Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Primer
by Bob Hicok

I remember Michigan fondly as the place I go

to be in Michigan. The right hand of America

waving from maps or the left

pressing into clay a mold to take home

from kindergarten to Mother. I lived in Michigan

forty-three years. The state bird

is a chained factory gate. The state flower

is Lake Superior, which sounds egotistical

though it is merely cold and deep as truth.

A Midwesterner can use the word “truth,”

can sincerely use the word “sincere.”

In truth the Midwest is not mid or west.

When I go back to Michigan I drive through Ohio.

There is off I-75 in Ohio a mosque, so life

goes corn corn corn mosque, I wave at Islam,

which we’re not getting along with

on account of the Towers as I pass.

Then Ohio goes corn corn corn

billboard, goodbye, Islam. You never forget

how to be from Michigan when you’re from Michigan.

It’s like riding a bike of ice and fly fishing.

The Upper Peninsula is a spare state

in case Michigan goes flat. I live now

in Virginia, which has no backup plan

but is named the same as my mother,

I live in my mother again, which is creepy

but so is what the skin under my chin is doing,

suddenly there’s a pouch like marsupials

are needed. The state joy is spring.

“Osiris, we beseech thee, rise and give us baseball”

is how we might sound were we Egyptian in April,

when February hasn’t ended. February

is thirteen months long in Michigan.

We are a people who by February

want to kill the sky for being so gray

and angry at us. “What did we do?”

is the state motto. There’s a day in May

when we’re all tumblers, gymnastics

is everywhere, and daffodils are asked

by young men to be their wives. When a man elopes

with a daffodil, you know where he’s from.

In this way I have given you a primer.

Let us all be from somewhere.

Let us tell each other everything we can.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The New Buzz

The new buzz in the circle of buzzing I inhabit is babies, which, for an academic, is a strange thing. The general impression I have had for the past many years regarding babies is cute, not for me, you know, but how cute! And now suddenly, I have friends with babies, and friends who want babies, and friends who surprise themselves with angry, jealous responses when they hear of other people getting pregnant, the end result of which, is babies.

Why academics have few children is open for interpretation, discussion, and malignment. For me, I frequently think of a quote from Michelle Pfeiffer in the movie White Oleander: "I was used to having time to think," says the Pfeiffer character, an artist of some talent.

That's a big part of it, the needing of time to think. That's certainly a trademark of the academic life. We need time to think, to create, to write, to invent. It's how our brains are wired, it's what we're interested in, it's what we think we were made for, and unfortunately, it's not something that lends itself to scheduling all that well. Sure, it's all very well and good to say, "I will write ten pages a day." And maybe some people set out those ambitious goals and accomplish them, but to loosely quote Anne Lamott, we hate those people and would like to shoot them.

This is all just to say, we need a lot of free time. We are a group of people who can justify calling reading for four hours work. It is genuinely necessary for the advancement of our careers and our writing lives. (No writing life = no career = no money to take care of imaginary future babies).

Consider now throwing a baby into the mix, a baby who requires all sort of scheduled events - feedings, burpings, diapering, school district planning - and it becomes clear why academics find it a tough row to hoe. All that scheduled time leaves little time for our livelihood, that thing that pays for babies in the first place.

Not that having a baby is any harder for us than anyone else. That's where we just have to get over ourselves. I realize that. The reality is that our jobs lend themselves to babying more than a lot of other jobs as we a) as a group, tend to have more forward-thinking, equal partners in our husbands, and b) have a fairly flexible schedule of actual "need-to-be-there time." Most of our work is done at home, scheduled at our own leisure and discipline and inspiration. But still, when a writer/artist/academic is in the position of having to abandon the infrequent day of mad writing inspiration to soothe a crying, needful infant, it is difficult to make the right choice after years of pursuing that creative moment.

Certainly babies are the most creative moment, extended over many years. But how to make that transition and balance? How to give enough to both lives and inhabit them both successfully and lovingly?

Babies. It's all the buzz. Everyone wants one. Even us academics. After a set of non-toxic dry-erase markers, it's this season's latest accessory.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Gerald R. Ford, Barack Obama, and Philip Fulmer

Two things which continue to confound me about Knoxville:

1) Why is there a Gerald R. Ford Street? I have raised this question in previous blog entries, and yet the question remains. A student tells me that Ford once scored a hole in one at a golf tournament in Memphis, but other than that, the student suggests the only reason Ford was given a street name was because of his Republican status.

Which segues nicely into an unexpected concern that developed as I was walking toward my 8am class on Wednesday morning. It was the day after an historic election in America. We have elected an African American to the presidency. A black man in America has risen to the highest position on Planet Earth. It's astounding. I still can't believe it. I'm still struck by the shifting weight of it all - which might explain my sudden annoyance with some of my young relatives who refuse to be great - but that's another story altogether.

Back to that walk toward my classroom: It struck me that bursting into the classroom with tremendous enthusiasm over the newly elected president would be alienating to many of my students, who are, after all, Tennesseeans, who did, after all, vote for someone else, and who were, after all, probably having a pretty bad day.

And so I had to figure out how to bring it up in such a way that recognized the momentous occasion, honored it, and yet did not disenfranchise many members of my class. They are a smart group of people. I respect them and I wanted to show them that. Additionally, I think McCain was a terrific candidate. What an amazing election this was to have had two such capable, intelligent potential leaders. It was this sort of discussion I encouraged. I hope I handled it gracefully. It's a cautious time for everyone, or at least, it should be. It's time for unification. I want to be a part of that.

2) The second confounding element of Knoxville - football. Always football. Phil Fulmer, former head coach of Tennessee, was fired last week for a continuing failing record. There is a central artery running through campus called Philip Fulmer Way, and artery here is a good metaphor. Like many southern schools, football at Tennessee is a lifeforce, the blood that pumps through this whole place. It was interesting to see one man of integrity stand up while another man (of considerably less integrity if the rumors are true) was forced to step down. What an upset for UT students on so many levels. So many changes all at once, which is why I love my job. I get to be a small part of watching them work through that, and hopefully, give them the opportunity to articulate their ideas, concerns, conflicts in writing.