Thursday, November 21st 2002

Today, I institute Joanne Pratt Day
posted @ 6:29 pm in [ ]
Joanne Pratt was one of my best friends. Had she not died of cancer on July 31, she would have been 32 today. I plan to go on celebrating her birthday every year, just as I did when she was alive, so today I invite you to join me. Joanne was an amazing and inspiring woman. I am richer for having known her; she changed my spirit for the better. In retrospect, knowing her has become all the more precious to me since her life was so short.

Because this is the first annual Joanne Pratt Day, I think it’s important to tell you about who she was and what she was like. Before I get into that, though, Joanne was never one for overwrought, sad stories (any more than I am), and she thought gatherings without food or alcohol or… something were a total bust. So to be true to her memory, before I tell you about Joanne, go get a drink and/or a bag of chips or spark up a fatty or something. Get a Guinness if you have it. She would want you to be comfortable and happy. We’ll wait.

I first met Joanne on the steps of 132 Beacon Street in Boston in September of 1988. It was our freshman year at Emerson College and we were both 17. She had wavy bright red hair and blue eyes and her arms were kind of wrapped around her knees as she sat on the steps. I was coming into the building to meet a new friend, I don’t remember who. I didn’t realize at first that Joanne was blind, or that she was crying. I asked her if she was okay, and we started talking. I forget what we talked about, but I never had a conversation with Joanne, even a short one, that wasn’t fun or meaningful or just plain cool.

Joanne had a terrific mellow voice, and indeed a very laid-back personality. Her greatest talent, next to her writing, was probably surfing the shitstorm of life. She suffered dozens of heartaches, romantic and otherwise, in the time that I knew her, and she never let it change her. Every time she fell in love was like the first, as if she had never, ever been hurt. Whenever bad things would happen to her, she would just go on with her life, do what had to be done, get back on the proverbial horse. One of the things I loved most about her was her incredible ability not to be hurt by life.

Above all else, though, Joanne was a fun and rowdy low-bullshit lady. She had a great sense of humor, a whole palette of terrific laughs, and was always up for a good time. She didn’t give a rat’s ass what other people thought of her, but she demanded to be treated with dignity at all times. Most of the time I spent with Joanne really was spent with her. We frequently just hung out and talked and laughed, or ran the occasional errand. I probably spent the least money and did the least work of any of my social interactions, ever, and got the most out of them.

Joanne is also the inventor of the Orgasmacycle, a bicycle with a self-powered vibrator for a seat. We thought about trying to put it into production, but figured everyone would just end up in ditches by the sides of roads, pedaling and pedaling and pedaling… Still, it was the kind of hilarious and imaginitive idea she came up with on a regular basis. She was also quite a wiseass. We were in the liquor store one time when she got carded, and she told them her driver’s license had been taken away because of too many parking tickets.

It also knocked me out, of course, that Joanne lived a pretty normal life without the use of her sight. Considering how visual our society is, it’s amazing that anybody does. The ways in which she adapted, though, and the clever things she did, and her perspective, really changed the way I thought about a lot of stuff. And as a writer, Joanne was the first of my contemporaries to influence my own work. She wrote her own stuff in braille notebooks, but could also type about 80 words a minute and would type up all her assignments.

Joanne left Emerson after our freshman year. She frequently did things like blowing off writing class because she wanted to finish a terrific play she was working on. College didn’t make a lot of sense to her, but she probably expected it to later in life. In the meantime, she did go to school for massage, which she was really great at, as one might expect.

When I got married in 1995, Joanne was one of my bridesmaids. She was the only one with the presence of mind to bring alcohol to the hotel room where we were getting dressed, and man did I ever need a belt! She brought a magnum of champagne, that winning creature. I also spent a bunch of holidays with her and always had a great time. What a sense of occasion.

Less than two months after my wedding, Joanne left the man she had been living with and promptly discovered she was pregnant. Having a baby (alone, no less) was one of many things Joanne did with courage and joy and that I haven’t yet been able to do myself. She always had such a fountain of love to give, I knew she would be a wonderful mom, and she was. Alex was her heart, and he is a brilliant and amazing little boy. Her mother is raising him now, and she reported that Joanne had prepared him very well for what was going to happen.

When I talked to Joanne about a year ago, she was doing chemotherapy and it seemed to be going well. She had already beaten cancer more than once in her short life, and by April, I was sure she had done it again. Her mother told me that Joanne got sick again during her last month of life and was gone in a matter of weeks. I didn’t know, though–she didn’t tell her friends. I wish I had gotten to see her, or at least talk to her, just a little bit more. I didn’t have any real unfinished business–she knew I loved her, she knew I admired her and that she was one of my best friends. She probably just wanted me to remember her as she was before she got sick.

I found out Joanne had died while I was at a conference in Portland, Oregon. She died peacefully with all her family around her. It was important to me to do something to mark her passing, to send her off to the next adventure–another thing she bravely did before me–but I was pretty far from home and the people I loved. I had started to make friends with two really special guys I met at the conference. The three of us have a lot in common and we got pretty close pretty fast. We found an Irish pub where I raised a Guinness to her and I told them about her. I knew she would have liked that. Hell, if she had been there, she probably would have been half-drunk and in one of their laps.

Anyway, I’m not really over losing Joanne yet and I still really miss her. I expected her to bury me, not to die when we were still young. I treasure the 14 years we got, even if it wasn’t really enough. I’m not Christian, but if I pictured Joanne in Heaven, she’d be singing Led Zeppelin songs in a campy operatic soprano voice and giggling like crazy, like we used to do.

So, since it’s Joanne Pratt Day, I urge you all to have a belt with me and toast her memory. Do something brave, say something funny, write something good, listen to some great music, kiss a total stranger like you mean it, goose the waiter and pretend it was an accident because you’re blind. She’d appreciate that. As for me, I’m going to find something poetic and fearless in myself and have a beer with it.

Here’s to Joanne.

Tuesday, November 19th 2002

Convocation Speech 2001
posted @ 11:53 am in [ ]
Since my late-September posting of the speech I have at the University of Denver’s 1999 Convocation, some folks, knowing I was President of the Graduate Student Association for three years, have asked what became of the other speeches. Well, there was no 2000 speech, because the Powers that Be decided that not enough students came to Convocation, so they would no longer be invited. Yup, the 2000 Convocation was basically a glorified staff meeting, with about 10,000 students, a giant segment of the community, left off The List. How d’ya like them apples?! Well, President of the All Undergraduate Student Association Tony Ryan and I didn’t think much of them at all. Due in part to our grousing, a new Convocation concept was introduced in 2001. It was more of a showcasey outdoor thing with booths than it was an academic event. I wanted to call it “D.U. on a Stick”, but nobody went for it.

So, in short, there was no speech for 2000 because there was no Convocation that year to which students were invited. However, I was reminded of my 2001 speech just today, so I’m posting it here. I gave this speech about 3 weeks after the September 11th attacks. I’m pleased with how it came out, and it even reflects a sort of patriotism that I was experiencing for the first time, having been born during the Vietnam War.

Ocean Journey, by the way, is Denver’s aquarium. It’s new and struggling, rather overpriced and with very few exhibits. Since many of Denver’s area businesses are generous and into charitable giving, some of them had been trying to help Ocean Journey stay, er, afloat. This has resulted in a glitzier look and a proliferation of corporate logos, but at the time of this speech, nothing substantive.

Odysseus of Many Devices
(Address to Student Convocation, October 1, 2001)

Two years ago today, I stood before some of you and delivered a speech about the coming of the year 2000, and what it had come to mean in my generation�s collective imagination. In keeping with the theme of years, I tried to come up with something related to 2002, or even 2001, but the only thing that comes to mind is, of course, �2001: A Space Odyssey�. �Why are you applying to graduate schools, Dave?� just doesn�t work as a tie-in.

It is my opinion that 2001 will instead be remembered as the year when the world changed, when global considerations took our minds away from visually stunning movies and dreams of the stars. As we begin to try to make sense of the horrific events of September 11th, our thinking is more like that of the original Odyssey than of a science fiction movie. The rhetoric of battle comes to us on a daily basis. We face struggle as we try to journey home to safety, although in our case, safety at home is a state of mind disrupted by the explosion of passenger aircraft and the massacre of citizens, and Ocean Journey is a haven for giant otters and corporate logos.

Odysseus is a special kind of hero. Like most heroes of legend, he is big and strong and courageous and has a beautiful yet functional home and a desirable and faithful lifepartner with a gift for entertaining. What is special about Odysseus, though, is that he is clever. He is often referred to as �Odysseus of many devices.� �Odysseus of many devices,� he is frequently asked by his crew, �What are you doing?� Clearly, he is constructing some kind of device, but he always patiently explains his plans to his crew, who then give him a hand with the implementation. Ultimately, it is not Odysseus� brawn or his bravery that gets him home. It is his persistence in his heart�s desire to return and his cleverness. He escapes captors, he creates tools and weapons, he calculates his way past the prototypical �rock and a hard place,� and he even identifies himself to his wife upon his return by passing her verbally administered tests.

Odysseus is a particularly pertinent hero today because the nature of human conflict has again changed, even if our tendency toward it has not. The battle lines of the current conflict exist less in territories and among states than they do in our hearts and minds. The eastern front of this conflict is not a heavily-armed line of sandbags and barbed wire; it is conceptual. It is wherever in the world we expect to find a small band of men responsible for the attacks.

This is already a war of cleverness. The attacks of September 11th were as well-planned as they were deadly. The attackers took into consideration America�s greatest strengths and turned them against her: total faith in homeland security, wealth, size, freedom of movement. A few men armed with knives and a corrupted ideology accomplished what an entire military could not.

In a terrain of ideological battle, a strong infantry is no substitute for a powerful intellect. If we are fighting hate and the very concept of terrorism, strategy and creative thinking are the keys to victory, and howitzers will not be particularly useful. Cleverness, not firepower, will bring an end to this conflict with the least amount of grief and loss. The best way, then, to strengthen our respective countries at this time of change and conflict is to strengthen our minds and examine our hearts, to seek to be ourselves masters of many devices. The very path we are on as students, working to train our minds and increase our knowledge, is the path of the victorious, in the current conflict and beyond it.

Two years ago today, I stood before some of you and predicted a networking of graduate students on this campus using the devices of technology and electronic [intelligence], and it has come to be. I predicted larger gatherings between us that would serve to break down the barriers between interdisciplinary discussion and interaction that we might share our ideas and devices with each other, and that, too, came to be. Even as a few aspects of the larger University�s growth have occasionally created unforeseen disagreement, graduate students are coming together in greater numbers and with a greater sense of community and singularity of purpose than they have in this university�s recent memory.

GSAC�s mission remains to continue to foster that coming together, that community, that purpose. We believe our voice contributes to the University�s future in important ways. Most of us are here, after all, because we are in love with ideas. What greater pleasure could there be than offering up our ideas, the devices of our own construction, and watching them improve our own community and our own experience, even in small and subtle ways?

GSAC would like to thank all the members of the University community who have drawn upon our perspective over the last two years. It is a statement of faith in the University of Denver itself that we all believe in its ability to select and train good thinkers. We look forward to further collaboration, and to the construction of many more devices for the greater benefit. May we all return home to safety soon.

Monday, November 11th 2002

Moving the Engine: Another Pearl from Papa Bertoni
posted @ 7:30 pm in [ ]
I learned my mechanical and repair skills from my old man, mostly because of his history of loose cars and fast women. My dad drives sh*tboxes exclusively, and firmly believes in the $100 car theory. He buys a sh*tbox for $100 and drives it until it finishes falling apart. In this way, he probably does spend a lot less money on a car than he would if he had a new car and monthly payments, but it’s nerve-wracking as hell. Fortunately, my old man is good in a crisis so that part seems to be pretty much okay with him.

When I was about 11 or so, we were working on the engine from his ‘67 Karmaan Ghia convertible. It had worked well several years before and had holed up in the barn for a while. He had decided to break it out and start fixing it up again. We dropped the engine out of the car okay, but we had to move it about 20 feet to get it in a better area to work on it.

“It’s impossible,” I said. “We can’t move this thing 20 feet.”
“Do you think we could move it 1 foot?”
“Well, then all we have to do is move it 1 foot 20 times.”
I laughed, but he was right. We moved that sucker a little bit at a time until we got it where we wanted it, and I don’t think we even had to move it 20 times, either.

I think about this particular lesson whenever something looks impossible. I try to break it down into possible pieces or try to look at the problem another way. It sounds a little like a Confucian proverb: When a heavyass engine cannot be moved 20 feet one time, perhaps it may be moved 1 foot twenty times.

Monday, November 11th 2002

Harry and Matilda update
posted @ 6:54 pm in [ ]
Since my last posting, several of you have expressed anywhere between perverse curiosity and genunine concern for how Harry and Matilda are getting along. In the last few days, Freaky Matilda decided to go to the theater to be with Harry. In the end, she couldn’t stand not knowing what it would be like to sit there in the dark close to Harry and she knew that if she didn’t go, she’d probably wonder about it for a very long time. She’s still a little bent out of shape about the change in plans, isn’t crazy about her position, and she hasn’t explicitly accepted seeing Tres Heures du Merdre, either. But she thinks she’ll get over the internal stuff in plenty of time to have fun with Harry, and she plans to work out the details of the specific movie to be seen when she gets to the theater and sees him. In other words, with a giant popping sound, Matilda’s head has become liberated from her ass. I’ll keep you posted on how Harry does.

Friday, November 8th 2002

posted @ 12:02 am in [ ]
Hey, you know what I haven’t mentioned in a while? Things I suck at!

37. Commitment. Oh, this is a big one. Complicated, too, and heavy. It has to do with expectations and letdowns, and with how most of the people in my life who have been important to me, particularly earlier in my life, either left me or died. I have a hard time committing to things and people for two reasons:

One, I can’t stand to leave people in the lurch who depend on me. Since I am a sort of nomadic spirit (look for my posting on Road Trip Therapy at a later date), but it is also incredibly important to me to step up in all things and always do what I say I’m going to do, I prefer not to say it unless I’m really sure I will do it. I think that somehow it would dilute my power as a willful person not to do what I say I’m going to do–that that power resides in the connection between word and deed. I am notorious on various committees I serve for not committing to a specific job but showing up to take care of as-needed stuff anyway.

Two, due to the all-too-transient nature of so many of my relationships with other people, I am in some ways too self-reliant. I have a hard time trusting people to do what *they* say they’re going to do. It takes a leap of faith every time until they’ve established a certain level of consistency with me that I come to rely on, and sometimes that takes a while. Once I take that leap of faith, if that trust is broken, it’s like a personal betrayal. It’s about the strongest emotional reaction you can get from me, and I think it probably looks like a total overreaction from the outside. From the inside, though, it takes me a long time to recover. I find it easier not to get into that position at all, because of all the things I could appear to be, irrational is probably the least appealing to me.

I mention this because I can, of course, and also because I am currently in the process of getting over a fairly minor case of someone who is really important to me convincing me to do something that was a giant scary leap of faith to begin with (perhaps the giantest scariest leap I’ve ever taken), and then changing the rules on me. I know I’m disproportionally upset about it, plus I’m bent out of shape at myself about being emotional about it at all on top of that. It’s the one thing I can’t be rational about, because it involves my most damaged sore spot, like poking a bruise that never seems to heal completely. Worse than that, I can’t possibly behave like the person I want to be in this situation. I wish this person had just broken my stereo or insulted my mother or keyed my leased car or stomped on my toes really hard–you know, something I could deal with rationally and with swearing. I can’t figure out how to protect the relationship, which I treasure, while protecting myself, which I now feel I have to do, and letting this person know that it’s not the new terms I’m upset about; it’s the trust violation. Furthermore, the new terms seem to involve a decrease in free speech and concessions to a third party, which don’t inspire my confidence.

Okay, this is all getting terribly abstract and emotional and we all know I can’t sustain that for long. So let’s say Harry and Matilda are going to the movies. They agree to go to a certain movie together, a good one with lots of nice explosions in it, and it’s a big freaky commitment circus to get Matilda to plan ahead, because she’s damaged, but she finally does it and begins to really look forward to the movie. As the time draws closer, though, Harry decides he just can’t bring himself to see a frickin’ movie and he just has to see some overwrought foreign film where there are no explosions to speak of and nothing happens at all for three hours. Hey, says Matilda, this is not the program I signed up for. Tough, says Harry, if you want to see a movie with me, it has to be Tres Heures du Merdre and not Explosions Are Forever.

The thing is, Matilda has invested a lot in this plan because she thinks Harry is pretty terrific. If he were any less terrific, she could not have gotten past her carney-freakish damage long enough to pick a damn day of the week to see a movie at all. So now Matilda is really screwed. She can either go see Tres Heures du Merdre and be with Harry, which was the point of this whole scary-clown exercize, or she can go see Explosions are Forever all by herself, and hell, she didn’t really want to see a movie all that badly to begin with–she just wanted to be with Harry. But she doesn’t want to sit through something unbearable with people gazing longingly into each other’s eyes and bemoaning their predicaments when they should really just be blowing a lot of sh*t up. She kind of feels like life is too short for sad movies. Harry, who clearly does care about Matilda, attempts to make the change in plans more palatable. He makes it pretty clear to her that he really does want to see a movie with her, and he even offers to read the subtitles to her in funny voices. However, Matilda knows how inept she is at foreign film viewing, is pretty sure she’d f*ck it up and wreck both their moviegoing experiences, and would rather exercize her unbelievable action-movie viewing skills with Harry, who, although he has his suspicions, doesn’t actually realize how phenomenal seeing an action movie with Matilda can be. He may not even know a movie can be that good. She figured he was seeing enough foreign films with other people and seeing action movies was something they both really wanted to do with each other. Besides, although Harry has made mention of how important subtitles are in general, she has no direct confirmation that Harry can read.

As it turns out, Harry has been seeing a bunch of movies with other people, which is just fine with Matilda. She thinks he should be free to see whatever he wants with whomever he fancies. But because of his other viewing commitments, he feels the only ethical viewing he can do with Matilda is Tres Heures du Merdre, and he’s rather immovable on the subject. Plus, his other moviegoing companions are apparently quite jealous and controlling, and in order to accomodate them because he’s a hell of a guy, Harry has also started to become rather cryptic and sparing in his communications to Matilda. Matilda, who genuinely cares about Harry, is understandably concerned for him but doesn’t feel like it’s any of her flippin’ business to say anything about what Harry does with his movie tickets.

So all this makes Matilda acutely aware of her particular damage. She’s upset but doesn’t know what to do about it. A change in movies shouldn’t get anyone so bent out of shape, particularly when Harry has made the very sweet offer about funny voices and everything. She certainly doesn’t want him to feel like his subtitle reading skills aren’t valuable to her. But Matilda is, as previously mentioned, wicked freaky about this one thing, and it was a big deal for her to make this plan at all, never mind changing it, and Harry seems to have forgotten about that part. Plus, Matilda is beginning to feel like it doesn’t really matter what she wants–she’s pretty powerless and subject to the whims of Harry and his new cinema entourage. She vascillates between saying the hell with it, she’s not going to the movies, and wondering if she could maybe stand Tres Heures du Merdre. Maybe it might have some really minor, nice explosions that would make it not suck quite as badly as she thinks. Maybe Harry would surprise her and once they got to the theater, there would be some third thing they would both be happy with. There may be a sliver of a chance that the promise of a really good action movie would prove too powerful and they’d eventually end up there anyway, who knows? Also, as previously mentioned, Harry is pretty terrific, and Matilda thinks that if she doesn’t just try to get her ass to the theater one way or another, she might always wonder what it might have been like to sit in the dark next to Harry and listen to his funny voices.

On the other hand, Matilda is what? Freaky. And a little bit crushed, because after all, she did decide to see a movie with Harry when he wasn’t seeing movies with anyone else at all. She feels acutely how much less important she has become to him recently when previously he made her feel pretty special. She’s afraid Tres Heures du Merdre might just be so sad she’ll cry there in the dark, next to Harry, and more than anything, she doesn’t want him to know she cries. Matilda is much more of a laughy lady, and that’s the part of her she wants Harry to know. She feels like Harry is drawing out the parts of her she isn’t so happy with: the freaky part, the sad part, the part that invariably screws up foreign film viewing; and ignoring the vast majority of her together, fun, cool personality. It feels like she has this gorgeous armor that everyone loves and admires and all Harry wants to do is poke at the chinks. On the other hand, she muses, he has a unique way of poking at them that kind of makes her feel like he’s trying to get in there with her, which is nice. She also never realized how much she was looking forward to Explosions Are Forever with Harry until he told her he wouldn’t see it with her. So Matilda’s urge to bolt down the Freaktown carnival midway before this thing gets any worse is pretty strong. That’s what she’d be doing right now if Harry weren’t so damned terrific.

So the idea of never knowing what sitting in the dark with Harry and his funny voices would be like is probably the most compelling thing to Matilda, who doesn’t like to have regrets about her life. She’s still freaky and sad, but she’s probably going to try to go down to the theater. She’s afraid Harry is going to change his mind some more, further justifying and perhaps even intensifying, her freakyness, and she won’t have much to say about it. She’ll just have to suck it up or never know about Harry and movies.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed for Harry and Matilda. I think they’ve got a good shot at something special, that is, if they ever get their heads out of their respective asses long enough to try it.

Wednesday, November 6th 2002

posted @ 11:56 pm in [ - ]

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