Sunday, February 24, 2008


You lose yourself, you reappear
You suddenly find you got nothing to fear
Alone you stand with nobody near
When a trembling distant voice, unclear
Startles your sleeping ears to hear
That somebody thinks
They really found you.

High on the walls of my classroom I have a number of posters from the Apple "Think Different" series. My high school students generally recognize the portraits of Pablo Picasso, Amelia Earhart, and Mahatama Gandhi. A few may recognize Bob Dylan from the poster reproduced at above, but very few indeed, have spent any time listening to him, seen any footage of him in concert, or have any sense of how much of an impact his music had on his era—and, indirectly, our own— much less any sense of what it is that has made him an iconic American original for close to fifty years now. I've spent part of the day putting some materials together for them to look at, and I've been thinking again about Dylan.

There's a very interesting sequence in Martin Scorsese's film No Direction Home in which footage of Dylan singing "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" in concert is crosscut against an interview with Allen Ginsburg in which Ginsburg says

Around that time he asked me if I wanted to go with him to this gig in Chicago, did I want to come along. What struck me was that he was at one, or he became identical, with his breath, and Dylan had become a column of air, so to speak, at certain moments, where his total physical and mental focus was this single breath coming out of his body. He had found a way in public to be almost like a shaman, with all of his intelligence and consciousness focused on his breath.

If you study the video footage from that performance, it's not hard to see what Ginsburg is talking about. The guitar unobtrusively sets the rhythmic and melodic framework for the words arise from within him and ride on his breath, pouring forth in long concatenated phrases delivered with an uncanny self-assurance and unity of impression. It's a performance, yes, but it doesn't seem like a performance, it seems more like an event of nature: it has the unity and integrity and trajectory of sound of a rainstorm or a set of waves breaking on the shore:

Ginsburg is right, I think, to connect it all to breath. Breath has always been understood as the vehicle of spirit: the Latin verb for "breathe" is "spiro," from which we get such words as respiration and expiration and aspiration and inspiration and, of course, spirit itself. If the goal of most spiritual practices is to bring the soul into contact with the divine, the two preferred means of doing so have been meditation, which begins with concern for and attention to breath, and prayer, which begins with a concern for and attention to finding the right words.

There are times when as individuals we are able to unify our person and our breath and our words and our sense of ourselves in such a way as to arrive at a certain kind of, well, integrity. Those moments are often and perhaps of necessity private moments. Our greatest artists are often the ones who find a way to manifest that kind of integrity, as Ginsburg says of Dylan, in public. Not always, of course, no one could bear that burden, but in their moments of artistic transcendence. In so doing they draw us out of ourselves and into something deeper. The paradox is that that something deeper is something that has been in us all along, latent and yet undeniable. Listening to Dylan I hear him, yes, but my felt experience is that he is embodying something already so deep within me that it comes as a kind of recognition. Even when the lyrics as such don't necessarily make paraphrasable sense, I know exactly what he is talking about. The words are, like breath, like prayer, the vehicle of spirit, and spirit lies within us.

The implicit challenge here is that of the example that he provides us. Here is a young man who at the age of twenty was a figure of national importance whose words helped to galvanize a generation of young people to "think different" about themselves, to challenge the accepted wisdom, to question authority, to create something new out of one's voice and one's actions and one's breath. Even when he went on to repudiate the music he made when he was younger, when he chose to slip out from under the burden of the expectations that the cultural critics placed upon him, when he changed and changed and changed again, his journey was driven by his determination to be true not to what others demanded of him, but of what he demanded of himself. If we never see his likes again, it will be no one's fault but our own.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Closing the Circle (100x30)

The first steps sideways,
then the road rises,
the grass smooth,
but quickly steepening
toward the wall. Still fresh,
you clamber over, crawl
until you can scramble
to your feet again, and walk
with relative ease to the summit.

Breathe. Give thanks. Prepare.

Now the descent. At first a stroll,
then steadily steeper until on hands
And knees you behold... an abyss,
too far to fall. How to get home
from here? Fingers finding roots,
you flip yourself under, and hanging on
for dear life, hand over hand you go,
until your feet touch terra firma:
back where you began.

