Monthly Archives: April 2012

The Graveyard

One of my father's watercolors

My computer is a salvage yard of sorts. Look hard enough and you’ll find essays finished and abandoned and others that are a few sentences short, a few sentences long, or badly broken. Poems pause mid-line at some insurmountable “like…” Sketches for stories spotlight part of a character or plot with no clue what’s ahead or why. All of it is junk, experience added to a vast slag heap.

Wait long enough and your writing seems someone else’s. Sometimes I think of walking among the abandoned hulls and fragments and gathering enough for a golem of parts, a Frankenstein’s monster of my life.

Ten years ago I wrote an essay about my father for graduate school. But it wasn’t for school actually. Parents, particularly departed parents, spur words even when the words ride no bigger idea than need. My father was a quiet man. Maybe I meant to give him a voice, but when I stumbled onto the essay, I didn’t hear him. It was my voice instead. I wasn’t begging for his resuscitation but standing over his form trying to account for his silence. I didn’t remember the scenes I depicted and, as I read on, I began to wonder if writing them killed those scenes forever.

Here’s something I found:

When I was in college, on holiday or breaks, my father retired after dinner to my old bedroom, which he’d converted into his painting studio. Stan Getz played on a stereo, barely audible, quiet enough so you could hear the brush whipped back and forth, clinking on the sides of the glass jar of water. Cigarettes periodically renewed the smell of smoke brimming from the room. I’d look over my father’s shoulder at his painting as I passed down the hall, and watch an image take shape from behind his back. He left only to refill his drink, and refill his drink, and refill his drink. Over the evening, his glass of sherry would dwindle and rise again, repeatedly.

Later, he’d begin to mar what he had done before, adding flourishes to a roof or branches, delineating a sketched house in the distance too clearly, repainting the shadows in a bucket in the foreground to “correct” its perspective. His brush stopped lighting on the paper and began bearing down like a broom. The water grew browner, more thick and murky. I saw paintings starting to go wrong and felt the urge to restrain his arm, steal his brushes, shout “Stop!” but I never did.  I just stood in the doorway and hoped.  Sometimes he quit before it was too late, but some paintings that started as subtle scenes grew muddled and baroque.

Joan Didion once said that she wrote, “To find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” This passage barely hides its metaphor, a message obvious to me now: my father was too much. Immoderate habits marred what he did and made, and, though I wanted to catch his fall, I walked behind him watching instead. Intrusions on his life felt presumptuous, as if he were a stranger.

And, in this passage, he is a stranger. I watch the painting form in purely technical terms, interpret its steps in light of its end instead of understanding his work in the moment. My experience as a visual artist leads me to different conclusions about those paintings now—he was doing what seemed right. He wanted them perfect. They may have been the closest he came to perfection in his sloppy life, and the additional layers of paint and scrubbed colors evinced desperate hope, not the inevitable disappointment I assigned them then. When they felt finished, he stopped. Perhaps he couldn’t tell how good they were at all. Maybe time had to tell that.

Similar feelings arise when I look through work I’ve dumped. The missteps are a charming dance of their own, and, behind everything I try to explain is someone aspiring to speak truth and put the past to rest.

When the past doesn’t really rest. The only tragedy was thinking myself finished, that, having written about my father and every other past spirit, I might bury them. If writing killed those scenes of my father, it was because I let myself believe I could paint them perfectly when really, it was always about hope, about trying to make something good to counterbalance my own sloppy life.

Walking among mistakes, you hope to salvage something because you think everything in that graveyard is somehow wasted. But none of it is wasted really. You do the best you can. You hope, this time, to get it right.


Filed under Aging, Art, Essays, Identity, Joan Didion, life, Meditations, Memory, Recollection, Thoughts, Writing

Project Master

In April, non-teachers start asking me what I’m doing with summer. I spit out domestic answers, like “I’m going to read” and “I’m going to paint” and “I’ll try to get in shape, maybe run a road race or two,” but these responses rarely satisfy. So they redirect, “No, I mean will you be teaching summer school or traveling somewhere special? Any home rehab ahead?”

To which I usually reply, “Uh…”

I’m not a project-master, at least not of my own projects. Somewhere between conception and completion, the gales calm. The sails sag. I find myself, toes in the water, splashing like a bored child.

Daily or weekly discipline? No trouble—any regimen of mental or physical exercise cuts a path in my life that is quickly a trench. Work? No issue—prefabricated tasks relieve all the formless, messy hours of my life.

Only my own jobs slide down lists and drop into neglect.

Sometimes, if people ask often enough, I’ll invent goals. I’ve planned to clean out and clean every room, very thoroughly, week by week, the whole house. I’ve said I’ll take art classes or listen to lectures on art history or psychology I missed by not taking those courses in college. I’ve promised a full sketchbook, a series of short stories, a regular podcast.

Guess how many I’ve accomplished.

Still, I keep dreaming up new schemes, hoping airing ambitions will make them real, hoping pledging actions out loud will compel me. I’m quixotic and can fail a million times and keep tilting at windmills. Though I can’t answer for why I make these plans or why I can’t complete them, something says checking off just one big box might make every subsequent self-directed task easier. I have to try.

So all this milling about is really a preamble to this summer’s plot—writing and publishing a long lyric essay like the ones I’ve been posting in this blog.

I’ve been researching self-publication sites on the web to see if I can create a beautiful book at minimal cost. I mean to be practical. I have the number of essay-lets I intend to write. My title is ready and so is my subject. The art is nearly complete, as I’ll use doodles like the ones interspersed here. The rest—the actual writing—I’ll undertake as daily discipline, my job between eight and one.

And I’m going to try, dear readers, to think of you as employers. Whether you have expectations or not, I’ll pretend. I’m picturing you waiting for a book and want to fear your disappointment because, clearly, I don’t fear my disappointment enough.

Expect reports. I’ve thrown down my gauntlet and picked it up. We’ll see what happens next.


Filed under Art, Essays, Experiments, Identity, Laments, Resolutions, Thoughts, Visual Art, Writing

Messages from Trouble


On my old blog, I kept a category called “Angst” that I banned from this blog. Yet angst remains one of the chief motives behind my writing.

If I’m absolutely honest, I’d much rather read work that—at least sometimes—promises mild weather instead of future storms, earthquakes, and suffering. The writer who relies on angst takes considerable risks—people will say he or she is whiny, over-earnest, or self-absorbed. But I do rely on it.

In German, I understand, the term is a mixture of fear, anxiety, guilt, remorse…a host of emotions that are bad enough singly, worse in combination. What I can find online suggests the word shares an Old Norse root with “anger,” but anger seems only a part of angst, which extends beyond your own psyche to a grave concern for the world and your power to operate meaningfully in it. People use the word “angst” to describe anxiety you can’t trace, a motiveless world-wariness and weariness, a nearly unbearable sense of futility.

And, if you describe your feelings as angst, you are almost automatically making some grander claim for your emotions. The philosophical associations are part of what makes angst suspect—it’s German, for chrissake, not American—and, by the way, why won’t “depressed” do?

Some of us always look for the right word, search menus for perfect choices then ask to alter them in some minor way. We look fussy and “Yes, but” until the last moment. Some accuse of us of believing what’s good enough for others is never, ever good enough for us.

Yet, to me angst seems real. If I were depressed, I might be inert, but angst is active, a desperate desire to taketh arms against a sea of troubles or, at least, a sea of unaccountable crap.

Which is why it motivates writing. Feeling uncertain there is any answer doesn’t stop anyone from searching. They call madness doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result. At times, that describes reality as well. The problem isn’t just you but a bigger sort of hell where desire is the one thing that won’t expire.

Unfortunately, angst can also be inarticulate and lead to a sort of flailing. I know it’s hard to listen to. What feels to me like trouble with the world may sound to you like trouble with me.

In my classes, the students sometime study Edward Albee, a singularly angsty writer. In an interview, someone asked him how he answers the charge that he is a nihilistic, pessimistic writer. His answer:

If I were a pessimist I wouldn’t bother to write. Writing itself, taking the trouble, communicating with your fellow human being is valuable, that’s an act of optimism. There’s a positive force within the struggle. Serious plays are unpleasant in one way or another, and my plays examine people who are not living their lives fully, dangerously, properly.

Oddly, reading his answer makes my angst abate, makes me hope for milder weather. In his statement I find a defense for all the grim posts and poems I have written and will write. Angsty writers often have more confidence in themselves than their readers do, so those writers have a hard time winning audiences. Yet I choose to believe I’m responding positively to my struggles, living fully by occasionally being full of angst.


Filed under Anxiety, Apologies, Blogging, Depression, Doubt, Essays, Identity, Laments, life, Modern Life, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Worry, Writing

Ten Spare Moments

I’m having a busy weekend, so instead of writing a full-fledged post, I’m raiding my journal (again) and pulling some entries from it.

Recently I read A Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. The story is compelling, but I especially appreciated the narrator’s meditations on what and how we remember. At one point, he says:

How often do we tell our own story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around us to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but—mainly—to ourselves.

In response, I’ve been trying to gather my told and untold memories. My brain formed some of these “spare moments” through retelling, but others appeared when I tried to recollect the twisted and irrelevant detail I’ve cut from the stories. Still others are new altogether. They came to me as from another person’s life.

The ten below share themes, and a random number generator determined their order:


On my left thigh, just above my knee, are parallel scars from running past a fallen barbed wire fence.  I’d stayed all afternoon at Sylvia Jenning’s and was rushing home at dusk. I wasn’t worried about getting there before dinner or curfew. I was just too excited to walk.


Randy Carlson tried to buy my friendship in grade school. He would put a tattered novelty catalog in my hand and say, “I’ll buy you something if you tell people I’m your friend.” After putting him off nearly a whole year, I relented when I saw a pair of wind-up false teeth I wanted. I had second thoughts by the time they arrived. The choppers rattled across a desktop, and I told Randy no. Then he cried.


The last time I remember holding my mom’s hand I was in fourth grade asking her if it was okay if I wanted Debbie Bertling to be my girlfriend.


A former student once sought me out at an alumni cocktail party. “I just came over to thank you for putting me down,” he said, “it was hard at the time, but now I feel like it was just the sort of tough love I needed.” I searched for his name for another hour and came up with nothing.


After the car hit me, the first injury I noticed was my hand, sprung from trying to grip the channel at the base of the windshield to keep from sliding off the hood as the car braked. For a few minutes, I thought that was my only injury. The driver apologized and apologized and teared up. I hugged her. “It’s okay,” I said, “I’m sorry this happened.”


The copper-colored plaster of paris bust of Abraham Lincoln I bought in the white elephant booth broke almost as soon as I got home from the church fair. Seeing my disappointment, my father appeared a few days later with a clear puck-sized paperweight with a Greek coin suspended inside. I hammered it apart to retrieve the coin—it was plastic and spongy.


In college, my programming course focused on Fortran and, for my final project I made the computer write a sestina. A random number generator chose a sequence of parts of speech, like “noun verb article adjective end word” or “adverb verb article noun preposition end word.” Then it randomly chose each part of speech from word banks I’d populated with vocabulary I liked. When the computer finally spit out the poem, it sounded just like me, were I more given to ranting madly about lost love.


Some high school friends agreed to pay me twenty dollars if I ran one mile barefoot in the snow. When I finished, they slapped me on the back and handed me a bundle of ones. A girl from my math class stood nearby looking on with disdain. I had hoped to ask her out, but she was only polite after that.


During one of my first years as a teacher, a sophomore girl visited every time we had a mutual free period. Finally, taxed by talking to her, I hid in the faculty lounge. When I returned to my classroom, she’d written her name on every post-it note in my desk. For the next two years, whenever I used one, I first had to erase her name.


I sketched a college girlfriend while she was sleeping, but—unhappy with the result—I never showed her. I didn’t throw it away though. After we broke up, I looked at it every few days for a couple of weeks, hoping looking might bring her back.

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Filed under Aging, Doubt, Essays, Experiments, Identity, life, Memory, Recollection, Thoughts, Writing

Living Below the Surface


I’m a sucker for any book described as John Williams’ Stoner was, “Great but unacknowledged.” The label appeals to my faith in a vast underground sea of talented and missed artists, a secret pool hinting other “Great unknown writers of America” might someday still be discovered.

Williams taught at the University of Denver from 1954 to 1985. Stoner was one of his four books, all of which were well reviewed in their time, one of which, Augustus, won the National Book Award in 1973. Yet John Williams never made it big, except among other writers. Stoner garnered particular praise from Irving Howe, the New York intellectual, literary critic, and socialist, and he described the book as having “contained intensity.” For me, the novel strikes sustained plaintive notes that somehow set emotions vibrating.

William Stoner is an English professor at the University of Missouri, the son of a dirt farmer who came to the school to study agriculture and experienced a revelation in his first English class when his professor asked him what Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 meant. The rest of the novel follows Stoner’s career and personal life, through a disastrous marriage, a battle over his daughter, and a love affair. At every stage, Stoner is smaller than life, a hero who distinguishes himself through extraordinary, unnoticed fortitude and the grace with which he weathers the petty insults and accidents of his life. His nobility rests in its invisibility. The book’s impact arises from a reader’s intimate knowledge of the central character’s quiet and gentle decency.

At first, the novel seemed a terrible choice for me. Why would I read a book about academia and departmental politics? My own professional vicissitudes make it more likely I’d write a book like this than read one. However, like any worthy novel, Stoner transcends its parochial setting. The university is a vehicle for domestic truths we rub against day to day.

A section midway through the book especially moved me. Stoner becomes embroiled in a dispute with a colleague who was soon to be named department chair. Stoner refuses to pass one of the future chair’s pet students. The student in question is a classic academic type—someone who plays a scholar perfectly but who rarely opens actual books, preferring instead to skate over grandiloquent glosses of his subject, which in his case is the totality of all the glories of all of western literature. Though Stoner responds to the student’s elusiveness with characteristic calm, though he remains, from first to last, beyond reproach in his objective and professional assessments, the new department chair paints Stoner as prejudicial and relegates him to freshman composition and sophomore survey courses. Stoner does nothing wrong yet handles being wronged with forbearance and resignation.

Here’s a passage from that section:

Former students of his, even students he had known rather well, began nodding and speaking to him self-consciously, even furtively. A few were ostentatiously friendly, going out of their way to speak to him or to be seen walking with him in the halls. But he no longer had the rapport with them that he once had; he was a special figure, and one was seen with, or not seen with him, for special reasons.

Stoner’s peculiar status, derived from events his personal code won’t allow him to address, places him in a world of half-light. Every contact with students is tainted by a subject no one can name, and even momentary associations are political. Thus no communication is genuine. No one sees Stoner as he really is, and he feels powerless to correct them because no one dares utter (at least to him) what gossip they believe.

What’s beautiful in this section—and in this book—is Williams’ appreciation for the tectonic shifts in the substrata of our lives, the way we walk on faults and pretend to perfect poise and balance. No ordinary life is truly ordinary, and while we might not experience the secret shunning Stoner receives, we all know our private pains, more real to us than they can ever be for any other. Those secret concerns can sometimes change our world entirely. Our preoccupations sometimes thrash just below the surface and threaten to disrupt everything. Yet for most of the people who know us, today appears another day.

The world, I suspect, is full of people trying to make their way, find what pleasures they can, and keep their discontent hidden. This book elicited a desperate hope in me—that the quietly unhappy may somehow find their way to expression, relief, and love.


Filed under Doubt, Education, Essays, Fiction writing, Genius, Hope, Identity, Reading, Teaching, Thoughts, Tributes


Sometimes a teacher chooses between honesty and kindness. Even if you accept that your standards may be flawed or your expectations erroneous, the paper before you seems unsatisfactory and, to be true to yourself and what you feel you know, you have to criticize.

I worry about being cruel but worry just as much about being so gentle I deny students the instruction I’m charged to give. Shall I praise the best elements in their writing when growth means seeing what they might do and aren’t doing?  Should I show them how I’d reword a sentence or beef-up a paragraph when they may see those edits as my egotism and/or their humiliation?

Teachers know all about “Teachable moments,” sunlight and shadow shifting suddenly to illuminate new ground. Unfortunately, those moments are too rare.

Before Siddhartha became the Buddha, one of his early gurus said, “You may stay here with me,” and promised, “a wise man can soon dwell in his teacher’s knowledge and experience it directly for himself.”


I sometimes wonder if teaching is magic, the impossible act of one person beaming understanding to another. When a student compliments my writing instruction, my mind translates, “You’ve become more confident of your skills, and that confidence has led to experimentation and discovery.” I can perhaps communicate my practices, but those are largely tricks—how to avoid the passive voice, methods of breaking a big topic down into thoughtfully sequenced parts, exploiting words, images, and metaphors other people overlook. But the students have to do something with those tricks.

Siddhartha left his early guru. The future Buddha determined that, though he had mastered his teacher’s practices and understood the guru’s rationale, Siddhartha’s own questions remained. The answers lay within Siddhartha, and he would not find them in any teacher’s mind.

For me, the desire to learn is the most important requirement for learning, and I’m grateful people want me to teach them. Wary students—the distrustful, disgruntled, disdainful ones—may have understandable reasons for feeling as they do, but their attitude sometimes assures their stagnation. They can’t see or won’t acknowledge differences between their writing and models. They are reluctant to try any new technique I suggest. My honesty falls on deaf ears or, more accurately, ears plugged by fingers and distracted by steady humming. In those cases, even my kindness doesn’t penetrate. I’m irrelevant.

Yet teaching isn’t as simple as “Listen and you will learn” either. Sometimes students’ perverse desire to disagree isn’t perverse at all but central and necessary. You won’t learn if you aren’t ready, but being too acquiescent can be just as devastating. I once met with a student who wanted to know why she wasn’t making an “A” in my class. I affirmed her writing’s technical expertise but told her that, to develop her thinking, she had to do more than parrot discussion. She needed to offer fresh and independent observations and insights.

Her response: “Okay. I’ll do that, if that’s what you think I should do.”

I can’t teach desire, particularly desire that won’t satisfy for formulas or tricks. You won’t learn without putting every lesson to the test. Listening is important—in Siddhartha’s guru’s terms, only those who attempt to dwell in my knowledge and truly experience it for themselves will learn—but the rest relies on a loopy paradox: a student can only reveal how flawed or erroneous my standards and expectations are by trying them out… while questioning them rigorously… but looking for their truth.

Teachers threatened by “Why?” or “How come?” may have the wrong job. Siddhartha tried many paths before becoming the Buddha.

Good students keep their own questions. I don’t fear being honest when I meet someone who wants to know everything instead of wanting to know what I’m after. Students who credit me with teaching them how to write will probably say later that my lessons came at a vital moment or that I offered some valuable skills. Over time, a former teacher’s influence seems more and more limited, as it should. Teachers are only stops on students’ journeys, and education is their journey. Learning should be greater than teaching because curiosity, the engine of all knowledge and understanding, relies more on students than instructors.

The other day, I overheard a sophomore calling one of my colleagues “A terrible teacher” because he, the sophomore, “didn’t learn anything.” I almost stopped to correct him, to tell him that learning is always a partnership and that, in fact, students may bear greater responsibility for whatever learning does or doesn’t take place.

But I was late for class. I walked on. Honesty, I decided, wouldn’t help. He has to see that perspective for himself, and I didn’t have time to wait around for the kind arrival of a teachable moment.


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

Purgatory Mate

Many years ago, at lunchtime, in a workplace I’ve long since left, a colleague proposed we play “Purgatory Mates.”

All year his efforts to avoid “work talk” led me through thought games—”Celebrity Death Watch,” where each of us tried to come up with a celebrity the other would think must be dead and wasn’t (think Ernest Borgnine) and “Grade Report” where one person named a metaphor (Pro Wrestling) and the other tried to compose a grade report exploiting it (“Early in the term, Jerry was bouncing off the ropes and into action, but lately he’s been hanging on the ropes as if he was waiting for an atomic drop”).

“Purgatory Mates” represented a variation on a theme, my colleague’s effort to get in some non-work-talk-work-talk.

“Suppose you were stuck in purgatory for a very, very, very long time…almost eternity,” he began, “whom would you be there with?”

I picked a genial new teacher who was not only smart, funny, and interesting but also very easy to look at.

My friend and colleague shook his head, “No, you don’t get it. It’s purgatory. You can’t pick someone you like. Anyone could spend a few thousand years with her.”

So I named another colleague, a reliable and conscientious mid-career teacher always able to hold up his end of a conversation about movies, books, art—the sort of person you wouldn’t mind going on a cross-country car trip with…if you absolutely had to go on a cross-country car trip.

“No,” he answered, “I mean someone good for you.”

I named a third colleague, a wise old hand who knew seemingly everything, was always helpful when you had a question…and sometimes answered for thirty minutes.

“Closer, but she’s not challenging enough. It has to be someone you’re not at all sure you like.”

To help me out, he described his choice, Ms Debold.

I’ve changed her name because she may yet be my purgatory mate…but, as this conversation was many years ago,  perhaps she is waiting for me…

He started to explain when Ms. Debold herself appeared, marching through the cafeteria, arms swinging, eyes burning toward my friend. She raised a boney finger and chirped furiously, “I had a class, and YOU DIDN’T!” Then she passed through the other door, leaving students and teachers in stony silence.

My friend had come to lunch from the copy machine where his job had delayed Ms. Debold long enough to be late to class.

She had a notorious temper and was blisteringly direct. Yet my friend had nothing bad to say about her. Her mother survived the Holocaust. Her father died. Her husband hadn’t wanted her to go back to college after they married. But she went back and ended up with a doctorate and a different husband. I once overheard her daughter speaking rudely to her, and I’d heard her son-in-law was in jail for stealing cars. She was raising a grandchild.

I’d always thought of Ms Debold’s as the big hammer at the carnival—her presence sent my Adam’s apple toward the bell. For my friend, she was a purgatory mate.

So I tried another choice, a teacher who was solicitous and caring in my presence but my friend said badmouthed me the rest of the time, questioning my sincerity, my competence, my continued employment. I tried to be solicitous when I was with this teacher, but secretly I was growing more and more resentful, contemplating ways to respond with the same sort of double-dealing.

But he was a well-respected and conscientious teacher. Maybe purgatory would give me enough time to look for truth in his doubts about me. Maybe I’d understand what made him undermine people around him. It might take almost eternity, but making real peace might be all we needed to get sprung from that great waiting room in the sky. Or wherever it is.

Without telling anyone, I still play “Purgatory Mates” every once in a while. I play when I need to discover—given near eternity—what I might learn from people who rub me the wrong way.

Purgatory has to be good for you somehow.

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Filed under Anger, Doubt, Education, Essays, Hope, Identity, life, Memory, Play, Resolutions, Thoughts, Work