Monthly Archives: October 2011

Bhava and Vibhava: On Becoming

This weekend, I’m busy with college recommendations and other school work , so I’m revising an entry from my old blog, Joe Felso…

An instructor in a short story workshop in college once advised my class, “Write stories with clear beginnings, middles, and ends,” and I remember walking out of the building laughing with classmates about this startlingly obvious tip. I wondered if you  could avoid taking it.

Like so many scenes I’ve replayed, however, I see it differently now.

Some tasks begin and end. Some tasks cycle indefinitely, perpetually, repetitively. As I get older, more experiences fall in the second category.

I value limited tasks and unlimited ones. Each has a place. How could you be good at anything if you didn’t practice to maintain your skill? The instant you stop, your skills begin to atrophy. On the other hand, how can you live without coming to a satisfying end? No one likes life on a treadmill.

My tolerance for familiar tasks seems to shrink every year. I find my attention drifting. I think less and less about excellence. I question to the point of sabotage. This? Again? Why?

The trouble, of course, is future rewards. At the gym some mornings, I imagine a stationary bicycle with a vista before me. I’d start in the same place each time I sat down, but peddling would bring me to new locales. The longer I exercised, the more dramatic the landscape I’d encounter.  The assurance that I see something new might keep me pedaling.

Is that life?  For five years, I wrote a haiku a day. Coming up with a haiku was my first thought in the morning, and the day didn’t really begin until I’d found the germ of an idea to become those seventeen (or so) syllables. Composing so many haiku made me a more resourceful, flexible, economical, and—most of all—practiced writer, but I stopped about a year ago. I kept asking, “Am I reaching new landscapes really? When does practice become habit? Have I forgotten what I’m practicing for?”

In my twenties and thirties and into my forties, I ran nearly every day. At one time I was running 50 or 60 miles a week, and I kept a map on the back of my closet door and added-up the mileage, marking how far I would have traveled had I been headed east. I ran, according to the highlighter, from New York to San Francisco, but on the return journey, I broke down in WaKeeney, Kansas. I spent at least one imaginary month there. I don’t remember why, but I suppose I had an injury. I was certainly psychologically exhausted, stuck at that exact spot where the arms on the wheels of a train engine can’t move: I hated standing still, I wanted to stand still.

Now I can’t even think about running 30 miles a week, and say, “What was I complaining about? Isn’t being able to run a gift?” But when I left WaKeeney, I didn’t have that perspective. I imagined taking my leave of the barber and the grocer and the guy who was always just ahead of me at the diner counter. My imaginary question was, “When is it okay to stop?”

I might have asked him, “How do you find WaKeeney?” or I could have said, “How have you learned to live without striving?”

My beginnings and middles always have to lead somewhere. I’m still following my instructor’s advice…still wondering if I have to.

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Filed under Aging, Buddhism, Doubt, Essays, Laments, life, Modern Life, Thoughts

On Pain

I’ve been reading about definition essays, and, as often happens, I felt the urge to write instead…

My first kidney stone was lightning, and I dropped to my knees in a grocery aisle and readied myself for God. The second I carried like a demon baby until my doctor drugged me, dropped me in a tub, and used sonic earthquakes to shatter it inside me. The third erased layers of hard-earned self-control as if they were written on tissue paper.

I’m no good at pain. No one is.

Discomfort becomes pain when it passes reason, when it becomes phenomena, when what’s in you is visiting from elsewhere. You aren’t allowed to know the elsewhere, and, thankfully, you aren’t allowed to remember. Some recollections might ruin you.

In the doctor’s office or hospital they ask you to rate your pain on a scale of one to five or, if you don’t speak English or Spanish, show you a series of circular semi-smiley faces with increasingly dire expressions. No one who rates a five could see well enough or hear well enough to answer, but the rest of the scale is fictitious. What does an answer mean? No one knows a two from a three, and the real question is “How soon will you lose it?” or “Have you already lost it?”

When I was very young, I remember a childhood earache in the middle of the night that sent me wheeling into the front lawn during a rainstorm. I grabbed my head. I cried and howled like Baby Lear. Then my mother came outside, gathered me up, and carried me to the living room. She gave me something. I sat in her lap until I calmed down. She didn’t comfort me so much as keep me there, with her instead of elsewhere.

Being entirely in you, pain isn’t transferrable. You can’t share it, nor can you get comfort from anyone willing to share it. Maybe that’s the trouble with giving birth. What might be a bond between parents can instead be separation, the same event felt in different dimensions.

Pain, a scientist might say, means to tell the body something is wrong, but it overachieves. And, if it is hard to think about pain, it’s doubly hard to think of it having any purpose. Marx said physical pain is “the only antidote to mental suffering,” a measure of perspective, an interruption in our regularly scheduled programming. Emily Dickinson wrote about “A formal feeling” afterward when “The Nerves sit ceremonious, like tombs.” Faulkner said, “Given the choice between the experience of pain and nothing, I would choose pain.” But who sees it as redemptive while it’s happening? What pain teaches us comes later, and, if it comes later, are we only trying to explain what’s outside belief?

I’m more inclined to believe St. Augustine who called physical pain, “The greatest evil” or the essayist Emile M. Cioran who said, “The limit of every pain is an even greater pain.”

All the pain I’ve known has been short-lived and forgotten. The term “chronic pain” seems the cruelest oxymoron. I wonder what happens when intrusion is the order of the day and every grip on comfort is unreliable. How is that different from madness?

Maybe pain is the body’s defiance, the one reluctance that surpasses description, negotiation, or remedy. Maybe it’s telling us, “You don’t know.”

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Filed under Doubt, Essays, Experiments, Laments, life, Memory, Pain, Survival, Thoughts

Empathy Challenged

“Writers don’t write from experience,” the poet Nikki Giovanni once said, “if you wrote from experience, you’d get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy.”

As an African-American, Giovanni might feel an urge to communicate the seemingly incommunicable—what it is like to be in her skin. She may also feel the complementary urge to live in someone else’s. And to approach understanding anyone, you need to open yourself to others’ understanding. Maybe you have to believe people can be understood and ought to be. At least it’s a start.

In my literature classes, we encounter authors with varied and interesting experiences, many of whom focus on characters’ joys and doubts, crises and triumphs—in other words, their humanity. Some of my students share that humanity. They hunger for characters who will help them see the world from a different angle. They talk about characters as if they lived next door (but rarely stepped into the light), and they wonder what happened to them after the last page.

They ask charming questions, and harping that someone created these neighbors, friends, or curious strangers—that they aren’t real—threatens empathy worth protecting.

But some students aren’t ready to empathize. “Why are we reading another fill-in-the-blank book?” someone will ask, “I don’t care about fill-in-the-blank.” Some say, “I don’t like books that have fill-in-the-blank in them,” implying I’ve stepped out of bounds in asking them to do something they don’t like.

I’m not sure how to answer. They’re right—if you can’t put yourself in a book, how will it reach you?

At the same time, I can’t see the value in reading about someone exactly like me, even if I could find such a book. Reading is paradoxical. On one hand, we hope to identify with the story and with the people who populate it. On the other hand, our own experience mirrored back offers nothing new, no reason to read at all. My best students hope to gain experience they haven’t gained in life. Their hope goes a long way toward fulfilling their aspiration.

The advertising bathing us day after day discourages empathy, teaching us to want relief, not challenge. We’ve lost much of our appetite for discomfort and quickly exhaust patience with quirky characters. Nick Carraway is a wimp. Romeo needs to stop being such a drama queen. How could George stand Lennie so long—shouldn’t he put him in an institution where they can care for him more properly?

I’d like to get over my cynicism about the future of reading. Self-centered perspectives seem a natural part of growing up, and I certainly remember the fun of shooting down great works. You can cajole most students into recognizing a book’s merit. All is not lost.

But I struggle more than I used to. How do you teach someone to care? How do you teach them to look for themselves in characters they consider unlikable?

Once, in an essay on The Catcher in the Rye, I asked, “How do you think J. D. Salinger hopes we will feel about Holden? How does your reaction to Holden compare to Salinger’s aim and how does that help you assess the book’s success?”

Many students recognized Salinger daring us to like Holden. In making Holden so troublesome, a few argued, he tested our capacity to face our own flaws. Others, however, complained about Holden’s dated expressions, his dated, no longer shocking behavior, his annoying verbal ticks, his unbearable imaginary troubles, his hypocrisy. They suggested Holden ought to stop feeling sorry for himself and just get on with life, asking, “What does he have to complain about really?”

One student put it, “Who wants to understand him? Who cares?”

I wrote in the margin, in my quietest handwriting, “What about the death of Holden’s brother?” and “Do you think Holden’s parents are giving him the support he needs by sending him to a series of distant boarding schools?” and, finally, when my patience wore thin, “Aren’t your judgments of Holden just as harsh as his judgments of others? Can you see a little of yourself in him?”

No reader can empathize with every character. I understand that. The vehemence of rejection, however, sometimes scares me. The study and appreciation of literature may require empathy, but doesn’t life require it more?

