Monthly Archives: January 2014

Tolerate Me No More

painting of child bandIn our culture we hear frequent references to “tolerance”. The word has been particularly evident lately with the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. last Saturday. I want to ponder this word and consider the aspiration to tolerance.

We might begin with where the word came from. It goes back to a Latin verb tolerare, to endure, to bear something unpleasant. Looking at etymology for meaning, however, is a kind of logical fallacy, albeit a common one. The meaning of a word is not what the roots of the word meant many years ago, but what we use it to mean now. So how do we use this word?

From the online Merriam-Webster there are two definitions. The first is generally positive, while the second has negative connotations: (1) “willingness to accept feelings, habits, or beliefs that are different from your own,” (2) “the ability to accept, experience, or survive something harmful or unpleasant”.

On the website Dictionary.com, there are three definitions that seem generally positive to a liberal like myself (acceptance, broadmindedness, and so on), but the fourth definition is “the act or capacity of enduring; endurance”. My ancient American Heritage Dictionary (printed on “paper”—google the word if you aren’t sure what that is) also has some positive definitions, but like the two dictionaries above it includes “The capacity to endure hardship or pain”.

Perhaps we are changing the definition of  “tolerance”, but for now it continues to have a possible meaning of putting up with something that you don’t actually like. Haven’t you heard or used sentences like “I can’t tolerate people who do that” or “I have to tolerate so much at work”?

The negative meanings of “tolerance” are common enough that I want to say, I wish in fact to declare, that the ideal of Tolerance that we promote so assiduously is not even close to good enough. I recognize that tolerance is a thousand times better than intolerance. If I show tolerance toward people who look different from me, who dress differently from me, who eat unusual food (i.e., weird stuff I wouldn’t eat), at least I am leaving them alone.

Instead of attacking one another, instead of scowling, snarling slurs, and putting up “Whites Only” signs, it is obviously better to show tolerance, to endure what we don’t like, and leave each other alone. But perhaps we leave people alone begrudgingly, occasionally gritting our teeth as we do so. Tolerance is aiming mighty damn low.

Because I’m an optimist, I believe our society really is capable of better, and I want to advocate that we not be limited by sloppy, lazy language. Words have an influence, after all. So goddamnit, let’s aim higher than tolerance. child laughingEmbrace other people and cultures. Wear an embroidered Mexican shirt, invite black gospel choirs to your church, hang embroidered Hmong cloths on the wall, eat an incredibly delicious Thai mango salad, learn to order a beer and enchiladas in Spanish, take a gift to your friend’s gay wedding.

Let us aspire to a world where we are no longer afraid, but revel in the richness of humanity and reveal the richness of ourselves. And let us take our language with us. Do not tolerate, but celebrate.

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In a Circle Near the Bear

On a day that began with dog-terrifying thunder boomers, rain pouring in a dreary drench, and the gray, closed feeling of such a day, I left my apartment to drive two hours to the north Georgia mountains, toward the town of Helen. Even in the rain, that northern countryside is beautiful, especially the farther you go, the more you surround yourself with those hills. I was headed up to meet my brother Donald, who I’ve been working with to write the musical he’s now producing.

Last Saturday was the day the cast and crew gathered for the first reading of the script. Although my presence was superfluous, now that the writing is done, I wanted to see this process. Watching my own work move from page to stage is a new experience, and it was a strange feeling to find a roomful of people committing time and effort to bring to life something I helped write.

What Donald and I have created is fairly typical for a musical, a play telling a story, with characters stopping from time to time to sing a song. Donald has written all the music for this, and our spectacle will include ensemble numbers for a larger group. There is also a choreographer who will be working out dance routines.

Because of the number of people involved in this meeting (at one point I counted 24 in the room, including my own superfluous self and a couple of spouses), we met at the house of my aunt and uncle, a rather fabulous house named Starlight. The original Starlight, a historical house that burned down many years ago, had an enormous spinning wheel, which I remember seeing as a child.  By coincidence, our musical is called Spin!, and the play contains a story within a story involving a spinning wheel.

