15 Fairly Fractured Tales

annotated-brothers-grimm-bicentennial-editionWhen my children were portable and saw me as a funnel for the world, my favorite duty was telling bedtime stories. I’m not a brilliant storyteller, but credulity inspires improvisation. I painted myself into corners to see how I might get out.

Rather than write a full post, I’m exercising those atrophied muscles in 15 single sentences from stories—beginnings, middles, and ends. Only a few are really suitable for children, but I aimed to find fanciful and promising ideas ripe for plot, not sleep:

1. The other alchemists thought it silly to try to turn gold into food.

2. What you’ve heard is true—dogs are humans’ best friends—but there was one dog whose only friends were cats.

3. At first just household objects reappeared as papier-mâché but soon whole buildings, the town, and finally its citizens became immobile and lumpy from someone’s bungled construction.

4. He dreamed the sun was a plow and so did she—when they kissed for the first time, they decided to make the dream so.

5. The soothsayer kept the bear caged but told everyone the bars marked the limits of their world and not the bear’s.

6. The tools, unwilling to touch anyone who might use their talents poorly, fled from the people who meant to wield them.

7. “Be careful,” her grandmother told her, “or you’ll end up like your father, lost in his own bedroom.”

8. Once a king decided to possess everything and soon owned all of the planet except himself.

9. Before, she had visited the priest, but that morning she decided to write her confessions on cards and hand them to strangers in the town square in front of the cathedral.

10. Another day, another habit, and soon the animals were very different from the humans, who never learned the knack of making one day echo another.

11. All his life he worked on one map—drawing landmarks guiding him out of his house, through streets, into countryside, over mountains, and into another house with another map just like the first, only dark.

12. Most people don’t know that sleep’s twin is jealous of his sister’s influence.

13. A tree shot straight out from the face of the cliff, and every year or so a villager came along to build a house in it, but the tree and the wind knew what to do and shook them off like flies.

14. “This seat,” he said, “is the judgment seat, and, if you want to know what to think about anything at all, you just need to sit down and close your eyes.”

15. Each of the library’s books contained a song, and opening their covers released the music forever.

 

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So Creative…

Manage-Stress-Get-Creative-C1In a writing workshop, one of my classmates called my poem “creative,” and my teacher held up his hands and shrugged.

“What’s creative,” he asked, “what does that word even mean?”

My answer finds trouble at each turn:

1. To be creative is to, well, make something, but making something new isn’t enough. If creativity and novelty were perfect synonyms, art would be easy. Recombining letters and words—or notes or pigments or movements or gestures—would suffice. But artists seek a different sort of novelty mixing the strange and familiar to find truth. Sometimes we call “creative” what we should have noticed or known but didn’t. “Creative” isn’t the same as “odd”… though that could be what my classmate meant.

2. And can something be creative only once? Is a cliché a cliché only if you’ve heard it? Which standard of freshness shall we apply—the absolute or personal? What’s more stultifying than absolute? What’s more finite than personal?

3. New and right to me may not be, and no assay or measure will establish what “creative” means definitively and universally. Its elusiveness is welcome magic.

4. For the artist, creativity consumes itself. Art loses heat the instant of completion. The object signals creation’s (and imagination’s) end. Though audiences warm their minds on the ashes, they examine artifacts of an artist’s experience and thus reassemble. Interpretations add perspective. Yet, from the artist’s outlook, they stir spent coals.

5. Creativity is more pursuit than achievement, never accomplished finally or entirely. Its only purpose may be prompting more of itself.

6. Some creativity arrives only when exhaustion looms and nothing remains. What once appeared creative proves an earlier stage.

7. Genes, circumstance, sensory equipment, or disposition fence artists. Makers want to leave themselves and be creative but find an unexamined patch of their own yard instead.

8. Maybe some artists are demi-gods, just naturally original, endowed with genius and a special touch, but, if so, their attributes won’t sustain them. Exercising your voice until it’s worn out isn’t creative. Art requires subverting, rejecting, and redefining all you think you know, continually.

Which is what I’m guessing my teacher was trying to say. His patience ran out. He wanted us to stop talking about what was or wasn’t creative and get to work.

