I Can't Hear You I've Got My Fingers in My Ears Department

Governor Blogo resisted the invitation to do his Nixon impersonation on yesterday’s broadcast of The View. That’s of course his own affair.

 

You can watch me make a different choice over at the Prairie Lights Bookstore site.

 

See Kuusisto Does the Kennedy-Nixon Debate just for the sheer brio of the enterprise.

 

SK 

Sorrow and Pity Department, Part Two

We were sleeping and then we were awake. We saw the governor of Illinois declaring he was Jimmy Stewart although owing to our sub-lucid condition we could not remember a film wherein Mr. Steward played a souped up criminal narcissist with a Beatles wig atop his noggin but we tried to remember. We recalled successfully that Jimmy Stewart wasn’t a progressive guy off camera. We faintly remembered that Mr. Steward liked airplanes. He played a bad guy once or twice but not very convincingly–a fact that stands in unambiguous opposition to “Blogo’s”situation, that of a bad man trying to play a good guy.  

We were only half awake. We tried to recall the F.B.I. planting evidence on innocent people and we could remember lots of stuff but we couldn’t recall the F.B.I. doctoring wiretaps of politicians who were trying to sell a senate seat.

We imagine such things are possible. Maybe “Blogo” is wondrously innocent.

Maybe.

But we think he has to get a better story. Here are some suggestions:

He needs to hire Oliver Stone. Stone can craft a conspiracy theory that will make “Blogo’s” innocence or guilt completely irrelevent because we will be forced to conclude that anything destructive in the governor’s life is just more cultural pressure. See “The Doors” for example. 

He should hire Karl Rove. Rove will put out the story that the F.B.I. is in league with the Taliban and make this pronouncement stick by claiming to be shielding a Fox news personality who he can’t name. This actually could work.

In the meantime we think the only actor the governor reminds us of is Robert Blake. Its the hair and the talk. The unfaltering and aggrandizing declarations of pure innocence while reeking of powder burns. You don’t need Frank Capra for that.

 

S.K.  .

Hooking Kids with Commodity Junk Department

Emmanuelle Goodiern has an excellent editorial over at Mothering Magazine about the biz of hooking little kids with “Brats” dolls and other useless junk. Her main point is that anorexic fashion plate girl dolls create what we in the disability studies world call the “social construction of normalcy”–in other words, they promote a destructive fiction about human bodies.

“Why,” you might ask “is Steve Kuusisto reading “Mothering Magazine”?”

Because I think children are our future. Because I care about kids with disabilities. Because I was one of those kids once. Because I care about culture.

No. I’m not in the market for a breast pump.

Kidding aside, the commodity fetishism of anorexia and hooker fashions is relentless and you can check out the link on this blog to Gigi Durham’s excellent book “The Lolita Effect” for a deeper read into the industry that stands behind this social travesty.

When four year old girls come home loaded down with “Brat” gear and are swept up into the egregious and demeaning semiotics of pathetic misrepresentations of real bodies then its time to talk back to the damned culture.

Of course you can talk back and often nothing much happens right away. But things do eventually happen. Consciousness is impossible to stamp out. Gandhi said that first and he said it better. He was also a better dresser than I am.

I think I tell better jokes than Gandhi.

Still the commidification  of childhood is no joke.

 

S.K.

Disability Discrimination and the Numbers Game

If you visit the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s ADA website you can read the followingdisclosure: 

In Fiscal Year 2007, EEOC received 17,734 charges of disability discrimination. EEOC resolved 15,708 disability discrimination charges in FY 2006 and recovered $54.4 million in monetary benefits for charging parties and other aggrieved individuals (not including monetary benefits obtained through litigation).

 

So I admit it’s early in the morning here in Iowa and I’m likely to be insufficiently caffeinated for the looming day and I have never been much at arithmetic (though I do know the difference between arithmetic and mathematics) and I therefore have a very primitive sense of scale.

Okay. But one thing leaps out at me: its estimated there are 54 million people with disabilities in the United States. The number is not solid and in truth its nearly impossible to know how many pwds there really are. But I think this is a good guesstimate.

So if you’re still with me this means that 1 million dollars was awarded for every person with a disability but of course the money went to something like 15,000 claimants.

Now I know and you know that the money is linked to penalties and damages–fines, governmental recovery costs, attorney’s fees, box lunches, cab rides in the rain, postage due, etc. 

But 54 million divided by 15,000 comes to 3.6 million per claimant.

