. This summer, those paths are getting more tangled than ever.

*Specifically: "You're barreling down the road in a metal box
and other people are barreling down the road in their metal
boxes and IF YOU MAKE A MISTAKE, YOU DIE!"
Eleanor, the over-achiever of the bunch, is taking three separate kinds of private lessons each week. Wednesdays are voice lessons. Her voice teacher lives fairly close by, so we're combining those with another very important lesson: driving lessons.

She got her permit over a year ago, but has refused to drive since last summer, being both risk averse and a teensy bit melodramatic.*

Why has she suddenly renewed her interest in driving? Is it the realization of how difficult it is to meet up with friends during the summer when none of you drive? Is it the desire for independence and freedom? Was it that time at dinner when I mentioned, casually, that her little brother would be eligible for a learner's permit in December? I haven't wanted to explore the issue; I'm just glad she's willing to get back out on the road. Voice lessons were an easy start, involving nothing more exciting than the occasional irritated honking of other drivers a tad impatient with Eleanor's desire not to get in a wreck as manifested by driving 10 mph under any given speed limit. This weekend we moved it up to Target, again with no freeways (just feeders). She even managed a perfect parking job.

This week, we'll progress to driving to piano lessons on Thursdays. Yep, piano. She's been wanting to learn for years, and since her current plan is to major in vocal performance, she'll have to learn eventually. Both music theory and piano are supposedly much harder when you take them for the first time in college, so it makes sense. We picked her favorite of the half dozen or so accompanists she's had this year. She is learning from an adult beginner book and is already halfway through it.

The beginner songs all have somewhat whimsical titles ("Popcorn" to teach staccato and "Cat Party" to teach random destructiveness and/or hairballs). For added fun, it comes with a karaoke track of the kind of muzak that would make a free phone game blush. She practices for hours, perhaps under the theory that the faster she gets through Book 1, the faster she can move from muzak to music.

Viola lessons are generally on Sundays. She and Bruce share a viola teacher, and lessons always start the same way: with both of them arguing about who's going first. Why this matters so much I couldn't tell you. My best guess is that Bruce wants Eleanor to go first because he's much more excited about petting Ms. Leigh's four cats than he is about viola lessons, and Eleanor wants Bruce to go first because Bruce wants Eleanor to go first and as the elder sibling, she's not about to stand for that kind of disrespect.
**She's playing the tuba because, as she likes to 
say, "I've got a LOT of air." 
And this is true. Very, very true.

Betty started guitar lessons. She's been eager to learn music, too, and can't wait for fall when she starts band.**
In fact, all summer, she's been complaining about how long summer is and how hard it is to wait for school to start again, which no child in our family has said, ever.

So, when I read about a lady who has developed a dyslexia curriculum for guitar, I signed her up. It's given her something to do while waiting for Tuba Time (aka, start of school) and she's really enjoying it.

Because weekly lessons aren't enough music, I just dropped Bruce off at his first residential music camp today at Texas State. The camp serves 7th through 12th graders, so as an 8th grader, he's one of the younger students.

When Eleanor went to choir camp at Texas State, the sidewalks were lined with overly caffeinated, extremely hyper voice majors, holding neon posters festooned with streamers and loudly welcoming us to choir camp while hundreds of kids milled around singing Beyoncé. (Eleanor almost turned around at that point.)

Orchestra camp was much more subtle. There were some small 8.5x11 copy paper flyers taped to random surfaces. Nerdy string majors manned quiet tables in an extremely organized manner, mostly avoiding eye contact. In the warmup room, every kid was in their own world--at least until they all accidentally stopped playing at the same time and it got dead quiet for about two minutes while everyone looked around at each other, unwilling to break the silence, until finally a couple of cellos started up and then the whole room gave a collective introverted sigh of relief and started playing at once. (Eleanor says this happens a lot in orchestra warmup rooms.) After his audition, we drove to the dorm and found his room.