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Danse Russe

“I am lonely, lonely. haring4

I was born to be lonely,

I am best so!”…

 

Who shall say I am not

the happy genius of my household?

 

William Carlos Williams,

“Danse Russe”

Lately, the philosophical question plaguing me is whether solitude is the natural state of humans… which says something about the state I’m lately in.

It’s July and, as a teacher, I don’t report to work. However, my wife still leaves each morning, my son lives elsewhere, and this summer my daughter has a job in the wilderness of Wisconsin. Between seven am and seven pm, email, Facebook, and the internet generally keep me company. With my sabbatical ahead, I forecast a long stretch of similarly uninterrupted solitude for the next 14 months.

Scientists believe they’ve answered my philosophical question definitively: humans are not solitary, never have been, and, in fact, experience changes in genetic expression in response to social situations. Where scientists once believed you were stuck with the genes you possessed at birth, they now recognize the environment, including the social environment, can turn on certain genes and change traits thought immutable. Research indicates people who live alone develop suppressed immune systems and manifest marked changes in genes linked to depression. Abused children with access to support outside the home, for instance, show–genetically—less sensitivity to stress and trauma. Closeted gay men fall much more rapidly to AIDS than more connected victims. Solitude, science says, is bad for you.

I’m not naturally social. In that great divide between those energized by company and those taxed by it, I’m squarely in the second group. A day of teaching runs upstream against my disposition, and, by the end of the workday, I have no talk left. As most people do, my wife looks forward to parties, guests, and visits. I try to. I remind myself how much fun I’ll have, how good it will be to reconnect with friends, how exciting meeting new people can be. Nonetheless, my apprehension grows. Almost involuntarily, I experience a kind of dread.

I’m no recluse. I love most humans and seem to function well in public. Some people, I’m always surprised to hear, say I’m interesting, even charming. Still, solitude is easier.

There’s a difference between solitude and loneliness. Solitude is a choice. Loneliness implies unfulfilled desire. A solitary person likes quiet, enjoys controlling his or her time, and finds productive and satisfying ways to spend what may appear to others empty hours. In contrast, a lonely person feels lost in a desert of time and wonders where the oasis is, where life-sustaining company might be, right then. Solitude evokes strength, self-sufficiency, autonomy, confidence, and completion. Loneliness stings. It never feels right and elicits resentment, bitterness at the thought of being dismissed or neglected.

I aim for solitude, but its border with loneliness wavers. I consider calling people so we can get together, then I give the idea up as weakness—they have their own lives and could certainly call me if they wished. I shouldn’t impose. I remind myself of my good fortune, the time to read, and study, and think, and write. Then, when I’m not looking, the switch flips. I feel excruciatingly bored and forgotten. The day begins with journal writing, a to-do list, an hour or so of studying a psychology text, and work on my latest creative projects. It ends with Netflix, iPad games, and anything to pass time before my wife (finally) walks in.

If I complain, she says, rightly, “Do something about it.” And I say, “I should.” Yet, the next day, I return to the same strategy of making the most of being alone. Sometime soon, I may scream. In the meantime, I structure my new solitary life like a dike to keep loneliness out. I mean to keep loneliness out.

A researcher named Steve Cole has devoted his career to studying the physical effect of social isolation and has discovered that, even more than stress, “Social isolation is the best-established, most robust social or psychological risk factor for disease out there. Nothing can compete.”

Scientists may have answered the question of whether humans are solitary, but my own experiment continues. My days negotiate self-reliance and desire, fellowship and autonomy, productivity and yearning to hear another voice. Nothing seems so immediate and real as this battle between being myself and being part of something. Even this post is a skirmish, a surrogate for conversation, piled earthwork, more effort to occupy time.

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Danger Danger

8326674788_ffc5919ef8_zOccasionally people ask if I worry about posting online. They wonder about potential embarrassment to me or to my family, or the professional trouble I might get into if superiors or students read a post, or the hate even a mild point of view can inspire. I know the internet is prone to spinning gray into black and white and isn’t a natural place for the measured or reasonable. Anyone who reads comments sees the disproportion of cyberspace, the glee some take in judging others on the barest basis and then spewing ugly, often scary, venom.

But, no, I don’t worry about that. Statistics tell me how many people find this blog every day and who can be sure how many actually read? After four years, Signals to Attend has quite a few followers, but WordPress doesn’t say how many of those really follow and how many hope for a visitor or follower in return. For the record, I return visits (though not always with comments) and am grateful for whatever loyalty this blog cultivates. Reading and writing is, potentially, the positive side of the internet, its capacity to create community, and company. Whatever the risk of blogging, the benefit of meeting thoughtful writers is greater. For me, it has been anyway.

I don’t rely on limited visibility though. One wrong reader could make life miserable and, although sometimes my ire bubbles up, I try to moderate the ferment, to be circumspect, to watch my measures and combinations to make the best brew possible. I use no names not already in the public sphere. I name neither family members nor my workplace and try to protect anyone I do name by considering how it might feel to be the object of my criticism.

Writerly friends, in fact, sometimes urge taking more risks. They say I’d have more readers if my opinions ventured into perilous territory. Yet, the biggest risk, to me, is saying what you think or feel as exactly as you can. It’s easier to be dramatic and “out there” if you don’t worry how accurately you express yourself or communicate the truth you see. Getting your own heart right courts equivocation and complexity. In our world, maybe that’s the risky stance.

Every once in a while a comment arrives that might be summarized as “Why would you think such a stupid thing?” or offers unsolicited advice carefully tailored for the misguided… and tailored a couple of sizes too small. In those cases, I’m polite. They come from a desire to make things better. And, of course, they’re often right.

Plus risk is part of the process. Who would want to create no response? If writing were simple, we wouldn’t suffer so much over it and—suffer over it as much as we like—our writing is bound to be incomplete if we try (as we ought to) to sort out what we don’t understand. Anyone who can help me understand my topic or myself better is welcome. For that, I’m also grateful. Just assume my intentions are good, please.

Really, my only worry about posting online is that my time and effort may be wasted. Everyone knows the Oscar Wilde quotation, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” As many bloggers must, I worry about dancing to my own tune, calling “important” what’s actually self-indulgent and solipsistic. Worse than wandering into trouble is wandering into dark and empty rooms. I think of closing this blog down every time I pass a significant number of posts, but it’s never because I fear backlash. What I fear is that the trouble is all mine or that my best escape from issues is being irrelevant.

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Commute

d9d4c68cb3bb5818776e12b294909c8bThe key wouldn’t turn the way it needed to. He tried for some time and then had to go to work. On the way he told himself an unlocked door is fine as long as no one tries it, and he couldn’t be late again or he’d have no money for rent.

He thought briefly about calling her because she still had a key and might have the touch to make the lock work. She did much better with objects, understood subtle shifts of position and emphasis that made them cooperate. Every thing seemed troublesome to him. At first, she’d found his confusion charming and laughed at his clumsy handling, but her impatience grew like a bass hum in an audio line, building until it overwhelmed the signal.

On the day she left, she locked the door. He returned expecting to find the apartment open and her inside making something to eat, as that morning she’d offered. Instead, he found a note on the bare table explaining she’d taken most of her things and would be back for the others that weekend. Nothing in the note explained why really, but he understood.

They could be friends, she promised.

He’d be late anyway. The L always chose the worst time to delay and, between each station, a voice announced, “Your attention please: We are standing momentarily, waiting for signal clearance. We expect to be moving shortly.” Sometimes the message just finished as the train lurched to life, the air conditioner stirring as it engaged. Sometimes the lull continued, passengers doing their best to pretend they hadn’t heard.

“What are your ambitions?” she’d asked him once.

He shrugged. The degree he’d earned wasn’t practical, and, encouraged by his parents to “follow his bliss,” he’d never thought much about income. He’d always worked, never at anything, however, he’d devote a life to. He settled between jobs. He knew what he’d like and what, in the meantime, he might do to get by. When the getting by squeezed everything else out, he felt strange relief. Absolved from dreaming, he could live instead.

She might have left him when she took her new post or three months later when she received her first promotion. He took her staying as proof she loved him as he was but also detected her restlessness, the way she seldom sat with him anymore, never simply read or watched something with him.

Before the L reached his stop, he’d vacated his seat for an old man bent by labor or some previous injury into an awkward S. They’d passed a light smile, and he thought momentarily about speaking but recalled how she hated that, her forced laugh when he’d explained his parents’ faith in casual conversation.

One of his friends asked if he knew she’d started seeing someone else. He said, “Yes,” though, of course, he hadn’t. In retrospect, the hints lay everywhere, but he’d thrown himself into work, taking unnecessary shifts and covering co-workers when they or family members became ill. She’d scolded him. He might have noticed how he neglected her.

“And for what?” He almost said the words aloud.

Every time he passed through the revolving door at the station he had to think which way to turn—something in the bars scared him, and those exits always reminded him of factory machines to knead or slice bread. A man in a business suit behind him almost ran over him. He glanced back in mute apology.

On the street, peeking at his phone, he saw the hour had passed. The manager wouldn’t really be angry because he’d been a dutiful employee and a good co-worker, a good boy. Still, involuntarily, his pace quickened.

Their first conversation after she left was to arrange a meeting that never happened. She needed to talk to someone, and he said he had a conflict too. Since then, they’d spoken twice on the phone. The second time, he’d meant to be dignified when she asked how he’d been, but he’d been honest.

“I’m pretty miserable,” he said.

She tried to console him, but nothing she said stuck.

Down the block, he saw the familiar storefront and one of his coworkers cranking the handle to release and extend the awning. That was his job, he thought, and then he heard his own voice, barely audible on the busy street.

“Go home,” it said, “call a locksmith.” And, before another moment passed, he turned and went.

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As Far As I Know

conversation-with-godYou won’t hear me talk about God much. I think about Him or Her or It—sometimes obsessively—but generally don’t know what might be reasonable or useful to say. We each have some vision of who God might be and what God might want from humanity and for humanity. Yet others’ notions seem clearer than my own. Mostly I want to avoid fighting. Too many of us are ready to argue, even battle, over ideas of God that, to me, seem fundamentally unknowable. We contest distinctions that, by their definition and by our nature, elude human understanding.

I’m not saying others’ beliefs are fiction, mind you, just that I wonder how we can know if they are or aren’t. For me, the gulf between belief and verity is too wide to bridge. The devout fill me with wonder and—when their perspective fosters tranquility and love and understanding and tolerance and higher purpose and goodness in the world, I’m envious. I honor their faith and appreciate how much God and religion mean in their lives. However, the question of how they know what they know never leaves me. When zealots’ confidence leads to saying I, and everyone else, should think as they do, I balk. I hold very few views assuredly enough to urge them on anyone else.

Atheists who say there is no God at all seem equally bullish.

The Catholic church helped raise me, taught me Biblical narratives, instructed me on the proper way to live, and coded perspectives that are probably too deep to sort out. However, I’m not a Catholic now, partly because my churchgoing habits waned and partly because all churches appear so vividly human to me. Their stories are human stories—if they were divine they might be incomprehensible—and something desperate lurks in them, some affirmation, justification, or rationalization that, had it come simply from ourselves, wouldn’t possess the gravity and consequence needed to influence others.

If there is a God responsible for the immense order, chaos, and beauty of the universe, I’m sure He or She or It occupies a space we can’t grasp. I read a science fiction novel recently that centered around “Hypotheticals,” responsible for an immense, verifiable change in the operation of the planet. One of the main characters was very ill and the narrator, his friend, lamented that the Hypotheticals did nothing to spare him. The main character replied,

I don’t blame them. They don’t know what’s happening to me. I’m under their threshold of abstraction… you and I, Tyler, we’re communities of living cells, yes? And if you damaged a sufficient number of my cells I would die, you would have murdered me. But if we shake hands, and I lose a few skin cells in the process, neither of us even notices the loss. It’s invisible. We live at a certain level of abstraction; we interact as bodies, not cell colonies. The same is true of the Hypotheticals. They inhabit a larger universe than we do…

Getting enlightenment from science fiction embarrasses me, but I have to admit this speech—clumsy as it is—resonates with me. It makes sense that any God would live on a level of abstraction above our cellular one. Any God holds a vision so broad our narrow lives could see only an infinitesimal sliver of it.

