Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Poets and pitches

Another league    Not everything goes as planned. Too late for a meeting about the history of nearby Afro-American cemeteries, I headed for Greensboro’s Restore (the Habitat for Humanity market). There I hoped to find components for a new project, affordable pieces I could puzzle together. Or discard.

In the darkness on High Point Road, I drove past Restore. Its light were off; the store was closed. With a shrug, I headed to Earth Fare for vittles, a fun place to be.

What I hadn’t expected to find jumped me. Play It Again, Sam! was open next door to the grocery. Almost jubilant, I hurried to their used glove section. Because this Sunday, weather permitting, will be the first practice for my softball team, I needed to get a glove I had to have to play.

They had dozens. Only one, old and pliable black leather with red ribbing, fit. Unlike the almost new $75 glove, the one I bought was a steal at $7.98. I felt like a kid ready for Little League tryouts.

Jubilant, I drove home with bags full of essentials.

Messages were waiting for me there. One from my younger daughter, a clarification and a correction I needed to make. I responded with hugs and a promise to do better.

That said, I opened a message from Tim on Long Island about an LTV event he wanted to schedule for Poetry Month. Poets were needed; but the show was local. I suspected that my drawl would have disqualified me even if I applied using my partner’s New York address.

Still, I was glad to read about the planning of an event that would compliment those of the American Academy of Poets [please see Poets.org]. There would be lots to do and listen to even if I wouldn’t be able to read.

That was important to me, especially now as I design a course I’m to teach this summer at the Community College. Although it’s called English 217, I’ll be teaching about how to write poetry. Only five weeks long, my course will be a challenge to create in many ways.

I’d been asked to name a book for my class. Until I’d received Tim’s message, I wasn’t sure what it would be. For a five week course, I knew any book I assigned would have to be short and insightful, concise and relevant---a lot to ask of any text.

Thanks to Tim sent, I found it. On the American Academy’s site was this announcement:

Inspired by Letters to a Young Poet, the collection of Rainer Maria Rilke's written exchange with an aspiring poet, this April, we are inviting students to engage with poetry by handwriting letters to the acclaimed poets who serve on the Academy's Board of Chancellors.

Rilke’s book, ten letters long, offers more to any fledgling poet than almost any other I had considered. Because I regard any poet at any age (or stage) to be fledgling, I rejoiced at the thought of using Letters To A Young Poet.

An end had come to another good day. I slipped into my new glove, pounded my softball into it, and tried to picture myself trotting on to the field for Sunday’s first practice.

Although my team is part of a 65 and older league, I felt like a kid ready for vie for a spot on the first team roster. Rilke might have sensed a poem in the making were he to see me when I approach the pitcher’s mound.

                                         B.Koplen  2/21/13

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If you had a chance to vote...

Animal lore      What I’m about to write has lots to do with a blue fox. Although I spent most of yesterday before realizing that, I finally figured its place in this story. But I’ll get to that in a few minutes if you’ll allow me to follow what may seem to be a discursive path.

It starts in Brooklyn. My partner and I rode thirty-two minutes on express subway #5 that exited two blocks from Brooklyn College. On that clear, spring like day, people were everywhere. One instructed us, “Take that street and turn left at the corner. Student Center’s right there.”

Since neither of us had ever been to Brooklyn or what appeared to be its main avenue, Flatbush, we felt as if we were on an adventure. I’d suggested that we investigate Brooklyn College and find out whether anything was being done in the wake of its controversial BDS, anti-Israel panel to prevent a similarly tainted event from happening again at the college since it had not been designed to promote beneficial dialogue. (please see: Brooklyn College to Launch Inquiry into BDS Event – Tablet ... The BDS panel hosted by Brooklyn College last week and co-sponsored by its political science department continues to spark controversy, almost a week after the event ... www.tabletmag.com/scroll/124189/brooklyn-college-to..)

Indeed, I was reminded of the PSM/ISM debacle I attended at Duke University; it was almost like a public lynching of Israel’s character. (please see: Duke News & Communications | Palestine Solidarity Movement ...On Oct. 15-17, 2004, the Palestine Solidarity Movement (PSM) held its national conference at Duke University, sparking extensive discussion on campus.today.duke.edu/showcase/mmedia/features/psm/index.html) Among training sessions offered only to those who had pre-registered (none of the protesters had, but I did), one taught how to stealthily take over a student newspaper and use it to generate propaganda.

In essence, I wanted to find whether the unholy intent of the Brooklyn BDS was a match for that of the PSM conference. If so, I wanted to join with those who spoke out for truth and who would insist that Brooklyn College desist from having similar events.

Fortunately, two seconds after we spotted the Student Center just across the street, we turned our heads to the right and saw a plain but sizable two or three story building; its name, Hillel, was very familiar to me. We entered.

They were busy, not crowded, just busy. As we looked around, a young man, about 5’ 7”, inquired, “Can I help you?” He, Igor, had a Russian accent.

