Monthly Archives: September 2012

Cheating Themselves

Last Wednesday, The New York Times featured a story about the reasons students cheat at Stuyvesant High School. It used the word “rationale,” and the story included plenty of that: students cheat because they’ve lost faith in teachers’ fairness, they cheat because too much is at stake not to, they cheat because disinterest demands it, they cheat because collaborating with other students is much more efficient, they cheat because it brings sure returns. Any risk shrinks beside rewards—and no one gets in that much trouble.

Truthfully, I understand. Who hasn’t slogged through an obligatory class that saps your energy for classes you want to take? Who hasn’t met teachers who lift themselves up by putting you down? Who hasn’t heard a friend’s offer to help, a kindness you can’t reject? Who hasn’t been tempted by an invitation to escape or by the lure of another, more pleasant task or by sleep?

These inducements to cheat are and have always been part of schools’ landscapes, as sure a part of education as trees in the forest. The Times account—and the cheating scandal at Harvard—illustrate moral relativism, and that is nothing new. More severe punishment might curb cheating, but, otherwise, schools can do little to change deeply embedded motives to cheat.

What worries me more than relativism is students’ bold-face defense of their actions, their fundamental cynicism about education’s value, their inflated expectations of what they’re owed, and their rejection of the idea that school is supposed to be hard.

To me, a school that isn’t challenging isn’t a school at all.

Many students serve absent masters, and those students sit in classrooms because they’re made to by teachers barely esteemed in society and by perceptions of parents’ aspirations and by hopes of gaining the attention of colleges and graduate schools they haven’t met yet and by the general expectation that school must be hurdled, borne, withstood.

When I ask a class who they are there for, some students will say “Me,” but just as many will wait dumbfounded for the correct response. I tell them school isn’t about me or parents or colleges but about them, and every ounce of effort they put into learning brings a 100% return. Every time they fight through a problem or essay, I say, they diminish their future struggles and build a bigger sense of what they can do. And, yes, school can be fun if you see it that way. Those comments reach a few students because they know—to be an athlete, actor, musician, or artist you must practice. But some students are more problematic.

Once I met the brother of a former student, and we started talking about his English teacher at another school. He was complaining—as students will—about his teacher’s qualifications. His class was studying The Great Gatsby and his teacher “Hadn’t even brought up the green light!” He didn’t know that the teacher he criticized was my friend, the brother-in-law of one of my best friends. I knew his teacher well and suspected he simply passed the green light by because it was one of the easiest targets for readers—well explored by Cliffs Notes and the like—and wanted to dig deeper in fresher territory. He probably wanted the students to test themselves and do new work.

I tell this story not to illuminate how little it takes for students to dismiss their teachers or to vilify my former student’s brother or to defend my friend. I mean to illustrate the commodification of education. The student already knew what product he sought and what end he expected in return for payment in effort or dollars. He was an informed consumer—like Harvard and Stuyvesant students, my former student’s brother was a very smart person—and arrived presuming he’d be given what he wanted so he could move on.

Okay, exploding this one anecdote to indict all students is ridiculous, and I teach many students who go to school to confront what they don’t know and gain skills and understanding that will improve their lives instead of their future prospects. Yet, this story isn’t unique. I’m sometimes shocked by the virulence of students’ resentment when they’re not given what they’ve expected or been promised when, really, all they’ve been promised is that the territory ahead will be new, unknown, and—dare I say it—thrilling.

I don’t like myself much when I talk this way. Stridency isn’t charming, and someone out there may accuse me of resentment and condescension toward students I’m supposed to support and love. Maybe I deserve it. I may be tired. I may also expect more than I have a right to expect. My only defense is that I do love my students and that’s why I want them to struggle.


Filed under Ambition, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Laments, Modern Life, Opinion, Sturm und Drang, Teaching, Thoughts, Work, Worry


Truman Capote once said, “Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the back yard and shot it.” I wouldn’t be so lurid—because I’m not Truman Capote—but he’s onto something.

