Monthly Archives: February 2012

Being a Soloist

toddoff.jpg I have a bad habit of seeing only the task before me. With grade reports due at the end of the week, it’s difficult seeing past that obstacle. Nothing exists beyond it, so why think about any other task this week?

When I’m finished, I’ll be useless. My laziest moments fall between chores, between books, between paintings, between posts.

New missions often seem too new, there before you’ve celebrated completing the last. Some people are juggling multi-taskers who keep seventeen responsibilities current and central, but the all-consuming ordeal is my favorite, something that hijacks the other sixteen and excuse me from ignoring them.

One of my old jobs included directing plays, and the last week before production was anxious but satisfying. It arranged my life around readiness. Those few days of forgiven single-mindedness felt more normal than the rest of my life. No one could expect anything else of me. The postpartum depression came not from loss but from having to reenter regular life.

Sometimes the hydra of busy-ness seems the world’s problem. In 2012, attention can’t be exclusive because multi-tasking is one of modernity’s unnatural necessities. Life is complicated—too much of a German confederacy, as Thoreau would say—to leave anything alone for long.

Or that’s my rationalization. You’d have to travel pretty far back in human history to find a time when you didn’t have to milk the goat and tend the millet. Maybe a person unsuited to balancing many concerns has always been unsuited to life.

When I complained about my quilt of responsibilities’ straining every stitch, a friend attributed my problem to “the artist’s disease,” the delusion obsessive attention is essential and good, nobler than the domestication of multiple foci. Artists don’t want to do the dishes, she says, because they are too good for them. The slightest intrusion is the grossest violation when you imagine painting another Mona Lisa. The rest of us, she says, spread our efforts wide.

But it isn’t art with me. I hold with Todd Rundgren, “I don’t want to work. I just want to bang on the drums all day.”

Jane Austen put it more genteelly. In Mansfield Park, she wrote, “Everybody likes to go their own way—to choose their own time and manner of devotion,” which may explain my being so obsessive. The only work I like is devotion. Even grade reports can become devotion. If it’s worth doing well, it’s worth neglecting everything else.

But my wife disagrees.

She points out the floor I haven’t swept, the laundry I haven’t put away, everything unanswered and unscheduled. Meanwhile I attend to tasks with the strength only a single channel can provide, wondering why I should care about what’s broadcasting far and wide elsewhere.


Filed under Art, Essays, Home Life, Identity, Modern Life, Thoughts, Work

Troubled Connections


When I was thirteen, my older sisters’ boyfriends found my journal. Reading it must have been an afternoon’s entertainment and, when they encountered me the next day, they thought it might be fun to slip in questions they knew I’d asked myself.

The linebacker smiled and said, “Why are you so serious?  Why can’t you just be?”

“David,” the guitar player said, “do you think you will you ever find someone like you, someone who you can let into your secret places?”

They barely suppressed laughter. My sisters looked pained—appalled and embarrassed and sorry—but smirks lay beneath their expressions too. Or that’s what I saw. If I talked to them about what happened, they might have apologized, then or later. But I didn’t. I haven’t.

Instead I went to my room.


The surreal comic Stephen Wright used to tell a joke:

“I have a map of the United States… actual size. It says, ‘Scale: 1 mile = 1 mile…’ I spent last summer folding it.”

This map is my life—inviolably itself and yet I’m always trying to make the first fold, to find an angle of approach that will discover the creases of its hidden sense and render it manageable.


A chair has one essential characteristic—you must be able to sit on it—and every other attribute varies. It might have no legs or three legs, or two legs or one. You may be able to rest your back or fall asleep in it. You might die in a chair, and it might be built for that. A table, shelf, or rock could be a temporary chair, though it isn’t truly. Anything can appear to be a chair.

How would you tell a computer what a chair is? Descriptors like size and shape and color and function might eventually help a machine determine it’s looking at a chair, but programming like that takes the long way. You’d like to convey the chair-ness humans take for granted.

