Archive for March, 2013

Every Picture Tells a Story About Someone Who is Happier Than You Are

March 30, 2013

no like

Photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe.

—Susan Sontag
On Photography (3)

Life is not a movie. A life is made up of a million mundane moments; a movie is a carefully constructed sequence of images leading to a climax. Thus watching movies conditions us to believe that an entire life can pivot on one fateful defining moment. Movies tell us that all of our lives could be radically altered if only… For example, the explicit message of the movie Back to the Future is that a struggling, insecure, and miserable man named George McFly and his family could be living rich and happy lives if only George had socked Biff Tannen in the head one time.

My objective here is not to point out that this particular movie, like so many other movies, is predicated on the redemptive power of violence. (Although that’s certainly an essay worth writing.) But it is important to remember that movies are not designed to remind us that existence is a constant struggle, and growth and achievement are painstaking processes, achieved little by little, if achieved at all.

Of course, movies are not meant to prepare us for life (that’s what parents, teachers, coaches, and drill sergeants are for). And watching movies provides all sorts of wonderful benefits. But it is dangerous to allow cinematic sentiments to bleed into our conscious appraisal of the real world. Much life is wasted by people who expect the cavalry to come riding in to save the day at the last moment.

Although still photography lacks the narrative lure of motion pictures, “Photographs are more memorable than moving images, because they are a neat slice of time, not a flow” (17). But this is also an illusion. As Susan Sontag notes in her groundbreaking 1973 book On Photography, “Life is not about significant details, illuminated by a flash, fixed forever. Photographs are” (81).

And the fact that almost all of us are photographers ourselves further obscures the unreality of the photograph: “Photographic images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire” (4).

This blurring of memory and memento allow photographs to seduce us in ways that motion pictures cannot; the photographs we treasure seem like authentic pieces of reality. Compared to actual memories, the penumbra of existence, photographs offer an eerie phantasm of lived experience. The contrast between nostalgia and actual physical images that are “fixed forever” is disconcerting: “Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt” (15).

Much has changed in the forty years since Susan Sontag first published On Photography. And although there is no way that she could have anticipated the current explosion of photographic images across the internet, the following observation is more apt than ever: “By furnishing this already crowded world with a duplicate one of images, photography makes us feel that the world is more available than it really is” (24).

Today users share “30 billion pieces of content each month” on Facebook, a phenomenon which “represents the largest database of social information the world has ever witnessed.” Much of this content is made up of photographic images.

According to a recent study, when “experienced over a long time period” the “effects of passive following” of Facebook “can lead to frustration and exhaustion, damaging individual life satisfaction.” For many people, every picture on Facebook tells a story about someone who is happier than they are. For these people, “To possess the world in the form of images is, precisely, to re-experience the unreality and remoteness of the real” (160).

Richard W. Bray

Drunks are Boring

March 22, 2013


You tell yourselves you’re heroes
For numbing down your souls
Really you’re just cowards
Crawling into holes
Pity you can’t see yourselves
Pity you can’t smell
The putrid cloud of stench
That surrounds your private hell
Nights that start out hopeful
Always end the same
Drunks are boring
Drunks are losers
Drunks are lame

You only drink the good stuff
Cuz you got so much class
But it don’t make much difference
When you’re falling on your ass
Suckin down on stupid
Till you don’t know your name
Drunks are boring
Drunks are losers
Drunks are lame

Slurring back and forth
In a mindless fog of shit
Crawling through a sewer
With fools who won’t admit
What the bottle led to
What they all became
Drunks are boring
Drunks are losers
Drunks are lame

Richard W. Bray


March 20, 2013


a politician is an arse upon
which everyone has sat except a man


With greed that festers like a stinking flower
Every breath you suck promotes a scheme
The only thing you care about is power

Glory-seeking minions don’t see how you’re
Warping minds by tapping ageless themes
With greed that festers like a stinking flower

All you see are lambs to be devoured
With gluttony that feeds on hopes and dreams
The only thing you care about is power

If I were you I’d always need a shower
You curdle filth and throw away the cream
With greed that festers like a stinking flower

Lackeys sing your praises by the hour
Like starstruck fans support the local team
The only thing you care about is power

Piling up your lies, you build a tower
And live a life that’s nothing like it seems
With greed that festers like a stinking flower
The only thing you care about is power

Richard W. Bray

My Monkey Makes my Mother Mad

March 16, 2013

I had no idea what I was doing when I began the project that eventually culminated in this blog. Looking back on it, I’m reminded of the character played by Richard Dreyfuss in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind who was compelled to mindlessly build that miniature mountain inside his house. I just had to do something, but I really didn’t know what or why.

So I kept writing and reading about writing. And I took some English classes at Cal Poly Pomona. Then one of my professors, Dr. Carola Kaplan, suggested I apply for their MA program. (She advised that if I continued to take classes, sooner or later I would “accumulate” a Master’s Degree.) Many of the longer articles on this blog began as academic papers.

I continued to write until my computer was constipated. So I read the books on how to write the perfect cover letter and I sent out queries and more queries. And all that ever got me was shoe-boxes full of rejection letters.

After more than a decade of unrequited querying, I finally went on an Open Thread at Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog and asked the nice people there how much it would cost to start my own blog. When they told me it was free I said, “Thank you so much. If I had known that, I would have gotten myself a blog years ago.”

Sometimes I begin writing a poem knowing exactly what I want to say and it turns out just like I planned. Sometimes. Other times I set out to write something, but I end up writing something else. And sometimes I think I have a long way to go when the poem suddenly informs me that I’m finished.

And sometimes I start with an idea that’s bugging me or just a single word. (I began this poem thinking about how much I like the word notion.) Other times an entire line will pop into my head. Once a line zipped across my brain, but I ignored it. A few days later it returned—louder. It wasn’t until I sat down at my computer and typed it up that I realized that the line was entirely alliterative: My monkey makes my mother mad. But I didn’t know what the poem was going to be about until I had finished writing the first stanza.

My Funny Farm

My monkey makes my mother mad
He also aggravates my dad
He took his car the other day
And drove it to the Hudson Bay

My kitty cat is kooky too
He likes to strut down to the zoo
And tell the tigers to all stand back
If they don’t want to get attacked

I have a hamster named Houdini
And though he is rather teeny
He’ll quickly pick a thousand locks
You could not hold him in Fort Knox

My kangaroo’s a real joker
Up all night playing poker
His friends come to destroy the house
I think I shoulda’ got a mouse

I got a hippo last July
He really is one swell guy
Everything he does is super
I got a giant pooper scooper

Living on this funny farm
I know my pets don’t mean no harm
But both my parents moved away
And no one wants to come and play

Richard W. Bray


March 13, 2013


Fire, famine, mudslides,
Hurricanes and homicide,
Overburdened single moms,
Runaways and cluster bombs,
Veterans without a home,
Gramma livin all alone,
Busted dreams, massive debt,
Little kid who lost a pet,
Poverty and cheatin spouses,
Banks foreclosing on our houses,
Daddy bet the farm away,
Mommy shootin smack all day…

This world’s got
A lot to bring me down
There’s plenty
Of hurt to go around
And the only relief
That I know of
Is kindness
And fellowship
And love

Richard W. Bray

Myrtle Myers Redux

March 8, 2013


A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I took an English class from a poet named Robert Pinsky. (Actually, it was at Berkeley in the mid 1980s, but many Northern Californians would argue that Orange County is about as far away from Berkeley as I could get.) Since that time, Mr. Pinsky has received a great deal of well-deserved acclaim. Thus I frequently see him on my tv promoting poetry. A few years back I heard Pinsky say that whenever someone asks him about when he started writing poetry, he responds by asking: “When did you stop?”

I stopped writing poetry in sixth grade and took it up again about twenty years later.

Here’s what happened: I was teaching at a boys home in a special education program for SED (Severely Emotionally Disturbed) students, which was quite an education for me. These kids were intimate with poverty, violence, addiction, rape and murder in ways I will never comprehend. (Actually, I do know a thing or two about addiction.)

Sometimes they would tease me by asking me if I were “street.”
“Of course I am.” I would reply.
“Where you from? Inglewood, Nickerson Gardens, South Central?”
“That’s it,” I’d say. “I’m from South Central Claremont.”

I’ll never know how much good I did working with those kids, and the only life I saved was my own. But it did lead me back to writing poetry. The most coveted book in our meager little school library was Where the Sidewalk Ends, a collection of funny poems by Shel Silverstein. It is a work of immense skill.

In a state of profound ignorance regarding what such a task would entail, I decided that I wanted to write a book like Where the Sidewalk Ends. So I went to the library and got some books on verse, meter, and rhyme. Some time thereafter, although I still barely even understood what poetry was, I somehow sat down at my EMachine and wrote “Myrtle Myers.”

I’ve read a bunch of poetry and thousands of pages of criticism since then. I even went out and got myself a Master’s Degree in Literature. But I don’t think I’ve ever written anything better than “Myrtle Myers.”

“Myrtle Myers” is, of course, a very conservative poem. (How did that happen?) It was not written as an allegory, but it sure reads like one. When I wrote it, however, I was mostly thinking about the power of denial, a major theme on this blog.

Myrtle Myers

Myrtle Myers bought some pliers
At the hardware store
She took them home and all alone
She broke down the door

The next day she found a way
To make the toilet flood
She took a wrench from daddy’s bench
And made a great big thud

Unperturbed, her mother purred
“Well, girls they will be girls
All this rage is just a stage
She has such darling curls”

Then Myrtle took an evil look
At her mother’s dress
It made her think and with some ink
She made a lovely mess

Yet with rage unassauged
She shaved her sister’s head
With kerosene and gasoline
She burned her brother’s bed

Undistressed, her father guessed
“It’s just a child at play
They’re just jealous, those who tell us
To have her put away”

Her parents planned a party grand
Just to celebrate
Her twelfth birthday, and by the way
Myrtle showed up late

No girls nor boys bearing toys
Decided to attend
Although assured the girl was cured
They feared their lives might end

As her family huddled, scared and befuddled
By her piercing stare
Myrtle growled and then she howled
“I publicly declare

“This can’t be true! What did you do
To make them stay away?
You’ll all be blue and live to rue
This catastrophic day!”

Myrtle made a bomb that day
Intending to destroy
Her own home town and miles around
And every girl and boy

But in her hurry, she forgot to scurry
Away from her invention
She’s gone away, I’m sad to say
Results of ill intention

Her parents pleaded all she needed
Was love and understanding
And though it’s true that we all do
Life is more demanding

It takes affection to give direction
And most kids do not mind
Those restrictions and prohibitions
Which seem to some unkind

Richard W. Bray

Other People’s Problems: Repost and a Brief Commentary

March 6, 2013

denial pin

Fixating on other people’s problems doesn’t foster learning and growth, but it’s a lot more fun than thinking about my own

That’s the simple observation behind my song Other People’s Problems. I’m not sure if I should refer to it as a song, exactly. At this point, it’s simply some tuneless lyrics, like the other fifty-six entrants in my If it Sounds Country category. And by the way, all my songs ain’t necessarily betrothed to that particular category. The heading is actually a tip of the hat to one of my favorite songwriters. But many of my lyrics do have a certain twang. (And for some reason, the subject of alcoholism seems to come up quite a bit.)

But the main reason I’m posting something tonight is that I use my blogroll as a portal to my Essential Daily Blogs, and I just can’t stand to keep looking at the dismal picture which accompanies the dreary sestina I wrote to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Iraq War.

Other People’s Problems

Sarah is a diva,
Lester is a drunk
Harold is a pervert,
And a weasel and a punk
They tell me “mind your business”
But I know it’s bunk
They pretend that they’re all rosy
When they really smell like skunk

Ever’body got a gift
And I was born to see
Other people’s problems
It’s my spesh-ee-al-i-tee
I’m just here to help them
Be the best they’ll ever be
Got so much time to do it
Cuz there’s nothing wrong with me

My daddy is a sweetheart
But he likes to take a swig
He lives to serve his country
When he ain’t in the brig
And you know I love my mama
Despite everywhere she been
And all my friends and neighbors
Are such paragons of sin

Ever’body got a gift
And I was born to see
Other people’s problems
It’s my spesh-ee-al-i-tee
An Egyptian river is
Where I ought to be
Thinking about you
Replaces thinking about me

Richard W. Bray

Dreamers of Dead

March 4, 2013

love among ruin

So many now have joined the hapless dead
As though a contest—how many can we kill
By sending others’ children off to war
The health of the state is unchecked power
Which feeds on frustration and unmet desire
This lust for blood that we confuse with love

Catenations bind us by our love
In webs of hate that recollect our dead
Murder machine fulfills the group desire
To locate people God wants us to kill
In fear a people shall relinquish power
To cowards who will always answer: War

The terrified succumb to endless war
It’s easier than proffering our love
In times of doubt the people will trust power
No matter if million end up dead
If you look and sound like those who kill
Killing you is what our dead desire

Humans have a basic born desire
To eliminate our enemies with war
Enemies exist for us to kill
Who’s the Fool who said they must be loved?
Enemies are only good when dead
Enemies embrace in lust for power

Millions murdered in pursuit of power
Pelf and power propagate desire
Desires undeterred beget more dead
The dead are mere ingredients of war
Death is all the tyrant knows of love
And Thanatos consummates the kill

Words enliven hearts we send to kill
Empty words engender frightful power
Some died for freedom, others died for love
Zombies march in cadence of desire
When unleashed the platitudes of war
Sing a dreary song of walking dead

Among the ruins, love decries our kill
Dreamers of dead are quick to kill for power
Unchecked desire is the seed of war

Richard W. Bray

The Terror of Suffix County

March 2, 2013

Annie’s destructful brother
Is a boogerypoopish mess.
Others have botherly brothers,
But Willie’s a vexsome pest.

Annie’s funtastic birthday
Was a jubilatious delight
Till Willie stealthed into her bedroom
Beneath the dimful light.

When the girls were finally sleepish
They detectified Willie’s disguise.
He was costumated in undies.
The girls were were horrorized.

Annie was fully rageistic.
Screamfully, she cried:
Abandonate this monster.
He must be porchified.”

Her parents wisefully noted
That though they were temptified,
They’d be keeping her boisterly brother.
Annie felt beastish inside.

Richard W. Bray