“. . . You and I, we are the secret citizens of the city. . .” (Alberto Rios)

The secret of my happiness

The secret of my happiness

Five years ago I wrote about one of my most formative experiences. I’m writing about it again today because I’ve been thinking about “my last lecture” (everyone remembers the famous one by Professor Randy Pausch at Carnegie-Mellon University—also about five years ago). As I said this morning on Facebook, I ain’t no Randy Pausch, and I ain’t dying (that I know of).

But I have to mark the end of this important part of my life. My “career” if I can call it that. My gainful full-time employment.

If genetics have anything to do with longevity, I’m far from marking the end of my life (my mother died at 92—having survived colon cancer—and my father died at 97—having survived much, including being my father).

Perhaps this will be my last lecture. Probably the only time in my life I will get to deliver the valedictory address. “The secret of happiness?”

Ladies and gentlemen, honored guests,

I have a deep dark secret (except for writing about it in my other blog, of course).

Secretively, I carry a folded twenty dollar bill in my wallet at all times. I cannot, on pain of severe punishment, spend it. It’ is not mine.

It’s not my last hedge against being broke. It is not “mad money.” It is not for emergencies. It is not mine. I cannot, may not, will not ever spend it.

The secret began in Oakland a few years back. I was there for a family visit, staying in a hotel because other out-of-town family filled all the relatives’ spare beds.

I was up at my usual hour (about three hours before anyone else). After the necessary writing time, I needed breakfast and went out. I approached a Denny’s where under normal circumstances I wouldn’t stop. I don’t have elegant or particularly healthy eating habits, but there are limits.

I'll probably always need them, too

I’ll probably always need them, too

I sat in a booth where I could see the waitress’s station—where they poured coffee and did what waitresses do behind the scenes (they were not a mixed-gender “wait staff”—they were waitresses being bossed by the male manager).

My waitress was a small frail woman, apparently the oldest of the group and the shortest, of Asian heritage (obvious both by her appearance and her speech). I watched the other waitresses abuse her. Catty remarks, picking up cups of coffee she had poured for her tables, actually bumping into her trying to make her spill things. She was too old and frail (I suppose she was close to 60—not too old for anything except taking abuse) or gracious to fight back.

Here’s where the story gets tricky. I said the title is “The secret of happiness?” I’m afraid I’ll seem to be looking for praise. I’m afraid someone will think I’m such a nice guy. I’m afraid I’ll seem to be thinking more highly of myself than I ought to think. None of that is true. This is a story about my selfishness, about my desire to be happy—even for five minutes.

When I finished my breakfast, I counted out the exact amount of the check and left it on the table. And then, weighted down a little by my empty coffee cup, I left a $20 bill as a tip—three times the amount of the check. I simply got up and walked out.

I was halfway across the parking lot when I heard, “O Sir, O Sir!” I turned around, and there was the waitress running toward me, frantic. “O Sir, you make mistake. Not twenty dollars.”

“No,” I said, “it’s not a mistake. It’s for you.” “Too much, too much.”

She burst into tears and threw her arms around my neck. She could barely speak but managed “thank you.” I told her she was welcome and simply continued walking. I could not believe how happy I was.

I quote myself from my previous writing about this moment. “At that moment, I decided if that’s all it takes to make me happy, $20 is little enough.”

Since that time I don’t have any idea how many $20 bills I have given to their rightful owners. About one a month I suppose. When I hear people talking about how foolish it is to give panhandlers money, I shrug. Maybe. Probably. I don’t give panhandlers money. I can tell if I pay attention which people asking for money at the 7-11—or at the corner of Ervay and Main or while I’m waiting for the train at Mockingbird Station or anywhere else—probably really need it. Or can I? Is it any of my business? So what if a guy takes my money and buys booze? If he’s an alcoholic, the cruelest thing I can do to him at the moment is to refuse him a drink. If it’s a little lady panhandling for the two or three men across the parking lot, she needs the money to keep them from beating her up.

Most of the time the homeless people I pass on the $20 to need psychiatric care. We force the mentally ill onto the streets and then blame them for the massive gun violence we are willing to put up with in this country to protect our right to carry a gun. They’re not carrying guns.

If a scroungy guy talking to himself in the parking lot of Kroger on Cedar Springs asks for a buck and I give him his twenty and he sits down on the curb and cries, I know pretty much for sure he’s hungry.

I’ve gotten used to getting hugs from dirty, smelly, unsavory characters (and some desperate little old ladies).