At this point, Eleanor is usually like, "Don't leave me alone with strangers in a dorm!"

The conversation with Bruce went slightly differently.

Bruce: "What now?"
Me: "IDK, explore? Hang out in the common room? Walk around campus? Just be back by 5:30 so they can take you to the cafeteria."
Bruce: "Okay. Bye!"

I know he made it, because he texted us this picture, which he says represents the highlight of his day so far:
Hi-C and Powerade, evidently. Judging from the glass across the table, he's making friends.
Then I drove home to hear Eleanor at the piano and Betty playing guitar, making music in separate rooms. I hope they carry this music with them the rest of their lives and that it brings them as many happy memories as it brought me.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Seasonal Stupid Disease (SSD), Symptoms

For those who don't know,
thanks to a bone infection,
I now have 9 3/4 toes. 
So, am I an amputee now,
or is it like Nearly Headless
Nick not being allowed to join
the Headless Hunt because 
his head wasn't chopped 
all the way off? 
Once upon a time, specifically any time before January 8, my life was busy, hectic even, but manageable. I had functioning brain cells. Sure, there was work, and kids, and kids' school, and kids' social activities and kids' inexplicable decisions to not mention important school projects until the night before they're due, and cats and writing and stuff...but, still. You know, manageable. 

Then, slowly, the descent into SSD (Seasonal Stupid Disease) began. First, it was just Really Busy Days. But, HEY! Guess what? In mid-February, thanks to some really horrible orthotics, I got a surprise 2.5 week vacation. 

It was amazing! An 18-hour fast, followed by 4 hours of gluttony, followed by another 18-hour fast. Round-the-clock visits from strangers!
Partial nudity! Wet wipe shampoo! Not knowing how much you've spent on dining, entertainment and gauze until a full 30-60 days later! Being stabbed constantly by an insensitive jerk named Carlos!***

That's right; I was in the hospital. 
This is a real thing. During my two rounds of fasting, they kept bringing me these. 
1. Pleasant and refreshing are both very serious overstatements. 
2. This should be obvious by the "for professional and hospital use" bit.
3. In the grand scheme of things, dry mouth really isn't that bad. 
But, all painful, expensive vacations must come to an end. (On the highlight reel: In response to my question about how long surgery might take, Dr. $107.79's compassionately and sensitively replied, "Oh not long...unless I get in there and pus starts squirting out all over the place. THEN it might take a while.")

I started back at work in time for a certain seasonal event to really kick it into high gear. (Hint: it happens in Austin every other year for five months and involves the only kind of bills more complex, confusing, cryptic than hospital bills.)

I couldn't quite get back into the swing of things following my vacation. My inbox hadn't yet made it below 50 (I get stressed at numbers above 20). And suddenly Really Busy Days became Also Busy Evenings, Nights and Weekends. 

Slowly, imperceptibly, I began to notice the manic energy, the ceaseless internal vibration of a thousand Undone Tasks, almost as though I had picked up a major Red Bull or meth habit without knowing it. 
On the inside, I feel just like Bruce here.
Tuesday I got to make my first trip to a Major State Landmark. It would have been nerve-wracking in any case, because I have absolutely no directional ability. The kids will confirm that we have yet to have a vacation in which I haven't gotten us lost. I am also well known for having lengthy, profanity-laden conversations with South African Siri in which I'm convinced that she doesn't understand roads on this side of the equator. (I'm sure I could change her accent, but at this point she's kinda grown on us.) I even got lost last fall in the company parking garage the first time I drove in from the north entrance (I've been an employee for over 20 years). 

