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Jul 29, 2005

Versus Creativity

This is a piece I wrote in the fall of 2004. It has subsequently been published on www.acommonsense.com , and is under review for publication in What We Think II, an anthology of American students, found at www.collegetreepublishing.com .

*****

Wisconsin Public Radio was on, Ben Meren’s show to be exact. I was on my evening commute from the college to home. For nine and a half hours, I had been studying and learning, long enough to appreciate the fact that I didn’t have to sit through the adolescent ranting of two teenage DJ’s with bland tastes when it came to music. In my area, WPR shares a frequency with a local high school when school is in session, and that night, happily, the high school had emptied long before I started my drive for home.

The guest on Meren's show was a woman who worked for the Wisconsin Arts Foundation, a group that fosters growth and appreciation related to the arts. I imagined her a woman of four and a half decades, of thin face and large, with bright blue eyes. Her straight brown hair would hang to the base of her neck. Her voice was gentle, despite speaking over the phone, and I could hear the passion of her words as she explained what she works towards.

The problem was this: The arts are dying. Appreciation for the arts–written, musical, and visual–is crumbling like the pages of a hundred-year-old letter. The appreciation is being washed away like a carving in the sand too near the tide.

Does the Wisconsin Arts Foundation need money? Most organizations do. A woman phoned in, a genius if you ask me. She made an interesting point, though I’ve molded it slightly into my own. She asked, "If you’re going to want more money for the Arts in Wisconsin, what about funding Health Care, and the prisons, and employment? How will it be helpful to businesses?" and the list went on.

All these were great questions, to my mind. The woman hit the proverbial truth square on. I think that the reason appreciation for the arts is dying is directly related to what the arts have to compete with. Instead of appreciation for music with substance–classical, classics, jazz, folk, or whatever one’s taste–we’re handed quick shots of the latest industry-manufactured pop prince or princess, carbon copies of the other pop prince or princess who has just sold three million records.

Instead of appreciating paintings, visual design, or other things creative, we are given to spending on merchandise from these quicky-acts, or we become addicted to a favorite weekly drama or sitcom that normally dares to go nowhere. We purchase the next useless toy for our child, in stead of a book that could be read or drawn in; we leave our kids in front of the television, their virtual babysitter. Cartoons, trashy shows, quick news, everything is injected with hyped drama. Best of all, they make it simple enough so you don’t really have to think.

And why would one want to think? There’s no damn time. We have to worry about things like adequate, affordable healthcare, taxation, the education system, the criminal justice system, unemployment. We sit wondering what’s going to unfold, what will be the next shocker on one of the neo-reality shows, Who Wants to be the Next Rich Person, or (Insert TV show here).
The woman from the arts foundation summarily conceded the good point. Taking money away from other programs isn’t necessarily what she was saying. The dilemma is that she is searching for money which somehow doesn’t exist, a deceitful, green, ghoulish apparition.

The fact is, the United States is one of few industrialized nations which doesn’t provide its’ citizens with an adequate healthcare program. Among industrialized nations, we are on the low end of the list in terms of spending on education. Compared to other countries, our citizens work hundreds of hours more per year, which equates to more than a pocketful of extra days over a lifetime.

My heart sank when I realized I was listening to a potential ghost. Wisconsin Public Radio is primarily funded by the public, but if value for the arts continues to wane, WPR won’t be around either. I recalled the voices of those two highschool boys, tripping over words, and how one day they rambled for minutes when employees from Budweiser called up to pledge support and request a song. Something about the situation didn’t quite sit right.

At that moment I feared that late one night, somewhere down the road, I’d turn to my public radio station, but it wouldn’t be there. Only an empty hum from the speakers. No informative programs. No debates for the public good. No readings from books. Simply white noise, the final exhalation before extinction.

Jul 27, 2005

The Loafers

I sit back and crack open
the Sunday blues–anything but news–and
wallow over a cup of joe.

All the while,
two white rabbits loaf
on the edge of the table,
facing me. I think they’re twelves.

Sometimes they sway and nod to
songs I whistle, or rock
to songs in my head.

Fluffy and content, they are
warm company. Where one goes,
there follows the other,
neither really leading.

