Too obvious, I know…

One of the first short stories I wrote was a dark piece about a homeless man who took refuge in a cold city church only to become the subject of debate for hypocritical Christians one Christmas Eve. People fought, hypocrisy and self-righteousness battled, and the right characters played the roles of good and evil. As the story reached its end it was obvious – too obvious – that the poor homeless man had to die.

What made me reluctant to give it a different twist was that it really happened that way, sort of. There was a homeless man who died after being thrown out of a Chicago church one cold Christmas Eve. Everyone who read the news story was mad, indignant, and guilt ridden by the story, but the church had no comment. It all sounded too good (or bad) to be true except in the sterile reporting it received. It was too obvious. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but it is also, often, more obvious as well.

Today my story, In the Bleak Midwinter, has six different versions – six different endings; and it hasn’t seen the light of day. It probably never will. I go back to the story every once in a while to remind myself of the struggle with being too subtle, too cute, too obtuse or too obvious.

a obvious 1

I’ve learned that obvious is easy, but a good obvious is difficult.

Yet, there are times when obvious is precisely what is needed – to confirm, reassure, comfort, and please (instead of tease). There needs to be a happily-ever-after, closure, good triumphing over evil, right over wrong every now and then because there’s little inspiration in defeat – in constant and unrelenting defeat. The only alternative is to mock it – to mock defeat, with the obvious.

So when Not Today started, I knew – I just knew – it was headed nowhere.

Not Today

You know those days when you wake refreshed,
as if it doesn’t matter how late you went to bed,
how much caffeine you had after whenever,
the pepperoni or spicy curry and too much bread
rested peacefully in a grateful belly all night long,
and good news was the lead story in the paper,
no bills were due, the bank where you keep it all
wasn’t robbed and doctors admitted bacon and eggs
was, again, the breakfast of champions;
you know those days when you don’t stub your toe
on that brick of a doorstop painted by
your daughter and therefore can never be cursed,
and your shirt was already ironed and the room was
bright enough to tell if socks were brown or black;
you know those days? Well, that’s not today.

So, I apologize for being too obvious… sort of…

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Mighty Casey and Poetry and War…

mighty-casey-advancingBorn and raised a Chicago Cubs fan was more a way-of-being-in-the-world than just liking a team. We knew what it was like to win and lose, and mostly what it was like to lose. We knew that there was life and there was baseball and that life wasn’t baseball and baseball wasn’t life. They never competed in my young world, they never had to; it was never an either/or and it wasn’t as simple as both/and.

We knew something that didn’t make sense to the people of Mudville; we knew it more, it seemed, than Ernest Thayer, author of Casey at the Bat (1888). Maybe there wasn’t much to life back in 1888 so baseball was all they had; who knows.

The Outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day:
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play.
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game.

A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to that hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought, if only Casey could get but a whack at that –
We’d pit up even money, now, with Casey at the bat.

So Blake and Flynn batted before Casey, and no one expected them to get on base, let alone on second and third; two outs, two on and Casey was up.

Then from 5,000 throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;
It knocked upon the mountain and recoiled upon the flat,
For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.

With swagger and his intimidating routine, Casey was recognized by everyone. With his bat ready, the pitcher threw and Casey watched as the umpire called a strike – strike one. The crowd yelled insults (blaming the umpire as Casey waited for his pitch). Casey readied for the next pitch and took another strike – strike two.

The sneer is gone from Casey’s lip, his teeth are clenched in hate;
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate.
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey’s blow.

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville – mighty Casey has struck out.

We learned Casey at the Bat in school because the teachers thought we’d actually want to learn poetry if it was about baseball. Why? Because, as Ms. Martin said, “That’s all you boys do is play baseball.” But that wasn’t all we did, and baseball didn’t make us want to learn poetry. We learned poetry because we had to, because our teachers told us to, but we played baseball because we wanted to, like we were Cubs’ fans – because we wanted to be.

Some people didn’t get it, like Grantland Rice (the guy who said the line about it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game) who couldn’t stand losing so much that it bothered him that Mudville was joyless. So, he wrote Casey’s Revenge. Ms. Martin tried to get us to learn that one too, but we were so lost after Casey at the Bat that she gave up.

There were saddened hearts in Mudville for a week or even more;
There were muttered oaths and curses- every fan in town was sore.
’Just think,’ said one, ‘how soft it looked with Casey at the bat,
And then to think he’d go and spring a bush league trick like that!’ 

