Monthly Archives: August 2013

Balloon Animals

It can be frustrating

when you see a particular man walking around

like he’s always got a

sprained ankle

doesn’t he know

there are those

whose ends are tied off

by careful hands

so that they mustn’t

become anything other than what they are

if one is twisted into a fish, one cannot gallop

if one is made an elephant

one cannot fly

you are an elephant, they say

stomp your feet

have babies

look out for predators

and try to be happy.

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Watch poetry documentary “To Be Heard” for free on Hulu

I’m tired of fearing the walk down to the registrar

like paying your tuition with rows of quarters and socks of change

isn’t as cool as the flick of your pen to sign your name on them dotted lines

when the only lines I’m familiar with are the ones outside the pantry

I’m tired of 125th street being the borderline between the haves and have nots

tired of who I am being where I’m from

like somehow my worth isn’t worth 

shit

I’m tired

I’m sick

I’m sick and I’m tired 

I’m tired of being sick and tired of being

broke.

 — Anthony Pittman, Karina Sanchez, and Pearl Quick 

If you dig poetry, and own a computer (and who am I kidding, that’s probably everybody reading this post), then you might consider checking out the documentary To Be Heard on Hulu for free here. The doc tells the stories of three high school students from the Bronx who are part of a writing club at their high school called Power Writers.

Power Writers employs the motto that “if you don’t learn to write your own life story, then someone else will write it for you.” According to its website, it’s an organization that empowers youth through the mastery of language and cultural literacy.

And it provides a kick in the ass of our three protagonists. The three — Anthony Pittman, Karina Sanchez, and Pearl Quick — are best friends and call themselves “The Tripod.” All three of them are spoken word talents, but they all have challenges at home, more so than you average high school kid. They all come from single parent, low-income homes and each live in a high crime area.

Writing for these kids is more than a hobby: it’s a lifeline and potentially a way out of their circumstances.

And yes all of them have a story worth watching unfold on the screen.

My favorite is Pearl, a really sweet, bright girl battling a self-image problem who so badly wants to go to Sarah Lawrence, she ends up crying after sending in her college application. More than the other two kids, she really takes to their trip to Walden Pond in Massachusetts, and after reading aloud the famous Thoreau quote (“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived”), says simply, “that’s really tight.”

Then she reflects: “Some days when I didn’t want to be in someone else’s world, I’d write my own because that’s where I was most safe, where no one made fun of me. And that’s where I was treated right. So whenever I wrote about a girl, she would be slim and she would be great and people would love her. I feel like for other people they can mess up and have daddy and mommy bail them out. I don’t have that. I can’t mess up or I’ll end up what everyone expects someone from the hood to become…I think it’s time to be just a little bit different, and I’m working towards a better me.”

I think many, many writers can relate to the first half of this quote, the other half of the quote probably not so much. And that’s what makes these kids compelling to writers like myself and probably some of you. On one hand (speaking economically here) their stories are totally unique if you were raised in a middle class household, and yet in another sense their experience is universal for anyone who has ever wielded a pen for comfort and pleasure.

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Short Story: The Tetherball Match

* Today was our first day back at the school where I teach. I got the idea for this story from all of my amazing students, and especially the tetherball players that battle for glory day in and day out under the spirit-slaying Cali sun. Enjoy!

It was 103 degrees outside, and the play yard was on fire. En fuego, if you were a Spanish speaker. And Marcos was. His parents were Mexican-born migrant workers, who followed the crop. And so Marcos spent 6 months every year residing in a small town in the center of Texas called Harper, and the other half in Napa, California, where he was in the fifth grade at Mondavi Elementary.

In class he was well behaved, the kind of kid teachers secretly wish to clone. Always arrived on time for school. Never talked out of turn. Always raised his hand to get the teacher’s permission to sharpen his pencil.

Out on the tetherball courts, though, all the kids knew him as El Corazon.

El Corazon in English means The Heart, and you’ll understand why this was his nickname soon enough. The kid didn’t have much in the way of height but he made up for it in jumping ability. Dude could get up 3 feet in the air. And he was a brilliant strategist. A real student of the game. He knew every trick in the book, and he’d use them all to beat you.

For 2 years at Mondavi Elementary, El Corazon ruled the tether ball world. Even the teachers would discuss his prowess with each other out on the lawn.

As champ, he enjoyed a number of privileges normal kids could only dream of. He had an entourage of 6 kids, all of whom spent their entire lunch recess rooting for his success. And he could cut the tether ball line whenever he felt like it and the other players had to let him.

That day, when the recess bell went off, all the kids raced to the courts in order to get into an early game.

Marcos didn’t even head over there until ten minutes had passed.

He’d been eyeing the competition from a four square court across the way.

He wasn’t impressed. He needed something different today. And he wasn’t talking about any of the usual suspects — Benny “the Bull” Guitierrez , Janice “Nosebreaker” Hong, Tina the Terrible, and “Super” Mario Rivers — all of whom had grown undeserved reputations, he thought, out on the court.

He would need to recruit an opponent from outside of his peers for a challenge, he decided. And so without warning he strapped on the yellow headband that bore his nickname in bright red letters (his mother sewed it for him), and walked over to Lance, a playground aide who was looking rather bored at the moment.

Lance was a college student who spent recess chasing down kickballs in the bushes and umpiring baseball games.

When the small boy with the curious headband approached him in the yard and asked to play a game of tether with him, Lance mistook him for a socially challenged lad in need of a friend.

And so he said “sure.” Well this pleased Corazon immensely, but all he did was smile and begin his lengthy stretching routine.

Two fourth graders were in the middle of a game, but they knew to clear out for Corazon. Plus, they were excited about witnessing such a match. In truth the entire tetherball area and beyond was buzzing with energy.

The baseball players came over to root for Lance when word got to them about the match. They clapped into their mitts and howled when the playground aide stepped onto the court.

The other tetherball players — some of whom were Mexican American, some of whom were not — didn’t always like Corazon (apart from Marcos’s entourage, who were unwavering in their support) but they did respect him and in truth, he was one of them. So they whooped it up for him as he assumed the position to begin.

Still not understanding the situation, Lance allowed the little boy to serve the ball in.

Corazon pounced on him from the beginning, whipping a serve past Lance while the man was adjusting his eye glasses. The baseball jocks booed but Corazon was off, sending the next two balls up and over and just out of reach of the man.

The playground aide did eventually recover and caught the next shot in his hands, before launching it two trips around the pole. The tetherball players started biting at their nails. This was serious.

Lance caught the ball and composed himself. Then he gathered his strength and served a ball at such a height even the tether ball players had to marvel. But Corazon was ready this time. He bent his knees as far as they would go, and sprang into the air as if he had an invisible pogo stick he was utilizing. The boy caught the ball in mid air and brought it down to earth. Lance could only laugh nervously; he didn’t think he’d ever seen anyone jump that high. The tetherballers went nuts, and started rattling the metal fence adjacent to the court.

Ball finally in his hand, Corazon looked for a long time at his opponent. Lance was as serious as he’d ever looked during the game. Then Marcos got an idea. The boy went ahead and made like he was going for the high launch, as the college student prepared his leap into the air to meet the ball that would be approaching. At the last possible moment he stopped, Lance already rising in the air. And in that next instant, El Corazon did something that would keep his legend alive long after he graduated from Mondavi Elementary — he finessed the ball around the pole in a quick, sharp motion.

Lance, realizing his error, lost his balance and slipped and fell. And that was when Corazon sent the ball three more times around the pole for the victory.

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If I had a kickstarter page for my chapbook it would read something like this (re-post)

Image

$10

those contributing this amount toward my chapbook, will receive exactly 5 likes on word press blog items of your choosing

$20

those contributing this amount, will receive exactly 5 likes on word press items of your choosing, plus annoying posts to my facebook friends about 5 of your twitter posts (again any 5 of your choosing)

$50

those contributing this amount, will receive exactly 5 likes on word press items of your choosing, annoying posts to my facebook friends concerning 5  of your twitter posts (again any 5 of your choosing), and a poem devoted entirely to you for the chapbook (If you are a perfect stranger and I know nothing about you whatsoever, I will just sleep with you and we’ll call it even)

$100

those contributing this amount, will receive exactly 5 likes on word press items of your choosing, annoying posts to my facebook friends concerning 5  of your twitter posts (again any 5 of your choosing), a poem devoted entirely to you for the chapbook (If you are a perfect stranger and I know nothing about you whatsoever, I will just sleep with you and we’ll call it even), and a lightly used cat bed my cat has stopped sleeping in ever since we brought home that really comfortable paper shopping bag from Safeway

$200

those contributing this amount, will receive exactly 5 likes on word press items of your choosing, annoying posts to my facebook friends concerning 5  of your twitter posts (again any 5 of your choosing), a poem devoted entirely to you for the chapbook (If you are a perfect stranger and I know nothing about you whatsoever, I will just sleep with you and we’ll call it even), a lightly used cat bed my cat has stopped sleeping in ever since we brought home that really comfortable paper shopping bag from Safeway and a poem in which every first letter of every word spells out your favorite ice cream flavor.

$400

those contributing this amount, will receive exactly 5 likes on word press items of your choosing, annoying posts to my facebook friends concerning 5  of your twitter posts (again any 5 of your choosing), a poem devoted entirely to you for the chapbook (If you are a perfect stranger and I know nothing about you whatsoever, I will just sleep with you and we’ll call it even), a lightly used cat bed my cat has stopped sleeping in ever since we brought home that really comfortable paper shopping bag from Safeway, a poem in which every first letter of every word spells out your favorite ice cream flavor, and exactly one appointment (emphasis on one) for me to come over and hold your cat still while you shave him

$500

for this much, you get everything I just said, plus…I will have a baby with my wife with the sole purpose of testing out that baby name you’ve always loved but weren’t so sure about since maybe it’ll get them beat up on the playground. I will report back with the results over a word press comment in exactly 9 years. Hey, you went the distance for me, It’s the least I can do. (side note here: if you are not currently married or your partner is no longer alive or if you just swore off love forever, I can just sleep with you again).

$1000

for $1000, you get everything I just said, plus…come on now that’s just crazy, it’s only a chapbook, after all.

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Little Cousin

When you told me your favorite kind of purple was lavender blush

I almost missed the turn.

Three hours ago

we were throwing screw drivers at the ground

and trying to fart with our hands

Immediately after you said it

I could tell you wanted to take it back

I guess you were thinking

it was an odd thing to say for a 14 year old boy.

I started telling you about my wife’s visit to Japan

to change the subject

you were nodding

but your eyes were squeezed shut.

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hypochondria

screw it

I’m not going to the US Open

a tennis racket in flight

can kill a lot of brain cells

but so can 6 hours in front of the computer

I’m guessing on that one

I should ask my internal medicine guy

Maybe while I’m there

he can give me a referral for that mole on my shoulder

the one with the discoloration

it’s bothering me more than the migraines

but less than the ripped callous

okay those three and

that odd discomfort in my small intestine

yes definitely the small intestine thing

wait is that even my small intestine?

I should google it

maybe I should mention my googling

I need to prioritize

the man has other patients

Oh shit!

What if he’s really backed up on the day I make an appointment?

and I contract some kind of rare strain of the flu

from sitting in the waiting room

I just know I will

like the one that killed Gwyneth Paltrow in that movie

what movie was that again?

Outbreak?

NO, that was something else

Damn I sure have been forgetting more than I used to

hopefully it’s not early Alzheimers

grandpa Henry had it

come to think of it

Okay, I’m going to call to make an appointment right away.

right after I google that small intestine thing.

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family tree

sometime around 1935

grandma left Austria

with her family very jewish

my mom

grew up going to shul on the regular

with a hip Brooklyn cantor

who could sing like

an angel

Jews don’t believe in angels

but sometimes they keep Christmas trees (see dad’s side of the family)

speaking of my mother

she lost her taste for kugel

when she met my dad

and moved out to Long Island

where she had

a son

hates gefilte fish

roots for Jewish athletes when they compete

on TV.

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dreams

Image

back at the newspaper

invisible

my old boss

shouting in Italian

to cope

toss erasers at journalists

in the face

“bull’s eye!”

 

now

up on my desk

singing Springsteen

quiet  beautiful

not disturbing

 

an article on mayoral election

abandoned midsentence to go to the can

is an opportunity

to ghost write

In this way, earning my skin.

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the odd fate of a personal assistant in dreams

In my dreams

I am often in one of 2 places

high school

or back at the newspaper

where I lost my job

In the latter dreams

my old boss

is always present

though he doesn’t notice me

Just stampedes past my desk

there are journalists there too

but it’s unclear whether they notice me either

I try to get their attention by tossing erasers in their direction.

occasionally one will hit someone right in the face

and they’ll turn around

and I will apologize profusely

but they just look back in my direction, staring baffled.

In another, I get up on my desk and sing a Bruce Springsteen song

I sing it really quietly and beautifully so as not to disturb anyone

In still others I type out ghostly messages on reporters’ computer screens when they have left to go to the bathroom

I always try and write something pertinent

say someone was writing an article about the mayoral election

and left midsentence

well, I would finish their thought

You may think this behavior strange

but such is the odd fate of a personal assistant in dreams

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Windows

Sometimes I think our best moments are on the fly

under deadlines

in 30 minute windows

for when we are rushed

we have no time

to reflect idiotically

on the weather outside these windows

they say you should live

your life as if the world were going to end

and you only had a half hour

I think we would

spend it

exactly as we spend every end

with your hand clutching the flesh on my shoulder

saying “nothing”

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