Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.

The Rumpus Original Poetry Anthology

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March 8, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Final Notes on Joe Paterno

“This is the real drama for me; the belief that we all, you see, think of ourselves as oe single person, but it’s not true: each of us is several different people, and all these people live inside us. With one person we seem like this and with another we seem very different. But we always have the illusion of being the same person for everybody and of alway being the the same person in everything we do. But it’s not true! It’s not true! We find this out for ourselves very clearly when by some terrible chance we’re suddenly stopped in the middle of doing something and we’re left dangling there, suspended. We realise then, that every part of us was not involved with what we’d been doing and that it would be a dreadful injustice of other people to judge us only by this one action as we dangle there, hanging in chains, fixed for all eternity, as if the whole of one’s personality were summed up in that single, interrupted action.”

–The Father, “Six Characters in Search of an Author” by Luigi Pirandello, translated by John Linstrum

I wonder if Joe Paterno ever saw this play, or ever read it, and if he did, whether or not he would recognize himself in the Father. In the play, the Father finds his moment unbearably shameful, so much so that he twists himself in rhetorical pretzels in order to lessen the impact. He is caught in the act of visiting a prostitute who happens to be his stepdaughter (they don’t recognize each other), and when she tells him she can’t accept his gift of a hat because she is in mourning for her biological father, he responds by suggesting that she take off her little black dress. It is a callous moment, shocking in fact, and the first time I read it I felt great loathing for the Father, not because of the incident itself, but because of his unwillingness to simply accept his punishment and move on.

Of course, the problem is that the Father isn’t a real person–he’s a character in an unfinished play, and so can’t move on. He really is trapped, “dangling there, suspended,” doomed to constantly relive this moment. All the audience will ever see–if this play is actually finished–is this moral weakling caught in an intensely awkward moment.

Most of the reactions I’ve seen to Paterno’s death have struck me as extreme. Many point to his long years of service at Penn State, his football team’s graduation rate, the large sums of money he donated to the university and so on. Many of his former players talked about how he influenced their lives for the better. Other reactions point to his inexcusable failure to act when he was told about his long-time friend’s abuse of young boys. As a survivor of molestation myself, I relate to those reactions–I wrote about it for The Rumpus back in November when Paterno was fired.

This is perhaps where the comparison with The Father breaks down a bit. We only really see one compromising moment on the stage–the moment in Madame Pace’s shop when the Father tells the Stepdaughter to slip off that little black dress–though others are hinted at, alluded to. But with Paterno it’s not just one event. What’s the moment which leaves Paterno “dangling there, suspended”? Is it when Mike McQueary steps into his office to report what he’s seen? Or when Paterno decides all he needs to do is tell his athletic director? Or every time after that when he sees Jerry Sandusky on the Penn State campus and wonders if he’s still molesting kids? What haunted him in these last months of his life, I wonder?

But then again, one conceit of “Six Characters in Search of an Author” is that these characters are unfinished, incomplete, abandoned by their author because he couldn’t figure out how to make them whole. All they have are two scenes, both intensely tragic, that they are forced to relive, over and over. Perhaps this is the difference between Joe Paterno the man and JoePa the symbol, the legend, the abettor of child molesters. Joe Paterno is not like the Father–he had a full life, with all the complexities and ugliness and glory that entails. JoePa is–he dangles, suspended in time in one of the more horrible moments of his life. And no one can save him from playing that moment over and over. Not even death.

January 24, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

In Case of Future Santorum Encounters

Before I begin here, I want to compliment the NY Times headline writer for slipping “testy” (testes?) into the title of this post from the Caucus on Rick Santorum’s set-to with some college kids in New Hampshire over same-sex marriage. Well played.

To the point of the post, if anyone out there ever comes in contact with Santorum (jump here for some quick hilarity in the wake of the Iowa caucuses–sorry, I can’t help myself), and he’s talking about same-sex marriage and goes off on this bridge metaphor, here’s how you respond. First of all, here’s what Santorum apparently said (it’s not in the clip):

First, he compared changing marriage laws to building a bridge. You have to have a reason to build the bridge, he said.