Process Reflection: This is a weird little experimental piece. Since this is the last post in the hundred-word series I’ve been doing, I began this afternoon by brainstorming a list of words and phrases that had to do with finishing, words like finale and fireworks and end of the road and closure, which led to closing the circle, which triggered the idea I began working with here, which is essentially a narrative poem imagining someone on a circular journey. In this case, the circle is not a horizontal construct but a vertical one. As I was writing I was trying to imagine the various physical obstacles one would encounter on such a journey, and then as I was doing that the whole thing began to take on this odd metaphorical weight. I spent a lot of time working the words, and then working the lines and line breaks into a configuration with a sort of circular symmetry of its own. The completed poem, and its last line, seem as good a place as any to end.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Penultimate (100x29)

I can still remember the almost tangible click in my head during my Latin I class freshman year in high school when I discovered that the word “peninsula” was derived from the word “paene,” meaning “almost,” and “insula,” meaning “island.” Almost an island…. Aha! That was for me an epiphanic moment, a revelation: that words might have not only a history but a logic connected to that history: a life of their own. I became a devotee of derivations. Now, close to fifty years later, I’m still fooling around with words: this being, in the hundred-words series, the penultimate post.

Process Reflection: I suppose that it’s somehow inevitable that as I got to thinking about this next-to-last post the word “penultimate” would shake itself off its lexicographical shelf and fall into the atrium of my brain. I started tonight’s post by writing about that word, but in so doing was overtaken by the memory of my encounter with its cognate cousin in my Latin I class, and wound up restructuring the piece around that memory in such a way as to lead up to the word of the day.

What’s been most consistently interesting to me about this nearly-completed enterprise is the way the very small canvas encourages, even necessitates, a close attention to the details, the architecture of the evolving sequence of words. I do not mean to suggest that these posts have in fact represented any transcendent or even intermediary accomplishment in terms of structural aesthetics, but they have helped to focus my attention as a writer on what exactly it is that I am doing, how I am doing it, and how else it might be attempted. Often, when I am drafting longer and less focused pieces, writing becomes for me much more automatic and intuitive and profluent; this set of writings has been, for better or worse, much more deliberate and painstaking at the word and sentence level.

I’ve also noticed by the strength of what might be called, to add two more Latin derivatives to the many already swimming about above, the autobiographical imperative: that here as elsewhere even in attempting to write analysis I wind up, as if by accident, writing my life. (Which leads us, or might lead us, into another thicket: objectivity and subjectivity. A longer post for another time.)

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Omaha (100x28)

Monday of last week we was sitting in Johnny’s on South 27th, eating our scrambled eggs and corned beef hash and waiting for the coffee to cool down enough to drink. We didn’t think much on it when the beat-up, mudcovered pickup angles into the parking space just over by the door and rattles to a stop, and out steps this lanky cowpoke in a Levi’s jacket and a ten gallon hat, looking like mebbe he come in second in a tangle with a tornado. He slaps the dust off shoulders, hitches up his pants, and heads on up the steps.

Process Reflection: Never been to Omaha. Never set foot in Nebraska. Got started on this by trying (again) to write a poem about poker, but that wasn't happening and I started thinking about particular poker games, of which my favorite is Omaha, and that got me thinking that since I don't have any information about Omaha in my head, I might be free to invent my own private Omaha, so I figured I'd start someplace, like in a diner. I googled "omaha diner" looking to come up with a credible name and found Johnny's, and then figured I had to make something happen, and so I did, and while I was doing that I started trying to create this other (wholly imagined) voice, the way this narrator is talking, and that kept me entertained through my hundred words. All of this is somehow the offshoot of the seed planted in my brain by the David Foster Wallace quote I posted yesterday. Up on that wire, and the abyss below, nada.

Oh yeah, w/r/t the guy in the truck: Dostevsky said there are only two stories: a man leaves home, and a stranger comes to town. This is the intro to the second.

Trial and Error

Doug Belshaw has a post today in which some students from Liverpool interview Ken Robinson about creativity. Robinson was witty and genial and insightful as always, but my favorite passage this:

One thing about creativity is that often you make mistakes, you get it wrong. I worked with a guy a while ago who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry... I asked him one day when we were doing this work for the government how many of his experiments failed and he said "About ninety percent of them." And he said "But really, failing isn't quite the right word for it. If you're trying to be creative, you make all kinds of mistakes, and so what you're finding out is what works, and to find out what works you often have to discover all these things that don't work. And that's the whole process of science and art; it's very unusual to get it right the first time.

There's a parallel quote I just tracked down from Robinson's TED talks video that comes at the same point from a different angle:

Kids will take a chance. If they don’t know, they will have a go… they are not frightened of being wrong. I don’t mean to say that being wrong is being creative. But what we do know is that if you are not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original. If you are not prepared to be wrong. By the time we get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong. And we run our companies like this by the way. We stigmatize mistakes. And now we’re running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is we are educating people out of their creative capacities. Picasso once said this. He said, ‘All children are artists. The problem is to remain an artist as we grow up."

