My Hater

haterSome years ago, I returned to my classroom and discovered everything swept from my desk and onto the floor. The glass in my wife’s framed picture cracked. A stoneware mug where I kept my pens—the prize for winning my age group in The Kentucky Derby Half-Marathon—sat in two parts. The figure atop a women’s cross-country conference trophy splintered at the ankle. Dirt from a plant mixed with paper and a coffee cup’s contents.

That year, a group of sophomores regularly hung out in my room, and I asked them what they knew. They’d been in math or Spanish or art and hadn’t seen anything. I learned nothing more, but something in their expressions suggested restraint. A few seemed poised to speak but didn’t, bound by the no-tattle code. I had my theory, and, uncharitably, assigned the act to a student I knew hated me.

Few people like being hated, and I don’t consider myself interesting enough to be worthy of hate, not the sort to inspire vehemence of any sort. I certainly try not to be detestable. Teaching colleagues sometimes say, “If someone doesn’t hate you, you’re not requiring enough of your students.” I never repeat that advice. Hate, I prefer to believe, isn’t about its object. It is broadcast instead of targeted, or targeted only to release the pressure of a deeper, wider well of dissatisfaction, usually with yourself.

Haters, T-shirt wisdom goes, are gonna hate. It ‘s them, not us.

Yet a sort of pheromonal and supernatural enmity existed between me and my suspect, and, if love inspires reciprocation, so does hate. I worked at what professional decorum requires—reminding myself, mantrically, “I’m the adult”—but found no easy solution. I’d catch judgment, sarcasm, and dismissal inside our exchanges.

I care for humanity more now but haven’t eluded antipathy altogether. Occasionally someone or something irks me, and I douse it with explanation, understanding, empathy. Yet hatred as a broadcast is in me too, and, battling it, I say my backbone and not my brain or soul deserves blame. That’s not so or, if it’s so, I need the grace to pretend otherwise.

Were my suspect reading now, I might say, “Hey, listen. Whatever happened, I don’t care. I understand in the moment whatever you did made sense to you. I don’t blame you for thinking I deserved it… as wrong as you were.”

You hear how poorly I perform. That probably wouldn’t work, then or now. Anyone listening would know I don’t empathize, don’t believe, and am living above—instead of with—the truth. I’m disgusted with myself that my rational half will never outface my emotional half, disgusted that I can’t write down all the aspects of character I desire and make them real. And there’s still plenty of disgust left over for the accused too.

Back then, superglue and I became intimate. The trophy and the mug found something like their old form. My wife’s picture disappeared in favor of a more current photo and frame. The plant was nearly dead to begin with. I settled on saying I didn’t know what happened and reassured myself when any other possibility leapt into my head. I still don’t know.

My suspect and I engaged in just a few more stilted and brittle conversations. At the end of the year, he transferred to a boarding school—I wrote one of his recommendations, as was required by his application—and we’ve seen each other only once since then. We didn’t speak, just locked eyes across a room.

I looked for something like guilt in his face, didn’t see it, and was glad… for all the right, and all the wrong, reasons.

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Going Long: Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch

o-THE-GOLDFINCH-900Tolstoy and Dickens and Garcia-Marquez, masters of the long novel, have a rival in Donna Tartt, author most recently of The Goldfinch. Reviewing her work, critics call it “Dickensian,” and with good reason. She’s just as ambitious, just as intent on immersing a reader in her narrative.

Finishing a long novel sometimes produces a sort of post-partum depression. If the characters are companionable and the scenery engrossing, the next day may feel a little flat, as if excitement just departed and gray routine took its place. Tartt, however, seems after something a little different.

People say form follows function, but perhaps the opposite is just as true. The effect of a form often arises from that form. Unlike movies, novels (any novel but longer ones particularly) aren’t intended to be consumed in a single sitting, and thus a moving story haunts a reader between encounters. The reason students should write about books in present tense, their teachers explain, is that whatever a reader discusses is still happening, right now, between the book’s covers. The reader my wander off, but the book has its own life. It’s easy to believe fiction continues even when no one watches.

With long novels, form governs a reader’s response even more vividly. Dickens’ painstaking attention to minutiae fills his fiction with shadowy corners and unopened but real rooms. His subtle presentation of even the most minor characters leaves them lingering in a reader’s imagination even when they’re offstage. As different as his worlds are—and they grow more different year by year—they seem actual, complete.

In The Goldfinch, Tartt demonstrates similar ambitions. Theo Decker, narrator of the novel, moves from New York, to Vegas, back to New York, and on to Antwerp, and each place has idiosyncratic light and space, odd smells and colors, distinctive possessions and detritus. Characters, in all senses of the word, populate these peculiar places. Theo Decker may hold the center, but the characters winging in orbit around him are powerful influences too. His friend Boris is particularly well-drawn, as a reader may never really believe he’s gone even though he exits the story, seemingly for good, multiple times.

Yet Tartt’s novel also renovates the form. Where Dickens and Garcia-Marquez, and especially Tolstoy, rely on essayistic passages to abstract the action and address broader concerns, Tartt never really leaves her action for long—at least, until the last few pages. In other authors’ work, these passages are a sort of respite for the reader, and Tartt offers little. She leaves her story in disarray. The burden of each moment’s concerns can create discomfort and enervation, itchiness akin to wearing a cast or sitting trapped in concert with a bad cough.

Dickens infuses characters with sweetness by placing them in dire but nonetheless hopeful contexts. Critics in his own time and since have justifiably accused him of sentimentality and bombast. Tartt seems intent on eluding his influence by denying nearly every character any lasting sweetness. Figures a reader might like—Theo’s unrequited love Pippa and his benefactors Hobie and Mrs. Barfour—are often ineffectual. Or they are victims of Theo’s relentless missteps or colored by cynical judgments. A reader may find it hard to encounter The Goldfinch without wanting to scratch… or come up for air.

Many contemporary authors test the lower limits of exposition, and novels like Gone Girl seem made to antagonize readers as well as attract them, often at the same time. Readers, it turns out, like watching traffic accidents too… the question is only how long. Like Gillian Flynn, Tartt tests readers’ patience, perhaps even their perseverance. Theo screws up on nearly every page and, if Tartt hopes his inherent goodness allies a reader to him—the decency beneath his theft, drug-use, apathy, denial, ignorance, and sometimes obsessive and aggravating grief—she also means to make liking him challenging. At the end of David Copperfield, Great Expectations, or Bleak House, a reader takes big bites to reach a desired destination. By the end of Tartt’s novel a reader may want escape and relief, an end to an all-too-full meal.

For anyone who hasn’t read The Goldfinch, one spoiler is necessary: it will end well. Though developments lift a reader at times, they won’t offer hope as frequently as some readers might like. Tartt makes it quite easy to believe that, any moment now, the pudding can still turn to excrement, and the end is still hundreds of pages away.

Some readers will celebrate her innovation and achievement, but some will want a more comfortable and companionable narrative, a book more like the long novels they regret finishing. The Goldfinch isn’t that sort of long novel.

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Thursday Haibun (Episode Three)

basho-loc-01518vI’m celebrating NaPoWriMo (Poem a Day Writing Month) by writing haiku and prose in haibun. I’m posting them each Thursday in April. The entries below are yesterday’s attempts. The numbers communicate how many I’ve written so far.

 liii.

Wandering the neighborhood when I was young, I passed a juniper bush and pulled dusty, blue-gray berries from branches and squeezed them between finger and thumb. The scent rising from the collision improved on any cologne I knew.

a gust rubs

leaves together—the rough sound

affection

Some smells affect me still. I can’t smell bayberry and balsam without thinking about Christmas or licorice without thinking of Easter.

a child told me

the chalk was hers, the drawing

her sister’s

I can’t smell bergamot without thinking of that afternoon in London when, having spent the day at the National Museum after finding no one to share my excursion, I wandered into a shop and ordered Earl Grey. It was after tea time and too early for supper. The evening stretched over the scarred table, all the pocks and pits craters in my close attention. Then my waitress sat down with me, asking me question after question until I felt I’d had an adventure.

We said goodbye knowing we knew one another.

incidental—

morning’s attention to

a lost glove

liv.

Watch enough sci-fi and you think of meeting extraterrestrials, stretching, stretching, stretching to imagine something outside your conception. If you really reached such possibilities, you’d be lost—words and gestures and emotions disparate, a meeting of rock and rock.

sparrow, I see you—

air separates us, time stalls

between us

lv.

