Monthly Archives: June 2009

Next!

Teaching is supposed to include a built-in restart button and enforced down time—June arrives, a cycle ends, and another waits two months to begin.  Non-academics never tire of telling me that being finished, if only for now, is a rare and special luxury.

My first few years as a teacher I certainly thought so.  I bit my lip through graduation ceremonies, but the moment I closed my car door after that last meeting, I’d spin the volume knob on the radio to the right and scream elation.  I’d survived.  I’d rest.  I’d become a private citizen.  September wouldn’t be real for at least another five weeks.

But now I wonder where that life went.  Summer school is a financial necessity for me, but even without “moonlighting,” I’m never really not a teacher.  Perhaps the role has soaked into my body like spice that sweats from me and rides every breath.  But I’m also never out of contact. My school wouldn’t allow it.

I’m sure a working summer makes me a better teacher.  After all, June, July, and August aren’t as hard as the rest of the year, and it’d be unfair to complain when so many people slave through heat with nothing like leisure.  I, at least, have daydream time, and daydreams give birth to the best innovations.  Maybe all anyone needs in any job isn’t vacation but a little unharried time to think.  A retreat maybe.

Still, I miss clear transitions, the times I’m decidedly, definitively off.

I can’t be alone, just the latest victim.  The 24-7 malady of e-mail and cell phones has already hit a working world where each task dovetails so seamlessly with the next that finishing a task means you can give full attention to another already underway. Readiness and steadiness and ambition—faith you can make the time—are the bywords of the age.

Which may be why I am so over caffeinated, so perpetually worried, and so very tired, too tired and too busy even in June to dream of a solution. And why I am always behind, why I am always ashamed of what I haven’t done yet… though this period off is supposed to be a time to get  things  done.

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Filed under Doubt, Education, Essays, Laments, life, Sturm und Drang, Teaching, Thoughts, Work

Unwelcome

I don’t usually DO fiction, but something moved me to write these thoughts as a sort of story or as the start of a sort of a story…

On the best mornings, he found no one else at the table. His book open to where he left it, he’d sit down with a cup of uncooled coffee and read. Though the words on the page weren’t his, he felt altogether solitary and serene at such moments. Those times seemed scarce.

Most days, he rose to find the guest already sitting in the chair across from him. Walking to the table, he glanced at the open pages and scanned the room to see if anything lying about had shifted or disappeared. Nothing ever did, but he never felt entirely sure—the thought circled like a faint scent, an unseen cigarette he never discovered.

The guest was always already speaking, and his voice flowed evenly. No floods, droughts, or tides altered its volume or tone or content. Each morning the two of them jumped into a conversation again, the guest’s voice so familiar he sometimes mistook it for his own.

Or was it that he tried to think of it as his own? They never reached the intimacy you seek in a visit.  He still hoped they might. As a good host should, he must have said at one point, “Please, make yourself at home,” but either he hadn’t meant it or had been naïve about what the command meant. The guest remained a guest despite their many years together. He wanted to like his visitor and sometimes managed it briefly, but this guest was never quite what his host wanted.

And often—though he knew he shouldn’t say so—he despised this other entity who appeared as his first conscious thought and, just like yesterday and the day before, had to be addressed. After so long a visit, you might expect a presence so constant to become a given, borne like a chronically tricky shoulder you eventually forget. Yet the guest remained vivid, and vividly foreign. On those increasingly rare instances when the guest mysteriously vanished, his relief swelled. He prayed he wouldn’t return, and, when he did, he found himself thinking, “If only tomorrow…”

He suppressed those thoughts. They were unbecoming and rude, he told himself, disruptive and upsetting not just to him but to the whole household and those who had grown to rely on his being there. Others seemed to like the guest much more than he did. And he knew that throwing him out once and for all would place the fault on his side. He couldn’t muster the courage—if that’s what it was—to end the situation. As sorry as things might be, he certainly couldn’t admit that to them or to himself.

He also knew he should look for a beginning, not an end. Nearly every day, he resolved to rise the next morning and greet his guest with sincere affection. Over and over, he rehearsed what he would say. “After all this time,” he’d smile, “the two of us know each other so well. Can’t we be friends at last?”

He envied people who never needed such determination, people who lived effortlessly with whomever inhabited their household. Though he’d been told repeatedly that sincerity could emerge miraculously from pretending something was so, his belief in magic seemed too weak to create it. That was another of his flaws.

He was already awake when the alarm went off, and he knew what was next. Still, the sound startled him. He threw his body from bed.

Even amid the noise, he heard movement downstairs.

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Filed under Allegory, Doubt, Experiments, Fiction, Home Life, Laments, life, Survival, Thoughts, Writing

A Dad At Sea

vox.adadatsea: Hear me read this post…

When I was my son’s age, I gave no more thought to becoming a father than my son does, and, honestly, I gave little thought to my father either.  He was part of my life’s furniture, another given in an existence that felt too full of givens.

But living is revision.  In my own role as a father, I’ve scrutinized his decisions and now I wonder how, further along, my children might see mine.  I can only hope they’ll be charitable.  I’ve had to be charitable.  No one is perfect, we all know that, and parenthood is a choppy sea of worries, expediencies, negotiations, and dubious standards.  It’s hard to know if your navigation is true.  It’s hard to know when the journey ends.

As I was running the other day, I overheard a bit of conversation between two people on the sidewalk.  One was saying, “But she’s such a great parent….”   Without knowing whom she was talking about and in what situation, I shouldn’t judge—it’s always dangerous to judge another parent—but I continued my run thinking, “Who can say anyone is a great parent?  Who decides and how?”

I take pride in my children’s accomplishments—they are good students, polite to adults, curious and creative in their thinking—but I can’t take credit.  Parenting isn’t easily assessed because it’s an ongoing concern you might reevaluate every thirty seconds.  I might ask whether I’ve been a good parent in the last week, in the last day, hour, or minute, but I have no finished products to appraise… and wonder if I ever will.  My children will go on to live their lives as I do mine, minute to minute, hoping some majority of those minutes are good.

Before the birth of my first child, a new father at work defined parenting as “An education in body fluids.”  On Father’s Day or Mother’s Day, we romanticize our roles—and perhaps we should pause to celebrate accomplishments—but I try to keep perspective.  My children aren’t clay.  They have bodies I can’t always move and minds I can’t always change.  From the moment they left their mother, their lives have been, at least in some measure, their own.  As they grow older, they make more and more decisions and more of those decisions are outside our control or knowledge.

That’s scary and makes being a great dad even more challenging.  Older parents say you have no choice but to trust the grounding you’ve given your children.  Sometimes that advice sounds like a rationalization for neglect.  And sometimes it sounds like the truth.  And it’s hard to know which it is this time.  But shouldn’t you hope that your children have witnessed enough affection and concern that they’ll think you’re worth hearing?

My son will be a high school senior in the fall, and my wife and I can’t help looking ahead to the next fall when, we hope, he will be leaving home and starting college.  That thought brings a new sea of emotions—anticipation and excitement but also anxiety and dread.  We don’t feel finished with him or his sister, and we don’t want to be.  Though each is evolving into autonomy, we are still hoping, in the next five minutes, to get our roles right.  We want to give our children reason to remember us charitably.  More than that, however, we hope to help them decide what it means to be good parents themselves.

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Under 50 Words Each

Some weeks ago, my son gave me a small notebook with the handwritten title, “I Dunno… Words N’ Shit.” I’ve been carrying it around, dutifully adding words—and sometimes even sentences. Each statement was supposed to be an essay later, but none have escaped my little paper vault.

I’m teaching summer school, and yesterday we were discussing how many sentences a paragraph has to have. That made me consider how many words a whole essay must have.

It occurred to me that maybe these notebook entries don’t need expansion, maybe they are already essays. So, in the spirit of experimentation, I offer them here:

1.

“Simplify, simplify, simplify,” Thoreau said, but so much of life is already so simple, all its complications dwindling to a single pitch, a background whistle that never needs added air.

Or—better—complications becoming light, the color in every other.

2.

Was it Aristotle who said people are not quite beasts and not quite divines? Divines can’t die, and beasts continue because their bodies insist they do. Only we end ourselves, and that freedom says everything about the power of our confusion.

3.

I’m not sure I should feel good when others compliment my metaphors. When you explain everything with foreign terms, the world is translation.

4.

Maybe love, rather than happiness, is the point. Happiness is a complication of circumstance, a variable born of variables. Love glues atoms together and sticks us to this place.