Basically, I can get lost anywhere. But I was determined to overcome. I arrived an hour early, only to find the visitor parking garage full. I fi
This space might be sufficient for me to attempt parallel parking,
but I can't guarantee I'd stay within the lines and you can just
forget 18" from the curb.
gured I'd take a ticket and circle, since, ya know, I had AN HOUR. Garage wouldn't even dispense a ticket. I circled around the general area, checking out parking meters halfheartedly because (a) parallel parking earned me a 76 on my driving exam in 1988 and my skills have only continued to devolve from there, (b) most of them had yellow out-of-order bags on them anyway, and (c) I remember working downtown in 1998 and how if you stayed in the same spot for more than 5 hours you got a ticket, no matter how many quarters you fed the beast.

As the kids can tell you, despite how often I get lost, I always get flustered when it happens. I also tend to make really melodramatic pronouncements like, "WHY DO PEOPLE EXIST?" and "DROP OUT OF SCHOOL AND GET OFF THE ROAD, COLLEGE KIDS! EDUCATION IS OVERRATED!" When the kids are with me, this is usually a cue for everyone including me to start cracking up and then I calm down, but my car was child-free. I eventually found a surface lot and made it to my destination, a brisk 20 minute uphill walk away, desperately repeating landmarks in my head so that I could find my way back to my car someday. 

I was so flustered I forgot the Cardinal Rule of such events, which is: you never know when you're gonna be asked to speak, so you can't leave to eat or go to the bathroom. And, most critically, if you can't spare 15 minutes to go find a vending machine, you certainly can't leave to feed a meter or (in my case) move your car out of a surface lot for which your ticket expires at precisely 6 p.m.

So I spent most of the day flustered and worried about (a) finding my car, (b) whether my car would be there or not when I found where it was supposed to be or how I would know if it wasn't, and (c) who I could call to come pick me up if it did get towed.

On the plus side, at 6:24 pm, I found my car, it was still there, and it didn't even have a boot on it. On the minus side, I got a $75 parking ticket. Honestly, at that point in the day, I called it a win.

Three days later, and I still haven't quite shaken that crazed, adrenaline feeling. The work keeps pouring in. Meanwhile, I've got a poetry workshop to finish prepping, writing to submit, vacation bills to pay (I'm looking at you, Dr. $68.27). I've been having to tell people, "Look, just pretend I'm temporarily stupid, and remind me again of the entire discussion we had for two hours yesterday?" In movies, the main character wakes up from a coma and the doctors always ask, "What's your name? What year is it? Who's the president of the USA?" I'm not entirely sure I'd get a passing score on that quiz today.

The good part is, we're half way done with this madness, and then it goes away again for another 19 months and I get my life back.

In the meantime, if you see me, please remind me that the correct answers are: Diana Conces, 1983, and Harry S. Truman.

***I'm pretty sure Carlos came to the profession of phlebotomy following a successful plumbing career, because he was rooting around in my veins like he was fishing for a particularly large hair clog.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Once Upon a Time

Not too long ago, my ex-husband opened an old filing cabinet. In addition to appliance manuals from appliances that were dead before his current appliances were specks of metal in the foundries of their birth and utility bills from 2001, he found an assortment of my old papers. A few from high school that I was proud enough to keep, including a satirical rhyming poem about the Iran-Contra Scandal (holla, 1980s!), an essay on Equivocation in Macbeth, and this treasure:

11th Grade English essay on "Death of a Salesman," 1988.  Probably the nicest compliment I ever got from a teacher, and my favorite teacher at that, Mrs. Paula Bray. As much as I didn't enjoy American literature, I loved that class because she listened and she cared and I felt like she was the only teacher who did.
The high school essays were, of course, handwritten on college ruled paper, single sided and probably rewritten a dozen times to be perfect because UNLIKE KIDS TODAY we didn't get to type them on the computer and had to use ACTUAL CURSIVE WRITING which required levels of concentration and focus that kids today can't even dream of, and yet we were able to accomplish these feats of penmanship whilst listening to Prince and Madonna on our Sony Boomboxes. But I digress.

