Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

Hypertension: the personal and the political again

Here’s how I’m answering the “How are you doing?” question these days:

Well, Trump is still president.

*

I’ve been officially diagnosed with hypertension. I’m at the early stage apparently but the blood pressure has been climbing steadily since summer 2015. New guidelines have made my level–over 130/90–the beginning of treatment. I’m “elevated”. Treatment to my doctor of course means drugs. He is, I found out from one of the residents, one of country’s experts on hypertension, one of the mysterious characters who helps write the rules of treatment. So there is good reason to believe him.

Still, I’m having trouble believing I can’t lower my blood pressure without drugs. Drugs might be the only way, I understand, but I want to at least try to avoid them. It took me a month to get over the fact that I probably had to change something in my diet or activity level, but then I started going back to the gym, limiting salt and sugar, limiting processed carbohydrates, embracing water, green vegetables, reducing red meat. I’ve lost about five pounds, which is a beginning. My goal is to lose 10 more, to weigh 185 again.

Once the weather is better, the dog and I can walk more and more regularly. Much of this winter has been short bursts of activity and then getting back to the couch as quickly as possible.

I am almost certainly going to have to cut down portions and maybe even get rid of bread and butter, pasta and all dairy to see if that will help get me down toward my goal weight. I’m not however a fundamentalist or a martyr, so I will have to try a number of things, I expect.

I keep thinking: if only Trump  weren’t President; if only the Republican agenda to ruin America for anyone not making $250K a year  would disappear; if only the rich felt they had enough money; if only the American people could throw off the shackles of their poor educations, impoverished imaginations, their fear and panic and habit of projecting their own worst traits onto others and vote out the Republicans; if only I’d win a prize or have a book accepted or could find time for a residency or just win the lottery….

In the meantime, though, I think I actually need to deal with the present as it is and as it has been apparently since 2015, before Trump. The temperature of the country has been rising for a while now, just as my bad eating habits have continued. Do I want to be one of those men who won’t take advice or ask for help because they’re sure it’s a problem with a simple way out?

I have finally bought myself a blood pressure cuff and begun the work of self-monitoring. I have already found out that my blood pressure spikes between 5 to 10 points between home and the doctor’s office. Today when I went in to have blood drawn fora blood glucose test and a prostate screening test (a precaution at my age), my pressure was at 140/95, as high as I think it’s ever been. The nurse who took my blood suggested a 24 hour monitor, so they can rule out White Coat Syndrome, in which just going to the doctor’s office can raise some people’s bp significantly.

But come on. Isn’t it time to change? Slowly the pull away from the fast, the easy, the processed whites of salt, sugar, milk, breads, and pasta. Slowly replacing of coffee with water and morning tea. As the crimes of the president pile up, as the attacks of the Republicans on the working class and middle class become clear to us, as the foolishness of voting them into positions of power becomes clearer and clearer, America itself may finally come to grips with its bad choices and aim for less self-destructive alternatives–ones that embrace sustainability, community, and large-scale environmental health rather than short-term greed, quick policy patches, self-protective defensiveness. I want to believe the nation can do it. I want to be here long enough to see if it can, to do my part.

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Mulligans: notes on forgiving men

Mulligan n. surname, from Gaelic Maolagan, Old Irish Maelecan, a double diminutive of mael “bald,” hence “the little bald (or shaven) one,” probably often a reference to a monk or disciple.

As “stew made with whatever’s available,” 1904, hobo slang, probably from a proper name.

The golf sense of “extra stroke after a poor shot” (1949) is sometimes said to be from the name of a Canadian golfer in the 1920s whose friends gave him an extra shot in gratitude for driving them over rough roads to their weekly foursome at St. Lambert Country Club near Montreal.

(Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper)

Actually, the extra shot wasn’t given in gratitude so much as just given according to this story, after Mr. Mulligan gives himself a do-over and expects the other men to just shut up about it.

