Monthly Archives: December 2009

Wringing in Another Year

Though I can’t confirm the story, John Berryman supposedly shrugged when asked that age-old question, “When did you know you were good?”  He said he still didn’t know—no artist ever really knows.

I hate to think his answer is right but suspect it is.  I envy creative people who take no stock in others’ opinions… but mostly for their conviction, not always for their work.  The art they produce is sometimes good, sometimes not.  At least part of art’s worth will always rest with perceivers.  What is good?  Who decides?  No artist ever has the final word, “I’m good.”

Artists aren’t allowed to see their work as others do.

Maybe Berryman thought an artist shouldn’t know his or her value because knowing would kill the creative drive altogether.  Desiring something better—the masterpiece halfway over the horizon—keeps you going. Yet those confident artists must feel they’re onto something or they wouldn’t labor as they do despite nay-sayers or the silence their work sometimes meets.

Next weekend marks my one-year anniversary on this blog and my haiku blog, and, despite having added no new posts to my old pseudononymous blog, it often draws more readers in a day than this one does in a week and more in a week than this one ever has in a month.  My haiku site averages about five readers a day, which is about as many people as my old blog averages per hour.  Plenty of variables might account for the difference: I used to be more active reading blogs, and, as WordPress advises, once cultivated a readership. Unlike this blog, my old site has pictures people regularly rob and includes more content on more variable topics. Perhaps my old blog simply offers more free fodder for student essays.

However, it’s not just this blog that has me down. I’ve sold none of my art on Zatista since posting it six months ago. I haven’t received a single inquiry, not one message. Explaining that cyberfailure is harder, but I guess it’s possible. Who, after all, is buying art in these troubled economic times, and how many people even know about Zatista, which is still relatively new?

I could be a bad marketer rather than a bad artist.

It’s depressing, though. I’ve sworn off seething over being unpublished—I’m conflicted about “putting myself out there” and haven’t worked at all hard to be published—but as this année malheureuse comes to close, I’m wringing my hands again. If I’m not any good, why go on?  I don’t need another thing to do on Sundays and can’t deny the urge rising in me.  I want to harrumph, say “Well then…” and walk away.

It’s the blogger’s dilemma again—what am I doing here?

Please understand—I don’t mean to ask for the audience’s applause to release Prospero or show its belief in Tinkerbell.  Five readers is more than zero. Art is its own reward, satisfying even when it disappears into a dark portfolio.  And people have been so nice about letting me know when I’ve said or done something resonant. I appreciate every compliment. I should content myself with a few good readers, a few fans.  I know that, and, besides, accolades are not the artist’s true purpose anyway.

Except… the other half of not creating art for a response is not being able to persist without feeling it matters. This year of blogging leaves me so far behind my former pseudononymous self.

And Berryman’s shrug is no answer.

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Filed under Art, Blogging, Doubt, Envy, Essays, Laments, life, Thoughts, Visual Art, Writing

Dear Reader, It’s Nearly Christmas

Here’s my holiday card, a sonnet I wrote this morning.  Though I’ve bastardized the form, I’m hoping it’s the sentiment that counts.

At this window on a high numbered floor,

cars seem pieces moved by a concealed hand.

The absent gates open, and cars lurch on,

onto the next gate closing with red light.

They’re like the days, marked by what awaits,

what’s passed—anticipation, forgetfulness

merged. We want the world to stop and it won’t.

Our days won’t abide such calm in these times.

Friday is Christmas.  The occasion looms

and every box hides another gesture

intended to arrest our attention.

I wish each gift, if just for a moment,

could block our moving on. I pray for the hope

and peace our hearts—awaiting the day—still hold.

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Filed under Christmas, Experiments, life, Meditations, Poetry, Thoughts, Urban Life

An Early Resolution

Home from school about six, eat, drag my feet by doing the crossword or reading the paper, then work again.  Asleep by ten, up again at four to finish (or start) more homework, then the gym—early, so I can arrive first in my office, before seven.  Work till six.  Saturday morning in the office, nine to twelve. No office on Sunday, but work, eleven to five, seven to nine.

70 hours. Or so.

The holiday break is coming up.  I’m looking forward to time off.  But I have no idea what I’ll do.  I’m stacking up all the reading I must complete, all the preparation for next semester. Work is my life.  My life is work.  It’s got to stop.

I’m a workaholic, as evasive as every-other-aholic who can list all those other far-worse-aholics and who is trapped in a tiny box he can’t see.  My particular problem is “the respectable addiction,” but that’s just it.

Circumstances always seem to conspire to create addiction.  Coworkers, the only friends I have time for, seem to work as much as I do—often they stay longer at the office, they also work at night, and toil all day Sunday.  Bleary Monday conversations swim in laments about our poor weekend productivity.  There is never enough time to do what must be done.

And I’m still working on homework.  I’ve been at it since I was ten, and, because my son and daughter go to the school where I teach, homework is what we do together.  It’s like the sound of the refrigerator, foot traffic outside our condo, the train rumbling by every seven minutes—ambient.  And life sometimes feels like toiling in twilight, wandering through half sleep, unconscious and busy.

In Japan, working seven days of ten to twelve hours became the norm after World War II, and now they have the word “karoshi” to describe fatal brain and heart ailments connected to overwork.  In the Netherlands, they’ve identified “leisure illness,” a sickness arising when workers try to stop working and relax.

Conflating work and life clearly isn’t healthy. I’ve been meaning to stop for years, but, as any addict would say, so many of us do it and don’t seem to suffer or even mind.  We mind instead that added hours make us less productive.  We mind we’re too tired to accomplish what we hope.  We mind we can’t find more time to be more ambitious and fulfill new tasks we envision for ourselves every   waking   moment.

It’s easy to blame our workplaces.  In the present economic crisis, everyone has to pull his or her weight or land in the street, and, when you do hang on, “organizational efficiency” sometimes means combining three posts for you to do alone.  Yet, while we want to say too much is expected of us, we workaholics are complicit.  We don’t turn down another dose.  We expect more of ourselves.

I hear myself say I enjoy my job—and I do, I love teaching—but I wonder if I might enjoy it more if it weren’t a monastic life.

“Add labor” sometimes feels like my only answer.  I’ve stopped asking if tasks are worth additional effort.  My creativity wanes.  Because I never do enough and see my coworkers do so much—and maybe they feel the same about me—I feel guilty when I’m not working.  I’m lost when I’m not working.  Hours of labor roil like a poisonous meal in my stomach, and I still can’t stop thinking about the plates in front of me.

I’m need to work less.

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

It’s Confirmed, I’m Old

In this age of absurd words, maybe I shouldn’t be so bothered by the term “multitasking.” I could save my pique for “incentivize” or “proactive.” I could taketh arms against “guesstimate,” “ginormous,” or “evilness.”

Those other words, however, arise when a speaker tries—badly, but tries—to fill a need. They may be cute or silly or strange or redundant, but they’re the wrong word for something called for. What bothers me about “multitasking” is not that it’s constructed like legos or that it’s overused or grandiose or jargon-y, but that it’s unnecessary, a startling mastery of the ubiquitous. In the modern world, we’re always multitasking. It’s difficult to imagine not juggling jobs or not being enmeshed in more than one thing at a time. We can’t not multitask.

Oh, I know people mean something more extreme. I once asked a student to describe himself composing his essays, and he said he wrote papers on his laptop (alternating his Microsoft Word window and a Facebook window) while listening to his ipod, watching his television on mute, texting friends on his iphone and—when he got stuck—pausing to play a new game he’d downloaded or to watch a YouTube video. His papers, which sometimes seemed to be written by a drunken polo team from the asylum, suddenly jelled for me.

People praise multitasking, and I get the idea it’s a universally good thing. I’m supposed to be impressed by anyone who splits his or her attention seventeen ways and accomplishes anything. I am impressed actually, but mostly that fractional attention can produce a result that isn’t fractured. I’d be equally awed, however, if someone wrote with both hands and both feet, even if he just wrote “gerkin” four times. That anything unconfused comes of confusion is impressive.

But maybe the pendulum should swing the other way. Perhaps the quaint monotasker deserves some attention. Think of the monotasker bent over his workbench, standing before his easel, pounding away at a typewriter, or pausing chisel in hand. Think of an athlete so absorbed in a game his or her body seems the outward emblem of control or the dancer who breathes to internalized music or an actor so concentrated by rehearsal he or she could speak with poise and gravity through the apocalypse. In comparison, the multitasker is a gnat and the multitask its thinnest buzz.

Why did we stop celebrating concentration and start applauding distraction instead? When did we decide restlessness is better than focus, and that activity, any activity and especially several activities all at once, beats training ourselves to sit still and think?



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Filed under Doubt, Education, Essays, Jeremiads, Laments, life, Teaching, Thoughts, Work