There are a handful of undergrad papers, too, mostly ones with scrawled complements from professors. One stapled-together packet appears to not have been an assignment. Evidently, at some point I had gotten into a debate with some professor about the nature of poetry and took the initiative to write three handwritten pages entitled, "Some Ideas on the Function of Poetry," and turned it in to my professor, who returned it stapled to five handwritten pages entitled, "Response to Some Ideas on the Function of Poetry," which concludes with the somewhat ambiguous praise, "Well, for whatever my comments are worth, it seems your essay provoked a response, which is a commendation for it." He? She? did not sign the response, and I have absolutely no memory of the debate, the class, or the professor. But I definitely had what a friend calls "lady balls" to lay out a theory of aesthetics as an undergrad to my professor. Props to you, Undergrad Diana!

Not just ballsy but really, really pretentious. "It can never be didactically assumed that consensus indicates truth"??? Present Diana would redline Past Diana's writing with a whole box of Sharpies.  I'm also a little impressed--and somewhat alarmed--by evidence that I was definitely brainier in 1991 than I am today. Past Diana may have written some tortured prose, but clearly she did more with her brain than feed it cat videos and play Scrabble. "The good poem is the poem whose message is the possibility of messages, which communicates the possibility of discourse" was written by the same person who presently struggles to form complete sentences before 10 a.m. 
The grad school folder is stuffed with essays and reading responses. One professor had written letters to two of the authors we studied and they wrote back, so I have copies of the typed letters from Robert Bly and Linda Bierds (the class was called "Deep Image Poetry," and was one of my favorites from grad school). I've always thought of my M.A. in Literature as my "Recreational Degree" since I did it because I wanted to and enjoyed every minute of talking about literature with other book nerds. Of course, now that I think about it, "recreational degree" is a nice way of saying "$10,000 book club with a really fancy participation certificate at the end."

The folder that I opened with the most trepidation was the one labelled "Short Stories." It contains handwritten copies of short stories from seventh grade to young adulthood. How cringe-y can that folder be?

Very, very cringe-y.

"Where the Fir Trees Meet," of seventh grade vintage, is a teen drama occult classic of a skiing trip turned violent, in which a pair of candles are thrown through the air, creating the sort of magical explosion typically found in a Michael Bay movie.

"A Week at the Park," from eighth grade, is a period romantic drama of every period romantic cliche you can fit onto seven wide-ruled pages: the aristocratic woman with the rich fiance that seems desirable but is secretly violent when jealous, who manages to fall in love with a "vagabond" (who somewhat contradictorily has his own house) in a single five minute conversation but ultimately knocks her fiance out with a brick (okay, that's not a rom-com cliche, but it probably should be) and flees with The Love of Her Life to the Bahamas to choose a life of happy poverty as a teacher over boring wealth and respectability.

"Family Reunion" is an Agatha Christie style whodunit, heavily influenced by the game Clue, which I played a lot in junior high, in which a family of eight gather for a reunion at Rainbow House (in which...wait for it...each room is painted a different color because that is totally how rich people decorate) only to be murdered off one by one by (spoiler alert) the maid, who turns out to be their mother who was forced to give up her first child for adoption and thought her subsequent children weren't as perfect as the one she gave away, so she posed as a maid to murder them. Speaking with the hindsight of over sixteen years of motherhood, hahahahahaha. Yeah right. After the second child, your standards of "perfection" get lowered from "actually perfect" to "if I can still see some of the carpet you can probably eat off that floor." There's no way Elsa Jones had eight children and retained any discernible trace of perfectionism--or ever voluntarily posed as a maid.

And then there's "The Castle of Le Breaux." I saw this story from seventh grade and immediately remembered, not the story itself (I think we've established that my memory stinks) but how proud I was of this story when I wrote it in 1983. Seventh grade Diana thought this story was the bomb and that it had a genius plot twist at the end. Seventh grade Diana was partially right--it may not have been the bomb, but it was a bomb. For your viewing pleasure, I present: The Castle of Le Breaux.



It's kind of an accomplishment to cram treasure hunting, creepy castles and alien abduction into two pages of middle school cursive and still find room for a nice, gaping plot hole.

I haven't finished going through the Short Stories folder. There's only so much the fragile writer's ego can handle in a sitting. I may need a week or two (and a glass or two of wine) before I'm ready to tackle sixteen-year-old Diana's essay, "Some Thoughts on Love." You just know that's a steaming pile of teenage angst, although at least it probably doesn't involve aliens, exploding candles, or murderous maids.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Rose Gardens & Hills

Bob has no regrets. He does not regret waking us up at 4 am
to attempt an early breakfast. He does not regret breaking
that owl ornament last week. He definitely doesn't regret
trying to steal our bacon every weekend. Nope. No regrets.
This is because he is a jerk.
A colleague and I were talking a bit about regret the other day, about how the lessons we learn with time and experience are unfortunately not retroactive. As humans, anchored by our own choices into a particular timeline, we wonder always about the paths we didn't take.

I had the wonderful opportunity to participate in my cousin Liz Conces Spencer's exhibition The Drift of Stars last weekend. Several of her works were based on T. S. Eliot's "Burnt Norton," which speaks to the insistent tugging of time on our hearts:

"Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden." 
My colleague commented on how she would have liked to have known in her 20s what she knows now--in effect, imagining the echoes of another path she might well be on today, had she had that knowledge then, and the rose garden (whatever that looks like for her) behind that imaginary door.

Okay, I do regret that perm from 1981.
Even the dog is questioning my life choices. 
I get that. I have certainly said and done a lot of things in my life that make me cringe when I think about them, usually at 3 a.m. when I should be sleeping. But at that point, I always pause, because I like the life I have now, and I'm not sure I'd be who I am without all of the detours and dead ends of the past. I think the rose garden is already here, and is more real, with all its thorns and bugs and dirt, than the imaginary perfection behind the imaginary door.

One of my favorite songs at the moment is Peter Gabriel's "Solsbury Hill." He wrote it to explain how a spiritual experience led him to reevaluate his life and ultimately leave Genesis. The song doesn't have a chorus so much as a refrain: the idea of going home. Home is the final word in each stanza, the place where the forward momentum of the 7/4 time signature comes to a rest. Home here is more than a zip code; it's T. S. Eliot's garden, the place of beauty where our real path has already brought us.

To me, the song is really about agency. There is magic all around us, whether it's the voice of God speaking through an eagle on Solsbury Hill, or that inner knowing that something is or isn't right, or the miracle of meeting the right person at the right time. Yet, all of that magic doesn't transform our lives without our own agency...we can't live off the echoes of imaginary footsteps. Ultimately, we have to take steps in the present without knowing where they will lead us. In the first two stanzas, Gabriel ends with someone else (God) sending the message that he's not yet ready to hear. At the end of the third stanza, he's heard the message and moves from "he said" to "I said," taking action that resonates with his truest self, his deepest sense of home. Pretty powerful stuff.

At the gallery, I had an interesting discussion with one of the artists. She asked me if writing was my profession, and I explained that, no, I had a job with the state and explained what that was, and that writing was my hobby. She corrected me, insisting that writing was my profession and work is just something else I do. I had to stop and think a moment, to try out that new perspective, to look at the garden from a new angle: what would my life be like if I looked at it like that? All my life, I've wanted to be a writer--what Eliot and Gabriel and the artist were all trying to tell me is that I already am.
Available on Amazon.
Coming in 2019


Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Betty That Will Live in Infamy

Betty's birthday leopard print blanket cape,
which she wore to sleep last night over her
pajamas and then wore to school today.
Basically, one of us will have to pry it off
of her in about a month for cleaning and/or
hazardous waste disposal.
At the end-of-the-year conference a couple of years back, I was chatting with Betty's classroom teacher and dyslexia teacher. Somehow, as it does with any group of moms eventually, we got to talking about pregnancy and I mentioned that Betty's original due date was December 7 (Pearl Harbor, the Day That Will Live In Infamy) and I had always thought that was especially appropriate for Betty.