*

Men, I knew early, expect to be forgiven for just about everything. They don’t always need to be thanked, but they do need to be forgiven always and immediately. They make mistakes constantly because they are human, I learned, and so they’re just like you and I, but unlike you and I they pay for everything by working hard and exhausting themselves to keep food on your plate and comic books in your hands. If they lose their tempers now and then, they should be forgiven as soon as they’re done yelling. Hugged if possible. Praised for their sacrifices and their tireless work keeping it all together, for having given up on their own dreams to sail around the world or backpack through Europe or have a quiet horse farm just outside of town. It seemed to help if you finally admitted that you in fact were at fault to have even mentioned what they’d done wrong and so upset them. Men were incredibly fragile that way, I understood, and couldn’t take much emotional pressure. Even if it seemed like the truth. Sometimes their hands were shaky after the long drive home from work; sometimes they were irritable after a long day, an awful month, a disappointing year. A disappointing dinner could be the last straw. Or a request to do something at home too. Or wrong tone of voice. Men worked hard for all of us, I was taught, and we should curb ourselves in order to show our appreciation of their efforts. They were trying, for God’s sake, to keep everybody happy, I remember, and that should matter, that should count. Jesus Christ, all they wanted was to come home and relax and not be nagged about things, I heard. Couldn’t we just shut up sometimes? It’s just a mistake. Fuck.

Here’s an example of a recent mulligan.

Men made mistakes, I knew. But they were owed too some consideration. Come on. My own father embezzled money from his business, even after he sold it finally to a bigger company and stayed on as manager. My mother, who did the accounts for years, made it plain to anyone at the home office who could read exactly what my father was doing. No one said a thing, she told me. No one even cared, she said, which is about when she decided she’d had enough of a Mulligan world. He’d lost thousands and thousands on off-track betting. He’d had affairs, she believed. They fought loudly and it could get violent, physical. I learned early to walk downstairs and yell at them to stop when my father mentioned the gun in the closet. Then as he wept in abject self-pity, begging me to tell him that I loved him, I would do that. I would perform the son’s sacred right to give his father a mulligan. Let’s try that again. I put on the face of infinite patience for a long time. Then one day I realized I could do that at the same time I could wish him dead. I often see the same look on politicians’ children’s faces.

Questions for the men’s club:

How many mulligans do you give until you tell your golfing partner it’s not a game anymore? How many mulligans until it stops being a joke? How many mulligans per round until there is nothing finally to say at the club later? And the relationship becomes, like the soup of the same name, something made of scraps and whatever’s left? At what point do you stop calling?

Conversely, how many mulligans until Mulliganism becomes a way of life, a way around potential pain or embarrassment or, as in the case of a wealthy father, the disaster of dis-inheritance? Maybe, if my father had made more money, we might have Mulliganed him a lot more, stuck it out, stayed true to an investment portfolio which he represented. How many relationships are made of just such long-term strategies, treating the cruel father, the racist grandfather, the violent son as bumblers who need a second-chance? That seems the more pervasive American strategy to me. Growing up, I would say there wasn’t a single adult male in my small-town that I trusted not to lose his temper. Many of them were good men, I knew. But that was also a world without psychology really. Social work meant bringing a cake over to a neighbor if they’d had a tragedy and saying absolutely nothing about a sudden black eye. My mother once tried a therapist who actually told her to go back and try again, so she gave up on that route. There was no other way for people like us to get through life, I saw very quickly, than starting over again and again, hoping this time would be different, an endless Groundhog Day of Mulligans.

Which is where at least 40% of Americans are with this president and the Republicans in Congress, without anything else to do but keep saying let’s give him yet another chance. Maybe this time he won’t cheat on us. Maybe this time he won’t lie to our faces.

