Explication of Ted Kooser’s “A Rainy Morning”

A Rainy Morning
by Ted Kooser

A young woman in a wheelchair,
wearing a black nylon poncho spattered with rain,
is pushing herself through the morning.
You have seen how pianists
sometimes bend forward to strike the keys,
then lift their hands, draw back to rest,
then lean again to strike just as the chord fades.
Such is the way this woman
strikes at the wheels, then lifts her long white fingers,
letting them float, then bends again to strike
just as the chair slows, as if into a silence.
So expertly she plays the chords
of this difficult music she has mastered,
her wet face beautiful in its concentration,
while the wind turns the pages of rain.

 

I was midway through my first semester in grad school—which, for me, meant a preoccupation with getting laughs and/or raising eyebrows in workshops so I’d have something to swagger about at the local beer garden afterwards—when I stumbled across A Rainy Morning by Ted Kooser.  To be honest, at first, I didn’t think much of it.  Too few lyrical pyrotechnics, not enough risk.  Of course, back then, I still thought of risk in terms of how much you might potentially offend an audience with obscenity, blasphemy, or loud, wholly foreshadowed narrative turns.  It didn’t occur to me (or maybe I just didn’t remember) that another totally legitimate form of risk (especially with narrative poetry) is to simply pull the drain on one’s own ego and focus entirely on the imagery and action of a single scene. 

 

Eventually, after a few more readings, the light bulb came on—which is a nicer way of saying I got my head out of my ass and realized what I should have realized all along.

 

At the risk of stating the obvious, in this poem, Kooser relies on simple language and straight-forward descriptions; in fact, all but two of the words in the poem (pianist and concentration) are a mere one or two syllables.  This suggests a validation of everyday human experience that extends beyond this unapologetically colloquial scene, every bit as much as William Carlos Williams’ rain-glazed wheelbarrow.

 

But the real genius here is Kooser’s comparison of a young woman in a wheelchair to an impassioned concert pianist performing before a rapt audience—that is, the juxtaposition of a handicap (something generally seen as negative, something we’d like to avoid having or even acknowledging) with a venerated, center-stage performer whose skill, artistry, and validity are beyond question.  In so doing, he not only implies the existence of an audience; he makes us that audience!  We hear the thunder of the chords; we feel the rain in our eyes.  (Maybe we even start wondering exactly what blessing/curse is turning our pages.)  But don’t worry; sure, the scene is fairly bittersweet (its basis is still a solitary handicapped woman pushing her wheelchair through the rain, after all), but if we can acknowledge the quiet artistry of her long white fingers playing that practiced melody, it’s a short leap to accepting the validity of our own lives, our own efforts in all their bumbling, beautiful absurdity.

An Open Letter to Mitt Romney

Dear Mitt Romney,

 

The eminently quotable Barry Switzer once said, “Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.”  I love that quote.  I love it because it doesn’t say it’s bad to score a run; it just means that you should be careful what you’re bragging about afterwards.  And that’s not just a lesson for sports.

 

The majority of the people in my family are about as far from wealthy as one can get in the United States.  I don’t apologize for this; I certainly don’t brag about it, either.  It’s simply a fact of life—as is the fact that, like most American families, we have worked about as hard as we could, generation after generation, just to maintain our homes and… well, stay alive.

 

I suppose if anything, I’m a little ahead of the game.  At the time I am writing this, I’m thirty-five years old.  I’ve won some writing contests and published a stack of poetry books, with a fantasy series coming out in e-book form early next year.  These accomplishments haven’t exactly made me a ton of money (I frequently joke that I’ve made dozens of dollars off poetry) but they’re hard-won and, perhaps for exactly that reason, satisfying.

 

I’ve also been an English professor for about six years.  Before that, I worked odd factory positions, flipped burgers, swung hammers, and once had a job collecting and analyzing urine samples in a rehab center.  I’ve lived off the dollar menu.  For a brief time, I was homeless.  Until relatively recently, despite pretty much always having at least one job (sometimes two), I paid little or no income tax.

 

In case you’re wondering where all my money went (aside from such frivolities as food and heat), I’ll tell you in a word: medication.  You see, I was born with scoliosis, major deformities in my feet and ankles, and severe hearing loss stemming from the fact that half my right ear never formed.  While some of those problems could be fixed (or at least ameliorated) by surgery, a certain ominous phrase known as pre-existing conditions meant that wasn’t an option for me—even when I had health insurance, which wasn’t often. 