When I arrived in the mountains, the rain was tapering off, and people having just arrived, a large group was standing outside the house. We made our way inside to have chicken salad on croissants before the official duties began. The formal meeting involved people sitting in a circle in the enormous living room, and through the large windows to the front was a view of Mount Yonah in the distance. (Yonah, by the way, is the Cherokee word for “bear”.)

Sitting in this meeting, as the day brightened like a promise, until it was clear and sunny, I could not avoid thinking back to cold, dark winter nights last year, when I was living in Washington, DC. Every week on Sunday evening I would go out for a fish burrito, to a place with a remarkable absence of any charm or pleasing atmosphere, but the food was cheap and good. And there I would sit with my pad, working on the notes and ideas for this musical. I am accustomed to working in dark obscurity, which I pretty much still do. The inconceivable part was sitting in a sunny living room with people planning to make it happen.

In that room we had the actors, set designer, set builder, choreographer, stage manager, musicians, sound technicians, and a few others. I’m impressed that my brother could pull this group together, and I was pleased to see how well he handled the meeting, as he used to be quite shy. Everyone present received a bound copy of the script, including a CD with bare-bones versions of all the songs in the show. I was impressed that while we were there, everyone in the show was also asked to sign release forms the theater requires, and later photo head shots were taken to be used in publicity.

I’m still trying to imagine what it will feel like a few months from now to sit in a theater and watch those young people on the stage, singing, dancing, acting out lines that I wrote back in Washington. I like the idea of working with other people to create something bigger than any of us could do alone. The play is scheduled to be presented at two different theaters, both of them small: in Helen, Georgia, in April, and then in Cumming, Georgia, in August. If you can afford a plane ticket, come on by. Let me know and I’ll bring you a sandwich. Do you like chicken salad?

I’ll end with a few lines from the opening song, called “Hero With a Thousand Faces”:

Tell us a story!
Make the ham green.
Add a stepsister,
And a dark evil queen.

Tell us a story!
Let us see ourselves.
Use a magic mirror,
Just like us but bigger.

Tell us a story!
Show us happy, show us sad,
Show us crazy, show us glad.

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Ahhhhh! They’re So Cute!!

two kittensIf you’re one of the two regular readers of this blog, of course from time to time you’ve exclaimed, “Spank me with a puppy! How in the world does he produce such sublime erudition week after week?” And please, really, don’t write to thank me, I’m just glib to do it.

Since you ask—in a rhetorical-question-actually-asked-by-me kind of way—I’ll briefly discuss this magical process. How does a person consistently write a blog that (1) never stoops to the obvious topic of kittens, (2) delicately combines heartfelt depth with expansive grandeur, and (3) always includes a plethora of head whacking in the convivial spirit of the Three Stooges?

How, indeed.

To come up with blog ideas, here is a useful technique. Stand in front of a blank wall, about a foot away. Put both hands against the wall, palms flat. Lean forward slightly. Bang your head repeatedly on the wall until an idea comes to you.

That’s how I do it, anyway.

Now that you know this professional secret, you may wish to start your own blog. If you do not own a cat, and cannot think of an actual topic to write about, you may end up with a blog about language, writing, and so on, the same ditch I drag this one through. Needless to say, you do not want that to happen, so you might consider getting a cat.

If in some rabbit-hole reverse quantical world gone terribly wrong, you nevertheless end up with a literary blog, here are some tips, adumbrated below. (“Adumbrate” is a real word, and it’s just raw good luck that it has “dumb” in the middle.)