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Quote of the Day (100x27)

How to Play Poker

Obama never played for high stakes. Only on a very bad night could a player drop two hundred dollars in these games, typical wins and losses being closer to twenty-five bucks. [A friend] describes Obama as being a “calculating” cardplayer, avoiding long-shot draws and patiently waiting for strong starting hands. “When Barack stayed in, you pretty much figured he’s got a good hand,” former Senator Larry Walsh once told a reporter, neglecting to note that maintaining that sort of rock-solid image made it easier for Obama to bluff. (James McManus in the February 4 New Yorker.)

Process Reflection: Granted, these aren’t my words, but they are words that I was thinking about as I sat down to write in my journal this morning (note the old-fangled cut-and-paste job in the picture at left), and again as I sat down to do this blog entry this evening. I was actually thinking about writing a how-to poem; it was fresh in my mind because of the post today at Ken Ronkowitz's Poets Online site, and it’s an exercise that I’ve asked my students to do at various times with various models. But as I was getting ready to start, I got thinking, hey wait, there’s already a little mini-essay teed up and waiting from the McManus article in the New Yorker, and it’s about the right length. So here it is, 100 words with several layers of thoughtprovokingness (literal, metaphorical, political, and rhetorical, for starters.)

For those of you with eagle eyes and active curiosity, the other quote, in red on the left hand side of the page, is from David Foster Wallace’s characteristically funny and brilliant introduction to Best American Essays 2007:

Writing-wise, fiction is scarier, but nonfiction is harder — because nonfiction’s based in reality, and today’s felt reality is overwhelmingly, circuit-blowingly huge and complex. Whereas fiction comes out of nothing. Actually, so wait: the truth is that both genres are scary; both feel like they’re executed on tightropes, over abysses — it’s the abysses that are different. Fiction’s abyss is silence, nada. Whereas nonfiction’s abyss is Total Noise, the seething static of every particular thing and experience, and one’s total freedom of infinite choice about what to choose to attend to and represent and connect, and how, and why, etc.

Amen to that.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Friday (100x26)

5:49 on Friday, and I’m caught on the cusp of the transition between a week when there were way too many things going on and a long weekend promising at least a few empty spaces. I’d feel better if I had a better topic, but, as I keep telling my students, you have to write what it is given to you to write, then come back later and try to figure out what to do with it. At this moment, that’s me, these words, and those birds outside getting their licks in before the sun finally sinks into the Pacific.

Process Reflection: Not very ambitious, I admit: a freewrite, a process piece. The work, such as it was, involved fooling around with the wording to bring the piece in at exactly one hundred words. First I was 21 words over, then eight under, then five over again. There’s something to be said for even arbitrary formal constraints, because they make you pay a different kind of attention to which words you use and which order you use them in. It's the kind of tinkering that Raymond Carver claimed to enjoy: putting the commas back in and taking them back out again. While you do that, the world turns. Now, twenty minutes later, it’s almost dark, and quiet: the birds have gone to wherever birds go when the sun goes down. But I’m still here, pecking away, cutting and pasting, adding and subtracting, trying to get this one small thing right.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Fire (100x25)

I was sitting in on a third grade class while visiting poet Barbara Helfgott-Hyett led the class through a reading of a Babettte Deutsch Poem called “Fireworks.” After we had read and discussed the poem, Barbara asked us to close our eyes and try to picture fireworks. What came to my mind with an unexpected forcefulness was not fireworks but a great orange wall of flame, which I connected with a long-forgotten moment. When we were asked to open our eyes and write, I wrote the first draft “Yard Work,” the first poem of my own that ever pleased me.

Process Reflection: When I first read the topic, I thought immediately of "Yard Work," written when I was in my mid-thirties. It turned out to be the first of many I wrote about my father, whom for complex reasons I had consigned to a locked room in the far corner of my brain after he died when I was eleven. The image of fire opened that door, and my father was very much a part of mental life for months afterward, showing up unnannounced almost every time I sat down to write and even visiting my dreams to talk with me. Here's the poem:

Yard Work

Spring arrives, clear and dry. Out back,
my father and I collect branches
and twigs, pile them on the brush heap.
Blown against the fence, our Christmas tree
now brown and dry, trails tinsel as
we drag it over and toss it on top
of the pile. It's time. My father takes
newspaper and shoves it beneath
the twigs and leaves at the bottom.
"Stand back now, son," he tells me.
From his pockets he pulls a pack
of matches, tears one out. He bends
and strikes, then - cupping his hands
against the breeze - lights the fire.

