Sunday, November 30, 2008

Sexual Orientation

Sexual Orientation

First of all, what an unusual term. Second,
which parts of the body ought to face east
during sex? Third, if there were a formal
introduction, what society could agree
about who should lead and take
the workshops and what topics should be
covered and uncovered? Fourth, people
aren't ships or compasses. They're
people, and desire is a kind of tautology,
a self-evident definition, a personal
rendition of emotional music. Fifth, the
sun seems to rise, people have sex, the
sun seems to set, people have sex, and
thus has it been so since so long ago, it
seems like forever. Therefore and sixth,
is it past time to love and let love, to
realize adults young, old, and middling
will find their landscapes of desire
using maps that make the most
sense to them and sensing direction
from a most mysterious magnet indeed?

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Right to Keep and Bear Memoirs

Yesterday was a darned good day, not to mention today. We huffed and puffed up the hill to Starbucks and got some coffee. We went to a store called Big Lots, the kind of store I really like. It sels stuff from stores that had trouble selling the stuff. How great is that?

Also, our son is home from college, and one of his professors, who is from Ethiopia, required homework be turned in on Friday--on Thanksgiving vacation. How great is that? It was helpful that the homework was online. Why should a professor from Ethiopia know about the rhythms of Thanksgiving break? He or she shouldn't. The rhythms of Ethiopian holidays are different, one assumes.

I picked up my son from an appointment, and I had some pop-radio station on, and he said, "Wow, you're really rocking out." Ah, the dry humor of youth. Then the station played (I suppose "stations" don't really "play" anything now) a song in which the word "glamorous" was spelled out, and I tried to tailor the lyrics to my 1995 Volvo. My son found this to be humorous.

I was able to watch one of my all-time favorite movies, Mildred Pierce, with Joan Crawford, Ann Blythe, Jack Carson, and Zachary Scott. If anyone wants to understand what makes the U.S.A. tick, he or she should watch Mildred Pierce.

I was also privileged to greet a small white dog of the Westie (?) species, watch college football on television in a most fragmentary way, watch commercials featuring stuff I will never buy, and read the following words in books: "eupeptic," "trope," and "dudgeon."

Another member of our family claimed that my Volvo was so messy that it made her sick, so we stopped off at a place that had a vacuum cleaner which you could rent for four quarters. So we vacuumed the heck out of that Volvo. I wondered whose job it was to empty the repository of the big vacuum cleaner, and I wondered what strange items ended up in there.

Tonight, on th e way back from having dinner at a venerable Tacoma restaurant, we started talking about writing, and I said that one good way to improve one's writing is to read a lot. My son opined that no one reads anymore because "all they want are screens," and, only half seriously, he predicted that book-burning would occur soon. Doing my best to imitate Charlton Heston on the subject of guns, I said, "Well, if they come for my books, they'll have to pry them out of my cold, dead hands." And he said, "Yes, everyone should have the right to keep and bear memoirs." Most amusing.

I really do think there should be a Constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to keep and bear books. The amendment should be written with greater care than the Second Amendment was. Someone was in a hurry with that one. It's basically a one-sentence amendment in which one kind of business is taken care of with an absolute phrase concerning militias, and another kind of business is taken care of in the clause stating that the right to keep and bear arms shall not be abridged. Of course, the persons writing the sentence had no sense of the extent to which "arms" would evolve, and they didn't define "arms." If we go strictly by the Constitution, we should be able to keep nuclear arms in our basements.

So if we had an amendment guaranteeing the right to keep and bear books, we'd best define "books" carefully.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Carolina Chocolate Drops

Thanks to one of the blogs I follow, the Hyperborean, I was able to read another blog, the Lumpenprofessoriat:

A post there mentioned the Carolina Chocolate Drops, a three-person African American string-band, which the blogger likes. Co-incidentally, I had just seen a recording of their performing on, of all places, the Grand Old Opry, which I almost never watch but which I channel-changed to for some reason the other day. I wrote "of all places" because I don't know whether any African American performer except Charlie Pride has been on the Grand Old Opry.

Of course, traditional rural American folk and "country" music and African American folk and blues music share some complicated roots, but once such music became commercialized in the early 20th century, it became segregated. This circumstance is well satirized in Oh Brother, Where Art Thou, when the convicts and Robert Johnson go into the radio station operated by a blind person. At some point in the 1960s, I think corporate Nashville decided it needed at least one Black performer, so Charlie Pride's career was allowed to flourish. The control exerted by corporate Nashville on its product is notorious; hence the hostility that Johnny Cash often showed and the indifference Willie Nelson still shows toward the establishment there.

On the Opry, speaking for the group, the banjo player and singer, a woman, said the group had studied with an older Black folk musician in the Carolinas. The other two performers, both male, play fiddle and guitar, and the guitar-player also plays the big brown jug.

It was an interesting cultural moment to observe. The all-white Opry audience was polite and even joined in a sing-along, but they were restrained, somehow. Cool. Marty Stewart, who hosts the Opry now and is probably trying to bring it into the modern age, came out and joined the band for the last song. He also tried to get the crowd to stand up when it applauded, but no one would get up. I had to wonder how much the rise of Obama's political fortunes had to do with the appearance of the Carolina Chocolate Drops on the Opry. Maybe nothing.

