James Henry

I just heard the news that my friend, James Henry, passed away.

I met James at last summer's Oregon Writing Project at Willamette University. James was an amazing man in many ways. He was remarkably social, engaging everyone immediately with his warmth. He was so open that his humility took you by surprise; just when you felt you were starting to get to know this unassuming, kind man, he surprised you with the kind of detail most people would lead with, like the fact that he'd won a silver medal at the Paralympic Games in Barcelona. Walking down the streets of Salem on some of our writing field trips, Jim would run into a stunning number of friends. It seemed everyone knew him, and for good reason; James could make a friend in an instant, and then would maintain that friendship. He continued to correspond with me after the OWP, sending me some of his writing and critiquing mine. James was hit by a car while riding his bike some weeks ago, and suffered sever injuries. He was in a medically-induced coma, but, last I heard, it seemed like he was going to pull through, and I looked forward to many more years of friendship. I'm shaken by this sudden loss and surprised by how much Jim came to mean to me in such a short time. Here's a poem Jim read last summer at the OWP. I liked it so much that I had him email it to me, and now I'm so glad I did, so I can share this little treasure he gave me:


Because I have one arm, people stare.
Because people stare, they remember me.

Because I have one arm, swimming is difficult.
Through difficulty I’ve learned the patience of fish.

Because I have one arm, strangers ask how.
Because they ask, I turn strangers to friends.

Because I have one arm, people judge.
Because people judge, I don’t judge people.

Because I have one arm, some things are impossible.
Rather than quit, I master the possible.

Without my left arm, my body has limits.
My body has limits, not I.

--James Henry

Best of OWP: Total Eclipse: The Literary Merit of the Burger King Whopper

I thought I'd post the pieces of my portfolio for the Oregon Writing Project Summer Institute at Willamette University here. I hope someone enjoys these, gets a flavor for just how valuable the Oregon Writing Project was for me, and decides to check out their own local chapter of the National Writing Project. We were assigned to write an essay, and this was what, er, came out.

Total Eclipse: The Literary Merit of the Burger King Whopper

Walk into any Burger King, and you’ll be drowned in a tsunami of images from the new movie Eclipse, the third part in the Twilight series. To say this is unappetizing is a wild understatement. However, the association with fast food is all too apt. I read Stephanie Meyer’s whole series, and it ran through me much as a Burger King Whopper might.

The series was recommended to me in the highest terms. My students loved it. My colleagues loved it. Like the Whopper, it was ubiquitous, and like Burger King’s advertising, it was pervasive. The marketing barrage was the literary world’s equivalent of a fast food ad campaign. Pundits for the industry were talking about the series as the next Harry Potter, the next savior sent from heaven to stave off the imminent death of reading. “Look at all these kids reading,” they said. “Any reading is good reading,” they said. Imagine a PR ad wherein the Burger King, complete with his creepy, fixed-grin plastic head, came riding through the sky, swinging from the cables carrying giant crates of Whoppers, airlifted and then dropped into the barren fields of some famine stricken African nation. Because all Whoppers is better than no Whoppers, right?

But I bought it. I picked up the first book, tore through it, and enjoyed the pure speed of it. I’d purchased a Whopper, and, sure enough, it had come to the counter still heat-lamp-hot in less than thirty seconds. Twilight recreated that regret I often feel right after buying a burger and forgetting to tell them to hold the mayo. The first portion revolved mostly around romance, which just isn’t my thing, but I recognize that reasonable people can disagree about the virtues of mayonnaise. Sure, I can make a reasonable argument against mayonnaise (it spoils quickly, it can carry salmonella, it looks remarkably like puss) but it’s just a condiment. Short of a localized disease outbreak or contributing to the national obesity epidemic, romance literature poses no social ills either. Twilight was a vampire story, and some measure of whipped up, possibly infectious, puss-filled romance is to be expected in such stories. Still, I like vampires for what their stories can tell us about; the dangers of forbidden love, the curse of immortality, the Faustian bargain of power for soul. It seemed Twilight might have some things to say about these dilemmas re-set in an American high school, with all its issues, and I thought that might be interesting.

Like the Whopper, it tasted pretty good at the time. The second book introduced werewolves, predictably, but then, much about a Whopper is predictable, too. No avocado or pineapple or gruyere cheese hiding between buns made of some strange, organic whole grain. A Whopper is what you expect, and New Moon followed the same path, complete with the vampire pretending to dump the girl in order to protect her from himself. Sometimes you might belch while eating your Whopper, and this kind of schmaltzy melancholy plot twist is the hint of nausea one expects.

By the time the beef is gone and you’re wrapping up that last bite of bun and American cheese in the wax paper, you start to wonder why you bought the Whopper in the first place, and by Eclipse I was realizing the same regret. The werewolves and vampires had fought which was the event I’d come for, and I should have stopped there. But at this point I was invested. The Whopper was mostly in my gullet, though the lack of development of Bella’s character stuck in my throat like a bit of that smooshed, dry bun. I had to swallow the rest and hope for the best.

And I did. I read Breaking Dawn, desperate to know how Meyer would resolve the story (down, damned Whopper, down! Settle!) all the while hating every plot twist. I can spoil the story for you here because, like a Whopper, you’ll forget that it’s an unpleasant experience and revisit the books in a moment of weakness. To summarize, Bella, the protagonist, has been begging to be turned into a vampire by her boyfriend, but he wants to abstain until marriage, so she marries him when she’s just turned 18, she gets knocked-up on the honeymoon, and then she gets super-mom powers that save the day.

At that point the Whopper was mostly only giving me indigestion. I could feel a gurgling in my gut because of what had been done to one of my favorite myths; dangerous creatures of the nights defanged and turned into morose, whining adolescents who can’t walk around in the daylight, not because it would turn them into piles of ash, but because their skin would sparkle in the sun like they rolled around in body glitter. And the werewolves can change at will and aren’t cursed by the full moon! I tried to remind myself that myths, like Whoppers, are made to order each time they’re retold. But I also remembered that one Whopper is often one too many.

As the Whopper proceeded through its journey, the experience got worse. The further I got from that Burger King, the more I regretted my choice to enter in the first place. Sure, the vampire community had a right to be pissed about the way they were depicted in the books, but I became more and more concerned with the messages the books sent to my young female students. I hesitate to even mention the word “diarrhea”. There’s just no mature way to discuss “the runs”. Maturity is expressed in our culture by refraining from discussing diarrhea above all else. But Whoppers can have a stool-softening effect, and Stephanie Meyer’s series was a Whopper that sat under the heat lamp just a little too long. Bella, the protagonist, begins by describing herself as perpetually klutzy, and throughout the series she always requires rescuing. In fact, her first meeting with Edward, her vampire love interest, is the occasion of her first rescue when she walks across a parking lot without paying attention to oncoming traffic. From then on, she’s being saved, and not just from cars, enemy vampires, out of control werewolves, and her boyfriend’s own dangerous passions. More than anything, Bella needs to be saved from herself. For every admirable thing she does, she makes three boneheaded decisions, fails to communicate openly and honestly with the people who care about her and can help her, and stumbles into life-threatening danger because she’s swooning about a boy. But the biggest danger of all, we’re told, is Bella’s own sexual desire. Sex is simultaneously represented by the metaphor of a vampire bite and by sex itself, and Bella wants both. While some might say it’s a kind of progress to depict a girl who wants sex, this is always presented as negative in that it’s life-threatening. If Bella gets her boyfriend too turned on, he’ll kill her. Luckily, she’s rescued from this by his strength of will. She’s found a boyfriend who will say no to a hot girl begging to have sex. This might be a fantasy of a particular kind of religious, conservative girl, but I would bet good money that girl will find a vampire before she finds a human boy with such restraint.

Of course, if abstinence is the real conflict, then marriage is the resolution, and when Bella gets married the danger of her sexual desire disappears. Now sex is the vehicle by which she can find satisfaction, right? Ha! She gets laid once. Once! Then she’s knocked up and… wait for it… her pregnancy is really dangerous. I wonder how Bella will pass through that danger. Oh yeah, she’ll be rescued, once again, by her husband.

And then she’s a mom, and since motherhood is the measure of a woman’s worth, she gets super-powers and saves the day. Yea.

If you aren’t sympathizing with the burning sensation yet, check this out: The boyfriend who keeps saving Bella from herself because he loves her so much is 87 years older than she is. That’s right, girls, if you want to find a nice guy who will protect you from your own sluttiness, make an honest woman out of you, and then give you the baby and super-powers deluxe package, just keep your eye out for the town pedophile.

Now those clever marketing guys in Hollywood know that it’s important to keep the Twilight films dribbling out just slowly enough that you can’t quite get off the toilet before the next wave hits. So here I am, still on the pot, my elbows propped on my knees for so long I’ll have bruises. But I’m over-analyzing the situation, you yell through the door. Why can’t you just enjoy it? I’ll tell you why. In the long run, the Whopper is generally not the pleasurable experience we’re told to expect. And Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series really chaps my hide.

Best of OWP: "Self-Portrait Across the Street from the Art Museum"

I thought I'd post the pieces of my portfolio for the Oregon Writing Project Summer Institute at Willamette University here. I hope someone enjoys these, gets a flavor for just how valuable the Oregon Writing Project was for me, and decides to check out their own local chapter of the National Writing Project. I wrote this one during one of our field trips at Willson Park on the west side of the Oregon State Capitol grounds.

Willson Park - Share on Ovi

Self-Portrait Across the Street from the Art Museum

I almost fall
Folded up into a broken bench.
Startled smoke from my cigarette
Wraps around my head
Before I can ground the butt under the ball of my foot.
The fountain shouts, “Shush!”
Or maybe “Shame on you!”

I don’t know if it’s talking to me
Or the noisy buses on the street
Or the gaggle of teens juggling
The hacky-sack with their skate shoes
Or the twin turbo prop cutting and clawing sky
Or the politicians in the capital building behind me
Who certainly don’t care what the fountain thinks.

Maybe it’s shushing the strange sculptures
Of dark metal animals
“Animals on Parade”
A beaver, ferrets, two alligators, a pair of frogs sharing stilts.
The parade needs no shushing because it doesn’t speak to me.

At least not as loudly
As the empty gazebo
That needs a paint job
And a purpose
Out of place in time in this park.

As the next cigarette catches fire
And holds it
The gutter-punk kids startle me
Toss a firecracker
Yellow and white sparks darting off
To high pitched popping and a tired, bored “woo.”

I remember an overheard
“Your self-portrait is way off.”
And I know that is possible.

Maybe everyone’s self image is
A decaying gazebo, a self-important fountain
A capital building without a dome
Metal animals in a motionless parade
A discarded firecracker interrupting the arc of a hacky-sack
A ring of fancy flagpoles
Holding up unintelligible fabric limp in no wind.

If so, I’m no exception.
I am Dr. Watson
In the Sherlock Holmes mystery of my self,
Feet buried three cigarettes deep
Falling ass-first
Through a broken park bench.

Best of OWP: "Grandpa's Ring"

I thought I'd post the pieces of my portfolio for the Oregon Writing Project Summer Institute at Willamette University here, one piece per day. I hope someone enjoys these, gets a flavor for just how valuable the Oregon Writing Project was for me, and decides to check out their own local chapter of the National Writing Project.

Grandpa’s Ring

His ring was very thin by the end.
The gold wore down
As he moved around the world
Did amazing things
Lived a life too unbelievably full for fiction.
When he was gone
My mother wanted me to have it.
We put two white-gold bands on either side.
I slid it on my finger on my wedding day
Twisting it over my knuckle.
Talismans skip a generation.
My parents own their objects of power.
I have mine because Mom gave me her father’s.
The ring cannot fit over my knuckle.
My son will not wear it while I am alive.
After I am gone
Will a grandchild carry my grandfather
To far away places
And take me along too?

Best of OWP: Dancing in Pink and Green

I thought I'd post the pieces of my portfolio for the Oregon Writing Project Summer Institute at Willamette University here, one piece per day, but due to a congenital lack of discipline it seems I'm posting them every other day. I hope someone enjoys these, gets a flavor for just how valuable the Oregon Writing Project was for me, and decides to check out their own local chapter of the National Writing Project. For your Friday the 13th pleasure, a horrific visual image inspired by the prompt to write about dancing.

Dancing in Pink and Green

Dancing, for me, has so often been about a mixture of feelings, fun and self-consciousness, curiosity and a sense that I am out of place. I remember the sixth grade dance when I attended a school where I was an ethnic minority. My mom bought me the most awful outfit. I can’t remember now if it was pastel green pants, a pink shirt, and a pastel green tie, or the reverse, but she thought it was something out of Miami Vice and would be really cool. So here I was, one of the few white kids, dressed in the worst clothes I’ve ever worn in my life, trying to copy the dances of my peers who knew all these moves I’d never even seen before. That sense of awkwardness is the feeling I associate with being white, more than anything else. When my friends got tired of laughing at me, they made a project of teaching me these dance moves, the kid’n’play, the bone breaker, the butterfly, the pop-n-lock, the kid’n’play 2 (yes, a dance move from a movie sequel), and by the end of the event (I think it happened during the school day, come to think of it) I was having so much fun and felt so included that I can almost forget the discomfort of those first few minutes. At one point, my friend Darius even expressed some admiration for the way I performed some move, and I still remember that to this day, though now I realize he was probably being kind, or perhaps mocking me in a way that was too subtle for me to get. Still, it gave me the confidence to keep going to dances at schools where I was one of the only white kids, and it gave me a sense of freedom to know I could make a fool of myself and never look quite as awkward as I did in those terrible clothes my mom bought.

Best of OWP: A Rainy Night in Paris

I thought I'd post the pieces of my portfolio for the Oregon Writing Project Summer Institute at Willamette University here, one piece per day, until I've shared them all. Then I went to a conference in Portland and immediately missed a day. So much for blogging discipline. I hope someone enjoys these, gets a flavor for just how valuable the Oregon Writing Project was for me, and decides to check out their own local chapter of the National Writing Project. This piece was a product of a prompt to create a "super-sentence". I've heard them described as "one sentence stories", but mine's more of a one sentence essay. We were provided with some titles to write to, and I chose "A Rainy Night in Paris" since it was the day after Bastille Day.

A Rainy Night in Paris

Last night I learned that, on the day of the storming of the Bastille, Louis the XVI wrote “Rien” in his diary, shorthand for “Nothing happened today”, which we might dismiss as the scribbling of an out-of-touch monarch, but that would be a mistake, because it illustrates the way the things we overlook, some poorly planned act of rebellion on a rainy night in Paris, or flipping-off the wrong person on the freeway, or writing a single strong sentence, can change the course of history.

Best of OWP: I Loved the Noise

I thought I'd post the pieces of my portfolio for the Oregon Writing Project Summer Institute at Willamette University here, one piece per day, until I've shared them all. Some were already posted as I wrote them, and I won't republish them with their minor revisions. I hope someone enjoys these, gets a flavor for just how valuable the Oregon Writing Project was for me, and decides to check out their own local chapter of the National Writing Project.

I Loved the Noise

I loved the belted-out answers
Students abandoning raised hands
The wide grins because their thinking was good
It was good!
And someone finally told them so.
I loved the side conversation
The speed of the cellphones whipped out and hidden again
when I scowled
The kid who wrote down things I said out-of-context
and read the list at the end of the year.
I loved the groans about reading Shakespeare
The laughter about the innuendo
The lust for violence
The heartbreak at all the right places
The gnashing of teeth when we had to close the book for the day.
I loved the writing
And the writing
And the begging for a little more time to write,
The desperation to share
The feigned reluctance to do so
Which, when overcome, melted like wax
Remolded into something obviously rehearsed
Beloved, approved of by all.
But mostly I loved the noise
The energy expressed in an increasing buzz of volume
And the challenge of giving directions
Without making that urge to noise
That will to think out loud
Go away completely.
“But” they said.

“Everyone seemed to be on task
Interested, engaged, invested

It was too loud in your class.”

From the OWP: The Better Teacher

Here's a little piece I wrote today at the Oregon Writing Project. Now I just need to figure out how to track down this former teacher to share it with her.

The Better Teacher

Mrs. Green was a better teacher than I’ll ever be. Only a few years from retirement, she’d watched Withrow High School change from the segregated, all white, highest quality school in Cincinnati Public, to the low-income, all-black school of middling quality, to its current renaissance as the IB magnet serving the now upper-middle class black neighborhood and the few white kids being bussed in by parents who’d white-flighted out a generation before. She commanded the room with utmost authority but always made us all feel valued. A lot of this power came from her ability to recognize our individual needs. Some students needed, more than anything, to break free from the use of double negatives. Others needed to expand their vocabularies with the lists she gave us each Monday and the tests each Friday. I needed a dose of humility.

Mrs. Green could have broken me down. She could have told me, in front of everyone, that I wasn’t as great as I thought I was, that I wasn’t all that and a bag of chips, that I ought to get over myself. I can imagine her remonstrance mimicked in the halls by students who, despite my best efforts to despise them, were right to look askance at the weirdo white kid in the trench coat with the spikes in the epaulets, hiding in his earphones and a paperback novel from the library. He was a freak, angry and scared and full of himself. Mrs. Green could see all of that. She was able to look beyond the arrogance that manifested most fully in her class, where I felt most comfortable with my abilities, and see the kid who was terrified of everything else.

One day she asked me to stay after class. I don’t think I’d been acting out that day. Maybe I’d rolled my eyes one time too many, maybe answered too many questions. More likely, I’d checked out, complete with the slouch that advertised my withdrawal. I don’t remember students “oooo”ing when she asked me to wait, which inclines me to believe she did it in a careful, subtle way.