There’s no knowing, after all, whether you and I even live in the same world. We see from one perspective with our peculiarly human sensory apparatus. It’s logical we’d believe, as any sane person must, we’re looking at reality. Yet, though you may tell me I’m mistaken and I might say the same to you, neither of us possesses an infallible means to convince the other.

We are trapped on this human-sized scale. DNA travels with us, might shout at us all day and, though we’ve learned to scope inward and outward great distances, we still may regard DNA as separate from ourselves, apart when, really, we share the same space. We understand it differently, DNA and I, but who’s to say who’s right, or if “right” is an actual thing at all.

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Not the Post-Independence Day Message You Hoped For

superman-citizenship-1303916053While visiting Canada two summers ago, I learned Superman renounced his American citizenship. Apparently—I don’t follow Superman anymore—he wanted to be a citizen of the world instead of belonging to one nation.

Or so he said. Was he just being politic, eluding the fall-out from admitting he no longer felt proud of being from the U.S? Judging his feelings by my own, I wonder, was it really Superman’s queasiness about “The American Way”? Could he no longer group America with “truth” and “justice” as he once did?

I can’t be as diplomatic. Aside from wishing—almost involuntarily—for my fellow Americans’ good fortune in international sporting events like the World Cup, aside from feeling special affection for those who risk their lives for American ideals, I’m not patriotic. Oh, our history includes grand aims. Our founding principles inspire me, and our experiment in representative democracy evinces noble intentions, maybe the most enlightened espoused up to that point. Our people, despite seemingly insurmountable struggles and a system increasingly rigged against them, remain determined to make the American Dream true. And many Americans affirm my hopes for altruism and self-sacrifice.

Yet recently I’ve felt ashamed. It isn’t just that we’ve cheapened liberty by transmuting it into the freedom to profit or that we’ve placed the needs of the quite well-off above others, it’s that we’re duplicitous, espousing values we don’t follow—consciously (and seemingly systematically) informing the disenfranchised the system is working just as it ought to, was meant to.

Harsh, I know, likely to land me on an NSA list, but idealists make great cynics. The business of business dominates American discourse. The corporation is not just a citizen but the first citizen. Shareholders and employers eat first, and employees are force-fed a steady diet of cant. “You’re lucky to be working,” they’re told and “we can’t afford to raise minimum wage.” Meanwhile CEOs net in an hour what the average worker makes in month. The brave few who, Oliver Twist-style, step forward to ask for more receive cold comfort. “If we allow unions or pay you more,” they hear, “we’ll go out of business, and your job and everyone else’s will be gone. We’re all in this together, right?” We can’t even tax those who benefit from short-changing others because, despite considerable contrary statistics, they’ve renamed themselves “job creators.”

In the past, Americans asked government to protect them, and the president and congress served to monitor and police industry and curb the excesses of capitalism. Many politicians are still at it, but others say social programs and the muscle of government won’t help, that, in fact, any restriction or handout is bad for U.S. citizens. What Americans need, they say, is “opportunity” and opportunity arises from unregulated growth and tough-love self-reliance. Yet, in American English, opportunity often translates as looking away. “We need less government!” shout those who ought to know better. A cursory scan of American society tells us the majority (which we pretend is our most wise and reasonable perspective) doesn’t stand a chance against the moneyed interests of the self-interested and self-absorbed. Though materially and statistically well-off, this minority shouts at each infringement on their right to amass more. They purchase megaphones to assure they drown everyone else out. They’ve set aside their life rafts, after all.

The Canadian newspaper that brought me news of Superman’s ex-pat status included a point-by-point analysis of how difficult it is to rebuke American citizenship. Perhaps Superman could grease legal wheels, but I suspect more and more Americans feel as trapped as I do. Our nation can’t acknowledge the need for reform, much less create it. We’d rather watch fireworks, charge the iPhone to our credit card, and congratulate ourselves for pretty ideas that, each year, vanish from our reality.

Someone made money on those fireworks, the same way they made money on that patient or that student loan or that prisoner or that gun or that access to oil or that foreign invasion or that special amnesty from pursuing higher ideals and caring for others. I don’t know how Superman feels, but being born here doesn’t inspire me to love that.

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