Author Archives: Charles Bivona

About Charles Bivona

Poetic Writer, Writing Professor, Educational Activist, and retired Ass Model: I've worn many hats. Luckily, I look good in hats.

@YouTube Mash Ups of Doom! : a game

I spend a huge portion of my time paying attention to both climate scientists and social activists. So, sometimes, often, just for fun, I mash the two up.

First, I watch a YouTube interview or lecture from some leading climate scientist.

“We must stop burning fossil fuels tomorrow!” he or she insists. “This is urgent! Everybody, please  listen! We need radical change right now!”

And I follow that with a leading scholar of social change, or the latest professor activist on the television.

“Try to understand,” he or she says, with gentle, somewhat detached compassion. “The kinds of radical changes required come slowly, with struggle, over time. We must be patient.”

Then back to the climate scientists:

“We are almost out of time!”

“A deluge of CO2 dumped into the atmosphere just last year!”

“And if these are methane explosions, we’re fucked. We’re so fucked.”

CAUTION: This game will end a dinner party fast.

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Writing Paragraphs

My current assignment is to draft, revise, and try to publish new poetry pulled from my old journals, while I also brainstorm and write articles to submit to—because I love @TruthOut.

“And stop thinking you have to be an expert before you start writing,” Luz said, during this morning’s hour long meeting about my writing goals.

And while I work on all of that—including the above-mentioned attitude adjustment—she wants me to write paragraph length blog posts about current events, kinda like notes from the belly of the industrial war beast I was born into by no choice of my own.

Come to think of it, this should be fun. Heh.

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To Sue My Debt Collectors

If I suddenly had the resources, or a shark-like activist lawyer offered to work for free—just to make a point—I would aggressively sue every single one of the bottom-feeding debt collectors who have called my phone, my wife’s phone, my mother’s and my aunt’s phone, since I lost my steady adjunct professor job in 2009. 

I would gladly spend my entire waking day, for as long as it took, writing about the veiled threats, always made with a smile, and the deep and lasting emotional trauma this grinning-voiced  aggression has caused me and my family over the past few years.

Just one of many examples: my heart nearly pounds out my chest with panic and anxiety whenever my phone rings. That’s a conditioned emotional response. My debt collectors did that to me, and that’s a fact. Am I supposed to just let that go? Really?

No. No. No. I think I need a few judges to explain this one to me.

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Ever Since

Ever since my physicist friend and neighbor suddenly died last month, I’ve felt like I have a brick lodged inside my chest. I have trouble breathing, feeling like I need to yawn or take a deep breath, but I just can’t.

Anxiety and stress make the smooth muscles deep in the chest contract, say the doctors, already scribbling in their prescription pads with their complimentary pens from Big Pharma. Because the pills must keep moving, or else.

And because my grief must be irrational, feeling such loss over a man I spoke to on my porch a few nights a week, just a little over a year of casual friendship.

The kindhearted call me oversensitive, instead of irrational, and worry about my ability to survive in this hectic world. How will I ever make it when every personal loss hits me so hard? Will every dead friend make me sick?

Because the way of the world can’t possibly be the problem. Because our emotions must always already be yielding to someone’s hyper-rational business model, or else.

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American Dream

Most often, almost every night, I dream I’m still living in California, either alone or with fantasy family—an imagined aunt and uncle. Either way, I live in a big house with a private library that I, of course, collected myself. There’s always some crisis back in New Jersey as the dream unfolds. The crisis is always vaguely family related—my mother or one of the babies—and I’m always filled with a deep sense of dread and urgency as I spend hours of perceived dream time anxiously trying to pack 10,000 books into a small rental car for an emergency cross country road trip. Leaving the books is never an option. In fact, for some reason that is unspoken but perfectly logical in this dream world, I can’t go anywhere without my entire private library in tow. It almost feels like a physical handicap, or a mental disability to my dream self. And, so, I spend the whole dream standing in a book cluttered driveway, sweating in the hot sun, trying to plan the impossible. I keep getting more and more anxious. Frightened. Desperate. I know that every minute I fail to do something is another minute I won’t be there for my family, but I don’t even know where to start. How do I even begin to do this? Sometimes I wake up crying, clutching my chest and coughing, my mouth cotton ball dry. But only sometimes.

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Thank You, Robin Williams: My Captain

for all my many students


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So Today I’m Trying to Write Fiction

For most of my writing life, I’ve usually just wandered through the world paying attention, listening, writing in my journals every night. So when I started blogging, that was the mode of writing I naturally fell into—literary journalism, I’ve come to call it. And of course, it wasn’t too long before friends and family members started getting angry about this or that thing I’d written, or  the way I’d portrayed them, or the way they perceived I’d portrayed them. It’s gotten messy—angry phone calls, screaming matches, and, most recently, cold shoulders and passive aggression. Some people preface every conversation with, “And you’re not allowed to write about this.” Others have cut me off because they don’t trust me not to write about them. It’s exhausting. 