At any rate, I love the music they make--at once fresh and authentic, definitely Old School, injected with three young persons' zest for refurbishing old music. So here's a shout out to the group, to Marty Stewart (for showing some class), to the Hyperborean, and to the Lumpenprofessoriat. The internet works in mysterious ways.

And here's a link to the group's site (from which I got the photo):

The group will be in Seattle, in May, for about a week, at the Seattle Children's festival.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Semicolon in Modern Thought

Now there's an enticing topic--the semicolon in modern thought.

There are two kinds of writers; one kind thinks there are two kinds of everything in the world; the other kind doesn't.

Actually, what I meant to say was that one kind likes semicolons and the other doesn't.

For example, poet Richard Hugo, In The Triggering Town, calls the semicolon "ugly." He refused to use it in his poetry. Maybe he used it in his technical writing at Boeing, but I doubt it. Whenever we get to that part of the book in class, at least one student says, "But I love the semicolon," and I always agree with the student. The semicolon possesses its own awkward beauty, as far as punctuation-marks goes; in fact, the semicolon refuses to punctuate; it semi-punctuate; it ends something but not really.

But there are so many problems with the semicolon. By U.S. rules, you are not supposed to use it unless there is an independent clause on both sides of it; moreover, the very fact that one has to start talking about clauses puts people to sleep--as does further discussion of coordinating conjunctions versus sentence-adverbs. One may also use the semicolon to separate items in a series that are so large they include commas. In England, as far as I know, the rules for using the semicolon are different, just as there is no "comma splice" in German. After all, these are printers' marks, these periods, commas, dashes, and semicolons--based on venerable handwriting marks. It's not like they existed in the deep grammar of our brains.

Of course, the main problem is that a semicolon is a period on top of a comma. The semiotics of this situation suggest indecision or error.

Anyway . . .: a poem concerning the semicolon:

The Semicolon in Modern Thought

Scholars disagree; they are disagreeable.
According to Jeb Nolocimis, Distinguished
Three-Legged Chair in Social Podiatry at
Bandsaw University, a hallucinating German
printer presided over the marriage of Period
and Comma in his shop, located in
Mainz-am-Rhein, circa 1498. However,
Dr. Lola Doirep of the Toots Institute
rejects Nolocimis's account as "surreal
historicism." She argues periodically
that the semicolon should be interpreted
semiotically first as inhabiting a liminal
zone vexed by indecision (stop or continue?)
and second as the right and left eyes
of an iconic emoticon, which more deeply
represents "winking post-modernity"
and "the rise of Cyber-cute." Meanwhile,
Argentinian-American poet Rexi Vivaldo,
in his long poem, "Stubby's Quest,"
alludes to the semicolon as "a sad
period's single tear, frozen in time
and space--a lament
for the mortality of clauses . . . ;"

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Monday, November 24, 2008

One By Poe

Some of my colleagues in the English Department are working hard to put together a conference about and celebration of Edgar Allen Poe and his writing. The event is called (wait for it) SymPOEsyium. Poe's 200th birthday is in January; the event is in February. A colleague and I are going to discuss Poe's essay "The Philosophy of Composition." There's going to be a parody-of-Poe contest, and maybe someone will open a cask of Amantillado sherry. Of course, the jokes about pendulums, live burials, and ravens abound.

I just re-read the following not-famous (also known as obscure, I suppose) poem by Poe, and I found it pleasing in some respects. The influence of Wordsworth--perhaps Coleridge, too--is evident, I think. The focus on the poem seems to be on how the river is in one sense an emblem of art but then on how it becomes a mirror that reflects a woman's face but, more importantly, reflects the adoration of someone who admires her. Of course, we've come to expect a reference, oblique or direct, to Narcissus in poems about water, but that's really not what Poe seems to be up to here. The woman isn't admiring herself.

I like the reference to "old Alberto's daughter," as if the reader is supposed to know who that is, and the line "the playful maziness of art" is most amusing, sounds modern, and doesn't quite sound like Poe. The expression freshly portrays the way a river--which seems quickly to become a brook or a creek--represents art; more typical ways would be to think of the river's flow as similar to the imagination's flow, or to conjure images of sources--headwaters, etc. "Playful maziness of art" I found to be a good surprise. Addressing the subject of the poem right away, followed by an exclamation point, was something of a conventional move, to say almost the least, in the 19th century, as was personifying nature. The poem is derivative, but it has its original moments, and for Poe, it's light, so it has that going for it, too.

To a River

by Edgar Allan Poe

Fair river! in thy bright, clear flow

Of crystal, wandering water,

Thou art an emblem of the glow

Of beauty- the unhidden heart-

The playful maziness of art

In old Alberto's daughter;

But when within thy wave she looks-

Which glistens then, and trembles-

Why, then, the prettiest of brooks

Her worshipper resembles;

For in his heart, as in thy stream,

Her image deeply lies-

His heart which trembles at the beam

Of her soul-searching eyes.

Doug Edwards

Doug Edwards, a Professor of Religion at the University of Puget Sound, died Saturday at the age of 58 after battling cancer for a long time. "Battling cancer" has become a familiar term, but in Doug's case, it is particularly apt. He simply would not give in to or back down from his illness, and even as he endured treatments, he remained of good cheer, completely dedicated to his teaching and scholarship, a family man, a contributor to the community (including as a singer with a bass voice in "Revels"), and an exemplar of the liberal arts.

