Monthly Archives: March 2012

One Essay With Separate Titles

1. An Odd Memory

By early August, sun and runners’ feet beat the cross-country course dry, and a morning’s run, even solo, simulated the pound of hooves on clay. But dawn air was undisturbed, and a turn would sometimes carry you into a wisp of fog or through a trough five degrees cooler than before. The sun slanted in, weak but still hot enough, and flashed in and out of your eyes. Sometimes you cut through a spider web or kicked aside twigs fallen during the night.

The whole experience set me thinking about ghosts, as though an invisible crowd had gathered to impede me, their arms impotent against anything as corporeal as a runner charging on. I passed through layers and layers of spirits.

2. Mine

Sitting at my desk during a free period, I overheard two students on a bench down the hall. One said, “Have you heard the na-chur story yet?” and the other answered “Yes, that was weird.”

“Ask him about the canned candidate.”

“What’s that?”

“Ask him.”

I stopped grading a quiz to concentrate. My whole brain needed to place those voices. They were as familiar yet unknown as actors who intone car ads on TV. They were my students, I knew that much. The stories were mine.

3. Fifty-six

As I learned my times tables, some multiples gave me more trouble than others. My memory slipped around seven and eight, and I could never remember what I’d get if I multiplied those numbers times the others. So I would work my way around to an answer—if ten times any number was that number with a zero attached, then nine times must be that number with a zero attached minus the number. Nine times seven equals 70 minus seven or 63, and seven subtracted from that equaled eight times seven, 56.

It’s embarrassing to admit how long I relied on this approach when simply memorizing 56 would have worked. My allegiance was to the route I took and not to the number I arrived at, and, if I was going to abandon one, it would be the number. The number was abstract. The path to it was gentle and familiar, enmeshed in the satisfaction of discovering it, and my obligations felt clear.

4. Burning Still

When I was writing a haiku a day, I hit upon an idea I could never express properly in that form. What if every haiku about a bird, a tree, a swinging backhoe, or a boulder blocking a path set that thing aflame—what if observing it made it burn with eternal fire? What would the world look like, blazing with attention? What might be left cool and untouched?

I think I might clench my eyes shut to preserve the world.

5. A Conversation Remembered

Once I told one of my writing teachers that I worried about running out of things to say. She told me that was silly because writing really isn’t about your subject, it’s about your voice, your perspective, and everything you wrote about was really a window into you.

Her answer seemed terribly egotistical, and, for once, I had the gumption to speak my criticism aloud.

She smiled. “Every writer is an egotist,” she said, “Isn’t it fundamentally egotistical to think you have something to say that hasn’t been said before?”

6. Copenhagen, Part I

One of the most mysterious meetings in history occurred in Copenhagen during the German occupation of Denmark in 1941. Niels Bohr, the father of quantum physics and Werner Heisenberg, the father of quantum mechanics met after a decade-long separation. They discussed a then-theoretical atom bomb.

Heisenberg, a German, and Bohr, a Dane, had long known each other, having met when Heisenberg was a student. They worked together in Copenhagen in the 20’s. Each was a perfect complement to other, as Bohr pictured what Heisenberg could describe mathematically.

More than that, they were best friends. After Heisenberg left Copenhagen to become a full professor at the University of Leipzig, Bohr wrote a sentimental letter where he told his friend, “Rarely have I felt myself in more sincere harmony with another human being.” And, for his part, Heisenberg regarded Bohr as another father, the most important influence on his professional and personal life. Heisenberg received the 1932 Nobel Prize for work they had largely done together, and Bohr wrote, “The awarding of the Nobel Prize to you is one of my life’s happiest moments, which makes me think both back and to the future with gratefulness and comfort.”

7. A Brief Interruption on Instruments

Every instrument designed to perceive also organizes. A digital camera remakes a scene as pixels, and human stereoscopic sight gives a scene depth. Even a photograph in two dimensions the brain reads as a room, a sprawling crowd, a vista.

You can count on imagination to fill the cracks, breaks, pits, and scratches of an incomplete picture, even when you don’t notice it working.

But there might be something changed by such loving attention. The reality perceived and organized might be transformed as our brains search for data to render life meaningful.

Perhaps the commonplace matters most: a quarter-smile, or faint slouch, or a growl under an endearment that launches a fleet of associations larger than one moment.

8. Copenhagen, Part II

What happened in the 1941 Copenhagen meeting between Bohr and Heisenberg remains murky, as neither scientist or friend experienced the same event. In 1956, Robert Jungk’s book Brighter Than a Thousand Suns suggested that Heisenberg visited his old friend with a deal in mind—Heisenberg would stall the Nazi efforts to develop the atomic bomb, and Bohr would make the same effort on the allied side. Jungk credited Heisenberg with heroically sabotaging Hitler’s effort to develop the bomb.

But that isn’t what Bohr experienced in Copenhagen. After Bohr read Jungk’s account (and a letter Heisenberg added in a subsequent edition), Bohr spent the next five years drafting angry responses describing his different impressions. In one draft, he wrote Heisenberg that he was “Greatly amazed to see how much your memory has deceived you in your letter to the author of the book.”

