Monthly Archives: August 2012

Striving and Seeking

Seymour Krim, 1922-1989

One sleepy morning when my son was 11 or 12, he stood at the open refrigerator door, sighed, and said, “I have eaten all the breakfast foods.”

Of course he hadn’t. Never had he eaten baked beans or kippers or eggs flavored with shrimp shells or other morning food people eat elsewhere. But I understood his lament. I too have felt finished forever with new breakfast foods…and a number of other things. Hunger for experience exhausts possibilities…especially when what’s left seems harder and harder to come by.

I envy people who embrace routine. They have a voracious appetite for assembling clothes before bed or checking schedules each morning. They are happy to have cottage cheese for lunch again, and, should it be missing, they taxi around the salad bar patiently. And they always, always, always floss.

I floss too—I have my own regularities—and wish all my habits were so satisfying. I’d love to exorcise the ghosts on my to-do lists daily and account for events that, right now, seem to appear as if “Pop Goes the Weasel” has been playing in the background all along without my noticing. If I regarded my calendar as an aid to memory (the way normal people do) instead of as a regular flogging, I’d have more time to…think about what I’d do if I had more time.

But any task—even stimulating ones, like routine exercise or sketching or having a regular date with self-examination like this—can grow exhausting.

Why is routine so unsatisfying? In the 70’s Seymour Krim wrote an essay, “For My Brothers and Sisters in the Failure Business” where he described himself as “an open fuse-box of blind yearning” and labeled democracy, “a huge supermarket of mass man where we could take a piece here and a piece there to make our personalities for ourselves instead of what was given at the beginning.”

It’s easy to confuse a desire for something new with a desire to be something new. I’ve gone through a seemingly endless string of lift-offs and flame-out avocations, as a blues harmonica player, as a short story writer, as an actor, as a competitive runner, as a poet, as a visual artist, as a blogger. I’m smart enough to know I’ll get nowhere without perseverance and regular practice, but when the work gets hard and is no longer fresh, my ambition grinds to a frictional stop like a streetcar deprived of electricity

Krim writes:

America worked on us too hard, when you get right down to it. We imaginatively lived out all the mythic possibilities, all the personal turn-on of practically superhuman accomplishment, stimulated by the fables of the media. We were the perfect big-eyed consumers of this country’s four-color ad to the universe, wanting to be one tempting thing and then another and ending up, most of us, with little but the sadly smiling hope that time would somehow solve our problem.

When I teach Krim’s essay, some students say his complaints cause his failures. They would never say he should “Get off his ass and do something,” but that’s the subtext of their remarks. I don’t blame them for rejecting his hopelessness. They are, and should be, optimistic about bright futures ahead. I’m not ready to indict America for my yearnings either. I know anything worth having is worth working years for. Yet Krim isn’t entirely wrong. The relentless expectancy of modern life makes personal satisfaction a battle. It’s a struggle to keep up with happiness when its pursuit requires continual novelty, progress, recognition, and material success.

WordPress tells me that I’m completing the 261st post on this blog and, sometimes when I notice all I’ve written here, I wonder if I can keep the pace I’ve set. One morning I might wake up to discover I have nothing new to say and that my faith in striving has evaporated. And I can’t help wondering if that will be a good or bad day, the day my soul abandons its restlessness, its ceaseless search for new landscapes and vistas, its endless desire to escape itself.


Filed under Aging, Ambition, America, Doubt, Essays, Identity, Laments, life, Modern Life, Seymour Krim, Thoughts

Freshly Thankful

Earlier this week, when I appeared on “Freshly Pressed,” a friend (who is also a blogger) asked me what it was like. I told him it was like getting a dramatic haircut–suddenly all these people who had never or barely noticed you before see you for the first time. You feel like just the same person you’ve always been and wonder, “Is it me or my haircut they’re seeing?” and “how much credit can I take for this haircut?”

But don’t get me wrong, I’m thankful, very thankful.

Let me explain. One of my middle school science teachers—I’ll call him Mr. Mallory—ended the year with an independent research project. We were to ask a scientific question and design an experiment to explore it, then we would explain the results and their implications to classmates. At first I thought I’d uncover how ants found their way home. I kidnapped them, wet their abdomens with ink and then dropped them on butcher paper well away from their nest. The experiment resulted in a few poor ants spinning in blobs of ink until they died.