Doug's scholarly specialty was archaeology; or I should say it is archaeology, for his contributions to the archaeology of the Middle East and especially of sites related to the Bible will endure. He was among the pioneers in the field who used global-positioning satellite imagery, combined with old-fashioned "digs," to produce extraordinary results. I shall never forget dropping by his office one day a couple years ago and having him show me just a bit of what was possible with the new technology. Doug combined the training and discipline of a scholar with the native curiosity of a child.

He was the kind of person who inspires people to try to be better persons. I'm thinking a lot about Doug and his family today, and about the all-too-brief but always warm conversations he and I had. Arguably, he and I shared a certain workaholism, so we often passed each other in corridors or campus parking lots, rushing to another task, but we usually stopped for a moment to chat. Peace be with Doug.

Sunday, November 23, 2008



Your sentence is to write a sentence.
Your crime is having conspired
to kidnap a thought and confine it
to words. By writing a sentence,
you serve your sentence. Meanwhile,
you appeal the verdict, claiming
the thought did not pre-exist

the sentence. In your appeal,
you write, "Neurons were at play,
impulsive electricity coursed
through my cranium, but no
thought truly formed until
I was sentenced to write the
sentence, which is the form of
thought, which is no thought
without form." Your audience

appreciates the irony
of your situation, sentencing
having provided the evidence
for your conviction. Your
audience notes the conviction
with which you wrote your
appellate sentence, but
in a formal clause, it
dismisses your appeal,
and so you serve your sentence.

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Entrance, Entranced

One benefit of working at a college is that sometimes you get to sit around and listen to smart, well read people talk about an interesting topic. Of course, usually these talks occur during an hour that's squeezed between several hours of teaching, office hours, and many hours of committee-work--not that I'm complaining; it's just that college is somewhat less leisurely than it's portrayed, say, in the cinema, even though college is, undeniably, a privileged place. Sitting around talking about ideas is a privilege. It is also a necessity.

Yesterday I listened to colleagues from departments as far-flung as Math, Religion, English, and Political Science discuss the topic of religion/spirituality--how spirituality plays a role (or not) in their lives, the extent to which it's become socially acceptable to mock religion of any sort on campuses, the extent to which religions are reduced to caricatures and then, like straw men, knocked over, and the extent to which a broad education requires some education in religion. One need only consider how little Bush II (a U.S. president, a graduate of Yale) apparently knows about different kinds of Islamic belief, and how this absence of knowledge may have affected his foreign policy (strategically and tactically), to take the point well.

The professor of religion mentioned that some yogis in northern India practice the following ritual: In Winter, clad only in a small piece of cotton and wearing no shoes or sandals, they walk slowly around a village. Then they sit in the snow and have a kind of friendly meditation-competition. Presumably, the temperature is at or below freezing. They measure the competition by how many blankets they can soak with their perspiration. They perspire because, through meditation, they can raise their body temperatures as much as 17 degrees. Apparently scientists have studied the practice, the phenomenon, the temperature-increase, etc., and although they have documented a factual basis, they have not yet arrived at an explanation of how the yogis can manipulate their physiology to such an extent. The point the professor wanted to stress, however, was not that this practice was somehow exotic or strange but that "there are things out there that we simply don't know" and that, to some degree, religion is one lens through which to examine such mystery.

So is science, of course. His assumption was that science and religion could and should coexist quite comfortably. He also opined, refreshingly, that of course students should leave college knowing something, knowing many things, but that, perhaps more or as importantly, they should leave college not knowing things--or knowing what they don't know, being comfortable with some areas of uncertainty, some mystery, and with that vast universe of things about which humans know nothing. He also quoted Nietzsche (by way of Freud, perhaps), who noted that when people don't undertand something, they often rush to "explain" it, take pleasure in feeling "safe" from confusion once more, and move on--having explained nothing, really, of course. This sort of thing may help to explain why citizens are so comfortable with political slogans, as opposed to more patient, subtle political analysis. Slogans "feel better" to the brain, perhaps.

Today, I was looking at a sign that said "Entrance," and then I associated it with the word "entranced," which made me think, again, about how fluid language is and about those yogis (one of whom is 80, by the way), essentially naked in the snow but sweating profusely, entranced, as it were. So I played around with a draft of a poem:




The entrance entranced her.

A portal, it projected a practical

sign of passage. A designed object,

it also evaded intepretation,

asserted its mystery. To pass through,

she knew, would be to know the entrance

differently. Entrances don't really

lead anywhere, she believed. They

are their own expressions of somewhere.

Entranced, she chose not to pass through

the entrance. Just yet.

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Monday, November 17, 2008

What He Knows

What I Know

Squirrels scratch the roof tonight.
I didn't know they could be nocturnal.
My wife's asleep. I know she's weary.
I've survived life thus far. I know I'm
a remnant. Now the furnace, an old
smoker in the basement, wakes
and coughs, exhales through creaking
ducts. I know I need to change the filter.

I hear a car careening down the alley.
It crunches a trash-can, keeps going.
I know the driver gunning the engine is
drunk, will pull out onto an avenue. I don't
know if I'll hear a siren soon. I expect to.