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Filed under Doubt, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, J. D. Salinger, Laments, Reading, Teaching, Thoughts, Writing

What We Say Becomes True

A recent headline in Chicago included the word “discover,” and I carried the word around in my brain all day. My thoughts reviewed all the great discoveries I heard about in school: the Rosetta Stone, the heliocentric solar system, cells, DNA, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and, of course, America. In every case, discoveries disclose what already exists. The discovery is really only unknown to the discoverer. Though some items above were unknown to all humans, even those things weren’t new. No one invented them.

Except that, if you think broadly, naming them did. The New World wasn’t new. We have only one world, and all of it includes homo sapiens doing what homo sapiens do: forming families, gathering in population centers, raising and finding food, and seeing to collective survival. Calling it “The New World,” however, said these similarities weren’t important. “The New World” makes the craven claim, “These people are nothing. More land for us. ” Meanwhile, on the other side, many native tribe names translate as “human beings.”

Concepts are powerful. Students are always surprised to learn no artist or thinker associated with the Renaissance called it the Renaissance or that, at the time, The Middle Ages or Dark ages weren’t middle or dark. No one in the bronze age said, “That’s us. Bronze is our thing. That defines us, man.”

Seen in this light, discoveries are labels that make things real.

“Self-discovery,” is even more slippery. What’s true of other discoveries must be true of what we find out about ourselves—it was there all along. We missed it. And, if it’s a discovery to us, maybe everyone witnessing our behavior already knows it.

“Boy,” I said the other day, “I’m pretty absent-minded.” My daughter said, “Duh.”

Just as with other discoveries, the label invents. In many cases, that’s not at all bad. Therapists hope names will create awareness and opportunities to redress personal troubles. Self-discovery helps when redefinition allows people to escape destructive self-definition.

But self-discovery doesn’t always work that way and sometimes feels like fiction. Once I begin to consider I’m not what I think, then I wonder, am I anything?  Is self-discovery really self-serving, a pathetic effort to define myself before the truth arrives? Socrates’ precept “Know thyself” can quickly become “Delude yourself,” which is the last thing I need.

Many of the 15-17 year olds I teach say, “That’s just the way I am,” and I’m a little sad when I hear self-discovery from people so young. Can you really know yourself so early?

Language is our species’ boon and bane. Without language, we are alone. With language, we create a world of our own imagination… that bears a striking resemblance to the real world… or not.

What if we accepted that what’s new to us isn’t really new or, alternately, regarded everything as new? I’d like to believe, as Confucius did, that what we do is finally us. Declaring what we are—and what’s what, generally—is sometimes a good idea, but not always.

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Filed under Doubt, Essays, Identity, Laments, Modern Life, Thoughts, Words, Worry

A Writing Teacher’s Crisis of Faith

“Everything should be as simple as it is,” Albert Einstein once said, “and no simpler.” Without knowing this statement’s motive, source, or context, I can’t determine Einstein’s exact meaning, but, speaking for myself, he describes writing perfectly.

A senior at my school alerted me to Einstein’s remark three weeks ago, and since then I’ve been looking at students’ work differently. An ambitious writer fights to make sense of his or her subject. Diction, syntax, organization, and every other assembly of language seeks to reduce complication and confusion just enough to reach something true, something moving, persuasive, valid, accurate, evocative, insightful.

But Einstein is right, trouble arrives when you don’t go far enough… or too far.

My students fall into both categories and often all at once. For some, instruction on thesis statements, topic sentences, integrated quotations, transitions, body paragraphs, introductions, conclusions, and other formal elements offer a short cut to success. Young writers who understand the aims of essays use these structural elements to think and talk about writing. The terms make composition more manageable for them.

For others, however, focusing on structure short-circuits their thoughts. Including all the parts I describe above won’t automatically lead student writers to truth, and, in fitting their ideas into conventional structures, they often truncate rather than explore their thinking. Because many of my students are following rather than testing the laws I teach, self-expression becomes secondary. Because I isolate one way of writing, they don’t engage in the experimentation or play that might make writing more stimulating and pleasurable.

And the essays they produce aren’t fun to read. Some of their compositions look like the sort of model airplanes you’d construct if you a. had only written instructions, b. started with no idea you were making an airplane, and c. weren’t sure you cared much about building anything anyway.

Of course, offering fewer instructions about how or what to write presents trouble too. When I don’t say exactly “What I’m Looking For,” some students freeze-up, and others think the lack of specific requirements means requiring less of themselves. Yet, these informal and less defined assignments often produce more genuine cogitation. The most interesting work comes from prompts like “Tell me which line in this scene is most important” or “What’s really wrong with this unhappy character?” or “Discuss something you think most people don’t realize.” The essays may be just as unpracticed and just as unorganized, unfocused, and unclear, but the thinking is better… and real. I see minds grappling with ideas and aspiring to articulate insight.

Which makes me wonder about the rest of my teaching.  Am I making writing too easy? Identifiable and verifiable elements like thesis statements, topic sentences, and integrated quotations are useful. They certainly make grading less complicated and more consistent. I can use similar rubrics for every paper all year. But does emphasizing form misrepresent the challenge—and satisfaction—of discovering what’s true? Am I teaching students how to write or how to follow my instructions?

Niels Bohr, another physicist, advised, “Never express yourself more clearly than you are able to think.” My best students benefit from their education in traditional formal essays because they know where they are going. And I won’t stop teaching descriptive terms. All my students need the language of composition, if only to reflect on what they’ve written.

Yet, I might consider myself more successful if every paper revealed the thoughts of its author—however effectively or ineffectively—instead of communicating a clear understanding of how to fulfill a form.


Filed under Doubt, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Laments, Teaching, Thoughts, Writing

Nearly Synonymous

Tuesday is my 53rd birthday…

  1. All poetry as echoes, all echoes as poetry
  2. A colleague and I disputed the value of Thoreau’s statement “To regret deeply is to live afresh.” She said living fully meant regretting nothing, and I said I wished that were true.
  3. I once had this fantasy of forming speech bubbles like a comic strip. I’d pluck the best bits from the air and save them for later. But then I thought about what a curse that would be, and isn’t that what I do anyway?
  4. A spacecraft leaves earth orbit aimed for a square of black. Five decades into the journey, its destination is less sure, its origin less than a pinprick, and everything any of the passengers see as vital has been recycled again and again.
  5. A deck of cards plus a joker
  6. The internet promises to give us a thousand answers to every search, but all I find are a thousand different versions, each announcing its own validity.
  7. As photos age they shrink the fractions of life.
  8. The figures I no longer know are a court of statues in memory. They stand in passive attitudes abraded by erosion of wind, water, and time. Depending how long ago I lost them, they might not be human at all, just lumps standing in for someone whose name is gone, someone representative, someone swiftly becoming a thing.
  9. When I want to praise my father, I say that, as a pathologist, he possessed a medical vocabulary as large as my real vocabulary. Only now do I consider how odd that might be, hoarding words to describe a world shared with almost no one else.
  10. An extra week
  11. Mark Twain said that, 20 years hence, “You will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones that you did.” He meant to encourage risks, but the statement baffles me. Do relentlessly, the undone still taunts you.
  12. A window too small to see the whole mast of a passing ship
  13. In mathematics, a permutation is a rearrangement of the elements of an ordered list into a one-to-one correspondence with itself—one set, folded.
  14. In a list of “53 Things That Get Better With Age,” I found #14, “Acuity: When you’ve ‘been through it all,’ you recognize things in life that younger—less keen—people don’t.” There’s so much I’d enjoy overlooking again.
  15. In Feng Shui a mirror represents water that doubles chi by producing reverberations of energy and light. If reflection had such power, I might not find myself sinking instead.
  16. A boat on stilts, its keel matched to the curve of forgotten water.
  17. Socrates’ advice was “To know yourself,” but had he a longer life, I wonder if he’d advise knowing someone else instead.
  18. Isaiah 53 tells of “the suffering servant,” despised and abject, a weed that grew with no beauty and grace, undistinguished and plain, without praise or esteem. He kept silent. He returned no ill-will. God gave him these burdens and, by carrying castigation and punishment to his grave, he redeemed the real sinners’ iniquities. A familiar story—a life like a deep current, answering a hidden order.
  19. Every one of them is gone back: they are altogether soiled; none do good, not one.
  20. One way to describe a perpetual motion machine is an engine that needs no fuel.
  21. Sometimes fearsome puppets populate my dreams. They are the people I know behind the faces of people I’d forgotten, and both remind me how little I heed their words, how little I’ve learned.
  22. Shift
  23. Yang Xiong was born in 53 BCE in modern Sichuan. Scholars classify the Chinese poet as a Tao materialist and discuss his opposition to a lavish style of poetry called fu that presented multiple perspectives, consuming subjects in skillful imagery and deftly baroque manipulation of language. What Yang Xiong wanted was personal feeling. He didn’t see why truth had to impress. He believed art needn’t be artificial.
  24. When students ask for synonyms I have two or three to offer, but most only ever want one.
  25. When I picture my father at my present age, he’s in a spare bedroom of our old house, stooped over an art table, painting a watercolor landscape. Rarely did my father initiate conversations with me, but several times he asked me if I’d like to learn to paint. I always turned him down, believing secretly that all his work was the same, that he was painting one picture over and over and that he could only teach me how to paint it. My ambitions were greater then.