“Ben,” she said, “I can’t teach you how to be a better writer. You’re already a better writer than I am. But I know some people who can.” And she marched me down to the library and explained how our class would work for the rest of the school year. It was the fall, so this seemed like an eternity. Her plan was simple. Every few days she’d assign me another book to read. When I finished, I had to write her a paper on each one. She knew I could tear through them in a couple days. She didn’t know that I was not, and still am not, a fast reader, and that I kept up this pace by reading on the bus (an hour long ride each way), at home where I hid from the comfortable, overly-perfect suburban life I hated, and yes, in my other classes, where the subjects didn’t come as easily. What she did know was that I would chafe at the idea that the writers she exposed me to were better than me. I would fight back. She wanted me to fight back, to criticize their work, to argue that I could do a better job. I think she had this plan from the beginning.

When I told her I didn’t like a book, she had me read another by the same author. I didn’t like The Scarlet Letter. “Six pages and six years pass with no dialogue,” I whined.

“You didn’t like it? Read The House of the Seven Gables.”

I didn’t like the first book she gave me by Thomas Hardy. So she made me read Far From the Maddening Crowd. I read Turgenev. I read Camus. The more I criticized, the more I read, and now I see that she subtly directed my criticisms, not only pushing me to look deeper but also guiding me to examine the skills she wanted me to work on. Hardy and Hawthorne didn’t make me a better writer. Mrs. Green did. But she never said so.

I don’t think I could tell a student they are a better writer than I am, so I’m not sure I’ll ever be as good a teacher as Mrs. Green. But I can admit that she taught me more than writing. She taught me about teaching.

New Poem from OWP about Noah: "Keeping the Fire"

Today, at the Oregon Writing Project, we were asked to read "The Lightkeeper" by Carloyn Forché and write about who keeps the light on for us. I wrote this poem about my son.

Keeping the Fire

We’re the good guys.
We’re keeping the fire.
The man and the boy used this sacred mantra
To carry them down McCarthy’s Road
And when I put down the book
I hugged Noah fiercely
Then waited till he slept
Kissed his forehead
And thanked him.
He once needed me
To change his diapers
To keep him warm
To feed him
To sing, sometimes for hours, until he slept
To wake in the middle of the night to make sure his chest rose and fell
But I always needed him more.
I will always need him more.
He makes me keep the fire.

Assignment for OWP: Artist's Statement

Today we went to the art museum on the Willamette University campus. Our assignment was to read an "Artist's Statement" on a plaque on the wall, then find a painting and write a fictional variation by a different artist. Here's mine. I should say that I not only made up much of the biographical information about the painter, but also shifted the date of the painting itself from 1949 back to 1944.

Artist’s Statement
Based on “Driftage” by William Givler

Driftage - Share on Ovi

Five years into my position as the dean of the Museum Art School in Portland, I suppose I was getting something of an itch. I’d been teaching there since ’31, so, after 13 years, academia had not only lost some of its luster, but it had begun to rub some of the sheen off of my love for art itself. This bled into my personal life, or perhaps my failing marriage soured my attitude towards work, but by the summer of ’44 I needed a break. Plus, the war was going on. It seemed like the world was going to hell on every level.

A friend let me borrow his beach house that summer, and I set up my easel, prepared my paints, then found myself taking long walks on the beach by day and having one scotch more than I should each evening. I’d listen to swing music and think about how those happy sounds reached the ears of former students of mine stationed in England or Hawaii, or in the bellies of steel leviathans swimming through the Pacific toward Japanese artillery nests. The happier the song, the more bitter the static sounded, like the hissing and popping of great distance, and the whispers of the hollow nature of words about love.

One day I started to paint a pleasant sunset, and I could hear the tinny voices and forced rhymes of love songs in every crashing wave in the painting. Out of frustration, I splattered dark brown-gray paint over the sun, then swirled the thick spots into a giant piece of driftwood on the beach. The soft pink clouds became bloodstained harbingers of a coming storm. I added my wife in the foreground, her back to me, hair whipping in the wind. Exceeding the impressionism of the rest of the painting, her hand looks particularly unfinished. That’s because I stopped there, stepped back, and looked at what I’d done. Not only had I eclipsed the sun, but I’d filled the world with horror. I wanted to reach into the painting, to take my wife’s hand, to finish it with my own.

The painting itself went on to win awards, to find fancy homes for itself, first in galleries, then in private collections, then museums. But it did me a greater service. The painting sent me home from the beach, back to the job I’d forgotten I enjoyed, back to the art I’d committed to, back to the wife I love.

And I left the scotch behind to warm my friend’s cold beach house. I didn’t need it anymore.