What if humans looked at all the different types of chairs and didn’t understand the pattern? What if we couldn’t perceive chair-ness or any other neo-platonic ideal that helps us know each thing is a type of thing? What if all the synapses we bridge every day remained voids?


Living in Chicago, I like to watch pedestrians check themselves out in storefront windows. They turn their heads slightly to the side and adjust what needs adjusting—hair, belt, ties, skirts, collars, expressions—and still they keep in step, hoping not to be seen. These strange glimpses reveal privacy in open air, and, if pedestrians see me looking, they avert their eyes. Sometimes they blush.

I dip into the reality within them and appreciate knowing they aren’t unlike me after all.


Even when dreams don’t repeat themselves, they return over and over to familiar motifs and scenarios that would mark them, if they were movies, as the work of a particular auteur.

In my dreams, I’m always wandering off. I tell someone I will be back with a towel or a piece of paper or a sandwich or an answer, and I just don’t come back. The mistake becomes clear later. The rest of the dream lurches forward between episodes of wincing.

Sometimes I try to deliver whatever is missing, but the recipient is no longer interested, or gone, or replaced by another person who can’t understand the urgency of my mission.

They often get what they were missing whether they want it or not, and only then the dream moves on.


You can protect a new flame by cupping your hands so tightly you hide its light, deprive it of oxygen, and burn your hands.


According to Jean Anouihl, tragedy becomes melodrama when it loses inevitability. With one effort, an EMS tackle-box might save Romeo, a house call from Macbeth’s therapist might help chance crown him, and a quick conversation beginning with “About Iago…” might spare Othello.

But tragedy is seldom so simple. In melodrama, nothing is at stake. Nothing is irreversible, and fate won’t spoil desire. The distinction rests on belief. Some moments are so unavoidable belief won’t spare you, but the rest of the time we search for exits. This time the car will start, the computer will reboot, and the air conditioner will rush to life.

Brains look for patterns, seeking signals amid noisy chance and chaotic circumstance. It isn’t exactly belief. If the brain looks hard enough and connects stars perfectly, constellations emerge, the complete picture at last. Or so the organ assumes.


No one I believe tells me I’m right.


In my desperate courting days, I met the great-great-granddaughter of Henry Clay, and, during one evening of square-dancing at a Kentucky Roadhouse, I decided to marry her. Over the next few days she answered every phone call, but each time her voice carried more obvious alarm.

Soon she had to tell me, “I’m not ready for this.” She asked me not to call again.

Some weeks later, I saw her at a bar dancing to a band called “Nervous Melvin and the Mistakes.” We half-waved, and, after an hour of visions and revisions, I walked over to ask how she’d been. The music was so loud she couldn’t hear me, but she did hear me—or I heard her. She wore the anxious smile of flight.


Dan Markley lived in the house across the street and field on Estate Drive. He played the drums and drew constantly. He was too slow and gentle for football but organized every neighborhood game. He loved the Beatles so much he dressed as each of their Abbey Road personas—in chukka boots, jeans and workshirt, in a classic black suit, in flamboyant white or evangelistic, zoot-suit super-stylishness. He lived with his grandmother because his mother was too young and his father left him behind for a life far away.

He loved my sisters and at every opportunity visited our house, a puppy nuzzling their knees despite himself. Dan would be anything for them—chauffeur, courier, substitute babysitter, collaborator—even though my sisters gave him no hope. The more they asked, the more he did.

He never stopped smiling. Every greeting felt as though he meant to make a good first impression. I don’t know if he liked any of what was demanded of him because he never spoke the hopes he harbored.

With all this horseshit, he seemed to think, there must be a pony around here someplace.


Recently, I received a text from my son at 3:34 am, “Damn your insomniac genes.” His curse is mine, my brother’s, my mother’s, my grandmother’s—when he wakes in the middle of the night, his brain heats instantly to blazing. It takes some hours to dissipate, and, even then, its heat fevers the half-sleep and half-light of dawn.

Truthfully, I’m imagining him with my own insomnia, which feels like I forgot the oven was on before leaving the house to fly into strange country.

The past flickers for hours and every flame swings on a hinge of what I did and might have. It makes no sense to revisit any of it, but night drags me there. The house is quiet and still, but my brain stumbles on in regret.

I thought of texting my son back but hoped he was asleep.


June Tabor is an English folksinger whose melancholy voice I once found soothing, and two of my favorite tunes—“All this Useless Beauty” and “I Want to Vanish”—were written for her by Elvis Costello, another of my favorites.

Midway through the song, Tabor sings:

If you should stumble upon my last remark
I’m crying in the wilderness
I’m trying my best to make it dark
How can I tell you I’m rarer than most
I’m certain as a lost dog
Pondering a sign post

Sometimes you think you hear what others can’t. Deep memories stir—she’s telling you she’s fallen out of love and into like, that this time her forgetting means something, that you won’t convince her again you’re worth saving. Tabor’s song raised the faces of failed connections from inky water, and I imagined them stumbling upon my painfully sincere love poems or too-long letters. I would still be inside them, still trying across all that time, as freshly pathetic, as laughable, the lost dog stuck before the signpost, awaiting direction.


The best e-mails arrive from another life. A few weeks ago I received one from a college girlfriend who wanted to know what had become of me. In the last paragraph, she wrote that she felt bad about our ending and said, “I was nasty and immature, and I am sorry about that, especially since I really did admire you in so many ways, for your talents and your charms. I do hope life has been good to you.”

I couldn’t think of anything she needed to apologize for. I wanted to write back immediately and say, “I’m sure I deserved it, whatever it was,” but first I had to enjoy the sweet revision, the knitting up of an unraveled connection.


Bernard Marx, one of the main characters of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, is shorter than all the other members of his genetically engineered and carefully conditioned caste, and another character blames alcohol in his blood surrogate. “He’s so stunted,” she says.

And he is, but the trouble isn’t his stature—it’s the self-consciousness his difference creates. His height makes him visible to himself, and he never takes his eye from the mirror. Every effort to stand out appears an attempt to celebrate his distinctiveness, but really he might embrace the anaesthetized life of every other member of the brave new world if he could just give up looking at himself, if he could only pass that mirror by.


The surface of a river says little about deep currents churning silt and algae between the scattered rocks of the riverbed. Fish dart among the rocks, invisible, desiring and not desiring the glittering surface, the lure and danger it presents.


Once I tried to un-break-up with a girlfriend. When we split, we’d been together for a long time, I’d stopped being new to her, and I was sure she’d abandon me soon. I wanted us to end on my terms, but her tears surprised me. Then I knew I’d been wrong.

It was Christmas and she’d just given me a sweater I’d already unwrapped. Its weight on my lap grew heavier and heavier. The spot where it rested grew hotter and hotter.

She kept asking why, and I hadn’t prepared a response. Or rather I was unprepared to tell the truth. What I did say has vanished, words snaking into air like twists of steam.

When a month later I said I’d been wrong and missed her more than could be expressed, she said I’d hurt her and she’d found consolation in someone she’d met. She thanked me. He was someone she might otherwise have overlooked.

And she told me I hadn’t been honest.


By the time I met my wife, I’d learned to play someone I’d rather be.


Prosopagnosia stems from brain damage and makes recognizing familiar faces impossible. Sufferers float in a world of first meetings. Though they may draw on their history of relationships and know they have a spouse, a child, family, and friends, they can’t match this face to that history or understand who is standing before them now, even when they stare at photographs of themselves.

Except that some part of them can understand. Computers trace the movement of eyes as people scan faces, and the data reports two responses, one for strangers and one for those they know. Even in people with prosopagnosia, the eyes know. They behave as they always did before loved ones and friends.

They just can’t know what they know. The eyes search and the brain—its sense broken—ambles on.


“Life is indeed dangerous… It is indeed unmanageable,” E. M. Forster says in Howards End, “but the essence of it is not a battle. It is unmanageable because it is a romance, and its essence is romantic beauty.”


I’m up before everybody else going over today’s list of tasks, responsibilities, and prods to memory. I think, “What if, taken together, these lists are me?”

All the inventions and connections unreel like cash register tape. I want to believe anything spilled is salvageable. I want to gather myself at last.


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Filed under Aging, Doubt, Essays, Experiments, Identity, Laments, life, Love, Modern Life, Nostalgia, Recollection, Thoughts, Worry

Most Days…

I could be living anywhere, but some mornings I wake to the city. My walk to work takes me under the L track the moment the train passes over, or I’m blasted by the uplift of warmth from sidewalk grates. Some mornings I hear the neighborhood shouting man greeting passerby along Wells near North. His words are rarely intelligible, but anyone within hearing senses the charged air around him. People pause and look for him, like animals momentarily alarmed by what’s outside their cages.

I once lived in Delaware and wrote an essay about what it’s like to inhabit Anywhere, USA. The suburban commute of my old life was the most insular act of an insular life. I climbed in my car in my locked garage, and, ten or twelve feet down the driveway, the car doors locked automatically. Climate control was no farther than my reach, my radio stations were preset, my route invariable but for the occasional nuisance of someone else’s accident or the glacial progress of road construction. Modern marketing made most of the scenery interchangeable, the cycling background to a chase in a seventies cartoon.

Here, it’s different. Oh, I see people try to avoid humanity in Chicago—ear buds buried deep or cell phones magnetically pulling at their heads. Some wear phones like Borg from the second incarnation of Star Trek. Fully assimilated in their virtual meetings, they advance down sidewalks speaking blissfully from another dimension. But even they shudder under the L tracks or hasten to escape when real blasts of human breath beg for recognition.

Before I moved here, people told me they could not live an urban life. It’s too impersonal, they said, everyone is a stranger. Superficially that’s true. I’m not really friends with the people in my building and know no one on my block well. Yet Delaware was the same. I don’t miss the insulation of suburban civility and the cooperative way we spun each other’s cocoons. In a city, the shouting man yells you’re not alone, which is a strange comfort on a cold morning.


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Filed under Chicago, Essays, life, Meditations, Modern Life, Place, Thoughts, Urban Life

Cold Mountain

hanshan.jpeg It’s been some years since I’ve attended a poetry reading. I enjoy them, but I also struggle with my cynical side. I’ve been to too many readings that ape religious rites—the priest or priestess intones prayer-poems until the final moment when the audience ohs like a flock of smiling pilgrims, their eyes half-lidded in ecstasy.

Okay, I exaggerate—and maybe I shouldn’t be so flippant—but I wonder if our reverence for poetry can sometimes trap us into expecting enlightenment, elevation, and disclosure of deep truths approaching revelation. Sometimes simple statements on the human condition would go a long way.

Poetry can be whimsical and still revealing. One of my favorite poets is Han-shan of eighth-century T’ang Dynasty. Called “Cold Mountain,” Han-shan was a Buddhist struggling to cut himself off from craving. Still, even in commonplace moments, the magnitude of his longing is palpable… and so is his awareness of that state. The poems have a strangely impish pride and defiance:

As long as I was living in the village
They said I was the finest man around,
But yesterday I went to the city
And even the dogs eyed me askance.
Some people jeered at my skimpy trousers,
Others said my jacket was too long.
If someone would poke out the eyes of the hawks
We sparrows could dance wherever we please!

Deep poetry it is not, but human. Han-shan’s voice does not come from on high. A reader can readily see he can’t help being pleased with himself, can’t help wanting to be paid the proper respect, can’t help knowing all of that, can’t help, even in his dejection, seeing humor in failing to impress dogs. For me, the logic of the last two lines is simultaneously ominous and funny, ludicrous and self-deprecating but also bitter. Those hawks had better watch out.

Here’s another:

A crowd of girls playing in the dusk,
And a wind-blown fragrance that fills the road!
Golden butterflies are sewn into the hems of their skirts;
Their chignons are pinned with mandarin ducks of jade.
Their maids wear cloaks of sheer crimson silk;
Purple brocade for the eunuchs who attend them.
Will they give a glance to one who’s lost the way,
With hair turned white and a restless hear

Largely descriptive—and, at times, seemingly gratuitously so, almost wedding page so—this poem doesn’t demonize these girls but engages in the devoted attention that accounts for its final moments. Their finery is genuinely fine, and his meticulous observation of particulars suggests a sort of reverence for youthful innocence—the girls are playing, though servants attend them—and the butterflies, the ducks are the playthings of a child. The sincere longing erupts in the final question, and it seems important it is a question. A statement might turn all that preceded it into ammunition for resentment. Instead, the speaker asks, and in asking, might set off some spark in a reader. Oh to be young…oh to be noticed…

I picture Han-shan at a poetry reading and wonder what the crowd might do at the end of this poem. They could “oh,” but Han-Shan’s poems don’t aim for that response. Walt Whitman said he was “No stander above men.” Though I love Walt Whitman, his phrasing belies its sentiment. In Han-shan, the sentiment is never too grave or ponderous and nearly always fundamentally amused. Instead of a priest, he presents a person.

When I read Han-shan I think about a poet I heard read once in MFA school. He would stop periodically and say “Did you catch that?” and reread the phrase. Sometimes he would even read the poem again…more than once.

The most dangerous temptation in poetry is making meaning instead of embodying it. Han-Shan tells you to pause and listen to how silly you sound.

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Filed under Buddhism, Ego, Essays, Han-shan, MFA, Poetry, Thoughts, Writing

My Gym Mates


home_gym.jpg Truth is a pathless land. —Krishnamurti

Every morning between 5:00 and 5:15 am, I arrive at a gym in my neighborhood, walk up to a desk and scan my UPC identity from my keychain. The attendant mumbles something I assume is “Good Morning”—I hope so, because I always say “Good Morning” back—and then I make my way to the locker room to stow my stuff in preparation for working out.

Every morning I can expect to see the very tall man wearing the Pabst Blue Ribbon tee-shirt who ought to bathe more often…or get another shirt. I see the woman with bowling ball calf muscles who leaps on and off a flying treadmill and yet never takes a “Jetson” or, for that matter, an unsteady step. I see the dreadlocked male model in crocs and the barrel-chested man who lifts the maximum weight on several machines, but walks around on bird legs.

Every morning one of the three trainers will be busy encouraging someone to step on and off a bench or lunge with hand weights or hop from leg to leg as if they were speed skating without the bother of ice or forward motion.

And every day, they must see me. Who knows how they might describe me—”the guy who does the same damn thing in the same damn order every single damn day” or “the guy I always catch looking at me.”

We know each other and don’t say a word.

Sometimes this habit we have of ignoring each other is hard to maintain. If I’m not careful someone might catch me with an open expression on the brink of speech. If I’m not careful, they might see recognition, even affection.

Recently at a store across from work, I was in line behind one of my gym mates and felt a sudden urge to shout “Hello!” the way you do when you see an old friend in the airport, in the theatre lobby, or at an art opening. An unexpected meeting, especially after a long absence, always elicits a natural warmth in me. But I didn’t speak because the absence wasn’t long—we’d just seen each other that morning—and what could be more expected than another unacknowledged encounter?

Today is an imitation of yesterday and that was an imitation of the day before, so we don’t dwell on what we might have said on the second day of our acquaintance. Not speaking is fundamental to the rhythm of our relationship. We meet daily and choose—again—not to initiate eye contact.

Still, inside, I hear my voice speak. I see myself turning to the girl who takes the elliptical trainer next to mine three or four times a week. I hear my voice telling her about a deep embarrassment I once suffered in the second grade, a story I tell only my closest friends.