And it was too depressing, according to Grantland Rice, for Casey to stay struck-out, like it was too depressing for some Americans to see body bags coming home, soldiers dying in rice paddies, and the Vietnamese embarrassing us all on the CBS evening news. Rice said that it was wrong to leave Casey with the nickname ‘Strike-Out Casey,’ just like it would be wrong to most people for America to have the reputation that we lost the war in Vietnam. Instead he thought we needed a ‘wait-til-next-year’ revenge story.

All his past fame was forgotten- he was now a hopeless ‘shine.’
They called him ‘Strike-Out Casey,’ from the mayor down the line;
And as he came to bat each day his bosom heaved a sigh,
While a look of hopeless fury shone in mighty Casey’s eye.

This time a crowd of 10,000 (twice the number of Thayer’s crowd) gathered for redemption; the tragic loss, and Casey’s demise from last season were a year behind Mudville. Casey and Mudville would have their day.

All Mudville had assembled – ten thousand fans had come
To see the twirler who had put big Casey on the bum;
And when he stepped into the box, the multitude went wild;
He doffed his cap in proud disdain, but Casey only smiled.

But soon the game turned sour, and in the bottom of the ninth the hometown was losing four to one. The first batter hit a single, the second was hit, the third walked on four balls. Bases loaded, nobody out. But just as soon as hope visited Mudville, it left as the next two batters flew out.

But fame is fleeting as the wind and glory fades away;
There were no wild and woolly cheers, no glad acclaim this day;
They hissed and groaned and hooted as they clamored: ‘Strike him out!’
But Casey gave no outward sign that he had heard this shout.

You know what happened next – one strike, then a second on Casey. Everyone expected Casey to duplicate his strike-out from last season; no hope of redemption from Mudville greeted Casey at the bat this year.

No roasting for the umpire now – his was an easy lot;
But here the pitcher whirled again- was that a rifle shot?
A whack, a crack, and out through the space the leather pellet flew,
A blot against the distant sky, a speck against the blue.

And just that soon Casey hit a grand slam – the ball flew so far it was never found, and Mudville was saved – hats in the air, everyone cheered in disbelief.

O, somewhere in this favored land dark clouds may hide the sun,
And somewhere bands no longer play and children have no fun!
And somewhere over blighted lives there hangs a heavy pall,
But Mudville hearts are happy now, for Casey hit the ball.

Casey is the hero in Grantland’s reversion, and instead of Mudville being dark and depressed, now the rest of the world may be joyless, somewhere, like in Vietnam, but not Mudville. It was more than a wait-til-next-year inspiration story – Grantland Rice just didn’t understand that it wasn’t about redemption, about winning, it was about the living and dying no matter what. It was about that… and baseball.

Morbid, serious, and in between…

There’s an important difference between morbid and serious.

In an effort to seem serious it is easy (too easy, I confess) to hide behind sounding morbid which gives morbid a bad name.

Being morbid is more than sad and depressed – morbid is an art form, practiced by poets, enjoyed by readers, which can easily divide personalities. Seriousness is a conservative refusal to be influenced by happiness or sadness, while being morbid embraces a disturbing, sometimes unhealthy interest in death, discomfort or what the serious call abnormal. I’m fine with the abnormal, and most poets actually, often not so secretly, enjoy that abnormal we all try to avoid about being morbid.

IMG_5828

During some casual dialogue a morbid friend said to a serious friend in the company of a happy friend (with me just there to be me): ‘All children are depressed.’

And that got us talking. My serious friend nodded in agreement (unhappy childhood maybe?), the typically happy friend politely disagreed (but she paused first, which for her happy-self indicated some uneasiness), and I immediately started to jot down ideas.

When I was a child,
my mother found me
sitting on the edge
of my own bed,
feet flat on the floor,
shoes untied,
I was bent over at the waist,
head in my hands,
crying softly
and she didn’t ask why.

When friends ask, “Is that you?” or “Is that how you really feel?!” I can honestly reply, ‘Well, that’s how hearing the words “All children are depressed” made me feel, and that’s poetry.’

Not all poetry is autobiographical. Most poets are cowards living off the grief of others, confusing the serious for the morbid in the manipulative ploy of trying to make others cry. It really doesn’t take much to make someone else cry: children’s hospitals, an infant’s casket, a parent’s death, loneliness (at night, in particular)… those are all the morbid ‘top hits’ of prompts.

I drive by a prompt every day – a children’s hospital:

Just up my street a bit,
far enough but too close
children are taken
for miracles in misery,
last tries before rites,
wheeled in and out
with charts longer
than their years
and time enough to be
cried over after another,
and another,
and another diagnosis
before the final one
that they accepted
long before their family;
it’s a place with a big
empty parking lot
for the few visitors,
where parents make
like a home, necessarily,
tell stories of wishes
others call prayers,
and the children read
Charlotte’s Web
with appreciation.

When a friend’s child died after a life-long illness (and life-long is just eight years), I wrote this for her… for me…

It never occurred to us
that you’d be so quickly gone,
so quickly stolen away, too soon,
too young, too sick to stay.

From that young Billy boy
all toothless grins, always bouncy,
never still, never quiet, until
asleep finally, until morning.

Mama’s baby boy, her
favorite, her only, her child
of tireless days, tireless plays,
tireless dreams of joy.

And now you’re gone,
gone too soon, gone to where
bouncy Billy’s go to be young,
to be true, to sleep until morning.

She didn’t ask me to write this; nobody asks someone to write about their child like this.

But it creates a place in between; that’s where poetry – this type of poetry – lives and dies and lives again – betwixt. I think its realm is childhood, and the fast, fleeting disconnect we either ignore and suppress or embrace and celebrate.

By the way, if you’ve read to the end you might enjoy learning more about a poetry publishing campaign – Poetry Doesn’t Publish Itself at http://www.gofundme.com/callahanpoetry

Whopper and fries…

I don’t like Burger King,
for a lot of reasons but none of them
exceptionally bad – just a matter of taste,
and more recently of health because
I shouldn’t eat at places like that
if I want to continue to do this thing
called living for much longer
the serious doctor told me;
but I just read about a woman
named Janelle who discovered a
bag of cash instead of a Whopper
and fries when she drove away
from her Burger King drive-thu;
it had almost three thousand dollars
and a deposit slip in it and she said
she considered keeping the money
but she was a Jehovah’s Witness
and “Jehovah sees everything” so
she took it back and got her
Whopper and fries instead;
and I shook my head when I read it
because I’m sure Jehovah also sees
Janelle eating a Whopper and fries
and that can’t be good either.

http://abcnews.go.com/Weird/wireStory/woman-bag-full-cash-burger-king-drive-28449995

For the Love of Libraries…

Woodruff LibraryI love libraries. – All libraries, but academic libraries the best.

It’s a love passed on to my children who enjoy that musk of mold and climate controlled stacks, the contrast of well-lit and shadowed quiet, and love to linger in discovery of unknown, unexplored and unread volumes; fingers tracing over the spines and heads tilted to read landscaped titles.

At Elmhurst College one can find A. C. Buehler Library, complete with circulation desk, computers, coffee shop, periodicals and cozy, comfortable reclining chairs – that’s the ‘new’ of libraries. Upstairs and down Dewey is divided classically and almost secretly with thousands and thousands of unread books, old journals and rare collections of dead authors who once-upon-a-time thought this would be what mattered.

In honor of Buehler at Elmhurst College, and King at Miami University of Ohio, Richardson at DePaul University, Little at Davidson College, Woodruff at Emory and so many others we enjoy, I offer At Buehler.

At Buehler 

Quiet is observed – out of courtesy
as much the rule, save those
occasions when questions must
be asked, permission granted
and fines levied, introductions
exchanged and courtesies offered,
announcements broadcast, banter
shared and any other occasion for
speaking out loud while others
attempt to study not realizing
this is no sanctuary for the studious
which is found in solitude and this
is a public place, an open space.

There were days when ‘shushes’
from stern matronly librarians who
dutifully enforced the ‘Quiet Please’
rule were feared beyond all else,
but no longer. Of late quiet is most
definitely to be avoided when
surveying the outer reaches of
Dewey’s obscurity lest one
interrupt lovers embraced near
Kierkegaard playing either/or, or
doing what they shouldn’t near
Kant in pursuit of their own
categorical imperative; treat
the recesses of such stacks as
one would explore Yellowstone
sounding loud noises to fend off
grizzlies (if that even works). 

Hidden away are gilded edges and
rarer bindings protected against the
biopredation and careless scavengers
searching for last minute salvation in
the binge-and-purge that passes for
research and preparation; hidden
also are quaint volumes which
include errata as too often such
pages are discarded like so many
periodical inserts or used to capture
spent chewing gum without which
we’re left with the false impression
of author and publisher inerrancy.

It is to be observed that comfortable
seats of recline congregated four
square outnumber solitary carrels,
while volumes collecting time and
dust – unopened, virginal spines,
and folio pages uncut – await
bibliophiles devoted to word. Voices
echo dimly without interval; casual
words stinging with complaint
of the effort necessary to access
knowledge, decrying inconvenience,
obscurity and complexity – the very
practices once relished as joyful
inquiry. There is a general lack of
goodwill among those who peruse
the page (Studium discendi
voluntate quae cogi non potest
constat.*) These onetime fast
friends of the studious now
explored like greener pastures
find a virtual life on the dating
sites of search catalogs. 

And beyond the Cafe, beyond
the half stacks featuring keywords
of entertainment and event rather
than journal or review, rested a
young man napping comfortably
under his cap with feet propped
atop an empty table, a girl sobbing
softly into her hands near volumes
of reference to be used in the library
only, and a young man stands
exploring that largest lexicon for
the words ‘sympathy’ and ’empathy’
who doesn’t even notice she’s crying.

*Study depends on the good will
of the student, a quality which
cannot be secured by compulsion.

Open the damn box…

When I read a good poem I like to try my hand at writing my own version of the same. Who hasn’t tried her hand at a Sonnet after reading Shakespeare or a wintry theme after Frost? It’s as simple as mimicking the topic, form, mood, or occasionally replying with something different or even angry. It’s immature and maturing at the same time, and what could be better?

With due credit to the poet, Dana Gioia (http://www.danagioia.net/), I offer my reply to this thoughtful and careful piece.

The Present
by Dana Giori

The present that you gave me months ago
is still unopened by our bed,
sealed in its rich blue paper and bright bow.
I’ve even left the card unread
and kept the ribbon knotted tight.
Why needlessly unfold and bring to light
the elegant contrivances that hide
the costly secret waiting still inside?

Open the Damn Present
by James Callahan

The present that I gave you months ago
when we got into our bed,
was wrapped by a guy named Angelo.
and the card was the first I read
because it was ‘For Wife’ and on sale.
In the box is a negligée as thin as a veil
and not flannels or warm woolly socks
so open up the damn box!

I like Gioia’s, but would rather see the second box opened.

Into, not just in…

Of the many grammar lessons from my days at Notre Dame School in Clarendon Hills, several from Sister Marie stand out and have ‘stuck’ with me.

The first was from the day I found myself desperate to, well, ‘go’ (to the bathroom) and danced in place in front of Sister Marie’s desk, begging, “Can I go to the bathroom!?”

She responded, in her stern, calm form, “I don’t know, Mr. Callahan, can you?!”

We’d learned the distinction between permission and ability in ever possible way at Notre Dame School – in church and school, and my sloppiness in either would not be tolerated, no matter how desperate my fidgeting.

‘May’ denotes permission, ‘can’ speaks to ability. I had asked Sister Marie if I was physically capable of urinating, when I was simply seeking permission to exit the classroom and, hopefully, make it to the bathroom in time.

(I should have just wet my pants and lived with the embarrassment, but I’m afraid she would have made me clean up my puddle.)

“May I go to the bathroom, Sister Marie?” I asked with a respectful tone demanded by my desperation.

The second grammar lesson still with me is the distinction between ‘in’ and ‘into’ (not exactly earth shattering, but important in life I’ve learned).

‘In’ speaks of to or toward something – coming in, going in, being in(side), while ‘into’ expresses moving to a point within. The difference isn’t significant (and can be used interchangeably in certain cases), but Sister Marie used a graphic example to illustrate the difference – fire. One does not put one’s hand ‘in’ a fire (unless one is Joan of Arc), but ‘into’ a fire and from that one learns a lesson (keep your hand out of fires, young man, but it proved to be a difficult lesson).

So in honor of Sister Marie, among others, I offer this:

Sometimes
you need to put
your hand
into the fire,
again,
to remind yourself that it’s
hot
and it’s always been
that way.

Oh, and I made it to the bathroom on time that day.

Starting at the end

As a first post on WordPress, I’ll begin at the end… with death… which is where it all ends, after all… so I won’t apologize…

I’m Dying

I’m dying, you too;
we’re all dying
(that’s what makes us
biologic, real, living);
and that’s what makes
me ordinary – nothing
special at all (and, you
too, by the way).

It’s the snowflake
thing; the ‘every single
one is unique’ (which is
not true – repeating
patterns and possibilities
– just not enough time
or data to prove the one
and/or the many).

Since we’re all
unique, and uniqueness
is what each and every one
has in common, then
no one of us – you, me,
him, her, us, them – is (are?)
unique (adjective; one
of its, her, his kind).

Moralists wish
to motivate the
bourgeois, hoi pollio
to aspire, to rise above
the status quo, keeping-up,
all dying but not all living
claptrap that sells
books and seminars.

No matter how
many times we’re told,
how much consolation
we gain from being consoled
by such dreams, we all
are the same in that;
all together, altogether,
all are all alike.

All die because
all live, all are alive because
all die; we all all
face the same doubt
of dignity, of compassion;
because, not in spite of,
our biology.