Greeschlyn Can’t Fail

words and photography (c) 2013 by Benjamin J Spencer

When will you move?

A new town is called for.

You have your neat grass,
Your dew drops (you reason).

Then again you also have your stinging flies

And your defeated people
who look into empty, empty

shop windows,

Rubbing their hands together.

this is why You must move to Greeschlyn.
Greeschlyn cannot fail.

Why?

Greeschlyn has the most artfully glass-strewn of warehouses.

Greeschlyn’s water is pure lysergic acid.

Greeschlyn is glazed with two centuries of baker’s flour and petroleum

Greeschlyn’s young are clinically insane
(And They find this instructive)

In Greeschlyn, you can fish for starlight in cold, salty puddles
And eat moonlight cake with shy pledge-drive orphan kids

Greeschlyn

You see

Possesses those things that can strum your nerves like a lyre

And peel the skirt right off your pelvis

Momentous things
Glinting things.

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Reboot – Two Months on the Road

Hey all,

I’m rebooting this blog as a mostly-travel blog – although I will still post articles and creative writing pieces/poems, of course, while on the road.  Let’s just say that recently, it looks as if a major, long term travel-related project is in my imminent future (more on this later).

Now for those visitors to my blog who have paid attention, you have realized that I haven’t posted regularly lately.  Actually this would be generous. I have stopped and started and sputtered and roared and then, horribly, coughed to a dead stop like a cheap, pathetic old V-8.  Let  me assure you, this situation shall be remedied shortly.

Until the details are ironed out and I know a bit more about what the path ahead will entail for me (and my partner in crime and in life (gypsytrampthief.wordpress.com) –  I’ll be posting some of my favorite travel writing I’ve done over the years.  Hope you enjoy, and thanks for sticking with this blog even with my prolonged absence from its pages.

To officially kick off this new chapter in the evolving story of this persnickety beast of a blog, here is a video covering  the nearly two consecutive months of solid travel I notched up a couple of summers ago (June 1-  July 20th, 2011).  all around this beautiful U.S. of A

It was a long and rambling backpack from NYC to Bonnaroo Music Festival in Tennessee to San Diego, CA, to Yosemite Valley, and finally to the Oregon Coast, the Oregon Cascades and Willamette Valley. Pictures are by my brother, Chris Ten Eyck of San Diego, CA, and myself, BeejMcKay of New York, NY.

A Dedication

I found this dedication from the author in an original 1935 print of Eli Greifer’s “Poetic Lotions, Pills and Potions”, while I was sorting through the dollar carts at Strand Books:

To Moe

 -And may she find this volume helpful in sending her on the delightful path of sin – – or, if she is already dancing in the direction of the Deuce, may this book remove any sense of guilt, if such there be.

– The Devil’s Agent,

   Eli

Amarillo

words (c) 2012 by Benjamin J Spencer

photography (c) 2011 by Benjamin J Spencer

Amarillo

Amarillo was the place
most aptly named
Yellow,
the harshest exposure of
Yellow

The day empties
The light dies
Sand pours from my eyes
Carves my dreams in granite

Dreams carry
big animals

Cribs of white pearl
(thin, pink plastic mattresses)
Sag
on Threadbare carpets
Stained with
Grape soda,
Chip oil,
Beer water

The Corrections Officer paces the Supermarket aisles
Scanning.
Aisle 7: toilet paper,
dry, wrapped
In Pyramids
Aisle 11: aluminum foil
skin-ripping Teeth glinting Flourescent
He Scans down every aisle now – Faster
With
rising panic
No
Exit

Outside
In Twilit cracked Slab asphalt Parking Lots
Soft and silent drops the Snow
Splotching green vinyl seats
Through Rusted-open doors of Broke-down Mustangs

Amarillo was the place where
Our Road Trip
announced it’s eternal end
Our Metal frames
Drooped, exhausted, overheated
Panting and Hissing

In this Yellow
The hardest tone of Yellow

The Seal

words (c) 2012  Benjamin J Spencer

photos (c) 2007 Benjamin J Spencer

The Seal

He tries to stop doing this thing.
Reinventing himself.
Removing.

But he is in the tide now floating out

They say you pick one life and stay within its borders
Its mannerisms and memories
Its committed parameters
Its field of options.

In this way you can find
Happiness.

He floats facedown now past the breakers,
staring into his future
Toward bottom.

He supposes he must learn to breathe in what is down there
In that cool expanse below
And let it calcify him
He will stick with the scuttling crayfish
And let their curling tails drag across his face
And watch his sides slicken with algaes
And let the gravel nibble his surface to chalk

In time he will be a smooth, wise head
They would call him teacher…
Master, maybe

But who to revel?
His sainted mother GodRestHerSoul? No.
Better to float.

How many have offered him poles? Ropes and Preservers?
His preferred state is submersion,
They couldn’t have known.

Long ago at the shore
a riptide tugged at him
and his feet dragged free from flat sand
He saw them rise in front
His toes surmounting the rolling swells
Swells
Which made of his body a mere bauble rising and falling on the sea

He expelled from his lungs all of the oxygen
Every last bit.
and sank under.
In the second before blackness
Fear and attachment
kicked his nearly-dead weight up to the air

Why he tested his mortality in this way he could not say.
Only he believed that part of him
still tied to the land and the air
To be already dead

And it distressed him to need them so.
All of them
All of those scrabbling people
Fucking and killing and fucking and killing upon little scraps of
Dust

While he
A Seal

Sealed in self-nourishing layers
of Fat
and skin

Snout and whiskers to navigate
Silent
swift
solitary

Now abreast in cold wild waters,
Now hovering off of golden shorelines

A myth that the world only half-believes in.

For Benji

THE WRONG CHOICE – Tales of a Third-Grade Nothing, Part Two

THE WRONG CHOICE,

OR, Tales of a Third Grade Nothing, Part Two:

* * * * * * * * * *

My friends and I all had our favorite classroom locations and attitudes.

For example, on this particular morning, Eric sat by the large windows, staring out into the green courtyard dividing the two low cement buildings comprising our elementary school. The grass in the courtyard sprouted long and fat and wild and choked with overgrown yellow dandelions. It had rained and the colors bled silently into the grey sky.

I had assumed my favorite position as well: head down, arms folded, staring at my desktop. My own plan for  massing a rebellion among the third-grade students against the evil tyranny of one Ms. G. Smith had not gone so well, mainly because I hadn’t acted on it.

But I did credit myself with helping to craft an anti-establishment mood. Indeed, in the first signs of non-violent struggle several students had abstained from doing the short homework lab on ice crystals assigned by Ms. G. Smith, although in retrospect I’m not sure if these students would have completed the lab either way.

Normally quite a conscientious student, I myself had done little assigned work since I decided I was at war with my teacher, and the work I completed was shoddy. My mother was mystified when informed of this at a parent-teacher conference. Perhaps she hoped my self-destructive rebellion would go away on its own, because she never confronted me about it.

I was staring down at my desk because I  had just returned to Ms. G. Smith’s fourth grade classroom after a one-day vacation away for a youth writing conference held at Linfield College in the nearby town of McMinnville, Oregon, and I had not fared so well at this conference.

Now, I wasn’t sure which of my former teachers had picked me to be the representative from my elementary school, but I had been glad for the day off. Unfortunately I had not mentally prepared for the amount of work I would be expected to do, and I was thrown off by the rigor of the workshops and the lectures.

The worst part had turned out to be the public reading of our original works. For the conference I had been required to assemble a portfolio of my work and prepare an original short piece, be it a poem or a story. I had never written a poem before, so the night before the conference I came up with an off-the-cuff one about a priest – or maybe a wizard? – riding a horse through a medieval town in the middle of the night, delivering medicine or milk or something.

I hastily finished this literary gem in the shuttle van from my school to Linfield College that morning, and I thought it wasn’t half bad for the amount of time I had invested in it. Besides, it was part of my new nonchalance about school. I might do it, I might not. Either way I wouldn’t stress out.

At that time, of course,  I was unaware I would have to publicly present it, having failed to read the information packet that the conference organizers had sent me.

Only when I stood up to deliver the poem to a packed room of professors, teachers and other students at the conference did I discover that the little poem I had hastily scribbled off was not, in fact, pretty good under any theoretical reading you subjected it to, but instead, probably the worst thing ever committed to paper. E.E. Cummings would have shat all over this  poem.

Even more ominously for me and my literary reputation, other students had evidently worked for days, possibly weeks, agonizing over every word and phrase, conducting research in their public libraries, taking oratory classes, directing their mothers to buy them little grey suits with bowties, and generally producing poems and stories that bounced and sang and, as a bonus, were about something. Furthermore, they had practiced.

I, on the other hand,  had to rifle frantically through my backpack right before the presentation just to find the pathetic crumpled little half-page I had written, and when I reached the microphone my voice quavered as if I were going to burst into tears and my hands shook so badly I was soon forced to put the paper down on the lectern.

Then, sadly, I couldn’t read the words anymore, because I had written them in my usual tiny scrunched handwriting and they just sort of ran down the page into a trickle of unintelligible ink until finally disappearing into a smeary blur, just beyond the focusing range of the human eye. So I tried to remember the rest of it off the top of my head.

I never looked at the crowd once. To them it must have appeared as if a disheveled little mentally ill kid had wandered onto the stage and, head down, muttered to himself for two minutes.

When I finally finished to a sort of baffled and sporadic clapping from the audience (ludicrously generous, considering what had just transpired in front of them), I stalked out the doors, the crowd a fuzzy gaggle to the side of me.

I tramped all over the pleasantly wooded campus, seriously considering trying to walk back home or at least hitch a ride, neither of which I was confident I could do at nine years of age. So Instead I sat under a fat leafy tree in the warm sun, rubbing two quarters together in my pocket.

I debated over whether I would still go to the workshop scheduled for me across the campus. Could I simply blow it off? Why not? After all, I had never wanted to come to this thing in the first place. Somebody, I surmised (probably my old first grade and third grade teachers who loved me) had simply picked me as the student to go, and I knew that whatever my abilities, it was a bad choice.

Somewhere back in the pre-dawn of my life, I supposed, God had struck lightning into a tablet and decreed that I would be a writer, and the adults in my life did their best to help execute that decree. The only cog in the plan was that part of me that felt corralled, stifled. I did not want to feel obliged to participate anymore in someone else’s enthusiasm about my abilities, and I felt somehow resentful at being set apart from my classmates for the “honor” of attending this conference. Though my conscience whispered vaguely that I should feel grateful, I did not in the slightest. I felt pushed and pulled by others, encouraged and helped to the point of exhaustion. I wanted to be completely independent of their expectations, however well-meaning.

At the same time, though, it felt dangerously lonely to be out here in the quiet on the practically empty campus. I watched from my tree, an outsider, as the other kids dutifully shuffled back and forth from building to building.

Why couldn’t I be happy with my choice? After all, all these other kids were trying painfully to free-write and listen to lecturers tell them that it wasn’t too early to plan for college. I was free, out in nature. Why couldn’t I just live with my choice, be strong and decided about it?

I left the lawn with its huge trees and began pacing the path around the building – my building, the one I was supposed to be in at that moment. Moments later, I found myself at the entrance, and then inside the darkened lobby.

Still I could not bring myself to abandon my dream of independence quite yet. I stopped in front of a glowing red soda vending machine and stood there staring at it. The machine hummed warmly. The Cokes only cost a quarter! A barely glimpsed new world opened up before me; I thought about how fine it would be to buy one of those Cokes right then and there, with my own quarters that lay in my pocket.It was only a quarter, but it was mine. And so would the soda.

I bought two Cokes right there. Rejuvenated, I strode into the workshop Cokes in hand, gloriously late, and sat as far in the back as possible, trying to make the whole thing look as if I had planned it.

Of course, nobody cared or noticed. But I did. I felt as though a burden of responsibility had been lifted from my shoulders. I had failed! Henceforth, I would be utterly free to fail whenever and wherever I liked if it suited me. Still basking, I bought two more Cokes before the ride home.

But now, in a few moments, while I waited with my head down, I knew that I was meant to deliver a report about what I had learned.

The little Formica-slab desktop was heavily traumatized, scarred, and chipped into. Out of the dim I discerned words, etched deep in the white plastic during some other class, years before, while some other teacher besides mine, perhaps wearing bell-bottoms and earnest round John Lennon spectacles, attempted to seize the attention of 21 nine-year-olds. When particularly bored in class I read all of the words over and over again: F-U-C-K, one said, in jagged, evil death-metal letters dug right down through the laminate and into the wood.

I raised my head a little off the desk, lowered it again, slowly. The jagged letters swam out of focus.

I wonder a lot about the kid who carved that word there. Mostly I wonder about his motives: what could have been the all-consuming importance of this F-U-C-K to the one who labored to produce it under threat of expulsion? What unthinkable rebellions fomented in his brain? And: under what demonic influence had he dared to pass his innermost blasphemy on to future generations, and for what purpose? Was it simply for the joy of rebelling against some unwritten standard?

Suddenly I was standing in front of the class. I hadn’t anticipated that I would be required to speak about my experience, and bitterly I sensed it as a personal attack from Ms. G. Smith.

The lowness of it! So I stood there for a moment, struggling against the urge to say something nasty to the teacher, to all of them staring at me. The truth was that I had all but checked out of the writer’s conference after the poem presentation debacle, but I didn’t want to go into all that. So I produced one of the few experiences I could remember that was untainted by discomfort.

“It was really cool.” I told the class. “There were these Coke machines and they had Cokes for a quarter. I drank four of ‘em.”

The students all laughed. After a second, I joined in. We were nine years old, after all.

But Ms. G. Smith did not laugh.

“Is that all you can tell us about it, Mr. Spencer?”

A small part of my conscience recoiled as if slapped. No, of course not. There were workshops and speakers (and humiliations) I could go on all day about. But instead I just shrugged – a gesture fast becoming my favorite response to any question from a teacher.

Ms. G. Smith’s eyes hardened, but did not blaze. She only appeared thoughtful.

“Perhaps, then, I should have picked some other student to go to the conference.”

Now, I didn’t like Ms. G. Smith. I think that is well established by now. But still, her disappointment stabbed into me.

I shrugged nonchalantly again, but my face flushed. As quickly as the shame had come, anger – anger at myself for being ashamed, anger at the world that would place kids into such situations- replaced it.

What did I care?  I didn’t choose to go, and I hadn’t chosen to stand up and tell the class! And anyway, I hated Ms. G. Smith! Why should I ever care about her opinion?

For some reason I did care, though, and my shame had proved it. Suddenly I found I had no more heart for defiance.

I returned to my seat and brooded over my unfinished ice crystal lab. I imagined that I would barely pass the third grade.

* * * * * * * * * *

A CRACK ON THE HEAD: Tales from a Third Grade Nothing, Part One

A CRACK ON THE HEAD –

OR, Tales from a Third Grade Nothing, Part One

The students of my third-grade classroom are even quieter than usual for a Monday morning at 9:30 a.m.  My head down on folded arms, I create a dim little sanctuary into which only a few slivers of light seep.

In the back left corner of the room my best friend Eric Dusen is mostly asleep. His eyelids like canvas blinds half-drawn, his head positioned to his left, he stares out of the large classroom window at the steel February sky dripping rain and the mist hanging white over the grass. His mouth hangs slightly open. His head droops, dips, and jerks back up in a repeating loop motion, like a mechanical cuckoo clock.

Eric, shaken out of his bed by his mother half an hour earlier, had raced his beat-up Diamondback dirt bike two miles from the trailer park where he and his mother lived,  arriving five minutes late, curly orange-red hair flat on one side, red pillow lines crisscrossing one cheek. He has not responded our teacher, Ms G. Smith’s, repeated question. The question comes once more, forcefully. No response.

Ms. G. Smith sits very straight and still behind a grey metal desk, arms resting out in front of her, feet together and flat on the floor. Her feet are encased in thick-soled plain black shoes, the kind prescribed by a podiatrist, and her calves below her long dark skirt are hidden by volumes of sagging brown hose. Her grey lips flatten in disapproval, until the edges nearly curl under themselves like an iguana’s; her eyes blaze from deep within her skull.

She permits the silence to continue until it became awkward. All heads swivel toward my friend.  I looked defiantly down at my desk

Ms. G. Smith raises her arm above her head, then levels a powerful stroke down upon her metal desk with a previously unseen ruler. CRACK. Several other cuckoo heads pop up across the classroom.

“Mr. Dusen!”

Ms. G. Smith refers to her pupils by their surnames as if we are all little 9-year-old contracts law students in The Paper Chase, and she is John Houseman. Eric’s head snaps up from its position low on the mechanical cuckoo loop. He stares around wildly, still wrapped in the depths of some obscure nightmare.

“Mr. Dusen!” shouts Ms. G. Smith, verging on a snarl. “Stand up!”

Eric struggles to his feet. The ledge of overhead fluorescent lights, harshly out of order on this soft grey day, beat dully upon his head. A serene pond of drool gleams on his desktop.

“Come here.”

Whispering and giggling begins here and there in the classroom. Ms. G. Smith makes no effort to quell it. 

Eric is a strange kid. From atop his head springs what could only be described as a bright orange-red afro: I later learn his ancestry is Norwegian, a genetic stock for which afros are not exactly common. His skin is pale as a manta ray’s underbelly and completely covered in freckles. He sometimes sings to himself snatches of songs which nobody can identify, and after class he often reads thick hardcover books with titles like “Demon Lord of Karanda”.

Teachers tell his mother that Eric can’t focus or engage in classroom activities, that he can’t spell, that his handwriting is atrocious, that he is always tardy – but most troubling of all, they say (lowering their voices), he concocts outlandish jokes and visual gags that roll through the classroom like comic napalm and got the kids riled up and cackling and out of their control. This deep, dry sense of humor – well beyond his years –  saves him from the peer ridicule his strangeness would normally invite.

During his first week at our school he had barely spoken. By the next Monday, he was playing kickball with some of the kids I hung out with from my neighborhood. And that Friday, perhaps sensing a kindred spirit, he had asked me to stay over at his house that night to watch movies and play Nintendo.

Now, I was also a strange kid. I distrusted new people. I was both dreadfully shy and extremely lazy, preferring to remain wrapped up in my own worlds. This forced socialization seemed a lot of effort, and there is always so much chance in new friendships. It was easier and safer to stay with the ones that you saw all the time around your neighborhood. So instead of answering him clearly, I  mumbled, “maybe”, and then went home quickly after class.

Later that night, I had nearly forgotten the invitation, when suddenly I heard my name in a conversation my mother was having on the phone in the next room. Suddenly she brought the phone in.

“Somebody named Eric would like to speak to you,” she said, giving me a strange look. “He wants to know if you’re coming over tonight.”

Eric had told his mother that he was having a new friend over, and when I hadn’t called or shown up to confirm, his mother had combed through the parent phone tree from my school to find my number.

I couldn’t quite pinpoint my emotion at the time. But in hindsight, it’s clear to me now that I was ashamed of myself. My shame probably facilitated our new friendship as much as bonhomie; and that’s how we ended up hanging out.

That night, we played Nintendo, downed an entire half-gallon of ice cream between us, watched movies, and snored on the floor in sleeping bags in front of Eric’s console T.V.

Most glorious of all, the next morning, for breakfast we ate Crunchberries.  Despite all number of fits and emotional breakdowns on the part of me and my younger brothers, my mother absolutely would not buy Crunchberries – citing some flimsy science about the evils of artificial colors and flavors – science, incidentally, that I trusted far less than the prophets of the television commercials during Saturday morning cartoons. That morning I devoured two bowls and decided Crunchberries were the best thing ever invented.

Eric became my best friend not for some cinematic reason, not because he ever stood up with me against bullies or helped me through the death of my dog; but because of Nintendo and ice cream and Crunchberries and basketball and the occasional game of fly-up or soccer. I also dug his attitude.

He cared little about school. Poo-poohing homework, he preferred to spend his days beating trails through the woods behind his trailer park and constructing dueling swords out of PVC pipe, foam and duct tape.  In the classroom he did only the work he chose to do, the work that interested him, and slacked off the rest of the time. This fascinated me.

For me, school had been a roller coaster of conflicting desires and emotions. On one hand, I loved receiving praise from my teachers and my parents. I thrived on this praise and strove to make every assignment perfect, to read every book in our school’s Scholastic youth book order catalog (I and another student won ice cream sundaes every year in a competition for being far and away the school’s most voracious readers). But, at the same time, school felt very limiting. I was convinced early on that a much wider world lay in wait that had nothing to do with sitting in a classroom. An enterprising kid, I thought, could find all the adventure and learning he would ever need out there.

But when I attempted to emulate Eric’s posture I couldn’t quite succeed. I still cared too much. I didn’t want to disappoint others. So instead, I began to serve as the straight man in the comedy duo of Dusen and Spencer.

Before the faculty banned electronic devices on our campus, kids would bring stereos to listen to during recess or after school on the basketball court. Amid the fifth and sixth-graders’ predictable late ‘80s Beastie Boys and hair metal one could always distinguish the dulcet tones of Eric’s “Weird Al” Yankovic tapes. Soon I could sing those “Weird Al” songs by heart; Eric and I often performed them a capella during long field trip bus rides to the amusement of the other kids (and the chagrin of the bus driver).

At recess one day, using flips we’d perfected on Eric’s backyard trampoline, we had a whole class of first-graders convinced that we were traveling circus acrobats who had just stopped by the school to entertain them. Never once had I seen my best friend lose his swagger. He just didn’t care about the approval of adults.

But now, standing in front of Ms. G. Smith, his expression resembles a kid who has just lost control of his bike and is preparing to crash into the curb.

Ms. G. Smith gestures for Eric to come down to her level. He obediently bends down to look her in the face. Then, slowly, she reaches over with one arm and raps – hard –  on his forehead with her knuckles.

“Hello?” she sings mockingly. “Is anybody in there? Hello! Anybody home?

She raps on his head again, gleefully. Her voice echoes harshly through the class, which falls immediately, deathly quiet. Nobody, not one student, laughs or even smiles. We just stare.

Teachers are not supposed to do this, I thought. She can’t do this, can she? Not to Eric!

Ms. Smith smiles a smile that includes no one in the world but her. She enjoys this.

“You may go back to your seat, Mr. Dusen.”

Eric straightens up and walks quickly back to his desk and sits down. He looks at  no one, and nobody looks at him.

But as he walks back I  see the bright red blood swelling up his neck and pouring into his cheeks and steaming up to the very crown of his skull like the needle on a thermometer in a Warner Brothers cartoon. His orange-red hair seems dull in comparison to this mighty shame-betraying flush.

To my dismay, I see that he cannot shake this one off. She now knows exactly how to get to him. She has exposed his weaknesses, forcing him, for the first time in my memory, to stop laughing.

Eric does care. He cares a great deal.