Bohr understood that Heisenberg was saying the bomb would settle the war and that the scientists Heisenberg directed were making efforts in that direction. Bohr accused Heisenberg of revising history to paint a more favorable portrait of himself.

Yet Bohr never sent these letters. They were discovered 25 years after Heisenberg’s death, folded into Bohr’s copy of Jungk’s book. After 1941 Bohr and Heisenberg saw each other, but Bohr refused to discuss their Copenhagen meeting, and Heisenberg died describing their lost friendship as one of his deepest regrets.

9. It Just Goes to Show

Sometimes reality divides, no one cares, and everyone is happy. Sometimes not.

10. Toastmaster General

On a leaning bookshelf in the back of Mr. Ashby’s Speech II class, was a series of dusty Toastmaster books filled with jokes and anecdotes to elevate Kiwanis Club speeches. Most were years old, and, had any eighth grader dared to use their stories, the air might have congealed.

Adapting them wouldn’t even work. What adolescent audience would buy an anecdote about a blind bartender or a mathematically-minded stewardess? Who could believe we had a boss or a wife, an exotic pet, or a car we might describe as “one of those sexy foreign jobs”?

Sometimes, when I was supposed to be working on that Friday’s speech, I’d silently read a few more pages. The voice in my head became Dean Martin’s. Nothing like that had ever happened to me.

I asked Mr. Ashby what the books were doing there, and he explained we weren’t supposed to steal from them. They presented examples of what we might do, what sorts of stories we might cull from our own eighth grade lives.

11. What’s in a Name?

The recent popularity of the lyric essay seems suspect to me, though I’m writing them all the time lately—right now, in fact. Associative thinking can be poetic, but it is also easy. And, if every object is symbolic and any observation can bloom into epiphany then where does choice enter at all?

12. The Ghost of Jackson Pollock

In the early 50′s, Jackson Pollock participated in a documentary about his “action painting.” Big mistake. It was as if the great and powerful Oz dropped the curtain and revealed a man in a barn flinging paint.

Many Americans already rejected his art as a sham, but this film created new detractors, ones who saw his art as purely accidental or serendipitous at best. Some felt Pollock a craven manipulator. Of those who embraced his method, many appreciated the film more as “how to,” than “how unique.”

The moral should be, “Careful about revealing your technique,” but it suggests something else to me. When I see Pollock’s paintings in museums or on the web I picture his wiry form in washed-out color, stooped and astraddle, daubing with a blunt brush, swinging cups of paint or pouring a deliberate trickle, a slung arc, a perfect spill.

I wonder how he saw so deep, how he knew how and where to cross what had gone before, what to cover and what to let show, and when, exactly, the true surface emerged at last, its tangle suddenly complete, whole, and accurate.

And accurate to what, exactly?

13. Writing Me

I think sometimes about writing my autobiography. Of course, there’s no reason to—I couldn’t be less significant historically, and anything I have to say about being human is well known. But how would it feel to revisit events that, in the moment, fell like flakes of snow, random and—up until the last moment—drifting to unsure resting places?

So much of my time here fits the simile. Every Saturday I write what it occurs to me to write. Some blog posts land in fresh territory, others overlap only a little and others entirely obscure what came before and hide the ground under it all. The premise of this method, I suppose, is to cover everything in patches.

I forget what I’ve said, what’s contradictory, redundant, or just as starkly white as what’s fallen before. Collectively, the only order I know is falling, letting things lie where they land.

14. Method

“Though this be madness,” Polonius says of Hamlet, “yet there be method in it.”

G. K. Chesterton said, “There nearly always is method in madness. It’s what drives men mad, being methodical.”

15. The Great Ms. Didion

My best model is Joan Didion. Her writing mimics the fragmentation she depicts, creating a picture of a situation by changing the angle on each section, paragraph, and sentence almost like shifting her camera, turning it, stepping back, leaning forward, dipping or standing tall, squinting and twisting the focus to take in elements unseen.

And much of it—even the most harrowing or horrifying, the most personal and private, the most uncomplimentary or cruel—arrives in two dimensions, flat and factual. She only seems ashamed of lies. Her version of Hemingway is more than style—it doesn’t condense her object so much as render its essence. She wants to remember, she said, “What it was to be me,” and her objectivity derives from the candor of her subjectivity.

She seems continually on the outside, working in. And perhaps that’s how she’s worked into me.

16. Missing

“I’m missing an appointment right now.”

I used to be the head coach of a cross country team and one day before practice, I looked at my watch and noted the date.

A senior paused in his stretching and asked, “What are you missing?”

“When I was a junior in history class we learned about duels. You take a glove, throw it down and challenge. Then you choose seconds and the other guy chooses the weapon. Then you choose the date, time, and place, and you’re done. Eddie Vie challenged me, and I chose a game of electric football. I remember the date and time. We were supposed to meet in front of the Orange Julius in the Hanes Mall food court…. today,” I glanced at my watch, “right about now.”

The challenge was twenty years before that explanation, but the athletes wouldn’t let it go. Throughout practice I’d sense a runner in my periphery, scooting up beside me to ask, “What if he’s there? Won’t you feel bad?”

“Isn’t there a way to find out?” another asked.

I don’t really think Eddie Vie was waiting, but their questions spurred my imagination. I pictured him grayer and fatter, sitting alone, the vibrating green gridiron reflected in his glasses as he watched the running back spinning fruitlessly in the backfield.

17. Another Briefer Interruption (But Perhaps They’re All Interruptions)

Memory has strange allegiances, imagination stranger still.

18. Rooms and Views

Right now, I’m reading E. M. Forster’s A Room With a View. It’s the only Forster novel I haven’t read yet, and the style and form are so familiar to me now I wonder if I’m reading it as anyone else would.

The whole story surrounds a kiss between Lucy Honeychurch and George Emerson on a violet-covered slope outside Florence. Lucy comes upon the slope, slides onto it, and George, having shared witnessing a murder with Lucy days before, kisses her without announcing his intentions or feelings.

And Lucy is left to account for the event, and, when George re-enters her life after her engagement to Cecil Vyse, she discovers she can’t. She attributes George’s effect on her to “nerves.” The narrator tells us, “It’s obvious enough for the reader to conclude, ‘She loves young Emerson,’” but…

life is easy to chronicle, but bewildering to practice, and we welcome ‘nerves’ or some other shibboleth that will cloak our personal desire. She loved Cecil; George made her nervous; will the reader explain to her that the phrases are reversed?

Of course, the reader can’t, and not just because Lucy is a fiction frozen in block of words. We can’t because we can’t know. We have our own rooms and views, and, if Forster puts us in a room of his making, we still have our own view, layered through several panes of glass and so altered the ghostly landscape outside wavers with every slight change of perspective.

19. Pausing Before the Close

As I write, I don’t know how the story will end and am not sure I want to finish it. I don’t remember the movie, and I’m grateful to encounter something new from someone I love.

20. The Art of Losing

When you lose an object, you picture it somewhere. It’s draped on the back of a seat in the Austin airport, in the bottom of semi-translucent container absentmindedly opened and then snapped shut, or dropped at one of the intersections of a nervous morning pacing.

It never vanishes, and sometimes you imagine it beating with hot intensity as if it, and not you, sought reunion.

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Filed under Aging, Art, Blogging, Doubt, Education, Ego, Essays, Experiments, High School Teaching, Identity, Joan Didion, life, Lyric Essays, Memory, Modern Life, Recollection, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Visual Art, Writing

Those Letters

463px-symbol_thumbs_downsvg.png A statement students never hear—our disappointments and not our triumphs make us.

In the next few weeks, some seniors at my school will learn colleges they want do not want them. For a few, it will be the end of desperate hope they tried not to feel. For others— having already seen themselves as part of a school through fandom or family— the rebuff will require redefining themselves. For most, it will be their first serious rejection.

As everyone is away on spring break, the seniors will tend their own wounds, but, even if school were in session, they would have to reconcile themselves. It won’t help to tell them, as my colleagues and I often do, that if we were applying to our alma maters in the current admissions climate, we might not be accepted. It won’t help to blame the system, though colleges’ relentless marketing superheats the process and sets students up for disappointment. We can’t evoke fate and any sort of meant-to-be’s, nor offer stories of how this moment won’t seem so important ten years from now, nor can we cajole them to reject a school that, up until that letter arrived, they’d esteemed highly.

And, frankly, I’m not sure any of those consolations should work. You can convince people how to think, but has anyone ever succeeded entirely at convincing someone how to feel?  You have that argument with yourself, and winning or losing it is far more consequential than any momentary reassurance.

Of course, not all the news will be bad. Some students will see hard work rewarded or unlikely hopes fulfilled. We shake their hands and slap their backs. College decisions, like another stage of a rocket, may blast them into new territory and a new sense of themselves. We know what to say to them. Nothing could be easier.

No one would think of telling them that disappointments and not triumphs make us. Reminding them they will not always be so lucky would be in terribly bad taste, and who, at that moment, wants to be reminded this result is really a new trial, another task at which they can succeed and fail?

But I confess I’m tempted.

I often find myself admiring the rejects more. If I can’t congratulate them, I can at least commune with them. They come to understand what I’d consider reality—that it’s not what we’re given but what we do with it that counts. Everyone my age has experienced disappointment or tragedy, and, speaking for myself, I’ve grown stronger through those experiences. Knowing no setback is final fills me with genuine optimism for seniors who don’t get their first choice. Successes born of discontent are often sweeter than simple good fortune. They can develop resilience, resourcefulness, and a sense of humor their classmates may come to envy.

“There will be little rubs and disappointments everywhere,” Jane Austen said, “and we are all apt to expect too much; but then, if one scheme of happiness fails, human nature turns to another; if the first calculation is wrong, we make a second better: we find comfort somewhere.”

Though they won’t accept comfort from me, the disappointed seniors may find it in their own hearts, which will ultimately be more valuable than anything I might offer.