Near me a gray cat groans in sleep.
I don't know what cats see when they
dream. God, if you're there, good for you.
Good for me, too. The rent is due in ten
days, and I can't afford to get sick.
That's what I know.

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Friday, November 14, 2008


Ten years ago, the Pacific Northwest experienced something of a deluge. True, in almost every year we get a lot of rain in Fall, Winter, Spring, and even a chunk of summer, and even this year, there is some danger of flooding. But 1998-99 was extraordinary. Rain fell for three months straight, every day. Sure, the rain fell lightly on some of those days, but nonetheless: 90 days (give or take) of rain. And remember that "40 days and 40 nights" constitute the Biblical Deluge- standard.

I recently exhumed (from mud?) a poem about that chronic rainstorm:


Pacific Northwest, Winter 1998-99

Rain for three straight months makes Noah
seem like the mayor of Palm Springs.
Our umbrellas look like sad mushrooms.
Our shoes have become buoys.

Sidewalks serve as creek-beds. Our
minds become mill-ponds. Occasionally
the sun smirks--yes, that's a personification,
but when everything is sodden, everything
gets personal. Worms float up, get stranded
on concrete, look like pink cursive from notes
we had planned to write in Spring.

Spring! What a far-off joke. From where
we sit, inside staring at three months of drizzle,
Spring is a tugboat-season captained by a lush,
adrift in rain-pocked Commencement Bay.
What if it never stopped raining? Someone
asked me that question. I didn't answer.

Hans Ostrom Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Civil Liberties Sonnet

(photo is of Roger Baldwin, founder of the American Civil Liberties Union)

Civil Liberties Sonnet

A civil liberty might be defined
As a chance to have a prayer to defend
Oneself against a power that's aligned
With secrecy and certitude, that's then
Brought out much of the worst in some
Of the cohort who enjoy power, which tends
To unhinge folks. What, however, has been done
Might be undone, with rights restored to mend
The rips in practices that hold a clear
And wary view of power. Checks and rein
And oversights on reign: basic but dear.
Unbounded power just tends to go insane.
Since that's the way it is, that which concerns
Our civil liberties is a priority that burns.

Hans Ostrom Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

One By D.H. Lawrence

A student recently asked me what I thought of D.H. Lawrence's writing. She had been reading some of his short stories, including "The Horse-Dealer's Daughter," in another class, and she didn't like them much. I told her I thought Lawrence, especially as a fiction-writer, may be the kind of writer who, as the years pass, seems more tied to (in this case) his era than was the case earlier. I told her that, to some extent, he had used writing to attack behavior he didn't like, especially repression and the deadening forces of modernity. Put more simply, his stories and novels now may seem a little clumsy and/or over-the-top, especially with regard to sex.

I also told her I preferred his poetry to his fiction (although I do still like some of the fiction), partly because I found it more subtle. I encouraged her to read the poem, "Snake," for example.

Here's another poem by Lawrence, not as famous or as good as "Snake," but still interesting:


by D.H. Lawrence

THE great gold apples of light

Hang from the street's long bough

Dripping their light

On the faces that drift below,

On the faces that drift and blow

Down the night-time, out of sight

In the wind's sad sough.

The ripeness of these apples of night

Distilling over me

Makes sickening the white

Ghost-flux of faces that hie

Them endlessly, endlessly by

Without meaning or reason why

They ever should be.

The scene reminds me of the London-Bridge scenes in T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land. For me, one intriguing surprise in the poem is that Lawrence praises the beauty of streetlights. I assume that at the time they were gaslights, which probably did project a light that might have haunting beauty. Certainly, Lawrence is riding his hobby-horse: modern people are dead inside. But it's a short ride, at least, and the imagery succeeds, in my opinion.

By the way, I still rather like the little known "bio-pic" about Lawrence, Priest of Love, in which Ava Gardner has a small role.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

On Proposition 8; or, Live and Let Live; or, What Would the Dude Do?

By now I reckon anyone who cares knows that Proposition 8 passed in California (my home state, although I haven't lived there in many a moon.) The effect of the proposition is to define marriage as something into which only a woman and a man enter. I'm not sure what the retro-active effect is on gay or lesbian couples who already married in California, but I'm assumming the retro-active effect will be nil.

I understand some of the correlatives related to homophobia, partly because I grew up in the 1960s and early 1970s, and because I grew up in a very small town in the High Sierra where heterosexuality was the norm (to say the least) and where there were definite ideas about marriage. Oddly (or not oddly) enough, however, two gay men operated an antique store in that town in the 80's, and before that, two gay men ran a resort near the river, although I have to say that the latter two men behaved in a way that I'd now describe as "pre-Stonewall." They weren't exactly closeted, but at the same time, their public personae was one of "business partners." Also, a very good friend of the family (she lived in the Bay Area) loved to visit the town to hunt and fish. She did not bring her lesbian partner with her, nor, as far as I know, did she ever come out of the closet, but everyone knew what the deal was. She was born circa 1920, however, so her generation just had a different attitude about what you disclose about your private life. I've lost count of those in my extended family who went fishing with her; she always brought much fishing gear, much food, and much booze. I think she'd grown up on a farm in Wisconsin. That she ended up out near Oakland was probably a good move for her.