First a curl of smoke, then orange fingers
fan upward. Upward! Leaping, the flames
catch and claw. The first lick touches the tree,
and with an enormous crackling whoosh!
it blazes, a yellow wall against the sky.
Lashed by the heat, I stumble back into
my father's arms. I stand stunned, shielding
my face, as black vapors stream skyward,
hissing; my eyes sting and tear. In seconds,
the tree is turned to black bones; the flames
subside. Cool air sweeps my face. Behind me,
my father stands. In silence we watch
the crumbling limbs burn slowly down to ash.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Metal (100x24)

My brother-in-law was good with metal. His would hoist the engine out of a ’69 Plymouth, dismantle it, clean and lubricate every part, replace the gaskets and points and plugs, and then patiently reassemble it, fully confident that when he turned the ignition the car would spring to life, engine humming. If I tried that, there’d be a loud noise, an acrid smell, and lots of smoke. I’m more of a wood kind of guy. Wood is more forgiving: the tolerances are greater. You can carve and sand and smooth your way in soft, forgiving increments toward your heart’s desire.

Process Reflection: I had no idea when I sat down to write that I would wind up writing about my brother-in-law, but as I sat staring at the word "metal" on the screen I thought first about what metal is good for and then about how it is worked. From then on, the piece came easily; the problem was trying to keep it to 100 words. The first time I stopped to check I was at 116 with a ways to go, so I had to go back and start paring down.

For what it’s worth, every word is true. My father worked in wood, and as I learned from him how to use hand tools and power tools, how to cut and join and finish wood. I learned to know and appreciate the differences between pine and maple and oak and mahogany and and teak and ash, the way they resisted or responded to my ministrations, the various way the grain would come alive under stain or wax or varnish or shellac. I never quite felt comfortable with metal: cold, independently-minded metal. The only success I ever had working with metal was in art class making copper panels by rubbing the sheets over molds carved from wood. I’ve seen work done by silversmiths and goldsmiths which is beautiful to behold, but if I had the choice I’d rather own a koa bowl or a sandalwood frieze. One of the things I most admired about my brother-in-law was his ability to work with any materials. He was a gifted painter, a thoroughly competent mechanic, and a woodworker as well. He loved making things. During the time I was growing up I watched him as he built a stagecoach from scrap lumber, a sailboat, a pool table, a guitar. But what he really liked working on was cars and motorcycles, things made of metal. I've always been somewhat awed by his versatility.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Point of Departure (100x23)

Most nights it didn’t take long. He’d lie down, turn on his side, put his head on the pillow, stretch, and be off into that other place, those other places, amongst old friends and parakeets, disturbing juxtapositions: the basketball game suddenly gone airborne, the plane in flames, the sensation of falling, the soft whoomp as the waters embraced him, whispering, singing, songbird winking, what’s the name of that woman with the platinum hair? Mary Something, beside the campfire, sleeping bags, whose arms, whose thighs, the sound of footsteps, a car door slamming, voices outside the window, the light dawning: morning.

Process Reflection:
Couldn’t remember the topic for the day. Looked it up after doing the dishes tonight to plant it in my brain: pillow. Lay down on the sofa, did the Tuesday crossword, finished it and put it aside, started to drift off, lying there. Felt my head on the pillow; thought: pillow. Thought, okay, here's a place to begin: the point of departure. Got up and went to the computer and started typing, thinking about dreamspaces, recalling images from recent dreams. Pushed into it, keeping an eye on the word count, knowing I didn’t have much room, trying to compress. This one came fast: about seven minutes from start to finish. Came in at 102 words. Cut two. Done. Good thing too. Busy day today. Don't know how much I would have been able to do if I really had to work at it.

A Contrast in Styles

Here are two videos: the first a pretty slick promo for Barack Obama, the second an inspired parody of the first that targets John McCain. Both videos are very artful and imaginative in how they go about making, and in the case of the second, scoring, their points.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Hair (100x22)

Orville was working over his scrapbooks at the dining room table when the Parcel Post truck pulled up. Orville watched, his heart thumping, as the delivery man walked to the back of the truck, took out the large oval box, and, hoisting it to his shoulder, started up the brick walkway toward Orville’s front door. Orville put the cap on the mucilage container, hoisted himself from the chair, and was waiting just inside the door when the knock came. “Package for Orville Bottjer,” said the man. “That’s me,” said Orville, taking it from his outstretched arms. “Thanks a bunch.”

