Dear World…

grandpa-simpsonLet me tell you about my embarrassing grandpa—not my actual grandfather because both real ones died before I remember, but the metaphoric grandpa you may recognize.

Grandpa expresses himself less nimbly than he once did. He isn’t the silver-tongued devil who swept my grandmother away, though in his imagination he remains vital and even sexy. In fact, as my grandpa’s store of words empties year by year, he has more to say. He has little governor—his brake pads malfunction regularly. A mind that once listened now bulls in, crowding every room with ambling and clichéd speeches about hard-tested wisdom, a right way of seeing and thinking born of ossified and unassailable memory and experience.

Listeners easily place his perspectives in more ignorant—he says “innocent”—times when consciousness-raising didn’t merit a name. The closest he comes to apologizing for diminishing others is excusing himself for coming up in another era. He loves to point out how much better we got along when we didn’t question the way things are. He pines for those days and wonders out loud why they can’t come back.

Don’t try to talk to my grandpa about how bad the good old days were. He may wait his turn to speak, but he will respond to the last thing you said as if it were the only thing you said. More likely, he will dismiss you as naïve. Grandpa’s learning years are over. He knows it’s easier to reinforce his ideas than to build new ones, and he can easily find all the information (or misinformation) he needs to support his beliefs. He only has to face the world in aggregate. The minute and intimate and human effect of any action is moot.

So please don’t bring up Grandpa’s neighbors. Too many of them have moved in, he carps, and ruined his nostalgic notion of unity and solidarity. Never mind that these new neighbors retrieve his grill cover when the wind carries it away or that they shovel snow from his walk along with their own. Never mind that they listen politely as he spews vitriol on the block party. He won’t acknowledge how grateful they are or how they’d rather leave him alone than impose. Their presence, he figures, will only attract more like them. Just to discourage new arrivals, he’d happily evict them.

My grandpa has revised his past to flatter his self-image. He remembers hard work and not luck, gumption and not circumstance, shrewdness and not his head start. He can’t fathom why everyone can’t be (and shouldn’t be) like him, and he never apologizes for his good fortune. Or shares. He won’t hand out what hasn’t been earned, and everything he and friends possess has been earned. The rest, apparently, are takers.

Apologies in general are not my grandpa’s thing. He is past considering other people’s feelings. He will tell you it’s natural he comes first and has reached an age and stature when regret is superfluous. He is exceptional, exempt from regret.

The appalling stuff Grandpa says—the foul words, the hate-filled language, the crude descriptions, the epithets—sometimes make people titter. Because basic social decency demands you respect him, his vile attitudes at times sound humorous, almost like a five-year-old stringing curse words together. He can’t really mean it, you tell yourself, and, as long as he doesn’t enact his pronouncements, he’s a harmless coot. He won’t be around too much more time, you repeat. That faith becomes consolation and excuse.

Occasionally my grandpa rouses the will to play nice, showing glimpses of his former civility. I’m told those moments should make me happy, make me accept him as my elder. But the worst aspect of my grandpa is that I must accept him. The first-person possessive pronoun “my” unites us. What I hate in him comes from our common stock. The same nation made us, and his blood is mine. Yet World, you need to know—by “embarrassing,” I mean “shameful.” I cannot unmake my grandpa or deny him. I can, however, do what he can’t. I’m sorry and determined not to become him.

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Artist’s Statement

IMG_1995-1Though unpracticed at improv, I think I understand how the principle—place faith in skills you’ve developed and, when the moment comes to invent, you will respond. The same feelings apply to every art form. There are hours of experience… and right now.

For about twenty years, I’ve been painting abstracts. Most of that time, I’ve sought only to play with marks, colors, and shapes to please myself. Every stage alternates pattern and variation, processes I commit to and then violate. Each layer superimposes on the last until the final picture emerges as something unexpected. I know artists who express frustration when their final product doesn’t match their visions, but I rarely feel that. Surprise satisfies me most. If the end point is unanticipated, that’s enough. I await serendipity.

Or failure. At some stage, I hate the painting emerging from blank space. I worry about sophistication most, whether what I’m creating is complex or interesting enough to reward scrutiny and whether it possesses enough skill to seem virtuous. Of course, I can’t see my art as others do—like a grown child, each stage remains visible to me in the final product. But all art, I suppose, rests on faith. If you like it, you think, someone else may possibly (hopefully) like it too.

IMG_0711-1And, anyway, only a fool expects people to appreciate abstract art generally. When I show my work, most people profess to like the colors or specific interesting shapes. They ask, “What did you have in mind—what were you thinking about?” I have answers—a cracked sidewalk, a koi pond viewed from overhead, roots laid bare by erosion, failing paint beneath leaf shadows—but we’re both being polite. Most of the time, my making supplanted my thinking. Referents appear only in retrospect.

Jackson Pollock described his work as “Energy and motion made visible—memories arrested in space.” Abstraction, Robert Motherwell said, is “nakedness, an art stripped bare.”

I try not to care whether I’m any good or not. I mean only to open a conduit to my unconscious and what I’ve seen and absorbed and can offer back—however mixed up—without excessive interference from impulses that might organize or otherwise impose.

IMG_2050Writing, the other great creative venture of my life, is different. In discussing visual art, I feel the danger of explanation. Writing essays like this one, I think explanation might be everything. Gerhard Richter once compared abstract art to fiction. Abstract paintings, he said, “make visible a reality we can neither see nor describe, but whose existence we can postulate.”

A closer comparison  might be poetry, an effort to represent the most elusive elements of experience. After so many years of trying to say exactly what I mean, Richter’s “postulation” has much to recommend it—regardless of what, in the end, it says.

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Drive Time

retirement-age-pension-fund-savings-886939Every day, almost every hour, I imagine being a sought-after editor, a teacher’s teacher, a designer for Crate and Barrel pillows and tablecloths, a podcaster, a muralist, an educational theorist and consultant, a freelance writer specializing in personal essays, a highly-paid fine artist. I could add masters athlete, but my body says, “no.”

My circumstances fuel these fantasies. When you reach a certain age, people ask, “When will you retire?” Then they ask, “What will you do then?”

I don’t know and blame our society’s new understanding of the word “retirement.” The dictionary says retirement is “leaving one’s job and ceasing to work,” but we’ve revised the concept. Where it used to entail traveling, gardening, doing crosswords, and just bemusedly (and charmingly) puttering about, now it means “second acts,” “rewiring,” and “side hustles.”

The impulse to stay vital makes sense. “The best way to stay on a bicycle,” a friend reminds me over and over, “is to keep peddling.” And I like completing tasks, helping out, creating what did not exist before I conceived it. I love being productive. What seems different now, however, is the vision of a post-work life I’ve absorbed, that, if I’m ready to cease teaching, I need to find something essential to my being and remunerative, preferably something I always dreamed of doing yet never did. I so easily confuse what I might do and what I should have done before now.

Like that other life-redefining moment—college—retirement isn’t cheap, but, unlike college, you can’t borrow for it, which may be what motivates people to remain in their jobs as long as they can. The pension era has passed. In 2002, the average age at which Americans expected to retire was 63. Now it’s 66. If Medicare fades away, we may end up working until we can work no longer, but, even now, if you haven’t saved for idleness, you can’t afford it.

If you have saved, you might still feel compelled to work. Books and articles claim savings justify bold ventures and alternative identities you’ve had to abandon. Like a professional athlete whose playing days are over, your situation is a golden opportunity to remake yourself. You can go back to school or start working in another industry or throw yourself into entrepreneurship… never mind that few places want to admit or to hire or to finance someone of your “experience.”

The “tired” part of “retired” no longer carries much weight. I confess, sometimes every fantasy appears more interesting than continuing down the same road, yet the prospect of starting over terrifies me enough to keep me on the job. My own father received his last paycheck the day after he died. Part of me hungers for an old-fashioned, more traditional retirement, the one where I see a lot of movies and feed the ducks in the park. What if I relearn the sidestroke or take up painting bad watercolors that don’t yield a dime? I’m not talking about idleness, I promise. Can’t my post-work life be busy without being stressful? Is that acceptable?

My school contracts with a service providing substitutes on short notice, and we see a parade of retired teachers pass through. A few don’t have laptops, don’t know how to attach or un-attach documents, and absent-mindedly forget to collect what we ask, but many are vibrant and capable, enjoying students as much as they ever did but going home without papers or parent phone calls to return. They earn nearly nothing—I’ve looked into it—except the satisfaction of putting in a decent day’s work.

There’s plenty of productivity left in me, and I could be someone’s new model employee, but is it so terrible to rest my drive and contribute what I can?

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My Best Wishes

thThis is a present from a small distant world. A token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts, our feelings.

We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.

We hope someday, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations. This record represents our hope and our determination, our good will in a vast and awesome universe.

 Jimmy Carter’s Golden Record Message, Voyager, June 16, 1977

Is it terrible that I think humans—especially American humans—might have had their chance?

I greet the news each day with mixed anger and satisfaction—anger because little likeable happens and satisfaction because anything hastening the end of this misery can’t be bad. I live in a schadenfreude world, celebrating calamity because some part of me believes we deserve it. We can be a stupid species—centuries of missteps establish that—but we usually muster the wherewithal for survival when the moment demands. Now feels different.

These days, some Americans seem to love walking up to the abyss and staring over the edge, regarding brinkmanship as courage. Some want the rest of us to agree that unchecked greed, foolhardy optimism, and stubborn short-sightedness are fundamentally American. They deny the obvious and call their denial unconventional thinking. Facts are only one person’s facts, they say, and thus subject to dispute or eradication.

Despite the season, nostalgia offers little consolation. I suspect my memory. The good old days may only look better because I didn’t notice the same dark forces at work before. The most fortunate Americans have always crowed that their labors and not circumstances (or good fortune or  just plain luck) assured their success. They barely see costs. Having more and wanting more doesn’t spur their consciences. Acquiring so much and desiring more, they cry for additional power to protect their hoard against those who claw for what’s left. They’re angry at victims of their excesses.

The meek, it’s clear, will not inherit as hoped.

So, on this day before Christmas, I’m envisioning Dicken’s Christmas Carol, watching the spirit of Christmas Past open his robe to reveal a boy and girl who are “yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish.” The boy is Ignorance. The girl is Want, which in Dickens’ day meant poverty. Though Scrooge is appropriately appalled at the sight of humankind’s offspring, “he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.”

This post may be the worst Christmas message ever, but I can’t be party to lies either. The spirit tells Scrooge to fear both children, but to fear ignorance most, issuing a somewhat cryptic warning, “Deny it… slander those who tell it ye… Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And bide the end!”

I don’t speak Victorian, but he seems to identify those who will create our end: people who would deny the straits we’re in, people who would reject those who have reason and good sense to say so, and people who would use their errors to divide us further. The spirit says of Ignorance, “on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.”

“Doom” is an ugly word I’d like to erase. Many days, however, it’s apt. The best news I’ve heard lately is the NYTimes’ announcement that the U.S. military studies UFOs and that aliens may already be eying our planet. If so, perhaps they’re here to save us… or end us. Either might make me happy.

The best wishes I can muster echo the Voyager message that opens this post: Let us hope to survive, or, barring that, let us hope to do our best and leave at least a tiny legacy of a glimmer of good will to this vast and awesome universe.

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About Pursuit

57a101e3c724f.imageEvery year, in each of my classes, I try at least one of the assignments I give. My post today is my attempt at a “Hybrid Essay,” an essay I assigned to my American literature class that mixes critical and personal attention to a text, in this case Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad.

Though I’m slightly over the word count (300-600 words), I wanted to accomplish what I ask of my students, that they make their own encounter with the text the central and explicit subject. I’m asking them what the book makes them think about.

I’ve made some adjustments for a more general audience, and the page numbers refer to the hardback edition.

Midway through Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, the main character, the runaway slave Cora, asks about the word “ravening.” She encounters it in a North Carolina attic, in the Bible loaned her to practice reading while she awaits a chance to escape again. Martin Wells, her savior and captor, can’t define the word at first, but a few pages later, as Cora urges action, Martin reports, seemingly out of the blue, “Ravening—I think it means very hungry” (178). It means more. Its full definition refers to animals’ ferocious hunger as they seek prey. In the context of the moment, Martin recalls “ravening” as he thinks about Night Raiders, Whitehead’s version of the KKK. “The boys,” he says, “will be hungry for a souvenir” (178). In the context of the novel—and in the context of the issue of slavery and in the context of American life—“ravening” may be a key to our character.

I use “our” deliberately. Dress it up as we will, all Americans seem touched by desperate ambition. Our ravening curiosity brought us to the moon, and our ravening desire created global business and industry. Our ravening idealism believed we might create a utopia where all people are endowed with an inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness—and life, and liberty.

The trouble begins with pursuit. In Underground Railroad, the slave catcher Arnold Ridgeway’s fascination with the “American Imperative” puts pursuit at the center of American life. He defines it as “the divine thread connecting all human behavior—if you can keep it, it is yours” (80). Something in us, some hunting impulse, believes in ambition even when its object is dubiously valuable and dubiously just.

Americans aren’t unique in their ambitions, but they may be the most conspicuously unapologetic about them. Ridgeway can’t resist bringing God into the American Imperative. The spirit that carried us to the new continent, he says, called us “to conquer and build and civilize,” and also “destroy what needs to be destroyed” (221). Charitably, he includes the will to “lift up the lesser races,” but adds “If not lift up, subjugate. And if not subjugate, exterminate” (222). All this ravening is, he suggests, “Our destiny by divine prescription” (222).

Ridgeway is a villain, and Whitehead can’t mean him to be an American Everyman. Yet his dark version of American ambition needs to be heard and understood as an inalienable American value. Ridgeway dies extolling his rectitude. “The American imperative is a splendid thing,” he sputters, “a shining beacon… born of necessity and virtue” (303). That label “beacon” sees the American Imperative as a signal aim—up on that City on the Hill—a virtue worth pursuing unquestioningly. Like many Americans, Ridgeway’s “greed is good” mentality places the side effect of progress ahead of primary effects like subjugation and destruction.

Alexis De Tocqueville believed Americans ought to amend “self-interest” with “rightly understood,” the comprehension that desires shouldn’t trammel or prevent others’ desires. Most of us know our aspirations are common. Whitehead goes further to create characters who sacrifice their desires. Cora lists them as “People she had loved, people who had helped her”: the Hob women, Lovey, Martin and Ethel, Fletcher (215). They seek to control what others are controlled by.

Trouble, Whitehead knows, comes from regarding documents like the Declaration of Independence as good and only good or bad and only bad. We must remember the Declaration did nothing to curb belief in slavery as natural or divinely ordained. Though we aren’t slavers anymore, the impulse to rationalize—and to fabricate—in order to justify personal advantage remains. We want to call ambition “the American Dream,” but Whitehead suggests we need to wake up and see its context. “The Declaration is like a map,” his Indiana teacher Georgina says, “You trust that it’s right, but you only know by going out and testing it for yourself” (240). We can’t become so ravenous we don’t continually test our map’s accuracy and limits.

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Mrs. Stone

lesleyannwarrenIn third grade, I was always afraid classmates heard my teacher call me up so she could whisper “Smile.”

Mrs. Stone meant well. She must have monitored me at “seat work,” watched my brow knit or heard the diaphragm-deep sighs I haven’t yet learned to suppress. She probably noticed that, when the three R’s paused for recess, I was last to leave and first to request re-entry. I don’t remember—but have no trouble imagining—my third-grade self. I’m still that ruminative boy. When I’m not apprehensive about tasks ahead, I’m spent, world-weary.

Perhaps Mrs. Stone’s psychology class in teaching college alerted her to look out for Eeyores like me. She may have been on an investigative mission to detect the cause of depression in children. More likely though, she found my behavior baffling—because what does a third grader have to be depressed about? Or tiresome—maybe I was the itch that always needed scratching.

I bet I apologized. I often apologize for struggling to smile. Mrs. Stone probably couldn’t name my issue—it may not have had a name yet—but in the DSM-5 it’s called “Dysthymia,” or “Persistent Depressive Disorder.” It’s characterized by “Depressed mood for most of the day, for more days than not, as indicated by either subjective account or observation by others, for at least two years.” It’s often resistant to drug therapy. In children, diagnosis requires only a year.

The boy in my school photo from Mrs. Stone’s class isn’t smiling. He leans toward the camera with a persimmon-y look. His hair, parted severely, communicates distinct self-command and control.

I was a ten-year-old Eric Sevareid.

Mrs. Stone looked a lot like Leslie Ann Warren, a star back then because she played Cinderella in a “live version” of the Hammerstein’s musical that regularly reappeared on TV. Third-graders may not be capable of full-blooded crushes, but my appreciation of Mrs. Stone confused me enough to make her regard crucial. Picture a ten-year old summoned by a beautiful actress and asked what he had to be so unhappy about, what harm it would do to put on a happy face. Picture a beautiful actress summoning a ten-year to tell him what an old man he is.

Like a lot of clinical descriptions, the list of symptoms for dysthymia includes many not-clauses. Dysthymia needs to be the only diagnosis possible—it can’t be medical or drug-related or the result of a depressive episode. It can’t arise from schizophrenia or be better explained by cyclothymic disorder (manic depression). It can’t, in sum, be a major depressive disorder. As mental illnesses go, it’s pathetic. It will never merit a telethon.

Dysthymia’s key criteria are that it’s chronic and not necessarily debilitative. Someone suffering from mild to moderate dysthymia can get up and get to work. Work can be, in fact, a saving grace distracting a sufferer from symptoms like “poor appetite or overeating,” “insomnia or hypersomnia,” “low energy or fatigue,” “low self-esteem,” “poor concentration or difficulty making decisions,” and “feelings of hopelessness.”