All of which is by way of saying that I simply don't understand the impulse to guard marriage jealously on behalf of heterosexual couples or "conservative" faith-traditions. Let the alleged joy of marriage be universal, is what I say. As far as I can tell, the logic behind the assertion that "gay marriage threatens traditional marriage" doesn't obtain. Many gay and lesbian couples have married in recent years. I have felt no effect from these marriages on my marriage to a woman. I mean, nothing--not the slightest tremor.

I happen to be a Catholic (having converted rather late in life, in the year 2000), but I attend a parish that welcomes gay and lesbian parishioners. Nonetheless, the Vatican's official position is contra "gay marriage." However, the history of Catholicism is one of tension between Rome and "the church out there" in various lands, countries, and territories. Author Garry Wills is especially good on the subject of the loyal opposition, disagreements about dogma, and so on. Me, I stick to the Apostle's Creed (which is silent on the subject of marriage) and the Lord's Prayer (also silent on the subject), with the occasional Hail Mary. I go to mass, I read stuff by Dorothy Day, Chesteron, and Wills, and I give money and food to the "cause" of hunger. In other words, I try to keep it really simple.

Yes, I've read Paul and Leviticus on the subject, although what exactly "the subject" is is open to debate. Paul seems upset by men having sex with men in Rome. So be it. Leviticus says something about a man not lying with a man as he lies with a woman. But that just covers lying (being in a prone position, or not telling the truth), not even sex, really, and certainly not marriage. (That part about not telling the truth is a joke, by the way.) I know you can't get to that translation from here. And anyway, this paragraph begs the question of whether unions governed by a secular state like California or the U.S. (these are not religious entities) should have anything to do with faith-traditions. People may marry in any faith-tradition they wish, but they get a civil marriage-license from the state (or, literally, the city).

I think I have a solution, which of course is not original. If people want to get married in a faith tradition (or a sector thereof) that strongly opposes "gay marriage" or has problems with homosexuality, they should do so. If gay or lesbian couples want to get married, they should do, after obtaining a license from city hall. They should probably not try to get married in a church that is hostile to such a marriage, chiefly for logistical reasons. I think this is what we call a win/win situation. Adults who want to get married can and may do so. People who feel like believing in a Supreme Being (etc.) can and may do so. I just don't see any downside to this arrangement, and I hope Proposition 8 goes the way of the 8-track stereo--a clumsy idea, at best.

I suppose this point of view makes me one or more of the following: a) a progressive and therefore suspect Catholic, b) a liberal college professor, c) a secular humanist, and d) a bad person. I admit to being a basic, entry-level Catholic who likes the writings of Dorothy Day, so I guess that makes me progressive. I am a humanist by profession: I teach English. I admit to being a professor, but my politics don't fit either "liberal" or "conservative" all that well. They're just too eccentric and eclectic. I think my being a Catholic calls into question the purity of my being secular, even though I spend a lot of time doing secular things. I wouldn't say I'm a bad person, but I've made loads of mistakes, and to say I'm imperfect is an example of generous phraseology.

People, we need to move past this issue. Adults should be allowed to fall in love with and marry other adults of their choice, assuming they want to fall and love and/or marry at all (they may not, and they may be on to something: who knows?). Adults should be allowed to follow any faith tradition they want as long as it doesn't obviously break some serious laws (like the one against homicide), or to follow no faith tradition, if that's their choice. The cost of marriage-licenses, regardless of the sexuality of the applicants, should not be allowed to sky-rocket.

The paths (marriage/faith tradition) need to converge only if it works for both parties. If there is a church (for example) that's glad to have a gay or lesbian couple get married in it, and the couple wants to do that, fine. Otherwise, just keep the paths separate--like one of those California freeways, with all the oleanders in the middle. On one side, adults who want to get married. On the other side, faith traditions. The two don't need to concern each other at all. If they decide to have a happy convergence, they can take the same off-ramp. Otherwise, live and let live--in that most commonsensical Californian way: being laid-back. (Consider The Big Lebowski. The Dude would not have voted for Proposition 8.)

Monday, November 10, 2008

Quantum Sonnet

Okay, so I was reading about sub-atomic particles last night, and from I gathered (not much more than a few sub-atomic particles of knowledge, alas), scientists used to think light manifested itself in the form of waves, but now they think it manifests itself in the form of particle-bursts, also known as quanta. Apparently, this comparatively new way of think about light has resulted in a redefinition of the atom, which when I was in high school was represented as a kind of planet orbited by moons--all very orderly, circles and dots. Now, because of quantum-theory, there's no telling where those "moons"--or sub-atomic particles-- might be. Then there's this thing called a "quantum leap," which is a term lots of people throw around in all sorts of non-scientific contexts, including episodic television-programming. . Apparently a quantum leap--or jump--occurs when an electron is in one place and then in another place but not ever in the place in between. That's right. It disappears, and then it reappears. I think scientists should be pretty darned careful about accusing spiritual people of believing in things they can't see. It seems one has to have faith in quantum theory.

At any rate, I decided to write a sonnet based on last night's reading. More is the pity.