Process Reflection: Didn't have an idea of where to begin with "hair," so googled the word and found this image. At that point it pretty much wrote itself.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Green (100x21)

It’s hard to argue with green. Green is what grows, what germinates, what sunlight calls from the darkness under the surface. Green comes naturally. Green is close to the earth, eco-friendly. Green the vine, the leaf, the grass, the garden, the forest, the prairie, the jungle, the lawn. Green the color of pears, of parsley, of peas, of peace. Green the color of conservation, of moderation, of minimalism. That small footprint: green. That potted plant. Green needs water, needs light, needs love. Green is an emerald. Green says, “Live.” Green says, “Recycle.” Green says, “Breathe.” Green says, “Enough is enough.”

Process Reflection: The whole thing about writing 100 words a day for 30 days, even without the additional constraint of assigned topics, puts you under some pressure. Some days you have time to think and prepare, some days, like today, you've got a topic and a limited amount of time in which to attempt to pull a rabbit out of a hat, if you happen to have a hat, and if the rabbit doesn't turn out to be some other variety of rodent. Today there was a lot of other stuff going on, and I was faced with the choice of pounding something out, however gestural, or falling off the wagon. What this piece has going for it is the series of moves that it has in mind to make: a meditation on at least a subset of the denotations and connotations of green. What it lacks, at this preliminary time-delimited stage of its development, is even the slightest element of surprise. It fails in its aspirations to be epiphanic. Which is fair enough. In one of my favorite essays on writing, "Let's Say You Wrote Badly This Morning," David Huddle develops a theory of what he calls "aesthetic luck":

Aesthetic luck is random and two-headed. No writer, no matter how accomplished, can be certain when sitting down to work that the results of his or her best efforts will be writing of high quality. One can school oneself in the literature of one's tradition, train oneself to a high level of technical skill, construct ideal working circumstances of time and place, regularly come to the writing desk rested, alert and in good health, achieve a state of brutal self-honesty, open one's mind to every possibility of concept and language, and nevertheless write one lousy line after another. Conversely (and perversely) one may pick up a napkin in a bar to make a few notes and suddenly find oneself writing fabulous stuff. The odds of writing well are a great deal better if the writer is well-prepared, but there's never a guarantee of good writing.

Later in the essay, he talks about revision as part of the process, and comes up with a rough estimate of the odds associated with aesthetic luck:

Aesthetic luck is the major argument in favor of working through a process of revising a piece of writing through many drafts. If you're a supremely talented artist and you hit a very lucky day, then maybe you can write a poem or story or chapter of a novel that needs no revision. If you're a regular writer with your appointed portion of aesthetic luck, you'll need to come at the piece again and again. I like to think of revision as a form of self-forgiveness: you can allow yourself mistakes and shortcomings in your writing because you know you're coming back later to improve it. Revision is the way you cope with the bad luck that made your writing less than excellent this morning. Revision is the hope you hold out for yourself to make something beautiful tomorrow though you didn't quite manage it today. Revision is democracy's literary method, the tool that allows an ordinary person to aspire to extraordinary achievement.

Revision of course is not an option for athletes. In my opinion, baseball players would be able to offer more testimony to the capriciousness of athletic luck than the players of any other game. My most outrageous notion on this matter is that the crazy luck of baseball accounts for the vast role of spitting by its players: to spit is to change one's chemistry, to cast out the immediate past, to set oneself to face the future. In their thinking; batters and pitchers must proceed in a logical manner: they consider the scouting reports and the opinions of their coaches and fellow players; they consider “the last time up,” along with the history they have shared in all their previous encounters; they make adjustments; they spit for luck.

In the overall balance of aesthetic luck, by my calculations, the bad outweighs the good by a ratio of about 17 to 1, but the good nevertheless exists.
I find Huddle's analysis both true to my experience and also enormously encouraging. Today's post is one of the 17 that I had to write to eventually, maybe, find my way to the magical number 18. It may itself take on the qualities of the 18th with subsequent revision. In the meantime, it is what it is.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Blister (100x20)


He had planned to bring old sneakers with him, but in the morning rush had just grabbed his bag with the new sneakers. By the end of warmups he could feel the blister forming. Later, while they were doing defensive slides, he could feel the stabs of pain every time he stopped moving. After the suicides, he could barely walk. In the locker room, he pulled off his blood-soaked sock to reveal a loose flap of skin the size of a silver dollar, the cracked pink skin underneath, the red radial lines converging on the pulpy mass of bloody tissue.