My High Horse

Every morning I get up on my high horse to have a look again at the world. No one else knows how to drive. Everyone else is out for him/her/and now themself. Nobody else cares whom he/she/they hurt. Everyone is so busy panicking they can’t breathe or be logical. It’s bewildering. No one sees the big picture, the true cost, the colossal waste. No one seems able to restrain human desire enough to save the planet, control population, lower our consumption of fuel, food, merchandise, common resources. The rich are monsters who have much, much more than they shall ever need; they seem to have no notion at all of how to share. The poor are ravaged by need, riddled with prejudices and a lack of imagination. Neither of them seem willing to be still and make good choices, work, study, change their lives. Not like the rest of us. Well, a few of us maybe. How lucky I am to have this high horse, I think, which gives me such an ability to move between the unconscious and savage and dangerous and doomed. He is a wonderful horse, tall and expert at moving almost undetected in crowds, at parties, at the grocery store. He hardly takes up any room he’s in. I’ve gotten him trained so well, at this point he teaches nearly a third of my classes so I often find myself having fallen asleep while he talks about the history of modernism or the trouble with syllabics as a form or the writer’s need to describe a character more before arriving at a judgement. He can go on and on with almost no tug on the reins until I wake up, and as long as I smile at the end of my nap, the students often don’t know which one of us was there. I’m not always sure myself if I’m honest, which I try to be. All day long, people in need stop by the office to ask us questions of protocol and procedure when they can’t find an answer on Google. Sometimes they bring their own high horses in and we talk about the future. At night, having guided me all day through the dangers of the world, most of which are moral lapses and ethical failings of politicians and not really terrorists or same-sexual marriages, my hard-working and intrepid horse clip-clops me back home where, for dinner, I make it something large, quick, and practical, full of green leafy vegetables (for now I need to restrain my own consumption of processed white things like sugar, flour, milk, salt, and Apple products). We settle together on the couch, under a blanket if the house is a little chilly because we’re trying to save money, and watch tv or play video games, no better than anyone else, we snort to ourselves, as we blow up our enemies and conquer kingdoms, or laugh at the foolish situations other people seem to be able to stay out of.

Ghost Story: notes for a midterm

(I fell behind in my blog a day intention and so am punting today, reprising an old post about ghosts, which will use both G and H, and so I can get to I later today and be caught up. It is of course cheating to do this, but I had a chance to work on a poetry manuscript these last couple of days and decided that everything not a poetry manuscript was going on the back burner.)

Here is the in-class writing assignment I give my autobiography students around midterm when they’re starting to burn out.

__

Make a list of stories you have never told anyone about. Five minutes.

Choose one of the stories

Here’s are the rules to telling the story using multiple abrasions to the language:

1. You may not use the same syntactical structure twice in a row. A review of your choices: fragment, simple, compound, complex, compound-complex.
2. You must create interruptions to the narrative. You can have up to two consecutive sentences follow the narrative but then the third sentence must be non-narrative and can be quite weird, strange, musical, sensual as long as it doesn’t propel the narrative forward. You can have as many non-narrative sentences as you like AS LONG AS the non-narrative sentences don’t themselves become expected. The idea is to keep the language at a constant boil, as it were, a constant state of tension. Make the reader work.
3. You may not use the letter M.
4. The word “ghost” must appear somewhere in the piece. See below.
5. Choose a vowel sound that you can use to haunt the story OR create a phrase you can repeat occasionally ( but NOT in regular intervals!)
6. Extra credit: use ten words whose meaning you don’t know throughout the story.

A word about the word ghost, taken from Wikipedia:

The English word ghost continues Old English gást, from a hypothetical Common Germanic *gaistaz. It is common to West Germanic, but lacking in North and East Germanic (the equivalent word in Gothic is ahma, Old Norse has andi m., önd f.). The pre-Germanic form was *ghoisdo-s, apparently from a root denoting “fury, anger” reflected in Old Norse geisa “to rage.” The Germanic word is recorded as masculine only, but likely continues a neuter s-stem. The original meaning of the Germanic word would thus have been an animating principle of the mind, in particular capable of excitation and fury (compare óðr). In Germanic paganism, “Germanic Mercury,” and the later Odin, was at the same time the conductor of the dead and the “lord of fury” leading the Wild Hunt.

Besides denoting the human spirit or soul, both of the living and the deceased, the Old English word is used as a synonym of Latin spiritus also in the meaning of “breath, blast” from the earliest (9th century) attestations. It could also denote any good or evil spirit, i.e. angels and demons; the Anglo-Saxon gospel refers to the demonic possession of Matthew 12:43 as se unclæna gast. Also from the Old English period, the word could denote the spirit of God, viz. the “Holy Ghost.”

The now prevailing sense of “the soul of a deceased person, spoken of as appearing in a visible form” only emerges in Middle English (14th century). The modern noun does, however, retain a wider field of application, extending on one hand to soul, spirit,” vital principle, mind or psyche, the seat of feeling, thought and moral judgement; on the other hand used figuratively of any shadowy outline, fuzzy or unsubstantial image, in optics, photography and cinematography especially a flare, secondary image or spurious signal.