So, facing an immediate deadline, I decided to make the little frogs at a local swimming hole ride as payload in my older brother’s model rocket. Unlike my first project, I had no question other than, “Hmmm. I wonder what will happen.” I discovered the frogs didn’t die and that shooting model rockets is fun. When my turn to present my results arrived, however, I had to say something, so I reported that frogs are not affected by the g-forces of launch or by being untethered in space capsules. And the noise of the launch did not make them deaf.

When I presented this last data point, Mr. Mallory asked, “David, how did you test for that?” and I answered, “I dumped the frogs on the ground, stuck my head right over them and yelled really loud. They hopped away.”

Mr. Mallory smirked then chuckled. Then his pen piroquetted over my assessment sheet.

This anecdote sticks with me because, in that instant, I loved Mr. Mallory. My “experiment” was total crap, more amusement than science, and yet he took me seriously. He treated me as though I were a real scientist. He made me feel like one. Since then I’ve experienced other moments people turned their spotlight on me, and every chance I get I’ve tried to turn my own spotlight on students I teach.

For the last ten years—here and before sheets of watercolor paper—I’ve labored in utter obscurity, feeling at times as though only I and a few others take me seriously as an artist. I’ve behaved as if I were an artist, devoting hours to coming up with projects, working and reworking and revising and polishing and adding those last subtle touches that, in my imagination at least, make all the difference. I’ve offered big ideas about Art and Beauty and thought about my place near the end of their parade. Some of the time, it has felt like fantasy, the same sort of impulse that helped those frogs momentarily slip the surly bonds of earth.

But what a balm it is when someone else takes you seriously.

I’ve always had this daydream about appearing on Fresh Air and saying to Terry Gross, “Thank you for inviting me, Terry. I can’t really express how much I admire your show and how often I’ve fantasized about this moment.” I’m sure saying so would creep her out, but it would be true. We could talk about “my work” with the assumption it matters, redeeming my seemingly endless hours of troubled faith and verifying I have some modicum of talent I don’t dare believe… because I’ve never been comfortable asking to be taken seriously, because asking disqualifies the answer.

So I’m working my way around to thanking all the Mr. Mallorys in my life, especially those of you reading my writing right now. I’m sure there are a million definitions of love, but one has to be “Believing in someone’s best definition of him or herself.” It isn’t the strongest definition or the most insightful or even the most important perhaps, but it’s love I hope to return.

For everyone who has visited here and derelict satellite and who has “liked” and commented and made observations in answer, I appreciate it. In case I forget to tell you often enough, you make my day.


Filed under Aesthetics, Ambition, Art, Essays, Gratitude, Identity, life, Love, Meditations, Teaching, Thoughts, Tributes, Visual Art, Work, Writing

How’d We Do?: Teaching and Coaching

Ted Sizer 1932-2009

This fall, for the first time in a long time, I’m not coaching cross country. I was head coach for ten years at my old school, and I’ve been an assistant coach for the last few years here in Chicago. Recently I’ve been largely responsible for moving athletes from one place to another with a well-placed “Let’s go guys”…and was damn good at it.

I’ll miss being called “Coach,” but I don’t expect to stop coaching. Teachers, after all, are supposed to be coaches.

The teacher-as-coach paradigm has been around a long time, and it became a pedagogical staple after Ted Sizer popularized the idea in Horace’s Compromise (1984). Sizer used a junior transfer student placed in his senior elective to illustrate the concept. “Susan” ran into trouble as the class approached a fifteen-to-twenty-five page analytical paper, and, when Sizer asked her about a missing outline, the results were “consternation, embarrassment, welling tears.” In response, Sizer helped her through each part of the process—outline, draft, and revision. The total time he spent helping Susan write the paper, Sizer reported, was not more than fifty minutes, yet “Without coaching…it would never have been done at all. The distance between a paper in the abstract and her paper assigned in my course had been too great, and her apprehension (and self-inflicted humiliation in a course shared with some loud-mouthed, confident-seeming students) was paralyzing.”

This vision of teacher-as-coach is gratifying. You stand in a student’s corner and shout, “You can do it!” You praise moments of triumph and soothe aches and pains. You are a cohort who urges promising young people to achieve mutually agreed-upon goals. Coach-teachers cast aside the old-school models of  instructors who disseminate information on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. A coach, well, a coach inspires.

