Archive for October, 2006

My friend Amy is coming to visit for a few days, and in her honor, I would like to retell her absolutely true story of “The Laundry Burglar.”  It’s a Thanksgiving story but its scary elements work well for Halloween too.  I never tire of hearing it.  I’ll try to do it justice. All the coolest parts (such as the term ‘donut-eatin’ cops’) are hers and hers alone, and this story works best  if you imagine it told in a Tennessee accent. 


It was Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, and Amy was tired to the bone.  She’d known, abstractly, that teaching in an inner city Baltimore public school was going to be difficult, but the actual experience was something else altogether.  Now, at the end of a short week, she kept herself going by focusing only on the immediate hour or two ahead.  School had been a half-day, but she’d stayed late to try to get some grading done.  Finally, as dusk was falling, she walked home, and met her two roommates loading suitcases into the back of a taxi.  They were already heading out for the holiday.  Hugs all around:  Goodbye, have a great trip! Goodbye!  Amy herself wouldn’t be leaving until very early the next morning.

Amy lived in a rowhouse, which for all you West Coasters is exactly what it sounds like:  a house that is connected to the other houses all down the block.  Row houses are skinny, tall, and built of brick.  As Amy climbed the steps to her front door, she was already plotting how the evening would go.  She’d run up to the top floor to get some of the laundry that had been piling up all week.  Then she’d run down two levels to the basement, where the washer and dryer were.  Then she’d run back up and start packing, and maybe get a little more work done before starting the next load.  Everything went according to plan until she got to the third phase, getting stuff done.  She sat on her bed to work, rubbed her eyes, and next thing she knew, it was the middle of the night.

Oh no!  Her plan was totally messed up! Well, she still had a few hours before she had to leave for the airport.  All was not lost.  First, she needed to get those soggy clothes out of the washer, so she stumbled downstairs and pulled the chain to turn on the basement light.  She spent a few seconds staring into the washer before the facts dawned on her with a chill: the washer was empty!  Out of the corner of her eye she caught a glimpse of her clothes, which were neatly folded on top of the dryer.  Amy had definitely not dried and folded those clothes.  


Her first idea was to run out into the alley through the basement door and go for help.  Whoever had folded her clothes was probably still in the house, and she didn’t want to be wandering through it alone.  All she could think about was that thriller she had seen, where the murderer straightens the entire house before attacking.  Amy made for the basement door and had her hand on the knob before she realized that she didn’t know anyone in Baltimore, at least no one that she felt comfortable waking at two in the morning.  It also didn’t seem that much safer to be wandering the streets alone, in the rain, at such an hour.  She grabbed a rake off the wall and ran back up two flights of stairs to get to the cell phone in her room.   She made short work of pushing furniture against the door once she was safely in, and dialed 911.

“There’s a stranger in the house,” she told the operator. “How do I know?  Well, whoever it is folded my laundry while I was sleeping.”  The dubious silence on the other end of the line frustrated Amy, and she started mentally scripting a complaint letter to the government.  “Look, could you just send someone over to check it out?  I’m here alone and I KNOW I did not fold that laundry.”  Amy waited awhile, and soon enough she heard a knock on the front door downstairs.  She grabbed her rake and made sure the coast was clear before she answered the door for two police officers standing on the steps.

Baltimore is not known for having the most competent police force in the lower 48, but even so it was clear to Amy that they had dispatched the B-team. The pair was already grinning and they were two of the most donut-eatin’ cops she had ever had the pleasure of meeting.


Cop A:  Soooo, we hear you got a laundry burglar.

Cop B:  Take us to the scene of the crime! 

The cops decided not to turn on the lights, and instead swept their flashlights around the main level of the darkened house.  Amy wasn’t feeling very reassured.  She’d spent the waiting time creating elaborate theories about the stranger, his dangerousness, and his location in the house. She grabbed a kitchen knife as they inspected the kitchen and made sure she was between the two cops on the trip down to the basement.   Cop A started crooning like he was calling a kitten.

Cop A: Laaaaaauuuunnnnndry burglar!  La- La- La laundry burglar!

The two officers aimed their flashlights at the pile of folded laundry.

Cop B:  Well, well!  I wish the laundry burglar would come to my house!

Cop A:  Yeah, he could teach my wife a thing or two!

Amy was disgusted.  She walked with them to the top level and decided to wait in her barricaded room while they checked the rest of the house.  She listened to their heavy footfalls moving up and down the stairs and through the rooms, torn between curiosity and fear.  Then, suddenly, there was a scream and a thump.  More screams– Amy couldn’t stand it, she had to see what was going on.  She rushed out of her room and into her roommate’s room, where all the noise was coming from.

Cop A was screaming.  Cop B was screaming, and had dropped his flashlight.  A third person was also screaming; this person was in her roommate’s bed.  She looked closer, and it was in fact her roommate, who had been startled awake by a wide, looming figure shining a flashlight on her face.  Her scream had started a chain reaction. 

Once the lights were on and everyone was calm, it came out that Amy’s roommate had dropped off her luggage at a friend’s and returned to finish up a few chores that night.  She had folded Amy’s clothes so she could do some laundry herself.  By the time the story was straight and the sheepish cops gone, Amy had to leave for Tennessee.  She walked in the door of her childhood home exhausted and bedraggled. “You won’t believe the horrible thing that just happened to me,” she announced to her entire extended family.  She launched into the story and it gradually dawned on her that instead of gasps and sympathetic sighs, the room was filling with laughter.  Finally she started laughing, too.



image credits: 

laundry basket —




Spotted in a Christian Book Distributor catalog:

First part of the ad text: “He’s cute! He’s cuddly! He’s a prayer warrior!” This strikes me as so funny. I suppose it’s possible that there are children who would enjoy playing– I mean, praying — with this stuffed stalwart of the faith. Tickle Me Elmo got pretty popular, but I never understood that one, either.

O.K. I just found a most embarrassing error on the resume I have sent out to, oh, thirty places. For one of my bullet points I “assessessed” things. Cringerific! To make myself feel better I will only do quizzes.

Quiz 1 (courtesy of Karen Joy):
Logo There are:
people with my name
in the U.S.A.

How many have your name?

Quiz 2 (courtesy of Schuyler, though I did contribute a few questions back in the day)

  1. What is worse: Going to your favorite restaurant, ordering your favorite steak only underneath the steak is a scabby band-aid. Or?finding five ticks embedded in each armpit
  2. Do you like me?I don’t even know you.
  3. What percent of all paper clips that you come in contact with do you unfold?66.6% But you should have asked what percentage of pencils I deliberately break.
  4. What are your five favorite movies? (Legally Blonde does not count)
    The Princess Bride, Room With a View, So I Married an Ax Murderer, Lord of the Rings, Seven Samurai
  5. Have you ever left a pair of underwear in the forest?
  6. If zombies were real, would you be afraid of them?Only if they were in my time zone.
  7. How many Cold Cut Combos could you eat in a day?Six inch or twelve inch? 1 or .5, respectively
  8. How many times have you lost your keys in an article of clothing you are wearing?I have this long black coat that had a hole in the pocket seam. My keys used to drop down inside the lining and bang my shin. So, too numerous to count.
  9. Do you like almonds?That’s pronounced aaammins, and yes.
  10. Does God exist?My sources say yes.
  11. Is there something better than pie?How about a pie inside a cheesecake?
  12. What were/are the economic, social, and political consequences of Marbury vs. Madison?Madison got a major city named after him/her
  13. Age?About what you’d expect
  14. Sex?About what you’d expect
  15. Location?
    Latitude: 33° 30′ North
    Longitude: 112° 05′ West
  16. In your opinion, is there always room for one more?No.
  17. What do you need more of?People actually answering the phone at the Maryland MVA
  18. How do you feel when you are stuck in traffic and a motorcycle drives by between the lanes?Motorcyclists do not affect my emotional health.
  19. Do you want a Cadillac Escalade?No
  20. What are your feelings regarding 25cent hot dog night?I wish that existed.
  21. How often do you take public transportation?Once a month
  22. When you were 16 did you find Monty Python hilarious? Do you find them hilarious now?
    Yes. Yes, especially the skit where they smack each other with fish. But Steven Wright is the funniest comedian of all. “I sometimes wish that when I was a baby, my first word was ‘quote.’ That way when I’m about to die, I could say ‘unquote.’” (I may be misremembering the exact words, but the idea is there).
  23. Which is scarier: 1) As you are being put under anesthesia for a big, hairy operation, you find out that Mo, Larry, and Curly are assisting -or- 2) You are locked in a room and are forced to watch an endless loop of the same episode of Gilligan’s IslandI don’t want to answer
  24. What is the biggest risk you are facing at this very moment?That I will waste too much time on this quiz and get to my job interview late.
  25. Can you ever have too much money?Only if you keep all of it for yourself.
  26. Black and Blue or Black and Tan?I’m partial to a celadon and glossy white palette at the moment.
  27. Have you ever kissed a boy on the lips?
  28. Have you ever kissed a girl on the lips?Yes
  29. If they made the movie of your life, what would the title of the movie be?The Shaggy D.A.
  30. How many camels fit on the head of a pin?
    I need more data
  31. Who do you like better … Ben or Jerry?
    Whoever gives me the most free stuff
  32. How many chapters will your book have?It will have thematic sections, not chapters.
  33. What is your favorite color?I like that red color like the inside of people’s mouths, but only in small doses.
  34. What is the air speed velocity of an unladen swallow?There’s no such thing. Swallows must carry the burdens of their upbringing, like every other bird.
  35. How long do you have to drive continually before you start going insane?I start talking to myself after about four minutes, does that count?
  36. Boxers or Briefs?
    Depends on the pants.
  37. What is the most important meal of the day?
    The one that includes the most guacamole
  38. Are you a Toys (backwards)R Us Kid?No, I’m not even allowed to go in there.
  39. snow skiing: a great sport, or the greatest sport?
    I’ll just put you down for “a great sport.”
  40. can you lick your elbow?No.
  41. did you just try to lick your elbow or did you already know that it is physically impossible to do that?What’s wrong with verifying something you suspect to be true?
  42. Will you be in my punk band?OK, but I can’t sing and clap at the same time.
  43. Even if my punk band is named POLE-DANCING HEMATOMA?I want the band to be called The Saltines.
  44. Is Crisco OK?How do they get it so white? that would affect my answer.
  45. How many times per minute must you remind yourself, “I am not my job”?
  46. Is M. Night Shmalayan lame?He tries pretty hard.
  47. Were you hugged enough?yes.
  48. Are you hugged enough?yes.
  50. Why don’t you own a gas mask? Seriously.I don’t even own duct tape.
  51. The Unitatis Redintegratio document of the Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council is desperately important because…Now people can see the embroidery on the front of the priest’s garb?
  52. Eminem or not?not.
  53. If you’re a white person, and you don’t listen to much hip-hop, and yet you like the Beastie Boys, what is wrong with you? Don’t you realize that the Beastie Boys ARE ELVIS?
    I don’t listen to the Beastie Boys.
  54. Are you trying to perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect? If not, whatever else could you possibly be doing with your life that is so important it could keep you from trying to be perfect as your Father is perfect?Yes.
  55. How many minutes “ahead” or “behind” is your watch set for?No Watch.
  56. Where have you been?
    I’ve stumbled on the sides of twelve misty mountains, I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways, etc.
  57. Name?O’Rangelo and LeMongelo have a nice ring to them.
  58. How far away from your home town do you live and how far away would you like to live?I don’t really have a hometown anymore.
  59. In your opinion, is expensive champagne really better than cheap champagne?Not enough experience in champagne to say.
  60. How sad would you be if you ran over a cat?Depends if it got hurt. If I could check my stride mid-step and sort of leap over it, then not sad at all. I’d be proud of my quick reflexes and coordination.
  61. If you were a parasite, would you rather spend your gestational stage in the innards of a cow or the innards of a caterpillar?Caterpillar. The caterpillar would treat me better.
  62. How high does your volume knob go?I only have an on/off switch.
  63. Totally rad, totally rockin, or totally sick?totally rockin.
  64. What do you know about the Hood of death from Psalm 23?not sure, even though I wrote this question.
  65. Have you ever followed an exercise regimen to strengthen your core? (include responses to all five W’s in your answer)yes, it was painful and I quit after six weeks.
  66. If the only kinds of candy left on the planet were m and ms (original), reeses pieces, and skittles, which variety would be most likely to survive the ensuing struggle for survival?Skittles have the most structural integrity.
  67. Top three power ballads?Bon Jovi– I’ll be There for You; Every Rose Has It’s Thorn; Queen– Somebody to Love I have to go to my job interview now.
  68. Explain the statement “God is good.” Support your position.

High-quality, with some kindess thrown in.

69.  You must be world champion at something. What is it?

I know how to take a really good nap.  I’m a great napper. 

70.  What is the first pop, rock, or rap song you choreographed dance moves to? What was your signature move?

One I remember is The Pointer Sisters “Jump (For My Love)”, in which I perfected a jump-then-collapse-then-jump-again move.

71. If you’re in a relationship, and you and your significant other could redistribute your combined existing weight between the two of you (the girl could give 10 pounds to the guy, or vice versa, of any amount), what do you mutually decide to do?

Oh dear! I guess I’d take a little of his, if I could pick where I put it. 

  1. House, or Gray’s Anatomy?

Dont’ watch either

  1. Antz, or A Bug’s Life?

Whichever one has Woody Allen

  1. Paris Hilton, or Nicole Richie?

Don’t watch either

  1. Toward, or towards?

Toward. “S” gets more than its fair share of appearances in words  (see my resume error, above).

  1. Loving and losing, or never loving at all?

loving and losing

  1. Coffee, or tea?


  1. Or me?

Are you a hot beverage?  If you are caffeine free, non-acidic, low in sugar, and highly flavorful, you might have a chance.

  1. Why do people ever waste money on weddings?

Let me help you, your bias is showing.

This morning, climbing up the hill behind our house as doves, quail, lizards, and snakes leapt away from my oncoming feet, a recurring idea of mine re-recurred. It’s not an original idea but I find it fun to mull over: how much does the landscape affect one’s perception of How Things Really Are? Like, is the world full of possibility and opportunity, or something to be survived through great struggle and suffering? Do we have a sense of enveloping abundance, or looming menace? These are false dichotomies, but gimme a break, I’m just throwing out examples. I’m not up to the task of philosophizing at great length, so instead I’ll do an inventory of how I’ve been landscapeified.

Ages Birth to Two: Los Angeles basin. I don’t remember much from this era, if anything. A sense of ease and mildness. My parents took me to the ocean and when you’re that small, you have to assume that everything you experience is normative, the way things are supposed to be. So I think I have a semi-conscious belief that everywhere I live should be bordered by restless waters.

Ages Two to Fourteen: Small logging town below a mountain in Northern California. I remember the smell of pine trees everywhere. We used to build forts out of fallen branches and piled up pine needles. My hands would get covered with sap from tree-climbing and it would stick there for a couple days. My parents took us kids out rock climbing, hiking, camping, skiing, swimming, and fishing. They taught us wilderness survival skills and what you could eat in the forest. The whole world was cool and shady, and nothing could sneak up on you.

Ages Fourteen to Eighteen: Near an active volcano in a hot, sunny, agricultural valley (still Northern California). Driving in any direction from town, I’d pass by orchards of olives and nuts. The tree trunks were so carefully spaced that they’d create pulsing optical illusions as I went past. Open fields were dotted with basalt boulders that had blown out of the volcano, and slick lava channels in the hills had turned into creeks with underwater tunnels. They fed into wide, flat, straight rivers that flowed through the valleys. We’d ride down them for miles on inner tubes. For field trips we’d go to the volcano and climb down in the cindercone or visit Bumpass Hell, the boiling, sulfurous mudpot area where some explorers had run into trouble. The mix of textures in the enviroment in general hinted at upheaval, the unexpected hidden below the prosperous soil.

Ages Eighteen to Twenty-Four: Another agricultural valley, this time in Oregon. I will save this and other landscapes for a later installment.

It’s two a.m. and I’m still hopped up on a chai latte I drank five hours ago. I’m thinking about garbage. We live at the end of a dead-end street. The opposite end, which intersects with a big road, has a very wide shoulder and a sign that says NO DUMPING. Propped against this sign is a green toilet and a giant stuffed cat. Or maybe I’d call it more of a cat-shaped pillow, white, with whiskers sticking out of the face part. It has a cute little smile. The cat is about the size of a small couch cushion and it seems to enjoy its pseudo-life. Kids and people waiting for the bus seem to enjoy moving the cat and the toilet around. One day, the cat will be perched jauntily inside the bowl. The next day, the toilet will be tipped over on its side, with the cat reclining against it. Recently a rusty old washing machine, a bike tire, and a bag of trash joined the toilet-cat combo, so now the cat has many more interesting places to perch.

For some reason I notice the flagrant dumping more at night, when the pile of junk gets caught in the flare of headlights as I turn onto the street; perhaps it’s because the objects no longer compete with the hillside or the traffic or the wild blue sky. It’s always interesting to see what configuration the stuff will take– will the toilet be hidden behind the washing machine? How far will the washing machine travel? The palette of burnt orange, avocado, and ( increasingly dirty) white works well, but how will the artistes keep the bulk of the largest objects from overwhelming the smaller ones? It’s like a private, constantly changing art exhibit. Once I saw a pair of ring-tailed cats contributing their own efforts to the piece, before racing off up the hillside. Once i had to slam on the brakes for a big black snake making right for it. That cat keeps on smiling.

I found a very thorough article via Arts and Letters Daily that answered my questions on the contributions versus costs of undocumented immigrants.  They contribute, according to this author, about 7 billion to social security that they never claim.  In addition, they pay enough property and sales tax to fund their children’s education.  Overall, the author claims, the cost to the public is a wash. However, native-born residents of border states do end up paying over $1000 a year to support newcomers.  Full article here:

Immigration Nation by Tamar Jacoby, in the Journal of Foreign Affairs.

At my new church, the pastor has been doing a long sermon series on how to love. It is practical and often wise, and I like it best when he structures his messages around metaphor; a well chosen image can be a far better container for meaning than simple exposition. Thus I have passed the weeks saying to myself, “Go up into the house of perfected love. Abide in the house of perfected love.” This was the central metaphor from the first sermon I ever heard him give. It is a house built of God himself.

This whole time I’ve been hoping for a message on how to respond when there’s no payoff for choosing love. I’m not sure how this particular pastor feels about taking suggestions from the peanut gallery, so I’ll pose my question here. For example, maybe the people to whom you have been providing food and medical care beat a few people on your team almost to death, as happened recently to Kelsey in Sudan. Maybe a father disowns his adult child and eventually dies, having never come around to reconciliation. Maybe a spouse moves ahead with the divorce, a teenager commits suicide, a government imprisons and oppresses its people. Maybe nothing ever changes. Does this mean our love is worthless?

This problem of lack of visible results has often been a stumbling block in my own search for faith, in part because my denomination, The Vineyard, teaches its people to expect God: in particular, to expect God to speak, to act, and to heal, often with immediate results. I’m glad my church teaches this sense of expectation, as it serves as a corrective to the lack of hope sometimes found among Christians. But the experience of any Christian life reveals that things don’t always work out immediately, and only seldom the way we expect. Things don’t always work out, period. So how does one develop a faith that is strong and flexible enough to both expect good things and keep steady through months, years, and even generations without breakthroughs or results? Last Sunday, to encourage us, the pastor guaranteed that we would reap what we sowed. If we sowed love, we would eventually get love back. I hope he wasn’t guaranteeing us tangible results in the people and situations around us. I think he meant something like this:

“Jesus does not promise that when we bless our enemies and do good to them they will not despitefully use and persecute us. They certainly will. But not even that can hurt or overcome us, so long as we pray for them. For if we pray for them, we are taking their distress and poverty, their guilt and perdition, upon ourselves, and pleading to God for them. We are doing vicariously for them what they cannot do for themselves. Every insult they utter only serves to bind us more closely to God and them. Their persecution of us only serves to bring them nearer to reconciliation with God and to further the triumphs of love.”

– Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from his book The Cost of Discipleship. I ran across it again the other day in Marilynne Robinson’s book, The Death of Adam. Bonhoeffer was a pastor and theologian in Nazi Germany, and was executed by the Nazis.

My vote for the best street gang dance-off ever (beating out both Grease and West Side Story) is Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” video, even though most of the dancing happens after they make up. That swaying handclasp at about minute 3 is awesome.

Most unfortunate song lyric in an otherwise pretty rockin’, honkey tonk live set I saw last night: “Prance around me like a pony on cocaine.” Um… right. I leaned over to Dr. G and said, “Yeah, honey! How come YOU never prance around me like a pony on cocaine?” He replied (totally off-topic, I might add. I guess he has taken to heart the advice McNamara gave in The Fog of War: answer the question that you wish they had asked you) ,”Do I need to call PETA? Were any animals harmed in the making of this song lyric?”

Here’s special message from the White Stripes, going out on my behalf to all y’all who are near and dear to my heart but far-flung in the world. Click the link below to to play the clip.  (let me know if it doesn’t work, I’m experimenting with a new feature….)

My Doorbell

Well. I finally made it through the Arizona Proposition Pamphlet, or whatever it’s called. Arizona is one of those states where anyone can propose new legislation for the ballot as long as they get enough petition signatures. The result is a scattershot collection of propositions covering everything from unused lottery money to pig stalls. Dr. G went through the book first and kept his choices a secret from me until I had made mine. “I will say this much,” he said. “According to this book the worst person you could be in this state is a gay, undocumented, immigrant smoker.”
Right when we moved here I began to notice the prominence of the undocumented immigrant issue. In crime-ridden cities such as Baltimore, every politician has to at least pose as being “tough on crime.” In this large border state, every politician must swear up and down his or her commitment to handling the “illegal problem.” Even ordinary, non-political people seem to worry about it. I don’t really get the sense of urgency and panic. Yes, for the sake of national security its important to have a well-monitored border. Yes, it’s best if all people living here can benefit from the protection of the law and contribute responsibly to the community. But where does this sense of beleaguerment come from? From the tone of some of the public dialogue, you’d think the citizenry couldn’t even open its front doors to pick up the paper off its porches due to the unwashed masses pressing against them. “I’m sorry, Howard, you won’t be able to review the box scores this moring! The illegals have overrun the yard, and they have pitchforks. It’s been days and we’re almost out of clean water. I think I’ll try to parachute to the Circle K from the second story after midnight.”
Based on the voter pamphlet, it seems there is a contigent of Arizonans who believe that the best response to undocumented immigration is to make life as miserable as possible for people who can’t prove they belong here. There are initiatives to prohibit people from suing for punitive damages; from taking English classes; from enrolling their children in state-subsidized child care; and so on.
My initial impression is that this kind of stuff is just plain mean-spirited. I’ve heard the argument that people who don’t contribute to the tax system should not be able to benefit from our services, our government, or our protection in any way. They’re just a buncha dirty cheaters, sneaking over here without permission. We don’t want them to assimilate, work, contribute– none of that. We want them to be as poor and as isolated and as big a long-term burden on the healthcare system as possible! I wonder how much money these folks, who identify illegals as a huge drain on our resources, are willing to spend on apprehending and deporting undocumented immigrants. It would be interesting to tally up the projected costs of enforcing their various prohibitive initiatives and compare them with the actual public costs incurred by undocumented immigrants and their children.
Other big issues in the pamphlet, as Dr. G’s comment would indicate, are bans on public smoking and a one-man-one-woman marriage amendment. And, oh yes, something where everyone who votes is automatically entered into a raffle to win a million dollars of leftover lottery money. Bring it, baby! In the final tally, Dr. G and I agreed on all but 4 measures. (Yes on bigger stalls for cute widdle piggies! Didn’t you read Charlotte’s Web, Dr. G?).

Every day, people who never eat escargot or go to the opera read poetry and like it. They aren’t necessarily wise, or soulful, or artsy, or well-trained, or weird, or dedicated. They don’t have to be suckers for shmaltz. They just find some poems that they like, and they read them. Then they say, “Huh! Good poem,” and go about their business.
Somehow, a lot of us have gotten the idea that poetry is difficult, and only for the chosen few. According to this theory, if you are going to read poetry “the right way” you’ve got to be really smart and learn a bunch of rules. But everybody, whether they know it or not, likes poetry. I can say this with confidence for the same reason I can say that everybody likes music. It’s such a big category that any individual is bound to find something meaningful, so long as he can avoid disqualifying himself from the search.

I used to go to wine tasting events with a friend who had, for many years, been a wine buyer for fancy restaurants. It was intimidating to go out with her because she knew all kinds of stuff about vintages and grape seasons and topnotes and finishes and whatnot. But she reassured me that wine tasting isn’t so hard. You just put a little wine in your mouth and see if you like it. If you do, try to remember which one it is. Later, you can work on identifying what it is that you like about certain wines– the sweetness? the peppery zing? the fruity smell? But everyone starts with a simple yes or no.

Her advice about wine tasting also transfers to poetry. A good poem will always capture your attention up front with something pleasing, interesting, or beautiful. It might be the images it scrolls across your inner vision. It might be the sounds of the words or the rhythm of the lines. You don’t necessarily have to know what it is you like, and you don’t have to understand all its complexities and shades of meaning. You just have to take note: this poem is inviting me in. I like it.
Sometimes you can read a poem once and be satisfied, and move on to the sports roundup or the top ten lists. Other poems might draw you back again and again, because you sense there is something else there, some tiny but steady tug. For me, Wallace Stevens’ poems are often that way. I love them right off because they sound great and play around so much (how cool a title is “The Emperor of Ice Cream“?). I don’t usually “get” them on the first take, if ever. But they make such a good first impression, and the characters and voices draw me back, to see what will happen when I read it this time. I may feel a certain darkness behind the bright colors that I want to explore.

I don’t consider myself a bad reader if I look at or hear a poem one time, take it at face value, and abandon it. Some poems are no good. Some poems are only good enough for one time. Some poems are may be good enough for more, but I’m busy, or tired, or looking for something different. Big deal. I don’t have to know the deep dark secrets of every poem and be its best friend forever.
If a regular person did want to read some poems once in awhile, where could they be found? It used to be, a few generations ago, that most of the major newspapers printed poems and poetry reviews. That custom has gone the way of the soda fountain, but all is not lost. Here are some links for anyone wanting to encounter good poetry now and again:

  • Poetry Daily– a new poem selected from recent literary journals every day.
  • Poet’s Choice– The Washington Post runs a regular column in which a poet (current columnist: Robert Pinsky) picks a poem he or she enjoys, and talks about it a bit. (free registration required)
  • Poetry– If you want a regular source of poetry in your mailbox, I recommend this journal. It is a good size to tuck into a purse or briefcase, it’s monthly, and it’s full of variety in its poetry and wit in its commentary. It runs half-off subscription specials in April.
  • The Favorite Poem Project-- Has videos and recordings of regular people reciting their favorite poems.
  • If you want to search for or look up a poem, a good place to start is the Poetry Foundation’s website or the Academy of American Poets. Poetry X has a good archive too, and on Bartelby you can find stuff that is now in the public domain.
  • And Sarah has reminded me of the Writer’s Almanac, which will send a daily poem to your email inbox. (Thanks, Sarah)