We’d all like to choose our paths, but we can’t see the wider world that way. The recipients of bad news would never accept my saying so, but they may be the lucky ones.

I don’t grieve for them—they carry my greatest hopes.

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Filed under College Admissions, Education, Essays, Gratitude, High School Teaching, Identity, Laments, Letters, Modern Life, Teaching, Thoughts

Amok Time

Sometimes, when work ups its demands, squeezes the life out of the rest of my life, and creeps deeper into absurdity, my mind begins to wonder what I might do to free myself. I start to daydream about imaginative ways to get myself fired. I begin to think about running amok.

Running amok isn’t really funny. In its strict meaning—as it’s understood in Malaysia where the term arose—a male “goes postal” and reaches such a blind state of rage and lunacy that he finds a blade and slashes everyone he meets until he’s a. subdued or b. killed or c. kills himself. Running Amok is a tradition dating back as far back as westerners know. But don’t worry, my daydreams aren’t violent or even harmful to others. They simply announce, “Please notice: I’ve lost it.”

My fantasy began with a French film I saw once. The opening scene presented a teacher at a kitchen table scratching comments on essays. After a few violent strokes, she wadded the papers in her fist, grabbed the handle of a small trap door on the wall, yanked it down, and shoved the papers in the hole.

I’m assuming that door led to the furnace. I’ve been there.

My students are wonderful as individuals—I love them—but as an aggregate their missteps are tedious and predictable. Someone is going to almost knock me over rounding a corner with another student in pursuit. Someone is going to enter class after reading the first 15 pages of a book and offer some variation of “This book sucks.” Someone is going to call his or her English Paper “English Paper” even after I’ve repeatedly told him or her how a good title inspires your reader to read. Someone is going to steal balloons from a display and say something vapid after inhaling helium, finding the remark hilarious. Someone is going to ask what five students have just asked in the last eight minutes or point out the one typo in an assignment I’ve spent hours designing or interrupt a lively discussion to ask “Can I go to the bathroom?”

These trials elicit the question, “How do I get out of here?” They beg me to ask, “What absurd way can I get myself fired that might be commensurate with the absurdity I’m swimming in?”

Some possibilities I’ve considered:

  1. Composing a multiple choice reading quiz where the answer to every question is “toaster oven”: “Which of the following was NOT sown onto Hester Prynne’s dress…”
  2. Suffixing the title of every literary work I reference in class with “and a man with a hacking cough” as in, “Let’s look at the third act of Macbeth and a Man With a Hacking Cough” or, “As you may recall from our study of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and a Man With a Hacking Cough…” or “Tomorrow we start Crime and Punishment and a Man With a Hacking Cough.”
  3. wearing progressively uglier ties until what’s around my neck isn’t a tie at all but register tape, crepe paper, woven twizzlers, toilet paper, lo mein, a noose.
  4. appearing with one bare foot and then teaching class with a hand-puppet that’s really my sock. I’ll call him “Hooty the Wisdom Owl” and, all day I’ll say, “What’s that, Hooty?” and then I’ll laugh uproariously at jokes only I hear.
  5. Placing an open fountain pen, nib down, in my breast pocket until it creates a butter plate sized stain… EVERY DAY.
  6. standing up in front of the assembled upper school and announcing, “Hi, I’m starting a synchronized diving team and I’m looking for a partner… I already have the speedos.”
  7. returning a set of essays I’ve poorly spray-painted white. Each page will be obscured and carefully stapled back together. Then I’ll walk between the desks, dropping them off, saying in my calmest voice, “I know you guys are trying, but I just didn’t get much out of these.”
  8. sitting in the faculty lounge with a book propped before me, upside down. If anyone says to me, “Hey David, I think your book is upside down,” I’ll say “Thanks” and turn it once and once again until it’s upside down and resume reading.
  9. wearing a NASCAR style jumpsuit with amateurishly drawn and lettered logos for educational products—Expo markers, Crayola, Signature staplers, Starbucks—and saying they’re my sponsors. Soon, I’ll wear a headband with scrolling and blinking LED lights proclaiming, “Eat Lunchables!!!”
  10. mimicking all the student behavior that drives me crazy: titling my handouts “Handout” or speaking with helium induced hilarity or chasing students down the halls or asking my class if I can go to the bathroom in the middle of discussion or repeating instructions thirty-seven times or staring at my laptop with bemused expressions as they say things that are important to them.

I know. I’m bitter. Let’s hope sharing these plans isn’t the eleventh way of running amok. Maybe everyone needs an imaginary escape, some crazy scheme to combine getting out and getting even. Writing fantasies down takes the place of fulfilling them and gives me something mysterious to grin over as my students labor on exams.

And it’s doubly fun to speculate how long it’d take for anyone to notice anything amiss at all.


Filed under Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Laments, Survival, Teaching, Thoughts, Work

On Being Vonnegutian

Kurt Vonnegut, 1922-2007


I’m skeptical of grief for public figures. People who dissolve in tears before the flowery gate of a celebrity, even mourners who line a fallen leader’s procession, seem— I’m sorry—silly. Yet, when Kurt Vonnegut died five years ago, I grieved.

I grieved not because he left before his time or because he passed down an incomplete body of work or because he was the last century’s grand literary giant whose like will never be seen again. Some people may have felt so, but for the last thirty years of his life Vonnegut appeared to be preparing for death. And his prolific creations never produced a shining work pretending to literary greatness. He wrote some very good books—certainly some very entertaining ones—but if he ever insisted on being included on any “greatest” list, I never heard it…nor, until those florid moments surrounding his death, did I hear anyone clamoring to put him on one.

Yet, I grieved his loss, his humor, his forbearance, his—okay, I’ll say it—nobility.

At the end of the opening chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut (in the guise of himself) expresses his love for Lot’s wife. Sodom and Gomorrah were burning, and all she had to do was keep her eyes forward and not look back. “But she did look back,” Vonnegut wrote, “and I love her for that, because it was so human.” Vonnegut was human, utterly convinced of our corruption, yet devoted to human beauty, the small, sweet moments when we match our promise.

Vonnegut led a difficult life—witnessing the massacre in Dresden, yes, but also a mother who went mad, nightly assailing his father, whom Vonnegut called “As gentle and innocent a man as ever lived,” with “hatred and contempt.” She later committed suicide, and Vonnegut admitted feeling the temptation of suicide ever after that. He made one attempt in 1984.

Still, he seldom missed an opportunity to laugh, even if in a mordant way. Beneath the humor was genuine warmth. I think of Billy Pilgrim, the hero of Slaughterhouse-Five, suddenly finding himself weeping. His father’s son, Vonnegut was outwardly glib, responding to the death of champagne bubbles and an ivory-toed corpse with the same “So it goes.” Yet the weeping was visible too, deep but surfacing in moments of unabashed sweetness—the devotion of Hocus Pocus‘ Eugene Hartke taking his mad wife and mother-in-law fishing, Billy Pilgrim sharing a spoon of vitamin-laced syrup in the factory in Dresden and moving the recipient to burst into grateful tears, and all the other pronouncements of hope that arrived at the oddest moments.

I remember quite a number of Vonnegut’s obituaries quoted a pronouncement from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: “Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—’God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

Vonnegut could be harsh too, and balanced the equation with vitriol appropriate to a jeremiad. One of my favorites comes from Hocus Pocus, when he suggests an epitaph for the planet, “We could have saved it, but we were too doggone cheap.” Even at such moments, however, Vonnegut was looking at what we might do, what we could and might be.

Billy Pilgrim watches a war movie in reverse one night, planes gathering fire into bombs, bombs into bomb bays, war planes into airports. The scene concludes with minerals carefully put back underground, “so they would never hurt anybody again.” For Vonnegut that seemed a sort of wish fulfillment.

Ultimately, what moved me to grieve was no more complicated than admiration—a desire that my own dark life might also have such moments of light in it, that whenever I grow to feel people are no damn good, I might remember a beautiful garden of innocence and see those planes return until, “all humanity, without exception, conspired biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve.”

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Fakin’ It

One of my roommates in college played a horse in a production of Peter Shaffer’s Equus and spent hours in stables and on the edge of pastures observing. One night, after a long stretch watching a single animal and mimicking it, he said his stare looked beyond the horse’s eyes and began to penetrate. As it grew dark, he continued to feel the horse’s presence with him. Moving and gesturing like a horse, he sensed it responding as if a wordless understanding passed between them.

“I was another horse,” he said.

And then I thought, “Actors are so full of shit.”

But experience makes me reconsider. “Fake it until you make it,” people say. Pretend something long enough and, in some moment you might miss, pretense drops away. I know the feeling that suddenly, now, just now, you are dancing. Before you followed steps and then the steps came from you.

The first trick is belief. You have to convince yourself of something outside your mind in which you might participate. Two of my junior high friends were lefties, and I bet them that, by September, I could be a lefty too. All summer I practiced with my younger brother’s unused handwriting workbook. Taking a left-handed history test in the fall would prove my transformation.

One paragraph in, the effort fell apart. My mind—translating, too busy directing my hand—could hold nothing, and my pen’s ink seemed to evaporate before it could emerge. If you know panic, you know its effect, the way it eludes capture or control and doubles the moment into itself and your thoughts about the moment. I had to decide which test to fail and chose to pay up. I surrendered to my right-handedness.

Therein lies the paradox—to become anything other than yourself requires such belief in your capacity to determine who you are. And sometimes no amount of faith seems enough.

In Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King, the title character befriends Dahfu, king of the Wariri, who keeps a lion in a cellar as a model for his demeanor and bearing. He hopes to improve Henderson by exposing him to Atti, the lion. Yet Henderson finds little more than terror. Though Henderson stands on all fours and roars in Atti’s presence, “After a dozen of these agonizing efforts I would feel dim and dark within the brain and my arms and legs would give out.” For Dahfu, the imitation seems to take, but for Henderson—his body shaped by decades of neglect and abuse—it doesn’t. Henderson concludes, “Sometimes I think that pleasure comes only from having your own way, and I couldn’t help feeling that this was assimilated by the king from the lions. To have your will, that’s what pleasure is.” The connection seems twisted. Who can say what created which? Was it Dahfu’s will that made him the lion or did the lion’s will make Dahfu?

