As if I don’t spend enough time at school already, today I substituted for an Introduction to Poetry class and later gave a presentation to some aspiring teachers about how to make poetry fun. Right.
For Intro to Poetry I talked about the confessional poets, not so much because I like them but because I enjoy telling people that Robert Lowell, founder of the “confessional movement,” didn’t mean poets should actually run around confessing all their tawdry secrets. He just meant the poems should sound like confessions. Whoops. He must have looked at Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton as a two-headed Frankenstein’s monster.
When I read Plath’s “Daddy” to the class, I gave myself chills. She was one of the first poets I loved, and I’ve been bad to her lately. I have an idea for a T-shirt that depicts her lying with her head in the oven, and the caption reads, ALMOST DONE. The other day I tried to change the name of my band to Sylvia Platitude. This is no way to treat someone who was once so important to me.
Anne Sexton I’ve never liked much. When I said this to the class, a nice girl seated in the very middle said, “She’s my favorite poet of all time.” I told her I was sorry.
Then I had to figure out how to do the impossible and make poetry fun. The worst thing you can do is talk about how important poetry is. In reality it isn’t all that important. It doesn’t save lives very often (except perhaps the lives of the poets themselves — a fact negated by all the poets that poetry has actually killed). It’s not often inspirational. It doesn’t topple regimes or bring justice. It’s not penicillin. It’s not timeless, because poets fall in and out of favor, and most poems disappear the moment after they’re written, and anyway the whole planet will be devoured by the sun in a few billion years, and when that happens, no one is going to run around screaming, The poetry! Save the poetry!
And, of course, poetry didn’t save Plath. All that relentless self-exploration must have been a trap. But was it any more of a trap than marriage or children or love?
Guess what I saw today: my name on a tombstone!
The stone was in the back of a pickup truck beside me at a red light. First I just saw the SON, and I thought, Wouldn’t it be strange if my name was on there, and then I pulled up and saw ANDERSON. In my stomach something turned. In my soul something rolled over and woke, started to stretch.
Also in the back of the truck were a shovel and a bucket of tools and a hand winch, I presume for raising and lowering the stone. I’d never thought before about how heavy a tombstone must be.
The stone was what my friend Matt would call a “two-seater”: family name on top, room for a husband and wife underneath. A stack of two-by-eights blocked my view of the individual names and the dates. What were the planks for? To slide the stone down if the winch failed? And what were the dates they concealed? How many days ago had someone died? How long does it take to make a tombstone?
I read somewhere that they carve them with lasers or high-pressure water guns now, not chisels. It’s hard to imagine water cutting stone, though of course it does just that all the time, over millions of years, making rivers, canyons, lakes, oceans.
Then the light was green, and the truck turned left, and I went straight. I felt as if I should follow it. Where are you going? I could ask the driver at the next light. Come with me, he might say.
My son Ethan and I are having a guys’ weekend while my wife, Jen, takes Ethan’s twin sister, Calliope, on a trip. Tonight we will watch the horror movie 28 Days Later.
Ethan is fifteen years old, and I’ve been training him for the zombie apocalypse since he was about eight. Whenever we have to wait somewhere while Jen and Calliope engage in their silly girlish nonsense, we quiz each other on zombie contingency plans: What kind of weapons could we make? What would we do for food? Could we secure this room? If we’re in a Walmart, we’ll be OK, of course. Home Depot is surprisingly safe too, especially if you’re good with your hands.
I showed Ethan the zombie spoof Shaun of the Dead first; start with humor, I always say. Then the Romero films that matter, Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. Then Day of the Dead, just because it’s Romero. The modern remake of Dawn is nearly perfect, and better than the original, which devolves into camp once the bikers arrive. Ethan’s read The Walking Dead graphic novels, and the new TV series based on them is good, if a little graphic, with all the stringy hunks of meat and loops of intestines.
The creatures in 28 Days Later aren’t exactly zombies, but they’re close enough, and their speed makes them frightening in a different way. Ethan and I debate which we find scarier: the dead that chase you or the dead that patiently wait.
The secret of all monster movies, I tell Ethan later, turning for a moment into the professor I pretend to be at work, is that the humans turn out to be the real monsters in the end. I tell him this, but I can’t bring myself to look at him when I say it. Then we’re in the car, driving to Golden Corral for the buffet. We’re eating all we can.
Our guys’ weekend finishes with breakfast at Hazel’s Family Restaurant. I have the most delicious, worst-named breakfast of all time, “The Meat Sensation” (the quotation marks are right there on the menu): a skillet filled with hash browns, bacon, ham, sausage, and two eggs fried hard, with a side of wheat toast, as if that makes everything all right.
Whoever came up with this name was either the least creative person on the planet or simply exhausted from naming so many menu items. Sometimes I imagine he was just a guy who loved meat. Give me meat, he’d say. What kind? the waitress would ask. The kind that used to be moving around, he’d say. Sometimes I think he was just a cook who hated the order slips, the waitresses, the wreck his life had become. And so I don’t begrudge him the sneer pulling at the corner of his mouth whenever he sees on the ticket that another genius wants the Meat Sensation.