Now when cultural conservatives go down this road, they generally have one argument in mind. To his credit, Santorum swerved here and took the polygamy turnpike, but if he tries this again, it’s incumbent on the questioner to ask him what the reason for heterosexual marriage is. And he can only really give one answer, based on his other stances (and based on his journey down the polygamy turnpike here), and that answer is “procreation.”

Why procreation? Part of it has to do with Santorum’s Catholicism, which he takes very seriously (unless it interferes with sweatshop workers in the Marianas Islands being forced to have abortions, natch), especially when it comes to the whole birth control thing. Procreation is the end-all for his marriage, and he thinks it should be for all marriages, which is why he opposes contraception even for married couples.

Cultural conservatives like Santorum also love to fall back on procreation because they think it gets them out of the “you’re just a religious bigot” argument. (It doesn’t, but that’s another story.) They think it throws them into the “natural world” arena (which is a bad place for people who generally disdain science, but again, I digress) but what it really does is point out just how much of a social construct marriage is, because as we all know, you don’t have to be married to procreate, and what’s more, you don’t have to prove you’re able to procreate in order to get married.

And that’s the question the next person who gets Santorum in this position needs to ask him. Get him into the reason for heterosexual marriage, and when he goes for procreation, then ask him if that means he thinks sterile men and women should be disallowed from marrying. And he won’t have an answer that isn’t immediately recognized as bullshit, because there isn’t one.

If procreation is the reason that the heterosexual marriage bridge gets built (to use Santorum’s metaphor), then there’s no reason why people who are unable to procreate should get to use that bridge–unless everyone is allowed to use that bridge. And everyone includes homosexual couples as well as sterile hetero couples.

I feel I need to add, as a footnote of sorts, that Santorum does have a point (other than the one atop his head) about polyamorous relationships and whether or not they should be legalized. It’s not a discussion he really wants to have, I suspect, but it’s one I’d be willing to talk about at some point, because I think there’s a place for them in our society, with some pretty heavy caveats thrown in, the first being that polygamy as it is practiced currently in this country would be wholly unacceptable for reasons relating to the autonomy of the people involved in the marriage. We can get into that later. I need to go wash my hands now. I’ve typed Santorum too many times in one night.

January 6, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Stupid Nostalgia

But I repeat myself.

A friend of mine posted this on Facebook. At first glance, it looks like it makes sense, but it really falls apart with even a little bit of thought. Here’s the text.

Checking out at the grocery store recently, the young cashier suggested I should bring my own grocery bags because plastic bags weren’t good for the environment. I apologized and explained, “We didn’t have this green thing back in my earlier days.” The clerk responded, “That’s our problem today. Your generation did not care enough to save our environment for future generations.” She was right about one thing — our generation didn’t have the green thing in “Our” day. So what did we have back then…? After some reflection and soul-searching on “Our” day here’s what I remembered we did have…. Back then, we returned milk bottles, soda bottles and beer bottles to the store. The store sent them back to the plant to be washed and sterilized and refilled, so it could use the same bottles repeatedly. So they really were recycled. But we didn’t have the green thing back in our day. We walked up stairs, because we didn’t have an escalator in every store and office building. We walked to the grocery store and didn’t climb into a 300-horsepower machine every time we had to go two blocks. But she was right. We didn’t have the green thing in our day. Back then, we washed the baby’s diapers because we didn’t have the throw-away kind. We dried clothes on a line, not in an energy gobbling machine burning up 220 volts — wind and solar power really did dry our clothes back in our early days. Kids got hand-me-down clothes from their brothers or sisters, not always brand-new clothing. But that young lady is right. We didn’t have the green thing back in our day. Back then, we had one TV, or radio, in the house — not a TV in every room. And the TV had a small screen the size of a handkerchief (remember them?), not a screen the size of the state of Montana. In the kitchen, we blended and stirred by hand because we didn’t have electric machines to do everything for us. When we packaged a fragile item to send in the mail, we used wadded up old newspapers to cushion it, not Styrofoam or plastic bubble wrap. Back then, we didn’t fire up an engine and burn gasoline just to cut the lawn. We used a push mower that ran on human power. We exercised by working so we didn’t need to go to a health club to run on treadmills that operate on electricity. But she’s right. We didn’t have the green thing back then. We drank from a fountain when we were thirsty instead of using a cup or a plastic bottle every time we had a drink of water. We refilled writing pens with ink instead of buying a new pen, and we replaced the razor blades in a razor instead of throwing away the whole razor just because the blade got dull. But we didn’t have the green thing back then. Back then, people took the streetcar or a bus, and kids rode their bikes to school or walked instead of turning their moms into a 24-hour taxi service. We had one electrical outlet in a room, not an entire bank of sockets to power a dozen appliances. And we didn’t need a computerized gadget to receive a signal beamed from satellites 2,000 miles out in space in order to find the nearest pizza joint. But isn’t it sad the current generation laments how wasteful we old folks were just because we didn’t have the green thing back then? Please post this on your Facebook profile so another selfish old person who needs a lesson in conservation from a smarty-pants young person can add to this