Process Reflection:
The trigger was “blisters.” As I was thinking about it I remembered on many occasions seeing my sons’ feet after the first day of basketball practice, and wondering how in the world they would even be able to walk the next day. There are several larger essays lying in wait behind this exercise, one of which would have to do with sports, the disproportionately large place they occupy in the American cultural landscape, the sacrifices that athletes are called upon to make, and the ways in which those sacrifices become ritualistic rehearsals for the more substantive sacrifices we make as adults. All of which puts me in mind of a terrific poem by Anne Sexton, also a meditation from a parent’s point of view of the sacrifices a child must learn to make:

Pain for a Daughter

Blind with love, my daughter
has cried nightly for horses,
those long-necked marchers and churners
that she has mastered, any and all,
reigning them in like a circus hand--
the excitable muscles and the ripe neck;
tending this summer, a pony and a foal.
She who is too squeamish to pull
a thorn from the dog's paw,
watched her pony blossom with distemper,
the underside of the jaw swelling
like an enormous grape.
Gritting her teeth with love,
she drained the boil and scoured it
with hydrogen peroxide until pus
ran like milk on the barn floor.

Blind with loss all winter,
in dungarees, a ski jacket and a hard hat,
she visits the neighbors' stable,
our acreage not zoned for barns;
they who own the flaming horses
and the swan-whipped thoroughbred
that she tugs at and cajoles,
thinking it will burn like a furnace
under her small-hipped English seat.

Blind with pain she limps home.
The thoroughbred has stood on her foot.
He rested there like a building.
He grew into her foot until they were one.
The marks of the horseshoe printed
into her flesh, the tips of her toes
ripped off like pieces of leather,
three toenails swirled like shells
and left to float in blood in her riding boot.

Blind with fear, she sits on the toilet,
her foot balanced over the washbasin,
her father, hydrogen peroxide in hand,
performs the rites of cleansing.
She bites on a towel, sucked in breath,
sucked in and arched against the pain,
her eyes glancing off me where
I stand at the door, eyes locked
on the ceiling, eyes of a stranger,
and then she cries. . .
Oh my God, help me!
Where a child would have cried Mama!
Where a child would have believed Mama!
she bit the towel and called on God
and I saw her life stretch out. . .
I saw her torn in childbirth,
and I saw her, at that moment,
in her own death and I knew that she

Friday, February 8, 2008

Morning Ritual (100x19)

Listen: doves calling outside. Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. Open your eyes. Throw legs over the side of the bed and sit up. Breathe. Stand up. Walk to living room, lower yourself to the rug. Asana: cat stretch. Roll over on your back. Extend arms from sides to overhead, then back down as if flapping your wings. Repeat. Raise one leg, use hands behind knee to stretch the thigh muscles toward the chest. Do the other leg, then both. Ten crunches. Ten situps. Ten pelvic thrusts. Stand. Raise arms, stretch side to side. Asana: salute the sun.

Process Reflection: This is the first five minutes of my day, pretty much every day. I had thought about trying to go through the whole workout (this is about the first third)but I saw I was going to run way short on words, so I just worked on bringing this in clean as a sort of prose poem in praise of the morning rite that keeps my body going.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Blue's Wednesday (100x18)

Blue’s Wednesday

“Sunday's on the phone to Monday,
Tuesday's on the phone to me…”

Blue wasn’t sure how he felt about Wednesdays. The cops
were nowhere to be found, and the motorcycle women
outside in the parking lot would toss back beers and shout
rude remarks to the old men walking their wives’ Chihuahuas
along the hedges. Even the grey squirrels seemed spooked.

So Blue would lock himself indoors on Wednesdays, fiddle
with his chopsticks and practice his Japanese. If the phone
rang, he’d let the machine take it and try anagrams instead:
heart, earth, hater. Then what? No golden parachutes in this story.
Blue counts backwards from a hundred. Thursday will be better.

Process Reflection: The topic was Wednesday, even though it was assigned on Thursday. Pretty much a road map from there, from John Lennon through Charles Simic and out into the Blue. Necessity is the mother of invention.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

One Brick (100x17)

One Brick at a Time

I. Axioms

Brick. Thick. Block. Chunk. Blink. Black. Blank. Stuck. Flunk. Quick. Drank.
Trick. Prank. Brink. Wreck. Clock. Stick. Stink. Flank. Fleck. Flunk. Click.
Stuck. Stack. Crack. Crock. Clank. Chink. Drink. Drunk. Plink. Pluck. Smack.
Prick. Plank. Prank. Plunk. Crank. Trunk. Thank. Quack. Cluck. Clunk. Stark.
Stock. Wrack. Flick. Flack. Flock. Track. Truck. Whack. Think. Spank. Snack.
Spunk. Shank. Shack. Slick. Slack. Frank. Shock. Shuck. Slink. Skunk. Snuck.

II. Derivations

Brick, Black: Thick Block. Chunk.

Think. Blink. Blank. Stuck.

Quick trick: Prank.

Trunk. Whack. Clunk. Clank. Plank. Stack. Stock.

Frank snuck drink. Stank. Truck, slick. Brink. Blink. Wreck.

Process Reflection: This started as a belated attempt to follow up on my idea from Monday’s post about playing with something along the lines of “Silent Poem” by Robert Francis. I was correcting papers tonight and a student had written an essay about a breakthrough moment in his writing when he realized his topic was too large. When he narrowed his focus, he was able to write easily. Which got me thinking about the well-known passage in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance where Pirsig recounts an early teaching experience where he advises a student with writer’s block to forget about writing about her town or even a street or a building, and about one brick in the building. I wanted to find the passage, and wound up googling “pirsig one brick.” That took me on a lot of interesting detours (I eventually found the passage), many of which involved the phrase “one brick at a time,” and so when I sat down shortly thereafter to write, the seed had been planted in my mind. I just started with “brick” and began free-associating words, with the ideas of coming up with a wall of words a la Francis, and pretty soon had agreed with myself on the implicit rules: one-syllable five-letter words that ended in either “ck” or “nk.” So that was entertaining. While I was working on that another part of my brain started looking for combinations, and so I began playing the derivation game down below, and then working both ends in the effort to build up to 100 words total. After an hour’s worth of fiddling about, I came in just over at 103, and decided that was enough for today.

(Image Credit:

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Mini-rant (100x16)

There are more cars on Oahu than there are people. Why? The island is only 60 miles across. The bulk of the population lives in the Honolulu area, perhaps ten miles wide and five miles high. You rarely need to go more than 30 miles an hour, and you rarely need to go more than ten miles in any one direction. The weather is temperate 365 days a year. If ever there was a city that was built for bikes and electric cars, this is it. But there is no infrastructure in place, and no plans to build one. Why?

Process Reflection/Elaboration: This is the 100-word version of a longer rant that would reflect on Hawaii’s unique opportunity to become a world leader in energy sustainability. Solar energy, wave energy, wind energy, thermal energy: we’ve got the potential to develop them all. Instead, most of our electrical energy, more than 90%, is generated by burning petroleum which has to be shipped in. There are almost no bike paths or bike lanes, even though Honolulu is a small enough city that pretty much everyone could ride bikes and get to work faster than they do now in cars. And they’d be keeping the air clean and staying in shape. Instead, we keep importing cars and throwing up new construction like there’s no tomorrow. When the world runs out of oil, which is going to be sooner rather than later, we’re going to feel it harder than most. Assuming we’re not underwater by that time. Grrr.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Marching (100x15)

One hundred words a day. That should be easy, right? Well, yeah, sometimes. Some days the words just line themselves up and come marching out from under your fingers like so many loyal soldiers marching merrily off to win honor for the king. Some days they are more like recalcitrant children, hiding out, grudging their participation, wary of being drawn into something they don’t think is going to be all that much fun. And some days, like today, they just show up uninvited and lounge about, burping and scratching themselves as they try to decide what they will do tomorrow.

Process Reflection: The topic for today was "victory," and I've got to admit I only engaged it glancingly. Those marching soldiers owe what minimal existential status they can claim to the presence of that word in my consciousness, as do, to a slightly lesser degree, the other characters who showed up to do, however reluctantly, their metaphorical duty within the framework of the task at hand.

Another way of looking at it: my students have a standing assignment to hand in to me once a cycle (we schedule classes over a six-day cycle) a piece of writing, a “Cycle Paper,” which represents an hour’s worth of work. Topic is up to them. Form is up to them. It can be a single self-contained piece, several short pieces, or a continuation of a longer piece that they might choose to work on over several weeks or months. The first few weeks the students generally have no problem. Then, about a month into the semester, inevitably start getting pieces of writing whose subject is something along the lines of “My Cycle Paper About How I Couldn’t Think of Anything to Write for My Cycle Paper.”

Which is, of course, a creative response which is well within the rules of the game, but gets old fast. Which is why I tell them they only get one of those a semester. I’m into day 15 of the thirty-day hundred-word-a-day cycle, and I’m cashing in my voucher.

By way of compensation for those of you who might have visited this site in the hopes of finding something more worth reading, I’ll share, by way of compensation for your time, this artful little poem by Robert Francis. I’ve been thinking about trying something like this for one of these pieces, in that I’ve always admired what he manages to get done in a short space (50 words including the title). But this is a poem that I can tell took him a hell of a lot longer than an hour to put together.