Hazel’s opened in 1945. They used to sell something called a “Hoffie.” In the black-and-white picture on the menu, the sign reads, “It’s a snack in a sack!” Maybe it was invented by the same cook. Maybe he’s immortal, serving out his sentence like Sisyphus and his rock.
When I was a boy, my father would bring me here on Saturday mornings if he didn’t have to work in the mill. No Meat Sensation for me in those days, just one of those miniature boxes of cereal: Froot Loops, Frosted Flakes. The waitress would rip the box open and pour the milk right into the wax paper. So sensitive was I that the torn boxes made me sad, but I didn’t say a word, probably because I didn’t want anyone to know how I felt. Who needs another sensitive boy?
For breakfast today Ethan eats three pancakes the size of his head while I devour the Meat Sensation. In the back I hear the cook’s radio, a sound that might be the Browns pregame or talk-show laughter. I hold my glass of water in my hand and think of my father, whom I have not spoken to in weeks.
Today on my desk I found the copy I made of three John Berryman poems for my Intro to Poetry gig. I’d never thought of Berryman as a confessional poet, but I love The Dream Songs for all their strangeness, and I thought maybe I could talk about them alongside Lowell and Plath. But then I let myself get sucked into the abysmal, whining, screaming vortex of Sexton, and we ran out of time.
I’m not saying Berryman is good — I’m not saying any poetry is good — but lines from Berryman come to me when I’m just walking around, pretending to be a decent human:
. . . What wonders is
she sitting on, over there?
— which may be the filthiest line of poetry ever written. How well it works on me! How it turns me inside out! How it speaks to brute lust, to dirty longing! How much and how often I want to know the answer to that very question! Berryman had many affairs. I’ve had none myself.
Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
And, later in that same poem:
literature bores me, especially great literature,
— because I can barely read anymore. I am a ruined reader, devastated by my own jealousy of others’ success. I can barely see a word without cursing its existence on a page, in a book, in my mind.
There sat down, once, a thing on Henry’s heart
— which of course I read as “a thing on Eric’s heart,” though I don’t know what that thing might be, save for the fear that, even given “a hundred years & more, & weeping, sleepless,” Eric will never make good either.
I’ve never had any luck with diaries, though I’ve tried off and on. My first ones were written in little notebooks we could buy at the Windsor Elementary school store. They were gray with a kind of rubberized finish and some dingy gold embossing that read, “The Cleveland Flux Company.” What the hell was flux? We didn’t know. On the cover a hand held what looked to be gold bars.
My wife has one of these notebooks, which she stole from my mother’s house. Inside I listed the eleven requirements people needed to meet if they wanted to be in a club I was forming. Some highlights:
Must address others by code names.
Everything is to be voted on.
All members must bring their own bomb.
Not long after that the diary ends.
My next diary was a Daily Log my father brought home from the mill, with dates on every page, a place to list materials, and a conversion chart in the back. Somewhere in it I fall in love with Charlene Dziak, whose mother tells my mother I’m not allowed to date her, and I swear that someday I will, though I never do. There is also a long passage where I detail a dream that I’m in Upstate New York with my cousins, who are being chased and killed. I swear that if this ever happens I will stop at nothing to avenge their deaths. Some of them are dead now, their deaths, of course, unavenged.
Throughout my twenties I wrote in small daily planners. Just a few lines each day, I’d beg myself, but I rarely got past February. Mostly they contain entries like “Didn’t write anything today. Again.” Many are cryptic: “The carrot works . . . so far!” And: “Guy at beach: no one cares about my shirt!”
It’s as if I was trying to hide my life from myself.
In my thirties I produced just scraps of paper with random ideas for subjects to write about, flashes of inspiration so important I had to jot them down and thereby doom them never to develop.
I’d like to go back to making vows. I’d like to be that special idiot again, so convinced that he mattered in the world.
Mike’s dad died last night. Mike is my friend and bandmate. What an asshole I am for even writing about this, but there you go. The day needs its words. And in some ways I can justify it. I owe it to my imagined audience, to myself as a writer, to honesty, to Mike, and to Mike’s dad, whom I met only once, at his grandson’s birthday party: Everybody was outside on the patio except for Mike’s dad, who was stuck inside because of his illness. The whole afternoon I’d been avoiding the end of the patio by the door because I knew he was there, and those situations — someone sick, someone dying — have always made a coward of me. But I looked up and saw him through the screen, sitting in some kind of mechanical chair, wearing an oxygen mask over his face. I thought of the scene in The Empire Strikes Back when we glimpse the back of Darth Vader’s head without his helmet on. Then Mike’s dad smiled behind the mask.
Today Mike wrote me an e-mail trying to quit the band (I wouldn’t let him), and he said, “Now everything’s going to be different around here.” I wrote back, “But some things will still be the same.”
“This is my dad,” Mike said at the birthday party, introducing us.
“It’s nice to meet you,” I said.
That smile again, behind the mask. “It’s nice to meet you, too.”