So today I’m trying to write fiction, using an experience I’ve had often as a forty-two year old professor of ten years, and imaging a thirty-five year old fictional me living through a fictional version of that situation.

But just for fun, I’ve decided to imagine my thirty-five year old character being much more confiden,  much more ethically loose, and much much better looking than I’ve ever been.

Isn’t fiction fun? Here’s the beginning of a draft of a short story, as yet untitled, that I may or may not finish. Enjoy!

It always starts the same. I’m invited to a party by a friend of a colleague, and some aunt or uncle or older cousin finds out I’m an English professor, a professional writer, and their 18-22 year old daughter is really struggling in a college writing class. Could I please help her? They’ll pay me well.

And then they call her over, the lovely young daughter, and she’s always gorgeous, oftentimes in tiny sun dresses—Summer parties—one time in a formal evening gown, no kidding, this afternoon in a tastefully small white bikini: good taste, I thought, and a natural grace, so comfortable with her muscle toned body.

“Clara, this is Jacob.” her mother, beaming, introduced us. Dad sat silent.. “He’s a professor! He can help you with your writing problems.”

When we shook hands she looked at me with eyes her parents never noticed. Their daughter would be working with a private professor, they were busy imagining behind those goofy smiles. They held hands gently on top of the glass patio table while Clara shook my hand with enthusiasm bordering on satire.  

“It’s nice to meet you, Professor Jacob,” she said, smiling and staring into my eyes.

“Just Jacob is fine,” I responded, smiling, going along with her the handshake, her oblivious parents still gazing at each other with pride.

“Jacob, like in The Bible,” Clara added, slowing down the handshake to a serious pace, a firmer grip. “Always trying to climb that ladder to Heaven, huh?”

She winked and laughed a little. I didn’t say anything in reply. I just smiled until the silence got awkward, our hands still locked in the shaking. Mom was already prattling  on about something else. Dad still sat gazing and silent.

“Well, I’m not a fan of Biblical names, Jake,” Clara said, finally breaking the silence. She let go of my hand, and folded her arms to playfully ponder this social problem.

“How about I just call you Professor,” she declared, a playful eureka moment, “I like that much better.”

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5 Letters from Sallie Mae

The first letter—a bill, really—reminded me that I only have a few more weeks to pay the outrageous minimum payment due on just one of my student loans.

Two other letters were to inform me that economic deferments had been approved on two other loans—one ending in October of 2014, the other in the middle of next January.

The fourth and the fifth letters were duplicates explaining that if I have multiple loans with them—which I do—the Department of Education may group some of my loans together into something they’re calling a “Payment Group.” And if, the duplicate letters  continue, I would like all of my loans grouped together into one monthly statement—imagine that!—I should call them right away and let them know.

I assume they say “right away” because Sallie Mae is itching to finally to stop wasting $2 in postage, every damn month, sending me handfuls of contradictory and/or duplicate letters.

Incredible. I mean, thank goodness the smart people are in charge. Bless, America!

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Writing With a Lawyer

The Car Accident Story, Part 2

He didn’t believe me, the trial lawyer who took on my car accident case, when I said I make my living as a literary blogger. At least he didn’t take the making a living part seriously. That’s what I suspected from his body language and the smug grinning look on his face. My suspicions were confirmed after the first arbitration with the defendants car insurance company.

“Just so you know,” my new attorney cautioned, pulling me aside in the parking garage immediately after the meeting, “this was the first step in a process that they could drag out for a few years, so…”

“Well, I expected as much,” I responded, thinking that was his final point. Then he suddenly got stern with me.

“Don’t interrupt me when I’m talking,” he snapped. “Learn to let me finish.”

I waited. He continued.

“I was going to say that, until we get this case settled, you should really cut it out with this fucking blogging shit.”

I don’t think anyone ever screamed at that lawyer the way I screamed at him that morning.

njpoet skate

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The Army Helmet: original draft

first posted on April 16, 2010

Someone gave my nine-year-old nephew an M1 helmet to play with.  The M1 was the combat helmet used by the United States military from World War II to 1985.  The M1 was also the helmet my father wore in Vietnam.

I text messaged an outraged protest to my sister.  “You should throw that helmet in the garbage.  Better yet, you and your son should destroy it together. You should burn it.”

My sister responded, “Is this about our father?  I don’t have a father.  He’s an asshole.”

My father was an asshole: that’s true.  But it wasn’t his fault.  He suffered–and still does–from shell shock and survivor’s guilt.  Almost his entire platoon was wiped out in a firefight.  Only he and two others made it home.  He was shot in the leg.  He was awarded a purple heart and a bronze star for bravery with valor.

When I was a little boy, he always thought he was still in the jungle.  He often heard helicopters.  He used to sit in the yard and watch the trees—probably scanning for snipers.  His eyes were always startled.  His wide pupils were fixed in paranoid attention.

And when it rained in the summer, say a late New Jersey August, and the environment became more jungle-like, my father would claw at his chest in panic.  Summers were violent in my house.

“No!” I was typing furiously into my iPhone.  “This is not just about our father.  This is about the war I’ve been studying and speaking out against my entire life.  This is about the war that destroyed our family.  And I just think that.”

She cut me off with a brief text: “Are you ok? Do you need to talk?”

I suffer from clinical depression and generalized anxiety disorder because of the abusive parenting of my war-crazed father.  As a result, my family thinks I’m made of porcelain.  They check on me.  They worry I’m “getting sick again.”  When I call my mother to say hello, she always answers with, “What’s wrong?”

I know they do this out of love, but it isn’t very loving.  It’s insulting and hurtful.

It hurts me because they have no idea who I am.  It’s apparent they’re mostly ignorant of my values.

They don’t know that I’ve written for New Jersey Peace Action, or that I’ve marched on Washington.  They especially don’t know that I’ve been a practicing  Buddhist for over ten years.  I took formal Tibetan Bodhisattva vows.  I considered becoming a monk.

My family doesn’t know what Buddhism is, or what Bodhisattva vows are, or how significant these decisions were to me.  They don’t know I have vowed to work for peace always.  They don’t know I have made a deep philosophical commitment to education.  I feel it’s my human responsibility to help dispel the suffering of ignorance.  They don’t take me seriously.  To them, I’m crazy Charlie.  And until now, I’ve just tolerated it.

But that helmet is a line for me.  That helmet offends me as a second survivor of the Vietnam War and as a war scholar.  I’ve studied the state lies behind wars.  I’ve studied the psychological aftermath, the creative catharsis, the poems of the wars I lived with—hot and cold.  I’ve written against war.

As a child, I was physically beaten by war.  I tried to grieve this with my disabled father when I was in my twenties.  He took me to the VA hospital for lunch once.  I listened to the few horror stories he was willing to tell.  We cried together—a little.  I told him I wanted to mourn with him, that I wanted to grieve the theft of both our childhoods.  He didn’t understand.  I moved to explain, but then—out of the corner of my eye—I saw a man whose face was bleached pure white and burned by chemical weapons.  I just looked up from my coffee and saw him.  He had no lips.  He had no eyelids.  He had no hair.  His face—his entire head—was a giant white scar.  He looked like a dying vampire.  I was startled.

When he caught me staring—I couldn’t help but stare—he ran from the cafeteria in shame.  I sobbed on my father’s shoulder.  I was shocked and ashamed of myself.  My father awkwardly soothed me.  He told me to never support a war.  I haven’t.

I wonder how that disfigured man would feel if he saw my nephew wearing that helmet—the same helmet he was wearing when he lost his face?

I know it makes me feel alone.  Living with a psychologically shattered veteran taught my sister nothing about war, it seems.  She will focus on denying the tragic American legacy of my family—the damage that a war did to all of us—while her son carries on the old lie of war glory.

I can’t play along.  I learned from the war poets—Wilfred Owen, Randall Jarrell, Bruce Weigl—there is nothing fun or playful, sexy or glamorous, or glorifying about war.

I know that war is always the sacrifice of the poor, in the name of the self-aggrandized arguments of the rich.  And I know viscerally that war sends shockwaves of trauma through a family—through several generations of a family.  War trauma is cross-generational.  I am living proof of this, as are my sister and my mom.  Yet, they put an M1 helmet on that child’s head.

So many have forgotten the government deceit      and the shredded minds.  The capture of Saigon by the Vietnamese ended America’s war in April 1975.  By that time, the Pentagon Papers had been leaked, and everyone was reading the volumes of officially documented lies behind the Vietnam War.  Thirty-five years later, to the month, the peace movement struggles on, and so many have forgotten.

War is patriotic again.  Military video games are cool.  My nine-year-old nephew is forced into a public school uniform.  And my country is bogged down in two new wars.  The drum beats on.  The horror.

My parents divorced when I was ten.  My father disappeared soon after.  Twenty-seven years later, war is still a cancer in my family.  The horror.

I feel like an exile and an orphan.


The Mourning After: for my father

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