5.

I wonder what it might be like to channel someone else. And then I wonder how I’d know it was happening. Wouldn’t it feel like recalling the truth at last, like memory returning from a long journey?

6.

As a child, I thought I’d break a world record if I believed it possible. I only needed to push doubt from my mind to run faster than reality said I should.

I don’t know when the pendulum swung the other way… or what, at this point, might reverse it.

7.

I’ve always wanted to see mirrors made and once dreamt manufacturers backed each sheet of glass with a thin layer holding all the reflections the mirror might ever throw back.

Maybe that’s what faith feels like.

8.

A sense of humor, people tell me, is a strategy to deal with pain, but only sometimes. You need to know the world is absurd to laugh at it, but when the world is entirely absurd, laughter seems absurd too.

9.

We don’t hear the sounds we expect—it goes against my nature to resist being known, but I wish it didn’t.

10.

Silence sings after noise—the dryer stops, the idling car drives away, the L clears the station. A conversation ends with loving words.

The last is really all I’m thinking about—the rest are examples.

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A Fish Out of Its Demographic

Vox (Hear me read this)

No one would know it—because I’m ashamed—but I watch a lot of bad TV.  Other people follow programs with plots, complicated characters, mystery and revelation, human frailties and dramatic redemptions.  I watch “Mythbusters,” “Iron Chef,” and—my secret favorite—”What Not to Wear.”

When friends discover my viewing habits, I claim it’s secondhand TV, stuff my children watch and I overhear.  But now my kids pass through the room groaning as I indulge failings they’ve conquered.  Sitting in front of that stuff is occasionally okay for them, their rolling eyes imply, but I’m an educated man of refined tastes.  They’re too polite to ask, but I know what they’re thinking, “Why do you give a crap about another tearful makeover?”

Yet, make no mistake, I care deeply about makeovers.  When Stacy London and Clinton Kelly (I know their surnames) caustically confront their victim’s sartorial drift, I feel for the “guest.”  When the same person reappears a butterfly at the end of 30 minutes, wiping tears off her now perfectly lined eyes and waxing poetic about how these changes have been more than external, I know the kind cruelty of Stacy and Clinton’s method is wise.  Whaddayaknow, they meant all the best all along.  All the guest needed was some concerned companions to push her in the right direction and an appreciation of her body type and judicious tailoring.

You wouldn’t think I’d identify with these participants.  I’m hardly a candidate for a makeover myself.  First, the What not to Wear pair don’t do males—Clinton’s sarcasm might earn him a very unbecoming black eye—and, second, there’s not much to make Clinton and Stacy’s expertise necessary. While I’m more metrosexual than some, I spend as little time as possible keeping myself up and try to look nice without appearing to care.  It’s absolutely okay for me to choose among six pairs of pants and twelve shirts, as long as I change my underwear and keep my shoes something like polished.  And I haven’t lost my way or suffer from diminished confidence because I’ve quietly given up on me-time.  My dreams of a new haircut evaporate at the sight of the first bald man.  I have hair.  I’m lucky.

So why do I watch?  I’d like to believe I’m above the brazen manipulation of a makeover  story, but maybe I need some possibility in my life too, if not for me than for someone else, someone—I’m always convinced—deserves it.  I like getting to know these women.  They do what we all do, spend energy burying dissatisfaction instead of doing something about it.  They think it’s petty to want a new dress because what they really want, and are ashamed to want, is to be noticed, valued, loved.  That, anyone can identify with.

Look at me, I’m not ready to confess I’m a fan of “What Not to Wear” on Facebook—because that’s kind of weird—but wouldn’t it be better if I could come out of my closet —with or without all my outdated and wrong clothes—and admit I want to start over, to love myself without remorse?  Maybe I’m rationalizing my lowbrow tastes, but couldn’t we all use a makeover sometimes…and a $5000 Bank of America credit card to make it possible?

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Loud and Proud

Hear me read?

Evaluators who visit my classes sometimes cite me for not letting my students read aloud more, and I agree with that criticism—study after study shows the connection between reading comprehension and the ability to read aloud expressively. Each seems to feed the other, and, by taking the lion’s share of passages, I’m denying students the chance to develop internal reading voices.