November 25, Thanksgiving
My first thought when I sat down to write today was to thank people, but because I tend to think in opposites, my next thought was to write about No-thanks-giving, a holiday I’ve just made up. It could begin with the Indians saying, “No thanks, Pilgrims! Have your little feast without us! Eat it all, and spend the winter starving to death, please!”
No-thanks-giving could be a national day of protest, when friends and neighbors refuse to do things together. They could refuse to watch the Macy’s Day Parade, for instance, or the Detroit Lions versus the Green Bay Packers. No thanks, Black Friday! No thanks, news! No thanks, Mom and Dad and grandparents and children! Fend for yourselves today! There’s frozen pizza in the fridge!
I don’t like the look of Thanksgiving food: The turkey’s birdness. The ham like a thigh on a platter. The nuggety sweet potatoes. The shitty color of pumpkin pie.
I had an altercation with a clerk at the gas station today. I let Ethan carry a six-pack of beer from the cooler, and the cashier said, “He can’t carry that,” and I said, “He only went from here to there,” and she said, “Well, it’s illegal.” I said, “OK,” and she said, “I just want you to know he can’t do that.” I said, “OK,” and she said, “We could get in trouble.” And I said, “Look, either sell me the beer or don’t.”
I say no thanks to Ethan seeing me that way. No thanks to him telling that story to his own son someday on some other No-thanks-giving beer run.
Out of spite the cashier was extra nice as I left: “Have a nice day! Be careful driving out there! Hope you have a really great holiday!”
Fuck you, I wanted to say.
I carried all the beer, and Ethan got some ice from the cooler, and we drove back to the party.
Today Jen asked, “Do you think they have all our fingerprints on file?”
“Absolutely,” I said. That’s a word I use a lot these days, and I’m annoyed every time I do, but I can’t seem to break the habit. I reminded her how, when we were kids, they told us we could be kidnapped at any moment, and they told our parents it would be a good idea to fingerprint us, just in case. They gave out home child-identification kits.
“The government still has all those prints,” I said. “We just gave that information away.”
“My mother kept my prints,” Jen said.
It doesn’t matter, I told her. They can find out anything they want to about us already. Think of all those coupons Target prints on the back of our receipts, always for items they know we need. Privacy is dead.
Calliope came in and asked, “Do you think the government has all our fingerprints?”
“No, baby, I don’t think so,” I said. Then I heard myself, and I checked my internal bullshit meter and found that I honestly believed both things. (George Orwell would call this something like “double-un-think.”) I wanted Jen to believe that the world is a frightening place and we are constantly manipulated by forces we neither recognize nor understand, and I wanted Calliope to believe that the world is not such a terrible place and some beauty and privacy still exist.
And yet Jen already knows enough about the world to be wary, while Calliope probably needs to be more wary. Last summer she wore shorts so short that a security guard at the Statue of Liberty looked at her and then at me and said, “Whoa.”
Maybe both of my explanations were an attempt at love.
God is a bowling alley. When all else fails, there will still be the bowling alley, the balls, the pins, the lanes, the lines, the pro shop. There will be the weird machines for polishing and cleaning balls, the vending machines, the gum-ball machines filled with lonely doodads. There will be the racks of shoes, the souvenir towels, the league president, the league vice-president, the league secretary, the election at the end of the year in which no one wants to run. There will be the girlfriends and wives and kids doing homework at the tables in the back. There will be the snack bar and the assortment of microwaved and deep-fried foods, the bar, the top-shelf liquor, the novelty beer bottles shaped like pins, the guy in the back who fixes breakdowns, the girl at the desk who calls in the breakdowns and makes change and gives out the souvenir towels. There will be the waitress who is so fabulous-looking my wife would have to be proud of me if, by some miracle, I found myself banging her in the bathroom. She’s blond, tight jeans, perfect everything. I can’t even bring myself to ask her name. I just say thanks when she brings me my Scotch and ginger ale, top shelf, tall glass.
Many’s the night I’ve hated bowling, but now I sing its praises. I don’t practice anymore and have only one bowling ball and shoes that are fifteen years old and no wrist brace and no excuses, but I sing the praises of the lane. I wish Walt Whitman could have written about bowling. There’s no place more American than a bowling alley — all our faults on display, our limited beauty. Of the sound of the ball I sing, of the explosion of pins, of the sweet hip shimmy of old men coming back down the approach, of the fist pump, the small victories that become our best songs, the three-in-a-row turkey, the made-split miracles, the smooth oiled lane to slide down at the end of my life. What belongs to the alley belongs to you, and to me as well. I want the acoustic tiles to reverberate. It’s all beauty for me tonight, and nothing, not even the news that bowling is a dying sport, matters. If it doesn’t last another ten years, so be it; I myself may not last that long. My life is the ball heavy on the tips of my fingers and the ball rolling down the lane; it is the spin, the revolutions, the drive; it is the ball arriving, the moment of impact, all that sound, all that silence, and then the ball coming back.
A different version of this essay appeared in The November 2010 Project, a hand-stitched book published by chapbookpublisher.com for which thirty writers wrote three hundred words each day for one month.