I explained that, although I was from Virginia, one of my daughters had been an exec with Hillel at Ohio University. I mentioned that my other daughter spent time with Hillel at the University of Virginia. “Since I was near here, I wanted to find out about the BDS panel.” I told him I wanted to learn about what was being done to prevent a recurrence.
Igor was very helpful. He told me that both the Rabbi and the Hillel Director had approached the administration. Talks were under way. Despite my curiosity about their outcome, I wasn’t able to speak to the Rabbi (“He’s out.”) or the Director (She’s in a meeting.”) That was O.K. At least something was being done. We said goodbye and headed for the Student Center.

As tourists without a child seeking admission, we weren’t allowed in. I shrugged; it didn’t matter. I’d found what I’d wanted to see.

Also, we were hungry. Minutes later, on Flatbush, we found a tiny restaurant, Bake and Things. For $11.50, we had curried boneless chicken roti with sides of spinach, pumpkin, and okra. Our meal was handed to us on paper plates with plastic utensils.
We sat on stools looking out of the window next to the front door. There was only room enough for three more people to eat next to us.

From the accent of the young cooks, I knew they had to be Caribbean. “Which islands are you from?” I asked.

“Trinidad. Tobago,” they answered, without looking up.

Our food was delicious. We told them they’d given us a good reason to visit. And we were telling the truth. They’d given us more than we could eat.

Satisfied, we strolled down Flatbush. On either side of us were people speaking patois, enjoying the day. Although many businesses were boarded up, that part of Brooklyn seemed a friendly place. There were no skyscrapers to block the sun and clouds. No one was yelling at or threatening anyone. I felt at home.

“And our little excursion, including lunch and subway fare, has cost us less than $22!”

I never thought I’d say that in New York. Instead, I was more accustomed to what I knew I’d see in Manhattan. Everything was so big there. Even the movie theater we went to that night contained enough screens to show twenty-five movies at once!

After Brooklyn, we went on a movie mission to find why Stephen Spielberg lost the Oscar to Ang Lee, director of Life With Pi. I’d wondered whether Pi’s reported gross of more than $570 million could be true. (China Leads Overseas Box Office for Fox’s LIFE OF PI ...According to the Los Angeles Times, 20th Century Fox’s LIFE OF PI, directed by Ang Lee, has generated $570.9 million in worldwide box office sales ...
sparkam.wordpress.com/2013/02/23/china-leads-overseas...)At 7:45 p.m., we slipped on our 3-D glasses to find out.

Well into the first hour, I felt as if I were watching an updated fairytale version of Old Man and The Sea. By the end of the second hour, I’d forgotten about writing a letter of protest to Brooklyn College. My time would be better spent, I thought, writing a letter of apology to Spielberg. He deserved to win and his Lincoln deserved to be in a different category than a survivalist film.

Why was I so certain?

Because of the blue fox. Unfortunately, a former member of my family bought one thinking it would make a wonderful indoor pet. For two long days (until I found a man with a private zoo who wanted it), the fox lived in our laundry room in the basement. Although our blue fox weighed less than ten pounds, the smell of its excrement was acrid.

Only cartoon animals don’t smell. Unless Pi’s tiger wasn’t real, he wasn’t one of those. Indeed, the way Pi handled his tiny boat, metaphorically, didn’t measure up to Lincoln’s command of his ship of state.

                                    B.Koplen   2/27/13

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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

another Kevorkian?

Dr. Death?   Every semester my classes confront this question: If Americans are guaranteed the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, should they also have the right to choose when they want to die? While my students ponder that, I show them an archival segment from 60 Minutes featuring Mike Wallace interviewing Dr. Kevorkian not long after the doctor completed almost eight years of a prison sentence.

Although that sentence was imposed following a trial in which the Judge did not allow testimony from family members of the man who chose to die, Wallace allowed them to speak. Each one thanked Kevorkian; they knew their relative wanted to leave his desperate condition. He could barely speak and breathe; signing his name was almost impossible. He begged Dr. Kevorkian to end his life and its misery.

Obvious to Wallace and to my class was that Kevorkian had nothing to gain. Fame and fortune didn’t interest him. Addressing a dying man’s wish to end his agony motivated Kevorkian. Nonetheless, when I asked my class whether he should have done what he did, many said no. Emphatically, they insisted that only God could determine when death should come.

“What if the dying man had made his own peace with God about ending his own life?” I asked.

Soon I’ll find what this group of students has to say. Chances are they’ll continue to condemn Kevorkian, much as singer Richard Marx did on twitter:

While many noted that Drew took on hard cases, others rendered stark judgment. Singer Richard Marx on Twitter compared Pinsky to Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the so-called suicide doctor: "Same results." [please see: McCready's death renews questions for Dr. Drew  By CHRIS TALBOTT | Associated Press]

Marx’s “stark judgment” reflects a bias that reminds me of my students’. Indeed, his remark suggests that difficult cases involving suicidal tendencies are or should be easy to remedy.