The synonym spook is a Dutch loanword, akin to Low German spôk (of uncertain etymology); it entered the English language via the United States in the 19th century. Alternative words in modern usage include spectre (from Latin spectrum), the Scottish wraith (of obscure origin), phantom (via French ultimately from Greek phantasma, compare fantasy) and apparition. The term shade in classical mythology translates Greek σκιά, or Latin umbra, in reference to the notion of spirits in the Greek underworld. “Haint” is a synonym for ghost used in regional English of the southern United States, and the “haint tale” is a common feature of southern oral and literary tradition. The term poltergeist is a German word, literally a “noisy ghost,” for a spirit said to manifest itself by invisibly moving and influencing objects.

Wraith is a Scottish dialectal word for “ghost, spectre, apparition.” It came to be used in Scottish Romanticist literature, and acquired the more general or figurative sense of “portent, omen.” In 18th- to 19th-century Scottish literature, it was also applied to aquatic spirits. The word has no commonly accepted etymology; OED notes “of obscure origin” only. An association with the verb writhe was the etymology favored by J. R. R. Tolkien. Tolkien’s use of the word in the naming of the creatures known as the Ringwraiths has influenced later usage in fantasy literature. Bogie is an Ulster Scots term for a ghost, and appears in Scottish poet John Mayne’s Hallowe’en in 1780.

A revenant is a deceased person returning from the dead to haunt the living, either as a disembodied ghost or alternatively as an animated (“undead”) corpse. Also related is the concept of a fetch, the visible ghost or spirit of a person yet alive.

Fake/Fuck: some notes on intensity (Nancy/Heidi)

I keep correcting student sentences that use “so” when they really “very” or “extremely,” as in My relationship with my mother is so complicated. It’s a habit I’ve noticed they fall into without thinking, which means they’ve probably grown up with it. Does “very” mean anything to them anymore, or is the monosyllabic so just faster than the disyllabic very or the trisyllabic extremely? It’s a marker, I know, of a certain kind of intensity. Maybe the long o sound, which can be elongated when said out loud in ways that the long and short e sounds in very and extremely can’t be—my love life is soooooooo complicated—makes it feel more expressive, more intense.

I have been known to say Fuck as I’m in-class talking to students as a way to emphasize a point. It usually shocks them into laughter which can shift the deadly atmosphere a long class can take on. But you can only do that trick so many times in a term before they see that it’s a fake intensifier and that I am potentially just another adult trying to seem cool. Another fake fuck.

At the moment, I’m not sure what is fake or what is real. Politicians certainly can’t be trusted to tell us anything about anything; their inability to answer a question is now a given. People’s frustration with that is I think at least one of the reasons why the current president got voted in. He seemed the only person who defied the ordinary ways of doing things. He name-called, he heckled, he out-and-out lied and boasted and said things that many of us trained not to lie or hurt other people’s feelings would never say. It seemed refreshing, I imagine, to many, many people who, like me, flip the channel when yet another politician avoids a pointed interview question. America was tired of Teflon non-entities.

Many many Americans seemed to prefer someone who at least said something, even if it’s ridiculous or stupid or racist or homophobic or sexist. Because it seems real to have opinions, and if anyone has had a difficult father or family, it’s real to hear someone say he hates whole groups of people, to be categorically misinformed, to make broad sweeping statements. Maybe now that we’ve had a taste of this President, the country might vote for people who speak in measured tones again. I do think that Hillary Clinton’s tone, which was always measured and careful, was heard as too academic and evasive, as if she was one of those teachers most people remember from middle school who already knew the answer to the questions she’d ask. You had to read her mind, which seemed inscrutable. She never had what Obama or Bill Clinton had as a speaker: another register, the ability to project herself as one of the people. She didn’t act like she wasn’t smart, which is a sin in many, many places in America. The 30-40% of Americans who will always vote for an idiot who confirms their own prejudices/beliefs aside, that inability to shift may have cost her the election, as it cost Dukakis, Gore, and Kerry before her, all people who wouldn’t say the word Fuck to save their lives, although they must have thought it many, many times after the election. I hope none of them thought, Well, that soooooo discouraging.