The final physical proof of my book just arrived and, now that I’ve clicked approval online, it is officially complete, ready for production, publication, or whatever you name it. In five to seven business days, it will appear on Amazon. This moment comes after six months laboring alone on my laptop, conceiving, composing, revising, arranging, editing, rearranging, proofing, drawing, scanning, and generally working. You might expect me to be proud or at least relieved, but mostly I feel odd.

With some tasks, reaching the end seems the least of your ambitions. Once you’ve put in the training and know you can complete a marathon, you wait to do it. The race date is out there already and, if you’re lucky with health and weather and rest, you will do it. At the appointed place and time, it happens. Then instantly you become a former marathoner or begin training again. Either way, the chapter closes—sometimes the whole book closes—and the event is indelibly written, unalterable, and consigned to memory.

Many milestones I’m happy to put in my past, but this book is different. As long as I was working, it was becoming. As long as I was in the book, it remained a vital place. What will happen now?

Maybe the next chapter won’t be as fun. Perhaps no one will read the book or, worse, no one will say a word beyond “That’s nice” or “Great doodles,” or “What an accomplishment!” Though it seems silly to write a book to talk about it, I’d love to play a real author and discuss what I’ve done, but, just as with a marathon, no one may care to say much beyond “Congratulations!”

Capote is right to compare a book to a child. Compulsion comes with writing and revising. You give hardly a thought to anything outside making something beautiful. You watch your child and play. You invest hope in the child’s development and growth. But Capote is also right that, once a book is complete, hope is moot. I’d prefer not to shoot my child, thank you very much, but children eventually make their own ways in the world. You have your chance, and chances pass.

I had so much fun writing this book that I’m strangely embarrassed when I talk about it, as if I’d like to say, “Oops, I’ve written a book.” Of course, I feel proud of my labor, but, as Victor Hugo said, “There is visible labor and invisible labor.” The visible labor—the object—represents so much invisible labor, the idle thoughts and daydreams and play with imagery and language now integrated into the thing. Things are made precious by our attention. I worry no result from this point forward will assuage my loss. I worry I’ll miss the child, prefer it to whatever happens next.

Next comes pitching my book, trying to get people to buy it and read it so I can recover the cost of making it. I’m supposed to believe in it—and I do. I’m grateful to all the people who have expressed support. I’m anxious to share my work and am happy with how it’s turned out. Maybe the fear I feel now is absurd, and that the best of part of writing The Lost Work of Wasps hasn’t happened yet.

Yet I’m surprised to learn finishing was never a true goal. This whole process has been about process. To make a process real you must complete it, and now I want to begin again.

Update: When I originally wrote this post, I hadn’t received the physical proof or approved it, but I’ve edited the post to reflect the completion of both those steps. If you want to order a copy, you can do so on CreateSpace now or on Amazon starting October 5th.


Filed under Aesthetics, Ambition, Art, Doubt, Essays, Hope, Laments, life, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Work, Worry, Writing

The Haiku Life

Octavio Paz, 1914 – 1998

Two years ago, after writing a haiku a day for nearly five years, I stopped. A funny thing happens when you fulfill the same form day after day after day. It becomes abstract and alien, artificial, nearly ceremonial. I couldn’t find room for innovation in haiku and feared I’d seen today’s syllables before, that I was circling the same shadowy woods as last month, last week, yesterday.

Originally I wrote haiku to practice. The economy was good for me, and my haiku never quite spoke aloud. Their whispered observations, I hoped, might teach me to let meaning be and allow echoes to speak for the original voice. The Mexican poet Octavio Paz once said, “The practice of haiku was and is an education in concentration.” But soon I discovered it was not the sort of education I expected.

Writing a haiku is ultimately not exercise, not about using words sparingly and still “getting everything down.” In haiku, the writer discovers how much a reader needs to know and how much should be said, how often incompletion is whole enough. Writing necessarily involves omission. Octavio Paz says that, to Japanese artists, “Imperfection is the acme of achievement” and then adds quickly that “it is not really imperfect: it is the voluntary act of leaving unfinished.” In ellipsis, the haiku writer finds an instant balance between the comfort of knowing and the vitality of doubt. Paz says haiku rely on the equilibrium between death and life, “vivacity and mortality.” I’m sure I never thought so grandly when I composed my daily haiku at four a.m. before gym and work. Writing a haiku was a morning constitutional, and any tranquility I found arose from resignation, acceptance of imperfection, being willing to tell a story that couldn’t be told whole.

Sometimes I tried to prime the pump by reading the work of writers I admired, especially Matsuo Basho, whose hokku evoke a universe in the most minute reflections. Octavio Paz describes Basho’s work as having “An alert serenity that unburdens us.” It reproduces a rare and profound clarity. Readers are “unburdened” because Basho releases feelings and thoughts never quite said. In itself, haiku is simple. What we hear are its reverberations.

One of the most prominent values of haiku is “kokoro,” which is translated as “heart” but may be closer to what we mean by “spirit,” a blending of emotional and intellectual. It’s not a fusion, because the two different responses to the world are never really fused; but you shift between what the heart feels and the mind knows… sometimes so rapidly you couldn’t say which is in control now.

Writing haiku, I often thought of technical issues—how to compress a picture or idea into finite syllables, what word order would make the picture “legible,” where I might break lines or what image should end the poem. Yet the technical never overcame the image at the center, something precious, a compelling sense of an image seen but never known definitively.

All of these meditations on haiku might lead you to believe I miss writing them. I suppose I do, but not at all the production of haiku—I’m sure I don’t need to compose another—so much as the state of mind. I liked my haiku self. I could present subjective reality objectively and believe the commonplace extraordinary. I could depend on overtone and resonance.

Nature and how we perceive nature are bound. In describing his response to Basho, Paz said, “Our smile is one of understanding and—let us not shrink from the word—pity. Not Christian pity but that feeling of universal sympathy with everything that exists.”

I still use my fingers to count syllables as I compose the haiku sonnets I post on my other blog, derelict satellite, but that is not quite the same as living in a haiku world, one that demands assurance more than scrutiny and compassion more than attention.


Filed under Aesthetics, Essays, Gratitude, Haiku, Identity, life, Meditations, Poetry, Solitude, Thoughts, Writing

The Other Me

I never feel anger without regret.

It’s a simple formula—I lose my temper and disappointment floods in behind it. For a few moments I can believe my indignation is righteous, deserved, justified, healthy. The object of my anger had it coming and, in fact, needed it.

Besides, shouldn’t I be allowed to lose it every once in a while? Am I not only human?

That feeling never lasts. Next comes, “What the hell is wrong with me?”

Occasionally, I find myself standing face to face with a student, listening as I berate him or her for misbehavior. I’m always the same. I posit some possible consequence of the student’s action—someone will be hurt, others will see this action as a model when it is far from it, some disrespect will be inferred and ruin an otherwise warm / fruitful / good relationship. Seriously serious things will seriously happen. I mean it this time.

Sometimes, I’m the person harmed by this misbehavior, but usually not. It is a cause I’m fighting for. I’m acting on behalf of important principles like “You are not here now to do what you are doing (dummy)” or “You shouldn’t throw shit.”

During this principled outrage, my words barely sound real to me. And later they sound worse, worthy of the mordant humor my victim probably soon directs at the ridiculously pompous fool who corrected him or her. Meanwhile, as the student is desperately laughing me off, I’m busy with self-loathing.

I’ve heard people describe anger as a normal, if not healthy, emotion. They say repressing anger is sure to upset your mental balance. A person who can’t accommodate the powerful emotions associated with frustration has little hope in our deeply annoying world. And in the realm of knowing thyself, accepting your emotional being is critical. You have to practice communicating anger (without aggression) or redirecting it (without victimizing someone else).

No one knows emotion needs expressing or sublimating better than I do. Eventually, all emotion will out. Still, my practice of properly directed but not aggressive anger never feels right—before, during or, especially, after. Though some part wants to stick to my guns, though part of me wants to quote Emerson in “Self-Reliance” and say, “My kindness must have some edge to it, else it is none,” I’ve never been comfortable with my angry side.

When I was a child my family called me “the angry bee” because when I became enraged, I lost the power of speech and milled around like a bumper car, buzzing. I can see how an eight-year old hot head could be pretty hilarious—now, they’d probably put my tantrums on YouTube—but nothing made me more angry than being called “the angry bee.”

So, all my life, I’ve been determined to live down that label. My students ask occasionally, “Do you even have a temper?” I tell them they don’t want to see it. I tell them to picture The Hulk. When I’m mad, I’m mad in both senses of the word. But that furious me isn’t The Hulk. He’s me, just a me I run from, a me I desperately want to deny. I hate losing control.

Psychologists will tell you anger may actually arise from a desire for control. You want every moment to be what you want it to be, and when it isn’t, you either swallow the frustration—saving the fury for another time—or—if it is that time—freak out.

It’s shocking to experience the timing or intensity of my rage. Afterward, Tybalt is dead, and I am fortune’s fool. I wake to myself again as if I’ve had a seizure or been momentarily possessed.

Some of my colleagues find freaking out cathartic. A teacher I once worked with talked about “jacking students up” as if it were an academic blood sport. Me, I sometimes apologize later to students I dress down. Not about the cause of my anger—because, well, you really shouldn’t throw shit—but because it isn’t appropriate for me to yell. I’m supposed to model adult behavior and should be able to express my displeasure firmly but dispassionately… even if, inside, I’m secretly going postal.

I tell myself that some other cause contributed to my rage—I was hungry or tired or upset about something else or out of kilter with the universe. I tell myself this slip and my subsequent regret will do my students good because I want them to believe adults take responsibility even for unflattering actions. I tell myself that, though that angry person is me, he isn’t my best me and that facing him every once in a while will restore my equanimity.  I tell myself that, though I get angry, I am not an angry person.

Yet I somehow leave these episodes with the same thought—I’m only temporarily angry at them. It turns out I’m more angry at me.


Filed under Anger, Apologies, Doubt, Education, Essays, Identity, Laments, life, Thoughts, Worry

Miniature Gallery


I like to visit art museums in every city. Topeka or Florence, Poughkeepsie or New York, I search for small and large possibilities for seeing new art.

My interest isn’t doing something local. Though every collection differs, each holds some of the same artists or displays similar sorts of paintings and sculptures. I want to see what part of the world’s store appears there.

And I want peace. A friend once described the vertigo he feels drifting from room to room staring into windows that don’t open to the outside. He said if he stood still enough and close enough, he might fall through them.

I feel just the opposite, strangely grounded.


Mrs. Holt’s grandmotherly demeanor matched her house—neat and still, past the excitement of children and fit for visiting instead of staying.

My father, a doctor during the day but a devoted visual artist, didn’t trust the school to teach me art and sent me to Mrs. Holt’s once a week for instruction. She assigned color wheels and scales of shade, landscapes stolen from photographs, and still lifes already arranged when I arrived.

I’m not sure how old I was and recall little of my work. What I remember is routine. At the same time each week, I handed over a wet page, rehung my shirt worn backwards, carried my materials to a sink in the laundry room, and rubbed my brush on a bar of soap until it gave up its pigment. Then I rinsed and repeated until brush and soap knew no color. I waited in a sitting room to go home, penned by shadows of growing dusk.


Picasso said painting is “Just another way of keeping a diary.” I suppose it would be if drawing were a regular part of life and notebooks filled with every reproduced leaf, building, and face you met. But few approach representation so casually. Fidelity requires dedication and skill difficult to attain. Most of us leave it for artists, hands so practiced they’ve eluded thought altogether. We witness the divinity that visits them.


When I paint, the last stage is removing tape protecting a strip surrounding the image. Exaggerated swoops and careless lines stray onto the masked area, and it’s challenging to see the finished picture until the tape disappears.

My work is abstract and depicts nothing readily recognizable, but sometimes when I pull the tape away colors and shapes seem to drop another inch, the depth of their soupy combination apparent at last. Then what seemed nonsense becomes something.

Once, when I lamented I couldn’t mat or frame more paintings, an art teacher at our school circled the white space with his index finger and said, “What do you call this?”