They hop with me to where I
relieve the shits I get from coffee,
But I slip and trip, with an ankle twist.

Vessels a hair too fat for my feet.

Jul 25, 2005

A Walk in the Park

As I walk through, the wind coaxes raspy reeds to chant in waves, fog hangs at ground level in the lowlands, and creatures large enough for the ear, but not the eye, direct the attention of this clumsy hiker from the path to the former pasture. On many evenings such as this, the full moon shines bright on the one hundred twenty acres, peering down like the eyeball of God, illuminating hills, valleys, streams, vast groves of pine, maple, and a handful of grandfather oaks nestled among other things living. There's little need for a flashlight.

***
The park, created out of land donated by the late industrialist Elwood H. May in 1974, lies in the northern part of the city a rectangled shape, with an educational Ecology Center in the middle. One could walk around the park easily in about an hour. In his time, while presiding over the Mayline Industrial Group, May used the land primarily for growing corn and raising Angus beef cattle.

The northern half of the park is restored prairie, a large expanse of flat land littered with man-made birdhouses, a modern effort at preservation. Flittering this way and that are finches, robins, hawks, sparrows, to name only a few. According to the developer of the land, the early settlers didn’t know the value of the prairie soil, its richness, its ideal conditions for plant growth. Burr oaks surround the edges, as with many prairies throughout southeastern Wisconsin. Interspersed are prairie crab trees and hawthorns, various shrubs, milkweed, and berry trees. One could identify at least six different types of grasses and over one hundred species on wildflower in the prairie at Maywood.

The Pigeon River runs up from the southwest and cuts through the mid-section of the park, jerking back and forth, north and south, then exits through the east side until it finally trickles into Lake Michigan. The river serves as a divider, between prairie to the north and wetlands to the south. It is a shallow stream of water, though at least twenty yards wide in some spots.

People fish the river during the warmer months, mostly for rainbow trout. Over two-hundred years ago, well before people had settled into houses, or made claims on the land, Native Americans had roamed there, and fished the river in order to survive. A decade ago it was frequented by a group of six young boys, summer after summer. They’d wade through the river, intent to handle the crayfish. The boys would examine the freshwater mini-lobsters, letting them go after too many pinched fingers.

Today, most birds have left this land in their migratory manner. There are mourning doves parked in flocks inside the refuge of thin-branched trees. A cardinal hops back and forth at the base of a willow, down by the river. The river itself rushes cold. Upstream it flows slow, lazily, almost reluctantly. To hear it slap over the rocks, then change to rapids calms me. The water I loom over, standing on the large foot bridge, is quite shallow, maybe shin deep at the most. Just down river, near the northern bank, two rainbow trout, both about fourteen inches long, bask in the shallows, side by side. Their dorsal fins poke through the surface of the water. I can see only a slight struggle for the both of them to remain in that spot, lightly fighting against the current. I haven’t seen any crayfish, yet.

There’s an Ecology Center on the ridge just north of the river, a modest building that used to house May and his family. The pack of six young boys would often trek there, which for them, required hiking the length of the park, starting from where their backyards met the preserve in the south, to the Ecology Center in the north. Inside the May’s former home today, the resources provide all one would need to know about Wisconsin trees, birds, wild flowers and the different animals found throughout the area. The boys weren’t as interested in the literature, but mostly ogled the stuffed owls, ducks, squirrels, badgers, skunks, and preserved insects, their shells just inside a glass case. They enjoyed peering for hours inside the aquariums of snakes, fish, salamanders, and relished the chance to feed earthworms to the small, slimy amphibians.

From the main building, paths branch out in all directions. The walkway winds aways from the Ecology Center to the southwest, circling the hiker underneath a grove of sugar maples. Every March, Maywood hosts an event where the syrup from the large maples is tapped, cured on site, with a pancake feast following. At that time, life is beginning anew with a fresh season and the broad-lobed leaves of the maple chatter quietly overhead. The wide path underneath the maple grove overlooks two spring-fed ponds, one two-hundred and nineteen paces around, the other just over two-thirds of that size. These ponds serve mainly as abodes to frogs, toads, turtles, a small fish population, and various water insects.

Years earlier, the boys would journey over to these ponds after crossing the river, either by the main bridge or some other shallow point. They’d swear the same frog would surface to visit them each time they trekked to the southernmost pond.

At these ponds now, aquatic life cannot be seen, as fall has nearly passed by this park, and the cold bite of winter has started to set in, chilling the land. Sections near the shores of the ponds are solid, a thin, glass-like sheet of ice slowly creeping towards the center. The soft swish made by walking through fallen leaves has been replaced by crinkling and crackling that seems lifeless. From my position here, I think I can smell sap on the breeze coming down from the ridge of sugar maples.

East of the maple ridge and the two ponds, the park is mostly wetland. Reeds mingled with the flower of Queen Anne shoot up from the ground in all places that haven’t been groomed as paths. Patches of cattails pop up amongst the reeds. Strange patches of tall, pale-blue stemmed plants are scattered throughout the reeds, forking up like the jagged peaks of a castle. Red-berried trees can be found just off the paths, many times overrun by an assortment of birds.

The boys used to ride their one-speed bikes through this area. Mud would spit up from the wheels, caking the rider’s back and whoever might’ve been trailing just behind. Tearing through the muddy trails, the boys would kick up deer, chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits, and occasionally, a red fox.

Years ago, on the eastern edge of the wetlands, an evergreen forest was planted. It now stretches across the southeast part of the park. Sticky, bronze sap leaks from holes in the trunks. The forest floor is soft and damp, and is easy to walk upon without making a sound because of the carpet of pine needles. At night, owls perch themselves up in the branches, waiting silently, watching for the tiniest stir from among the needles, leaves, and cones below.

One can learn about the different species of owl in Maywood--great horned, bard, short-eared or long-eared--by taking part in an evening program with a guide who leads the hiker through the large pines and talks about the owls' habits.

I head into the forest of pines to escape the biting wind. It’s the only place I find refuge. I make no sound as I slowly gait through the sweet scent of pine. All around the path, young spruces shoot up under the arms of taller ones. Ahead, a doe feeds on plant from the forest floor alone. She has a brilliant white tail, which resembles the mature, exploded cattails I’d seen earlier. One of her senses has given me up. With a quick look over her shoulder in my direction, she prances away.

The southern quarter of the park is less water-logged than the rest of the wetland area. The land rises to highs and lows, creating a crown around this section of land. In the valley, between the ridges, the ground doesn’t hold standing water. Some twenty spruces rise up in allegiance.

Years ago, during winter, the group of boys would go sledding on the hill that ran along the dry valley. Back then, the path was a good eight feet wide, and in the middle of the hill, forked out in two directions, so adventurous children who could steer a sled had choices.

The main path loops around and returns to the wetlands. In the southeastern-most corner, just off the path, there are the remnants of a small patch of bamboo. Years ago, the six boys turned the tall sticks into their fort. They’d gut out the inside, leaving a thick wall of bamboo on the outside. Inside was their shelter.

This hill has since slanted, the land shifted. It leans towards the south now, where it used to be flat for the most part. The path no longer forks, and on the right is overgrown, lost amongst tall grasses. The patch of bamboo is all but decimated, broken stalks resembling crumbled remains of a great castle, hailing from a time that simply can never be recovered, the time of those young.

***

It’s been ten years since I’ve visited this place. I wonder about the Native Americans who first used this land, when no one held rights to it, and how they felt once they were forced off. I wonder what impression the land would have on them now, the shape of it shifting relentlessly. Maybe they planted one of the large willows that now flank the river, offering shade in sections from shore to shore, now a tall monument to the land they knew as their subsistence. How this land has changed in my mind, land apparently not meant to be cemented in memory. Even as I thought I knew these woods, the lowlands, and the river like the back of my hand, it’s amazing how much things change, how life continues, even more so once you stop looking.

Jul 22, 2005

When it Rains

This piece came from a couple of journal entries and a stint of boredom during class, Fall 2004. Was subsequently published at www.acommonsense.com .

*****

On a breezy October morning I stared at the trees, trees bullied by high winds, from a window in the office of one of my writing professors. On my lap sat my Dell, on its screen were questions for him regarding a shipment of donated school supplies destined for Malawi, Africa.

My professor resided in Malawi for a couple years, and since leaving has returned on many occasions. In pictures I learned of schools there, if one would dare to call them that. Paint chips bluer than the Malawian sky flaked off the wall in one room. The children, no older than eight, sat on grey concrete under a ceiling that wore a crooked grin, promising to cave in on them. The slate the instructor chalks up has three large holes, one leading through the wall, offering a small window of perception into the classroom next door.

No camera dared to betray the conditions behind that wall, conditions no better than the room it had already captured. These children were fortunate compared to most. They had walls, at least a ceiling, even if slightly fragmented. Nearly nobody gets plumbing or electricity.

Spots underneath fat trees sporting orange blossoms are space for classrooms when there’s no room in the building, or if there simply is no building. During a storm in the summer of 2004 one tree surrendered to winds and took some children with it. When it rains, it pours, and scores of children whose class meets under trees are denied school because of watery weather.

Later that day, lounging in class, I looked around. There was a hole in the ceiling near the front-left corner of the room, above the upper-left corner of an enormous chalkboard. That’s where they’d dropped the wiring for the remote controlled overhead projector that hung from a hole, now patched up, in the middle of the room. The news article on the projector screen was too small, so a classmate read it from the networked computer instead, a commodity in every classroom.

I’ve always known that my handwriting is horrible, but I scribbled this piece on paper, on a desk. I had more notebooks and pens in my book bag than an entire middle school of Malawians. I sat in a chair, that, though made of plastic, felt rather comfortable. If it had rained outside, I might’ve not even noticed.

Jul 21, 2005

Texas, Circa 1996

Our first stop once leaving the airport was at a small shack that served burgers and beer. A small sign indicated it's name to be "The Hog's Breath," such an alluring title. My memory serves me much less than it used to, but I remember boar burgers. Crawfish as well.

Often I would stumble across the clawed creatures back home in Wisconsin, dragging their bellies across the river bottom in the reserve behind my house. There the crawfish would remain. They gave good sport, but never did killing, eating them cross my mind.

That meant eating crawfish would take no small amount of bravery from that young boy of twelve. I found out soon enough that if I didn't eat crawfish, I probably would've starved, because they served as a staple on our menus almost daily for our entire stay.

Halfway through our stay we visited a Tiki-style restaraunt, with dining options under a roof or outside under the stars. A pool table sat out in open light, a woman in her thirties and a boy barely twenty hovered around it. The boy made no effort to hide his probing glances when the woman bent forward to shoot, whether his angle of view came from up front, the side, or behind. Soon her husband approached, tall, slim, and fully bearded, a striking resemblence to captain Nemo.

Initially I thought his approach was triggered by the boy, who had now pinched the lady's skirt-clad behind. So young, I didn't realize what was happening, but was slightly disturbed.

I'm not sure that I learned anything that night, except for the fact that twelve year olds can pass easy for sixteen year olds in Texas. That night, Captain Nemo took his bride home, and probably had a much better time than butt pincher. In a nutshell, I had a good time.

That very evening I flew home, a large cloud of pollution hid over Houston in the shadows, waiting patiently for morning to reveal it's hazed ugliness. Somewhere in that large country, King George W. the Idiot, High Ruler of Texas rested his head upon a feather pillow, and I, too young to smoke, drink, vote and even have sex (in certain states), rested a few thousand feet above the land that George W. was to fuck up on a fast track, beginning only a handful of years later with a stolen election.

Ignorance within youth can be bliss.

Jul 20, 2005

Welcome!

I've been rather unproductive this summer. School has commenced for the year, and the hours left vacant have been filled with work. It's been a hot one up here in Wisconsin. Once outside, one has the sensation of being blasted with the devil's breath: hot, dry, slightly sticky. The landscape, looking like hell. There's been no rain, nearly a drought.

Without continuing on this unfocused tangent, I will introduce myself briefly and call it for now. I'm a senior in college earning degrees in writing and liberal arts. The minor in English I added was an afterthought, but a necessity for graduate school.

My intent is for this blog to be a place where I spill out the joy, the revelations, the sadness, the confusion, a place to release demons and harness spirits. Maybe I'll see and/or meet a few friends along the way.