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"Give me a lever long enough, and a fulcrum strong enough, and single-handed I can move the world." - Archimedes Martin Jensen makes commentaries on real issues, or at least interesting essays. Banality filter is on.

12/20/2001

The Pickup Truck, the Trailerhouse, and the Star

José and María were halfway across West Texas when the pickup’s right rear tire began to whine.

“Madre de Diós!” José moaned. The truck began to shudder and he pulled off onto the gravel beside the two-lane.

María smiled. “You can fix it, my big strong man!” She winked. José left the cab, muttering under his breath.

After several minutes of clanking, thumping and uttering expletives expressed in the rich colors of the mother tongue, José let out a sigh, then turned and leaned against the side of the truck. María had been watching closely in the side mirror. She stepped down gingerly from the runningboard and joined her husband, reaching out and caressing him behind his ear, just below the brim of his hat.

“It’s no good,” said José. “The spare is flat also.”

“It will be fine, querida,” María replied. “It will be fine.”

“I guess Christmas with the in-laws is cancelled,” José said, and for the first time he smiled, after making sure his wife was looking away.

“Honey, look! A star – a shooting star!” María’s eyes widened at the sight. Directly in front of them, just above the horizon, a golden light streaked down. Instead of fading, it brightened and seemed to stand in the air for several seconds. For a moment, even José was transfixed.

“It’s just dust, you know,” he observed finally. “Just comet dust.”

“Silly husband. A star is a star.”

“Wait!” said José. “Look over there. That place.” He gestured. Just below the point where the meteor had fallen sat a little trailer, isolated on the vast, empty expanse of sand and sage. The tiny trailerhouse was dark, but it was the only sign of human habitation they had seen in the many miles before the truck had broken down.

As they approached, they caught sight of a figure stooped over some dark apparatus. It was an old man peering intently into the eyepiece of a telescope. Behind the trailer lay a large shed, surrounded on three sides by livestock fence.

The old man looked up. “Did you see it?!” he exclaimed. “Did you see that meteor? It must have fallen within a kilometer of here! In all my days, I’ve never seen a Geminid land so close. The city folk, they get all excited about the flashy Perseids in summer and the reliable Leonids in fall, but Geminids are Christmas stars -- rare and precious.”

María grinned. “See, José? They are stars.”

“Well, comet dust really, my dear. Asteroid dust, in the case of the Geminids. But they’ve flown around the universe for billions of years, just to make their presence known for a bright, beautiful moment in our atmosphere.” The old man’s eyes twinked in the starlight. “Stepping out into the night and taking notice seems the only responsible thing for a man like me to do,” he chuckled.

José removed his tattered straw hat and shifted his feet. “Sir, our truck, she’s broken down. I was hoping, maybe, we could sleep in your barn? My wife is very tired.”

The old man took notice now of María’s rounded belly, the weight riding low on her hips.

“Nonsense,” he said, “I’ve got plenty of room inside. I’ll make room.” And without pausing for further introduction, he hoisted the telescope to his shoulder and led the way to the door of the trailerhouse. Some distance away, coyotes turned their angled snouts heavenward and set up a song.

Learn more about the Geminids of 2001

12/11/2001

An Occasion for Poetry

I have been unfaithful to my blog. Nearly a week without a post.

Tonight at dinner, Allie said she had heard Terri Gross interviewing someone -- she didn't know who -- about blogs. The commentator said something to the effect that bloggers were, "people with too much time on their hands and an overdeveloped need for exhibitionism." [Editorial Disclaimer: All quotes, except those cited by link, consist entirely of hearsay, malefactions, and poorly-conjured misrepresentations. Gist for the mill, as they say. Any resemblance to actual statements is clearly accidental.]

Olivia chimed in, "You don't have too much time on your hands, Daddy. You don't have time for lots of important things." Like what? "Like haircuts!" At that point, I let her off the hook regarding her further observations of shortcomings in my time management skills.

I'd been thinking about that poem about the reader at the coffee shop. How it was more about me and my perceptions than the subject of the poem himself. (More than that, it was about me observing my perceptions, selecting certain ones to share with the reader to reflect upon, etc.)

Then Cassidy and I went to hear Robert Pinsky, former US Poet Laureate, read and talk at a local college. Pinsky read a piece by another poet about an old man in a cafe. The old man is falling toward death, filled with creaky pains and bitter regrets. After reading the poem, Pinsky explained that the writer was a young man when he wrote it. That it was about his own apprehensions about living an unfulfilled life. He referred to the old man as being, not the subject of the poem, but the occasion for the poem.

Pinksy then went on to read a series of his own poems, which used the objects in his studio as their occasions. So much for writer's block.

And after he had read another series or two or so, he invited questions and requests from the audience of two hundred gathered Tulsans. There were the stock, "How much do you edit?" and "What do you do about writer's block?" queries, answered with familiar, yet patient replies. Then, my friend Bill Zaschang asked what his take on Slam was. He made a number of conciliatory feints at the subject ("better for a society to honor and revere performers than dukes and titleholders") before settling into the deeper truth, which was, to him, that Slam was more a movement toward literature than a movement of literature.

I let a few more tiresome questions fly before I had to raise my hand. In my business suit and neatly trimmed beard, I must have cut an interesting figure. He called on me immediately. I started to ask a question. "Some friends of mine and I have noticed independently, then commented on collectively, the lack of skill with which some 'professional poets' read their own work--"

He intterupted to go on a rant about how the poem is an art formed in the ear of the imagination -- there was no auditory cognate for "visualize" but that was what he meant -- and if we insisted that a poet be also a performer, we would have lost to us the works of Dickinson and Bishop. He answered at length the question he thought I was asking, then went on to another question.

After the end of the event, I told Bill that what Pinsky was saying to him was that it was no big deal if an amateur poet could read their own work well; and to me that it was no big deal if a "professional" poet sucked at it. Bill explained that he knew in advance what Pinsky's opinion was of Slam, but he wanted the rest of the audience to hear it, too. As for me, I was not insisting upon anything. I just wondered why so many poets would go on NPR and read at so many workshops without giving the audience, much less their own craft, the respect to learn how to read in public. I'm not talking about Richard Chaimberland, or even Richard Widmark. But for crying out loud, couldn't they discreetly enroll in Toastmasters for a few months?

With all Pinsky's degrees and accolades, this self-professed working class kid from New Jersey has become, I fear, more professed than self. I applaud his 200 poems project, but every night in the bars and cafes in cities across the country, there are 2,000 poets reading for love out loud.

And love, as Bill Z. will tell you...

...ain't nothin'
but a little-bitty bug
that crawls in your ear,
and digs a hole right into your brain.
It tickles and it itches,
but no matter how you try
you never can reach in
far enough to scratch it.
So, it hides in there. Inside of you!
And it slowly drives you mad
as it burrows in deeper and deeper
until, finally, it lays
eggs! in your dreams....

12/05/2001

Community of Ideas Post 911

I see a young man in the bookstore coffee shop
poring over some text. His dark
balding head down, crown
my way, showing skin of
olives, skin of caramel.
He glances up quickly, revealing
hooked nose, almond eye, then bends back
over his book as over a prayer mat.

He is short-haired, clean shaven
his clothing is drab, nondescript,
devoid of cultural clue.
He blends in almost,
as if by instruction.

He rises furtively and turns to go:
He feels eyes on him.
He tucks the book under his arm,
“Pediatrics.”
There is another book also.
A book I cannot read.

12/04/2001

Cow Story
by Olivia Jensen

November 30, 2001

Janus was a girl whom no one understood. She always wanted to plow the fields, harvest the crops, and wear overalls. She was what we would call today a “tomboy,” but in 1878 simply no girl behaved this way. Her brother, Pete, always sneered at her whenever she wanted to do the things he and his friends did. “What? Do you wanna be a boy, Janus? No one will wanna marry a girl who plows the fields and wears overalls. They’ll wanna marry Emily Johnson. She cooks, cleans, and she’s pretty. Not like you in your pigtails.”

This hurt Janus’ feelings very much. So she spent most of her time with the animals. The sheep were friendly, and the hens laid eggs for her to cook with.

One day, the family went into a money crunch. Janus’ father gathered the family around to tell them. He said, “Everyone, I don’t want you to be scared but all our crops were destroyed in the cyclone this spring. And –er-er, I don’t know how to tell you but, uh—we’re runnin’ outta money folks. Your ma and I decided here in Oklahoma there’s only one kinda job—“

“Papa, I don’t wanna be a cowhand!” exploded Janus.

“It’s the only way, “ said Papa.

“But Papa,” said Pete, “Janus is—is—is a girl.” he finally stammered.

“I know she’s a girl,” said Papa. “New laws have allowed women to be cowhands. The job pays well. And if both er ya go we’ll get twice as much.”

When the time came to leave they said their good-byes quickly and hitched up the horses. The journey through town was uneventful. With people booing and snickering as Janus passed.

When they got there. The man at the gate told them, “You’ll be travlin’ to Kansas—is that a girl!!!” He said. And fell off balance and quickly stopped leaning on his pitchfork. (Don’t ask me why he had a pitchfork.)

“No, I’m a boy,” Janus said sarcastically.

“Just go!” the main said, getting his balance back.

Herding cattle was hard work. The cattle wouldn’t move. Janus thought there was no point in her even being there. Then she remembered the money, and gritted her teeth. “I can do it!” she roared.

“That’s the spirit,” said a nurturing voice behind her.

“Who’s that?” she said, scared. Then she saw a beautiful cow. She was purr white, with large brown, velvety spots and deep brown eyes. She was #66,

“This must be some kind of joke,” Janus usured herself.

“No joke,” said the voice. “The trick to these cows is you need to talk to them.”

Er- okay,” she said. And feeling silly, she said “I’m not gonna hurt you. Go on. Go on.”

In no time at all she lead the way to Kansas, with #66 at her side. #66 continued to help Janus over 3 years of herding.

When she had earned enough, she went back to her family, with Papa’s open arms to greet her. She had kept half of her money on Papa’s request. She set off to Kentucky (because that’s where #66 was shipped) to buy #66. Janus never married, preferring to protest for women’s rights. Coming home to find #66 curled up by the fire.

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