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April Fools.

Source: Wikipedia

April is the cruelest month, and also National Poetry Month, or maybe it’s the cruelest month because it’s National Poetry Month. I started using poetry in high school. It started light: Poe, a little Shelley here and there, some Dickinson, but it wasn’t long before I was on to the hard stuff: Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, Coleridge. I had a teacher who made us read The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams in class and then she spent the next fifty-nine minutes before the bell haranguing us about how this poem was full of deep, mystical symbolism and that we were all too young and uneducated to understand it. and this convinced a lot of my classmates to just say no to poetry, but not me. I was hooked and even became an English major in college and learned that what The Red Wheelbarrow is really about is a red wheelbarrow and some chickens.

Here are some poems I wrote in that previous life.


“There’s a war going on in our cities…and the rats are winning.”

-from a commercial for a National Geographic special

Rats are winning the war for the city,

Displacing us as they come from below.

While our tactics are softened with pity

Rats are winning the war for the city.

Gassing a poisons aren’t pretty,

But all is fair in this war if we know

Rats are winning the war for the city,

Displacing us as they come from below.


Displacing us as they come from below

The rats teach us something we never knew

By steady process, since our brains are slow.

Displacing us as they come from below

The rats whisper to us we are rats too.

Knowing too much disrupts our status quo.

Displacing us as they come from below

The rats teach us something we never knew.


Headed toward home I wonder who monitors all the monitors

That glow in the houses on either side. And where

Are they? In the savannahs and remote jungles,

Where the only electricity comes from seasonal storms

Seen in photographs from a distance, monitors

Are lizards that slink around rocks and over

Trees after small mammals and other easy meals.

They range in size from smaller than your hand

To monsters with five-fingered feet

With claws that could slice off your leg,

And they’ve held dominion over their territory

From time before the first simians scraped sparks

Out of stones. A trespassing baron sat down to rest

Among them. All his minions found was his indigestible glasses

And shoes. Some of these big lizards, although common

Names are hard to pin down, are called basilisks.

In legend basilisks had the power to turn their prey,

Or anyone who caught their eye, no matter how

Casually, into stone. It’s just a legend. Some

Legends are encrusted or crystallized facts,

But not this one. This legend’s safely

In its cage around the next corner licking its lips.

Not Going My Way.

What happens when a bus stop is discontinued? For that matter why is a bus stop ever discontinued? Every street corner is, technically, a bus stop: all you have to do is stand there and wave, unless you’re on a street where the buses never go, and in that case you’re going to be waiting a very long time, but that’s another story. There’s even a bus stop that I used to go to regularly even though it meant walking an extra three blocks every day. The bus had been rerouted for several months because of construction, so if I’d gone to the regular stop I’d have to wait a very long time. Now I’m back at the regular stop and the other bus stop has been discontinued even though there’s still a bench there, the bus still goes by there, and it’s on a corner.
I do know what happens when a bus route is discontinued: the bus just no longer goes that way. I once accidentally got on a bus on the #13 route and when I realized I’d made a mistake I got off and walked several blocks back to my regular stop to catch the right bus. I later realized if I’d stayed on the #13 bus there was a place much farther down the route where I could have transferred to my regular bus and I’d now have a story of riding the ill-fated #13. Why it was ill-fated is still a mystery to me since that one time I rode it the bus was packed and if I hadn’t already told you I got off the bus because I didn’t know I could eventually transfer to my regular bus I could tell you I got off because there was no place to sit down. It traveled down a stretch of road with a very popular local grocery, a very popular taco place, a very popular bagel place, and a laundromat that somehow stays open, but now anyone who expects to catch a bus at any of those places will be waiting for a very long time. The only thing I can figure is that someone official’s triskaidekaphobia really got the better of them which is unfortunate because they’re missing out on some really good tacos.
Anyway just for the heck of it one day I decided to stand at a discontinued stop just to see what would happen and what happened is that no buses stopped. No buses went by either because the route had also been changed which was why the stop was discontinued, but I didn’t realize that until I’d been waiting there for a very long time.

Great Expectations.

If I said “British comedian” without any other information what would your expectations be? If I added that he was born in Lancashire what would your expectations be? When I first heard Tez Ilyas, whose birthday is today, on a radio program where the host introduced him as one of her favorite comics I really only expected him to be funny, but I also thought his background—he’s of Pakistani descent–might be part of his comedy. And it is, and it’s really funny.


Weather Witness.

When I was in sixth grade I became obsessed with tornadoes. I read everything I could find which, at the time, wasn’t much because the school library was pretty limited. What sparked this obsession was the annual watching of the tornado awareness film which always happened in late spring. It was the same film I’d seen every year since kindergarten so I don’t know what sparked such an intense interest that particular year. I always thought tornadoes were kind of cool and I thought it would be interesting to see one, but before sixth grade the feeling passed quickly. Maybe the information just hit critical mass with me, having been subjected to the same bass baritone narrator intoning about, “Tornadoes: nature’s tidal wave. They wreak untold devastation, destruction, and demolition. For the next twenty minutes we will begin to understand all that scientists don’t understand about these unpredictable natural phenomena that strike every year with frightening regularity…” The film covered how tornadoes were caused by rotating columns of air when cold and warm fronts collided, and what to do if a tornado was coming, which was mainly get away from windows, preferably into a basement or cellar, put your head down, and wait it out. There was even a shot of a group of kids just like us huddling in a line with their heads down, and what always stuck with me was that there was one kid who turned around and looked up. And I thought, yep, that’d be me, even though in an enclosed space safe from a tornado there wouldn’t be anything to see except the wall and ceiling. Still, I wanted to look. After the film we would have a practice drill. We’d be taken out into the hall because for some reason our teachers thought the ideal place to be during a tornado would be a long corridor with doors to the outside at either end. I never questioned this but I never understood it either. The restrooms, which were completely enclosed and had heavy tile communal sinks that looked like they were designed by Antonio Gaudi would have been so much safer. In the hall we had to squat down and put our heads between our knees, and when the teachers turned away I’d look. Sometimes I’d be close enough to the doors I could see the trees outside, branches moving slowly in the breeze.
One afternoon during my sixth grade tornado obsession I was outside and saw a few leaves blow around in a circle, one of those strange miniature vortices you sometimes see twirling leaves or trash and I got really excited. The next day I told my friends I’d seen a dust devil, one of those small tornadoes described in the film we’d watched. And this started a long argument about whether a dust devil could be made of leaves or if it had to be dust. Not that it mattered: what I’d seen was just a light wind curling around itself.
All this came to me the other night when a cold front came through and for a few pensive hours the area to the north of us was under a tornado watch and I realized it was nearly twenty years ago that a tornado hit downtown Nashville. The date was April 16th, 1998, to be precise. I was at work that day, it was the afternoon and there were reports of storms. A group of us were gathered at an office window and we could see the clouds begin to rotate, curling downward. At the time a tornado had never hit downtown Nashville. I’ve never confirmed this but it seemed all of us thought it was impossible, that the tall buildings acted as barriers to any a tornado ever forming. There was a sense among all of us, though, as we watched the clouds gather into a downward funnel, that something very terrible was happening. Someone said, “I think we’d better get away from the windows.”
It was terrible but short-lived. A few hours later when my wife and I drove home together there was an eerie calmness. I was glad it had passed. I had seen enough.

Judge A Book By Its Cover.

Every year on or around April 1st there’s the International Edible Book Festival which I only learned about because one was held at the Vanderbilt University Library, which is close to where I work. Here are some of the entries from the event:

A popular theme was The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. There were at least five entries based on it.

There were also some creative interpretations of the theme with items inspired by scenes from well-known books.

Or just loose interpretations.

And a lot of clever puns.

My favorites, though, were the ones that went for the most literal interpretation of the idea, creating works that were as readable as they were eatable.

Those last ones reminded me of a quote from Gargantua & Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais, translated by J.M. Cohen, that I have on the wall behind my monitor at work that always reminds me that you are what you read:

The philosophers, preachers, and doctors of your world feed you with fine words through the ears. Here we literally take our teachings orally, through the mouth. Therefore I do not say to you: Read this chapter, understand this gloss. What I say is: Taste this chapter, swallow this gloss. Once upon a time an ancient prophet of the Jewish nation swallowed a book and became a learned man to the teeth. Now you must immediately drink this, and you’ll be learned to the liver. Here, open your jaws.

That’s a literary equivalent of one spicy meatball.

Lead, Follow, Or Get Out Of The Way.

Have you ever accidentally followed someone? Maybe this only happens to me. I’ll set out in a particular direction and there will already be a stranger fifty or a hundred feet in front of me. They’re going to the same place, or maybe they’re just headed in the same direction to a slightly different destination. Either way I start to get very self-conscious that I’m making them uncomfortable because I’m following them. If I can I’ll stop and pretend to be interested in a flower or sign or fire hydrant to give them some time get farther away, but then I think that just looks even weirder. I don’t want to get close, though, or, worse, pass them, because that’ll make them even more uncomfortable, I assume, but if I’m on a schedule I’ll probably pick up the pace because no matter where I’m going I like to be fashionably early. This is especially true when I’m headed home because I’d rather get to the bus stop early than have to run to catch it or, worse, miss the bus entirely.
So anyway I’d missed the bus entirely. I checked the app and it looked like the driver had been about five minutes early which annoyed me. It’s one thing for the bus to be late, and it usually is which makes me think they should really just adjust the schedule upward by about five minutes, although then every bus would be ten minutes late, but that’s another story. I started walking to catch the alternate bus that stops several blocks away but, since it’s an express bus, drops me off at about the same time so it’s a nice option if I feel like walking an extra half a mile, which is why I never take it unless I have to.
As I was walking I passed a guy waiting at another stop on the regular route and I thought, well, I guess I’m not the only one who missed the bus. I kept going. When I glanced back I noticed he was following me. It made me a little uncomfortable at first so I picked up the pace, but then I thought, hey, maybe he got the same idea I had. And when we got to the bus stop he said to me, “I saw you walkin’ and recognized you from the bus. So I knew we’d have to catch this one or wait around another half an hour.”
I felt oddly happy that I’d helped a stranger in this way, but then he lit up a cigarette. It wouldn’t have been so bad but I was downwind of him and there was a breeze, and I started thinking about ways to get fifty or a hundred feet away without missing the bus.


Where We Live.

Recently Vanderbilt University students, together with Habitat For Humanity, put together an open air exhibit on the quad in front of the library. The simple wooden benches were made to raise awareness of homelessness. Students do this every year in the spring, at a time when the homeless are less at risk from freezing but still face challenges.

The exhibit included a pamphlet with some disturbing facts. Homelessness is a concern in most cities, but Nashville’s rapid population growth has made it even more difficult. There have been some efforts to help; all over the city you’ll find people selling The Contributor, a weekly newspaper written and sold by homeless and formerly homeless people, but it’s not able to help everyone.

During the day the unfinished wooden benches stand out against the green grass, but at night they’re transformed. Solar batteries, at a time when the days are getting longer, store and transfer power to them through the night. They remain visible; they may even be more visible. And the placement of the exhibit in the middle of a university campus is especially poignant. This is a place where students, and some faculty and staff, live. It’s where others spend a great deal of their lives. Vanderbilt is a private university, but it’s also part of and aware of the community that surrounds and supports it.

The exhibit is only temporary, unlike the issue of homelessness which will still be with us.



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