I will argue for the sheer glory of it that for 3.6 million you could employ all the unemployed people with disabilities here in the state of Iowa.

Now we all know this isn’t real money.

Or is it? 

Hmmmm.

 

I better get a cup of coffee.

 

SK

Lordy, Lordy: U.S. Supreme Court to Hear Special Education Case

 

The Supremes those enlightened and humane arbiters of civil rights for all have agreed to hear the case of an Oregon teen’s family vs. the Forest Grove school district–a case concerning the lower courts badminton over whether the public schools should have to pay for a private education when  they have failed miserably to accomodate and educate  a student with a learning disability. There are several features to this story that are achingly familiar: the public school officials who blame the student for her failures by pointing out that she was a marijuana user. The loud insistence that despite their failures to help the student get properly diagnosed and accommodated, they are just terrific at what they do. Its an old story.

Sometimes in creative writing classes I point out to students that the hardest story to write is the one in which everyone is a villain. I also suggest that these types of stories are quickly “dated” like those anti-heroic movies from the early 70’s that no one watches anymore. (Remember Ratso Rizzo?)

All stories about really bad people behaving badly and then more badly are always about money. I like to call this “the Bleak House Effect” and you can call it whatever, say something like “The Uncle Johnny Effect” or whatever you like.

The Supremes actually heard a case like this one back in 2007 and the creeps couldn’t come to a decision on the matter, splitting 4-4. But now they have their “Ken doll ultra conservative plastic   hair right wing Stepford husband Chief Justice who Can’t Administer the Presidential Oath of Office” so we can count on a ruling against the student and for the school district.

You can count on Judge Scalia to say: “Why doesn’t this student just drop out and go work in a lead mine?”

You can count on  Alito to say: “I’m not certain, but I believe I read in the Bob Roberts Medical Journal that marijuana causes learning disabilities…”

You can count on Clarence Thomas to snooze. When he wakes up you can count on him to doodle on his blotter.

The real crime here is that local school districts are often permitted to underfund their special education programs. Real lives are in the balance as we like to say over here at the POTB.

The fact that the Forest Grove school district had to pay for its failures is justice and you can count on the 5  clowns to administer the coup de grace. to our old blind lady.

P.S. I smoked marijuana in high school and it made the miserable hours spent in quasi suffocation go more gracefully upon the cherished inner life where the meanings are.

 

S.K.

Philistine? Yes. That's Me

 

I was thinking about poetry for lack of anything else to do a matter which is almost always a mistake and I realized that I don’t like much of what’s passing for the art in today’s university writing programs. I am in no way remarkable for holding this view but what’s somewhat revealing is that I’ve arrived at the position over the past ten years. I didn’t feel this way two or three decades ago.

I have a suspicion about curmudgeonliness. People used to be branded over the hill at 30 and 50  is the new 30I’m told so perhaps my approbation about contemporary poetry is related to my age and my obvious irrelevance  viz the youth culture.

But then again I have suspicions about easy thinking and I’m forced to reject the subjectivity of my age: I’m called to admit that I find poetry writing is mostly for shit in today’s university creative writing programs.

What has happened?

Two things are fairly certain: we have decadent new formalist poets who are teaching young poets to write even more decadent  rhymie dimey stuff  and we have decadent language qua language poets who are teaching students that poetry is entirely about language. Both groups rely on life support systems of their own making–theories of verse and theories of linguistic aesthetics–for indeed the professor poets have to pay their mortgages somehow. 

For the sheer hell of it I’m now going to make up two examples of these respective modes. I am doing this ex cathedra and in true spontaneous fashion. Here’s the neo-formal poem as sanctioned by the academies:

 

Jesus in the Desert

 

However he got there, he was a darkling bird

Half man by turns, open to wind

As any wing though driven fast his word

Was no longer sure, the mind

Was there a fickle thing.

 

Blah blah blah.

 

Here’s the second major category:

 

Fire

 

Always the mirror stems

Eyes 

Culled from sand

And together

They are the book.

 

Etc.

 

I can scarcely go on. As you can see both these examples are without ardor. There’s nothing of the man or woman who was drawn to write words on a page and there’s nothing of human love or the instincts of or pertaining to love.

It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.

For the sake of argument here are some opening lines by a Finnish poet, Turkka Suominen that I’ve translated into English, lines that have swing:

 

Columbus: what were you thinking?

I was the one who found India.

Odysseus: I’m the only one who got home.

 

There’s a human being there. She’s playing. In a few more seconds she’s going to riff on what its like to be a working class woman in a dark country. She’s going to write about sweeping other people’s floors. She’s going to fantasize about heaven. She is daring to be a singular loving chancey brash someone on a bleak day. And by the end of her poem she’ll be lighting a cigarette with a lover.

 

I need to feel the human price of language to call the thing a poem. Here are some lines from a first rate prose poem by Robert Bly entitled “Visiting Emily Dickinson’s Grave with Robert Francis”–the human price of their visit and the poet’s appreciation of the life that is inadequately memorialized by physical facts comes forward to us: .

Robert Francis has moved, since his stroke, into town,

and he takes me to the cemetery. A black iron fence

closes the graves in, its ovals delicate as wine stems. They

resemble those chapel windows on the main Aran island,

made narrow in the fourth century so that not too much

rain would drive in …. It is April, clear and dry. Curls of

grass rise around the nearby gravestones.

The Dickinson house is not far off. She arrived here

one day, at fifty-six, Robert says, carried over the lots

between by six Irish laboring men, when her brother

refused to trust her body to a carriage. The coffin was

darkened with violets and pine boughs, as she covered

the immense distance between the solid Dickinson

house and this plot…

The distance is immense, the distances through

which Satan and his helpers rose and fell, oh vast

areas, the distances between stars, between the first

time love is felt in the sleeves of the dress, and the

death of the person who was in that room…. the dis-

tancebetween the feet and head as you lie down, the

distance between the mother and father, through

which we pass reluctantly.

 

Though this is a prose poem the whole thing “swings” and we’re caught in the crazy Gnostic dance that is performed where sunlight meets the shadows. I could say more but I won’t because if you can’t see it you can’t afford it. Nor will I say who are the leaders of contemporary university sponsored decadence. I myself can’t afford it. Of course the more singular question is why our teaching poets are so afraid to write about any damned thing that relates to what they used to call depth psychology. My suspicion is that both the groups I’ve mentioned are all too convinced that human feeling is simply quaint. Feeling is the resort of uncomplicated people. That’s what they invariably say though the terms are disguised. If your writing expresses ardor then you’re not avant garde enough. That’s how its bruited about in the corridors of the MFA programs.

This is why I’m standing on the outside. Some of the best poetry that’s happening in the United States is located in neighborhood venues where the slams and hip hop are found. And of course wherever you have some proximity to the humbling matters of physical struggle or working class endurance, there you will find it.

 

S.K.

Even Julie Andrews Isn't Julie Andrews Department

Our friend The Goldfish writes with dignity about the pervasive and daily effects of ill health. Lots of us with disabilities as they’re collectively known are the people or persons of The Goldfish  Tribe. I have a friend and colleague here in the creative nonfiction writing program at the U of Iowa who has a serious chronic illness and she’s often exhausted and unable to leave her house. I told her how blindness leaves me wiped out and that sometimes I feel like one of Mario Puzo’s characters in The Godfather who has gone into hiding by “going to the mattresses”.

We Pwds “go to the mattresses” and we rise from them again with a helluva lot of brio and steadfastness. We raise kids and attend meetings and we take longer to clean the house but we feel the drifting and incandescent seconds as joys without easy analogies and we get on with our business.

This is the irony of disability: the ableists imagine Pwds as being child-like when in fact we’re the older people, the ones who still remember that hourly or minute by minute steepness remain central parts of life.

I was talking in my writing class on Thursday about Thomas Jefferson who as  a comparatively young man fell and broke his wrist while traveling in France. The crude local doctor made the break even worse and in turn Jefferson never regained full use of his hand. And we know that the hand never stopped hurting. And we know that Jefferson never spoke of the matter. He gave up his beloved violin and that was that. Stoicism vanishes with the commercial advent of aspirin in the 20th century. People seem to think that a 0 degree of pain is what its all about.

Well you can’t fool the People of The Goldfish Tribe. We have night sweats; aching joints; asthma; burning eyes; dizzy spells; skull ripping headaches; jitters; snapped bones; paralysis; Rococo fatigues; grasshoppers in our pillows; crickets in our milk.

Sometimes we just sneak away from the party, the dinner, the convocation, the whole damned dog show and we go to the mattresses.

 

SK

No More Mr. Nice Guy Department

Its safe to say that when nice guys take off the gloves people are aghast. Remember in the movies when people were aghast? A cry would go up, something more than a murmur but less than a scream.

Back in the primary campaign pundits and voters were aghast when Bill Clinton went snarly. He had turned into Bubbastein right before our eyes. Whatever happened to our Oxfordian Fat Elvis who felt our pain? Down there in South Carolina he was seen comparing Barack Obama’s success to that of the REv. Jesse Jackson and he was showing his teeth, oh yes.

Sometimes nice guys just get off the rug. They decide to let their inner backwash out of the drain so to speak. No one really knows why they snap. Something happens to their super egos and you can blame it on heavy drinking or the tabloid press but this doesn’t explain the Nice Guy Next Door who formerly was known for smiling and waving and who now gives people the finger. At cocktail parties they say: “He was always such a nice guy. But now he gives you the finger!”

Oh its a dark world. The Nice Guy Next Door is whipping up a good old fashioned case of Greco-Roman malevolence. He’s going to put salt on the fields. He’s going to stop shoveling his portion of the sidewalk just to watch you fall. He will say you are inferior much as Athenians said the Carthaginians were weak. The Nice Guy Next Door doesn’t need social Darwinism because now that he’s no longer nice he doesn’t need to believe in advantages or “goodies” for a select few, he just thinks the whole world is a pis pot and he’s heading for the covert even if its just the basement.

The whole business is a kind of anti-conversion; there’s no transubstantiation just inter-substantiation–one minute he was nice and now he’s a scab picking, lightbulb stealing, window soaper. He’d soap the windshield of an ambulance if he could find one.

So here’s my argument: Americans don’t take disappointment very well. In our mythology we are a nice nation as we stand in bread lines or whatnot, but in truth when things go poorly in the land of milk and honey the Nice Guys and Galsshow their refined teeth very quickly. Teeth are a metaphor and dont you forget it.The Haymarket riots and the burning of our cities in the late sixties offer the ugly teeth of the last century when in both instances people felt raw despair.

Last week over 30,000people filed new jobless claims. That’s over 1.7 million unemployed people if the pace keeps up over the course of the year.

Imagine all those formerly Nice Guys and Gals who aren’t in the neighborhood anymore. The GOP is currently arguing up on Capitol hill that we should be spending less on the national recovery and cutting social programs and cutting taxes and apparently they don’t live in genuine neighborhoods where one can see Nice Guys and Gals feeling seriously inter-substantiated into ever smaller and meaner versions of themselves. Capitalism is only worth its cultural glory when it creates jobs.

Not even Nice Guy Obama knows how to make jobs without social programs and investments.

And I for one wouldn’t want the Nice Guy in Chief to get inter-substantiated anytime soon.

 

SK  

Science and Poetry

I have several friends who are physicians and scientists and lots of friends and acquaintences who are writers. Sometimes the two groups meet in my presence like two wandering tribes who have been traveling a long way across the steppes of Russia. You can always tell these tribesmen and tribeswomen apart because the scientists dress like beach bums (many continue to wear shorts even in Iowa in January) and the writers dress entirely in black as if they’re all undergraduates at Bard College. There are some exceptions. A doctor I admire may wear a Republican blue blazer and chinos; a poet might wear a baggy sweatshirt declaiming Boston Celtics. Over time I’ve come to see that neither group has any taste. But this shouldn’t be a surprise since the life of the mind ought to be less commodified as Albert Einstein so aptly demonstrated every day of his life. That none of my friends resembles Albert Einstein might be a problem. I haven’t had time to consider this. I imagine we should all look like Einstein: both men and women. I think I would have trouble growing the moustache. Well that’s not quite true. I could grow it but I couldn’t keep it tidy. Einstein probably didn’t care whether is moustache was tidy. I care. I have to draw the line somewhere. I like having clean lips. A friend who belongs to the writer group once remarked that he thought he saw the living incarnation of Walt Whitman eating spanokopita at Roditi’s Greek restaurant in Chicago. The Whitman look alike had spinach pie all down his beard. I’m betting that the hirsute customer in Roditi’s wasn’t a poet or a scientist but was most likely a retired podiatrist. I can’t explain this. I know some things are true without further research.

Nevertheless I’ve come to see that there’s a philosophical difference between the scientists and the writers. This takes a little time to sus out because at first there’s the wine and the brie; the mutual curiosity about ideas; the discovery that the scientists read widely in literature; the finding that writers are fascinated by science and medicine. A young genetic researcher recites a long passage from Kipling’s “Gunga Din” which is meant to be heard not read and aside from all the colonial sentiments (admittedly a big aside) one feels suddenly disposed toward Kipling who one hadn’t thought about since the third grade when the saga of Riki Tiki Tavi was on one’s mind. (Personally I wanted to become a writer because of Kipling. I decided this when I was 8 years old. Many writers will tell you similar stories while substituting Booth Tarkington or H.G. Wells. 

A doctor recites the prologue from “The Canterbury Tales” and we learn that he was long ago in a life before med school actually an English major. He makes no joke about having come to his senses. He knows the supple discriminations of lingo are central to the mind’s muscularity. He knows he’s a better doc because he’s carrying old rhythms and plots under his white coat and deep in his chest.

A writer says he likes Oliver Sacks and another says he is fascinated by the history of consciousness and the work of Antonio Damasio (who used to teach at the University of Iowa) and still another writer talks with affinity about the history of mathematics.

We talk about the importance of narrative both in scientific research and in figurative language. We talk about narrative medicine and how doctors especially young ones need to hear their patients.

And like Rousseau we drink bordeaux and nibble cheese and think of the mind as a fit gift to the world. We have a log on the fire.

When an evening like this is over I think (as we all do) that we need much more cross fertilization. I won’t say “in the university” because I think that the business of bringing  parenthetically specialized people together is critically important in every social culture we can conceive of. Currently I’m just thinking of my own fireside.

In some respects I think the writers have more to learn from the scientists than they would easily imagine. While this is a generalization to be sure, I’ve seen over time that many writers (in all genres) are quietly and uncritically attracted to what I can only describe as a kind of amateur apocalyptic thinking. They imagine the world is ending. They have the evidence of course. The evidence is overwhelming. Everyone knows the evidence. A very limited undergraduate said to me once and without irony:”It’s all Al Gore’s fault.” He didn’t know what he meant any better than I do but its safe to say that he was talking about evidence. And the trouble with evidence as any reader of crime fiction well knows is that once you’ve dug it up you can’t bury it again. 

The poet Wallace Stevens wrote: “The world is ugly and the people are sad.”  He was incorrect about both the people and the world even as he was undeniably certain how he (as a singular man) felt about both the people and the world. That is, he was correct about some of the people some of the time and some of the world all of the time.

Some. Feeling. One spots the provisional quality of Stevens’ apprehensions. In English departments they talk of subjectivity not just as a condition of the individual but as an inheritance from cultural influences. We are reduced, isolated, made smaller within the mind by the predilections of organized politics, religion, education, and yes, literature.

Wallace Stevens had a lousy marriage, a boring job (he was an insurance executive “by day”), and he studied French modernist poetry and philosophy. Was he sad? You bet. And why not?

Trouble is: way too many American writers and especially writers who make their livings by teaching at universities think like Wallace Stevens. While they may understand the entrapments of subjectivity they easily give in to habits of imaginative limitations.

Part of the reason for this is that contemporary literature is driven by feelings. Fiction is more often than not concerned with failings of families or of communities; poetry is about spiritual loss or the maddening and inchoate quality of language.

It is hard to care about literature that isn’t about anything beyond the artful arrangements of its ingrown despairs but this is mostly what’s going around. I won’t bother with examples. Pick up any literary magazine. Go to a writer’s conference.

Its hard to imagine scientists who believe that the words “feeling” and “some” are sufficient to their work. If you want to cure diseases you are testing every hypothesis and challenging your assumptions. If you love literary language you love it for its aesthetics and you don’t confuse aesthetics with progress.

Of course some writers would tell you that “progress”is a bourgeoise notion thereby dismissing it. Well, one of my friends is close to curing blindness. Stick that in your poetry pipe.

 

SK 

Obama's Economic Stimulus Includes Relief for People with Disabilities

 

During the presidential campaign Barack Obama promised to promote jobs, independent living, and health care for people with disabilities. His  stimulus package which is currently under review in the House of Representatives calls for 20 billion dollarsto address these critical needs. Perhaps the most heartening dimension of the proposed spending for pwds is the funding that is specified to move people from institutions to community living. As the old Sam Cook song says: “It’s been a long time coming…”

Here in Iowa we know that people are being held in hospitals who would prefer to live in their communities.Community is the signature of human identity and there’s a strong argument to be made that community is in the human genome. There’s an equally strong argument that American identity springs entirely  from communitarian values. Restoring citizens with disabilities to our communities is really a matter of living up to our human heritage and our national ideals.

 

Let us hope for swift passage of this stimulus by both houses of Congress.

 

SK