But many are not. Years ago, I learned that from Dr. James Farr, a famous psychologist who shared his thoughts about a suicidal Rabbi both Farr and I had known. According to Farr, the Rabbi had lived with a death wish for many years. Both he and Farr discussed it; Farr helped him battle it. And accept it.

Eventually, both men knew that a time would come when the Rabbi would end his life on purpose. Although I was shocked when that time came and I read the jarring obituary, Farr explained that the suicidal act related to the Rabbi’s negative ground of being.

Long held perceptions that resisted change ruled the day. Had the Rabbi not been aware of his negative ground of being, his end would have been incomprehensible. But he knew; he’d planned his suicide.

Farr had probably explained to the Rabbi in great depth the process that had resulted in the Rabbi’s negative view of himself. In the course of many workshops, Farr had led us to understand the control our mind creates then wields. Indeed, Farr had led many of us to alter those controls and to embrace rather than repel life’s positive energies.

Whether Dr. Pinsky’s approach on Celebrity Rehab was as effective as Dr. Farr’s is hard to tell. Both men seemed to know that some people needed more guidance than they’ll ever get. Both men seemed to know that why the final choice was made may be as hard for us to fathom as life itself.

That’s why our answers may not be the same as theirs. Some would hope that they’re among angels we’ll have to wait a while to meet.

                                                                 B. Koplen 2/20/13

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Monday, February 18, 2013

The most important weigh in...

More calories. Please!   Never have I written about this before. I doubt that I could have imagined it although I’ve read Tuesdays With Morey.

It brought to mind a collection of poems I wrote not long after finding I had colon cancer. That collection, Near Death, was reviewed by one of my favorite relatives, my Mom’s erudite first cousin. Although I wasn’t sure I should have asked for her opinion about what could have been regarded as an unpleasant read, I did.

More than anything else, I appreciated her candor. “When you get to be our age,” she said, as if guided by a wisdom I might have only glimpsed, “as old as your Mom and Dad and me, you have to have made peace with death.” She made it sound as if my poems about death and dying were like conversations she’d had with herself about the same topics.

Strangely, I felt relieved. It was as if she’s found a way to convey permission to me to continue exploring and writing about death, that doing so wasn’t offensive. Or harmful. Or insensitive.

Since then, I’ve heard others make similar remarks. Poems about death provided words for the shapes of thoughts and emotions others hadn’t been able to describe or fully comprehend. Reading my poems made many feel as if they were part of a profound dialogue.

All of us are.

I felt that tonight when I spent time with my Mom and Betty, her angelic sitter. “Will you help me fill out these forms?” Mom asked. With that, she pushed a folder that appeared to be both official and tastefully prepared.

By completing a number of agreements, my mother would successfully donate her body to science.

She spoke about signing the documents with conviction and certainty. I opened the folder. Immediately I saw a list of stipulations; if she had any one of dozens of maladies, her request would be denied.

After scanning the list, I asked Mom whether she was sure she hadn’t been incarcerated in the past twelve months. She laughed. What followed was a spirited discussion of her lone concern.

She must weigh 100 pounds.

“No problem,” I insisted. “I’ll double up on the chocolates.”

Betty assured me they had plenty.

Hearing that, I told Mom she’d have to eat more cookies. I was thinking of the good-as-homemade chocolate chips that I envied but couldn’t eat; they aren’t gluten free.

I insisted that Betty and Mom had to eat at least one more each day.

Mom laughed.

“It’s for a good cause,” I suggested. I told her I wished somebody would tell me to do the same.

Mom told me that she was worried she’ll get too fat. Betty reminded her she only weighed about 97 the last time she was on the scales.

“Think of it this way,” I said. “If a certain one of your sitters weighs you and you’re only 98, she’ll write 98 on the application. Your application will be refused. Is that what you want?”

Betty agreed with me that a strictly enforced cookie time made sense. Even so, Betty’s look told me that the scales might betray her.

I was ready to suggest that I’d start bringing bags full of cookies AND candy when an idea struck me.

“Betty, will you be the official weight checker?”

Betty wasn’t sure what I was suggesting. “Make sure you fix the scale before Mom is going to be weighed. Add about five pounds. And don’t let anybody snoop around to examine it for accuracy.”

Betty understood. Mom did too. We had a mission. Each of us had to play our part. Even Mr. Death, had he been privy to our conversation, might have grinned in agreement.

He, himself, I was sure, had tipped the scales many times before.

If I could, I might have invited him to ride with me as I completed my next mission, my visit to Matthew’s chocolate shop in Hillsborough. Experience has taught me that Mom, who has loved what I’ve found there, will love it even more now.

                            B. Koplen 2/18/13
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