The ending gives it away, if you hadn’t already gotten it. It’s just another “things were better back in my day, get off my lawn” rant. But how much truth is there in it? Not much, but enough that some people will repost it and get lots of thumbs-ups along the way.

So here’s a bit of a response. When I was a kid, the Cuyahoga River caught on fire because of the pollution in it, and major lakes had large areas where you’d get sick if you went swimming. Locally, you couldn’t eat anything you caught in Bayou Bonfouca because the fish were contaminated by the runoff from the local creosote plant. Acid rain was common, and there were days in major cities where it was impossible for asthmatics to walk outside and breathe because of the smog. Today we’re debating over how much our pollution is changing the atmosphere as a whole–back then, we were worried that the air was giving us cancer.

Those single tv’s and radios that the above author is extolling? They used more electricity alone than the gadgets we use today combined, because we’ve found ways to make them way more efficient. We use as much fossil fuel per capita today as we did 30 years ago, but we do way more with it. (Side note: the fact that we’re still using fossil fuel is a major problem, but we can’t ignore that we’re much better at using it.) Would it be better if we had a working public transportation system in this country that would make it possible for more people to live without cars? Absolutely, but that doesn’t negate the incredible gains in efficiency we’ve seen in cars over the last 40 years, especially when it comes to emissions.

And then there’s some stuff that’s just ridiculous. People haven’t used refillable pens in any large way for 50 years. Same goes for refillable razors. And to suggest that cooking was somehow better in the past because the people doing the cooking (note: almost always women) had to spend way more time preparing food with all that chopping and stirring and blending instead of, oh, having careers or expanding their minds is frankly insulting.

The world was not better in the past, not for anyone. The only reason it might seem like it is because the past you remember is your childhood, when you weren’t having to deal with the shitty things. Your parents did. And at some point, your kids (if you have them) will talk about how awesome things were back in the old days, by which they’ll mean their childhood, and you may be tempted to strangle them as they recall a world you don’t remember. Don’t do it. Look at your grandkids (if you have them) and think about how much better the world they’re living in now is, compared to the one you were an adult in. And then roll with the changes.

January 2, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Long Overdue Update

I was brought back to my blog by comment spam, believe it or not, so I decided to do an update post.

So I’m in Des Moines now. It was 8 degrees when I woke up this morning, which has me googling questions like “can contact lenses become frozen to your eyeballs?” (apparently not) and learning just how much I don’t know about the world of wine (thanks to my current job). I’ll be teaching a class on literature and culture at Drake in the spring, so preparations are well underway for that.

In other news… I’ll be reading at The Rumpus fundraiser for 826 Chicago at AWP next year–Thursday March 1. Jeannine Hall Gailey wrote a really nice review of A Witness in Exile for Rattle (copies still available! Makes a great gift!), and Alan Ackmann, who I attended the University of Arkansas with, also wrote an extensive (and generous) review for Relief.