“You’re so neat,” he said, “but even without the clean edges, the paper has to end somewhere. You always have a frame. That’s what keeps your picture here.”

Self-Portrait, age 16


Another art teacher scolded me for taking the beginning drawing class I start today.

“You aren’t a beginner,” she said, “you’ll be bored. You’ll waste the teacher’s time.”

Maybe. After so many hours of holding brushes and pens, they feel like the distal point of a tentacle, the greatest length my mind can reach. Yet, as a doodler, it’s my imagination that stretches. My eyes don’t see the way I’d like because I’ve kept them half-closed too long. I’ve cultivated inwardness that’s accepted the room I occupy and kept me finite. I want to see the wider world.


During a free afternoon while I was traveling, an old friend met me at a museum. His twins came along, and my friend and I tried to catch up on our lives as they orbited us, wheeling away from him to take in paintings and move on.

Finally frustrated by their impatience and the relentless pursuit it necessitated, he gave them an assignment—in every room they were to say which painting they’d like to buy, which they’d like to see on the living room or bedroom wall at home.

They saved their imaginary money in some galleries, but in others they fought over which  painting to own. One liked the colors, but the other hated the figure whose feet were too blocky and all wrong. One saw a galloping horse among the intersecting arcs and lines, and the other called it “Scribble-scrabble.”

His junior art critics knew their taste, and my friend and I stopped talking to play their game. When they couldn’t agree, they asked our opinion. They listened, nodded, and marched on, hands linked behind their backs in serious deliberation.


I inherited my love of museums from my father. He gave tips on where to go, which collections included paintings and artists I couldn’t miss. But we didn’t go to many museums together. The one time I remember, I wandered behind him as he stared into landscapes bathed in dark, shellacked dusk or modern pieces proud of their bright affronts.

He looked at art the way he ate, with personal deliberation hard for any observer to bear. In both, his business was absorption, and that meant making it his before he took it in.


Sometimes, when my wife and I go for walks after dinner, I see into the windows of neighborhood houses and spy the art that hangs on their walls. When a large dramatic painting presides over the whole room, aesthetic voyeurism sweeps through me. I think, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live with that?”


My son is a skilled and practiced artist, and sometimes I feel like a weak link between the generations before and after me. Still, I’m grateful I understand his art talk and am happy when he looks with respect and approval at something I’ve created.

I wish I’d done the same for my father. Though I admired his watercolors and felt second-hand pride at the prices they demanded, I gave up the art lessons he wanted for me. We weren’t both artists while he was alive.

After he died I discovered painting again as a way to commune with him. Even now, twenty years after his death, I’m sometimes sure he’s telling me what to do, pitching advice to lead me from corners I’ve painted my way into.

Trips to museums with my son are some of my favorite times. We don’t talk much, but a lot goes unsaid.


Jackson Pollock saw himself as a sort of medium, believing it his job to find the life hiding in every painting. “I try to let it come through,” he said, as though that life came far ahead of the artist.

I understand that reverence. Even back in Mrs. Holt’s sitting room, I recognized the gravity of the artist’s rites. I sometimes sense the leading edge of revelation. Even when the wave doesn’t quite reach me, I love seeing the signs of its withdrawal, the evidence of beauty in full tide.


Filed under Aesthetics, Aging, Ambition, Art, Envy, Essays, Genius, Identity, life, Lyric Essays, Meditations, Memory, Parenting, Thoughts, Words, Worry

Desperately Yours,

Somehow, without noticing, I’ve become someone’s version of a habitual writer. Most of my life, I’ve envied writers who pull weathered notebooks from satchels and leaf through crowded pages to find clean space. They add a page in place of bowing toward Mecca or kneeling at another station of the cross. Maybe hypergraphia packs those journals, daily reiterations of “I must write,” but their zeal has always seemed unattainable to me. My journals are moleskins of scrawled fragments written in a Starbuck’s line just before my turn arrives or three sentences I’ve managed to compose and memorize on my walk to work.

Then they become posts like this one that, according to a colleague, make me habitual.

I’m not. I’ve known true habitual writers. David Lehman, a poet who taught in my MFA program, endlessly extolled the daily poem. He urged his students to find some time every day to assemble the assembable as a poem. Some of Lehman’s daily efforts have a Frank O’Hara “I did this, I did that” appeal, and I had endless admiration for the devotion of his students…and all his other converts. Fiction students talked about their daily poem, as did non-fiction students, and people simply associated with the program. A college student who bussed abandoned dishes in the cafeteria paused to scrawl another couple of lines.

What were his daily poems like? Perhaps they were genius. Real habitual writing—the sort that expects no end but daily practice and commitment—readies you for another day of writing, and that readies you for another and so on until, one day, you reveal just how much genius ten thousand hours creates. But waiting is my worst option. I’m going over the physical proof of my book right now, I’m on number 265 on this blog, 145 on derelict satellite, but as much as I’ve written, I still consider myself an “occasion writer” in need of an assignment, a task, a deadline, a product due to roll from the factory and ship. A habitual writer is perfectly happy if this page seems more for the writer than the reader. He or she can forget what a reader is. I never forget.

Confucius said that all people would be the same except that their habits make them distinct, and, to Confucius, habits become the best picture of who you are. A person is known by his or her bent. I’m sure Confucius means we should have habitually high standards, but I worry I’d have no standards at all without this public compulsion to show up for our scheduled appointments. Confucius touts the transmutation of habit into being, the steady development of movement into muscle and soul memory.

My writing ways are less like a daily game of solitaire and more like the guy who, earbuds in, cavorts to a discman on the steps of a fountain across from my school. A solitaire player hopes each row falls-out perfectly, and perhaps expects against hope for the day cards will move without his or her hands. The discman and I are desperate.

As much as I admire habitual writers, perhaps I’m better off desperate. Every essay ends with, “What if that’s the last one? What if I’ve said all I ever need to and can’t think of a single word to add?” For me, fear beats habit, and something tells me I need to be afraid, that this chain I’ve been adding to all these years isn’t a chain at all, but a series of links, barely touching, only impersonating a chain.

What I really fear is that, if I become a habitual writer, I’ll be too happy. And soon too lazy. And soon too silent. The desperation keeps me dancing.

Nothing against Confucius, but I’d like to believe Edith Wharton when she said, “Habit is necessary; it is the habit of having habits, of turning a trail into a rut, that must be incessantly fought against if one is to remain alive.”


Filed under Aesthetics, Ambition, Blogging, Confucius, Essays, Identity, Laments, Thoughts, Voice, Writing

On Aging

Sometimes you find yourself in what seems strange territory. One thought bleeds into another and suddenly you feel far afield, lost except that these are your thoughts, you finally and comfortably. A moment arrives when you discover you’ve been here before.

Recently I found a list of resolutions I wrote when I was 24, still burned into computer memory. In this list I promised to challenge myself, to prod myself into fresh territory, to discover all my unrealized potential. Those resolutions sing with charming naiveté.

Time presents limits. I try to find something new, and instead the familiar resurfaces, stains that can’t be suppressed, wincing memories returning. I try to soar into the ethereal, yet often feel stuck as myself. I know I’m not really that old and yet wonder what’s left, what novelty to anticipate and what variation might slide into rapture.

I hate to think only reiteration remains—personal truth stated differently perhaps, but still, at heart, familiar.

Lately I’ve been digging into the soil of childhood, excavating as an anthropologist might for clues I might have missed. All those middens might still yield treasure if I sift painstakingly through it all… what remains of it anyway. You might understand. I always wonder what’s similar in our piles of trash, what every human being knows is common, not our greatest thoughts but the shared refuse of our species.

Unfortunately, it’s so much easier to repeat my own words. Once you’ve found the proper formulation to express your thinking exactly, why look again? I sometimes discover I’m telling the same well-rehearsed stories. Anecdotes calcify into the hard rock of history. And the variations only tailor the story to the situation.

One of my 24 year-old resolutions was to “Meet people who can support you and help you with your goals.” The goals have slipped away but the first part remains. Maybe that’s the consolation of getting older. I enjoy company so much more now, not to tell my own stories but to hear others’.  The best conversations don’t elicit stories at all but the honest give and take of how we feel today, what news we have, why the world is wrong or right, and whether presently our hopes fuel us or burden us. I don’t have so many friends, but I love them so much more now. Their thoughts are new and familiar, challenge and comfort combined, confirmation we’re human.

And, though most of the books I teach are familiar to me now, they’re friends too, revealing aspects hidden from me before. I wish I had more time to read fresh texts but enjoy every encounter that extends what I can understand. If the world isn’t new, at least it’s more varied, more subtle, more rich.  Perhaps aging is supposed to work that way—experience offers you keys to new doors, even if you’ve occupied the same house all along.

Near the end of The Tempest, when Prospero reunites and forgives the people whose actions exiled him, he invites them to spend one last night on his island home in his “poor cell”:

where you shall take your rest
For this one night; which, part of it, I’ll waste
With such discourse as, I not doubt, shall make it
Go quick away; the story of my life
And the particular accidents gone by
Since I came to this isle: and in the morn
I’ll bring you to your ship and so to Naples,
Where I have hope to see the nuptial
Of these our dear-beloved solemnized;
And thence retire me to my Milan, where
Every third thought shall be my grave.

Maybe I’m just beginning to understand Prospero, the weariness that worries he will “waste” his guests’ time with “discourse,” the bravado in their doubtless interest in the story of his life, the resolution to see his ambition of seeing his daughter married completed, and the recognition that “every third thought shall be my grave.” Ultimately, he must return to Milan. He can’t live alone, and the magic he’s made only reaffirms how finite he is.

One could do worse than being Prospero. Though he’s passed that apex when he expected more and has more ahead than behind, he remembers a great deal too. At the end of The Tempest, Prospero gives his magic up by breaking his staff and drowning his book. In doing so, he becomes human, less special, more familiar, fully himself at last.

I’m not breaking any staffs or drowning any books yet, but if his example can help me face my limits, I’ll take it. If there’s less ahead of me, perhaps there’s also more inside me still.


Filed under Aging, Ambition, Doubt, Essays, Identity, Laments, life, Memory, Resolutions, Thoughts, Worry

Ah, Love

Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), by George Frederick Watts

Something strange happens when I go to parties with my wife. Hearing that I’m an English teacher, business people ask about obscure rules of grammar and converse with me on topics that must be unusual for them, are actually unusual for me too, and are certainly odd for the setting. Once one of my wife’s co-workers asked, “If the plane you were on was going down, and there was only one parachute left for you and an author, what writer would you save instead of yourself?” Another time someone asked, “What are your favorite lines of poetry, lines so beautiful you couldn’t help memorizing them?” I read these questions as ones the questioner wants to answer, the confessions of former English majors who haven’t quite left their earlier lives behind.

I’m still trying to answer the first question above, but, in answering the second, I discovered someone who shared the same lines and experienced a peculiar communion, a rapport I rarely feel and can’t forget.

My lines—our lines—come late in Matthew Arnold‘s “Dover Beach“:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! For the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain

When students read these lines in class, sometimes other students laugh. It’s easy to go over the top reciting them, and, while my students get the contents of the poem, few feel the sentiments.

If you don’t know “Dover Beach,” it’s about a couple looking out a window together, and sometimes I imagine they’ve traveled to Dover for a honeymoon or, better yet, a secret romantic tryst. The speaker describes the cliffs and how the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, retreating” is the sound of faith leaving the world. It’s a love poem, one of the most beautiful I know.

The laughing students must think me crazy to describe it that way. The poem says the world isn’t the “land of dreams” it seems to be—or anything good at all—and has nothing good in it, no joy, love, light, certitude, peace, not even any “help for pain.” No hope. They might wonder how telling her the world sucks would make her feel happy to love him.

What the other partygoer and I know, however, is that the poem has drama, not melodrama. The weight belongs on “Ah,” and the word “love” that renames the listener. They mark the start of the poem’s chief revelation. Perhaps Arnold did mean to say more about the crappy, deteriorating world that pushed authors from the aspirations of Romanticism into the dark, clashing chaos of Modernism, but I don’t hear it that way. And I’m sure my party companion didn’t either. No matter how undefined the world may be, knowing you love and are loved compensates for the uncertainty of everything else. I feel that in the poem and feel it in myself.

Arnold’s equation is lopsided, and I can see how someone—especially someone young—might not see how it balances at all, but when I read these lines, I think of how my own loved ones anchor me in the world. I have to be true to them, even if nothing else is true. I could bear any sort of loss, it sometimes seems, as long as it is not their loss. And I want to do whatever I can to keep them from a blank world that guarantees nothing. Knowing I may not be able to save them only makes me want to do so more.

Having shared these favorite lines, the other partygoer and I couldn’t slip back into small talk, and I felt a strange blush of embarrassment before we drifted off to mingle elsewhere. As is often the case with these random meetings, I haven’t seen her since. But I caught her eye before my wife and I exited that night and silently expressed my hope she’s found someone who—for however long she can possibly wish—makes her world sure.


Filed under Aging, Doubt, Education, Essays, Hope, life, Love, Matthew Arnold, Meditations, Modern Life, Poetry, Recollection, Teaching, Thoughts, Tributes, Work, Worry

Angry Politics

All my life I’ve tried to avoid offending people and wondered if that’s even possible. Sometimes the gap between intention and effect inches a little wider and suddenly someone you thought your friend or ally (or at least sympathetic listener) feels hurt or disrespected. You don’t mean to offend, but you do.

And I’ve been on both sides. The most neutral and, in retrospect, most innocent statement sends me into paroxysms of sensitivity and peevishness. “What did you just say?” my psyche shouts, its back instantly up, its fists balled, ready to retaliate.

What can you do in such moments? You can beg help from reason. When you’re on the offending side, you ask, “What did you hear me saying?” and when you’re on the offended side, you say, “Explain what you mean.”

But not always. Sometimes people throw their hands in the air and walk away, content to leave everything unsettled and proud to wound or feel wounded. Then they don’t really want a solution so much as proof of their rectitude. Though, as Robert Half once said, “Convincing yourself doesn’t win an argument,” sometimes that’s the only part of the argument people care about, the part that allows them to preserve their self-image. They need to be okay, so no one else can be.

We do a lot of walking away these days. Self-righteousness runs rampant in the current political climate, and few candidates seem interested in engaging or even listening to the opposite point of view. Civility offers no political advantage. Strategically, offending your opponent can pay off if you bait him or her into another gaffe, the sort of devastating mistake required to torpedo a campaign. Offending others  is the point. The intention isn’t to be polite or reasonable or to exchange political views but to goad your opponent into blowing his or her cool.

“In science,” Carl Sagan said, “it often happens that a scientist says, ‘You know, that’s an interesting argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they would actually change their mind, and you would never hear that old view from them again.” In politics, Sagan said, that would never happen.

I like to think that, were humans telepathic, they might feel exactly what others feel and perceive their intentions exactly. It’s hard to judge harshly when you truly know the other person. Knowing comes close to understanding, and understanding comes close to love. Even if someone aimed to criticize or offend, we might know the source of the ill-will and accept at least its subjective validity. Knowing why the conflict exists might be enough to soothe any hurt and reach a compromise. But who is asking why now?

“Use soft words and hard argument,” says an English proverb. Perhaps we’re bound to argue, but, these days, the soft words rarely appear. Intractability is the current political fashion. Good sense and moderation seem politically devastating.

Though I did not watch much of the political convention aired this week, I saw many angry faces and heard many angry sound bites suggesting no less than the complete erasure of the last four years. I understand these speeches aim at converts. They hope to inflame adherents and spur them to a level of support bordering on zealotry. At a national party convention, you have no need to persuade or convince. Yet, I’d be more moved by dispassion, reason, and the sort of subtle distinctions that might locate the increasingly narrow path to solutions and progress. I’m tired of vehement disdain promising only more offense and more conflict.

I’m beginning to wonder who is listening and who even cares to.


Filed under America, Anger, Essays, Laments, Modern Life, Opinion, Politics, Presidential Election 2012, Thoughts, Worry