Quantum Sonnet

Electrons here, electrons there, but no
Transition anywhere. They disappear.
They reappear--a quantum jump--or so
It's been identified--not well, I fear.

For if the relocation were a jump,
The jumping thing would stay in view.
Electrons don't exactly make a whump
When landing after leap. I know it's true

They're ultra-small. Perhaps there is a sleight
Of light in sub-particulated world?
Or maybe God hides in a burst of light--
Photonic God, an energetic whirl

That makes and breaks the rules. Look there, look here,
But note that in-between does not appear.

The Trouble With Nouns

The first book my former teacher, Karl Shapiro, published was called Person, Place, and Thing--the old-fashioned definition of a noun. (He may have self-published a book before this one appeared.) I still think it's a heck of a title for a book of poems. It suggested that Shapiro was writing more or less in the vein of William Carlos Williams and other Imagists ("no ideas but in things," as Williams writes in Paterson), although Shapiro's poems tend to be robust, full figured, not spare and spidery like those of H.D. (for example) or Amy Lowell. To some degree, the poetry of Shapiro is where the poetry of Williams and Auden meet--an American view of things (sometimes literally things) combined with a British sense of language, irony, and poetic form.

Aside from "show, don't tell," the other most ubiguitous piece of advice people like to hurl at new writers is "use active verbs." (Forms of the verb "to be" are not considered active.) Verbs, verbs, and more verbs--that's the advice. One must look with suspicion of not disdain on adjectives and adverbs. One must be unimpressed even with nouns, allegedly. Occasionally, such advice (however well meant and possibly even useful) brings out the contrarian in me. Hence the following poem:

The Trouble With Nouns



"The trouble with nouns," the man said,

"is that they just sit there, doing nothing."

I didn't know why he viewed this situation

as problematic. I like entering a cafe (for

instance) full of nouns that are just sitting there.

I don't want them to get up and accost me. I

like it when nouns keep to themselves, don't

open fire, don't start arguments or act out

an impulse to create conflict, as if

the Nounville Cafe were the scene of a one-act

play or the setting of a short story. I sit amongst

nouns with a kind of noun-like lassitude.

Someone enters the establishment, stares.

We stare back, we nouns. The look on

the newcomer's face suggests the nouns

and I appear to be menacing, although or

because we just sit there in our nounish diffidence.

Some people think nouns are trouble.



Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Sunday, November 9, 2008



Please enter your 200-digit identity-code.
If you'd like persons paid by citizens' taxes
to continue to incarcerate and torture people
in the absence of habeas corpus, touch CONTINUE.
If not, touch STOP. If you've lost faith and hope
and have neglected charity, touch FORGIVE.

If you've kept faith, have hope, and do help,
touch WEARY. If you feel weird positioned
in front of a screen that "tells" you what to do,
and you do it, find the plug connected to
the machine that energizes the screen. Figure
out the rest. (Warning: criminal charges may obtain.)
Otherwise, touch CONTINUE.

If you'd like to give yourself an inebriation-test,
touch YOUR NOSE. If this information is correct,
touch SO WHAT? If this information is incorrect,
touch OH, WELL. If you dream of dominating
the world, touch DELUDED. If you are the screen,
and you feel like touching yourself, that's
your business, but screen yourself.

Would you like to make another transaction?
If it's the kind of transaction that can't
be mediated by a screen, well, that's
kind of refreshing, isn't it? Touch TOUCH.

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Friday, November 7, 2008

Wet Blanket

All right, I apologize in advance for having written a post-election, wet-blanket poem.

But I know about and contribute modestly to this place called Nativity House in Tacoma. It's basically a place for homeless and otherwise impoverished, jobless people to go during the day--to get something warm to drink and something to eat, and to find something to do--like talk, play checkers, get a bus-pass, maybe get directed to a clinic or a job or whatever. Anyway, the place is always pretty busy, but in the last few months, the clientele has doubled: just one small measure in one medium-sized city of how the mischief of Bush II, Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs, Wachovia, AIG, Exxon, et alia, "trickles" down, in the parlance of Reaganomics.

Now, About the Poor

After the spectacle, what about the poor?
After all that money spent per vote,
what about the poor? Hey,

I saw Cable News Network
create a hologram of a news-
correspondent, which talked
about how her hologram had been
made. Her hologram and how
it was made was news delivered
by the hologram. For Chrissakes,
this is insane. It's stupidity cubed.

I'd rather they'd interviewed
a real poor person for an hour,
with no commercial break--
someone working on the edge
of exhaustion and financial
collapse every day--that
would have been a bigger
surprise than a hologram,
especially if they'd helped
the person find a better job--
real news.

The poor have been trickled
on for a long time. Trickled
is a blend of tricked and tickled,
duplicity and petty cruelty.

Hey, what was that sound?
A kind of rumble, a sort of roar?
After the spectacle,
what about the poor?

Copyright Hans Ostrom 2008

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

To Where Do Conservatives Think of Exiling Themselves?

When Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II were elected, I often heard leftward-leaning folks threaten to leave the U.S. Usually this threat was expressed right before the election. "If Reagan gets reelected, I'm moving to Canada"--for example. I don't actually know anyone who ever exiled themselves thusly. I do know one fellow who has insured that he and his family now have dual citizenship in the U.S. and a European nation, just in case self-exile becomes an option.