They, of course, were horrified, because Betty is the class sweetheart, who welcomes the new kids, befriends the kids other kids avoid, gives big hugs to the teachers, and generally walks around with a big smile on her face and a huge belly laugh always about to break out. Teachers love her. I love her (of course).

But there is no denying she is intense, passionate, loud, and often surprising. Yes, she hugs you, but she doesn't just walk up and put her arms around you gently and give you a light squeeze. These are tackle hugs. She gets that look in her eye and I look for a wall to lean against, because she's going to run at me, full speed, often knocking me backwards if I don't see it coming, then squeezing the breath out of me. The last few months, I've had to remind her that I don't need the OTHER foot broken.

So, in honor of her 11th birthday, which happened just this Tuesday, here are a collection of Betty's Living Loud and Proud moments.

Betty has always been a fan of accessorizing. She's never outgrown the attraction of mismatched socks, crazy clashing tops and bottoms, and as much bling as she can get. Her style has never been subtle and she has a definite passion for leopard print...leopard print pants, leopard print blouses, TWO leopard print onesies (one of which was a RAINBOW leopard print and was once worn for four days straight over the Christmas holidays and had to be destroyed), and now a leopard print blanket cape. If it's leopard print, Betty will wear it.

Shortly after performing a freestyle dance to Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" at the Fern Bluff Elementary school carnival. This was before she started school; we were there for Eleanor. All the elementary kids were milling around, getting pizza, playing carnival games...and Betty is dancing around the parking lot in front of the snowcone truck.


Here's Betty and Bruce. I have no idea what game they were playing., but they are clearly killing it in the fashion department. Although, technically, all Betty's wearing is the hat, goggles and a diaper. It's a bold statement.

Betty is a bit impulsive. So, whenever her bangs would get in her eyes, instead of telling me, or putting in a barrette, she would go find some scissors and chop them off. She wound up getting buzz cuts three times after butchering her hair. This is Episode #2. She has also done several rounds of temporary hair dye, teal being her favorite. She's an independent problem solver, for sure. I keep telling myself that one day it'll help her run her own empire.

One of my favorite pictures of Betty, swinging from the arch at the Dallas Arboretum. She also was the only child to climb out of her crib and fit her head between the stairway rails. 

On vacation at Port Aransas, a month before Hurricane Harvey. 

Another megawatt smile at the family reunion in Wallis. She's happy even BEFORE winning 10 lbs of candy at bingo.
For her birthday, her father got her a cell phone. She promptly called me and talked for half an hour, about everything from her birthday presents to the layout of her bedroom, to how to spell "available" (It's like, 'Ava, I lable,'). You'd think we hadn't talked in days, instead of just this morning. Five seconds after we hung up, I heard Mom's phone ring...I didn't even get a chance to warn her.

The loudest moments are still to come, though. Betty wants to play the trombone in junior high.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Haiku? Gesundheit!

I am a poet. I write dozens of poems a year, many of them clustered in August (for August Poetry Postcard Festival) and many clustered in the spring (for the Austin Poetry Society's annual contests). I've written sonnets, free verse, rhyme, and even a prize-winning villanelle and pantoum. But there is one form that I just don't understand.

I speak of the humble haiku. Haiku seem, on the surface to be super easy: three lines, 5-7-5 syllables. Some nature and a season. How hard could that be?


I like brevity. In fact, I have a whole collection of poems I'm working on that are seven lines or less. And I love to write about nature. So you'd think I'd be a natural at haiku. I certainly have tried. Faithfully. Every single year. Some of them I was quite proud of.

