John Samuel Tieman

The Trouble With Numbers

Tuesday, April 22, 2014
posted by Michael Simms

by John Samuel Tieman

I recently read a scholarly article by the principal of a public high school in New York, which in part addressed “data dysentery”, the countless reams of data we educators collect for, well, for what? The collection of data for the sake of the collection of data?

I mentioned this at lunch to a friend, himself a middle school principal in a large eastern district. He told me of a reading program that was implemented in his district. “Teacher-Proof Education”. The district spent millions on lessons were entirely scripted. There was only one program. To the best of my friend’s knowledge, everyone, teachers and principals without exception, felt the program deleterious to the point of counter-productive. So no one implemented it. Not one school. Except when there was a survey, run by outsiders, measuring the program. On those days, everyone implemented it. At other times, analysis depended on self-reporting which, for obvious reasons, bordered on the self-congratulatory.

The program was deemed a success. “People were even promoted,” my friend added with a laugh. He became a bit more somber when he mentioned how a social scientist, one he deeply respected, based part of an article on this data.

First, the disclaimer. I am not a luddite. Nor am I a data hater. Statistical surveys, and other data instruments, can provide deeply meaningful analyses, analyses that can alter an entire society. “The Kinsey Reports” irrevocably changed America by simply informing the nation of our sexual practices.

Contemporary statistical analyses, however, mostly yield noise. Perhaps the greatest disservice is done to serious social scientists, whose work gets lost amid all the stats-trash.

There is, in a word, imbalance. It is time to honor those who do serious data collection by reminding ourselves of some of the fundamental limits of data analysis.

 Data tends to create more data. And this data, based upon that data, can often act like a platonic removal, a shadow based upon a shadow of the original thing.
 Data often obscures its own prejudices. As just one example, every statistical analysis starts with the presumption that the problem at hand is amenable to, and benefited by, data analysis.
 Data has trouble with innovation. Why? Because tomorrow’s innovation is measured by yesterday’s instrument.
 Data often has trouble with social context. Early I. Q. tests were first designed for, and administered to, relatively well educated whites. Blacks did terribly, and were deemed to be intellectually inferior.
 Many large scale studies depend heavily on self-reporting. But how does one report accurately, for example, in a school system? In a rigidly hierarchical system, like a school system, it merits one almost nothing to report accurately, to the next highest level, that which is negative. There are times when, as the report moves up the hierarchy, each level acts as a platonic removal, until the final report, let’s say a report to the state, is just a shadow of the classroom upon which it reports. As anecdotal evidence, I offer the fact that, of the thousands of reading programs implemented in public schools, I’ve not read one that reported itself a failure.
 Perhaps most importantly, our lives are subject to the ineffable, the intangible, the unconscious. How does one measure awe? Faith? Hope? Beauty? More importantly, why would anyone want to? It is not sufficient to say that the opening of Mozart’s “Haffner Symphony” is brilliant in its simplicity?

The best studies do address the problems listed above. Contemporary I. Q. tests, for instance, regularly compensate for social context On the other hand, many studies are simply stats-trash. Let us examine, for a moment, educational psychology. Almost all educational psychology these days is cognitive/behavioral. Such an orientation lends itself to vast amounts of data collection. There is much that can be learned from such measure, much that is great benefit. On the other hand, as any psychoanalyst will tell us, most of what motivates us toward any behavior is unconscious. That too can be known and measured. But such knowing, such measuring, runs the risk of obscuring understanding. It rationalizes the non-rational.

There are times when it feels like the sum of a person is behavior and data, that no one has a mind anymore.

Let me be absolutely clear. Many studies are invaluable in their contributions and robust in their data. I value their work so much that it pains me to read other papers based upon numbers that are just stats-trash.
_____

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Elegy for Rudy

Wednesday, April 16, 2014
posted by Michael Simms

by John Samuel Tieman

This morning, as I left for work, after all these terrible storms we’ve had, I noticed the tiniest of my wife’s daffodils are starting to bloom. As cliched as it may sound, I felt like Rudy was saying, “It’s OK, John. Storms will pass. And, as always, life will continue.”
______

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A Publisher’s Story

Tuesday, April 8, 2014
posted by Michael Simms

Retold by John Samuel Tieman

Tetsugen, a devotee of Zen in Japan, decided to publish the sutras, which at that time were available only in Chinese. The books were to be printed with wood blocks in an edition of seven thousand copies, a tremendous undertaking.

Tetsugen began by traveling and collecting donations for this purpose. A few sympathizers would give him a hundred pieces of gold, but most of the time he received only small coins. He thanked each donor with equal gratitude. After ten years Tetsugen had enough money to begin his task.

It happened that at that time the Uji River overflowed. Famine followed. Tetsugen took the funds he had collected for the books and spent them to save others from starvation. Then he began again his work of collecting.

Several years afterwards an epidemic spread over the country. Tetsugen again gave away what he had collected, to help his people. For a third time he started his work, and after twenty years his wish was fulfilled. The printing blocks which produced, and the first edition of sutras can be seen today in the Obaku monastery in Kyoto.

The Japanese tell their children that Tetsugen made three sets of sutras, and that the first two invisible sets surpass even the last.

_____

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Please

Friday, March 28, 2014
posted by Michael Simms

by John Samuel Tieman

There is an inter-office memo. “Staff, there is no other system. I hope this answers the question.” Thus are we given the choice between being computer programmers, or being a vice-president for programming. Naturally, since we need the dental plan, we choose to be programmers and vice-presidents. Soon, we run out of programs to program. We then write programs about testing programs. While that task is in progress, the more creative among us write programs that supplement the programs, programs that augment the meta-programs, as well as programs that test the programmers and the vice-presidents.

One vice-president almost emails his wife a billet-doux. Instead, he considers company policy. The company hires only one guard. The vice-president approaches the guard. The guard is silent. The vice-president apologizes. The guard is silent. The vice-president confesses. His inter-office confession reads, “Staff, there is nothing new. Please continue.”

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How To Tell A War Story

Friday, March 21, 2014
posted by Michael Simms

by John Samuel Tieman

I remember the day Senior Drill Sergeant Rose lined us up in squads of eight. It was the first week of Basic Training.

“Every single one of you is going to The Nam. Consider yourselves officially dipped in shit. Now look up and down your squad. There’s eight of you. This time next year, one of you will be dead. So pay attention to your drill sergeants, and you may be one of the lucky seven who comes home only wounded or crazy. That’s your first lesson. Now here’s Drill Sergeant Thomas, who’s got a war story.”

Sgt. Thomas was mean. But at first his look wasn’t so much mean as blank.

From beside Sgt. Rose’s rostrum, Sgt. Thomas smartly steps out as if he’s on parade. He stands before us at attention. He does an about face. He takes off his drill sergeant’s hat, his fatigue shirt, pulls down his pants then his boxer shorts. The skin, from his knees to his shoulders, is streaked with half-a-dozen long diagonal scars, and bunches of little ones. Then he puts his clothes back on, does another about face. And grins. He never says a word. Just that demented grin. The story was made entirely of keloids.

—–

In the years immediately after the war, every day I used to dwell on the war. And I don’t mean I’d think of it now and again. I mean I’d dwell at length. I remember one week when I wondered if I could recall each day I’d been in Nam. Each night for about a week, just after I turned out the light, just before I went to sleep – I could recall every day of the war.

Some time later, it occurred to me that I hadn’t thought of The Nam in twenty-four hours. I’d been home for over three years.

When the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, “The Wall”, was constructed, for the first time I saw a complete list of the American dead. I pulled out this yearbook sort of thing I have from Basic Training, and compared it to the list. I wanted to see if Senior Drill Sergeant Rose was right about that one in eight thing. I saw Thornton’s name. I saw my bunk mate, Lewis. And I stopped. It is enough to know some of us died. Beyond that, I just don’t want to think of them that way.  10,000 miles from home. Crying for mother. The chaplain leaning in and saying, “Private, I’m going to give you your Last Rites now. Are you ready?”

—–

When I first got home, I used to dwell on the war. Now, it’s like it creeps up on me every few weeks, like some Mephistopheles stalking a soul he already owns.

Like today. The ROTC folks at my school are making a display of veterans on the faculty. They ask me for a medal. I bring them my Vietnamese Cross Of Gallantry.

Last night, I taped the movie “Tigerland”, largely because that’s where I trained, Fort Polk. The movie was waiting for me when I got home from work.

As was the novel All Quite On The Western Front. I set it on my desk this morning. My wife never read it. I promised to read to Phoebe my favorite passage, the last chapter.

Later, on “The Five O’clock News”, there’s the story of a boy killed in Vietnam. They were bringing home, after all these years, his remains. Bone fragments.

And I wept.    It all just sort of crept up on me.
______

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The Next Renaissance or The Conjectures of a Reluctant Optimist

Friday, March 14, 2014
posted by Michael Simms

by John Samuel Tieman

Y si he de dar un testimonio sobre mi época
es éste: Fue bárbara y primitiva
pero poética.

And if I have to give witness to my era
it’s this: It was barbarous and primitive
yet poetic.

    -Ernesto Cardinal / John Samuel Tieman

I: The Madonna

My wife and I spent a couple of weeks this summer in Prague. We fell in love with the city. My wife attended a psychoanalytic conference, which left me with a few days on my own. Enough time for me to fall in love with the gothic Convent Of St. Agnes, which now houses the medieval collection of the Czech National Gallery. I spent two days there.

I learned many things. But of interest here is “The Madonna Of St. Vitus Cathedral.” It was one of the first “beautiful Madonnas,” sometimes called “the pretty Virgins.” In a few words, the painting is clearly medieval, but presents many features that prefigure the Renaissance. The Jesus and the Mary are anatomically proportional, for example. Obvious as it may be to those far wiser, it dawned on me, as I explored this painting at length, that it is possible to discuss a period that was, while clearly medieval, in essence pre-Renaissance.

It was a period of transition.

Which brings me to 2014. No one likes to think that they live in a dark age. (Many, perhaps most, medievalists dislike the very term “Dark Ages”). Yet I’m not sure what else to call the 20th Century. Verdun. Vietnam. Hiroshima. Nagasaki. Auschwitz. Mustard gas. The Armenian Genocide. Stalinism. World War I, which was followed by another world war far worse. The Crusades pale by comparison. If the 20th Century wasn’t a dark age, then the term has no meaning.

With that in mind, our time is also a period of transition. Many scholars speak of the end of Modernism, that we are in a time of Post-Modernism. Jacques Derrida comes to mind, as does Michel Foucault. And many other equally brilliant scholars.

In my opinion, Post-Modernism isn’t so much a fixed ideology as it is a fluid critique of Modernism. It is indicative of a transition rather than any fixed point. Post-Modernism is essentially skeptical. It deconstructs. It offers an important vision of transition. But its very purpose is not foundational.

I’m not dismissing Post-Modernism, not by any means. It facilitates transition, and that is vital. Transitions are confusing. Post-Modernism gives an explanation, a kind of symbolic comfort to the confused. To risk a metaphor, it criticizes the old world, it explains the voyage, but it stipulates no port of call. It reacts. It doesn’t establish. Post-Modernism deconstructs Modernism, and, in doing so, provides a purely intellectual interlude into which no popular movement, nor any resultant magnum opus, has yet to enter. That’s not a bad thing. It’s simply transitional. But it is not comparable to, say, the medieval religious movements that gave birth to both the Dominicans and the Franciscans, out of which grew such masterpieces as the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas, and the poetry of Francis Of Assisi.

Which brings me back to “The Madonna Of St. Vitus Cathedral.” No one likes to think that they live in an unenlightened era. Nonetheless, it is possible to think of our years as comparable to that pre-Renaissance period. Perhaps we are approaching The Next Renaissance. I hope so. The alternative, that the 21st Century will be worse than the 20th, is too horrible to contemplate.

II: The Next Renaissance

Why should anyone have hope?

We have polluted the planet to the point of global warming. The United States elected a president, George W. Bush, who doesn’t believe in evolution. One poll found that 22% of adult Americans, and 20% of high school students, thought it was possible that the Holocaust never happened. The 85 richest people own 46% of the wealth – on the earth. In 2012, 49 million Americans lived with food insecurity, 33.1 million adults and 15.9 million children. In a recent poll, 51% of Republicans believed that Barack Hussein Obama is a Muslim, who was born in Kenya. In that same poll, more than half of the Democrats believe that President Bush was complicit in the 9/11 attacks. I got an internet ad that began, “Earn Your Ph. D. Online!” In education, complete standardization is a planned terminus.

This is a litany of ignorance and decadence that could go on ad infinitum.

So why should anyone have hope? Why should anyone feel that all this portends anything except darkness?

Perhaps because the very transition itself may be hopeful. One can hope that we are transitioning, because we have exhausted decadence and ignorance. Be that as it may, Modernism is ending. But thought is not. “The Madonna Of St. Vitus Cathedral” is indicative of a new learning that was, in essence, salvific.

Allow me another litany.

The Catholic Church is entering an era that is post-sacerdotal, one where the parish is run by the people. Our president is black, and our country increasingly brown. Major TV channels are in Spanish. My youngest niece just retired as a full-bird colonel in the Army. I think I was the only passenger who even noticed when, on one leg of our trip to Prague, all our pilots were female, and all our flight attendants were male. Wikipedia does what Denis Diderot and the Encyclopedists only dreamed. Occupy Wall Street made it possible, for perhaps the first time since the McCarthy hearings, to openly critique capitalism. Malala Yousafzai was shot in Pakistan, but healed in England, and now campaigns for the education of young women worldwide. Homosexuals can openly marry. In the United States, the death penalty is itself on the verge of extinction. It is possible to consider an end of the most corrosive effects of positivism, and the beginnings of a new humanism. Some of the finest works of art, that have ever been produced, are being crafted right now.

This too is a litany than could go on ad infinitum.

Of the two litanies I’ve just provided, we will choose the one we prefer. In the end, it’s not like I can really prove The Next Renaissance is approaching. My only point is that absolutely nothing dictates that this current transition must end badly.

But mine is pure speculation, reluctant optimism. So I say there is reason for hope. In any case, if the alternative is true, if the 21st Century grows worse than the 20th, then none of this matters. Because Sobibor’s fate will be envied.
______

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The Guest Lecture

Saturday, March 1, 2014
posted by Michael Simms

by John Samuel Tieman

Settling on the screen
Of the crowded movie house,
A white butterfly
.

– Richard Wright

Thank you for that kind and generous introduction. I am really looking forward to meeting whomever it was you were talking about.

I may well be the least likely poet in the world to give a lecture on composition. I sometimes think I have these mutually exclusive frames, in which people know me as one thing but not the other. Some know me as a certified middle school and high school teacher. Others as a university lecturer. Some as an obscure historian. Others as a minor poet. To the extent that anyone knows me at all, I’m probably best recognized for my political commentaries. A few folks know my scholarly essays about educational psychology. My beloved wife is a highly regarded psychoanalyst, so in some crowds I’m Phoebe’s husband. To some I’m Mr. Tieman, and to others I’m Dr. Tieman. Some know me as a Vietnam veteran; some know me as a peace activist. I don’t know – maybe I’m simply a highly accomplished dilettante.

My point being that my writing, frankly, is just one aspect of my life. An important one, don’t get me wrong. I identify myself as a writer, as a poet and an essayist. And as an educator. And as an historian. As a war veteran. As a scholar. As a loving husband. As a Roman Catholic, for that matter. All that. And more.

In any case, you asked. Let me begin by saying that I am not going to be didactic. Too many good writers have written eloquently on this subject. (What does one say after Phillip Sidney’s An Apology For Poetry, Richard Hugo’ s The Triggering Town, John Ciardi’s How Does A Poem Mean?) But you asked. Therefore, I will tend toward the impressionistic, and the vaguely autobiographical.

Let me begin with a poem about poetry.

the art

i

I’ve never written a poem
that said what I meant

one means as much as shrapnel
one means as little as ink

ii

I wish I had wisdom
instead I have lines

silent as a blackboard in summer
loud as a glacier breaking away

iii

I’ve never known a poem
to stay where I left it

a prisoner climbing a fence
a landing light in the sky
—–

I sometimes think I wasted decades looking for inspiration, when all I needed to do was simply open my eyes.

mother and suckling
boy at the bus stop on Pine
she notes the dawn and
wonders what the day will bring
besides milk and sleep and light

I have almost no imagination. Easily my best known poem was inspired by a shadow.
we undress for love
and for ten seconds the dusk
makes us young again

That haiku was published in Japan in translation in the millions. And it was inspired by nothing beyond what it says. I love my wife. I love her body. Twilight and I wish we were young. I used to think that all poems were inspired by a great sunset, a cataclysmic earthquake, the death of a young athlete. In Vietnam, I saw a sunset that made even the birds pause. In 1985, I survived the Mexico City Earthquake. A student died on the soccer field last year. And I got from these not a single line of poetry. Then — then yesterday –

in utter silence
I stare out our new picture
window to the street
a basketball rolls by followed
by not a soul …

—–

Sometimes a poem takes decades.

Many years ago, I made the acquaintance of Howard Nemerov. I don’t want this to sound any larger than it was — acquaintance is just the right word. He lived down the street from me here, in St. Louis. Sometimes we’d talk of war, World War II for him, Vietnam for me. I remember once saying how I always felt like my service was a failure, that somehow I had failed The Manhood Test. It was one of the first times I’d ever been aggressively honest about my trauma. He admitted having the same feelings. “It’s amazing how war can make us feel like a failure, even when all we failed to do was get ourselves killed.”

And, of course, we spoke of poetry. I have for decades meditated on an off-handed comment he made. “I have no imagination.” At first, I was uncomprehending. Years later, as I walked across the campus of Washington University, years after he’d passed, I saw Howard’s old office window. There were the gingko trees he wrote about in his poetry. He didn’t imagine anything. He just looked out the window. That act of looking took no imagination. The art was in his craft.

This poem below records an event that happened in 1970. My first night in the 4th Infantry Division, North Vietnamese sappers blew-up twenty-one helicopters. Welcome to The Nam. The next night, we watched as “Puff The Magic Dragon”, a Douglas AC-47 gunship, killed these N. V. A. maybe a half-a-mile from the camp. This gunship carried three mini-guns, Gatling guns, which fired so many rounds, 6,000 rounds a minute, that it was said that they put one bullet in every square inch of an area the size of a football field. These mini-guns don’t even sound like a rat-a-tat-tat machine gun. It’s much more like wwwwhhhhaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhh, so many bullets firing so fast that they are indistinguishable. The next morning, a patrol didn’t find any bodies, just body-sized splotches of blood.

I wanted to capture the fact that my feelings were a combination of relief and awe. It is a cliché to say that soldiers are always afraid. No doubt many are. But I wasn’t afraid. And I wasn’t brave. This untitled poem records the night in The Nam that I became dissociative.

I have struggled for decades with my own reaction formation, which is a near-pacifist stance. I hate war. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t find it arousing. Hence, “it’s finally time” to tell a story that I, for decades, didn’t want to know about myself. Perhaps my memories of Howard put me in mind of W. B. Yeats’ “After Long Silence”, the echo of which can be found in this poem –

Years after the war, it’s finally time,
our first sergeant retired,
our outpost plowed under,
the secrets no longer the news, that we tell
the story and tell it again until we hear
what we hated to know:
that we admired the arc of the tracer,
that we admired the splotches of blood.

—–

I’ve been influenced by many other poets.

St. Patrick’s Basilica, Montreal

the leaflet says Emile Nelligan once prayed here
horrified and solar and pale
dementia like an ice violin
a vein where no one finds gold

what did you see when you saw Jesus
a rag doll a neon eclipse Baudelaire
fantastic nostrils sudden birds
psalms sung by orphans

nearly fifty years in a hospital and
I envy you, Emile Nelligan, envy you composing
the same poem every morning and every morning

When my wife Phoebe and I vacationed in Montreal a few years ago, I was amazed at how little I knew about Canadian poetry. We went to Sunday mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where I read in a brochure that Emile Nelligan was baptized there. Without explanation, it read “Nelligan” like I should just know him. He is considered the Arthur Rimbaud of Canada. Schools and libraries are named after him. Like Rimbaud, he stopped writing in his late teens, in Nelligan’s case at the onset of schizophrenia. Emile Nelligan spent the rest of his life, the next forty-two years, in a hospital. And became a legend.

Here’s a poem Nelligan wrote. His poem is from a notebook found on him just after he had the schizophrenic episode that landed him in the hospital. For a little over two months in the summer of 1899, he wandered the streets of Montreal, sleepless, reciting scraps of poetry, haunted by the dementia he recorded in that notebook. I’ve often thought that this poem speaks to us directly from the dementia, and, perhaps, comes as close as one can to expressing what Jacques Lacan calls “the real”. I follow his poem with my humble effort.

He wrote –
Vision

And now I dream of shadows stained with blood,
Proud prancing steeds; the sounds I hear
Are like children’s coughs, cries of tramps’ despair,
Death-rattles of the slowly dead.

Where are they from, those horns that blare and blow,
Snare-drum or fife in noisy wars?
It could be said that through the town, hussars
Gallop with sea-green helms aglow.

I wrote —

Vision, 3 AM

And now I dream of a certain shadow stained
glass creates, of a procession and its priest,
of children softly coughing, of pews.

Where are they from, the psalms and antiphons,
the incense and The Seven Sorrows,
the nun who prays, “Let us pray”?

It could be said, of a certain Catholic
orphanage, that deacons in purple stoles
lead the Stations Of The Cross.

—–

What I love about writing is the process. Good poem or no, good essay or not, I love to sit at my desk, stare out the window at, today, the snow, knowing that I have a warm cup of coffee, a brilliant and sexy wife, and, if I’m lucky, a good idea.

I am in perfect agreement with Sigmund Freud’s theory that the artistic process comes out of the same place as play. I have never been one to suffer over writing. My wife is an insightful writer. I love my wife, but there is a certain way in which I don’t understand her, or anyone, who suffers as she does with writing. If I found it unpleasant, I wouldn’t do it.

Revision

One of the mysteries of my marriage is watching
Phoebe revise. I’ve seen her take a thirty page draft

and just throw the whole thing out. All of it.
And start over. The ideas are all there and greatly

clarified. But the words she throws out.
What she keeps is the clarity of thought.

For my part, I stand in awe. She jokes
how revision begins with bloodshed.
—–

I have no great lessons to impart, nothing large that I’ve learned in life. If angst is a lesson, I’ve learned a lot about that. I am glad I was a professional musician before I was a writer. Music taught me patience and practice. My wife was surprised when I told her that, as a classically trained musician, I often spent the first hour of each day simply playing long tones – one note held for, say, half a minute – scales and chords. All this before I ever opened a sheet of music.

I’m also glad I was a bachelor for forty years. That also taught me about practice, patience and rejection.

—–

Tieman’s Rule Number One: Being an artist is no excuse for being a wanker.

I’ve known poets who were really nice. I know poets who are doting parents, and poets who have sexually abused children. I’ve known poets who are lawyers, and I’ve known poets who are felons. I can’t count the alcoholic poets I’ve known. What seems to unite these poets is a love, indeed a need, for the word. That’s about it, at least as near as I can tell.

But about that dissipation.

More than for his athletic prowess, considerable though it was, Stan Musial is remembered for his simple decency. Bob Costas tells of a night with Stan, Stan’s wife Lil, and Mickey Mantel. “The Mick” vowed to stay sober for the evening, so as not to embarrass himself before Stan and Lil. Later, after the Musials left, Mantel said to Costas, “I had as much ability as Stan. Maybe more. Nobody had any more power than me. Nobody could run faster than me. But Stan was a better player than me, because he was a better man than me. Because he got everything out of his life that he could, and he’ll never have to live with all the regret I live with.”

In my youth, I drank too much, did drugs, womanized. In a war of questionable morality, I killed a boy. I traveled the world in order to run from my troubles. I spurned the love and kindness of people who truly cared for me. There is much I regretted, and much more I simply learned to live with. Throughout all that I was an artist. I just wish I had been a better person. I thank God I got better with age. I became a better person, and, because of that, I became a better writer.

—–

Sometimes it helps me to remember my favorite Bible passage, the 38th Chapter of Job, the one where God finally responds to Job by saying, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. … Can you lift your voice to the clouds, that a flood of waters may cover you?”

—–

A few folks have asked how, with my busy work schedule, do I manage to find time to write? A lot of the time, frankly, I don’t find the time. It’s the price I pay for a pension, the price I pay that my wife and I might have a dental plan. Someone once said to me, “If you a good teacher, then you often go home tired.” I must be the best freaking teacher in the world. There have been days when I’ve pulled into the garage, turned-off the car, and have fallen asleep right there.

I love Japan, its people and its culture. I spent four years as a Buddhist, and spent about a month in a Buddhist temple at the foot of Mount Fuji. I fell in love with Akiko Yosano, a feminist known for her tanka. I love the way she combines sexuality and spirituality.

Tanka and haiku provided a solution to a nagging problem. Often I would begin a poem and, because of my schedule, I’d write a line here, a line there, all this over the course of maybe a month. But if, after that month, I thought the poem sucked, if it seemed, as it often was, choppy, then – WHAM – there went January.

Thus began my romance with haiku and tanka. They’re short enough that I can scratch a line here, there, and have a poem done in a day. This form also fits in nicely with an aesthetic that influenced me when I was young, the epigram, especially the epigrams of Martial, Catullus and Ernesto Cardenal. In any case, Akiko Yosano and my wife inspired this one —

when you stepped out
of the shower this morning
I kissed you long
enough for you to leave
wet impressions on my shirt
T

Here’s a line by Ernesto Cardenal that haunted me for decades. It’s not in his Epigramas; it’s from “Managua 6 PM”, but it is epigrammatic –

Y si he dar un testimonio sobre mi época
es éste: Fue bárbara y primitiva
pero poética.

Which I’ll translate as –

And if asked to give testimony over my era
it’s this: It was barbaric and primitive
yet poetic
.

Cardenal’s emphasis on the poetic and the political inspired this tanka of mine –
if asked to judge
my age I’d say we wasted
our best years on war
from Nam to Iraq we saw
the whole world through sniper scopes

—–

Occasionally I can still find time to write a full-length poem.

I asked Andre how he felt after yesterday’s professional development. “It wasn’t especially soul crushing.” This was his idea of something good to say.

That said, we spent the entire morning pondering the following question. “How does the ability to read complex texts relate to the student’s potential for college and career success?” Andre keeps a list of the top ten “soul crushing” workshops he’s attended. It’s chilling to consider that this one didn’t make the list.

I usually write poetry at these meetings. It looks like I’m taking notes. Like this one, for example, which I published not long ago.

7:45 Roosevelt High

it’s been a dark dawn and at the last minute
Arianna grades the long student
reflections

she smells the stale ink
and something akin to her mother’s old
age home

her sweater smells of Tide
and chalk she rubbed off the board
she’s been beat for an hour and a witness

to nothing but D’s and lipstick
that smeared on her cuff
a yellow bus crunches low gear

and this is how she begins
nervous over her bell
shaped curve

and the next unit
which she promises
everyone will love

I always liked that poem. I remember needing a name, and, looking up, I saw a name-tag on this woman across from me. I spent some time imagining what her day was like, not that it would be that different from any of the rest of us. Then I noticed a smudge of lipstick on her cuff, and I knew I had my poem. All the stuff about the mother is my own mother, who, at that time, was 101. Also, I do the laundry for my wife and I, so the Tide is mine. I chose the name Roosevelt High because every school district in the U. S. has a Roosevelt High.

But I never got a copy of the poem to Arianna. By the time I published the poem, she had quit.

—–

Thus do I have little wisdom to pass along. Listen to the greats. Have fun with the process. Practice. Find a form that works for you. All that and the simple fact that accomplishment means little without kindness and decency. I got better with age. I became a better writer, because I became a better person. “I, too, went to bed amid the howling of the autumn wind, and awoke early the next morning amid the chanting of the priests … .” So says Matsuo Basho in his Narrow Road To The Deep North.

—–

I don’t want to get away without talking about prose.

I write my prose like I write my poetry. When I’m writing for a newspaper or a magazine, I look for good verbs, alliteration, rhythm, all that. In a word, prosody.

I even break my prose paragraphs like I break my poetry lines.

I don’t want to take my audience’s time by reading a whole essay. I think, however, this prose technique comes together, at least for illustrative purposes, in a form I call the modern haibun. In essence, I update and Westernize a Japanese form. I begin with a haiku, go to a prose poem, and finish with a tanka. And while I borrow the form from the Japanese, it really is thoroughly Western in its sensibility. The prose is much more influenced by, say, Michael Benedikt than Matsuo Basho.

a modern haibun

another Monday
again I surrender to
the whisper of snow

My wife is reading Freud this evening. I sweep the fireplace, the ashes from Sunday more interesting for what they were. Phoebe says something I don’t quite catch, something about desire.

I stare out our picture window. I inventory our yard. Pine, twilight, beast, leaf, pulse and fog, raven, root. In the west, from work, a husband caught on a detour lengthened tonight by longing

“My War”, my memoir in this month’s Vietnam magazine, I’m surprised by the letters from strangers. Several veterans had the same job I had. Others vets were stationed where I was, An Khe, an obscure corner of jungle. One message from a wife — the husband never talks about our war.

in this Nam photo
the burnt torso of a monk
an enemy monk
tonight a cigarette glows
in the dark and is crushed

—–

If there is one last thing, and only one last thing, I would wish a young poet, I would wish that poet a great passion. Everything else will follow, the right words, the necessary silence.

That’s it. That’s all I got. That’s what worked for me. Is it is generalizable? I don’t know. I think I’m safe in saying that life is better if you’re not a poetic prick. At least that was my experience. As for the rest, maybe there’s a small something in there somewhere.

———-
———-

Parts of this lecture originally appeared in the following magazines, books, journals and newspapers: The Autumn House Anthology Of Contemporary American Poetry, Coal Hill Review, Mainichi Shimbun, Modern English Tanka, Schools: Studies In Education, and my chapbook of poetry, A Concise Biography Of Original Sin. Ernesto Cardenal’s epigram is taken from his Nueva Antología Poética, published by Siglo V

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A Brief Guide to Pope Francis

Sunday, February 9, 2014
posted by Michael Simms

by John Samuel Tieman

A lot of my non-Catholic friends are asking me about Pope Francis. Whether Pope Francis is more popular than Jesus, this only time will tell. But he is popular. The Washington Post thinks he is more popular than John Paul II. He is Time magazine’s “Person Of The Year”. You’d think Catholics would be, dare I say, counting our blessings.

But conservative Catholics are choking on their communion wafers, and liberal Catholics, while hopeful, are cautious. Why?

Francis is no radical. You don’t get anywhere in the hierarchy unless you tow the dogmatic line. Conservative Catholics, like EWTN radio, are quick to point out that Francis has changed no doctrine. That’s true. Nor is he likely to change disciplines like priestly celibacy. If you’re holding you breath for female ordination, you’ll turn blue soon.

It’s not so much what he is changing as what he is emphasizing — and what he is deemphasizing.

Francis is no radical. That can’t be said often enough. He is, however, a product of his priestly culture, he’s a Jesuit, and he is the son of South America.

Francis is not changing doctrine, true. However, this Argentine bishop is emphasizing something that, while not explicitly said, has long been a part of Latin American ministry, which is the “preferential option for the poor.” Given the choice between helping the rich or the poor, preference is given to the well-being of the poor and powerless. This is central to Francis’ ministry, and, indeed, central to his mindset.

The rest simply follows.

Francis has deemphasized the culture wars. “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage, and the use of contraceptive methods,” the pope said in a recent interview. In what many regard as a profoundly symbolic move, the pope recently relieved Cardinal Raymond Burke from a key post on the committee that fills episcopal vacancies. Cardinal Burke, the former Archbishop of St. Louis, is seen by many as perhaps the most conservative American bishop. He is a leader among conservative cardinals. During the 2004 presidential election, Burke publicly stated that Catholic politicians, who support legalized abortion, should not be given or receive Communion. That meant John Kerry. More recently, the cardinal said, “Since President Obama clearly announced, during the election campaign, his anti-life and anti-family agenda, a Catholic who knew his agenda regarding, for example, procured abortion, embryonic-stem-cell research, and same-sex marriage, could not have voted for him with a clear conscience.”

Burke’s removal, from that committee, will have little immediate consequence. The papacy of John Paul II was so long that his many conservative appointments will be in place for decades. To a large extent, the removal of Cardinal Burke is symbolic. Burke remains the Vatican’s Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, a position analogous to the chief justice. But we are talking about the Catholic Church here, a Church in which symbolism is no small thing.

Pope Francis has washed and kissed the feet of prisoners, AIDS patients, Muslims, and drug addicts. Reliable rumor has it that he goes out at night, beyond the Vatican walls, among the poor. He lives in a small apartment, carries his own bags, drives a used car.

Pope Francis is no radical. This does not prevent Rush Limbaugh from denouncing him as a “pure Marxist”. Among the many things that Mr. Limbaugh does not understand, there is this. While the Church does not endorse any one economic system, it does regularly denounce exploitation. Hence, John Paul II condemned various forms of socialism that tended toward Stalinism. Now, Pope Francis is criticizing extreme forms capitalism. There’s nothing new here. We just haven’t heard capitalism criticized for a while. At least not with such emphasis. In November, Francis denounced “the idolatry of money.” Trickle-down economics he characterized as “a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power, and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

About that women’s ordination thing. Francis is a Jesuit. He has lived his whole life in a celibate, all male environment. I like Jesuits, and I like people who like Jesuits. I got my doctorate from a Jesuit university. My wife and I attend a Jesuit parish. But, as Phoebe says when she’s around Jesuits, it’s like she’s in the Castro district of San Francisco. Their nice to her. They’re liberal minded. But I’m the guy who gets invited to the party. In his latest document, “Evangelii Gaudium”, Francis talks about women’s “sensitivity, intuition and other distinctive skill sets which they, more than men, tend to possess.” He mentions “the special concern which women show to others, which finds a particular, even if not exclusive, expression in motherhood.” He carries on with these statements of “feminine genius” in a manner that can only be regarded as stereotypical and even retrogressive.

While the pope may not be a radical, he is refreshing. He has not changed doctrine, and he never will. He has, however, changed the emphasis, and this amounts to a change in the direction of ministry. So far, this is largely symbolic.

And therein lies the hope.

If you think that symbolism is not important to the Catholic Church, you need to cross yourself and say three Hail Marys.
______

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The Education of a Gun Owner — Day Nine

Friday, January 24, 2014
posted by Michael Simms

by John Samuel Tieman

Gun Day Nine – Reflections

I sometimes consider how small the weapon is, and compare that to how much it can destroy.

I loaded the weapon just once, just to see what it feels like. It felt heavier than I expected. Then I unloaded it. Now, the Smith And Wesson sits under a hat across the room. It’s like I’m hiding it from myself. The most positive feeling I can muster now is ambivalence.

Our house was robbed once, so I have had fantasies about killing the burglar. I’m a war veteran, and, unlike a lot of the folks I’ve spoken to, I don’t have to ask myself if I would shoot someone. I did shoot someone. Which leads me to the conclusion that, fantasies notwithstanding, I don’t know if I have it in me to ever shoot anyone else. I do know that I own nothing worth a human life.

As I write this essay, there is news of a massive school shooting. This news has eclipsed recent news of a massive mall shooting. By the time I publish this essay, there will be yet another massive shooting somewhere someplace. I wish I could end this essay on a note of hope. But I am amazed at how little my government cares about weapons in private hands. When I made inquires, the local police were indifferent. A summary of my state’s regulations I read while I drank a cup of coffee. I have no idea why the National Rifle Association is worried. My city has more regulations about siding than side arms.

That said, I no longer favor gun control. I want weapons banned. I’m tired of crying when I see, on the front page of my newspaper, terrified children being led to safety from a shot-up school. As for the Second Amendment, I am not a “well regulated militia,” and neither is Jared Lee Loughner or Adam Lanza or Mark David Chapman.

As for our Smith And Wesson, I’m heading back to the gun shop, asking $250 for the .38, and then – I’m thinking sushi for me and, dare I say, my better half.

_____

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The Education of a Gun Owner — Day Eight

Thursday, January 23, 2014
posted by Michael Simms

by John Samuel Tieman

Gun Day Eight

Janet gives me the address of a gun smith, who specializes in antiques. I drive over after work.

Surprisingly, the place is more like a museum than what I expect, a gun-nut hobby shop. And the owners are well educated and articulate.

One guy went to my high school, a private Catholic high school, and we chat at length. I mention that I graduated in 1968, went into the army in 1969, served a tour in Nam. Suddenly, I find I’m one of the guys.

I bring my weapon in. I ask if the revolver is safe. The short answer is yes. The action is fine, the tolerances like new. It’s doubtful if it’s ever been fired. The ammunition is also safe.

So I ask – what do I do with a gun?

“You have no reason to ever fire this”, the gun smith says. And repeats this at least three times. He tells me that this weapon is made of a very low grade of steel, “like the stuff that was used in the Titanic.” I meditate on how well that went. Then he tells me that, if I fire the weapon, I should wear protective eye glasses. And once we’re talking about wounding body parts, I’m done.

____

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The Education of a Gun Owner — Day Seven

Wednesday, January 22, 2014
posted by Michael Simms

by John Samuel Tieman

Gun Day Seven

I ask a neighbor if he thinks I should register this pistol. “No, no, no! The only thing registration will do is help the government find you when they come to take our guns away.”

I don’t know what to say. But I think to myself, “Isn’t there about 17,000 societal things that will go wrong long before the National Guard kicks down my door, and confiscates my antique .38?”

_____

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The Education of a Gun Owner — Day Six

Tuesday, January 21, 2014
posted by Michael Simms

by John Samuel Tieman

Gun Day Six

I want to speak to someone about gun safety, and about registering my weapon. So I call the police. A secretary answers. She is quite helpful, cheery, almost ebullient. She tells me of the “gun safety officer,” who can visit my home. I find such community outreach comforting. I’m told to call back later.

I call back later. I get a lieutenant, who has no idea what a “gun safety officer” is. Instead, we chat for a few minutes. He, too, is quite helpful, if a bit dismissive. Overall, however, I am most impressed by how little he cares about my weapon.

He tells me I don’t need to register my revolver, although it might be helpful, for example, “if someone steals it and uses it in a murder.” But registration is not necessary. Ownership is conveyed by virtue of the fact that my father-in-law gave us the desk and all it contained. And that’s as legal as it gets. I went through more trouble installing cable TV.

_____

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The Education of a Gun Owner — Day Five

Monday, January 20, 2014
posted by Michael Simms

bu John Samuel Tieman

Gun Day Five

I’ve thought a lot about masculinity. One thing Vietnam taught me is that sometimes masculinity is simply too high a price to pay for being male. Is owning a gun about being masculine?

_____

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The Education of a Gun Owner — Day Four

Sunday, January 19, 2014
posted by Michael Simms

by John Samuel Tieman

Gun Day Four

I need a haircut. I tell my barber, and the barber shop gang, about my weapon. Here for the first time, I get camaraderie. Wistful memories about youthful hunting. Several good tips on safety.

_____

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The Education of a Gun Owner — Day Three

Saturday, January 18, 2014
posted by Michael Simms

by John Samuel Tieman

Gun Day Three

I think this weapon is making me mildly hysterical, presuming one can be just a bit hysterical. This pistol is all I think about. I note that I never fantasize about what can go wrong with this weapon. That said, it’s not like what can go right is soothing.

I go to work. I informally survey my colleagues. About half have a weapon. I am amazed. One administrator owns four. A fellow is about to inherit 50. People are startled when I ask, “Do you own a gun?” It’s a bit higher order of a question than, “Do you own a Buick?,” but not quite as personal as “Do you own any porn?” Several, who don’t own a gun, admit to wanting one. These are some of the kindest, gentlest, best educated folks I know. Of those I asked, not one lives in a dangerous neighborhood – including me.

Today, I had to humble myself to Janet. I’ve argued with her over the 2nd Amendment, me anti-gun, and she pro. I had to ask her, “What do I do with a gun? I don’t known jack about the laws. I can’t tell whether the gun, and the ammo, are safe. I haven’t handled a weapon in 40-plus years.” Stuff like that. She spared me a razzing. Her snarky smile sufficed. She said she’d get back to me.

Through the internet, I’ve discovered that I have an antique. I half-own a Smith And Wesson Model 4 “pocket pistol,” a nickel-plated, five-shot .38 caliber “top break” that was manufactured no later than 1907, making it over 105 years old. It’s sometimes referred to as a “lemon squeezer.” The model is not rare. It’s worth a few hundred dollars. Phoebe says we should sell it, and treat ourselves to a nice dinner.

_____

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The Education of a Gun Owner — Day Two

Friday, January 17, 2014
posted by Michael Simms

by John Samuel Tieman

Gun Day Two

I’m surprised at how small the gun seems.

I looked up my state’s gun regulations online. It was a quick read. As near as I can tell, I can buy, carry and conceal everything up to and including a Light Anti-Tank Weapon.

Phoebe went to visit her father today. She asked him about the gun. He barely remembers it.

_____

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The Education Of A Gun Owner

Thursday, January 16, 2014
posted by Michael Simms

by John Samuel Tieman

Gun Day One

Actually, I am not a gun owner. I am half a gun owner. The revolver is right here, in front of my keyboard.

I never thought I’d say that. With the exception of one drunken New Year’s at John McGoogan’s, I haven’t fired a weapon since I was in Vietnam.

I’m surprised I have a pistol. I didn’t plan on it.

My wife’s parents went into the old folks home a few weeks ago. My wife and I, and well as my in-laws, have been moving stuff out of their home ever since, this in anticipation of selling the house.

Phoebe, my wife, really wanted her father’s desk, a lovely oak affair with plenty of drawers. Her father used the desk at the pharmacy he owned, the Delmar-Taylor Pharmacy. He had moved the desk from his pharmacy to his house in University City.

We moved the desk into Phoebe’s study, but the drawers were stuck. The two movers fussed with them until, finally, the bottom drawer opened. And there was an old .38 pocket pistol, along with a holster and a box of ammunition.

The men all paused. Suddenly, something was in the room that could kill us.

Phoebe, interestingly, took the least interest. “I was wondering where that gun was.” She knew her father had a .38. He had been robbed several times at the pharmacy, so a sympathetic cop gave him the pistol in maybe 1950 or ’60. At that time, it would have been a very old weapon. Eventually, he brought it home. Phoebe, in a sense, grew up with it. I, on the other had never had a weapon in the house.

I asked the mover to hand it to me. Now. From my army days, I know this much about handling a weapon: First, make sure it’s unloaded.

The mover offered me 20 bucks for it. I said no. My first impulse was to throw it away. But it’s not really mine. It’s my father-in-law’s. Except he’s blind and in the old folks home, so I guess it’s my wife’s, which makes it half-mine.

What do I do with a gun?

It’s a Smith and Wesson. Respectable. The revolver is in good condition. No rust. Barely needs oiling and cleaning. My father-in-law was the gun owner equivalent of the “little ole lady from Pasadena.” Then I look at the ammunition. Hollow points. So my gentle father-in-law had his bad-ass potential.

I’m not about to shoot any of this stuff, however. Not until I’m sure it’s all safe. The revolver and the ammunition are old. And I’d like to get older.

So how do I feel about this weapon?

It’s arousing. I feel powerful. But that feeling is fleeting. Because I fought a war, I know what it’s like to be shot at and shoot back. But I know enough about all that to know that this doesn’t mean I could do it again. Still, there have been some shootings in the nearby park, and, while I wouldn’t call myself paranoid, I have my dark visions.

This whole business raises all manner of question. Given my near-pacifist leanings, shouldn’t I just throw the revolver away? I’ve been extremely conscious of having a gun around the house. Do I really want to be comfortable with that? If I keep it, where do I keep it? What do I do with a gun?

If I’m going to get all bad-ass, shouldn’t I get a concealed carry permit? Or do I even want to take it outside the house?

If I keep the thing, should I take lessons – I used to be a musician, so the only comparison I have is to music lessons – in safety and shooting? If the truth be known, when I was in the army, I liked target practice. I was good at it, and I have Expert Rifleman Badge to prove it. Which reminds me that this weapon, like my old M-14, isn’t made for fun. It’s made for killing folks.

I’ve got to stop-by the police station, and ask them, “What do I do with a gun?”

______

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Angelus

Thursday, December 5, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

By John Samuel Tieman

in a parking lot
I spot an acorn falling
from nothing at all

I used to live in Mexico City. About 1984 or 1985, I went to Tepeyac on December the 12th, the Feast Of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Tepeyac, which is now a part of Mexico City, is the hill where Our Lady appeared to St. Juan Diego.

Never before nor since have I experienced religious ritual with quite this combination of the devotional and the bizarre. Jugglers. Bishops. Fire breathers. Deacons and nuns. Aztec dancers in feathered headdresses yards across. Someone is reciting a litany. Union workers carry a banner, “The Sewer Workers Of Azcapotzalco Salute La Virgencita”. It’s like a circus, only with rosaries.

Just outside the shrine, within sight of Juan Diego’s tilma, the great relic, there’s a commotion. Right next to me, the crowd parts for a woman, a peasant who has crawled on her knees all the way from Cuernavaca, maybe one-hundred miles. Her son is assisting her. I ask the son, “What is her prayer?” And he answers, all of this is in Spanish, “The chicken.” That’s when I notice the bird in her arms. Her son explains, “Her prayer is for more eggs.”

Beside me, slightly out of sight of the son, smartly dressed young man, educated no doubt, rolled his eyes and spits the word, “Naco.” “Peasant.” As for me, I’d give my decades of education for one-tenth of that peasant’s faith.

when I was a child
I wrote a note to myself
on how to find faith
I’ve since traveled the world
in search of that note on faith

_____

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C-Melody Sax

Monday, December 2, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

by John Samuel Tieman

Gus McCrae of Lonesome Dove says, “The older the violin, the sweeter the music.”

But I like to think of myself as an old C-melody sax. That’s an actual name, by the way, C-melody saxophone. A lovely name, when I think of it, with a lovely sound.

_____

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On J.F.K., Memory and the Nuns

Wednesday, November 27, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

by John Samuel Tieman

Et introibo ad altare Dei: ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam.
“And I will go to the altar of God, to God, the joy of my youth.”

As I began 8th grade, my greatest existential conundrum revolved around whether nuns wore brassieres. And, if so, why?

When I was a boy, I attended a small, Catholic grade school. I thought that world timeless. Nuns in wimples. Daily mass. Incense. And, like all things that seem timeless, it was fleeting.

It’s hard to say when that world ended. But November 22nd, 1963, will do.

University City is a small, inner suburb of St. Louis. Small as it is, there are those of us who love it. Christ The King School, C. K. S. to those in the know, was (and still is) also a small place. In 1963, it was Old School Catholic. I was an altar boy. Mass every day before school. Stations Of The Cross every day after school during Lent. Latin. Almost every grade was taught by a nun. It was a world that seemed as immutable as a medieval hymn. A world that had always been thus.

Aside from my immediate family, and a few family friends, the Sisters Of Mercy were the most important adults in my life. I’ve heard tales of kids abused, smacked with rulers. While I will not dismiss their suffering, my experience was one of comfort and nurturance. Christ The King School provided stability, predictability, purpose.

The nuns were strong, capable, educated. And anachronistic. Their world was crumbling. Vatican II and the feminist movement would challenge their lifestyle irrevocably.

But, in 1963, nuns were still all long black habits punctuated by a stark white wimples. It was still a day when a daughter, who became a Carmelite, trumped the daughter who married a millionaire stock broker.

Into this world came John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Young. Glamorous. And Catholic. Catholic as St. Louis is – it is a city named for a saint, after all – I was not immune to anti-Catholicism. The Lutherans down the street would not let me play with their sons, because I was Roman Catholic. Once, in central Missouri, when we ate at a “Restricted” restaurant, my mother, in hushed tones, told me to not say anything overtly Catholic. “Restricted” meant no Blacks, no Jews, and no Catholics. So J. F. K. was a kind of vindication, a coming of age for Catholics. Then one day someone shot that young man.

On that Friday fifty years ago, we kids came in from our mid-day recess. It was immediately clear that something bad had happened. Sister Mary Amabilis, who was both our teacher and the principal, told us to sit quietly, and left us for, perhaps, half an hour. We could sense her seriousness, her anxiety, as she and the other nuns gathered in the hallway, as they chatted in whispers.
Then, shortly after one, the announcement.

Since is was a parish school, meaning everyone lived within blocks, we were dismissed early.

Thus were we introduced to a terrible truth. We didn’t learn it all at once. It was more like the way a small spoon of incense, poured over a single coal, fills a church. And gradually dissipates. People die. Lives change. Even the One, Holy, Catholic And Apostolic Church changes. Today, there is not a single nun teaching at that school.

Yet, when so many folks are gone, when things are broken, shattered, the memories remain like souls, their resurrections. Even after fifty years, the incense, the Latin, the ink wells, the Palmer Method, the uniforms, the Angelus bells. And those nuns, their strength, their intelligence, their holiness. These recollections no madman’s bullet can shatter.
______

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Old Soldiers

Saturday, November 16, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

by John Samuel Tieman

Many years ago, I made the acquaintance of Howard Nemerov. I don’t want this to sound any larger than it was — acquaintance is just the right word. He lived down the street from me here, in St. Louis. Sometimes we’d talk of war, World War II for him, Vietnam for me. I remember once saying how I always felt like my service was a failure, that somehow I had failed The Manhood Test. It was one of the first times I’d ever been aggressively honest about my trauma. He admitted having the same feelings. “It’s amazing how war can make us feel like a failure, even when all we failed to do was get ourselves killed.”

And, of course, we spoke of poetry. I have for decades meditated on an off-handed comment he made. “I have no imagination.” At first, I was uncomprehending. Years later, as I walked across the campus of Washington University, years after he’d passed, I saw Nemerov’s old office window. There were the gingko trees he wrote about in his poetry. He didn’t imagine anything. He just looked out the window. That act of looking took no imagination. The art was in his craft.

This poem below records an event that happened in 1970. My first night in the 4th Infantry Division, North Vietnamese sappers blew-up twenty-one helicopters. Welcome to The Nam. The next night, we watched “Puff The Magic Dragon”, a Douglas AC-47 gunship, killed these N. V. A. maybe a half-a-mile from the camp. This gunship carried three mini-guns, Gatling guns, which fired so many rounds, 6,000 rounds a minute, that it was said that they put one bullet in every square inch of an area the size of a football field. These mini-guns don’t even sound like a rat-a-tat-tat machine gun. It’s more like wwwwhhhaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhh, so many bullets firing so fast that they are indistinguishable. The next morning, a patrol didn’t find any bodies, just body-sized splotches of blood.

I wanted to capture the fact that my feelings were a combination of relief and awe. It is a cliché to say that soldiers are always afraid. No doubt many are. But I wasn’t afraid. And I wasn’t brave. This untitled poem records the night in The Nam that I became dissociative.

I have struggled for decades with my own reaction formation, which is a near-pacifist stance. I hate war. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t find it arousing. Hence, “it’s finally time” to tell a story that I, for decades, didn’t want to know about myself.

Years after the war, it’s finally time,
our first sergeant retired,
our outpost plowed under,
the secrets no longer the news, that we tell
the story and tell it again until we hear
what we hated to know:
that we admired the arc of the tracer,
that we admired the splotches of blood.

_____

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The Party of “No!”

Monday, November 4, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

by John Samuel Tieman

If Democrats want an emotionally charged, yet meaningful bumper sticker, I suggest, “Republican = Anarchy + Nihilism.”

I am not anti-Republican. Nor am I anti-conservative. I am anti-anarchy. I am anti-nihilism. Our republic is based upon dialogue and compromise among groups committed to loyal opposition. In other words, I am fond of the African poet, Atukwei Okai, who wrote, “Between me and my God / There are only eleven commandments; / The eleventh says: Thou shalt not / Bury thy brother alive.” This is my point.

This is what I hate. “My No. 1 objective for 2016 is to make sure we don’t have another Democrat governor in Missouri.” Those words were spoken by Catherine Hanaway, former Speaker of the Missouri House, a recent candidate for Missouri Secretary Of State, and current U. S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri. The “No. 1 objective” is opposition for the sake of opposition, negation for the sake of negation. There’s no sense that the state should have as its highest priority poverty, jobs, infrastructure. “My No. 1 objective for 2016 is to make sure we don’t have…” Hanaway is hardly unique. I could have chosen from dozens of similar quotes made at the local, state or national levels.

A couple of quick definitions. When I say anarchy, I refer to a society without a publicly supported government. When I say nihilism, I mean the negation of various aspects of life that give existence meaning. If this seems abstract, it has practical consequences. Taken together, these mean “No!” to almost everything. “No!” to public health care. “No!” to helping the poor. “No!” to the maintenance of bridges and roads. “No!” to dialogue and compromise. “No!” for the sake of negation itself.

Conservativism has never been about negation. Conservatism is a positive vision of, among other things, tradition, ritual, responsible hierarchy, noblesse oblige, family, small government, fiscal austerity, devotion to place, peace through strength, homage to the past. In other words, a “Yes!” Nowhere in this vision is the sense that, in order to be a Republican, one must adhere exclusively to ultra-right Christian dogma. Nor is there the sense that government can do absolutely nothing of value. Indeed, conservativism, at its finest, is an optimistic vision of both the individual and the community.

The problem is not conservativism. The problem is the Republican Party. It is easy to argue that the Republican Party has been hijacked by the Tea Party. There is much truth to that. But, if the Republican Party cannot immunize itself from a nihilistic and anarchistic far right, it becomes a national problem that affects us all, right and left. Why? Representative democracy is a dialogue informed by loyal opposition. “No!” is not a dialogue. “No!” is not diplomacy. “No!” is not fiscal responsibility. “No!” is not a nutrition program. “No!” is the impossibility of governance, and, indeed, the impossibility of hope.

Like an addiction, there can be no recovery without an admission that there is a problem. Denial merely postpones the inevitable reckoning. I am not wise enough to offer solutions to a party of which I am not even a member. I leave that to others who are better schooled in such matters. But this is a problem that affects us all. In the broadest sense, this anarchy, this nihilism, does not simply threaten this or that bill, this or that policy. It threatens our very vision of what it means to have government, our very vision of what it means to have hope.

I refuse to sound the death knell. But I do mourn for the party of Jack Danforth, Gerald Ford, David Brooks and, for that matter, many in my family. There is an old saying in politics. While a politician may only win 51% of the vote, he or she represents 100% of the district. The demand upon that politician, the demand upon all of us, is for an openness to, and a respect for, differing views, interests and hopes. But the Republican Party has become the party of “No!” “No!” to any positive vision of government. “No!” to anything except the most narcissistic vision of individualism. And I do mourn.

_____

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Red State

Thursday, October 24, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

by John Samuel Tieman

All this talk about red states and blue states reminds me of one of my favorite historical quotes. When asked in 1860 about secession, old Judge Petigru responded that secession will never work for his home state, because “South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.”

Some things never change.

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The Joke, The Tense, The Stare

Wednesday, September 18, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

by John Samuel Tieman

I’ve given more thought to a psychiatrist, whose work I’ve always admired, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. I’d like to add three stages of recovery to her five stages of grief.

My father-in-law just died. Phoebe’s father, Mario Cirio, died peacefully in his sleep. He was 93. I am not being clichéd, as one often is at these times, when I say that Mario was one of the kindest, gentlest and generous men I’ve ever known. I am deeply saddened by the loss, but profoundly grateful for the ways in which he enriched our lives.

That said, in the short term, it’s anti-climatic. He left his body to St. Louis University’s medical school. There will be a memorial service in the near future, but there is no funeral to arrange. There’s no hurry about the obit. We’ve notified family, friends. There’s paperwork. But no drama. Mostly it’s just us, the sadness, and Phoebe’s three stages of recovery.

The first stage is the first joke. Two or so days after Mario’s death, I said to my beloved, “Jesus, Phoebe, your whole life has turned into a Tammy Wynette song. Your mother died less than a year ago. Then your father died. You just had major surgery, with a shoulder replacement to come next month. You have bad teeth. You’re just lucky you don’t have a dog to die, or a pick-up truck to break-down.” For the first time in days, she laughed.

The second stage is the change of tense. It is that simple moment. “I wonder if Dad is – I mean was, was – I wonder if Dad was…”

The third stage is even simpler than the second. As we drive home from the bank, as we feed the birds in the yard, as we fold the laundry, my wife grows quiet. And simply stares into the distance. I wait. I don’t need to ask.

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in my Nam dream

Sunday, September 1, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

by John Samuel Tieman

the army drafts me back to the war
I’m the oldest corporal in the 4th Infantry
I curse my neighbors who are all my father
the barracks is French
I beg my wife not to leave me
the Red Alert siren turns to an alarm
Phoebe is surprised I would ask

—–

Allowing for a bit of poetic license, this is in essence a dream I had night before last. I’ve been home from that war for forty-three years. I learned in therapy that, while the pain fades, the wound remains.

But about that poetic license. And about that dream. The controlling image is my war. The dream is about abandonment, and the subject, my greatest fear.

In the actual dream, my love is disrupted, as is my work, as are my friendships. The barracks is a school in which I taught many years ago. There’s no work in that barracks/school, just disorientation. The French barracks image I take from an actual abandoned Foreign Legion barracks in which I spent a night in The Nam. I use a flat statement, ‘the barracks is French’, in which the disorientation is implied. In the dream, I simply turn my back on my father, who abandoned me when I was ten. I didn’t curse my neighbors and friends in the dream. I debated them, the end result being that they leave. I conflate these two bits into a single image, throw out the dream debate and throw in ‘curse’ for drama of the image and the hardness of the c and the r, the hiss of the s. The Red Alert siren turning into the alarm clock, that’s pure poetry aided by associational logic, the purpose being a transition to wakefulness. Phoebe comforts me in the dream. When I actually awoke, she really said almost nothing beyond, “I’ve got another hour to sleep” or some such.

For many years, I used to dwell upon Vietnam. In its many variations, this nightmare was a response to that trauma. Today, just now, I really don’t think that much about the facts of the war. But the emotions — the emotions are forever.
_____

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Ann Richards

Saturday, August 24, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

by John Samuel Tieman

I’ve never understood how the people of Texas could have elected George W. Bush over Ann Richards for governor back in the 90′s. Perhaps they got tired of her rancorous wit and wanted to have a simpleton instead. I remember Michael Moore made a film called “TV Nation” in which he went around to all 50 governors to see if he could get a hug. When he approached Ann Richards, she said, “Son, I just lost my re-election. I don’t have to hug you. Hell, I don’t even have to pretend that I like you anymore.” Then, to her everlasting credit, she gave him a hug.

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Education And The Politics Of Shaming

Thursday, August 1, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

By John Samuel Tieman

A fellow teacher, a friend from California, asked a question of a workshop presenter. The teacher began in a self-deprecating manner, but the presenter immediately interrupted, saying, “There are no stupid questions, only stupid teachers.”

An art teacher, in rural Missouri, was told at a faculty meeting that her subject was not important, because art was not on the state examination.

A young friend was a principal in a large Eastern district. She wearied of being publicly humiliated for her school’s low standardized test scores. Why? Her’s was an alternative school for children with emotional disorders and learning disabilities. She now teaches in a small private school in rural Vermont.

During the recent Chicago teachers’ strike, I was struck by the educators’ repeated call for “Respect”. There were many issues. But “We want respect!” was the mantra.

Public education is an oppressed profession. This oppression is not about poor working conditions, rowdy students, or even low pay. Some misfortune is expected everywhere. This oppression takes the form of shaming. No one gets their teacher’s certificate, only to be forced to deliver “teacher proof education”, lessons that are entirely scripted from “Hello” to “Good-bye.” Shaming is the most underestimated condition in public education today.

There is no one issue that accounts for this humiliation. It must be viewed as a gestalt, a totality, what amounts to a system of shaming.

A principal works a year without a contract. Part of the justification for giving standardized tests is that teachers’ observations are not trusted. A first year teacher has 177 students, and one free period every other day. Professional development is generally inane. A sixth grade teacher weeps outside her room, because that class has 42 students. Teachers have to answer for the economic conditions of Wisconsin. A high school lost two-thirds of its staff due to cut-backs, although the student population is steady. Because of test scores, states conclude that schools will be closed, districts discontinued, that these educators will never amount to anything. These instances are drawn from folks I know around the country. A similar list could be drawn from almost any one school.

I could fill a dozen pages with hundreds of such instances, no one of which would account for this sense of humiliation. But put it all together.

Shaming is not about a fault. Shaming says that there is something elementally wrong with the person. What makes shaming so damaging is that the central message is not about a fault. Shaming is about how the person is elementally constituted. It is the difference between “You didn’t prepare that lesson well”, and “You’re stupid and will never amount to anything.” Of vital importance here is the fact that shame is not just about an aspect of the self. It is about the whole of the self. It is not about a poorly prepared lesson plan. The whole of the self is stupid. Allow me to illustrate this difference on a most personal level.

Around the middle of last September, Tomyko refused to call me “Sir”. It was not so much what he said, as much as the insolent attitude he took before the whole class. So I gave him three days in-house suspension. But I worried about our relationship. As I wrote him up in the hallway, away from the gaze of the other students, I quietly explained my feelings – not my actions, my feelings. Knowing he knows the expression, I used the cliché, “hate the sin but love the sinner”. Although I did not say it, I distinguished for him the difference between guilt and shame, the guilt, in a very few words, being about the deed, whereas shame is about the person. Just before he went to the office, I added, ‘We’re still cool, right?’ He gave me “a bump”, a kind of handshake. To insure the continuance of our dialogue, I visited him in “in-house”. I left him a book, the one we were reading in class. My hope was that the book acted as an object that signified our relationship, even though I was not present. Tomyko became an A student. Perhaps more importantly, on several occasions he chose to confide in me several significant personal problems. Had I shamed him, our relationship undoubtedly would not have continued on any level except the most pro forma.

Public education is an oppressed profession. One source of oppression is shaming. “Respect” is easily said. But to dismantle this shaming, that will take a national dialogue.
____

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Elegy for an Age

Monday, July 1, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

by John Samuel Tieman

I almost did my dissertation on post-modernism, but in the end decided to opt for a Ph. D. rather than a bullet in my head. But one thesis I had was that post-modernism is a critique rather than a fixed position. And it is a critique of Romanticism, Modernism being redefined by me as a sub-set of Romanticism. We dismantle what was — but that is very different from saying we have a fixed vision of what is, or what is to be. Post-modernism is, in a sense, a reflection upon the pain of transition. We know we are in transition, but have no idea what we are transitioning to. In the words of poor Ophelia, “Lord, we know what we are, but not what we may be.”

I am a member of a Church that may well be dying. I write essays and poems that never see a drop of ink. I say to my students, “Go to college,and get a job,” when I know they are not prepared for college, and there are no jobs. Aside from my colleagues, I’m the only person I know who has a pension. I’m the only veteran among my colleagues, and the only veteran among my friends. The corn is dying. Parts of the Mississippi are not navigable. Mere tolerance is what passes these days for liberalism. “Lord, we know what we are, but not what we may be.”

_____

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On Cunnilingus And Psychiatry: In Memorium, James Gandolfini

Tuesday, June 25, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

By John Samuel Tieman

Why did my wife and I fall in love with James Gandolfini and his Tony Soprano?

Because art speaks in ways that are at once both clear and unconscious.

We missed the first episode or two. But we heard from buddies that “The Sopranos” is a good show. We’d also heard that it’s written by David Chase, the same guy who wrote large parts of “Northern Exposure”. We’re of the opinion that “Northern Exposure” is one of the best shows ever written. So, sure, we’d give it a look.

I was hooked from the second I heard the opening lyrics –
Woke up this morning, and got yourself a gun.
Mama said you’d be The Chosen One….
She said, you’re one-in-a-million — you got that shotgun shine.
Think about it — born under a bad sign with a blue moon in your eyes.

The real clincher was later in that episode, when Tony, who is in therapy, says, “Uncle Junior and I, we had our problems with the business. But I never should have razzed him about eating pussy. This whole war could have been averted. Cunnilingus and psychiatry brought us to this!”

So every Sunday evening, my wife and I invited Anthony, that lovable sociopath, into our home. We admired the way he cared for his family, the way he was loyal to his colleagues, the way he killed people who needed killing. And he scared us. Sometimes Tony needed killing.

I could give all kinds of technical reasons why “The Sopranos” was great art. Great writing I’ve mentioned. Also, the show had one of the greatest endings big screen or small. But that’s not why my wife and I loved James Gandolfini.

So let me just say – he had great eyes. When he’d get mad, that flash of anger, I know that flash of anger. Gandolfini was a big man, and he played a very physical character. But those eyes. When he loved, hated, softened, hardened. Those eyes.

Artists live unusual lives. So do audiences. Artists paint, write, act, sculpt, compose alone in our small rooms, or on our small stages, and, no matter how popular we are, we never meet even a fraction of the folks who invite our artifacts into our lives. Yet they allow us into their unconscious. They actually let us make them laugh and cry and such.

99.999999999% of the time, we never even meet these people. They never meet us. We communicate using a very narrow vehicle, the artifact. Yet there is communication on the most profound level.

We artists open our unconscious, our loves, our hates, we pour stuff into the artifact, stuff we know is in the artifact, and, if the artifact is ever to become art, stuff we didn’t consciously realize is there. Then something remarkable happens. An audience. An audience who opens their unconscious, their loves, their hates, stuff they know, and stuff they didn’t even realize was in their soul. That’s when the artifact becomes the art. When the unconscious of the artist, carried by the artifact, engages the unconscious of the audience. The art is not in the artist; it’s not in the artifact; it’s not in the audience. It is in the unconscious engagement, the we-ness of the moment that is facilitated by an artifact. Hence, those eyes. Gandolfini’s eyes. Tony’s eyes. Those eyes.

To put it differently – Forget about it! Here’s what Tony taught me.

There is no such thing as art. There is only that moment when the unconscious of the artist touches the unconscious of the audience, the moment of we-ness. It is a moment of which we can speak. But it is a moment we can neither control nor fully understand. It is a relationship that will live on in these folks, a relationship that will search for some resolution neither audience nor artist will ever find. Yet search they will.

In other words, when Tony holds a gun to your head, you don’t look at the gun. You know what the gun will do. You search the guy’s eyes.

While the show was in production, I facilitated a professional development for a school in Jersey City, Tony’s hometown. I asked a teacher there if she’d take a picture of me outside the set for Tony’s strip club/office, the Bada Bing. We didn’t have time. She joked that she was going to photo-shop me into a picture, but we also simply forgot to have any photographs taken. I now rate this among my life’s great regrets.

—–

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Miss Freud Returns To The Classroom

Sunday, June 16, 2013
posted by Michael Simms

Miss Freud Returns To The Classroom:
Toward A Psychoanalytic Literacy Among Educators

by John Samuel Tieman

I am a teacher. The other day, I mentioned to an educational consultant that many of my students were feeling anxiety about the state exams. “You’re a psychologist,” she said, “so give the kids pieces of candy, and just don’t mention the tests.” I was speechless. It quickly became clear that she, among other things, had no sense of what I meant when I said, “Some of the kids are dealing with anxiety by over-stimulating themselves, others act out, others regress, still others seem depressive.” She makes no distinction between a psychologist and a psychoanalytically informed teacher. She’s not unusual. She knows that I studied child and adolescent development at the St. Louis Psychoanalytic Institute, but she doesn’t understand what that means.

No one has The Answer for educational reform. No one is that wise. But I do have one good idea. Not a sweeping, one size fits all reform, but a somewhat conservative, back-to-basics approach that some might find useful in some settings. Psychoanalytic literacy.

Almost all educational psychology these days is cognitive/behavioral. The problem is one of over-emphasis. Pick-up almost any ed. psych. book, and you likely will find only a few pages, sometimes only a few paragraphs, on Sigmund Freud and his followers in the 20th and 21st centuries. Much more space often is devoted to Pavlov, and all those slobbering dogs, than is given to Anna Freud, herself a school teacher and the mother of educational psychology.

The emphasis tends to be on mechanics. Take the current fascination with brain science. Some days, it feels as if all anyone has anymore is a brain, that no one has a mind. As Lemka says in Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll, “What you like about brains, Max, is that they all work in the same way. What you don’t like about minds is that they don’t.”

Educational psychology needs to get back to its roots. We need to honor, and attend to, the emotional lives of teachers and students. The cognitive/behavioral model tends to view the student as a set of behaviors. There is nothing inherently wrong with this partial view. Indeed, it can be quite useful. My concern is to get back to the roots of all educational psychology, the psychoanalytic model, the fullest model, as well as the century of data and application that has followed upon that model.

This cognitive/behavioral approach tends, in practice, to be even narrower than, say, the theories of B. F. Skinner. We educators tend to think of psychology as a branch of problem-solving. The student does this, then you do that. Problem solved. Psychology is purely instrumental. It is the tool, the means to elicit submissive behavior. This is not a healing art. This is not about relationship – it’s a manipulative tool.

Psychoanalytic theory gives teachers a form of literacy, a rich vocabulary with which we experience and express our relationships in school.

I got a visit the other day from Tomyko. I taught him English in middle school. Tomyko was a nice kid. But his future looked bleak. He had what I call ‘the litany of sorrows’. Poor. Occasionally homeless. No known parents. Friends in the Crips. He was experimenting with drugs and sex.

Tomyko was a nice kid, yes, but also a maddening one. Talking. Never doing the work. He made me constantly angry. But, if there is one thing a psychoanalytic orientation has taught me, it is that it’s OK to be angry as long as the relationship is maintained.

We had long talks, Tomyko and I. By applying my psychoanalytic studies, I learned a lot. I learned how to take the kid aside, discipline him, and also make sure that ‘You and I are still cool, right?’ I learned to address the misbehavior, but not attack the person. I learned from Tomyko to listen to the relationship, to the feelings between us. I learned to listen to his longing for a father, and the anger he projected on me, the father figure, the only stable male in his life. I learned to listen to my own feelings. Why do I feel like a scolding father? Or worse, a shaming father? I learned to listen for warning signs. Why do I want Tomyko suspended, transferred, expelled? Above all other things, I learned that, whatever the tensions, the hope is to grow within the relationship, to grow in a way that moves both toward their fullest potential.

Tomyko told me that he’s in the community college. So the story has a happy ending. And while I cannot take credit for the edifice that is his life, I can take credit for a brick or two.

_____

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