Someone in class today raised the question of where rightward-leaning folk threaten to move to when elections disappoint them greatly. I owe this person a debt of gratitude because I had never thought about this question before.

As the person and others noted, Canada is probably out because many conservatives like to point to it and its healthcare system as embodying a cautionary tale. Is Dubai a possibility? I have no idea.

I've heard one can stash money in some place called the Cayman Islands, which I think are in the Caribbean, but I don't know if these islands are especially welcoming to conservative Americans.

I presume almost every nation in Europe would be unacceptable. Sweden has a shockingly effective combination of capitalism and socialism. The Swedes have universal healthcare, free college education, generous parental leave, and so on, but they also produce steel and cars, and they have a trade-surplus. They also talk very deliberately, and they listen during conversations, so Sweden is really not a comfortable place for most Americans, who like to talk first and listen later.

I think Swedes make their own jet-fighters, too, so they don't buy a lot of military equipment from us, and ever since the 18th century, they have become positively allergic to going to war--but we must remember that they did quite a lot of raiding for about 200 years way back when, circa 700-900 A.D.E. Maybe they got war out of their system, so to speak. Who knows? And there are only 8 million Swedes total, so with regard to possible invasions, the options are limited. They fought Norway a long time ago, and all the issues were settled. They don't like how Danes speak, but otherwise, I think they're okay with Denmark. They get along fine with Finns. They seem to pretend Russia doesn't exist, except for that terrible Chernobyl thing. They focus like a laser-beam on what to do during the summer. Is that a liberal or a conservative trait?

Conservatives seem to loathe France. Dennis Miller said that "France is dead to me" when the French leader balked at supporting the invasion of Iraq, for example. The French seem to have been unaffected by this announcement. How odd. One would think Dennis Miller's sentiments would hit France like an earthquake. :-)

Alaska is a possibility, I should think, because, well, look who's governor there--and you don't actually have to leave the nation. You just have to take a long flight, and in you're in a state governed by a person who galvanized the Republican base.

Numerous poetic possibilities exist, including "Sailing to Byzantium," in which Yeats dreams of "living" in a kind of permanent world of well wrought art, and Dickinson's poem about dwelling in possibility. Possibility is a very good town indeed.

Probably so-called conservatives and liberals have much in common, including the fact that neither actually exile themselves after a disappointing election, or at least very few of them do so. Also, for a long time, many people have argued that the Democratic and Republican parties are more similar than they pretend to be.

The Republicans may have to work on redefining themselves, however, at least for the purposes of the political spectacle. For a long time, they were very effective at demonizing "liberals" and thereby defining themselves by defining the "Other." They also once at least pretended to stand for fiscal restraint, but Reagan and Bush II pretty much ruined that with massive deficit spending. Ironically, Clinton seemed more economically prudent than they. Also, the Republicans wedded themselves to a particular strain of American Christianity--a mixture of wealth, interest in politics, and fundamentalism, best embodied, arguably, by Pat Robertson, who rails against a women's right to choose abortion, against homosexuality, against liberals, and against feminism, but who has accumulated a great deal of financial wealth (no camel-through-the-eye-of-the-needle stuff for him) and even ran for president once.

I wonder if they could go back to their not-so-distant roots and become Eisenhower Republicans. Eisenhower golfed a lot a balanced the budget, didn't he? Also, he didn't like Nixon. I think Eisenhower would find people like Rove, Gingrich, the writers at The Nation, the people on Fox News, et al., as just too petty and mean--and wound up a bit too tightly. I think that after you've directed a war against Hitler, you get some perspective.

The Democrats, of course, will have to learn how to handle success. They tend not to handle it well. (Nor do the Republicans.) If the Democrats were crafty, they would pursue some items on the Libertarian agenda, especially those connected with restoring civil liberties.

I really like discussing politics and occasionally blogging about politics because I know almost nothing about the subject, so I'm unencumbered by knowledge and experience. I especially like talking politics in the presence of one friend, in particular, who possesses a wealth of theoretical, social-scientific, and practical knowledge of politics. I suspect he simply hums songs in his head while I'm talking, and when I stop opining, he says something like, "That's interesting."

I'm not quite through gas-bagging, unfortunately, although undoubtedly you've stopped reading by now. So I'll just add that it is a well known fact that the Democratic Congress did the Democratic President Carter no favors, and I do wonder if the same will happen with Obama. I also wonder if right-wing radio will lower the temperature of their remarks; it's a genre that seems almost addicted to borderline hate-speech. I'd rather listen to a conservative countepart of the more-or-less liberal Thom Hartman, who engages in calm debates with conservatives. It's conversation-radio.

And who shall run for president in four years? Palin? Gingrich? Romney? I do hope Ron Paul runs again. I liked hearing him bring up going back to the gold standard. No one ever seemed to want to engage him on the issue. Go figure.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

November 8, 2008

Politics is a cynical, spectacle-driven, money-saturated, grinding business, but sometimes its results transcend its nature.

I think of the resilience of African Americans over 389 years, all the degradation suffered, now at least symbolically overcome.

I think of the strange turns of fate--that Obama's father is African, not African American; that if Gore or Kerry were to have won, Obama may not be the president-elect; that so many women I know gracefully shifted support from Clinton to Obama.

