Say Goodnight Dick.

Before embarking on my soon-to-end career, I took a course called “Labor in Literature and the Arts”. For that course I wrote a series of poems about work (including delivering newspapers, selling concessions at football games, driving cab, plumbing). After several years working in healthcare, I realized I had not yet written about that endeavor. I decided to do something about it.

Fast forward a dozen years. I was looking for some old photos on a seldom-used hard drive. I came across some poems about health care that I’d forgotten about. I’ll reprint some here so that you can forget about them, too.

Surgery

Surgery is better than medicine.
That’s why surgeons get paid more than physicians.
If I give you a medication,
You have to keep taking it.
But if I cut something out of you,
It’s gone forever.
But then maybe you’ll have to take
Some medication.

I used to be a plumber.
I could be a vascular surgeon.
It’s the same work,
But it pays better.
It’s usually cleaner
And doesn’t smell as much,
But that’s not always true.

I can use a snake to clear a clog
But in your arteries we give it a different name.
I can replace your pipes
And if I were a surgeon I wouldn’t even have to
Know how to solder.

I used to be carpenter
But now I’m an orthopedic surgeon.
The tools are pretty much the same
But smaller and prettier.
I love stainless steel and titanium.
The work is still the same
But I get more respect.
I get paid ten times as much
And no one complains about the bill –
Not to me, anyway;
No one wonders if I’m worth that much.
No one complains about the materials cost
And asks me if I could use something cheaper.
No one tells me they can get a hip for less at Menard’s
And asks me if I can install that one and only charge for labor.

Alphabet Soup

There is a poem waiting to be written
But I don’t know how to write it.
I’ve been in this hospital for ten years.
There are stories to tell
But I still don’t know how to tell them.

You come in with a medical history written in code.
CAD, DM II, CHF, ESRD on HD.
The we ask you what’s wrong
And make a diagnosis.
Diagnosis means telling you what you just told me,
but saying it in Greek and Latin.
Just because I can recite your symptoms in another language
I get paid in 6 figures. 
Well, not me
But someone like me.

We still don’t know how to fix it.
We can give you some drugs.
They’ll make some of the symptoms better
But only as long as you keep taking them.
The drugs will cause some other symptoms
But we have a drug for that.

We don’t use the word “drug”.
That’s how you know I’m not really a doctor.
If I were a doctor I would have said
“Medication”.
Drugs are what you take.
Medications are what we give you.

(3)

Ephemera

To The Best Of Our Knowledge is a program on National Public Radio. On the way to my ride Sunday they aired a program called “Poetry in a Troubled Time”. The program began with reactions to the pandemic, the “Troubled Time” to which the title refers. It opened with a pandemic poem by a writer in Lake Mills WI, which garnered national attention. I was riding to Lake Mills that day, so the program seemed apropos.

Charleis Bukowski wrote:

“all theories
like cliches
shot to hell,
all these small faces
looking up
beautiful and believing;
I wish to weep
but sorrow is
stupid.
I wish to believe but believe is a
graveyard. 
we have narrowed it down to
the butcherknife and the
mockingbird 
wish us
luck.”

Host Anne Strainchamps called the poem “pretty dark”. Charles Monroe-Kane took great hope in the phrase “wish us luck”. Strainchamps wanted the program to be about poetry “as a refuge, as a consolation”. Monroe-Kane noted, “…heartbreak is where poetry is. That’s where poetry comes in. That’s what it can do. Look, poetry also helps us in healing. You don’t need to be healed if you don’t have pain. You got to have an injury that need the healing, so there’s going to be a lot of injury in this as well.”

Edward Hirsch noted that all poetry is about death, in that it focuses on the ephemeral – “we are trying to save something that is passing.” Perhaps all of life is about death. Nostalgia is certainly about death. How much of our memory is an attempt to “save something that is passing”? To what extent is writing a blog the same – but a particularly ineffective form of trying to “save something that is passing”? We write and we post and (maybe) someone reads it on the day it is posted. While it is preserved on the internet, how often is it seen after those first days?

“Some things in life feel unendurable yet they have to be endured. They are unbearable, yet they have to be borne.” This was Hirsch’s purpose in writing an elegy to his son, but is also about life itself. We all encounter, at some time, something that feels unendurable, unbearable. Yet we (most of us) endure and bear and move forward in life. We don’t all write poems, but we endure. How do we move from endurance to embracing life again?

To what extent is embracing life embracing ephemera? I worked in radio in an era when it was not preserved. (I just listened to Sunday’s program and read its transcript to be sure I quoted people accurately.) What we did went out over the airwaves, live, at the speed of light. It came into your home instantaneously. The sound waves traveled to your ear and by then we had moved on. In the year 2000, my brother and I were each asked to reflect on our time in community radio – for him, the 1960s, for me the 1970s. He wrote “…you did it, you sent it out into the ether, and people heard it or didn’t. It was the ultimate in ephemerae, leaving a trace only in the minds of those who did it or heard it…”. I wrote “…the reason I enjoyed radio was its ephemeral quality. What I did went out over the airwaves and was gone.” (Neither of us knew what the other had written until the book was published.) Now I write a blog. Is it something about aging that I now try to preserve, not just experience, life? Or is life about sharing? Is it not enough to experience? Is it necessary to share that experience?

In 1976 or 7, I wrote in my journal: “It’s not the experience…it’s sharing the experience.” I was in the midst of something that seemed profound at the time. I was alone. I called a friend to come over. I knew then that the communication of the experience was as important to me as the experience itself. Communication….communion…community. Is it an accident that these words are so similar?