Bluebonnets growing
Alongside a picket fence:
Ancient settlers here.
(1993)
I mean, come on, poetry gods! There's 5-7-5. Nature. Implied season (because any self-respecting Texan knows bluebonnets are extremely rigidly seasonal). There's even one of those pivot things, sort of. But, no. No matter how many times I rewrite it, no matter where I send it...nope.

Despite dozens of efforts at haiku, I've had exactly two successes. In 2013, I won the adult category in the "Stand Up for Safe Families" child abuse prevention contest with the poem "After."

After

Screaming comes the flood,
He flings boulders from the cliff
Heedless of destruction.

Trapped in the log dam
Child of the river trembles
Hopeless of escape.

His wrath all but spent
Dark river slinks to the sea
Past debris unseen.

In emerging day
River's child finds wobbling legs
To seek out the light.


Now, this one makes no sense. It's not a haiku but a longish poem written in three-line stanzas. There's no pivot. No season. Not all of the lines are 5-7-5. Sure, there's some angry nature, but it's very clearly metaphorical nature, which, I am told, makes it a senryu. And yet, I got to tell my survivor story into a microphone at Lady Bird Lake and walk away with a very nice gift bag.

Then there's this one, which won 3rd place in the 2016 Austin Poetry Society awards.
No moon burns tonight
Stars smolder in dark blankets:
Tomorrow you leave.

So, we do have a rigid 5-7-5 pattern and some nature, plus, at least arguably, a pivot. No season. Just oodles and oodles of emo. Is it a haiku? A senryu? A senku? A haiyu? Free verse that's just pretending?

Clearly, there's something more to the humble haiku.

So, I attended the October meeting of the Austin Poetry Society, hoping for enlightenment from the guest speaker, Agnes Eva Savich, who has had hundreds of haiku published.

Agnes read dozens of her published haiku. And pointing out how many of them didn't follow 'the rules'...but somehow still worked. It turns out that 5-7-5 isn't required, unless it is. A seasonal reference and nature are generally required...unless they're not. A grouping of two lines and one line works, and a grouping of one line and two lines works, but three individual lines or a grouping of three lines does not...unless it does.

Agnes passed around dozens of haiku publications and I leafed through them, looking for clues. Some I liked. Many I just didn't get. Few of them followed all of 'the rules.' And then, at last, I got enlightenment. Not about the nature of haiku. I'm still completely flummoxed by that. No, I got enlightenment on why haiku give me a headache.

Eleanor and Bruce, 2009
He is a sequin-caped firefighting hunter under the authoritarian rule of a princess fairy,
and he is clearly questioning his life choices.
It's because I have children. And I have played with these children. If you haven't had the privilege of playing games with small children, this is how it goes:

Eleanor: ...so you have to touch the ball to your forehead and then run to the wall and drop it in the trashcan six times but you can't step on even numbered boards.

Me: okaaay?!#? 

I touch the ball to my forehead, run to wall, drop it in trashcan six times without stepping on even numbered boards.

Eleanor: I win!

Me: What? 

Eleanor: You swung your left arm.

Me: Was that a rule????

Eleanor: Yes. So I win.

Me: That's not fair. You swung your left arm, too.

Eleanor, patiently: Yes, but I'm the arm swinger. It's okay. You can't swing your arm except if you're on the right side and you're the arm swinger, which I am. So I win.

Me: But last time you were on the left side and you also swung your arm and you still won.

Eleanor, with an exasperated sigh: Look, Mom. On even numbered games the sides switch. Aren't you even listening?

And this is my experience with the haiku. It is exactly like listening to a seven-year-old explain a made up game with more rules and sub-clauses than the average iPhone privacy agreement. They are beautiful. They are creative. And I absolutely don't get them.

That's okay, because the poetry world is a wild, wide exciting place, full of strange and wonderful landscapes. It's big enough for form and free verse, for epics and haiku. I can visit Haiku Land and appreciate the scenery...and then go back to my familiar homeland and write poetry that makes me happy--or at the least, doesn't give me headaches.

Word.