I think of writers whom I never knew (although I got to shake Baldwin's hand and speak with him) but whose words have always drawn me to their spirit and views: Frederick Douglass, Langston Hughes, Jessie Redmon Fauset, James Baldwin, so many more.

I think of certain colleagues, friends, current and former students.

I think, finally, of my friend from high school, with whom I still keep in touch--Ronn English.

I think of President Obama. Keep him safe.

Monday, November 3, 2008

New Diggers

I almost feel as if a Kantian categorical imperative obliges me to say something about tomorrow's election, which is obviously crucial in many ways but also surrounded by hyperbole. It certainly is a distinctive new moment in American and African American history, but the meaning of the moment is of course yet to unfold, let alone be interpreted.

I've been teaching at the same college for over two decades, and the students are obviously more tuned into, informed about, engaged with, and anxious concerning this election--by far--than any election previously. Many of them, of course, are voting in a presidential election for the first time, and they certainly are voting in interesting times.

The disinterested political scientist whom I trust the most predicts that Obama/Biden will "win" 310 electoral votes.

I don't think this poem has much if anything to do with the election, and that is just as well.

New Diggers
In the near future, people will mine dumps
and landfills for sustenance if not profit. That
stuff we've been tossing out for centuries
gets more valuable every day. Burrowers
will try to borrow it back from the past
we thought we were throwing it into.
Places of refuse live in the future like
bank-vaults. Toward the end of this
profligate era, we'll want to accept much
of what we refused in the way of pulp,
plastic, and metal. Every civilization
needs its diggers. Our civilization
has dumped and buried useful stuff
maniacally and so will soon employ
exhumers to resurrect what once was
waste from out of tombs.

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Of course, in almost every nation, in different degrees, people already pick through "garbage" to find valuable or edible things, and a "dust-heap" is central to Dickens' immense, marvelous novel, Our Mutual Friend, which in some ways prefigures our ultra-profligate era. But I have to imagine that some landfills in the U.S. and elsewhere will begin to look like wealth-laden mines at some point, although I'm most willing to be corrected on this most wild guess.


Wary Lyric

I live in wariness,

which is no place.

It is an atmosphere,

a mental space.


Courtesy suggests I

ought to give an image

to sharpen what I mean.

A coyote on a ridge:


It watches, listens, sniffs.

Only hunger makes it vicious.

Otherwise, it lives by wariness,

is naturally suspicious


and alone, even in company.

Me, too, to some degree.

I live in wariness, a type

of fear. That's me.

Copyright 2008 Hans Ostrom

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Platinum Card

One with whom I live reported that I received an offer in the mail for an American Express Platinum Card.

Before the economy got as messed up as an election in Florida, I (and every other American adult, I assume) received an offer for a new credit card every day. There's probably a correlative if not a causal relationship there somewhere.

At any rate (so to speak), I don't like get into the details of such offers, even in the rare instances when I pursue them. I just assume I'm going to be had, so to speak. So I asked whether the one with whom I live knew any of the details.

"Well," she said, "it's a sign that your credit-rating is good. I might add that the annual fee is about 500 dollars. They also claim you never have to wait in line--you know, like, at car-rental places."

Of course, she was not persuaded by the "argument" American Express had advanced, nor was I. My own objections included the following:

1. If I signed up, they'd send me a plastic card, when in fact they had offered me a platinum card. I wouldn't mind owning a rectangle of platinum. I don't think I'd carry it in my wallet, but I'd still like to own it. Besides, if you say you're sending a platinum card, then send a platinum card.

2. In most places where I stand in line, no none will know I have a platinum card until I've stood in line already, and I'm not about to raise my voice at the grocery store and proclaim, "Hey, I have a platinum card!" --Especially when the card is plastic, not platinum. So by the time I get up to the cashier and show her or him my platinum card (which I wouldn't use to buy groceries anyway), the cashier would simply say, "How tragic, my good fellow. You had a platinum card, and yet you still had to stand in line. I think the Greeks wrote about such ironies."

3. Five hundred dollars is a lot to pay somebody for the privilege of making them money. I assume American Express would make money in several different ways were I to accept the platinum card and use it.

4. I think this card might have one of those mystical APR's, which I think are partly responsible for the economic problems out there. APR stands for adjustable percentage-rate, I think. I'm not sure it qualifies as a euphemism, but it doesn't quite convey the peril involved. I believe "Apocalypse Probably Results" might be a better statement--hyperbolic, certainly, but at least people would be more cautious with their funds and less vulnerable to predatory lenders, not that American Express is predatory. I think they're more like grazing lenders, steadily munching on people's money.

5. This item may seem unrelated, probably because it is, but I think American Express needs to publish an anthology of great poetry and send it for free to all card-members, even those at the iron, tin, and aluminum levels, not just the gold and platinum levels. How hard would it be for them to do this? Not hard at all. I think Starbucks, GM, IBM, et al., should do the same thing. I would be willing to accept slight alterations, such as anthologies of great essays, short stories, or cartoons. Society would benefit immediately from such a capitalistic re-distribution of ideas and language. The power of poetry is highly undervalued. In fact, Poetry isn't even listed on the New York Stock Exchange! What a glaring oversight! Moreover, poetry comes with 0% financing.