  26. The oblique angles of light in an empty room
  27. Transformation.
  28. The summer I was 19 I worked two jobs, lifeguard and movie concession worker. Both, it turns out, were mostly passing time. I talked to coworkers endlessly. All our conversations became one, studded by stories cut as carefully as diamonds, and by September, I couldn’t open my mouth without sighing at what I’d said so many times before.
  29. I can’t understand T-shirts labeling the wearer “Aged to perfection.” Isn’t fermentation just controlled purification?
  30. I’m in my thirtieth year of teaching, and lately I’ve been dropping that fact into conversations. Yet I still sometimes count on my fingers all the graduating classes I’ve taught, just to make sure it’s true.
  31. In a dream last week, I went on a lecture tour exhorting audiences to “Expect surprises.” City after city, crowded hall after crowded hall, that was my solitary message.
  32. Everyone says we should be willing to fail, that failure is the secret to success, but life is heading toward failure so physical it looks like oblivion.
  33. I wonder about fulcrums, the turning points that, after the fact, seem to have reversed your orientation.
  34. The wind turning, its fresh direction another temperature, a new scent.
  35. Growing up, my sister carved deep grooves into a Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young album that told me, “We are stardust.” Even then, I knew the lyrics to be literally true—our atoms are from exploded stars—but I didn’t feel consoled. Everything we are is elemental, and anything distinctive arises from combinations so complex chance must create them.
  36. I’m told that, if the U.S. were cut into equal sized states, there would be 53.
  37. I remember little about math class, but one indelible lesson remains: Xeno’s paradox. If someone shoots an arrow at someone else, it is only logical that to reach that person the arrow has to travel half-way, and to reach from the half-way point to the person, it has to travel half-way again, and then half-way again, and half-way again. But if this travel by halves is true, the arrow never gets there. It’s still flying in staccato bursts, traveling increasingly invisible distances.
  38. Once, I had a writing teacher who urged me to write a wordless poem, the idea being that, if I could fall into channels of sound or thought already laid, I might utter the truth in the background of everything known.
  39. An overstuffed sock drawer impossible to open
  40. My daughter requires several alarms to wake up. The layered beeping, buzzing, and chimes gather and still she doesn’t stir to silence them. Even when she turns them off, they persist in my mind. Sometimes they go on for hours, faint distress to accompany my day.
  41. “It is not length of Life,” Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “but depth of life.” So why do I feel like a skipping stone?
  42. Groundhog Day is my favorite movie, and I bet I’ve seen it 20 times. Since the movie is just one day relived endless times, how many days does that make? When do I reach the point I’ve lived more days than Bill Murray?
  43. Modification
  44. I’m just getting comfortable feeling I only have so much to teach.
  45. Miss Stone, my third grade teacher, used to invite me to the front of the room while my classmates completed worksheets. “Smile,” she whispered, “what have you got to be so worried about?” That’s when I discovered language’s limits, its inadequacy describing anything it couldn’t name.
  46. Aside from movies, no one says, “You’ll never amount to anything.” Its dismissal is too complete. But when I say it to myself, it’s different.
  47. My daughter and I sometimes have strange rendezvous in the middle of the night when I find her sitting in front of a glowing computer. I tell her she has to get to sleep and that it’s silly to sabotage the next day and her health for something frivolous. Then I stomp back to bed to toss and turn and ruminate for hours about nothing I remember.
  48. M. C. Escher said, “They who wonder discover that this in itself is wonder,” suggesting that to wonder about his statement is to wonder about wondering about wonder,” which, I think, goes a long way toward explaining his art.
  49.  When I teach The Odyssey, I can’t help picturing the future Odysseus, the one who, after walking inland and appeasing Poseidon by planting an oar the locals call a winnowing fan, still sails through the Pillars of Hercules intent on completing his last futility.
  50. Long-exposure photographs of traffic capture a life I sense and can’t see.
  51. Recently I read some writing advice from Kurt Vonnegut, “It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.” I’d love to comply, but what if language is the only handle you hold and all you care for?
  52. The best analogy for my life would have to include an analogy of its own.
  53. Dan Gustav was the first to tell me being an adult was way funner than being our age. I still believe him.


Filed under Aging, Art, Blogging, Doubt, Dreaming, Essays, Experiments, Groundhog Day, Identity, Insomnia, Kurt Vonnegut, Laments, life, Meditations, Memory, Modern Life, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Worry, Writing