But that’s not a coach’s only role and being a teacher-coach seems so much more complicated. My seventh grade gym coach, Mr. McGuiness touched my shoulder when he passed back rules or health tests I aced, nodding and winking to say “Well done.” He helped me up after humiliating moments—like the time, running between first and second base, I foiled a double play with my forehead. He asked again and again, between laughter, if I was okay. He got me involved in running because, I suspect, he thought it would help my self-confidence if I could find athletic success somewhere.

Yet even the sainted Coach McGuiness could be cruel…and meant to be. As a track coach, he prepared athletes for events administered by third parties—he readied athletes for contests decided by objective designations like “first” or “fifth,” “cleared” or “missed,” “victory” or “loss.” He knew the rules were out of his hands and the end result up to the athletes, so he had to be tough.

Being a teacher-coach may be even more complicated because you’re a coach at one moment and an umpire the next. In my own specialty, English, I teach my students to write well and then I decide if they have done so. I encourage them, then grade them. First period, I say they can improve their performances on quizzes by preparing better. Second period I make out a challenging quiz. When I return it later, a student might say, “If you wanted us to do better, why was the quiz so impossible?”

It wasn’t impossible of course, but it’s a reasonable question. In the past, when I answered, “I want your success to mean something,” or “It’s not me, it’s the standards that are challenging,” they countered, “Don’t you make the standards?” If, after Sizer’s coaching, Susan received the comment, “Your paper was as wooden as the outline, but still sensible and sturdy…a thoroughly adequate essay,” she might cry foul too. But what if his assessment was honest?

When I was a head cross-country coach, once a season we played a running game called “Knock Out.” In this game the runners started on the same start line and ran a half-mile loop and then rested. Every six minutes, we’d start another loop. The wrinkle was that the last one or two people to finish each half mile didn’t line up for the next repetitions. Those athletes ran the loop in the opposite direction, and kept running, without a rest, until the game was over. On the first half-mile, the runners clumped, playing it safe, not wasting energy in the front or risking elimination behind the pack. As the contest wore on, as more and more teammates jogged in the opposite direction, strategies changed. Soon all the remaining runners wanted to be near the front and, invariably, someone tried to rush to a safe lead and stay there. The survivors grew more and more tired, but the repetitions grew faster and faster. The idea was to develop athletes’ late race determination.

It was more objective than “Compose an effective outline.” Once the rules were established, it just happened. No judgment necessary. Some athletes hated the game, and I never felt entirely happy with it either. Win-lose objectivity can be painful, less disputable and therefore more ego-thrashing than rulings I make as a teacher. I just wanted to accomplish something pure exhortation wouldn’t.

A teacher-coach who protects students from risky assessments might not be serving students’ best interests. While teachers emulate coaches’ rah-rah, they could also learn from coaches’ unapologetic challenges. I’m not talking about giving low grades—I hate grades and would rather do away with them altogether. I’m talking about assigning trying tasks. Anything that helps students discover their potential prepares them for the future.

Ironically, grades often distract students from challenging themselves. Students aren’t focusing on the task when they focus on grades. They aren’t really focusing on outcomes either. They are gathering points and engaging in the most abstract accounting, not facing real and immediate challenges.

Every coach knows success is more complicated than a grade. Tony Casey, an athlete on my one of my cross country teams, was famous for asking, “How’d we do Coach?” It was the first question he gathered the wind to ask after he crossed the finish line. In most sports, the score gives an answer immediately, but in cross country, scoring requires math. You add up the places your runners received and compare it to totals other teams achieved, low score wins. Tony would stand at my shoulder watching me carry the tens until I could tell him the outcome, but what made him famous was that, even after I had the number ready, he’d ask, “So, how did we do?”

The other athletes found Tony’s question silly. “He just told you!” they’d yell. What they didn’t understand was that Tony was really asking, “What does the score mean?” Tony wanted to know if we’ve exceeded expectations or fallen short. He wanted to know whether we closed the time gap between our first and fifth runner and if we had improved from our last outing. He needed me to interpret the results.

I always wanted to say we’d done well, at least that we’d done better, but sometimes the clocks or the places disagreed. A good coach can figure out what really happened and then cast disappointment in a helpful light. During a writing conference, I have to be honest and point out what’s weakest, but I can also illuminate moments of promise and progress. The best coaches I’ve encountered focus on what an athlete might do next, where improvement lies. You can’t deny what happened, so what do you do with what happened?

Late in my running career, I ran into a coach named Mr. Miller. He chuckled at adolescent eccentricities and nicknamed me anew each week. Before each race, he said, “Do your best” with assurance my best would be enough. He met disappointment with explanation. “You went out too slow,” he’d say, or “You need to slingshot off that last turn,” or “In another five yards, you’d have had the next guy.” Sometimes I could tell he was looking for something, anything to say to a fifth place finisher, but the “grade” mattered much less than his support.

As an assistant coach, I always looked out for brooders who struggled over how they’d performed. After a few moments to let them get past raw results, I’d add my perspective. As a teacher, my job is similar. A race is a race, but you need to see something compelling in it, even if it’s just, “With a little more foresight and work, you can do better next time.”

My true job as teacher or coach (or something between) is inspiring belief in personal progress.


Filed under Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Identity, Meditations, Running, Teaching, Thoughts, Work

When a Blogger Writes a Book

A Mock-Up of My Front Cover

Publishing may be the pinnacle of success in the real world, but, after a summer of working on the same long essay day after day, I think of creating a book as creating a statue—no one sees it until every part receives proper polish. When it wheels from the workshop, it will feel to me as if it has always existed, as if it’s been found rather than made. Being tangible and transferable and eternal, it possesses instant reality, instant gravity. It is a thing.

In contrast, blogging has more intimate charms. The strangest part of blogging—not really knowing who’s out there—is also what’s best about it. It can be like small town radio. You sit in a tiny room, talk into a microphone that may or may not work, and cast your voice over cornfields, seas without fish. You speak at least in part to find out what you’ll say. And, when people listen, it means something. They could easily have ignored you or missed you altogether.

I know, people can ignore books too—as I may soon discover—but I wonder if the weight of a book makes it real even when no one picks it up. Because I’m publishing this book myself, it won’t have the trumpet release party or the carnival book tour. Still, now that I’ve used the title up, the thing will continue to be real and won’t go away, even if I someday want it to.

Friends often seem embarrassed when I talk about my blog, and, tellingly, they sometimes say, “Oh, are you still doing that?” Stereotypically, blogs aren’t complete or polished, and many people seem to think they can’t be artful. For them, blogs are emotional spills, affronts to reason and insults to craft, editing, decorousness, and self-restraint. Yet part of me loves the small truth in that stereotype. Blogs often present writing as compulsion instead of Art. You don’t have to read very long on WordPress or elsewhere to discover articulate, thoughtful, and skilled writers, but you also find authors whose greatest assets are conviction, sincerity, and humanity.

Art From Inside

Maybe the prejudice against blogs comes down to materialism. “You get what you pay for,” people say. That bloggers give prose or poetry away for free, they assume, must reflect bloggers’ skill. But a book has to be purchased. Readers (and writers) invest money and time on books assuming the product is lovingly well-wrought, worthy of endless attention.

It’s true, I’ve spent much more time crafting this book. I don’t think I can read and revise it one.more.time. Yet blogs are challenging in their own way. For all their intimate charms, blogs also make intimate demands. The next post whispers entreaties like an endlessly needy lover, and, when the only pay you receive is attention, soliciting that attention over and over becomes daunting. Where writing a book demands long-haul perseverance, blogs require bold faith you’ll find something to say today. And every blogger knows how crowded the market is. The proliferation of writing online is intimidating. A blogger’s desire to earn an audience often creates moving writing. Even when it isn’t skilled, it’s often more direct and fresh.

I’m happy I’ve had the experience of a “real author” this summer, rising to meet the same statue every day, mustering the weary determination required to court a perfect object. Yet I haven’t had my head turned. It will be months or years (or never) before I learn how successful my summer has been. If I’ve managed to entice a reader to travel this far into this post, however, I might know so in a few hours.


Filed under Aesthetics, Ambition, Art, Blogging, Essays, life, Resolutions, Thoughts, Voice, Writing

Open Your Notebook

spalding.jpg And Everything is Going Fine, Steven Soderbergh’s documentary about Spalding Gray, sat atop my Netflix instant cue for a few weeks this summer. I was saving it as you might save the last perfect peach or an unread novel by an author you love.

Spalding Gray is an author I love. Since his suicide in 2004, I’ve reread his work and appreciated it anew. Now little remains for me to read, but he still holds a prominent spot in my imagination and in the pantheon of writers whose techniques are worth admiring and emulating.

I associate the performance artist responsible for Swimming to Cambodia, Gray’s Anatomy, Monster in a Box—and others—with his notebook. I picture him sitting with it at a desk in front of an audience, holding them hostage with his funny, repellent, endearing, profane, horrifying, titillating, chaotic, and revelatory anecdotes.

The two times I saw Spalding Gray, I walked away wondering what I had seen, a performance or a personality. And I wondered, which came first—the voice or the script?

In the documentary Gray says (confirmed in an interview I found online) that he wrote his monologues first, in longhand, and then read them aloud into a tape recorder so the publisher could transcribe them. Though that method might seem to include an extra step—couldn’t he just send the longhand pages for transcription?—his technique makes sense. You can imagine him improvising, rearranging phrasing and pace, looking for the silences and the shouts. How else could he achieve such intimacy between words and perspective?

“I dramatize my life,” Gray says, but that statement seems too tame for the transmutation his life receives in that notebook. Here is a passage from Morning, Noon, and Night, which, besides being the sweetest monologue, may be my favorite. In it, he describes taking his son to David Copperfield’s magic show and what they encountered on the way:

Forrest and I were traveling by subway from SoHo up to Forty-fifth Street. On our way to the subway, we came upon a man sitting with a big telescope and, for only two dollars, you could look through this telescope and see Saturn with its rings. Both Forrest and I looked through it. I’d never seen Saturn and its rings before, and so clear. It was fantastic! There we were gazing at Saturn and its rings for the first time together. On a corner of West Broadway and Spring street—on the subway—four dancers entered and, putting their boom box on the floor just a few feet from Forrest and me, they began to break dance up a storm—Forrest and I were stunned. What a show, and what great seats. Then we got to the David Copperfield Show and it was—well, it was good, too. It was just a different kind of show.

Without the impetus of Gray’s voice behind it, this passage may seem ordinary. His prose is loose—Saturn and its rings, Forrest and I, we came upon, we got to, we were gazing—and none of it seems beautiful in any poetic sense. Yet, the content IS beautiful and funny, as if the rhythm of the prose, even its repetitiveness, communicates the boyish joy behind the moment. He sets up the punch line at the end of this passage perfectly because we anticipate that David Copperfield can’t be as good, and yet Gray’s formulation, “It was just a different kind of show” is fresh and direct.

To an attuned observer of prose, everything is a show.

And Gray’s immediacy, the sense that he just makes his confession on the spot, is, to me, supremely well-planned. In good writing what seems unstudied may be carefully and effectively edited. He worked hard to make his writing look natural and took up a deceiving challenge—telling his story while calling just the right amount of attention to the teller. He had so much to reveal in the telling itself, in the DNA of the prose, its rhythm and pace.

The last sentence of the passage above might’ve described Gray himself—”a different kind of show.” Homemade or homespun, Gray’s writing was full of ellipsis, repetition, and those sort of “A equals B equals C” moments that could easily be cleaned up and cleared up, but he added odd detail or led you into strange territory sneakily. A good part of his prose’s immediacy rose from its seeming in-process, but an equal portion came from pure strangeness.

In Gray’s Anatomy, in response to an eye-problem, Gray went to see an increasingly unlikely string of alternative healers and wound up a dietary specialist who started with a questionnaire about what he’d been eating…in the last six months. As Gray told it, the nurse started with burritos (Gray decided he’d eaten eighteen), then moved on to borsht, and, after saying he’d never eaten it—never come near it—remembered he went to Russia and ate it every day.

His revised borsht count, fourteen.

The absurdity of scenes like this one rest in the ordinary way Gray led a reader to them. Before you know it, a conversation has taken a strange turn into Arbitrariville or Cloud Cuckoo Land. And it wouldn’t work if the journey didn’t ride a steady stream of wondrous wording that—I’m assuming—was deliberately crafted to be appropriately loopy and imperfect.

Perhaps Gray wasn’t Tolstoy or Dickens or Twain. He certainly puts the lie to the bon mot and the right words in the best order. Maybe I’ve just had my head turned by the actor Spalding Gray. Maybe I’m prejudiced by my grief over Gray’s suicide, but something about his prose throws more crafted work into an odd perspective…

…much like the street entertainment that transforms David Copperfield’s magic into pure artifice.


Filed under Aesthetics, Art, Essays, Genius, Reading, Showing and Telling, Thoughts, Tributes, Writing

Climb Aboard

Groupon sent me an e-mail recently touting a speedboat tour of Chicago, and I immediately imagined a matronly tour guide in spattered glasses clutching a scarf to her head, bracing herself as the boat leapt over washboard waves. She shouted into the wind about sights swiftly disappearing behind us.

Then I imagined a letter to Groupon:

Dear Groupon,

I am really thankful for the bargains you offer me every day, but I must emphatically decline your speedboat tour of Chicago. My life is too full of speedboat tours already, thank you very much.


A Mostly Appreciative Customer

But perhaps I’m being unfair. Perhaps one of my readers has been on a crackerjack speedboat tour and enjoyed it immensely—the pace, the excitement, the blur of experience condensed into a few electrifying and safely harrowing moments. Maybe the elementary efficiency of it all is impressive. Maybe I should just say it isn’t for me.

Though that might not be true either…

Because I partake in plenty of blurry experience. The older I get, the blurrier experience seems. All those years ago, I learned about maximum acceleration, but that particular natural law doesn’t seem to apply to time. Each day buzzes by like a trapped fly. Each week drains before you can find the leak. Each month passes in a wave of amnesia. Each year is a smaller slice of a pie cut entirely too many times to consume.

My summer has been one speedboat tour—before I knew it, the fourth of July passed and my teaching break was half-finished. Then July was gone. Now the back-to-school ads have arrived, and I’m counting days until my first official duty. I suppose my summer was productive because I wrote a book, but even that seems a blur, something too big to hold in my brain entirely, another check in the “Complete” column.

Does anyone else notice time flashing by? A few listeners will be sympathetic if you say modern life travels too fast, but their affirmation is more “of course” than “how sad.” They say, “Don’t I know it,” or “That’s the way it is these days,” and excuse themselves to get back to it, or at it, or whatever it. Anyway, they have to go.

I have to go too.  Even when the day’s schedule is really pretty empty, expectations make it seem full. If you’re not doing something, or seeing something, or answering something, or preparing for something, or completing something long overdue, you are wasting time that, we hear every few seconds, is rare.

And I thought all we had was time.

So many people tell me they want to clone themselves or slow time down so they can accomplish more. They might welcome a speedboat to carry them from task to task if it would liberate more time for even more tasks and more worthwhile experiences.

I’d love to stand on the shore and watch them zip by, but I don’t dare miss the boat. I don’t dare rest. I don’t dare remain idle.

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Filed under Aging, Ambition, Anxiety, Chicago, Doubt, Essays, Laments, life, Modern Life, Thoughts, Work

My Vote

ballot-box-l.jpg Reprise…

Some time ago, I read an article in Slate setting the odds of a single vote influencing an election at 100,000,000 to one; however, if you live in a populous state and you’re voting in a sizable election—like the presidential race—your odds are probably much worse.

Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, the authors of Freakonomics, report few economists vote because it’s embarrassing to be seen doing so. They know the cost of casting a vote—the trouble it takes—doesn’t come close to its utility.

And you don’t need economists or odds-makers to question voting. Thoreau described voting as “gaming” and said, “Voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail.” He believed voting worked only for the people on the popular side. Elections silence dissent, he pointed out… even when 49.5 % of the people dissent.

Yet—though Thoreau’s perspective looks like common sense, scientific even—I vote.

One in one hundred million is greater than zero and, psychologically, I have to have my say. More than that, I want to suspend disbelief and act according to my convictions. We’re certainly lost as a society if we stop believing we can do anything together.

For much of our history, we put faith in collective action—striking or boycotting or buying or not buying. We believed that banding together gave us more power, a choral voice. We were naïve then. Not all of us are so cynical, but many people now believe nothing other than a law can control behavior—and laws are only as good as their enforcement. For some, social movements are silly, as pointless as voting, economically absurd. We seem to have lost trust in like-minds and the principle that good sense is persuasive. These days, we do or don’t do according to our own devices.

Maybe voting is better suited to tiny and ancient Greek city-states. But in the modern world, voting still has powerful symbolic meaning. It represents collective identity, the last proof we live in one country together.

A friend once pointed out that a corporation, in a single day, can undo a lifetime of recycling, taking the train, and walking. I know he’s right. In a consumer culture individual actions mean very little unless some number of people—a big number—act responsibly. As long as we buy SUVs, manufacturers will continue to produce them. As long as we prefer or accept excessive packaging, molded plastic and styrofoam-encased boxes in boxes covered by layers of paper and more plastic will be the rule.

Asking corporations to change doesn’t work, unless we ask by withholding our dollars.

Our times call for a new sort of social revolution. Before we believed in strikes, boycotts, and consumer movements, and now we must behave quixotically, ignoring how statistically paltry our individual actions are. We must behave responsibly even when any half-brained person could see what any one of us does matters little or not at all. The new world requires not banding together, but adhering to personal resolutions that only make sense from a collective perspective, as if everything each of us did was multiplied by three-hundred million instead of divided by it.

We will either succeed at fooling ourselves into believing our individual actions are critical or fail collectively. If everyone believes actions don’t matter, they will be right.

One definition of faith is belief despite reason. Perhaps voting is an act of faith, willingly investing in a fiction because the alternative is so much worse. Picking up an empty water bottle and carrying it home to put it in the recycling is also an act of faith, pointless but symbolic.

I’m not naïve. I know in November I won’t really decide the leader for the next four years—as in all things public, an aggregate will decide that—but I’m voting for voting. I’m expressing an illogical but vital faith in social change, a hope we can escape our selfish desires and believe—despite our differences—we are one people.

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Filed under America, Arguments, Essays, Hope, Identity, Modern Life, Opinion, Politics, Presidential Election 2012, Resolutions, Thoreau, Thoughts, Worry

Monsieur Mangetout

After my brother bought a copy of The Guinness Book of World Records, I spent an adolescent summer poring over it looking for records I might break. Ultimately, I participated in an attempt to stuff the most people in a Volkswagen—I was number 20 of 22—but that summer, shopping for breakable marks yielded few possibilities. Most records were so far beyond even a dreamer like me.

I discovered a man named Michael Lotito who ate bicycles and other inedible items, washing down pieces of metal and rubber with mineral oil and water. His stage name was Monsieur Mangetout (“Mr. Eat Everything”), and, for a couple of months, I could not sit down to a meal without thinking of him filing my ten-speed fine enough to add to his mashed potatoes. He sat next to me, grinning and scooping, drinking and belching petroleum smells. Apparently he liked the chains of bicycles best because they at least had a taste.

Sometimes he pops up in my imagination still, though more as a metaphor than as a man. Mr. Mangetout knew how to digest the indigestible. He made sure the shit hit the fan and knew how to pass it through that fan with minimal mess. He took pride in the impossible. He never met an obstacle he couldn’t ingest.

Of course, I don’t really want to be him. His biography on Wikipedia reveals that he died at 57 and most of his jobs were promotions for cheesy radio stations or dinky businesses. I can’t believe he actually made much money as an entertainer… if you call “entertainment” a lifetime of eating 18 bicycles, 15 shopping carts, 7 televisions, 6 Chandeliers, 2 beds , one pair of skis, a section of iron chain, a piece of the Eiffel Tower, a computer, a coffin, and a Cessna aircraft.

The Cessna took two years.

Nonetheless, there’s something indomitable in his story. It’s a tale of lunacy—no doubt about it—but it also reveals an oddly playful perspective on life where humans are meant to reach past their limits and care little about risk. Much of The Guinness Book of World Records developed a similar theme: here are some crazy people not bound by convention. These people believe in aspiration for aspiration’s sake and could not tell you, and will not bother to tell you, why.

I’m not one of those people. Maybe I was more then—and maybe the whole country was more then—but I’m certainly not now. I lead a safe life, and, while I don’t lick my lips as a small plane buzzes overhead, I do sometimes wish I had a little more Monsieur Mangetout in me. Not the eating part, but the believing anything is possible part, the part that says humanity’s limits are largely imagined.

I’m not thinking about breaking records anymore.

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Filed under Aging, Ambition, Envy, Essays, Identity, Laments, life, Modern Life, Recollection, Thoughts, Tributes

Poetry: My Current Verdict

My daughter is taking a poetry class in the fall, and I noticed a book about Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet on its reading list. She is an occasional poet, the teacher is one of the most talented at our school, and my daughter will get a great deal from the book and the class. Perhaps she’ll write the poems she’ll later call “her first real poems.”

I don’t recollect my first poem exactly, but my feelings about writing poems haven’t changed much. Poems are elevated expression—part venting, part vision, part visit with the unknown. After hour upon hour thinking about poetry, however, I’ve never touched defining the thing itself, the fundamentally mysterious and defiant thing. If a young poet asked me about poetry, I might shirk. My answers double back. You reconsider. You regret.

Over the last year or so, I’ve been stealing from myself by revisiting posts on my old blog Joe Felso, and one post responded to a challenge from another blogger to say what poetry is and does. The four items I found in my list now seem partially true but also partially overblown, partially strident, and partially self-justification. They need revision—undoubtedly, they will need revision again in a couple of years—and I’m willing to try. What I said is in bold, what I now think follows.

1. A poem isn’t an argument or a message.

One of my favorite articles about poetry to share with students is Mark Strand’s “Slow Down for Poetry,” which appeared in the NY Times Book Review  in 1991 and used his personal story of becoming a poet to meditate on the distinct pleasures of reading and writing poetry. Along the way, he differentiates between fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Strand says fiction and nonfiction are mired in reality, the former seeking to add to our experience in the real world and the latter explaining it. A novel is successful when you look up and discover you’ve read thirty pages, all of it happening in your head. However, of poetry he says, “a sense of itself is what the poem sponsors and not a sense of the world. It invents itself.” He also says poetry, “is language at it most beguiling and seductive while it is, at the same time, elusive, seeming to mock one’s desire for reduction, for plain and available order.”

Strand’s comments are cogent and wise, but, reread something often enough, and you begin to see holes. This assumption that poetry defies order and our normal sense of the world can be seductive. Suggesting poems have implications rather than meaning invites wandering as well as exploration. And now I wonder, does a poet need something to say? I’m not talking about poems-with-a-point, poems as arguments, or diatribes, but some necessity to speak, even if that necessity is tough to pin down. Does a poet need a sort of clarity even if it’s strange clarity? Poems demand emotional logic even when they’re arational. They come from somewhere and something. Students like to think poems “Mean what you think they mean,” but are poems really Rorschachs? How does someone write a Rorschach?

My current verdict: I do think poets should avoid undue neatness, the sort of diminishing, clarifying activity appropriate to explaining (as in prose) but the poet needs some compulsion to speak even when he or she can’t clearly define it.

2. No fuzzying up

I ran into an Onion news item once about a poet who takes extra time to remove verbs and punctuation “in order to give the piece a level of vagueness more suitable for publication.” What makes this article hilarious is its image of what poets sometimes find themselves doing. However, when you have something subtle to define and express you don’t need another layer of obscurity. The challenge of helping a reader feel is complicated enough. The modernists made complexity one of the highest aesthetic values, and we’ve absorbed their perspective by deliberately seeking ambiguity and general murkiness. However, they really sought intrinsic complexity, not after-the-fact, revised complexity. If a poem is complex—and it doesn’t have to be—it should be because what it represents is complex.

My current verdict: Don’t overwork the dough.

3. Think as a child

None of us truly remember when language was new. When my daughter was very young—maybe three—she used to call out from her car seat as we approached the garage, “Touch the moose! Touch the moose!” I was worried about her. Then, one day I looked at the garage opener clipped to one of the sun shields. Each shield was a paddle that narrowed to its attachment point in the middle…like two antlers, on either side of the rear view mirror that hung down…like a head. In that moment, I finally saw what she saw, a moose. If we could return to that state of invention—looking for whatever words might cover our feelings or observations—we all might be better poets.

My current verdict: Everyone says “Avoid clichés,” which is good advice. I prefer its positive formulation though. Be fresh. My daughter wasn’t trying to be creative, to fuzzy up the world or dazzle me…though she did. She was just looking for a way to express what she saw, and, being new to this planet, had to rely on something new.

4. No individual poem matters

When I originally addressed this topic, I said that four of the poems I’d written were okay and the rest stunk. That statement is just a tad disingenuous. More accurately, many of the poems written to be great poems were overreaching and stilted. The ones written to understand something not finally understandable have been passable. However, if you regard all poems as pure practice, preparing for the day when, having trained the mind to think poetically, you might achieve what thus far you haven’t, you might be waiting a long time. I love improvisation and play—you need to be receptive—but you also need ambition, at least the hope your current search may yield something good. Otherwise, you will be rehearsing forever.

My current verdict: Maybe individual poems don’t matter, but you need to behave as if they do… because they may.

“What poetry is” undergoes constant revision in my mind. In the end, I know little and enjoy that perspective. Poetry exists where challenge and desire meet, where the inexpressible meets the compulsion to speak.


Filed under Aesthetics, Art, Doubt, Education, Essays, Poetry, Resolutions, Thoughts, Writing