I need to be hugged. If I have to pass along a $20 bill that isn’t even mine for a hug, it hardly seems fair. I’m getting the better end of the deal. The secret of my (often momentary in the midst of severe depression) happiness.

“The Cities Inside Us,” by Alberto Ríos, 1952

For a good time. . . .

For a good time. . . .

We live in secret cities
And we travel unmapped roads.

We speak words between us that we recognize
But which cannot be looked up.

They are our words.
They come from very far inside our mouths.

You and I, we are the secret citizens of the city
Inside us, and inside us

There go all the cars we have driven
And seen, there are all the people

We know and have known, there
Are all the places that are

But which used to be as well. This is where
They went. They did not disappear.

We each take a piece

Alberto Alvaro Ríos was born on September 18, 1952, in Nogales, Arizona. He received a BA degree in 1974 and an MFA in creative writing in 1979, both from the University of Arizona. He holds numerous awards, including six Pushcart Prizes in both poetry and fiction, the Arizona Governor’s Arts Award and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Since 1994 he has been Regents Professor of English at Arizona State University in Tempe, where he has taught since 1982. In 2013, Ríos was named the inaugural state poet laureate of Arizona. In 2014.

“. . . and dangerous badgers like dignitaries stare. . . “ (*)

Dangerous dignitaries stare

Dangerous dignitaries stare

My writing is dangerous. No, silly. It’s mere “oily palaver” to you (I wish I could remember who said that phrase in my presence many years ago, said it in such a way that I have remembered it since).

I have been to the Providence Zoo to see the badgers. It’s officially the Roger Williams Park Zoo. Named after Roger Williams, contrary to popular belief the only one of the “founding fathers” who came to the New World to find religious freedom. Don’t believe it when Tea Baggers tell you this country was founded on religious freedom—it was founded, except for Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, on the desire of various groups to live in places they controlled under rules that reflected their personal beliefs, rules they forced everyone to live by.

If The Massachusetts Bay Colony had had anything like religious freedom, they would not have expelled Roger Williams, and he would not have founded Rhode Island with the understanding that  “. . . .it is the will and command of God that (since the coming of his Son the Lord Jesus) a permission of the most paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or antichristian consciences and worships, be granted to all men in all nations and countries. . . . [“Turkish,” of course, here meaning “Muslim] (1).

I’ve written about all of this many times, so that’s not what I’m up to this morning.

No, I’m simply admitting that my writing is dangerous to me—and, perhaps, to a few acquaintances whom I quote and mention. I’ve assumed ever since I wrote a blog posting about my friend Mufid Abdulqader in 2007 that what I post electronically in any format is (or used to be) of some mild passing interest to the NSA or the DHSS. I suppose that’s delusional thinking about my own importance, but I’m not sure. The younger half-brother of the head of Hamas is certainly a person of interest (he’s now in federal prison for something like 150 years, convicted of being a “terrorist,” which is a loose translation of “working on behalf of Palestinians attempting to live in freedom in their own homeland”).

So when I mention you in a post here, you can bet the NSA is watching you.

Make us some money, guys.

Make us some money, guys.

Of course, they are watching you anyway. I and my writing have nothing to do with it. You gave up your rights to “freedom of association” and “freedom of the press” and “freedom of speech” when you let your Congressmegalomaniac vote for the so-called “Patriot Act.” You let the Congressmegalomaniacs strip you of any right to privacy when you let them hoodwink you into being terrorized by your own shadow and let the Congressmegalomaniacs give the terrorism industry control over your lives—the same Congressmegalomaniacs who have now shut down the government and are about to destroy the world economy. How is it working out for you that you’ve let the Congressmegalomaniacs take over your life?

But I digress.

A student in one of my “Discovery & Discourse” classes (yes, “D&D”—and the university after two years of it still doesn’t see why that’s funny) wrote the following in his essay on the Flannery O’Connor short story “Parker’s Back.” (The specific topic of my course is “Writing About the Grotesque.”)

O’Connor shows in “Parkers Back” through the ideas of the grotesque that everyday experiences people live, they never notice their own reality. People ignore the truth and create what truth is giving everything in life a wide spectrum of truths, making life itself grotesque (2).

The student’s essay is, quite frankly, virtually unfathomable. His writing is confused and totally out of control. I’m pretty sure most of my colleagues would have struggled through reading it and put some kind of D or F grade on it and told him to get an appointment at the Writing Center before he submits his next essay.

But I think his writing is pure poetry, and any teacher who would not spend enough time to comprehend his writing does not deserve to be in the classroom.

He understands O’Connor’s theory of mystery and the grotesque.

Everyday people experience the ideas of the grotesque,
and, thus, they never notice their own reality.
People ignore the [real] truth and create the truth
that they believe is giving everything in their lives a wide spectrum of truths,
thereby making life itself grotesque

What “truth” are we creating that we firmly, and with every fiber of our being, believe is broadening out for us into a wide spectrum of truths? (The Patriot Act, government shutdown, the Second Amendment, Debt ceiling crisis, racism—shall I continue?) We’ve made this grotesquery, not our Congressmegalomaniacs. We’ve just asked them to do it for us.

A throwaway member of a university football team can see it better than you and I can. Taken all together we have less sense than a flamingo “eat[ing] upside-down, by dragging his tremendous head through streams.” Or two tortoises “one push[ing] the other over the grass, their hemispheres clicking, on seven legs in toto.” Or “vigilant lemurs, wrens and prestidigitating tamarins.”

The university uses the student to bring in TV money and this year One Billion Dollars from alumni (I kid you not). Far better the university should discover its own “wide spectrum of truths” and understand we are ignoring truth while our “dangerous dignitaries stare at one another like badgers.”

____________(1) Williams, Roger. The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience Discussed; and Mr. Cotton’s Letter Examined and Answered (1644). New York: Hard Press Editions, 2012. (2) I won’t cite the source because I don’t have the student’s permission to quote him.

Roger Williams. "Let the Muslims in."

Roger Williams. “Let the Muslims in.”

(*) At the Providence Zoo
      by Stephen Burt  (b. 1971)
Like the Beatles arriving from Britain,
the egret’s descent on the pond
takes the reeds and visitors by storm:
it is a reconstructed marsh
environment, the next
best thing to living out your wild life.
Footbridges love the past.
And like the Roman questioner who learned
“the whole of the Torah while standing on one leg,”
flamingos are pleased to ignore us. It is not known
whether that Roman could learn to eat upside-down,
by dragging his tremendous head through streams.
Comical, stately, the newly-watched tortoises
mate; one pushes the other over the grass,
their hemispheres clicking, on seven legs
in toto. Together they make
a Sydney opera house,
a concatenation of anapests, almost a waltz.
Confined if not preserved,
schoolteachers, their charges, vigilant lemurs, wrens
and prestidigitating tamarins,
and dangerous badgers like dignitaries stare
at one another, hot
and concave in their inappropriate coats.
Having watched a boa
eat a rat alive,
the shortest child does as she was told?
looks up, holds the right hand
of the buddy system, and stands,
as she explains it, “still as a piece of pie.”


America’s first satellite (and my first mass murder memory)

What American fun! My first mass murder!

What American fun! My first mass murder!

Terrorized excitement gripped the kids of Scottsbluff, NE, on January 31, 1958.

Charlie Starkweather, the first real-life mass murderer we had ever heard of was IN OUR TOWN!

But the story is more important to me for many reasons other than our childhood reaction to the presence of a real-life mass-murderer in our town.

Ask anyone who lived in Scottsbluff in 1958 (I was 13) if they remember Starkweather. Of course they do. And they probably remember the picture I’ve posted here. It’s not quite clear to me even today why the media made such a feeding frenzy of the mere fact that Starkweather was in town (well, no, he was across the river at the country jail in Gering) on his way to the state penitentiary in Lincoln. But it was better entertainment than anything on TV.

He had been arrested, it’s interesting to me to remember and note, in the town where I was born, Douglas, WY.

Starkweather’s murder spree was over 50 years ago and is now a footnote to Nebraska and Wyoming history. Even in 1958 it did not thoroughly dominate the news. In his “Recollections” (linked above), Rick Myers observes that even though the transfer of the mass murderer was taking place in our little city, the headline of the local newspaper the next morning was about another—more important—story.

On Saturday, Feb. 1, 1958, the Star-Herald reported on the transfer of the prisoners to Lincoln as they left the jail before a crowd of “200 curious onlookers.”
But the story was not the lead.
Something else happened on Jan. 31, 1958. The headline “America’s First Satellite in Orbit Around the Earth” as the launch of “Explorer” marked the country’s entry into the space age
(Myers, Rick. “A reporter’s recollections.”  starherald.com. Saturday, January 26, 2008.)

I remember that Explorer was launched—about three or four months after the USSR launched the first man-made satellite, Sputnik, in 1957. I remember the sense of pride in our nation’s accomplishment even though we lost the race to be first to launch a satellite to the Russians.  I would never, however, have remembered that vastly more important event took place the day we were being aghast, thrilled, frightened, and excited by the presence of the monster in our county jail.

I’m not even sure how we knew Starkweather was in our midst. No FB, Twitter, starherald.com, or any other instant news source—except KOLT and KNEB radio stations. And I do not remember that in the local newspaper “the story was not the lead.”

Now I’m going to go out on a limb here and say my guess is that Charles Starkweather bought the guns with which he killed eleven people legally. We had never heard of such a thing as gun-control-legislation. Have you ever been to Western Nebraska? In some minor respects it’s not much different from West Texas, both in geography and in population. You know, “I’ll let go of my gun when they pry my cold dead fingers off of it,” and all of that.

When we lived in Douglas, WY, my father’s friends were Wyoming ranchers. They had vast acreages next to even vaster public lands—wild, undeveloped lands—where they hunted antelope and deer. My dad learned to hunt, and he bought guns. When we moved to Worland, WY, he hunted with new friends, hunted deer and elk. Somewhere in the family pictures are photos of him standing with his rifle beside a deer he killed which was hanging head-down ready for butchering.

When we moved to Kearney, NE, my father learned to hunt pheasants. I knew where his guns were in the house, but I also knew I could not get to them. When my sister was born (my brother was 7 and I was 5), my father sold his guns.

He told me later he did not want us to grow up in a house where guns were kept. He did not want us to believe that owning guns was a way of life.

You have to know what a weak and lily-livered liberal my father was (if you believe that, I have a penthouse on the 19th floor of the Merc

George Pierre Hennard was here.

George Pierre Hennard was here.

on Main in Dallas to sell you). He was certainly a contradiction. Baptist minister and a lifelong (real, not faux) conservative Republican whose hero was Dr. Edwin T. Dahlberg, President of that Communist-front organization (according to J. Edgar Hoover), the National Council of Churches. Dr. Dahlberg had also been a conscientious objector during WWII, and my father told me on several occasions he hoped he would have had the courage to do the same if he had not had a medical deferment.

I obviously come by my hatred of guns honestly. I am perplexed, mystified—no, I am grieved—by the obsession with Weapons of Solitary Destruction that afflicts so many Americans. You can tell me all you want that guns don’t kill people, people do. Or you can throw into any discussion of murder and the Second Amendment or any other related subject the idiotic claim that as many knives are used for murder in this country as are guns.

And I simply remember my father who knew that little boys don’t kill other little boys, but hunting rifles might.

Charlie Starkweather (11), Aaron Alexis (12), Michael Kenneth McLendon (10), James Eagan Holmes (12), Jiverly Antares Wong (13), and George Pierre Hennard (23)—to name a few—would not have been able to kill 81 of their fellow Americans among them with knives.

Collateral damage

Collateral damage

We can no longer afford to fund the space explorations of NASA, but we have enough money to keep alive an $11,000,000,000 annual firearms industry in this country. Something is grievously sick.

I have a RIGHT!!!!! (This is moderately offensive; you’ve been warned.)

Let's move to Nevada!

Let’s move to Nevada!

I have the right to mutilate myself with razor blades.

I have the right to marry someone who will beat me senseless.

I have the right to drink myself into a drunken stupor every day.

I have the right to quit working and live on the streets.

I have the right to masturbate with pornography every day.

I have the right to have plastic surgery to make me look like a tiger.

I have the right to gain a hundred pounds and die of diabetes.

I have the right to go for a year without bathing.

I have the right to move to Nevada and have sex only with prostitutes.

I have the right to believe in Santa Claus.

And the Easter Bunny.

I have the right to believe everyone who is not of my race is evil.

I have the right to say any damned-fool thing I want to here.

I have the right to have a meeting with Whitey Bulger in attendance.

I have the right to work for the legalization of methamphetamine.

I have the right to be addicted to methamphetamine.

I have the right in Texas to have sex with a horse.



I have the right to publish instructions for making Molotov cocktails.

I have the right to hate you.

I have the right to form a PAC to keep Buddhists from being elected to public office.

I have the right to burn everything in my house that is not insured.

But most important,

I have the right to carry a gun and kill you if I think you are “suspicious.”