I doubt I ever tried to explain myself to Mrs. Stone. If memory is (as I wrote last week) more emblematic than descriptive, then a few episodes morph into a something-not-worth-mentioning. Naming codifies, after all, and labels render the transient solid. Even now, I don’t state my illness much. It’s not admissible.

Two of Eeyore’s most underrated traits are his efforts not to burden those around him and his appreciation for any attention. I loved being invited to roller skating parties and asking someone to come over, but I never knew what to do then… and still don’t. Part of any persistent state is becoming inured to it, forgetting what its absence might be like. When my family, friends, and colleagues tease me for being so relentlessly under-enthusiastic, I laugh. I AM an Eeyore. I accept the label and embrace it. Like it or not, I am become him.

So, time machine obtained, I might stand with my younger self and tell Mrs. Stone, “Smiling is relief he wishes he could count on more. For reasons that elude him, he can’t step out of his mood as much as he’d like. This third-grader haunts the adult more than he’d like to admit, and, even now, he feels like apologizing for saying so.”

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A City of Selves

blade-runner-2049_u4chAs you grow older, you change enough to think your memories might belong to someone else.

Updating my resume, I see responsibilities I’ve shed, positions I’ve forgotten, expertise I’ve come to distrust, and degrees that ought to have expired by now. Items come with a memory or two—choosing art for my office as a college counselor and the face of the actor who played Emily in a production of Our Town I once directed. I recall arriving 45 minutes early to learn the drills I’d have to teach third grade soccer players, though I never played soccer.

Each moment seems foreign now, not just in the haze of distance but in their storage as discrete things. They are blocky buildings far away, a city of separate selves.

In 2004, a cultural studies theorist named Alison Landsberg wrote a book called Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture. Brooke Gladstone recently interviewed her for the podcast On the Media, where Landsberg described memory as a means “to narrate ourselves.” “We call on the past to open up trajectories for us to become the kind of people that we want to be,” she said, just as “societies or nation states select particular aspects or events of the past that justify who they are in the present.”

For Landsberg, those memories don’t have to be real. Discussing the recent Blade Runner 2049, its 1982 predecessor, and other sci-fi like Total Recall and HBO’s Westworld, she said, “These films end up arguing quite powerfully that authenticity is not the most important criteria for memory.” More important, she said, is “how it is that we use those memories in our daily life.”

If I’m using my memories, they operate subconsciously. I rarely scare them to the surface, and they sometimes seem no more a part of me than episodes in books I’ve read or movies and TV I’ve seen. My first classroom, its glass door to the narrow and dark hall and opposing wall of windows, is now a set. Specific students are silent slides in a Kodak carousel.

In the original Blade Runner, Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkell) considers memory a means of controlling the artificially human replicants. He tells Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), “If we gift them a past, we create a cushion or a pillow for their emotions and, consequently, we can control them better.”

Perhaps my memories create similar constraint. They delineate borders. They whisper when I fulfill my sense of self and when I leave the reservation. They warn.

During On the Media, Gladstone plays a clip from Westworld when the maker Ford (Anthony Hopkins) tells the host Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), “Every host needs a backstory, Bernard. You know that. The self is a kind of fiction, for hosts and humans alike. It’s a story we tell ourselves.”

So, as I’m maker and host, what I’ve done matters little, except as characterization.

That revelation may sound depressing, but—like many revelations—it’s also promising. If I’m not the person who sang and danced as Linus in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, or the person who hosted a talent show in a banana yellow tux, I’m the author who thought them within the range of my characterization. I’m editor too, deciding what episodes—good or bad—seem characteristic and uncharacteristic. As I’ve never liked myself much, it is also some consolation to be a maker who can forestall the desperate desire to add new episodes and honors that I, as a host, always think will redeem my sorry history at last… and don’t.

Deckard’s memory of a unicorn is one of the ways viewers identify him—a blade runner who decommissions errant replicants—as a replicant himself. Unicorns aren’t real, which marks that memory as implanted. Alison Landsberg points out, however, “There’s a way in which all of our memories are implanted.” Our parents’ stories implant some, photographs implant others, and books, film, and television implant too. “But it’s what use we make of these memories, real or not, that’s most important,” Landsberg says. She reminds me that people are defined by actions. “Whether those actions are made possible by prosthetic memories or memories based on lived experience,” she says, “makes little difference.”

Though I’m not ashamed of the items on my resume, I might enjoy being the sort of replicant who more consciously engineers his own identity.

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