According to Henderson, Dahfu maintains “A belief in the transformation of human material,” and holds, “that you could work either way, either from the rind to the core of from the core to the rind; the flesh influencing the mind, the mind influencing the flesh, back again to the mind, back once more to the flesh.” Yet, Henderson experiences only limited success in quieting his deep, human mantra “I want, I want, I want.” He’d like to trade becoming for being and adopt a stance of “Grun-tu-mulani,” simply wanting to live, but his influences prove impossible to tease apart. He remains unconvinced and unsure.

In the end, Dahfu isn’t equal to lions either. Without divulging the novel’s conclusion, I can say Bellow asks many more questions about human beings’ cores and rinds than he answers.

I’m told that western and eastern psychology disagree on personal change. In the east, when someone is depressed, the patient might be sent to a hospital to lie in bed and receive visitors reminding him or her of obligations, affections, and family ties. The message is, “Get over yourself and try to be what the world expects of you.” Westerners come at the same question from the opposite direction, seeking to accommodate who we are. “I know myself and I’m bad in certain situations,” the thinking goes, “best to avoid them or compensate for them.”

Yet perhaps these approaches aren’t as different as they seem. Both assume living is a sort of performance—in the east you must be your role and in the west you must suit it to yourself. If everything is acting then it is only a question of being convincing, especially of convincing yourself.

What if costumes hide costumes beneath?  What if you are always faking it and make it only when no one—including you—knows?

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The Least Dream

A reprise… fiction for a change…

Genghis Khan felt his least dream promised stratagems, and so he gathered counselors around him each twilight to read the twitching of his eyes beneath their lids. It grew dark quickly and, soon, the counselors slept.

Every night, the youngest of them gave himself to sleep instantly, eager for his own dreams when he might roam over the steppe on a stunted pony, dragging his feet, or he might fly on just one arm, the other hand at his lips to silence his wonder.

One night, he awoke in a dream as he might to day. Walking to the tent flap as if it were real, he pulled it aside and found the camp empty of soldiers. It was afternoon. The day was hot, the land unshadowed, but the wind seemed to have arrived as if over a glacier. Despite the sun, the air raised goose bumps.

Senses usually eluded him in dreams. They were impossible to gather in a single impression, but this camp appeared outside his mind. Each object so clear it vibrated, he walked as in a map where everything shouted a label that became the thing itself—the charred wood of dead fires looked black enough to absorb all light, the sky so blue it became liquid, the yellow grass stiff as swords.

And, for a while, he enjoyed it alone. Up ahead though, he saw someone sitting on a log in the space where tents thinned. The man was smoking a pipe, and, by the tilt of his chin, the young counselor knew him instantly.

He thought of turning and walking away but he’d been seen. The arm of the man beckoned him. The young counselor’s feet broke into a trot beneath him.

“You’ve found me,” the man said.

“Yes, sire.”

“The others have not.”

“Yes, sire.”

“You may sit, boy. I won’t raise my eyes to you.”

Even in a dream, the counselor’s body fell onto one knee, and he averted his eyes.

“You know why you are here.”

“No, sire.”

“Scratch my back.” He shrugged and hunched to move his back beneath the boy’s fingers. His face relaxed. He moaned with pleasure.

“You will listen. When I ask you whether or not to act, you must tell me ‘no.’ To my every question, your answer must be ‘no.’ Do you hear me?”


“Yes…” he twisted his head to look at the boy and smiled, “you know what I ask and say ‘yes,’ but I hear you say ‘no’ even now,” he waved his hand and frowned, “That’s fine. Good. You may go.”

But the young counselor didn’t move. “How can I go when you told me…”

The answer, a burst of laughter, startled him.

“I knew your father better than you remember. When he brought you to be a soldier, he warned me, ‘Don’t let him have his own mind, or he will never listen,’ but I spared you battles. I didn’t want another man who listened, or only one who listens as my horse listens or as the tree listens for storms.” He chuckled, “You will understand the word means less than nothing. That is why you will say ‘no.’”

He held the young counselor’s eyes again, and said, “Now go. You may go. I must have a quiet pipe…because I can never have a quiet pipe.”

When the young counselor jerked awake he found himself at the Khan’s foot. All around him the other counselors had melted into sleeping forms. They leaned in such different directions that no one wind could have arranged them so. The faint sawing of their breath matched the noise of insects eating outside the tent.

Only one other set of eyes was open.

“Boy, you’re awake. The others have given in. Have you heard anything? Did I speak? Has my spirit shouted?”

“No, sire,” the boy said.

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Filed under Allegory, Dreaming, Experiments, Fiction, Identity, Parables, Words

Roads Taken

At least once a year I teach Robert Frost’s “A Road Not Taken” and watch some of my students glom onto its easy dialectic. They confirm the last line, “And that has made all the difference,” with nodding assent. Sure of a future they will create, they see themselves starting a journey that will end with rocking on a front porch, chewing on nothing, and reconsidering this day, this hour, this minute.