Except… a.) few students seem to mind—many (most?) prefer not to read for the class because it’s awkward,  plus b.) their readings don’t do much to foster an appreciation of the literature, especially the author’s artistry or tone, and I want them to think this stuff we read is cool.  If I’m honest, however, I’m really being selfish, for c.) reading aloud is one of my greatest pleasures.

And, embarrassingly, I particularly love to read my own words.

Maybe the childhood ritual of reading a chapter every night ended too soon for me.  Immersing myself in the rhythm of an author’s syntax always grooms my mind, lines up everything disarrayed, and quiets my mental noise. Each day after lunch my first grade teacher Mrs. Llewellyn read another few pages of Charlotte’s Web. Many of my classmates napped—that may have been the idea—but, for me, the half-hour of listening justified the whole day. I wanted to read like that, and Charlotte’s Web was the first real book I read on my own.

I urge students to read their essays aloud to locate errors and awkward moments. I’d be even happier, though, if they searched their prose for their own voices and worked to make them more vivid.  When they come to see me for extra help, I ask them to read sentences and paragraphs to me.  I nod when they say something valuable because I want them to imagine a listener who is hanging onto ideas and phraseology and expecting them to say something articulate and important.

It’s no exaggeration to say my wife heard every word I wrote when I studied for an MFA.  It didn’t matter much if she listened.  I just needed to think so.

But I sometimes wonder if my mania for loud and proud reading is neurotic.  I wonder if everything I write is a really a speech or homily, a recitation or confession, a soliloquy or a cry in the wilderness.  Maybe all of it is a desperate desire for approval.  I might be a better writer if I could imagine a silent reader who assembled pictures and pieced parts together to make music of his or her own. I’m not Homer, after all, and no modern can be.

And it’s silly to think anyone cares.  This spring, my officemates—also English teachers—staged some read-arounds in the afternoon and told me I was good at reading poems and passages.  Big mistake.  Reading aloud is almost invariably self-indulgent, stilted, or—in the case of your own writing—self-congratulatory.  We all like to think we can do it…  but we have little tolerance when others do.

I have to hold the phone away from my ear to avoid my message on our home answering machine, what would make me think someone would want to listen to my ramblings?

I wish I had a more thoughtful response, as—if you took the bait—you could be listening to me right now.  But I have only this partial answer.  What I really want is not to be famous or popular or amusing or pleasant or even artful or insightful or clever. I just want to be heard.

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Fugue: Starting Summer

Hear me read?

Fugue: 1 a: a musical composition in which one or two themes are repeated or imitated by successively entering voices and contrapuntally developed in a continuous interweaving of the voice parts

b: something that resembles a fugue especially in interweaving repetitive elements.

—Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

I’d like to forget yesterday’s disappointed list and restart as if it’d just occurred to me, “Hey, I can accomplish so much today.”

That sort of amnesia eludes me.

I’d need an unimpeded mind. Instead, you can hear my phrases backing up, pooling before every bottleneck decision. I finish so little because I start so much.  I start so much because I forget what I ought to be doing… or I would like to forget.

Today, the expression “putting oars to water,” stalls me.  I picture a mythical stillness only rowers know, the solitude and silence of morning on glassy water, between the tide’s rhythms, before the rhythms of rowers’ oars set off their day and all our days of traffic and marked hours.

This morning, I’m sitting in that moment before.

I love-hate repetition, and, in my feelings about everydayness, cycle through comfort and chafing. I might be happy reliving the same day again and again if the weather were nice and I had just enough to do.

A string of tally sheet days makes me beg an end to the necklace, relief from weight equal to an albatross.

When I was little and living in coastal Texas, summer days stretched out like dogs in a patch of sunlight or shade.  Those days contained few anticipated arrivals and few departures shadowed by regret. Then, time just passed.  It didn’t cry for attention or cultivation. It didn’t gather lists.  And its rhythms were rudimentary—waking, eating, playing, eating, resting, playing, talking, eating, watching, sleep… repeat.

You should have known me when I was young.  If I was young.  Sometimes I wonder if anything lies outside this modern world where every moment is tagged, cross-indexed, and given its economic name.  Was the world ever in another age?

I’ve forgotten life without oars and imagine it like a dream.  Now, no one can forgive me for leaving those oars racked.  Least of all me.  My worth is in those strokes, the pull of muscle, the hope of movement relative to the shore.

But the exercise is making my body leather to the bone.

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