Silent Poem

backroad leafmold stonewall chipmunk
underbrush grapevine woodchuck shadblow

woodsmoke cowbarn honeysuckle woodpile
sawhorse bucksaw outhouse wellsweep

backdoor flagstone bulkhead buttermilk
candlestick ragrug firedog brownbread

hilltop outcrop cowbell buttercup
whetstone thunderstorm pitchfork steeplebush

gristmill millstone cornmeal waterwheel
watercress buckwheat firefly jewelweed

gravestone groundpine windbreak bedrock
weathercock snowfall starlight cockcrow

(Picture Credits:,

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Setting the Standard (100x14)

“Standard” is a word with an identity crisis, a built-in neurosis. Oxymoronical, schizoid, it has its head in the clouds and its feet in the muck. To be standard is to fail to meet the standard. To aspire to quality (to wish to exceed whatever standards are in place) is to acknowledge that reality is essentially shoddy. Standard operating procedure, beloved of bureaucracies, is the enemy of originality, of innovation, of excel-lence. Where standardization is the rule, the individual voice is silenced. Pop culture, peer pressure, what everyone learns in eight grade: don’t be different. It isn’t worth the price.

Process Reflection: The topic/word/prompt for the day: standard. I thought about attempting some sort of narrative, but then found myself thinking about the two different senses of the word: the nominal (“a level of quality or attainment”) and the adjectival (“used or accepted as normal or average”). So I started pushing into that, one thought at a time, trying out different ways of articulating the different senses of the word. Toward the end I found myself thinking back to my first few years as a middle school teacher, when you could almost sense the hostility in the air when anyone in the classroom (other than the teacher, of course, who was assumed to be hopelessly uncool anyway) said anything remotely out of the ordinary or admitted to any enthusiasm for anything academic: nerd alert. That was the surprise in the exercise for me. I didn’t expect to end up there, in that space.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Etude (100x13)

The sky layered with clouds, the nearest dense and grey
along the horizon, the farthest pale and white, illuminated
by the sun not quite shining through but defining all we see:
thin horizontal bands of grey and gold and white and even,
over the left, just above the water, pure unobstructed blue.

The water dark and calm, waves gathering themselves,
making their approach in dark obedient rows
as over to the right the filtered sunlights play upon
the surface of the deep. And out there, just on the edge
of vision, a single sail: souls in transit between two worlds.

Process Reflection: Pretty much what you see is what you get. I took the picture a month or so ago one evening at Waikiki Beach. I thought I'd try to re-present the picture in words, and decided to try to mirror the structure of the picture with its two broad horizontal planes in the structure of the writing. I like the picture more than the poem, there are a lot more things to look at, and a lot more ways of looking, than I could cram into 100 words. So maybe the cliché is true: maybe it's more like a thousand.

Friday, February 1, 2008

The Story of Stuff

Chris Watson posted this link today to The Story of Stuff, which features a pretty thought-provoking and provocative analysis of our consumerist lifestyle, its origins, and its aftereffects. It's an entertaining, hi-tech stump speech worth watching, whether you agree or disagree with its premises. It includes many links to organizations working on one aspect or another of the multidimensional, interlocked matrix of problems.

Limbo (100x12)


The baggage check lines snake back and forth between the metal stanchions with their black nylon belts. I make my way to the back of the line with my bags and then stand and shuffle, stand and shuffle, dragging my luggage along with me at each three-foot advance. Every ninety seconds a recorded announcement is broadcast over the PA in three languages warning against leaving your luggage unattended or accepting luggage from any stranger. Twenty minutes later, I check my bags, and go off to the security checkpoint to stand in line and wait to take off my shoes.

Process Reflection: The topic was "airports." I decided to just focus down at the moment of arrival and see how far 100 words would take me. Not that far, obviously, which is part of the point, I guess. Going through the whole process in any detail would take pages and pages, and who would want to read it?

I hate traveling. I hate the dead time, the standing around, the waiting around at the gates, the time it takes to get everyone seated, the time taxiing, the time in the air, the lack of space, the bad food, the need to climb over or be climbed over your fellow travelers, the waiting around for the bags.

Which isn't to say there aren't minor compensations. I like the moment of takeoff, the jet hurtling down the runway then, miraculously, rising into the air. I like the descent and touchdown. I also like wandering around strange airports on layovers, eating bad food, checking out the bookstores, studying the people. And once I get where I'm going, obviously I like being there.

But given a choice, most times, I'd just as soon stay home.