• Since you will be writing about writing, you will at least imply having some skill on this topic. In such a case, you leave the realm of normal people who can commit various errors of grammar and punctuation, and who cares? We didn’t expect much from them anyway. For us experts, however, to maintain credibility, we must write gooder than other people.
• Do not write about kittens. That is for the other blogs. On rare occasions you might write about a full-grown cat, if you can do so to literary effect. Lewis Carroll did this well in Alice in Wonderland.
• Use occasional alliteration, as it always alleviates the aridity of common text. I’m just saying.
• Try to end each blog entry in a fashion that creates a satisfying sense of mental closure. This would normally involve at least an allusion to something mentioned earlier. A sudden ending such as “Whoa, dude, the beer is kicking in, I gotta stop” is not your best choice.
• When you use expensive words like “adumbrate”, take them out of the box carefully and use them correctly. The following is not correct: “They want $150 a night for a hotel room? That’s adumbrate.”
• Write about things that people care about and can connect with… Then again, this is about literary blogging. Never mind this rule.

I have a great deal more advice to give on blogging in ways that invoke a surfeit* of elegance and charm, but the malted brewed beverages consumed earlier are beginning to have an effect, so I beg your pardon and take my leave.

(*not that anyone wants a surfeit, unless of course it’s a basket of kittens)

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Ascending

slate roof tilesWhat marvelous imagination of irony caused someone to think We can take a stone, cut it in thin pieces, and put it on a roof? I love a slate roof, though I guess they’re becoming more rare. I probably love many things that are becoming rare.

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve spent time monitoring a job in which men removed slate roof tiles. Watching the workers holds a certain amount of interest because (a) it’s disturbing in a terrifying way to imagine what it’s like up there, and (b) occasionally a tile slips loose and comes hurling down three stories like a guillotine blade to land standing up in the mud.

The reason I had this enviable situation is because beneath the tiles is a layer of roofing paper that has asbestos, and I monitor the asbestos removal. From my brief time in the asbestos abatement industry, I conclude that if there is any way to physically put asbestos in a product, it has been done. I’ve seen a number of something like 3,000 different products that contain asbestos. If there is none in Cool Whip, it’s only because asbestos doesn’t contribute to creamy deliciousness. I’m sure there’s asbestos in cheap hot dogs, though.

So I’ve been watching that roof. Even here in Georgia, even with global warming, December is not the month when you want to stand outdoors all day long. Some people of course are accustomed to a rigorous outdoor life—policemen in Boston, Arctic explorers, Siberian hunting guides. But I was a wimpy college professor previously, with, you know, doors and windows and stuff. Inside a building.

Sometimes growing chilled from watching the roof, I would go sit in the truck for a few minutes and run the heater, but even that is a soft luxury compared to the asbestos workers up on the roof. They ain’t getting in no truck to get warm. One morning one of the regular construction workers (not a roof worker), a guy probably in his 60s, who also looked like he had done his share of deconstructing cans of beer, came up to me and said, “It’s too fucking cold to be fooling around out here.” Well, yeah.

One day I felt inspired from staring up at the roof, hoping to God nobody fell off, and I wrote a poem about the guys who stood up there against the sky.

Falling Toward America

In Guatemala it must be warm today.
In Honduras mango trees could be shining in the sun.
In Atlanta, even on this blue sky day,
the wind snarls like a northern dog.
Scraps of black roofing paper—
coated with asbestos—
whip off in the wind
like frantic carcinogenic birds.

In Guatemala chuchitos are cooking.
In Honduras people stroll on the beach.
While in Atlanta, men in white paper suits,
wearing face masks with purple filters,
stand on a steep wooden slope three stories high.
Each man is held by a rope.
In this land of opportunity, the roof must be cleaned of black paper.

In Guatemala the radio is playing Ricardo Arjona.
In Honduras mama is sweeping the house.
And in Atlanta, men who speak Spanish
leave their cheap apartments on Buford Highway.
In darkness they drive into the city.
In darkness, they put on a disposable suit, protective mask, hard hat, and hopeful harness.
As the sun breaks past city towers, they climb to a dormitory roof
at the university
where maybe
someday
their own children will become students.

chuchitos

Chuchitos

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