One of my college roommates taught me to drive stick using my other roommate’s car. We never told him. In the Sunday parking lot, I lurched from start to stop, and soon the whole affair became purely laughable. We lifted into an ether of hilarity and sometimes had to pause to breathe enough oxygen. The car complained, but we didn’t. We enjoyed everything absurd in it, as, at that moment, we thought anyone would.

windows filmed:

I look out—the broken

gaze of shutters

Some weeks later, the car’s clutch died. I never spoke to either roommate about it, ducking my head to avoid revelation.

the last page—

notes I don’t understand

in my hand

lvi.

Sometimes reviewing memories means thinking of all I might have said. When my colleague asked, I didn’t exactly say what happened and, when she wanted to know about what he said, well…

outside this room,

arguing—her voice sings

a half-pitch too high

The problem is honesty—it always is—and what the occasion occasions and what transpires. I want to be proud. Instead, I feel flushed with confusion.

 inside this box,

another—another in that—

deep promises

She asked me. She asked what had been said against her and who spoke on her behalf. I remember she wanted to know, “Who was in the room?” and “Did you defend me?” They were questions I’d been instructed not to answer by people I cared less about. They were questions more likely than anyone in the room acknowledged.

Still, I said nothing. I quailed. Maybe I feared for my job.

hens’ posture

in the yard—strutting

inside the wire

 lvii.

When the sun sags toward buildings, I think it’s lazy, exhausted by its relentless, unvarying journey. I know that’s me—I’m tired.

the orchids

take days—grins unopened,

unknown

lviii.

I said you didn’t know me though I know you did.

at the bottom

a message—a moment’s

scrawl, wriggling

A sort of quiet calls for respect. You spoke and waited, watching me form responses from air. You may have known how little could be said, how evidence conspires, how a halting voice says more than words.

leaves reversed

awaiting rain, their gray

an extra face

We barely saw each other through dusk, as was proper. The edge of trees lost themselves in night sky.

 lix.

Consider this: everyone has embarrassment to recall.

two cars both ease

into a crossroad, close

enough to meet eyes

In fifth grade, Mrs. Cullen read my hijacked my note to Linda McClinton aloud. Mrs. Cullen emoted where the text demanded—the moment I said I really liked Linda and didn’t understand why she didn’t like me. The class laughed, especially Linda.

What choice did I have but to laugh too? The moment belonged in a book, the passage underlined.

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To Show For It

no-excuses-nike-football_1024x768_338-standard-e1327798385501Some people may see me as industrious—because I carry an overload in my already busy job as a teacher, because I keep up with four blogs and ten or eleven posts a week, because I sometimes make art on weekends, because I rise early to exercise, because I read, because I find time to watch Netflix, because I monitor Facebook and email and…

You see me stretch. The list changes from labor to leisure, fruitful to indulgent, necessity to caprice. Sometimes nothing I do seems positive. Passing time isn’t the same as productivity. Are my students learning—who knows? Am I writing anything worthwhile and is my writing improving—who knows? Is this weekend’s art any different from last weekend’s—who knows? Is my life enriching, evolving, satisfying? Um… not sure.

On Monday coworkers ask, “So what’d you do this weekend?” Most of the time, they mean to investigate fun, learn which social plans won the office-wide enjoyment contest. But the question doesn’t solicit agreeable responses. “I went to Home Depot…” someone begins, or “With the taxes due…” or “I’ve been putting off cleaning…” or “I needed…” or “I had to…” or, my favorite, “Ugh.”

When I see a play or travel or meet a friend, I’ll explain. Otherwise, I say, “Nothing.” What I did doesn’t stand out. I might brag about grading a bunch of papers. Mostly, my mind rewinds. What the hell DID I do? How did I accomplish so little?

America, we’re told, relies on industry, and no one ever accomplished anything without hard work and determination. Andrew Carnegie’s motto was “Honesty, industry, and concentration.” Benjamin Franklin said, “Sloth makes everything difficult, but industry, all things easy.” “The miracle, or the power, that elevates the few,” Mark Twain said, “is to be found in their industry, application, and perseverance under the prompting of a brave, determined spirit.”

You know you’re in trouble when even Mark Twain urges you to get off your ass.

My output seems inadequate, unsuitable for any report. I’d be culpable if I could have done more and/or done it better, but more frequently I’ve been busy as hell with little to recommend the time. The issue isn’t calories expended, but what I can show for them. How do I tell colleagues I wasted hours on haibun or how do I explain deleting an essay that, after five or six attempts, didn’t gel? The art I produce often fails utterly, useful only in what it indicates about what not to do next time.

So much, in other words, is spent in fumbling.

I enjoy painting and writing and creating in general yet recognize some product must blossom from all this effort. Maybe that expectation arises more from outside than inside, but I feel it. I’d like to be able to answer “What’d you do?’” with “Nothing” and not a jot of guilt. I’d like to say, “Stuff” and leave it at that.

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Everything, Everything, Everything is Crap

urca42ckfu0qgllaty5jSometimes, in conversation, you criticize someone or something, and another after another complaint comes out. Soon indignation climbs on indignation until you’re riled. The world fills with unjust and intolerable and dumb circumstances. People around you are insensitive and/or ignorant. You’re incensed, as you should be.

A sympathetic listener nods and sighs, perhaps clapping a hand over yours, whispering, “Yes, the world is misguided… all but us.”

And sometimes you hear your laments as they’re heard by others. Your listener’s eyes lose focus or shift to a screen, window, or plant nearby. In that context, sighs have a different meaning. Air goes dry. The keening noise, that shaking-fists-at-the-sky, ready-to-leap voice, is yours. You’re as wrong as anyone.

I have opinions. When I evaluate poor decisions, miscues, and the culprits behind the blunders around me, I believe I’m right. I see the blunders and the blunderers, which some people—those people—don’t.

Then, in an instant, I hate listening to myself. Judgment is a terrible default, yet anything anyone tells me or anything I read or anything I experience instantly becomes good or bad, right or wrong, sensible or silly, feeling or unfeeling, interesting or dull.

I’d be happier with curiosity or sympathy or a profound desire to investigate and learn.

But perhaps I shouldn’t assess myself so harshly. American society is judgmental. One party and candidate sneers at the other. One product puts another in the shade. Arguments make good TV punditry, and all those people stranded on islands or traveling and the dancers and singers and generally talented people, they need eliminating. Cooks need eliminating. Disdain permeates media and politics. We enjoy laughing and love a snappy put-down or gotcha.

Even a president explaining the Affordable Care Act does so in mocking-cable format on Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis on Funny or Die. The President must follow the script—“C’mon everyone knows it’s a script, Obama is so wooden!” the critics cry—as he continually insults the cluelessly obtuse, hapless comedian. At last, he reaches his plug, his plug being openly dismissed as “a plug.” The comedian interrupts the President to point out how dull his message is. “This is what they must mean by a drone, ” Galifianakis opines.

My history classes listened to Franklin Roosevelt’s first Fireside Chat praising the American people for their understanding of the Emergency Bank Holiday, lauding the two political parties for their patriotic cooperation, and applauding the financial sector for self-sacrifice as we (plural) met the unexpected crisis.

The contrast woke me up. Of course, I could and maybe should be skeptical, critical even. FDR isn’t be telling the whole truth—history records his many detractors and the friction his reforms met—but speaking praise without fear of censure seems, in our age, surprising. He too needed to plug, to justify government action, but he explained with poise and calm. No one was hurt or threatened in the making of his broadcast. Many felt reassured.

My students seem better prepared for the mixed humor and earnestness of Between Two Ferns, and, even now, I hear them judging me, saying I’m clueless They’d say Americans are honest now. FDR’s Fireside Chat—really just as calculated as Obama’s appearance—exploited Americans too, only less openly. We can’t be so easily exploited now.

Maybe, but the extremity and judgment that permeate humor and earnestness exemplify our strident age. Nothing is solely what it is—it’s itself and what it’s worth.

Dear Reader, you may find me strident now. I’m ready to accept my part of the problem. I’m as cynical as the next American and won’t make any ridiculous, cringe-worthy (and judgment-worthy) resolutions to change. I won’t spout bombastic, self-righteous calls for others to change.

Instead, I’ll just say I hear myself now. Some matters deserve censure, others not.

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Thursday Haibun (Episode Two)

basho-loc-01518vAs I wrote last Thursday, I’m celebrating NaPoWriMo (Poem a Day Writing Month) by writing haiku and prose in haibun. The entries below are yesterday’s attempts. The numbers communicate how many I’ve written so far.

xli.

Many days I pass the same man begging. I know his name now—Jimmy—and he often asks for money by saying, “Make Jimmy happy.” Though I’m sure I can’t, I give him a dollar, easy enough for me to spare, a greater source of relief for him than for me. When he shakes my hand, I feel the leather of his palm—winter, summer, a life outside I don’t know. When I smile, he recognizes the sign and smiles back.

His eyes never smile.

this hour

sun takes cover—buildings

won’t hold light back

One day, walking to work, having just given Jimmy his dollar, another pedestrian doubled back from just ahead of me.

“You shouldn’t be giving him money!” he said.

I said nothing.

“He spends it on crack! He’s a crack-head. I know. I was on it too, and he said, ‘Give me some money, I’ll bust your ass!’”

Anger streamed from him. His expression stretched, neither smile, nor snarl, nor surprise. He touched me on the upper arm.

“Sure,” I said, “I hear you.”

at intersections

waiting for clearance—the street

slick with weeping

 xlii.

I suppose it’s nothing special that after some runs—during the time I was really running—steam rose from my shoulders and chest as it does from horses. I felt like an animal.

What must I do to have that moment happen again?

sun glances

from the lake’s horizon and

stops ascending

 xliii.

too early,

your voice blunders into quiet—

we both know now

I wonder if you sensed us stepping around you. The evening creeping from the sliding glass door drew the ornate shadow of the la-z-boy’s reach. Your neck, vulnerable, rolled like a snake to the side. You snored.

“let statues lie,”

she said, as if choice lay

with them

xliv.

In another life as a sleeper, I run from words. They seem too plain to evoke. They define and refine until they speak exactly. Say what you will of abstraction, it eludes reality and the relentless chore of logic.

from the window,

a rectangle of light, marking

a far wall

In a recent dream, I spoke to the freshly departed. They entered the room one at a time and greeted me as old friends even when we’d barely spoken. I tried to be polite, offering what I had, which, in this dream, was a pair of mittens and a broken wine glass—the base, the stem, and half the blossom.

wind ruffles

open books, smiling pages

touched

Finally I settled with someone I didn’t know, exchanging phrases and listening enough to pick up the twisted thread of precedents.

you read loss,

lines of levels dropping—

eyelids half-fallen

Closing time arrived. I rose to leave. I shook a hand I wasn’t certain I knew. I left a card on a table, sure it wasn’t mine.

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Finding Myself Here

bwphoto_assignment_3+copyMore flash fiction…

One tail of his shirt lay outside his pants, which I noted as he spun to face me. His tie hung loose. His right fist hovered like a hammer before its fall.

“You have no idea!” he yelled.

But I did. He pelted me with his breath, beer-sour, as dank as bars he and I knew, ones created to serve desperation.

“You don’t know her!”

Even closer. So that, had I less control we might bump and, from there, tangle. I resolved to go limp if our skin met, but my skin buzzed of its own accord.

“Listen…” I said

Some hopelessness swallows expression. You reach the end of air before really speaking. The silence of dread follows.

“You fucker!”

“I…”

“Shut the hell up…”

As boys out on the lake we’d worked as halves, reacting to the least shift in wind with the proper measure of canvas and rope. We’d never needed voices, even the time we’d capsized and clung to the hull. Then I’d only heard him chuckle from the other side.

The first blow hit my temple and slid off as I turned my head, but the second, in my stomach, departed before I knew he’d launched it. I’m not sure how I landed on all fours, but when he kicked my side, I arched like a cat, the keen taste of bile in my mouth. The rest was lost in scraping along the asphalt parking lot ahead of his pursuit, all elbows and knees, forehead, shoulder, hip. I may have fought back but can’t remember.

When I opened my eyes, I was between two cars. He’d left me the strange stillness of dusk. Only the sky remained bright. The rest bathed in gray, and no one stood near. I was afraid he would be close before realizing I didn’t care, that I might prefer it.

“I’m sorry,” I said. I crawled two more steps and lifted myself up by the car’s sides.

When I kissed her the first time, I pictured this. I peeked to see her eyes closed, the hint of a smile daring fate and abandon.

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