Monthly Archives: May 2010


Today, a fiction…

He shut the door and put the bottle on the table. His father barely looked up, dipping his chin in mute thanks.

“What do I owe you?”

“Nothing.  Forget it.”

Lifting the bottle an inch, his father angled his eyes toward him.

“Want some?”

Two days home and already they’d fallen into familiar patterns.  He grabbed the bottle from his father’s hand and unscrewed the top as he walked to the cabinet.  He pulled a glass from the shelf and left the bottle behind to retrieve some ice.

Even as his brother consulted and rehearsed him on what to say, he’d known the right moments would slip past.  Once he went to a management seminar where he’d learned the value of positive messages.  “When you give negative instructions like ‘Make sure the report isn’t late’ or ‘Please don’t let these important daily tasks get away from you,’” the teacher said, “imagine them without the ‘not’… because that’s what you’re going to get.” He’d returned to the office determined to enact this advice, but a couple of weeks later he was back to his original motivational modes—sullen disapproval, mumbled orders, and stupid hope.

In that, he was his father’s son.

When he was eight and a cub scout, he faked the activities he needed to earn a wolf badge.  He wanted to leap a level, as his friend had, but he missed meetings when they did their forward rolls, their tool training, their character quiz.  He needed his father’s signature to prove he’d done them on his own, and, one evening, as his father held the paper into the flashing light of the television, he dad’s eyes traded between the page and his son’s face.

“You do all this?” he finally said.

“Sure,” he answered.

“Good.  Good for you.”

The scoutmaster wasn’t so willing.  He asked for proof, and when he couldn’t provide it, the scoutmaster promised to call his dad.  If that happened, he never knew because nothing more was said.  Though he went to other meetings after that and wore his uniform to school on appointed days, after a month or two, he was no longer a cub scout.

He put the drink down in front of his father and turned away.

“Not having any?” his dad asked.

“No.”  The next sentence formed in his imagination, the opening his brother had suggested about how his dad was getting on now, how the house was a mess, too big to care for, and in need of repair if he ever hoped to sell it to find a smaller place. Standard stuff in the category of “aging parent.” They had a smaller place in mind, a retirement community only a few blocks away.  Their father would live independently to start and then be passed along to new arrangements as his health deteriorated.

But no next sentence arrived, and his father finished his glass and asked for more.

When he drove in from the airport, he’d been surprised to find his father’s house so neat.  His brother had painted a picture of dissolution and neglect, but much of the house was untouched and pristine.  His own room was more orderly than he remembered, the shelves uncluttered by the books and other detritus he’d left there, and, it appeared dusted.  This immobile man couldn’t have done that.  For a moment, he’d wondered if his father might have a girlfriend, but the thought was too absurd to consider.

His father told him he “had someone in to do some cleaning,” but that’s all he said.

Their eyes met when he walked to a cabinet and absent-mindedly looked inside.  That was where the chips should be.

“Sit down,” his father said, “you’re like an animal in the zoo—can’t stand still.”

Outside the window over the sink, a new slat fence replaced the old cyclone fence and blocked his view through the adjacent yard to the park down the street.  The park held the dusty diamond where he and his brother played baseball with the neighbor kids.  They never had enough, but played anyway.  His brother sometimes took the whole outfield or second and third base.  He pitched, not because he was any good, but because he was amenable to doing it.  Sometimes, after they’d played a couple of hours, the whole crowd would come to their house, and when his dad returned from work, he’d find them in this kitchen, drinking icy water from plastic tumblers.

His father talked to the boys, asking them about a parent’s new job or some home improvement he’d noticed driving home.  He seemed a different man then, an actor he’d seen somewhere before.

He’d always been grateful for his older brother.  His private negotiation with their dad smoothed over most conflicts and sometimes brought his younger brother unexpected rewards.  “Dad says,” his brother began, and then he would have a bigger pair of shoes or a new blazer.

Once, in high school, he’d climbed out of his window on a summer night to meet his friend down the block.  They had no real plans and spent an hour or two wandering the empty neighborhood before both were too tired to pretend it was fun.  When he returned home, he saw lights blazing in the living room and found his father and his brother sitting there, waiting.  One asked where he’d been.  The other listed what might have happened during his silly adventure.  He didn’t say anything, except to apologize and promise not to do it again.

They went to bed, and no one said anything about it.

His brother still felt protective.  He heard it in their phone conversations when he offered news about work or his wife.  He heard it in the orders he’d been issued, “Talk to Dad.”  Something told him, “My brother doesn’t think much of me.  He’s asking me to prove something.”


His father’s voice retrieved him, and he looked over to see another empty glass and his father staring.

“Sit down… please.”

He took the place across from his dad.

“I’m moving.  I’ve sold this place to a guy I used to know at work.  He keeps properties, and he thinks he can rent the house.”


“I got an apartment across town, at that swanky new old folks home.  You and your brother have your own lives…”

They were so far off his brother’s script.  He hardly heard the details, eerie echoes of conversation he now seemed to have dreamed—the lines of an exit his father knew all along.

“Anyway, I haven’t told your brother, but since you’re here, you should know.”

He heard himself say, “He’ll be surprised.  We thought you liked it here.”

His father’s grin was unfamiliar and he didn’t know how to share it, but it felt strangely like success, or relief, or another chapter ended.

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Filed under Aging, Experiments, Father's Day, Fiction, life, Memory, Parenting, Recollection, Thoughts

I Like Chicago

A door in the common room of my third floor condo opens to the street.  It’s called a Juliet balcony, but, so far up from the sidewalk, Romeo would have to really shout to get her attention.  We open the door to check the weather, to see if one of our children is finally coming home, or to follow a siren or an unmuffled car down the street.  Otherwise, it stays closed.

When we moved in, I suggested we could make a nightly speech from that perch. “People of North Cleveland!” we’d begin. But none of us has made one speech.

Lately, I’ve found the balcony’s true purpose.  As it’s spring in Chicago, I stand in the doorway and let my reveries run. The train roars by down the street, the same birds settle in the same spots, and familiar people pass down the sidewalk at the usual times of day.  They don’t look up to see me, but I find a strange comfort in their company, the rhythm they contribute to my block.  This doorway is a way of entering urban life.

The most unexpected aspect of city dwelling is its simplicity.  Outside Chicago, people might picture a bustling, frenetic place, but, to someone living here, Chicago operates on a schedule predicated by the daily lives of neighbors and strangers.

On nice afternoons, all the neighborhood parents on the block gather at a set of benches with their children, and I hear conversation punctuated by laughter or some eruption of tears.  The cast of this little drama might change, the location might shift a few doors down, but, if the sun is out or almost out, and it’s reasonably cool, they’re talking, decompressing, visiting.

And, though I seldom take part, I receive some benefit through my open door, a sense of companionship in fellow feeling.

When I lived in suburbia, I ended my commute with a grinding electric garage door, entered the house though laundry room, and, after changing clothes upstairs in our master bedroom, I sat down in the kitchen and cocooned.  We had windows on our backyard—it was a very nice, spacious backyard—but otherwise, outside seemed irrelevant.  We knew we had neighbors but seldom saw them.  It wasn’t long before the TV turned on, the one window we watched regularly.

After five years, I’ve become addicted to living among crowds.  We urbanites are wary.  We aren’t that friendly, it’s true, but we know one another by our patterns and revel in the daily traffic of lives.  We’re reminded everyday we are not alone.

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Filed under Chicago, Essays, Home Life, life, Meditations, Prose Poems, Thoughts, Uncategorized, Urban Life

Reading Clouds

Hear Me Read

When I was young, my brother’s dresser stood near my bed and, just after waking, I’d search for forms and faces among patterns in the wood.  I could make clowns and rockets and bullfights from the waves and whorls, and I was proud of my talent, the sort of talent a child assigns himself when he doesn’t know everyone can do the same thing.

I’ve since discovered we all find something.  My job often seems the verbal equivalent of my early searches.  Literature is a system of relationships—imagery with character, character with plot, plot with narrative voice, narrative voice with implication.  The variables proliferate until there is no telling exactly which or what elicits what. Nor can we know how much is us, not it. The Turing Test might not confirm my thinking, but for me literature is like artificial intelligence.  Each story, poem, and novel provides answers to any question, and the frontier of complexity isn’t very far out at all.  Eleven words is often enough:

Summer rain

In just one night

My razor has rusted over


Bonchō has nothing to say about the capital of Brazil, but a great deal to say about change, decay amid growth, and the sting of aging.  I picture a wanderer barely clinging to propriety—that razor—pulling it out to make himself presentable only to discover with what short order nature has spoiled his resolution, spilling as he shrinks, growing as he rusts.

This is my reading, of course—an echo of my mind, a constellation I’ve constructed from stars I see.  Others might see other stars, and some familiar image inside them will find its own way into the skies.  They read patterns just as I do, and sometimes more resourcefully and persuasively.  In doubtful moments, I worry my work is a sham, that I’m more interested in what I might make of literature than teaching the process we all use to make something of it.

Details in the literature can disallow interpretations, no doubt, but even flawed interpretations can be oddly beautiful, the reconstruction of clouds with a few pieces missing.

At school, we have shelves of cloud readings, famously smart persons holding forth on all the novels, plays, and poems we study.  Preferring to find my own way, I don’t value their thinking the way I used to.  I’m wondering now how many correct patterns we can devise.  I read their interpretations as a wanderer in another mind.  I like being there but can’t pretend it’s the only world.

We interact with everything we see, hear, and sense.  It’s part it and part us.  The pleasure rests in that relationship, in appreciating the meaning-making we all do.


Filed under Art, Education, Essays, Haiku, High School Teaching, life, Meditations, Teaching, Thoughts, Work, Writing

Overfull of Myself

In second grade, thinking myself clever, I decided to use my full name, “David Brian Marshall.”  Only, I couldn’t spell “Brian” and wrote “Brain” instead.  Later in the day, Mrs. Wilkenson called me to her desk—you will have to imagine her thick Texas accent —and said, “Now David, you are a bright, bright boy, but I don’t think you should go around calling yourself a ‘brain.’  Do you want people to think you’ve got the big head?”

This memory is triply humiliating: first, because I could not spell my own middle name, second, because I’d obviously overstepped some hidden boundary by offering it, and third, because I only discovered my humiliation later.

“What’s a ‘beeg haid’?” I asked my brother.

Sometimes I get a glimpse of my true size.  Not my physical size—barring over-consumption and under-exercise, that stays about the same—but my size understood as significance.  I’m a small man in every sense—less than average height and one of six point seven billion people.  I am not famous or influential or accomplished or important.  Nonetheless my ego sometimes swells.  The universe shifts a little and then the entire solar system circles me.  It realigns itself according to complicated and layered physical laws I dictate.

When the shift occurs, my voice takes a different pitch.  I’m an authority, and words launch as from some battery of interplanetary rockets.  The salvo must be deafening.

Only I don’t hear it.

I have to look out for these moments.  I’m apt to express short-sighted opinions, self-interest disguised as righteous indignation, wounds arising from my own oversensitivity, judgments only possible from my particular privilege, self-pity springing from purely personal and relatively minor disappointments, greedy desires for special consideration or honor, needs I’m convinced are really the greater good but are only good for me or my family. I hurt feelings, offend people, say stupid, misguided things, and cross boundaries without seeing them.  Often someone must remind me to look around, to acknowledge the scale of my troubles or complaints and recognize my true size.

And I’m not the only one.  I see similar shifts in nearly everyone, moments when nice people are suddenly damned important and want some attention paid to them for once.  But it’s not for once… or seldom is.

Perhaps it’s inevitable that we become full of ourselves, as natural as plants growing until they’ve exhausted the soil or blocked the sun or choked the progress of their own branches or roots. But I’ve never been able to settle these questions:

  • Can ego and confidence compromise?
  • Why is pride so often naïve?
  • How can we know and comfortably be our true dimensions?

While my moment with Mrs. Wilkenson was an accident, she was right to warn me against the beeg haid.  I’ve had to give myself the same warning many times since, along with a prodding reminder—be grateful, be grateful, be grateful.  Every good fortune is a gift.

You’re not required to expect more.


Filed under Buddhism, Doubt, Envy, Essays, Gratitude, Hope, Laments, life, Memory, Thoughts