I say Fuck daily these days. I wake up thinking What the Fuck is that asshole doing now? What is that smug Fuck McConnell or that smiling Fake Fuck Ryan going to fuck up next? I rage listening to NPR interviews racist fucks like they have anything to say. I conversely cheer when someone like Jake Tapper tells the always smiling Nazi Stephen Miller that he’s wasting Tapper’s and the audience’s time. I go into work and try my best to impersonate a functioning adult. Once in a while, though, I feel the need to remind students I’m not dead or a pre-programmed hologram. I care about the state of the world and our ability to create beauty out of pain, a deep and powerful ability human beings have always done, under terrible conditions. I want them to know I have hope and anger, and that these are things they can have too. At home, exhausted by my performances, I hang out with my dog who can’t fuck or fake much of anything.

Fuck, I hope the voters who hold the shifting middle ground have had it up to their soon-to-be-uninsured necks with the Fake Fucks the Republicans have become. I hope there are enough people who will fucking show up to vote, despite whatever fears they have, however inconvenient it might be that day. I hope the Democrats will learn to avoid a language that keeps saying things are “soooo complicated,” which makes them seem spiritless and uninterested in the details of human experience, fake. I want my students not to have to face so many fake and fucked up people in their futures; they are so many of them filled with despair and dread.

Energy (where it comes from) (Michelle)

From Rest: I wake early, usually having slept at least six hours. Which means, since I seem now to always wake around 3 or 3:30, I try to be in bed by 9. When I wake, it’s dark and although I’m initially still sleepy, I go downstairs and write at least 250 to 500 words between 3 and 5. The dog usually slumps some part of himself against me and sighing goes back to sleep. I love the feeling of being up and quietly writing for these hours. At around 5, I’m tired again so I usually curl up for a quick nap until six when my husband wakes up to a Game or Thrones ringtone.

From Food and information: when M comes downstairs, he always asks if I’d mind if he puts the news on. I always say no. We usually watch cbs to get a quick update of big stories. He’s turned on the electric kettle in the kitchen and puts in some bread in the toaster. If the current president hasn’t completely fucked up the country, I get up, the dog getting up with me, and we join M in the kitchen. One of us pours kibble and replenishes his water dish. I arrange something for myself to eat: cottage cheese or yogurt, fruit, and toast. Either English breakfast tea or just water. Sometimes a couple slices of ham or turkey. Then we all go back to the living room to watch the news, adjusting ourselves to the truth of the world, practicing our social voices on one another—what are you doing today? What’s on the agenda today?

From Debt and fear: I work because I need to. I’m lucky in that I love what I do: teaching writing and helping to administer a really good writing program at a large research university. But if given the choice, I would not go to work all the time. I’d take a year off now and then and just write or learn more about painting or another language or travel more. But I’m in debt to a bank for my little house, and to Honda for my little car, and I have to pay for the utilities that make my warm shower function so wonderfully, and I don’t grow my own food or make my own clothes so I have to have money. If I stopped going to work, I know that the bubble I live in would collapse in on me very quickly and without much mercy. So I get dressed, I plan my lessons on the bus in, and I am as kind a person as I can manage to be at the office. After thirty years of practice, I can stay almost completely in character for up to six hours, typing up reports, uploading letters of recommendations, going to meetings, showing up on time and prepared to the classes I teach. My students keep me honest; my colleagues keep me entertained and inspired. Well, most of them do. Some in both categories also drive me nuts. My work keeps me in touch with history, great literature, smart and funny and weird people of all kinds, and this generates an energy that usually so overwhelms the fear and debt animating me that I forget about it for long periods of time.

From Fear of dying before I’m 80: Three days a week, I also go to the gym for thirty minutes to keep excess weight off and give the body something to do than slump in chairs. I prefer the elliptical to the treadmill. I prefer weights to the machines. I have a belief that exerting myself in this way will allow me to live until I’m 80, a number I’ve associated with having lived a full life.

From Love, happiness, hunger: I consider the end of the day to be five pm, after which I want to be left alone to walk the dog, talk to my husband, and watch tv while eating something. Although as a percentage of my time, these three things seem to get the least amount of time, these things and my writing, which is to say my inner life, are the point of all my energy use during the day. Talking with my husband, walking the dog by the river, hanging out with friends at the dog run, eating and reading and writing at the cafe, these are things I do because I really want to do them. If I had all the money in the world, as we used to say in my family—which really meant enough to live on without having to work—these are the things I would want to do more of.