 

Trust me, this isn’t a plea for sympathy.  Nor am I claiming some kind of rhetorical authority granted simply by virtue of enduring relatively mild to moderate hardship.  I’m just trying to explain where I was—who I was—the first time I encountered the very conservative viewpoint that you recently, infamously (or, in your words, “inelegantly”) expressed.

 

In college, I dated a woman whose wealthy parents frequently argued that entitlement programs breed laziness.  Taxes were suspect at best and the mere mention of liberal “safety nets” prompted an icy, near-instantaneous shift in mood.  However, these are also the same people who insisted on loaning me eight hundred dollars when my financial aid fell through.  Later, when they heard that my parents couldn’t afford to attend my graduation, they jumped in their SUV and drove through an Iowa blizzard just so they could cheer me on themselves. 

 

But perhaps more telling than that, I remember hearing these two articulate, arch-conservatives (a stock analyst and an accountant, both retired) insist that their daughter’s openly liberal boyfriend probably deserved some kind of government assistance in light of his responsible attitude, solid work ethic, and the fact that he was having a hard time through no real fault of his own.

 

What can I say?  I was flattered.  Sure, they were missing the point (viewing me as an exception to the rule, rather than further proof that the rule itself is bogus) but it’s hard to object to a compliment.  You see, Mitt, I’ve spent a good portion of my life arguing against the stereotype of the poor as irresponsible, do-nothing moochers… and, well, you’re not exactly helping. 

 

The optimist in me genuinely believes that deep down, uber-wealthy conservatives (like yourself and the majority of your donors) don’t mind helping those in need; you just don’t want to be forced to help.  And to some degree, I can see your point.  Having grown up poor, I’ve encountered an small handful of people who took unfair advantage of the very safety nets I am here defending—just as there are those who take unfair advantage of tax loopholes or an unregulated Wall Street.  In my college classes, though, I sometimes teach argumentative fallacies; one of them involves drawing major conclusions on the basis of just one or two, or a few, examples.

 

More to the point, you seem to think that poor and middle class Americans are asking you to apologize for your wealth.  We’re not.  Nobody worth their salt really thinks that good fortune is a bad thing.  In fact, I don’t know how this has escaped your notice but the overwhelming majority of liberal heroes—like the overwhelming majority of their conservative counterparts—are filthy rich.

 

Whether wealth is a root cause of our adoration or merely circumstantial depends on the one doing the adoring, I suppose.  The problem here isn’t that the wealthy are rich, though; it’s that some wealthy people seem to have this strange psychological need to believe that they are the everyman, and convincing them otherwise is like trying to convince a Birther that Obama is an American citizen or a Truther that George W. Bush wasn’t complicit in 9/11.

 

It’s perfectly reasonable to debate how entitlement programs should be funded and regulated; what you’re failing to grasp, though, is the maddening hypocrisy you exhibit when you imply the laziness and immorality of programs designed to help those who maybe don’t have a couch to crash on or a Swiss bank account to inherit.

 

Put another way—yes, it’s good to score a run.  It’s good for you and it’s good for the team.  Just stop acting like you hit a grand slam. 

In Memory of the Day Wall Street Lost its S**t

This week, I’ve been showing Inside Job in my college classes as a springboard for a section on research and argument.  While I generally like the film, I concede that it has some problems and for fear of coming across as too liberal, I’ve been spending quite a bit of time trying to come up with a conservative rebuttal (even though the documentary actually goes after Obama as much as Wall Street and George W. Bush).

In doing so, I’ve read probably a dozen far-right screeds (like this one) alleging that the film is awful because… um… well, that part’s not exactly clear, but it seems to have something to do with the film showing about ten seconds of Barney Frank, compared to over an hour of conservative economists swallowing their gilded feet.  I’m going to assume for now that yes, Barney Frank is a baby-eating, pinko devil who held a gun to bankers’ heads and forced them to give predatory loans to poor people already crusted in their own filth and stupidity.

OK, moving along…

What I find disturbing is the number of articles alleging that the Wall Street tycoons who steered the economy into a trashcan overflowing with syringes and soiled baby diapers didn’t actually do anything wrong!  After all, most of what they did was legal, they were motivated by profit, they did profit, and so in a sense, they did exactly what they were supposed to do.

Granted, that’s a bit like a dentist pulling out your tooth by removing your jaw then handing you the bill, but I must be missing something, right?  I mean, despite the banal/robotic expressions and sesquipedalian phrases, these guys apparently invented a mystical world where mortgages abound like golden geese, financial conflicts of interest don’t exist, and you can buy titanic amounts of insurance for something you don’t even have (aka a credit default swap).  Surely, I must just be too intellectually shallow to grasp how bankers making billions while the market crashed and home ownership tanked was actually just the silver lining on an unholy amalgamation of overbearing liberalism with sheer happenstance.

(Note to self: I think Joe Biden has a bridge he wants to sell me.)

So far, I haven’t found a single conservative review expressing even a dash of concern over income disparity in the United States where CEOs make about 100 times what their workers make (in Britain, I think it’s only about 12 to 1).  The prevailing thought is that this is simply a natural byproduct of healthy capitalism.  Never mind that these are probably the same swinging dicks who couldn’t tell the difference between sympathy and empathy during the Sotomayor confirmation (hint: they’re two totally different words!); I’m pretty sure the Great Recession kinda dismembered that whole “You have pay top dollar to get top talent!” argument.

Before you (yes, YOU!) go accusing me of being a hemp-loving Rage Against the Machine socialist, I’ve never implied, said, or believed that wealth should be distributed evenly.  In fact, I don’t think it should.  I happen to work [more or less] by choice in a profession that doesn’t pay worth a damn, but I don’t think that profit and integrity/morality/goodness are mutually exclusive.  Hell, if I’m going to be honest, I don’t want to make as much money as the next guy; if things were going to change, I’d probably like to make more than he does.  A lot more.  And I recognize that this is a normal product of human psychology and a natural, necessary component of ambition—not to mention my addiction to gold-plated baby shoes (never worn).

But let’s examine another sign post of conservative economics: the belief that a free market naturally eliminates bad/unsafe products and fixes disparities in workers’ pay through some kind of Zen-like karma magic.  Have a factory job that doesn’t pay you enough?  Thinking about knocking over a convenient store?  No problem!  All you have to do is get really, really good at pulling levers and another factory will hire you for more money.  After all, companies need quality labor in order to compete; thus, you may use their gentlemanly conflict is to your advantage, or some such fanciful bullshit.

To better illustrate, let’s apply this same idealistic head-in-the-sand reasoning a bit more broadly.  Suppose you have an ice cream shop that starts mixing their previously delicious ice cream with the bones of dead innocent circus animals.  Before long, people will simply stop going there and it’ll go out of business.  Problem solved.  Therefore, it’s in the best interests of corporations to “do the right thing,” even if it’s not for purely wholesome motives, because it’s good for business.

OK, believe it or not, the overwhelming problem with this kind of reasoning isn’t that it’s stupid.  It’s that it assumes our fellow human beings aren’t stupid!  In a world where Sarah Palin almost gets to the White House and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is as popular as Game of Thrones, I fully expect to find the bones of circus animals in my ice cream.  Moreover, I’m kind of surprised when I don’t.  And I’m very surprised when there aren’t front page articles on magazines in grocery stores, alleging how said bones will help you look younger and healthier with skin that, like Alexander the Great, emits a naturally pleasant odor (sure it did, Plutarch!).

The point is that even if we pretend outsourcing doesn’t exist (hint: it does) and all of us start the race on the same line (hint: we don’t), the only way you can expect this to be maintained in the natural world is if the world itself does the fair/right thing with some kind of laxative-free regularity.  And I seem to remember reading somewhere that it doesn’t.

Now, an easy and common counter-argument to this is to point out that politicians, like CEOs, are human beings—meaning they’re flawed and corruptible.  Therefore, giving one greater power and hoping he/she will graciously protect me from the other doesn’t make a lot of sense.  That’s a decent point (despite being bullshit) and would probably be valid if, instead of regulation, I was proposing fascism.  But I’m not.

It’s interesting that the far-righters saying that we should fear a big, centralized government don’t seem all that concerned about big, centralized corporations.  As far as I’m concerned, both could stand to have their wings clipped.  What I can’t figure out is why that’s not the conservative position (or everyone’s position, for that matter).

I vote in elections and live in this country and in so doing, I accept the consequences if the candidate I like loses to a different candidate.  I’ll bear the effects of that without complaint (just kidding) and wait until the next election to do my small part to change things.  Yet even if corporations decide not to buy elections with the Supreme Court’s blessing, here’s something else to consider: don’t unelected corporations actually have a greater impact on our daily lives than politicians?  Obviously, I’m not saying that all businesses should be subject to general elections; I’m just saying that it’s naïve to think that we could exist for long in a largely corporate-owned country (no matter who’s in the White House) without some kind of checks and balance.

Once you accept that, you simply need to look for candidates who have the best (or in the case of Obama v. Romney or Democrats v. Republicans, the least bad) record in that area. That’s a point I wish Inside Job had made more clearly, rather than spending most of its time showing a bunch of Wall Street idiot-savants behaving under free rein exactly as you’d expect them to.

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