I could tell her. We have known each other long enough to expect that sort of intimacy, as I spend more time with her than with most of my other friends. And, after all, she knows my basic animal self—the scent of my sweat, the broken way I breathe when I’m past controlling it, my involuntary grimaces of exertion.

I know her too.

Yet, instead, I leave her the way I found her, someone real I’ve chosen to imagine, another person I know and have decided never to meet.

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Filed under Essays, Identity, life, Meditations, Modern Life, Place, Thoughts

Teaching by the Rules

When I teach writing, I sometimes talk about a list of rules students should form in their heads. This imaginary list may include silly items—“#37. Don’t start consecutive paragraphs with the same word”—and cosmic ones—“#83. Detail and explanation are the bricks and mortar of effective prose.” Some rules will come from their instructors and some from their own invention. However, two rules belong on every list: first, whatever the source, every rule is ultimately yours and, second, the list must never be final.

I’ve been gathering teaching rules much the same way. Educational approaches come in infinite diversity and follow infinite fashions, but every successful teacher finds his or her own way. If you replay memories of effective grade school, high school, and college teachers, you find a baffling variety of approaches, affects, and styles.

During Dr. Fosso’s lectures on Shakespeare, no one spoke. I sometimes fantasized about doing the unthinkable and raising my hand to ask a question or make a comment, but every moment he wasn’t speaking seemed wasted time. Yet imagining Ms. Raulerson speaking for more than three minutes was equally unthinkable. Her classroom was a busy marketplace, the trade of observations and information so practiced and shrewd you often ended-up with perceptions you never thought to possess.

Ms. Raulerson and Dr. Fosso do not even belong in the same educational universe. The success of one seems to preclude the success of another. Nothing is more frightening to me than politicians talking about the importance of training effective teachers because I worry how they might define and restrict “effective” and whether they will allow for the traits Dr. Fosso and Ms. Raulerson shared: knowing what their students needed and understanding what they, as human beings, had to give.

Early in my career, I imitated my best teachers and was very lost. I didn’t reach any class until I suited methods I’d learned to my own personality and found my way to sincerity. Teacher training will only work if it focuses on developing self-assurance. Good teachers make a student feel he or she is in confident hands, with guides who know many routes and have spent years noting the best ones. These guides find their way of doing their best.

Teaching is challenging, fascinating, amusing, and sometimes frustrating because you never get it entirely right. Occasionally, I think I’ve found teaching rules fit for all humanity, but that feeling never lasts. You have to be grateful to have so much more experimenting to do.

In The History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, Julian Barnes tells a story of waking up in a heaven where life is infinitely perfectible. By the end, the narrator shoots a round of golf in 18, runs a marathon in a few minutes…and is terminally bored. Still trying to get it right—however fine the tuning is—is vital to a great teacher.

My best days are playful and new. Students sometimes regard school as a holding cell before life, a funnel through which everyone must pass. To take risks and stretch themselves, they need to see school can be stimulating and satisfying. No teacher training protocols or educational strategies for differentiated instruction or mentored classroom management will succeed if you can’t create a real sense of joy.

The best teachers search for interesting lessons, useful instruments to assess understanding, and thoughtful means to connect academics and reality. I’m not sure you can teach desire or create the abiding curiosity that, whatever their different styles, teachers need. If a teacher doesn’t find genuine pleasure in learning, I’m not sure what training will work.

The most important question isn’t whether to use smartboards or what’s necessary to a cooperative learning environment or how to institute project-based learning but, fundamentally, “What am I doing here?” If you can ask and answer that question every day, your list of what makes an effective teacher will grow and change like a living thing.


Filed under Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Identity, Modern Life, Opinion, Teaching, Thoughts

Subterranean Man


I have the secret identity part of being a superhero down. If I could skip the powers, beg out of rescuing anyone in serious trouble, and double up on mild-mannered alter-egos, I would be ready to leap immediately into action—or, rather, discreet inaction.

Blogging splits me into two people. During the week I am a dutiful employee struggling to fell his to-do list, and on the weekends I am an equally dutiful blogger hoping to write something redeeming. My work week self wants nothing more than to do his job quietly well, demonstrating his worth without calling attention to it. My weekend self wants exercise, an active mind and imagination. He wants to fly in ways impossible outside WordPress.

It’s a subterranean life, knowing you have this other self awaiting release, and sometimes it’s odd to look around and think about what people don’t know about you.

Though I try to be selective about revealing myself, telling coworkers about my blog sometimes feels as if I am reaching into my backpack, flashing a fold of red unitard, and whispering, “I’m secretly a blogger.” Some people seem sympathetic. Others smile stiffly and say, “Oh really?”

And if colleagues are reading this blog, perhaps they feel as though they’ve seen me in that unitard. They don’t talk about it.

Which I understand…and don’t mind. I’m flush with the excitement of writing regularly and enjoying the possibility of any audience, even an audience googling “red unitard.”

If you’re really going to write, you can’t worry about who sees you.

In my previous blogging incarnation, I was Joe Felso. I literally had a secret identity. But, as any superhero would tell you, the fake name was only a means to keep two lives separate and to be resolute in both. As Joe Felso, I didn’t fear bullets, speeding locomotives, or threats to my livelihood from bosses investigating my activities outside work.

I’m not so protected now but ready to defend what I do here. A friend lamented once, “Why can’t I just see work as a j-o-b for m-o-n-e-y?” But my avocations sometimes save my vocations. Even when I’m continually cowed by requests and commands at work, I still have a domain where I can explore the speculations I push aside all day. If work isn’t the sole repository of my worth, I can act calmly, creatively, productively. While I don’t want a j-o-b where I put in the time and leave, I like having something outside work too. I like being committed to what I do, but perspective is important too.

Carrying the secret that you’ve written something over the weekend isn’t so terrible either. A subterranean life isn’t so bad.

So I spend much too much time here, trying on the guises that might magically transform me—without chemical accidents, radiation, or extraterrestrial visitations—into something greater than my usual self.

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Filed under Blogging, Essays, Home Life, Identity, life, Modern Life, Survival, Thoughts, Work

When it Stops

Another Kafkaesque parable…

Then the engine stops. No one notes the labored motions or syncopated rotations of its wheels and belts. No one smells smoke. We’ve grown so accustomed to machinery we’ve stopped hearing it. And when it seizes, we have to look… even though everything arises from the desire not to look.

No one here knows how to fix the engine because its makers are lost. They wandered from the job long ago and, though they may still be hidden among pipes and flaming minarets, looking for them will spend too much time. We will call out to them—cast their names like seeds into the air—but they are out of earshot and we all sense calling will do no good.

When the engine was new, some people reveled in watching it. Miracles traveled inside its motion, purpose we couldn’t see but believed. Like any machine, it ran in cycles, and, at first, some waited and watched for its return. They would let us know that it was the same engine following the same choreography we set, though we added to its parts all along. We can’t shut it down for repair or tinker while it moves, so we add to it instead. We used to stand beside it, pausing to take a deep breath and congratulate ourselves. But when we added parts to assure the engine could supplement itself, we lost the habit of looking at all.

Someone was supposed to watch. At first we took turns according to elaborate tables of duties, but the tables taxed our attention and, with such an autonomous machine, the time seemed so sterile, so fruitless, so superfluous. We learned to expect someone else to do the watching and then we learned not to watch.

And isn’t everyone too busy? We can’t be expected to follow the intermeshing teeth of its cogs. What is there to see in its incremental gestures, its mechanical loops, its pendulum swings and plodding moves? We prefer a more interesting world, one more like the wild and open time before the engine. Freedom, after all, is the reason we built the engine in the first place, so it could do what we didn’t care to.

For some time now, a handful of people we called alarmists have been shouting trouble, carping we don’t know what the engine does anymore or crying when another one of its pumps palsies and stops. “Those drips are toxic,” they said, and “something smells wrong.” But what they wanted—to start again—was well beyond them or anyone else. Though we’ve developed so many new arts, repair has slipped into a fog of wet smoke, a lost practice of memory.

Our brains aren’t right for the task either. Connections loosen, and our sight swims in the soupy atmosphere engulfing us. No inhalation seems deep enough. No fuel sufficient to the effort required. The world is going black, and the truth explodes in a final revelation.

This machine makes air.

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Filed under Allegory, Doubt, Essays, Experiments, Jeremiads, Modern Life, Parables, Prose Poems, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Worry

Being Awkward

Slang sometimes splits the world in two.

Take “cool.” As subjective, shifty, and contextual as “cool” is, nearly everything is or isn’t IT. A sort of Heisenburg uncertainty principle of language governs the word—the first stage of becoming “uncool” is being identified as “cool.” Nothing stays cool for long. When something falls under that descriptor, however, it is solidly cool. What in this world is “nearly cool” or “barely cool enough”? “Cool” is a cool word, not just an adjective, but a phenomenon.

Over the last few years, however, another slang word has developed the same sort of power, “awkward.” And I’m not so happy about it. By the dictionary “awkward” means “difficult to deal with” or “lacking grace or ease,” but, as it’s used, its meaning is mercurial.

The students I teach frequently evoke the word. “Awkward!” they say in that roller-coaster dropping voice, as if they’ve just spied something—a toucan or a model T or a man dressed as an anvil—that simply must be pointed out. What they are referencing isn’t always as clear. I want to ask, “What was awkward about that?” but I have a feeling I’d just give someone another opportunity to use the word.

“Awkward,” like “cool,” seems easier to apply than explain. Users know it when they see it—even if they’d be hopeless to explain what “it” is. Sometimes “awkward” seems little different from “ouch” or “uh oh,” or any other brute exclamation responding to hidden causes. In a moment of social tension, after a subtle or not so subtle misstep in a public or semi-public dance, a general queasy discomfort arises, and someone labels the moment “awkward.”

I don’t much like the word. Besides being overused, it’s often a desperate declaration, an attempt to make something innocuous into something significant. Nothing adds to an awkward silence like saying “awkward silence.” Nothing makes you feel more awkward than eliciting the word.

The trouble with “awkward” and “cool” is that each has a reductive meaning. When, by definition, something is or isn’t—black or white—discussing it becomes nearly impossible. Some people wince when they hear “pretty unique” because things are or aren’t unique, but can uniqueness have degrees, can a thing be unique in some respects and not others? Doesn’t nearly everything have degrees?

Though “cool” neatly divides the world, at least it’s generally complimentary, positive. “That’s cool,” declares support or approval. Whatever cultural damage the marketing of cool has done, its colloquial use is largely benign.

“Awkward,” however, illuminates social blunders, pointing out what the awkward offenders don’t need pointing out. I wonder if being cited as awkward makes a person more or less so. I suspect it just makes them circumspect, compliant, less free or expressive. The best way to avoid the word, it seems to me, is to avoid speaking altogether. Take no risks and you will never be awkward.

Yet, here’s a really radical thought—what’s wrong with awkwardness? It might be awkward to talk about how you feel, but it’s sometimes necessary. It may be awkward to raise an objection or say what everyone is thinking but no one will say, yet I’m often grateful when people do.

I’m worried about a world where we avoid discomfort, where creating or experiencing discomfort causes censure.

These sentiments probably mark me as out of touch, a cranky person who takes words much too seriously. I can appreciate that perspective, and I’m not naïve. No crusade or blog post will eradicate “awkward” from our speech. The genie is over the dam, the water is out of the bottle, and something is always under the bridge.

Yet I can’t stay quiet, even though getting exercised by a word most people use thoughtlessly is a little…you know

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Filed under Aging, Essays, High School Teaching, Laments, Teaching, Thoughts, Words