From habit: I’ve even learned to like the moment I think to myself, darkness in every window and the tv only a kind of chatter, Okay, time for bed again, time to remember the debts I owe for having this life.

(

Deshabille (Beth)

dis•ha•bille (ˌdɪs əˈbil, -ˈbi) also deshabille

n.

1. the state of being carelessly or partially dressed.

2. Archaic. a loose morning dress; negligee.

3. a disorderly or disorganized state of mind or way of thinking.

—Free Dictionary

“My mind’s not right.” —Robert Lowell

I was going to use D for depression, as in, I’ve noticed an increase in the number of students I see these days who have a clinical form of depression or anxiety or both. But my god, I didn’t want to write about it. I delayed and delayed all day. I graded papers. I visited a friend who has a new cat. She gave me a recipe for something that sounded delicious. I went to the supermarket to remind myself of the country’s abundance. Everybody was there. Home again, I walked the dog. I dedicated myself to not writing more about depression, a thing I decided everybody knew and nobody needed to hear more about. The recipe, by the way, involved butter, potatoes, cheese, and garlic at 400 for 40 minutes. I even thought for a while, while I loaded the dishwasher and then when I dusted, that maybe I’d take the high road and write about dedication, as in, It takes real dedication these days to teach students who can’t see the future, any future, never mind their own future, which is what at least three of them have written in the last set of papers I read; it takes dedication to do this when most teachers can’t even see their own future, much less the future of the country at the moment. It wasn’t just duty. There are teachers who come in early and leave late to talk to students, who delay their own lives to help steady the wavering flames of young hope, to keep them out of despair. Sometimes there are dogs meeting owners at the door, wagging their tails at the sight of relief. It was dark out by the time the potatoes were ready, and I ate them while I watched something I don’t even remember now, something to make me forget about time. Most of me was under a blanket. Then it came to me: I’d write about devotion. What keeps us as adults, freed as we are from those illusions of youth we might even call delusional—that one can see the future!—; what keeps us going? What things do we do and do and do that keep us moving in what we hope is the right direction, even if our hearts aren’t always in it? A poem here, a recipe there, a visit to a friend who has in the midst of a sad time rescued something. I listen to the students who are suffering crises of doubt and dopamine; all around my office are yet more offices where my colleagues are doing the exact same thing. Just describe, I keep saying to my students. I tell them to try not to evaluate their lives before they can literally describe what’s in it. They are too quick to metaphor maybe, or they’ve been taught that what art does is grind broken glass in other people’s eyes. Just try to work on what’s in front of you right now. For some money is a constant dilemma. For others, what will their parents say or think? They feel damaged in every way, some of them, except when they write. Some of them wear beautiful clothes. Some do not. I keep Kleenex for everyone and a list of words to begin with. Write down everything you know about hallways, I say. Or sparrows. Little things, start with where you think no one else might notice. Sometimes a thing’s better for not being perfect.

Coincidence (Jody)

I was thinking in the shower today about nothing, specifically about how many essayists are interested on it. How it might be the black hole around which the Essay as a form revolves. Then I thought about Seinfeld’s claim that his was a show about nothing. Then about how many of the shows I loved—Lucille Ball’s shows, Mary Tyler Moore, and All in the Family—were about nothing too. The nothing that a housewife then a young mother then a widowed bank teller must continually contend against. The nothing a young woman has to guide her if she turns away from the expectations of marriage and motherhood. (Golden Girls, I imagine, asks what do you do after your years of marriage and motherhood, when you begin to turn back into nothing again.) All In the Family reminded us of the ache of being part of a family were nothing ever seems to be agreed upon, everything a constant dialogue or shouting match. Sitcoms always seemed to me to be built, like many video games are now, around the myth of the ego’s endless renewal, the myth of Coyote who keeps being killed off only to rise again restored and more determined to get what he wants, which is to win at life, to stop being hungry. Maybe the sitcom itself was designed to distract us from the nothing that seemed to arise with the invention of the television. After World War 2, after America became a superpower, we faced a problem: Now what? We went to war with manual labor and inefficiency, inventing things to free us from both. Now, freed in so many ways, what do we do with all our free time? What have my hands done all day but type and navigate food into my mouth? Is it part of the difficulty my students and I have in not checking our phones during class due to the loneliness of our hands? Or are human hands just inherently lonely after our teenage years when adults stop holding them? How quickly we want to fill them with beautiful strangers’ hands or hamburgers or video game controllers. Does being empty-handed imply being empty-hearted? In a sitcom, we are handed one adventure after another until we end up married or in prison, or as in Newhart, we wake up from a dream, or as in the Sopranos, we simply, abruptly, go back to sleep, back to thinking nothing at all about our lives, back to normal.

Bellwether (Ron)

Bellwether is a word formed by a combination of the Middle English words belle (meaning “bell”) and wether (a noun that refers to a male sheep that has been castrated). The shepherd could know where the flock is by the sound of the bellwether or hear if there was trouble, I presume.

It’s come to mean a leader or the leading indicator of a trend. As in: Ohio is a bellwether state in that it has voted for the candidate who eventually became the president; it has not missed since 1964.

This is a slight change in meaning, though, since we now use the word bellwether to mark someone or something who might help us see the future instead of as a way to mark where the flock was in space. The bellwether doesn’t lead its sheep anywhere to some better life, just some new grass to crop.

It’s a beautiful word, though, right up there with cellardoor. And it’s certainly better than the new terms—thought leaders, influencers, or change agents—which are almost universally mocked among my friends at least for their lack of truth or beauty. Maybe the present thought leaders heard about the castration requirement and got cold feet.

For Rachel Carson, the loss of songbirds was a bellwether. The disappearance of frogs and bees and the Eastern Mountain Lion, which was just declared extinct, might be other indicators of where we’re going. Other people watch the stock market where they ring a bell every evening.

What are the bellwethers in your life? Who do you follow on Twitter or Instagram or Facebook? Who would you follow off a cliff or into a pack of wolves? What’s the difference between a leader and the one in the lead? Where are we going anyway?

Again, Beginning

Where to begin: first memory or present moment? Autobiography is a trickier thing than many believe. It’s not a straight line or royal road to enlightenment. When did your life begin? Is it what you remember or what you desire or where you came from or what you saw one day in 1985, in a bus station in Binghamton, NY? Where did you start?

I think back to Thich Nhat Hahn’s piece, Interbeing, in Peace Is Every Step:

“If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper.” (See the longer version here.) Without the cloud, he reminds, there is no rain; without rain there are no trees. Without sunlight no trees. Without the logger. Without the logger’s mother. And so on into infinities. Nothing is without its contribution. “As thin as this sheet of paper is, it contains everything in the universe in it.”

The work of origin is tricky, in other words. Whose contribution do you want to trace? Which came first, we ask, the chicken or the egg? Does it matter if both are grade A? (Here’s the chart to determine the grade. In it, I finally found the difference between squab and pigeon was immaturity and tenderness in one and maturity and toughness in the other.)

We use the letter A to start off the alphabet. Why? There are theories but no one seems to know. The letter A started life, as many of us did, upside-down from how we know it now, as a picture: the head of an ox or cow. Maybe since cattle indicated wealth, were such an important source of labor, food, and material, it felt right to let it lead the system of representing and accounting that writing arose out of.

Other theories suggest the first alphabet was the skeletal remains of a long poem that once existed. All we have left is an acrostic structure which poets keep trying to reconstruct or rewrite. And it might of course be simply a random collection. We’ll never be sure, which is probably why we devised a song to remember it, to cement in place its (dis)order.

This is not my first alphabetic assay. I go back to the structure because I never end up with the same words. Writing ABCDEF down the page still gives me a little first grade thrill, of having arrived at the door of mystery. Now comes the work of finding a way to open things up, to see the clouds and the trees in this sheet of paper.

This time I actively solicited words from my Facebook friends, and I thank them for giving me a set of strange and challenging prompts. My goal is to explore a word a day for the month, looking for a way into it or into myself maybe. What’s the difference? The aim’s to be surprised.

Noah Stetzer

noah.stetzer@gmail.com

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