Baby you can drive my car

Not all cab drivers are psychotic killers. Travis Bickel (Robert DeNiro) just gave us a bad name.

In this town, cab drivers were all something else – students, artists, writers, lawyers, or our next mayor. Driving cab was a vehicle to something greater. (link to a totally unrelated post by that title. It is great, and I didn’t write it.)

A fare would get in my cab and ask, “What do you do?” If I said, “I drive cab”, all conversation would stop. Clearly, I wasn’t one of Those People. Driving was not a noble profession by itself. If I said, “I’m driving cab to pay the bills while I organize a grocery co-op. When the store opens, I’ll quit this and that will become my full time job” – for some people, that would open up an interesting line of conversation. For others, the conversation would stop dead because it was clear that I was one of those people (not to be confused with Those People).

But one day, I hit on the right answer…Once a year, this college town was transformed. Between summer and fall semesters, when the town emptied out, we were host to The Graduate School of Banking. Bankers would come from far and wide to learn the latest ways to exploit us.

This was back in the dark ages – before streaming, before DVDs, before VHS. There were campus film societies showing 16 mm prints of all sorts of movies – 1930s and 40s screwball comedies, 40s and 50s film noir, foreign and art films, last year’s releases that were now released in 16 mm – but for two weeks all were transformed into porn promotors. Yes, those bankers had heard all about hippies and free love and hoped to come here to have sex with a nubile coed. Barring that, they’d watch porn films and then go patronize the massage parlors. And they took cabs everywhere. Many of them would ask me for tips – hoping I had a sideline as a pimp. If they got into my cab, I’m sorry to say their sex life was in their own hand(s).

So I was was driving a carload of bankers from the airport to their dorm and one asked, “So what do you do?” Without thinking, I said, “I’m a grad student in Poli Sci.” They quickly asked what I thought of President Nixon. I pontificated all the way to campus. Outside the dorm, I flipped the meter flag over to waiting time (where it charges by the minute and not by the mile) and continued to hold forth. They sat in rapt attention, asking more and more questions. I was a paid political pundit. They thanked me and tipped me as they got out. Why hadn’t I thought of this before?

The conference ended and, early Saturday morning, I happened to drive by that dorm. I saw a couple guys standing out front. Now this is a town where you call a dispatcher who sends a cab; you don’t hail from the roadside. But they didn’t seem to know that and I pulled up and loaded my cab with bankers on their way to the airport. I dropped them and flew back to the dorm as fast as I thought I could get away with early on a Saturday morning. After three loads, another driver got wind of the situation and I had to share the wealth. For most of the summer, driving was a less-than-minimum-wage job, so I was gonna milk this for all I could.

Years later I took a course at City College called “Labor in Literature and the Arts”. There I was introduced to Sue Doro, who worked in an Allis Chalmers machine shop, building tractors and heavy equipment. She also wrote poetry – poetry for people who get their hands dirty. She published a collection of work poems called Blue Collar Goodbyes.

Poem too Tired for a Title

tired
as a
crumpled
lunch bag
home after work
the factory’s
sting
in my ears
i try
to smooth
myself
out
flatten
my wrinkles
and snap
myself
back into
life.

Sue Doro

I had to produce something for the course so I wrote one poem about each job I’d held. At least one has seen the light of day in these pages. I noticed there were a lot of cab driving poems out there, but I knew I had to write one. It was definitely the shortest of the bunch.

Obligatory Cab Driving Poem

People like me,
people who’ve worked a variety of
“interesting” jobs,
have all been cab drivers
at some time.

People like me,
people who write poems about their work,
all have to write about driving cab
at some time.

If you’ve heard
one cab driving story
you’ve heard ’em all.

Whew! One more poem
to cross off the list.

Happy Birthday, Lawrence Ferlinghetti (belated due to technical difficulties)

New Directions Publishing

I still remember the first time poetry made an impact on me. I was probably a high school freshman. I was reading Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Today (March 24, 2019), Mr Ferlinghetti turned 100. (If my mom were alive, she’d be a couple of months older than he…beyond that, I can’t think of anything they’d have in common.) He is not only a great poet, but runs one of the world’s great bookstores – City Lights, in San Francisco.

It was the day I learned of the power of language and the economy of words. The poem also became the climax of my best radio show: a 3.5 hour program called “Music and Poetry of San Francisco”. I showed up at the studio with a stack of books and records, a loose outline in mind. Each piece led to the next. I found the momentum building. Songs and poems started to choose themselves. The show ended with the Jefferson Airplane’s “Volunteers” and Ferlinghetti’s “Tentative Description of a Dinner Given to Promote the Impeachment of President Eisenhower”. As usual, the show wasn’t recorded, so you’ll have to take my word for it.

tentative

Try as I might, I can’t manage to upload the poem in a legible manner. The link above will take you to the poem. As for the Airplane, I already linked to that song in https://halffastcyclingclub.wordpress.com/2018/12/10/

You can go back there to hear it again. To recreate that experience from 1977 or so, pull up the poem link, read, and fade from one to the other.

And I think we just had our last snow of the season; five months after our first snow of the season in this odd, split polar vortex year. I was in La Crosse, WI for the weekend. There was snow on the ground and on the roofs up there. As we entered Madison, flurries welcomed us home. Crocus poking up through the snow look like spring. Daffodils through the snow just look sad.