I lead them toward alternate readings. In letters and interviews, Frost said he disapproved of sighing over what might have been, and, when you study the last stanza’s syntax, the voice of the speaker appears over-the-top, self-important, bombastic and mocking. Frost’s poetry often states and un-states just that way, secretly complicating what it appears to simplify. Yet many students resist the idea that choices don’t matter. They reject Frost is so cynical. A couple will hint the cynicism is really mine. Someone will say I must be getting the poem wrong.

Imagine if you could trace everything about you back to a specific cause or single moment. You would be someone else entirely had you been born a day later, trusted where you doubted, chosen another word, waited instead of going, taken a different hike through the woods one day. You might have met the person you were meant to meet or stepped, you later knew, into an entirely different existence.

But we don’t really work that way, or, at least, it’s only so clear in movies. All our thoughts about ourselves and our paths are partly true, partly imagined, partly self-fulfilling. Other parts we can’t even consider, much less name.

When I was my students’ age, I believed in making sense. Given the time, the energy, and the will, I might sort out anything. I wrote essays with beginnings, middles, ends, and, by the conclusion, I’d convinced myself. Once my thesis was confirmed and the form fulfilled, the task was complete. The next paper awaited. No knot was too knotted, no possibility impossible. I could get there and was in a hurry to be finished.

Only the inexperienced, deliberately deluded (or maybe Ron Paul) can see the world so simply. I wonder when it occurred to me that you can’t always finish.

But I’m not sorry it occurred to me. The opposite of one route making all the difference is infinite revision, the opportunity to take a different way no matter how you’ve arrived here. The negotiation between “might have been” and “might be” can be uneasy, but it is a negotiation. You learn, you hope, from all of it.

Maybe it’s my age, but I’m not in such a hurry to be finished anymore.

And among all the legalistic, argument-driven, evidence-laden, pronouncement-centered essays students submit, I sometimes find some that know life isn’t a highway. These papers aren’t the sort of wandering I usually encounter in their writing, meandering that arises from uncertainty. These writers aren’t lost. They find strange comfort in roaming, delighting in ways that lead onto ways and noticing where grass wants wear or accepting another journey might be just as fair.

“Writing,” one of my high school teachers said, “Is never finished, only abandoned,” and, at the time, I took her statement as a lesson in perfectibility: as long as I persevered, I might explain it all. Now I’m reconsidering. Maybe she was urging me not to finish, to keep writing and writing and writing and not to abandon the pursuit even when I finished assignments.

My students misunderstand me. That way of thinking isn’t cynical. I’m not saying choice doesn’t truly matter or that choices don’t make a difference. I’m saying every choice does, and all we can know is that every path counts. There’s nothing wrong with exploring.

I haven’t really figured anything out yet.

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Filed under Aging, Essays, High School Teaching, Identity, life, Meditations, Nostalgia, Poetry, Robert Frost, Teaching, Thoughts, Writing

The Celebrity Artist

dickens-1861.jpgMost people reading celebrity news don’t regard it as real news. Stories about famous people falling off the wagon or feuding with exes or generally behaving badly are only interesting because the principles are well known.

Were they our sisters, brothers, parents, or friends, we might rush to help, but their stature can make us forget they are real human beings…when, really, everybody is.

I heard someone say celebrities are like Greek Gods, fallible and still divine. I’ve always felt sorry for the Greek gods. Celebrity isn’t pretty.

Take Charles Dickens. He was one of the first literary figures to deal with public interest in his life, and his life was troubled and sordid, far different from the sentimentality of his work. For instance:

  • Micawber, the David Copperfield character in debtor’s prison, arises from Dickens’ father John. Dickens lived in debtor’s prison for a time and worked throughout his life to extricate his profligate father from financial troubles.
  • Dickens’ first love, Maria Beadnell, couldn’t marry him because her family doubted his prospects, even though by the standards of any time, his fame was meteoric. After his first tour of the United States, he returned with coats worn threadbare at the elbows from admirers’ fawning.
  • His wife, Catherine Hogarth, bore him ten children, yet he later claimed he was never satisfied by their life together. He tried to reconnect with Beadnell but discovered she’d grown fat and old, and he took up with the much younger actress Ellen Ternan, separating from Catherine after she accidentally received an expensive bracelet he’d meant for Ellen.
  • In 1858, he published a non-denial-denial full of lacunae of his affair in a magazine he edited, Household Words, and effectively helped to kill the publication. He discovered, as many celebrities confirmed after him, the paradoxical effect of denials.
  • After his heyday, he became more famous for performing than writing, pulling in more income for his relentless and laborious reading circuit than for writing his new works, which many critics regarded as evidence of diminishing talent.
  • Late in Dickens’ life, Ellen, Ellen’s mother, and Dickens survived the Staplehurst rail crash that killed nearly everyone in the car forward of Dickens, and he ministered to many passengers as they died. He was never comfortable traveling again, and that moment started the physical decline that killed him at age 58.

We might know more about Dickens’ life, but his disillusionment with the public life led him to burn all of his personal correspondence in a bonfire at his home at Gad’s Hill in 1860. He continued the practice for the rest of his life, and though obviously we have little record of why, you can guess—he must have grown tired of people wanting more than his books. He must have been tired of living up to his novels’ warm and conciliatory conclusions.

His life was not all treacly domestic bliss.

I’m curious about his final hours, how he might have regarded the renown he’d earned. And I’m interested in his fans, their expectations and reactions. Did they forgive his peccadilloes for the sake of his art?

I doubt it. Often we demand a clarity and simplicity in public life that seldom exists in private. We approach the celebrated, even the celebrated artist, with an odd mixture of obsessive fascination and callous curiosity.

Dickens has been dead 140 years, and the prurient interest in the life has largely died away, replaced by the deification of the novelist. His rehabilitation isn’t unexpected, but I can’t help wondering, perversely, why we have such difficulty living with a Dickens—or any other public figure—between deity and devil.

Though I’m not an avid Dickens fan, it’s the later Dickens I enjoy most, the one who took to revising his work, who abandoned the literary factory system of his youth in favor of deliberative and moving prose. The Dickens of Oliver Twist and even David Copperfield tries to convince himself of something. The Dickens of A Tale of Two Cities struggles to believe nobility can persist in a deeply flawed world. Both are sentimental, but one evokes a backlash of cynicism in me and the other inspires a truer, more measured hope.

Could we have the later novels without the life?

We are too ready to judge the living and dead, too ready to apply standards that might be impossible in our life—or in any other.

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Filed under Art, Charles Dickens, Essays, Fame, life, Reading, Thoughts, Writing

Dear Reader…

…I recently passed the 200th post on this blog and must confess—sometimes my peevishness builds up like the buzz of an amplifier feeding back its own distortion. I begin to feel attention ought to be paid and wish I felt as valued as I ought to be valued.

Generally, I spare you these fits of pique because: a. they will pass, b. it’s not your fault, c. you might feel obligated to point out their injustice, d. regret invariably follows, and e. talking about my petty grievances will only establish what an ass I can be.

Still, I know the hunger of a greedy heart desiring affection and admiration. My only hope is maybe you do too, need company, and will forgive my momentarily loud desperation.

The fourth of five children, I was born jockeying for position and attention. Insisting on visibility was an early and strong theme, and, though I was and continue to be immeasurably proud of all my siblings’ talents and accomplishments, some doubt comes with being one of five. I grew up wondering if my achievements would stand up against theirs, whether people would praise me as highly or even grant me a quiet corner in the familial pantheon I was fated to join.

Our family had athletes, actors, artists, writers, and scholars, so cross-throughs crowded the early catalog of my aspirations. No doubt, worrying about equaling others can fuel extraordinary effort, but it can also fuel jealousy, restlessness, and self-recrimination. “What about me?” the greedy heart cries, “when will I get my due?” Or worse, it wails, “I so wish I deserved more.”

In Jonathan Lenthem’s Fortress of Solitude, one of the characters tells his buddy about a model for families based on the Beatles. Every unit has a responsible parent whose grace, self-discipline, and sense of obligation makes it the perfect public face to present to the world: Paul. Beside this responsible parent is a genius parent, the brains of the operation. The genius parent’s talents compensate for bouts of disorganization, irresponsibility, or tactlessness because genius must be forgiven: John. Then there is the genius child who somewhere inside knows that, given the chance, he might be a genius too, might even supplant the parent who muffles his promise: George. Last comes the clown child who, looking around him, finds no avenue for expression and decides to pursue anarchy, shouting “What the hell?” to the world: Ringo.

In this model, I’m neither parent and neither child. I’d like to be Ringo, but really I’m rival to George, the genius child to a genius child, third, fourth or fifth on the depth chart. Try as I might to believe in the intrinsic, the essential, the genuine value of pursuits and their independent, autonomous, anarchic pleasure, it’s not enough. Private accomplishments aren’t real. If no one reads me, I haven’t written.

I’m still trying to get a song on the next album.

Which is why Buddhism appeals to me. Striving, experience tells me, is the source of unhappiness, and the person who knows how to put it aside has found enlightenment well beyond most of us. I’m no one’s Buddha, though I affect that stance. My humility and calm hide a riotous soul shouting for notice.

How does one get from here to contentment? I don’t know.

So far, my desire to overcome desire hasn’t worked, and I’ve re-enacted my family at school, at my job, in writing workshops, and in every community that ever called me a member. I can’t be comfortable as a steadily turning cog or as a mushroom relishing its place in warm, wet shadows. I can’t rest.

Another analogy: the cat brings a mouse and lays it at a master’s feet. Dear Reader, every time I post I wonder if I’m really mousing, hoping for a prize to finally fill this appetite.

Unbecoming, I know… too much information… but it’s an agitation barely borne, and sometimes, Dear Reader, it just gets out. You must sense it too. And what do you do with a heart that wants and wants and cannot say so?


Filed under Apologies, Blogging, Buddhism, Doubt, Ego, Envy, Essays, Identity, Laments, life, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts