Monthly Archives: November 2010

In Transit

This time of year in Chicago, the day goes gray around four-thirty.  The sun, if there is one, hides behind the buildings, and shadows flow through channeled streets.  If it’s cold, you’ll find no one out but grumpy dog-walkers, hands shoved deep in their pockets, heads turtled into their coat collars, minds willing the business necessary to let them back inside.

I’m usually walking home then.  I listen to my footsteps on the sidewalk, and the rhythm is some comfort.  My necessary business will soon be over too.  This commute is time to survey what awaits me—rereading books to prepare for the next day’s classes, grading papers.  If I’m lucky, I’ve carved time to work in my sketchbook or write something.

Usually not.

Sometimes my thoughts twist like smoke around some event—I’ve lost my temper, or I’ve quarreled with a colleague, or I’ve forgotten to do something important—then my step takes on the tattoo beat of fixation.  I won’t calm myself by walking faster, but the release of energy seems an essential steam valve.  A strange pool of sweat forms in the small of my back when, within my many layers, exertion signals my body’s flight instead of fight.

I’m grateful for space between home and work—if anyone is home before me, they don’t know how grateful they should be.  I like the sound of the heater whooshing to life.  As long as I’m inside, I like the sound of the passing train down the street.  These noises remind me of safety and psychological quiet.  It isn’t even so bad if then I need to play scholar and work.

I’m a homebody.  Sometimes I take my place in a leather chair by the window and watch the evening deepen into dark.  Soon, I’ll see the colored lights of neighbors’ Christmas trees.  Soon, I’ll see our own.

It’s  early winter in Chicago, the start of a long hibernation, a time to thank fate for home and companionship and whatever peace we find in our busy lives.

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Filed under Chicago, Essays, Experiments, Gratitude, Home Life, Kenko, life, Meditations, Modern Life, Prose Poems, Thoughts, Urban Life, Winter, Work

Between Things

In a good week, I begin my post early.  A first line blinks into being during the walk to work on Tuesday and grows, by accretion, until it becomes a paragraph.  All week, I rehearse that paragraph and consider what might follow it, but a paragraph is all I can carry before I have to sit down to type.  I don’t type until Saturday or Sunday.

I try never to write about writing posts.

“It is not a bad idea to get in the habit of writing down one’s thoughts,” the British writer Isabel Colegate once said, “It saves having to bother anyone else with them.”  Most of my thoughts aren’t worthy of print—digital or ink—and I compose them only out of habit.  Sometimes, I dress them in words and sentences that make them presentable, more often not.  Tuesday’s idea looks banal on Wednesday. By Thursday or Friday, I can’t recall what I thought might be special in saying, “I have an anger no one knows,” or “The biggest burden of modern life is needing to pay attention to so much.”  They expire before they ever really live.

Part of my problem is enjoying language, the way vowels roll among the soft bumpers of some consonants and ricochet against hard ones.  I begin to imagine that, properly worded and arranged, any idea will ring.  Then writing isn’t thinking anymore.  It’s elevating sound to music or pigment to painting.

The other problem is endowing momentary brainstorms with special meaning.  This week, I wondered if I might make a blog post of the midlife man I see nearly every morning bursting from the gym door, his bag clutched to his side as if he were its courier instead of him its owner, a dab of shaving cream still behind his ear or at the back of his shaved head, crossing to the island at an angle between crosswalks to catch the next L, walking and then running two or three steps at a time as if the pavement were suddenly inexplicably hot and his feet suddenly shoeless.  He has become a representative of what’s out of balance in our lives, the way we’ve relegated exercise to a side pursuit and made it another object crowding our lives instead of incorporating and integrating activity into how we exist.

But that’s all I have to say, and, really, I pity him.  Plus, short of the shaved head, I am him.

My biggest problem, however, is every blogger’s abiding delusion—I think someone is listening.  A career of reading the work of writers we admire has ruined us, persuaded us to believe that assembling our thoughts, feelings, and observations is universally significant.  We believe these daily preoccupations reach beyond the readers we’ve scraped together—most of them similarly deluded bloggers—and into posterity.  We imagine some future scholar finding our words in a heap of cyber-rubbish and saying, “Here are words.”

When, actually, most of the time we are just looking for something—sometimes anything—to say.

I’m happy I’m alive enough to believe my life bigger than itself.  I’m happy some impetus makes my senses more thirsty than most.  I’m happy to have a voice needing exercise.

On Tuesday, I suppose that matters.  On Thursday, I wonder.

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Filed under Blogging, Doubt, Essays, Home Life, Hope, Laments, life, Meditations, Modern Life, Thoughts, Words, Writing

The Cat Comes Back

You might remember the pink stuff in Cat in the Hat.  The cat arrives, enters the house on thin pretexts, and, soon, pink spreads everywhere.  Every effort to eradicate it only smears it on more surfaces. Mayhem flows behind it into every room.  Meanwhile, the fish scolds, and the clock ticks toward the doom of authority’s return.

I love Dr. Seuss but hated that book.  At the age I encountered the pink stuff, I couldn’t define metaphor, but some part of me understood.  Pink was less important for itself than for what it represented, a contagion that, once introduced, could never be fully eradicated, or an idea that could never be unconceived fully.

Thinking about the book now, I see the other side—a little mayhem enriches our lives, and we can’t hope to live fully without getting ourselves into and out of messes.  Courage spreads the way pink does.  It starts small and stretches until we believe it can cover nearly everything.  We reassure ourselves we’ve been here, or worse, before.  We trust.

But then I spy another spot of pink on the baseboard.

In the fifth grade, I rode my bike to school everyday.  I was just out of range to ride a bus, and, in August, my mother helped me draw a map of how I might get to school alone.  I had to pass through a neighborhood where I had no friends, where every house held strangers, and she explained that I shouldn’t stop between destinations.  I was scared at first, but, after a month of round trips, I started to enjoy the autonomy that bookended my otherwise constrained day. Being able to handle it brought me closer to adulthood, which, as far as I could tell, was defined by what you could handle.

Then, one day, a kid came out from behind a house and chased me.  I must have been too surprised to pedal faster because he had no trouble catching me and gripping the metal loop at the end of the banana seat of my stingray bicycle.  I stopped.  He wanted a ride home, he said, and whatever change my pockets held.  He wasn’t mean.  I don’t remember threats.  But he was bigger than I was—a grade older—and his self-assurance disarmed me.  He climbed on the back of my bike, and I told myself I was doing him a favor.

I was afraid to take any other path.  He caught me a lot after that, not every day but often enough, at different points on my route I could never anticipate.  By then I knew his name—though I’ve forgotten it now. I didn’t tell my parents because I was handling it.  If I saw him, I’d stop, ready to do him another favor.  For his part, he softened toward me.  I was his ride, and we had enough routine to know each other.  He talked to me sometimes, stopped asking for money.  But I hated the compromised feeling I got when I felt his weight on the back of my bike.  I hated him.

One day in the spring, my mom called me to the door, and he was standing outside asking me if I wanted to play.  I said no.  If I had an excuse, I don’t remember it, but I do remember his disappointment.  Of course I can’t understand what he felt, but I see some awareness in that moment now—he saw why I said no and why we couldn’t be friends. I may have given him more rides after his visit, but he disappears from my memory at that point, his mess cleaned up.

But not entirely.  Experiences stick with us in strange ways.  Try as we might to make fables of them, they have a ghostly life truer to themselves than to us.  Long stretches lie between recollections of confusing or troublesome times, but they come back, sometimes at wincing moments deep in night.  I can forget about the cat’s pink trail, but, when every molecule seems gone, deep principles of conservation are at work.  Somewhere, memory waits.

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Filed under Aging, Anxiety, Essays, Laments, life, Memory, Recollection, Thoughts, Worry

Worry Wart

“Shams and delusions are esteemed for soundest truths, while reality is fabulous. If men would steadily observe realities only, and not allow themselves to be deluded, life, to compare it with such things as we know, would be like a fairy tale and the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments.” —H. D. Thoreau

I’m a worrier, and worry about everything—whether I will find time before class to grade quizzes I should have handed back yesterday, whether my current fatigue is a thyroid problem, brain cancer, or a systemic failure of all my major organs.

And knowing my worries are groundless doesn’t stymie them.  They are the tide. Sometimes they appear as ripples on an otherwise still surface, and sometimes they loom like scary breakers.  Yet, though they wax and wane, they accompany me always.

Oddly, safety makes me subject to anxiety, the appropriate term for my state. Because I don’t have to worry about being eaten by larger and/or craftier predators and don’t seriously fret about food and shelter, my anxiety never rises to the standard of fear, anxiety’s beefier cousin.

“It could be worse,” people tell me, and that statement is invariably true.  I’m good at imagining much greater catastrophes and more dire developments.

In a 1968 essay entitled “One Vote for this Age of Anxiety,” Margaret Mead recognized how her own anxious age arose from advances in technology and equity.  “Anxiety is the appropriate emotion” she said, “when the immediate personal terror—of a volcano, an arrow, a stab in the back, and other calamities all directed against one’s self—disappears.”  As her title suggests, Mead saw anxiety as progress, for “We have created a nation in which anxiety” for all but the hungry and homeless, “has replaced terror and despair.”

Her comments sound naïve now, not because they’re illogical, but because modern anxiety can’t be diminished so easily.  As silly as it might be, anxiety is sufficient motivation for all sorts of bad behavior from jealousy to sabotage, from selfishness to theft, from resentment to murder.  Mead was right to reject the notion of a paradisiacal savage sitting in a lean-to waiting for the sweet potatoes to ripen or for today’s dinner to wander into traps. That savage might not survive the day.  But our standards for good fortune have changed.  Our collective memory fades, and we forget how difficult things once were or might be.  We begin to see life as difficult enough.

Mead’s answer to the anxiety of her age was to get in touch with the ultimate fear, of death.  Doing so, she believed

…can give dignity to life, and acceptance of our inescapable role in the modern world, might transmute our anxiety about making the right choices, taking the right precautions, and the right risks into the sterner stuff of responsibility, which ennobles the whole face rather than furrowing the forehead with the little anxious wrinkles of worry.

I like her idea—maybe my worries would die down if I began each day with a prayer of gratitude for waking up—but I’m probably not alone in not quite believing her.  Modern life insulates us from death, and our dependence on media renders it something that happens to other people.

The loss of a parent, child, friend, or acquaintance makes death visible, and I would never diminish anyone’s grief or its power to change priorities.  However, most Americans aren’t there.  They’re mired in triviality, a swamp of petty politics, celebrity gossip, novelty gadgets, splashy entertainments, and superficial tweets and texts.  Until something devastating happens, we remain out-of-touch.

But not blissfully.  Something in me knows I should be worried, and so I travel in a mist of apprehension, wondering if everything can be so good or can be so good for so long.  A vague nay-sayer accompanies me everywhere, pointing out my vulnerability, the dangers gathering around me, my family, and everyone I care about.

Early humanity needed fear to survive. Perhaps the fear Mead thought was fading in the world is hardwired into us.  The causes have changed, the emotion remains.  Mead saw no answer in returning to paradise, and we can’t unspill the milk.  But I sometimes wish I’d been born into a less advanced civilization, one where fears are commensurate with the joys of living.

If I’m going to be worried, I’d rather be worried about something that matters.

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Filed under Anxiety, Doubt, Essays, Home Life, Jeremiads, Laments, life, Margaret Mead, Modern Life, Sturm und Drang, Thoreau, Thoughts, Worry