Monthly Archives: July 2012

Wanting Something

macbeth.jpg Another reprise from Joe Felso:

Henry Ward Beecher, the 19th century preacher and brother to Harriet Beecher Stowe once said:

A noble man compares and estimates himself by an idea which is higher than himself; and a mean man, by one lower than himself. The one produces aspiration; the other ambition, which is the way in which a vulgar man aspires.

When I finished my MFA program some years ago, I intended to rain my poetry on publishers everywhere. I wouldn’t be denied. After the first rejection, however, my ambition wilted. After the second, it turned brown. The third crumbled my ambition, and the fourth swept it away in a spinning eddy. I watched it go.

Had I seen my work as capital A Art, an idea higher than myself, I might have persisted thinking the world needed my words. But I took bad news personally, as something aimed at me, not Art. I thought, “Maybe my disappointment signals I’m writing for the wrong reasons. It’s about me, not the writing.”

Classmates who could separate their egos from their work either moved on or hung around long enough to succeed. My sense of purpose just became increasingly absurd. I began to think I might just as well aspire to achieve the most lifelike moo-sound or to swim the English channel in a flour sack.

Before I started blogging, I’d almost stopped writing altogether.

Early in Macbeth, as Lady Macbeth contemplates killing King Duncan, she says her husband is “too full o’ the milk of human kindness / To catch the nearest way.” She also says:

…Thou wouldst be great;
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it

The “nearest way” to the crown is stabbing the king as he sleeps, and it’s clear you can’t do that if you have “the milk of human kindness.” You need a side of “illness” with that milk.

Like Mr. Macbeth, my ambition isn’t absent, though someone might faint praise me in exactly the same way—I’m not without ambition. I don’t want to kill any kings but sometimes fantasize about being great. It might be okay. I’m just not sure how much I’m willing to do to be “great” or how I’d know when I got there.

Perhaps the real line Macbeth crosses isn’t between kindness and cruelty but between Scotland and himself. As long as he could convince himself he was killing for the king, he did not think of killing the king. His worst discovery may have been that, while he was off soldiering for Scotland, he was killing for himself all along, that he could only kill for himself.

I accept the ambitions attributed to the greater good by institutions of which I’m a part. I’m a dutiful soldier. If the school aspires to something, so do I: get papers back in three days or write a unique grade report for every student or accommodate every subtle learning difference with an infinitely varied approach to instruction. I’ll do my best.

My students ought to thrive and to do so they need dedicated, thoughtful, and diligent teachers. These educational ambitions arise from loftier ideals and usually make obvious sense. However, if I’m being honest, I find more satisfaction in a bad painting than in a set of papers punctually returned. Is it selfish to place personal goals before higher purposes?

How much of my professional ambition is truly rooted in desire? I know I can’t accept every institutional goal given me, hearing “hold this” until I finally have no hands, arms, shoulders, back, or any other part of my anatomy unoccupied. Eventually, I’ll want to please myself.

I have no murderous motives, but I am not without ambition, and neither my desire nor my discomfort with desire can be quieted entirely. I don’t want to be an egotist, but inevitably I am. I want what I really want.

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Filed under Aging, Ambition, Anxiety, Buddhism, Doubt, Ego, Essays, Fame, Hope, Identity, Laments, life, Poetry, Thoughts, Writing

Out There

Growing up, I had a strange fascination with polar exploration. The school library and local public library’s holdings on Robert Peary, Richard E. Byrd, Roald Amundsen, Robert Scott, and Ernest Shackleton weren’t ample enough, but I did my best to learn all I could from wherever I could.

And reenact their missions in my front yard. Our neighbors in coastal Texas must have thought it strange to see a ten year-old clutching his windbreaker to his neck and battling against imaginary blizzards as he supplied the necessary swirling wind sounds himself. They can be excused for calling my parents when I later resorted to crawling toward the lamp post.

Surprisingly, no friends would agree to play polar explorer with me. My missions were solo. My pretend companions slipped into a crevasse or left the tent saying, “I am just going outside and may be some time.” I often came upon the marker for the pole and discovered some other explorer had left shortly before. Reading the note he left behind, I stomped the Bermuda grass in frustration.

You learn a lot from what you remember, chiefly habits of identity. The solitary heroic role I took as an explorer, the way I built futility and loss into my fantasies, and my recognition of the absurdity of my play all speak to how I see myself. How you select detail speaks louder than content.

I am, in many of my stories, ridiculous—ridiculous in what I expect, ridiculous in my devotions, ridiculous in my misunderstandings, ridiculous in my self-deception and my torturous self-recrimination and my doubt. I’m especially ridiculous in these lists I formulate, which sometimes seem boastful even as they catalog shortcomings.

But perhaps the story is more important as a metaphor for my present state of mind. Maybe I’m thinking about my days as the top 10 year-old make-believe polar explorer in Texas because I’m nearing completion of this book I’m writing, stepping snow-blind toward an unmarked goal through deep drifts. I’m seeking my bearings in a landscape where every square meter is empty, new, and relentlessly blank.

If you extend pretend polar exploration as a metaphor for writing a book, I’m locked in a life or death trial that only I recognize… because I invented it. No one told me to make the attempt. No one said I should writhe in the yard or rend my garments either. I just hope to overcome the rest of the fantasy. I don’t want to find a flag already planted and an all-for-naught outcome.

Doubt, however, might be an essential element of the process. What else could writing a book be besides a solitary journey? Like any polar explorer worth his sled, I have to accept unexpected challenges. Some company would be nice, but maybe I’m not meant to have any. The heading is my own, tracks into new territory distinguished only by a circling sun and unrelenting horizon.

The worst mistake would be panicking—polar regions are unforgiving, after all. Having expressed my woes by shouting them to the sky, I just have to keep plodding on, alone in my imaginary task.

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Filed under Aesthetics, Ambition, Anxiety, Doubt, Essays, Identity, Laments, Memory, Recollection, Solitude, Thoughts, Worry, Writing

After Aurora

The chief dilemma of being an American is that, however much you might support the nation’s philosophical ideals, every virtue brings a vice. Every freedom breeds excess. As we seem to learn over and over (and over and over), our freedom to bear arms brings with it characteristic American excess.

The founding fathers, well steeped in the human rights philosophies of their age, understood subtle distinctions and found narrow bands of agreement between warring perspectives. They navigated disagreement through compromise, resourcefulness, tact. They identified what could be resolved now and what remained unresolved. Yet, in stating their values, they fell prey to the abetting American sin—they expressed themselves more dramatically than precisely. They made presumptions about how they’d be understood, and—still influenced by a British system of government relying as much on convention, tradition, and understanding as on law—they left much unsaid.

We are hardly as subtle or discerning as they were. Now our culture revels in its raw energy, its take-it-or-leave-it extremity, and its my-way-or-the-highway intransigence. Our politics, our popular culture, and our media are often as subtle as a mallet, and every zealot can find some ratification just by taking a cursory look around. We love the cursory. Our deep and abiding distrust of complexity permeates nearly every aspect of public life. More is better. The latest shock isn’t shocking enough, and every citizen should exercise his or her right to appall.

The sensible response to the resulting tragedies is to reconsider, to adjust our values, and to re-examine, revise, and reform, but the over-excitement that brought us here prevents that. Partisanship and posturing prevail, and self-examination seems the absolute last resort, the one extremity we won’t adopt.

So we throw up our hands and say there is nothing to be done when this nation arose from faith that something needed to be done, some sacrifice needed making, some personal gratification needed postponing, some subtle and precise revision needed making.

What will it take to get our attention if we grow accustomed to the death of those we love? Are we so self-absorbed, so bankrupt of empathy that we can’t see these victims could be our children bleeding? How much carnage will make us reconsider whether we might be wrong, that it might be time to put aside our stubborn rectitude, adjust our thinking, and find compromises that might make us safer?

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No First Person

row_houses.jpg Reprise from Joe Felso…

Mr. Couch was never far from view.

He was sitting in a lattice lawn chair on the porch, or standing with a much younger companion at the open hood of his 70’s Cadillac, or stooping slowly to pluck stray bits of paper from the patch of grass between his sidewalk and the street, or painting just a bit of the railing on his front steps, or waving mutely to cars that crept down 30th Street.

Or he was inside, sitting in the gloom of his front room. Approaching the window periodically was part of his regular surveillance. Neighbors never failed to tell Mr. Couch when they would be out-of-town. He promised to collect any papers that arrived (despite the vacation stoppage) and place them inside your screen door. He promised to call the cops if he saw anything unexpected, and the neighborhood knew Mr. Couch could judge the unexpected better than anyone.

No one talked to Mr. Couch without an exit strategy. He wasn’t a storyteller—people knew remarkably little about him—but he could husband conversation the way he’d husband the cast-offs that peeked from his garage when the door rose. All those old paint and coffee cans full of something unseen expressed what every sentence said—Mr. Couch could make much of little and nothing went to waste. A string of clichés with little between them, every conversation left the lightest touch. The expressions he used were genteel and anachronistic. No one was sure what job Mr. Couch was retired from. No one knew his first name.

One winter, it snowed so heavily a snowplow couldn’t make it down 30th Street. All the neighbors came out to shovel the block. It wasn’t strictly necessary—no one would have been stranded or starved—and the gathering was largely accidental, a collective case of cabin fever pushing everyone out their doors at the same time. When a circle of neighbors gathered in the the street, it looked like a rainbow coalition—30th was a racially, professionally, religiously, and sexual-orientationally mixed street—and the first task was to clear Mr. Couch’s driveway and sidewalk. He shouldn’t do it himself, and everyone knew it should be done. The scrape of one shovel drew him from his sitting room. He thanked the workers stiffly and extensively and then, the transition invisible, he turned to supervising. Mr. Couch knew where snow should and shouldn’t rest, where plots of light fell on sunny days in February, the spaces snow might melt.

Sometime during the second hour, someone suggested a potluck, an improvised block party. That night, sitting around a neighbor’s living room few had visited, you might have had to blink the blur of implausibility from your eyes. There was Mr. Couch, enthroned in the best chair, explaining the lineage of every house on the street, its first and former occupants, the additions and subtractions, the children and adults that grew and left. His history wasn’t personal precisely. It was a conflation of names and events inseparably mixed, a story that couldn’t be teased apart. Mr. Couch was a balky time machine no more sure than his Cadillac, but all the neighbors—gathered as they never had and never would again—listened.

Everyone on the block knew Mr. Couch couldn’t stay forever, but he seemed to stretch the seasons with his slow steps and talk. You counted on him the way you counted on time passing, and another mark in the year found him in places you expected.

In memory, he is there still.

But now Mr. Couch must be gone—that was some years ago. 30th Street must be a new collection of names attached to the same addresses. Without Mr. Couch, it would have to be only that, a collection instead of a coalition, people who live on the same street, not neighbors.

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Filed under Aging, Essays, Gratitude, Home Life, life, Memory, Modern Life, Place, Recollection, Tributes, Urban Life

On Rectitude

Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “If there were a verb meaning ‘to believe falsely,’ it would not have any significant first person, present indicative.” Meaning, humans have little or no way to convey they are lying to themselves. Meaning, humans can’t see their own beliefs as false.

In English grammar, the indicative mood describes assertions, denials, and questions in statements like, “I left my wallet on the dresser at home” or “Ostriches don’t fly” or “Am I clear?” Indicative is different from the other three moods of verbs in its attention to what’s actually the case, just-the-facts-ma’am. It’s not about commanding others (imperative), expressing doubt or conditional belief (subjunctive), or addressing actions themselves (infinitive).

High school teachers generally prohibit first person in student writing because “I think,” “I believe,” “I feel,” and other similar statements reduce sentence variety and clutter writing. Plus, the argument goes, they’re redundant. Writing an essay implies thought, belief, and feeling. A no-first-person policy also suggests another important assumption—writers, and people in general, ought to be sure, definitive, assertive. They ought to describe their conclusions as if they were objectively and universally true. Being wishy-washy or ambivalent is not okay. No one wants to read that.

What Wittgenstein says seems more troubling: humans have few means to communicate self-doubt because they can’t recognize it or won’t acknowledge it. They blind themselves to the self-serving moments they choose to believe something that, on further examination, may be specious. The indicative statement “I lie” comes close but isn’t quite the same as “I believe the lie I tell myself.” If someone believes a lie, Wittgenstein implies, it isn’t one.

The psychological dilemma of “Cognitive dissonance” describes a similar situation. It’s difficult and uncomfortable to hold two conflicting beliefs, and humans prefer consistency, harmony, and concord to doubt. They like to think they’ve arrived at the truth or will get there shortly. And politicians encourage this pattern. “Be decisive,” they say, “and take action.” Occasionally one will say, “Hold on. Don’t try to reach any conclusions yet—we need to study the situation and find out what is really true.” Even then, however, the speaker only pleads for delay, simultaneously promising certainty on schedule. Temporary dissonance is simply a means to an end. The speaker places more faith in discovery than investigation. Investigations without specific ends are suspect.

Yet—to indulge in some cognitive dissonance—every strength is potentially a weakness. Taken too far, prohibiting doubt creates intractable people, people unwilling to abide complexity, disagreement, conflict, paradox, or mystery. Those who want to adapt continuously, who seek enlightenment, who love to have their minds changed and welcome the excitement of flux are rare, even though these people often reach more profound truths than those so impatient they seize the first comfortable, and often selfish, notion that comes along. Relief comes from knowing, and most people want relief from uncertainty.

And, because humans dislike error so, admitting a mistake sometimes swings them to the other extreme, saying, “I was definitely wrong about him” instead of adjusting their positions more moderately. Faith in leadership invests in one person having all the answers. Believing in multiple perspectives—that we benefit from a number of different leaders with different ideas or that one person with one point of view simply can’t have all the answers—seems much harder to conceive. One side has to win utterly. There are no ties.

Where are the candidates who tout their circumspection, deliberation, and even-handedness? Where is the candidate who embraces all the complications and foibles of being human? Would the electorate choose such a candidate?

Decisiveness has an adaptive advantage in evolution but so does flexibility, receptivity, and tolerance. It may sound silly or paradoxical to assert people should be more pliable in their thinking. It may sound like circumlocution to say humans should rely on first person more universally and in an honest way, not as THE perspective to predominate but as a single, admittedly subjective, and limited point of view.

Humans can survive on a crowded planet only by learning to listen more deeply and think less precipitously. In fact, from my perspective, humanity depends upon it.

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Filed under Arguments, Doubt, Essays, Laments, Modern Life, Opinion, Politics, Thoughts, Wittgenstein, Writing

Guy-ness

Reprise… I know someone who feels men are fundamentally misunderstood, our gender differences not properly valued or accommodated.

As an example, he tells me men can’t look at each other because males invariably interpret eye contact with other males as a challenge or threat. It’s biological. Therefore, men must talk shoulder-to-shoulder instead of face-to-face. If you want to have a real conversation with another man, he tells me, engage him in something else…like bowling, I suppose.

My mind turns immediately to my own conversational style. It’s true I don’t look people (of either gender) in the eye as much as I should, though I remind myself to. I’m uncomfortable with meeting new people. Even familiar people can throw me off sometimes. I always thought that was because I was a little shy.

I appreciate his interest in biological necessities and honoring what nature needs males to be, but something in me bristles when he suggests I’m just being biological. There’s a list of what males are and do, attributes I’ve learned from colleagues, from educational conferences’ summary of Carol Gilligan and others, and from books like Real Boys by William Pollack. I’ve been told boys are naturally more active, less able to attend to lessons than girls. They are slower to develop fine motor skills. They are more likely to judge moral issues according to a rule or law than to examine the specific situation. They don’t naturally ruminate, or nurture, or collaborate. They are fixed on their place in the pack and keen on reproduction.

Most of these conclusions are versions of versions of what a scientist once found, and let me say I see some truth in some of it. I freely acknowledge all of us—men and women—may act according to animal instincts we dimly recognize. I also know the inertia of socially constructed gender roles. No individual, movement, or Act of Congress can do much in the short run to change the way we’ve come to think of men and women. I don’t object to research on gender because, if it uncovers what we don’t know or suspect, good.

So why do I become so defensive in the presence of people who say guys will be guys?

I’ve always had very neat handwriting. From an early age, I’ve liked close work, gravitating to tiny toys and intricate tasks. Instead of attention deficit disorder, I suffer from attention surplus disorder, becoming so engrossed the outside world vanishes. And nothing fascinates me more than complexity. I ruminate—probably more than is healthy—and am reluctant to reduce complicated issues to one-size-fits-all solutions. I especially dislike reductive explanations that suggest all of anything is anything. For me, it always depends.

So, when people describe boys, I feel left out. And, when I don’t feel left out, I’m being a “typical male.” Even if, in a particular case, I am displaying traits associated with males, I’d like to respected as a individual, not as a representative of some larger group. Wouldn’t anyone in any group want that?

It isn’t healthy to accept behavioral determinism or any sort of determinism that says you’re bound to do certain things… even before you act. When people says guys do this or guys do that, I think “Oh, yeah, really?… Not this guy.”  Sometimes I wonder if discussing maleness creates behavior instead of describes it. We can’t really all be the same, can we?

Systems are handy. If you are an auditory learner, record class for later playback. If you are a visual learner, write your notes as diagrams and bubbles. If you are a tactile learner, make sure to get your hands dirty.

No one has ever been able to tell me what to do if you are an olfactory learner, if there is such a thing.

However, the scientific method arose, at least in part, from paranoia that we might grab systems to suit us before fully investigating. Are our categories complete, or have we only found answers to the questions we’ve thought to ask?  Are we looking for ways to verify assumptions or to reach comprehensive  answers?

I hear someone who believes in the centrality of maleness saying I’m trying to wriggle out from under mountains of evidence or deny tendencies deeply coded and hard-wired into my gender. So what? No theory—however well grounded—should take responsibility out of an individual’s hands. Even if men typically do one thing or another, I’d rather believe I have a choice.

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Filed under Arguments, Essays, Identity, Laments, life, Modern Life, Opinion, Resolutions, Thoughts

The Credentialed Artist

Meeting another academic often means revealing degrees, but I feel sheepish telling them I have an MA and an MFA. Somewhere, I have the framed diplomas, but my MA is 30 years old—I can barely picture my girlfriend from that time, so how can I be expected to remember “Interstitial Transcendence in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam“?

My MFA grows irrelevant even faster. Though it decorates my vita, the job it professed to prepare me for—artist—doesn’t require a degree. Anyone can be an artist because it only requires experience, and some would argue this experience shouldn’t be academic. “Artists don’t need no shoolin’,” they might say, or, “MFAs interfere with the development of a true artist.”

I have a more complicated response. My MFA is in writing poetry, and one of the books I read during my program was Written in Water, Written in Stone, (University of Michigan Press, 1996) a collection of essays about the practice of poetry. While it offers an invaluable window into the creative process, it also contains considerable ire about the MFA industry. In an interview with Wayne Dodd, Robert Bly says, “MFA students are winning because they are receiving the knowledge that you have received in fifteen years of writing poetry and you are giving it to them and they are accepting it.” Then Wayne Dodd gets in his own licks, asking, “You would agree, then, the system is a system of avoidance of pain? It seems to me that is the exact opposite way of going about discovering how to write profound poetry.”

Donald Hall, in “Poetry and Ambition,” shouts the battle cry, “Abolish the MFA!” He says MFA programs create “‘a mold in plaster, / Made with no loss of time,’ with no waste of effort, with no strenuous questioning as to merit.” Studying how to write poetry contributes to what Hall calls the “McPoem,” a barely passable work that bears a striking resemblance to hundreds of other passable poems manufactured that year.

The criticisms of Bly and Hall are particularly hard for me to take, as they were both associated with the MFA program that granted me my degree. I attended their lectures and seminars. If they reject MFAs, where does that put me?

Consider Hall’s description of the staple of creative writing programs, the workshop:

The poetry workshop resembles a garage to which we bring incomplete or malfunctioning homemade machines for diagnosis and repair. Here is the homemade airplane for which the crazed inventor forgot to provide wings; here is the internal combustion engine all finished except that it lacks a carburetor; here is the rowboat without oarlocks, the ladder without rungs, the motorcycle without wheels. We advance our nonfunctioning machine into a circle of other apprentice inventors and one or two senior Edisons. ‘Very good’ they say, ‘it almost flies . . . how about, uh . . . How about wings?’ or ‘Let me show you how to build a carburetor.'”

I can identify. I’ve participated in excellent workshops, but I’ve also been confused about whether my machines function or not. I presented “constructions” in hopes that they would “work”—for if they didn’t work, I was so ignorant I feared I couldn’t repair them. As my shelf grew heavy with owners’ manuals, practice and theory split more and more. It occurred to me that theory and practice may only contaminate one another.

Every workshop participant probably feels similarly confused, paralyzed by all of the intellectual choices you’ve been offered. So studying for an MFA doesn’t take away pain. Your confusion is a measure of your desperation. You accept help, hoping—perhaps unrealistically—that someday you will no longer need to ask, that you will know without asking…because you want to say what you feel and want your writing to reach someone. These teachers have achieved that. They must know something.

I’m still not sure I know what a carburetor really is, where it belongs, or what it does, but I’m grateful I had the chance to ask. Now, I’m trying to forget the manual and just fix stuff, but I’m glad I’ve looked at the book.

In his interview with Dodd, Robert Bly waxes nostalgic for the teachings of Ch’an Buddhism. “Their method doesn’t resemble a workshop,” Bly says, “They didn’t teach politeness or the smooth surface . . . [The teacher’s] plan would involve something entirely outside the building.” Bly imagines a teacher telling the student:

“After you have built your hut, translate twenty-five poems from a Rumanian Poet.”
“But I don’t know Rumanian.”
“Well then, that’s your first job. You learn Rumanian, translate the twenty-five poems, and then come back to see me, and I’ll tell you what I think about ‘the deep image.'”

As a teacher myself, I appreciate Bly’s desire to get students more lost before they receive help, but there’s a snide and perverse superiority here that doesn’t help students or teachers and actually makes MFA candidates more beholden instead of less. I’m not sure how much students can learn when a teacher communicates students aren’t worthy of attention. Rather than spend years meditating on my inadequacy (compared to my teacher), I’d prefer relevant practice, please.

Maybe the MFA isn’t the best solution to learning how to write, but it is A way, and as long as you know not to expect THE answer, it’s worth doing.  True, if students simply seek guidance at every turn, they shouldn’t expect progress. But their basic desire to get better is a good thing, isn’t it? What student isn’t naive–isn’t that why they’re in school?

Another essay in Written in Water, Written in Stone is a funny piece by Robert Francis called “Four Pots Shots at Poetry.” One “pot shot” describes teaching as a pie of six slices. The first two are “What I told them that they already knew,” and “what I told them they could have found out just as well or better from books.” The third slice is, “What I told them that they refused to accept.” The fourth is, “What I told them that they were willing to accept and may have thought they accepted but couldn’t accept since they couldn’t fully understand,” and the last is “what I didn’t tell them, for I didn’t try to tell them all I knew.”

I spent the two years getting my MFA eating the first few pieces of that pie. I’ve spent all the years since trying to find the rest. I’m glad I’ve eaten…and happy more pie remains.

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Filed under Aesthetics, Art, Doubt, Education, Essays, MFA, Poetry, Teaching, Thoughts, Writing