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Western Pog / Blog

Fourteen

One of my neighbors is a man mentally handicapped by the fact that he has to stand, in his same shorts and T-shirt year-round, outside his apartment and stare at whatever happens to be going on around him. Quite often, because I live diagonally across and a floor above him and because I stay up just about as late as he does, what happens to be going on around him is me standing on the balcony and smoking or sitting inside my screen-door enclosed apartment watching some business on the web, checking e-mails, or even writing on ReverbNation (he's watching me now--it's true), so he watches me a lot.

I used to feel offended by this peeping Tom / stalker fellow.

One day, I overheard him talking to our inept maintenance man. My favorite stalker was saying something about how the men who come to empty the dumpsters twice a week are tormenting him--they torment me, too, with their early morning wake-up call . . . but that's not what guy was on about; neither here nor there. His words went unheeded. The guy who shuts off my hot water at least once a week (unannounced) just kept walking, ignoring Stalker Smith.

I started paying attention, and I noticed that no one paid him any attention. He never has any visitors. There are no parents, relatives, friends, or any other folks who come around to help him out, clean his apartment, or take him grocery shopping. Never. No one.

I can't fathom how he does it on his own or why he was let go, but here he is. (I mean, really, there he is--just a couple dozen feet away and ten feet down, staring right up at me now.)

And no, in case it's the ending you were waiting for, I'm not going to become his volunteer.

There is no God.

Thirteen

The ides of March are nigh, but I'm comfortable enough. No one plots against the emperor of his own infinite nada. (Well, Hemingway might, but he's dead now and that business is in the public domain. More or less.)

What is success, anyway? The closest I've hit on--and don't hold your breath for originality--is happiness. And how any one person finds, gets, feels, and manages to keep for any length of time THAT . . . well, this is just a silly blog on a music web site. I have neither time nor space (nor appropriate context) for that kind of thinking.

I quit one of my two jobs this week. It was the one which provided by far the lion's share of my income. It was a teaching gig--as is the second job. I loved my students. I loved them so much that I waited a month after I wanted to quit to actually do it; I wanted to leave at the end of a term so I wasn't deserting my students in mid-learning. (Speaking of "deserting," I rented a car and took a few of my best students who don't have cars on a 16-hour day trip through Death Valley a few weeks back. That was educational.)

But I did quit, just the same. And some of my former students are now a little shocked. The thing I think they don't realize--and never will if the rest of their teachers do their jobs right--is that teachers are caught between two compelling forces: their students and the administration. (Somewhere in between is the force of self, a far stronger and far less singular force in myself than in any of those who were my fellow teachers at this particular school.) What I owed my students, I gave them. They learned. They praised me. And the administration chafed.

I didn't always (or very often) do things by the book. This apparently caused the administration many headaches. At any rate, they passed a lot of them on to me. And I worked hard to keep them (the headaches and the administration) from my students, who I knew were prospering from what I was offering. It worked, but it cost me, on balance, around 80 hours a week for a paycheck-to-paycheck gig.

I'm an English teacher, but that math just don't fly.

A few other factors played in, but that major imbalance--along with the realization that I needed something else to do and that I'd never have time to find the something else devoting 80 hours each week to one of two jobs--convinced me it was time to call it a day at that place.

One of my (now former) co-workers, a woman with whom I had many wonderful conversations about life, learning, teaching, students, and bad doctors, has written that she will miss me. I wrote that I would miss her, too. She also wrote that she would be praying for me to get an awful lot of work soon.

I'm not sure she quite gets it. It's not for work I'm searching. And, besides, money's easy (and so absolutely ephemeral that pretending that it's hard costs WAY more effort than it's worth). I'm looking for something much bigger, much more substantial, and much harder to come by. I'm looking for me.

And now I'm back out there floating and floating some more, all around the dark spaces and memory's detritus of my own inverted psyche. Still searching.

Happy Ides!

Twelve

Yesterday, it rained for days in Las Vegas.

Today, it kept raining.

The temperature dropped twenty degrees, and it hailed. In Las Vegas, Nevada, my balcony filled up with ice from the sky.

That ice melted pretty quickly in the rain which accompanied and followed it--and in the still-FAR-above-freezing air temperature. But it was there. It was there.

That's it. It was there.

There've been a lot of people here. A lot of people in the past tense.

Ninety-nine percent of them we'll never know. And most of us never want to. (The ones who pretend to want to are academics who'd love to flip someone obscure up in the name of tortuously pulling themselves up a rung on an invisible ladder which they call "respectability," but which is really called "one more goofy line of my vita.")

Eventually, though, I will have been here, too.

I do expect someone to care about that.

But I sure as hell hope I'm not the dead face some dumb-ass grad student uses as a stair-step vita line.

I miss more people than I could ever climb over.

I looked at some pictures tonight.

Yesterday, it rained for days in Las Vegas.

(If the side-stabbing stigmata comes opposite, does that make me the devil?)

"I'm the pain you tasted." --The Prodigy

Eleven

Train tracks imply destiny. The iron rails set a path and leave no room for turning, for last-minute decisions, for even the simplest movements in the name of comfort, or the quick-minded leap to left or right to avoid disaster. The wooden ties, before succumbing to the swelling and cracking against which they are sealed but which always win in the end, confound the imagination with their infinite geometry, side by side, measured length by measured length, following along and securely fastened to the rails up to and well beyond that artistically misnomered place where our eyes fail to distinguish so clearly and pull line A and line B together into an indistinct point C, a C which remains, in spite of its name, still there and taunting us to follow the trail which we know has no end but the oblivion we've imagined for it and which leaves no room for free will, the individual, or all the other collective titles for what it means to be the singular American: the vanishing point. And the whole terrible monotony, as if to keep it safe from any encroaching moment of joy, pain, sadness, ecstasy, anger, or relief, is positioned atop a man-made mole-bulge, a pile of gray rock that serves, beyond its physical functions, to provide one context--occasionally interrupted by the no-space through which bridges stab or the smoother gray of an asphalt crossing--one achromatic limit on the fate it supports.

Throw in the odd dark spot, a few lumps of coal unintentionally deposited by passing trains hauling hundreds of tons of the stuff, and this was the scene of my formative years. This I crossed twice a day, at least, to get to school and home again. This was my playground and the realm of my imagination. I learned to sleep through the sound of trains passing at night. And a neighbor taught me how to use the weight of the rumbling giants to deface American currency, pennies most often, for no particular reason and to no particular end.

This is where I came of age and this, I can't help but be unsurprised, is where my mind still lives, somewhere along those same tracks.

"God, he stole the handle; and the train, it won't stop going. No way to slow down." --Jethro Tull

Ten

Inhale.

Nine

I started teaching back at the big school this week. One student told me a story about continuously punching a girl in the face to draw blood from her nose so he and some buddies could draw pentagrams in blood around his high school a few years back to save it from potential investors who would’ve shut it down. It worked. The investors backed out. He’s the first in his family to graduate high school. The girl was willing. (She, apparently, graduated too.)

My students will be as good as they’ve always been. To pretend that this semester will be different from any of the preceding semesters would be to play the kind of make-believe that keeps people doing this and writing useless papers about it.

I don’t mean to be so negative. I do know I’m doing all right. My students tell me so in many ways. I get superb departmental reviews every semester. I’m a winner on ratemyprofessor.com (even got a chili pepper last semester, for whatever that’s worth). I had two students tell me after the first two days that they really appreciated my teaching style, and two other students transferred to my classes because of what their friends told them.

All of that, though, happens to every teacher. It does. I’ve had students leave me for the same reasons they’ve come to me. And neither direction matters much.

What does matter is feeling a sense of accomplishment for what one does. Sewing socks for soldiers provides a feeling of having done something real. So does cooking meals for the homeless. Talking with your dementia-ridden grandmother while she’s busy dying, feeding a puppy, and sleeping late after talking to a friend into the A. M. hours, they count too. I guess teaching people that they are able to learn on their own does, too.

It does.

I’m done bitching.

But that doesn’t mean I’m done.

There are still pentagrams and blood to be drawn.

Buy the new Matchbox Twenty album. You can pre-order it on iTunes. You can even listen to it for free. I did. It won’t make you any more or less American. It will only help prove how much we haven’t moved. (And we haven’t.) It will only show how okay they are, in the end. (And they are okay.) It will only show that the terrorists have won. (No comment.)

Eight

Today was my last day teaching at FLS. That means it was my last day riding the bus, at least on a regular basis. And that’s pretty good.

I will miss my students, though, and even some of the ones who aren’t mine. One student there, she talked to me every day. I thought she was Korean for a long time because she said “hi” to me in Korean, but she’s actually Thai; she learned to say “hi” in Korean from another student. Even though she was never actually my student, I did teach her “Yup” as a piece of Kentuckenglish.

She cried a little today as I was leaving. And she made me let her read my palm before I left. She looked for just a few seconds, following the lines with her hand. She said I would have a long life. I told her I felt like I’d already had one. She said “Yup. I guess.”

She ran her fingers over a different, shorter line and said I would have power, be a powerful man. I told her I had no interest in having power. She said “Yup. I guess.”

Then she found a tiny line on the side of my hand, a line disconnected from any other. She looked for a minute and looked a little sad. She told me I would be married, but only in my old age. I told her again that I already felt old. There was a Japanese student looking over this whole thing, and she laughed and assured me I was not old. She asked my age; I told her. She laughed some more. The Thai student just returned my hand, smiled, and said “Yup. I guess.”

John Prine once wrote something about peaches that made a lot more sense than what the Presidents of the United States of America ever sang.

I won’t miss the bus, anyway.

Seven

There is one teacher at the English language school where I teach who is roundly disliked by his students and most of the staff. We (and I do include myself here) don't like him on a personal level. As a teacher, though I can't speak from any personal experience, he must be fair because his students don't give him poor evaluation marks and he has worked at the school for upwards of three years. To talk with him one-on-one, though, is very much akin to what a real-life conversation with Cliff Claven, the mailman from Cheers, must be like--something like talking to an extraordinarily self-confident encyclopedia that has all its facts mixed up or, in some cases, just plain wrong.

Because I tend to endure him patiently, this teacher has recently begun to believe that we are friends. After weeks of listening to him blather on about everything from photography to auto mechanics to native Nevadan flora and fauna--and everything in between, about which he also knows next-to-nothing--I was rewarded, I suppose, with some insight into the man's personal life.

He pulled me aside yesterday and asked me (rhetorically) if I was still a student. After a chortle meant to indicate something like "When will I not be?", I said yes. He then asked, knowing where I live because he gave me a ride once about a month back, about housing next to campus. In particular, he wanted to know about price and quality. I answered honestly: both are low. He seemed almost satisfied, but I, for whatever reason, was not.

Unable to contain my curiosity, I asked him why he wanted to know. He said he was asking on behalf of his step-son who wants to start college in the spring. The conversation got around to the step-son's test scores, which seem adequate enough, and his high school GPA, which does not, and I learned that the step-son is Taiwanese. I asked my co-worker, because I was curious about the discrepancy between the good SAT score and the less-than-good GPA, how well his step-son speaks English. He said he didn't know. I thought that odd coming from an English teacher and my face must have shown it. My co-worker was quick to add, concerning his step-son, "He doesn't talk to me."

Classes had already started, so we were by this time late to our jobs and we parted company on that premise. But I wondered for the rest of the day how lonely such a man must be. I still wonder. And I do feel bad about how I've acted.

And I learned today that my fellow teacher who ties for my least favorite (not a tie with the man above; he's third or fourth, I guess) had kicked both a cocaine and a crystal meth addiction before she graduated high school. She ranks so high on my list of least favored because of her regimented and cold style.

I guess I'm still learning how not to judge folks, too.

(Vegas isn't learning, though, don't you worry. I learned today that a law was passed last month banning people--homeless people, almost always--from selling bottled water on the sidewalks on the Strip. The reason? It cuts into the casinos' profits, of course.)

Maybe Vegas and I belong together after all. Anyway, I'll be back at the big school, teaching college again, in just over a week. Better or worse.

R.I.P. Elvis Aaron Presley

"It's now or never." --The King

Addendum to Six

Not much went right for me yesterday: my weekly tennis game was invaded by a few new people who interrupted the natural rhythm I had developed with my normal partner; one guy arrived an hour late and attempted, I suppose by way of egoistic compensation, to take over the whole of two courts when he did show up; and, after tennis ended, I missed my regular bus by three minutes and had to wait an hour for the next one. (I was over ten miles from home, so walking home in the 105-degree heat after having played tennis for two hours wasn't really an option in which I was interested.)

But my day of unfortunate events isn't the point here at all. Because I had to wait for my bus, I did walk, out of sheer boredom, to the next bus stop past the one where I normally catch the bus. At that later bus stop, there was a homeless man sleeping on the bench. He was huddled up under what little shade was offered by the combination of the paltry bus stop awning and the olive tree branches overhanging the cinder block security wall between the sidewalk and the neighborhood just behind. There were only two other people at the bus stop, myself and a woman who, fully aware of the bus schedule and appearing from a gate twenty yards away in the security wall, showed up just minutes before the bus did. Neither of us, as far as I could tell from watching her and as far as I know from being a conscious creature, was at all put-off by the sleeping man on the bench.

On board the bus, though, there was, as there sometimes is, a security officer. The routine job of such security officers is to check the bus passes of those already on the bus and to keep off the bus those who would try to browbeat the driver with words until he or she gave up and let the vociferous freeloader ride. My co-rider and I both having our passes at the ready, this security officer had no work immediately before him and, I suppose, needed something to fill his time. He found it in the sleeping man.

Once I got to the top level of the bus and found my seat, I realized that the security officer down below was talking. His words took a second to form properly in my hearing, but when they did, it was clear he was harassing our sleeping man. "Hey! Get up. You can't sleep here. Hey! You hear me? You have to get up and move along. Get up. Go. Now!"

As he continued, the people on that side of the bus--I was on the opposite side, trying to avoid the sun--all, to a person, pressed against the windows and looked down at the homeless man, presumably stirring now, gathering his few possessions and pulling himself from his slumber so that he might avoid the tongue thrashing of the security officer.

As the show was apparently ending, and as the bus began to pull slowly away from the curb, the people opposite me began to slide back into their normal positions. They did not move silently, though. Rather, they were accompanied by a chorus of "Drunkard," "Sloppy mess," "Asshole," and "Get a job!"

Perhaps it is the result of some misfiring in my own brain, some bad translation between the synapses, perhaps I really am as nuts as I used to proclaim myself to be, or perhaps it is something else entirely, something that has nothing at all to do with me or my perception, but it occurs to me that falling into hysterics over a seven-vehicle pile up on the interstate, an incident involving relatively affluent people and one in which, I later found, no one was hurt (which made it immediately lose much of its comic value), cannot possibly be judged (in any moral sense) as better or worse than vocally expressing one's disdain for the significantly weaker party in the pathetic show of authority detailed above.

Anyway, like I said, I can't see the difference, but maybe that's just me.

"I think I lost it. Let me know if you come across it."

--Lucinda Williams

Six

Because of the term scheduling at the school where I teach, this past weekend was a three-day weekend for me. I decided to spend my short vacation by myself. For 72 hours, I didn't say a word to anyone. And no one said a word to me, too. I just lived for three whole days in my own mind. They say the sign of a really good vacation is that, when you return to your regular life, you feel like you need a vacation to recuperate from your vacation. Mine must've been the best, then, because I'm still tired as hell two days later.

Early this morning, before students arrived and classes started, one of my co-workers asked me how I was doing. Either I mouthed enough of something to satisfy him or he really didn't care and just wanted to get to the second thing he said because he went on and said that second thing. He asked if I had heard about the interstate. Assuming he meant something recent about the I-15 and that he wasn't just asking me if I had caught wind of our national interstate highway system built largely in the 1950s in the wake of national pride and good fortune following WWII (and Korea, even though that one didn't work out so well), I shook my head. He went on to tell me that, very early this morning, there had been a large accident and that all the southbound lanes had been closed for the past six hours. The accident involved three semi-trucks and four personal vehicles.

Well, I nearly hit the floor in hysterics. Out jumped the first guffaw and I simply could not stop the procession of laughter after it escaped.

My co-worker shot me a funny look while telling me, in an annoyed tone, that he had to take a detour to work and that the detour had cost him twenty minutes.

I throttled my knee-jerk response for long enough to say "See? That's what was funny. A seven-vehicle pile-up on the interstate cost you twenty minutes of your life," and then I walked in the opposite direction.

I reckon in no time at all, I'll be on permanent vacation.

"Those that were the farthest out have gone the other way." -- Huey Lewis (with the News, of course)

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