Home from Far-Flung Travels

The Clarkson semester began yesterday, though my classes start today.I’m back from six weeks in Hanoi & a week at Zen Mountain Monastery & now the rhythm of the year shifts into something that feels more like routine. The idea, of course, is to keep it from becoming merely routine. I know it is not true for all — or even most? – artists / writers who teach, but I find that teaching keeps me fresh, at least most of the time. (One can turn anything into a grind.) I have the good fortune to work in an institution that gives me nearly complete freedom in choosing what to teach & how to teach it, so, for instance, the theme for my first-year students this term is “Why Life Sucks.” We begin with Gilgamesh, Job & a couple of other old texts, them move on to the Modernists Kafka & T.S. Eliot & Melville before ending with Margaret Atwood’s post-modern, post-apocalyptic novel Oryx & Crake. A good time is insured for all, hijinks ensue & etc.

We’ve had a run of warm weather but it is beginning to look a little like fall. Some of the maple trees have begun changing color & just now when I looked up I saw out the window that the pines in the front yard are dropping their old needles. I can hear a bullfrog in the ditch across the road, a loon up on the pond . . .

Cranking Out Sentences

How come cranks, who are full of bunk, so often take a “debunking” tone? I’m interested in sentences & where they come from & I was hopeful that Verlyn Klinkenborg’s little essay in the NY Times would shed some light on that deep question. But all that we find out reading the essay is that sentences come from inside you & that they have a mysterious quality called rhythm. Now, I’m a poet & even more interested in sentences’ rhythm than in their origins, but rhythm too remains undefined. So why did I then buy the Kindle edition of Mr. Klinkenborg’s book? Well, I’m always looking for little nuggets of writing wisdom for my students & I suppose I thought I might find out more about where sentences come from in the book than in the newspaper essay. The book, called Several Short Sentences about Writing, more than lives up to its name — it ought to be called Several Hundred Short Sentences about Writing. I didn’t actually count them, at least in part because I could not read more than about twenty pages. This book is mind-numbingly boring. Perhaps if you aspire to develop a sort of hectoring version of a Mr. Rogers prose style, you will find this book helpful. It is, quite literally, a series of short sentences that purport to be about writing but which are more about the author’s belief that everything you learned in school about writing is wrong. Except that you should learn to diagram sentences.1   There is, as far as I can tell, no actual argument ion the book, no sequence of ideas that add up to anything like an actual idea. Klinkenborg strives to be aphoristic, but just sounds peeved. And why is the text presented as lines of “poetry”? In the Kindle edition, at least, the series of sentences are each given their own typographical paragraph, but then first letters of lines that are not first letters of sentences are capitalized as they would be in some presentations of verse. This is not verse, so what is the point of this weirdly misused convention.

Someone once said that writing a bad review is like swerving so as to intentionally hit the chipmunk crossing the road in front of you & in general I no longer bother to write such pieces; but the author of this book is on the Editorial Board of the NY Times & people might actually think he can help them learn something about sentences. He can’t. Get Stanley Fish’s little book on sentences if you’re looking for advice from a Times writer. Fish can be a twit in his column, but he know more than a little about writing, including the writing of sentences. Or if you are really ambitious about your sentences, you could take a look at Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, or the even more elegant The Art of Syntax by Ellen Bryant Voigt, though this last title, by a poet, is aimed more at poets & readers of poetry than the other books noted here. In any case,2 there are plenty of alternatives to the hectoring, “debunking” & ultimately boring advice of Several Short Sentences about Writing.

48 Hours!

When I went out to catch the taxi to the airport in Hanoi, I started the stopwatch on my iPhone, which continues to tick off seconds even when the phone is powered down. I hit “stop” when Carole pulled into our driveway in South Colton. Forty-eight hours, two minutes & fifty-three seconds: that’s how long I was in transit. In Hanoi, before being allowed to check my bag, I had to split it into two because it was too heavy. Fortunately, the Vietnamese are prepared for this eventuality & I was able to purchase a zippered plastic bag that, once filled, is wrapped tightly with wide plastic tape using a machine I have seen nowhere else. Okay, so three hours to Singapore, then a six-hour wait for the flight to Frankfurt that continues on to JFK. Had a very good Chinese dumpling (well, two, actually) for dinner & walked around looking at the amazing displays of consumer goods. The whole place is designed to make you feel bad if you don’t buy something, but other than my dumplings, I didn’t buy anything.

Singapore has very careful, though friendly enough, security procedures. The gate area is enclosed & all carry-on bags & documents checked. Once aboard, we taxied out & took off for a nearly twelve-hour flight over Southern & Central Asia & Eastern Europe. Most people try to sleep, but it is a miserable flight. Singapore Airlines is very good about distracting passengers with food, but twelve hours in an economy class airline seat is not much mitigated by even the very good food they serve. The woman in the seat next to mine solved the problem by sipping red wine throughout the flight, keeping, I imagine, just a light buzz of contentment. I listened to music — mostly Dylan & Leonard Cohen, with some Bunk Johnson & Blind Willie McTell mixed in, then shifted over to an audio version of Tristram Shandy I’d downloaded to my Kindle before leaving. Sterne’s novel is structured much like a dream & was the perfect choice: I drifted in & out of sleep for nearly five hours with Peter Barker’s droll voice enacting the scenes of the story in my mental theater. But while the audio version of Tristram runs nearly twenty-four hours, I eventually tired of the drollery with more than half the flight to Frankfurt remaining.

I read, I dozed, I watched the little figure of the airplane crawl across the video map of the world on the seatback in front of me. I tried to meditate but found it impossible. I should have tried harder, given the ordeal that awaited me in Germany. We touched down in the early morning & as we were rolling toward the gate, there was an announcement to the effect that those of us continuing to JFK would reboard the plane at the gate next to the one where we were disembarking. I’ve been on this flight before & this was a new wrinkle — we’d have to clear security again. Everyone is directed down a very long, featureless hallway and along a ramp in which all the doors are closed & guarded. Where the hell are the restrooms? I always thought Germans were fanatical about toilets, but apparently not for airline passengers. We arrive at a security area, get our boarding passes & passports checked, put our bags on the conveyor, walk through the metal detectors . . . & then we’re on our way, right? Well, some of us are, but quite a few of us have our bags slid over onto the far side of the outflow table, where we have to go retrieve them.

In front of me, a beefy female security cop is going through the bag of a middle-aged woman who has had the temerity to smuggle a six ounce jar of some kind of cold cream into her luggage. The cop tells her it is “a violation” & tosses it in the garbage. Now it’s my turn.

“Is this yours?”
“Yes.”
“You will have a special check. Please follow my colleague.”

I am led into a little room where another beefy cop, this one male, tells me to take my camera bag out of my backpack, then has me open the bag & take the camera out, which he then swabs for explosives. After he puts his swab in the machine & it comes out negative I am allowed to repack my stuff & go on my way. But no, as I am hiking back out to the gate — still no god damned toilets — everyone on our flight is stopped for another document check, which is badly organized,  mean spirited, & just simply idiotic, since just ahead of me they let a family get back on the airplane even though mom seems to have lost half their boarding passes.

And my trip home was only half over. I spent another hour watching German security cops swagger around the gate area with their pistols on their hips, joking with each other & scowling at everyone waiting to resume their trip to New York. So was their some kind of threat? A piece of luggage without a passenger? Maybe, but I think it much more likely that it was merely arbitrary. As a final insult, it was real easy to log on to the “Free Wifi” in the boarding lounge; unfortunately, the wifi wasn’t connected to the internet.

The rest of the trip was long, but mostly uneventful, with the exception of how well I was treated at JFK by the check-in folks at Jet Blue — remember my heavy bags? — & by the crew on the plane up to Burlington. Everyone was really nice & went out of their way to be helpful. Carole met me in the afternoon, we took the ferry across Lake Champlain, then drove home, where, as I mentioned, I arrived almost exactly forty-eight hours after setting out from my hotel in Hanoi.

Last Evening in Hanoi