I’d like to start posting here again regularly, but finding time to fit it in wis always a problem. I’m doing more quick hit stuff about Des Moines and my life here with Amy over at my Tumblr site, New in Des Moines, so you can follow me over there as well.

December 6, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

So…Big Day Today

Obviously I’m not great at keeping this blog updated, but if you’ve been following my work over at The Rumpus, you’ll know that a piece that ran on Monday titled “A Note To My Fellow White Males” has gotten a little attention. It was picked up by Jezebel and mentioned on Slate.

But the big hit came yesterday when I got a phone call (ten minutes before I had to teach a class) from Talk of the Nation asking me if I’d like to be on today’s show. So here I am, stressing hard, trying to prepare myself to talk to Neal Conan and whoever calls in about white male privilege and writing and whatever else comes up.

I’ll link to it once it’s available online (assuming I don’t make too large an ass of myself).

Update: Here’s the link to the audio. Hope you like it.

June 15, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The Anti-Wedding Playlist

When Amy and I were in Party City a few weeks ago being overwhelmed by the wedding aisle, we came across a CD of wedding songs, mostly sappy love songs. There was one really bad choice on the CD though–Extreme’s “More Than Words.” If you were alive in the 90’s, you probably know this song–sad guitar, mournful singer harmonizing with mournful backup singer, hints of power-balladism that never quite come through. Here’s the first verse(?):

Saying “I love you”
is not the words I want to hear from you
It’s not that I want you
not to say it but if you only knew
How easy it would be to show me how you feel
More than words is all you have to do to make it real
Then you wouldn’t have to say that you love me
‘Cause I’d already know.

Not exactly the sentiment you want to hear at a reception, right?

So I decided to make my own CD’s worth of songs you really don’t want played at the reception. Feel free to add selections of your own in the comments.

1. Golddigger–Kanye West
2. Thank Heaven for Little Girls–Maurice Chevalier
3. Billie Jean–Michael Jackson
4. I Will Survive–Gloria Gaynor or Cake (I prefer the latter)
5. Leaving on a Jet Plane–John Denver
6. I’m Not a Player–Big Punisher
7. Me and Mr. Jones/Fuck Me Pumps–Amy Winehouse
8. Willow Garden–traditional, but I like the version by Big Smith
9. I Heard It Through the Grapevine–Marvin Gaye’s version in particular
10. Hey Hey What Can I Do–Led Zeppelin
11. Every Breath You Take–The Police
12. Divorce Song–Liz Phair
13. Bad Romance–Lady Gaga
14. Stand By Your Man–Tammy Wynette

I could do this all day, I think.

June 7, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | 23 Comments

What Happens Post-Rapture?

Vaughan Bell at Slate runs down some history on what happens to doomsday cults and the like when their prophecies about the end of the world don’t come true. It’s an interesting piece because Bell does a good job of explaining why it is that failed prophecies don’t generally result in a loss of faith for most believers. What really happens is that the believers readjust their models to incorporate the new data.

I have a little experience with this myself. I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness, and was a member until I was 26, which I’ve written about some in in my first book of poems, A Witness in Exile. The Witnesses have gone through a few crises of this kind, one of which while I was a member. And strangely enough, that wasn’t the reason I left the church. Continue reading

May 21, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

And the Poetry Goes To….

Thanks to everyone who entered, and if you’d like a copy of my book at the discounted price, send me an email and we’ll work out the details. Remember, you have to have entered the giveaway to be eligible for the discount. Thanks again.

May 5, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Tomorrow, I Swear

I planned on choosing the winner of my poetry book giveaway on Monday, but was swamped with grading. Today I’ve been on campus all day. Tomorrow, I have a doctor’s appointment, but before I go to it, I’m choosing the winner, and I’m going to try to do it on camera. Also, I’ve decided that if you don’t win but you’d like a copy of my book all the same, I’ll sell you one for ten dollars instead of the normal fifteen. I’ll cover the shipping and sign it for you as well. See you tomorrow.

May 3, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment