Monthly Archives: October 2012

26 Memos to the Winner on 11/6

Okay, so my own politics may show in this post, but I sincerely believe both candidates might benefit from reading these memos…

1. I’ve resigned myself to your election but want you to know—if you represent the true values of America, as you’ve professed over and over during this campaign, then you cannot ignore what I think or feel… because I truly am an American.

2. During the election, I couldn’t tell if all the talk about jobs and who would create more was really about people or dollars. Let me clarify: people need dollars to live, but people are more important than dollars.

3. Large or small, government is of the people, by the people, for the people, and, as we’re in this together, is it unreasonable to expect you to model kindness and respect?

4. As the American president you cannot discount or dismiss any American. Not one.

5. Don’t say you understand what I feel or think without making a sincere and diligent effort to discover it.

6. You’ve succeeded in confusing me thoroughly about taxes, but please spend my money well. I’ll be watching.

7. And please don’t ask for money from those who have none to give or spare those who have it. Please, just try to be fair.

8. Beware believing your own misdirection. You regarded some issues as too complex for the campaign trail, but they are just as real and pressing.

9. Don’t think we fall for pretense. We live in a nation of advertising and hidden agendas. We’ve learned to be distrustful and suspect lies even before they’re uttered. We will know when you lie to us.

10. Even if we don’t know, you shouldn’t test us.

11. I will do my best to trust you as long as you seem worthy of my trust.

12. I’m not insensitive to being hated by much of the world and want to know why. Find out why. Consider what has landed us here and what might be done about it.

13. We want to be proud of where we live. We want to be proud of you. Please make us proud.

14. Capitalism and democracy are not the same thing, and you will never understand the place and purpose of government until you consider all the different forms currently in use, including “socialism,” a word you fear.

15. We could use some intelligence, resourcefulness, and open-mindedness about now.

16. Trickle down, trickle out, trickle up—you can’t ignore history. If it hasn’t or has worked you need to think about why and how before you can reproduce or avoid it.

17. It’s okay to acknowledge matters that aren’t government’s domain. It bears remembering that no government has ever succeeded in making everyone believe what it wishes.

18. The founding fathers wanted to separate church and state.

19. We are equal by virtue of citizenship. Whether we are haves of have-nots is incidental.

20. Everyone I know seems as tired of fighting as I am. If you can’t cooperate with the other party then maybe the system is broken and needs fixing.

21. Of course you’re right that initiative and ambition are to be celebrated, but where it relies on hindering opportunities for others, it’s really cruelty.

22. We’ve had more than enough melodrama over the last few months. Please don’t make melodrama your standard operating procedure.

23. All this acrimony and ill-will and bad blood and un-mending fences will be tragic if it’s all been about who will profit.

24. Whatever you may think, the next presidential election cycle has not begun.

25. Please put aside politics and govern.

26. And don’t fiddle. We’re burning.


Filed under America, Arguments, Doubt, Experiments, Jeremiads, Laments, Lyric Essays, Modern Life, Politics, Presidential Election 2012, Resolutions, Thoughts

News From Elsewhere

This is my letter to the world,
That never wrote to me,–
The simple news that Nature told,
With tender majesty.
Her message is committed
To hands I cannot see;
For love of her, sweet countrymen,
Judge tenderly of me!

These days, I don’t write many letters, but when I did, news wasn’t my style. And people seemed to meet my letters with apprehension, skim them, and then put them aside for consideration later… which often turned into much later. On more than one occasion, someone I saw after a long absence formed a mildly sour smile and tipped his or her head in silent concern and embarrassment. “Your letters….” I heard those expressions say.

We’d start talking instead of writing, and friendship returned in moments. It helped to stay away from anything seen on the page.

In graduate school, one of the lecturers discussing Emily Dickinson’s correspondence addressed how challenging it must have been to be her friend. As brilliant as she was, she was, in seventies-speak, “Intense.” Her first letter to Thomas Wentworth Higgins sounds demure enough—she asks, “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive?” However, her aesthetic meditations quickly explode into real crises, and she steps close enough to the edge of obsession and mania that the bottom of her dress gets wet.

She also tells Higgins, “When I state myself, as the representative of the verse, it does not mean me, but a supposed person.” Many of my students like to believe Dickinson wrote for herself, and of course she did. But she also desired an audience, or she never would have bothered to write Higgins in the first place. Her “supposed person” may also have offered a degree of protection. Though she said “That’s not really me,” the neediness of her letters to Higgins accelerates quickly, and soon she’s telling him she has no “Monarch” in her life, and “cannot rule myself; and when I try to organize, my little force explodes and leaves me bare and charred.” She begins to beg him to visit, and, when he says he can’t, she delays her reply, “Not because I had none, but did not think myself the price that you should come so far. I do not ask so large a pleasure, lest you might deny me.”

I’m no Emily Dickinson, but I sometimes wonder if these posts are my letters to the world. My crises are more visible here. In my real life I appear placid. Here I share doubt. In real life I’ve learned to disguise my quiet desperation, but the desperation hasn’t really changed. My mind can turn a broken shoelace into a personal apocalypse. Even good news can arrive like a page soaked in the most sulfurous molasses—sweet, yes, but with bitter promise.

And I’m in the odd position of having a few readers now. Where before I could regard this blog as a laboratory, a chance to sort out thoughts and formulate theories, now some people know my pronouncements. Once I might safely quote myself, now I feel how odious that is. Yet, as the different seas of my life begin to mingle, I wonder if some people will come to regard me as my returning friends did. I’ve experienced that state often enough with other people—there’s so much I know about them that I don’t discuss, so much I see as our intimate knowledge and don’t address. After being immersed in darker or more forceful currents, you can have trouble resurfacing.

I confess a few moments of embarrassment when someone mentions reading my blog or says me back to me. Naturally, I think, “Should I have admitted that?” or “Am I going to get in trouble?” or “Is it okay to feel as I do?” and “Oh, what did I say?” I’m no exhibitionist. I’m an intensely private person, so this urge to expose myself mystifies me a bit. Emily Dickinson’s desperation is in me too—we aren’t truly writing for ourselves, but for some company.

I tell myself it should take courage to write. Writing without risk hardly seems like writing at all, and, seen from a written or spoken perspective, I am one person. I tell myself that, if I begin by saying none of us are what we seem, I have a better chance of reaching readers and giving something greater than self-absorbed news. I tell myself I have to be vulnerable to touch anyone.

Then I think about Dickinson’s power—her loud voice blasting from her private world—and hope writing really is truth and not perpetual embarrassment.


Filed under Aesthetics, Ambition, Anxiety, Art, Blogging, Doubt, Emily Dickinson, Hope, Identity, Laments, Letters, life, Resolutions, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Voice, Worry, Writing

Seeing The Sun Rise

My daughter’s eighth grade science teacher gave his class an assignment to watch four sunrises or sunsets. As we live only half of mile from Lake Michigan, my daughter chose sunrises, and, several very early weekend mornings, my wife or I roused her to walk east in the dark. Sometimes clouds prevented seeing much and once or twice I half-jogged with her to the lakefront only to find the sun just clear of the water and climbing.

But when we caught the sunrise, it was astounding—one moment, a gray horizon and then a plate of white fire and then, within a minute or so, the show was over. It was day, and we turned for hot chocolate at Starbucks and home.

The same magic minute occurs every dawn. The earth rolls, and a line of light advances. When the earth rolls enough, we can see the sun. The earth rolls more, and it’s fully day.  And I don’t note the moments. I’m stepping from the shower or pouring cereal or slipping my computer in my bag or gathering my keys from the dish by the door or walking, head down, toward a sun I can’t—and don’t bother—to see.

Yet it happens. My daughter is a senior in high school now, and I recently asked her why her teacher gave the assignment. She said he wanted the class to observe the sun, and sunrise and sunset were moments when enough atmosphere intervened to get a peek at it.

I thought it was because he wanted them to witness a miracle.

Getting my daughter up before sunrise on a weekend is a sort of miracle, but the sun was better. I almost thought of it as living, appearing as it did so suddenly and so boldly. Its passage is usually so slow, and it slides through the sky unacknowledged as we busy ourselves with life. At sunrise, the sun seemed as surprised by us as we were by it, and, excited by witnesses, it leapt into the air.

We were never alone at the lakefront. People were running or cycling as they probably did every morning, but there were also other spectators still out from the night before or people standing with cameras ready to arrest the second—the less than a second—the guest arrived. It seemed much too special to happen every day.

So seldom do I think about time that I hardly feel it pass. You just have a moment to identify a moment, and it doesn’t seem a particularly valuable use of time to note each of the infinite series of presents we experience. You had one just then. You are having another now.

Nothing could stop that sun either. It wouldn’t sit on the horizon no matter how many cameras pointed at it, but somehow the sun did speak. It said now is now, and now is passing. It said you don’t feel time move but it can do nothing except move in its one direction, and only the instants that announce its progress—like sunrise—make us discern it at all.

I sometimes watch my daughter as she does her homework. I try not to let her notice, but I see her in all her stages—when she wasn’t walking, when she was, when she wasn’t in school and was, when the years started to became stacks of photographs and the days began to flash like sun between pickets of an blurring fence.

Winter hasn’t even really started, and I’m already thinking about spring, when she graduates, and next fall, when she leaves. Maybe it’s time for another assignment. Maybe watching sunrise again can make time real.


Filed under Aging, Chicago, Doubt, Education, Essays, Gratitude, Home Life, life, Love, Memory, Modern Life, Parenting, Recollection, Thoughts

Coming Back to Me, Part II

A week ago last Thursday, the postal service delivered a book I’m sure few people own, Adam LeFevre’s Everything All At Once, published in 1978 by the Wesleyan University Press in Middletown, Connecticut. It’s Volume 89 of the Wesleyan Poetry Program.

The author, the title, the press, the series might be unfamiliar to you, but I’ve owned the book twice. The first time, in 1999, it appeared in a stack left by the school librarian with a post-it note, “To be discarded… any takers?” I don’t remember why I adopted this skinny orphan of a book but maybe I looked at the table of contents. Titles like “Sestina Sestina,” “Scapulae,” “Theoretical Landscape,” “The Difficult Birth of Walt Disney,” “Vampire Bride,” “Nordic Anthem,” “Monologue of the Girl in the Refrigerator,” and “Boots of Guilt,” might have helped me see LeFevre as a kindred title-er who shares my weakness for mordant humor. I love any title that might start a challenging writing exercise.

In any case, it came home and then I felt strangely adopted myself. Within a few hours no poem remained unread and reread. LeFevre’s surreal poems felt dazzlingly creative to me, and I wondered why he hadn’t echoed through the literary world. He seemed to me every bit the equal of Russell Edson, another of my favorites at the time.

That sense of injustice lost me the book. I had just started an MFA program, and I sent the book to my teacher with a note inside, “Why isn’t this book better known and what happened to this guy?” He never answered. He never returned the book. I considered asking for it, but then I guessed my teacher had answered after all. My affection was misplaced. The book was a discard after all.

I’ve researched LeFevre. He was born in Albany, New York and went to Williams and then Iowa. He also wrote plays and produced some. He became an actor. Poetry, it appears, was an intersection he left.

You don’t know it yet, but you’ve seen Adam LeFevre. He’s in that speed dating scene in Hitch and a lot of Law and Order. I saw him on one of those “That Guy” web pages once, the ones that help people discover faces that are recognizable but unnamable. Now that I’ve named him, you may see him everywhere. Someone may come out of the woodwork to say he or she knows him.

If so, please send my highest regards.

Spying him on television two weeks ago led me to second ownership. I wondered about this book I’d loved and wanted to know if I’d been wrong, entranced, seduced, or duped. I longed to smell its musty pages, so I found it on Amazon, used, $2.98.

And fell for it again. LeFevre is inventive, bold, clever. I collect sestinas and his is the funniest I’ve ever read. His sestina is about how horrible sestinas are to write and ends, “This form is a hungry monster. / Repetition wants something else every time. Six / mad kings and you, locked in a cell—that’s a sestina.” LeFevre is fearless in subject matter too. He writes a poem from the perspective of a girl trapped in a refrigerator during hide and seek . She discovers the door to heaven, “opens / just from your side.” In other poems, he occupies the odd space between memory, history, and imagination in poems about an astronaut stuck circling the earth, Matthew Brady, and Charles Darwin, lost and sick from a hangover.

Not one poem seems amateurish, cliché, or bungled by pretention or earnestness, which troubles me—because I still think I must be wrong, because I half-hoped to feel naïve and discover this ex of mine wouldn’t stand up to time.

I half-wish you could dispel my fondness, but I can’t retype all the poems, so here’s one of the shorter ones, “Aubade”:

A big nun is sitting on an azimuth.

Behind her back, the dark opens like hands

released from prayer

Snakes and rodents crawl out

in every direction.

The eyes of the nun are wet with love.

Between her legs the sun is rising.

An aubade is a morning love song, usually about two lovers parting after an illicit tryst—I’ve written one—but knowing the definition doesn’t help here because, well, this is a nun and no mate appears other than possibly the departing snakes and rodents or God. “Azimuth,” I looked it up, is an angular measurement in a spherical coordinate system where the vector from an observer, the “origin,” to a point of interest is projected perpendicularly onto a reference plane; The azimuth is the angle between that projected vector and a reference vector on the reference plane.

If that helps, you’re too smart for me.

Nonetheless, I love this poem. Everything is strange—the nun, her scientific location, the unclasped hands that open darkness, the critters moved as by the divine, the wet eyes of unnamed love, the sun rising in the nun’s sex. Its oddity is more than atmospheric and more than gimmicky aftermath. It evokes sexual love and religious love without conventional causes and mixes miracle and mystery in a curiously funny, nearly southern gothic, way.

Many of the poems are just as evocative and strange. Another poem, “On the Future of Bridges,” communicates the beautiful elusiveness I love in this book:

Bridges will strangle air until

It confesses something terrible

Something no one wants to know.

Then bridges will let go.

Epigrammatic certainty says everything and nothing and, perhaps I’m over-reading—oh, I must be—but LeFevre’s poems feel like those bridges. They “strangle air,” extracting from nothing something haunting, something ominous.

But I can’t shake the feeling I’m wrong. And why do I hope to discover my former affection was faulty, and why do I discount everything I liked once as something I thought I knew? Why can’t my original pleasure live into the present instead of fading like deuterium, its potency ticking until silence?

Was I always wrong, am I wrong now, will I be wrong later?

Too many questions, I know, but lately I find myself staring at my former self wondering who’s right.


Filed under Adam LeFevre, Aesthetics, Aging, Art, Doubt, Essays, Fame, Identity, Memory, Nostalgia, Poetry, Reading, Thoughts, Tributes, Writing

Coming Back to Me, Part I

I used to carry notebooks full of jotted excerpts from books and cryptic love memos to the authors. These entries feel a little embarrassing now that I’m no longer fully in the throes of my crushes. But I still wonder at them.

Looking through a notebook recently I encountered three pages on Marc Chagall’s My Life and remembered the affection I felt when I read it. At the top of the first page I’d scrawled “Techniques Worth Emulating” and then created three subheadings—“Mixed Address,” “Non-narrative Plotting,” and “Unusual Figurative Language.” Each included breathless citation and breathless praise. “Mixed Address,” referred to the way Chagall suddenly shifts to address his reader, a general you, an absent someone, or some historical, third-person reality. Here’s an excerpt from that section discussing Chagall’s thoughts about missing his father’s funeral and his relationship with his brother David:

In the middle of a first person account, Chagall addresses David, recalling how he painted him with a mandolin. He openly criticizes himself, “It’s wicked that I wasn’t there. He would have been so pleased if I had appeared. But he will not come to life again. I shall see your grave later… I shall lie down full length on your grave. You will not come to life even then” (197). He’s not clear how or when he shifts between his brother and father and creates an odd expansive grief with no specific target. When he addresses his old girlfriends, he says, “No one speaks your names anymore. I shall walk past your streets and I shall transfer the bitterness of dreary meetings to my canvases. Let those mists of our days shine and flicker there. And the spectator will smile” (72). Of course we are the spectators, and, by mixing address so thoroughly and chaotically, he makes us feel pointed to even when he works in third person. That feeling of a continually shifting persona is chronic here. With such unpredictable address, all the participants, especially us, remain present. So, when he addresses his wife Bella and tells someone—her, us?—not to read on because, “I shall write a few words to myself alone,” he is really inviting us to continue. A few sentences later, he says, “My memory is on fire,”  (146) and the statement rings with greater intimacy because he’s told us he’s not talking to us.

Though quoting myself quoting Chagall seems silly and discussing this passage in third person more so, I miss my earlier self’s ambitions. He’s so earnest. He’s so naïve. I still sometimes want to steal the approaches of other writers and make them mine, but Chagall’s voice is his and—I’ve learned since—emulation is risky. My earlier version didn’t worry about risks. He had dreams, and, if his affection was puppy love, he was seeing so much for the first time. He found himself standing at doors having rung the bell despite himself and not really recalling what convinced him to stand there. His undisguised gushing is charming.

I wish I were courageous enough to do what Chagall does, to single out people in my life, to break the fourth wall and turn to them as you watch, but my discretion—well trained by performing my identity, by propriety and by my “voice”—fights me. My inner Prufrock tips his teacup to his lips and, hiding his mouth a moment, sighs. His eyes dip as the ladies talk. The desperation hasn’t waned, but optimism has.

Students often ask, “What’s your favorite book?” and I either avoid thinking about it by answering as I always do, or I avoid thinking about it by reading the title on the first book cover that surfaces in memory. The question is too hard, not because it’s too complicated to consider what constitutes “good,” not because there’s mystery in what makes a book fit our taste, not because just about every book contains something to admire, and not because, with so many types of books, it’s challenging to compare at all.

I do repeat those excuses all the time, and all are all legitimate complications, but actually it’s just impossible to explain how, sometimes, literature arrives in your life like a lover, setting every leaf and twig of you aquiver. Yet your love can’t last.

Even though you can’t remember it vividly, and the memory is sweet.


Filed under Aesthetics, Aging, Ambition, Art, Doubt, Essays, Hope, Identity, Laments, life, Marc Chagall, Memory, Nostalgia, Reading, Recollection, Thoughts, Voice, Writing

20 Thoughts on Metaphors

Metaphor:  two seemingly unlike things compared to one another. Unlike simile, you don’t use “like” or “as” in the comparison. Example: Life is a tale told by an idiot


I never liked the definition of metaphor describing it as “A comparison not using ‘like’ or ‘as.’”  It isn’t just that it’s insulting to metaphors and similes to define them using the other’s terms. It also misses a metaphor’s stature. The “like” or “as” that reveals the comparison also mediates between the thing and the thing it’s being compared to. Nothing intervenes in a metaphor just as nothing intervenes in a kiss.


Some definitions of metaphors describe them as “a comparison of unlike things.” I understand that if they are too alike you have no reason to compare them. They are one. But if they are unlike, where is the basis for comparison at all? A metaphor needs to be a new species of worm that wriggles from the soil where you stand.


What if parents recalled first metaphors as they recall first words?


In third grade, I started my report on zebras with the exact words of the World Book Encyclopedia. The World Book must have been clever, because Mrs. Stone read my opening to the rest of the class. It called them a flashy cousin to the horse. Mrs. Stone might have wanted to shame me for stealing, but I was happy about the theft. I had cousins. Zebras were my teenaged cousin Billy, who was much flashier than myself.


Metaphors, according to I. A. Richards, have tenors and vehicles. The tenor is the original. The vehicle is the likeness. In “life’s but a walking shadow,” “life” is the tenor. The “walking shadow” is the vehicle. In every metaphor, the vehicle is boss. Even when the vehicle is a shadow, it controls the pairing because the vehicle is new and interesting and subjugates the tenor to its terms. Sometimes the vehicle has no driver at all, as when you say you “grasp the concept” or “catch my drift.” You see only the invention.


I sometimes think I live in a metaphor, making every hard and harsh object I observe into one I can hold.


Wallace Stevens said, “Metaphor creates a new reality from which the original appears to be unreal.” I take this to mean metaphor replaces reality— the explanation overturns what it explains, the described becomes the description, the likeness is the subject. The act of rendering anything as anything else incinerates reality.


Metaphors don’t have to resort to language. In visual art, a thing can stand in for another thing. A tree can be hand-like, and a face can also be a landscape. Any thing looking like a thing looks metaphoric after a time… until the world becomes one knotted likeness and no one knows what fundamental and incomparable thing began it all. If it had a beginning.


The Epic of Gilgamesh describes sleep as mist, the first recorded use of metaphor. Gilgamesh is to withstand sleep seven days and six nights, but while Gilgamesh is resting on his haunches, sleep comes upon him… mist comes upon him. Sleep or dreaming is mist, and Gilgamesh can’t resist. The compulsion comes upon him, and mist, as natural and inseparable and unalterable as nature itself, comes upon him. He sleeps and dreams metaphor.


If dreams are metaphors, they’re metaphors you inhabit. If, in a dream, you move from room to room into strange chambers of buildings that look much larger from the outside and then find yourself going into even more impossibly situated rooms as small as the first claustrophobic box of a nautilus, that probably means something. The trouble is knowing what. Something is being compared, but is it the something compared to that room or is the room waiting for something to be compared to?


“No one, ever,” Gustav Flaubert said, “can give the exact measurements of his needs, nor of his conceptions, nor of his sufferings, and the human world is a cracked cauldron on which we beat out melodies for making bears dance when we are trying to move the stars to pity.”


Suppose you challenged each person in a class to devise an anti-metaphor, a comparison with no basis at all. Someone would surely justify each comparison. Someone would find it true.


Once I tried to write a story where everything was itself and something else. The idea never worked. Soon nothing was but what it was not and, soon after that, only abstraction survived. Events and characters sat outside the narrative, lost in thoughts as solid as stone.


Metaphors are synapses.


Synesthesia supposes senses have more dimensions than most of us can perceive. Coffee makes a sound, and the L passing overhead fills the air with color unknown before now. Are these moments the realization of alternatives or the discovery that this world, the one we think we know, is really only a representation?


It’s occurred to me that metaphor is not comparison at all. It’s understanding one thing as if it truly were another.


Wallace Stevens believed there was no such thing as a metaphor for a metaphor. “One does not progress through metaphors,” he said, “reality is the indispensible element of each metaphor.”


When the world slips, one image overlaps another. Superimposition gives one image another—the body, the blood, everything. Each is each or unto each until time ends, and, once we cross, nothing can uncross again. So we have pretense then. We believe likening and unlikening is in us.


I could not count the number of metaphors I’ve made. No one could. The best metaphors—whatever definition of “best” that implies—live long after. They are handles to move the world and windows cut into air.


To see one thing as another, to make them one thing—maybe metaphor is the visitation of an odd god, one who can speak no other way.


Filed under Aesthetics, Art, Dreaming, Essays, Experiments, life, Lyric Essays, Meditations, Metaphor, Poetry, Prose Poems, Thoughts, Wallace Stevens

Nothing So Familiar

Technique in art . . . has about the same value as technique in lovemaking. That is to say, heartfelt ineptitude has its appeal and so does heartless skill, but what you want is passionate virtuosity.    —John Barth

The first time I was in graduate school I dreaded one classmate’s “seminar day.” Though he interpreted literature sensitively, imaginatively, and profoundly, the way he talked followed the peculiar pattern of a mantra. When he spoke, um, he would pause, um, no matter what, um, to insert the um, in the right place… um. For me, those “ums” became tarred lines on an Ohio highway after driving all night. Five minutes and I veered onto the shoulder of a coma.

This anecdote doesn’t make me proud—my classmate had something to say, he spoke as he did, and I couldn’t hear past his ums. I’d be more tolerant now because I suspect students sometimes hear me the same way. We are together nearly every day, and they must recognize, consciously or subconsciously, my rhythms and verbal ticks. Some may have worked out imitations or discussed my mantras with classmates. A few, even in October, may already pine for liberation.

The human voice possesses music quite separate from content. Robert Frost talked about “The sound of sense,” the meaning audible through a door even when you have no true idea of the conversation inside. A fingerprint of diction and syntax betrays us, communicating, “This is how this brain assembles language. Here are the pieces it makes of thinking.”

Some scholars easily identify writers’ prose and can know Henry James or Charlotte Bronte at a thousand paces. I recognize Shakespeare, Hemingway, maybe Jane Austen, but the prose I know best is my own. What I hear is what I do, what I am. My phrasing follows patterns once hidden and now apparent. And I worry that, the more I refine my style, the more my prose reaches an impossible, inaudible pitch.

As I write I sometimes feel the way I do in class when I read poems aloud and try to take them on anew. I fight what they want of me but inevitably fall back into their meter and rhyme. My voice soon follows the tide of their parallelism, settles on end words and surfs whatever wants to rise and fall. Where lies escape?

In Henry V, a boy accompanies the morally questionable Pistol to the wars in France and wonders at Pistol’s gall, concluding, “I did never know so full a voice issue from so empty a heart: but the saying is true: ‘The empty vessel makes the greatest sound.’” I hope he’s joking because I hate to think my own voice is so empty, not the sum of character or experience but the practice of echoes,  words restrained within tight sentences. I don’t want to believe style is the only greatness.

Perhaps the heartfelt overflows the vessel of its expression, and all a person needs is sincerity and desire. Maybe I’d be happier with a barbaric yawp, an inarticulate cry in the wilderness. I might say more without practice or study or pattern. I should be an amnesiac.

If my mantric-um graduate school classmate is still speaking as he did, he may not have traveled far in teaching. His words quickly became just words, and no content seemed to make his voice compelling. That I’ve made it all this way might mean I’m easier to hear, but when I hear myself speak or write, his specter rears. Every time I open my mouth, I hope for something new, a sound that will take its own form and step like a foal onto fresh ground.


Filed under Ambition, Art, Doubt, Education, Essays, Identity, Laments, life, Shakespeare, Thoughts, Voice, Worry, Writing

My Brain’s War With Itself

By the end of the drawing class I take on Saturdays, my left and right brains have been wrestling for hours, and a mild headache has set in. Despite my cerebral irritation, however, I see more vividly. The world’s skeletal lines and angles cry for flattening into two dimensions. When I tell my hand it’s time to write, it insists on having its own way. These interludes aren’t enjoyable exactly, but I think they’re good for me. My right brain needs prodding to get some exercise. My left brain needs shutting up.

The bicameral theory of the brain has been around since the 1860s but began its popular life with Roger Sperry in late seventies. He published research revealing that, when he cut the corpus collosum between the two halves of epileptics’ brains, he reduced seizures and also created changes in patients’ processing. Sperry could isolate functions centered in one half and the other. Soon everyone found answers in this revelation. Left-handed people were more creative because they were “right-brained.” Some people even speculated that early humans with much more bicameral brains couldn’t access the right brain effectively and that “Sing Heavenly Muse” was Homer’s left brain calling on his right.

Science discredits much of this theory now. People solve math problems best when they use both halves, and the left brain can be quite creative when it comes to certain tasks.

Nonetheless, taking this art class makes a believer of me. I’m clearly doing something new when I try to draw accurately, and it feels like spending time with my brain’s shadier half. My art teacher tricks my left brain into disengaging its judgment and good sense. We do contour drawings without looking at the page or recopy a line drawing upside down to make it harder to adjust a shape to make it resemble a nose or a tie or a fan. “If you want the image to look ‘correct,’” he says, “your left brain is in the driver’s seat.” He endlessly reminds us, “Draw what you see,” as if we had no brains at all.

And sometimes it feels as though my right brain really is that atrophied. My right brain watches my left brain grading papers or answering e-mail. My left brain is bossy, likes to hear its own voice, and asserts its solutions everywhere. But my right brain doesn’t do much to stop it. It doesn’t seem to care and sits contently idle, daydreaming and eating whatever mental bon-bons drift its way. My right brain is a slacker, a man child. He hates regular hours and regulations.

My left brain doesn’t like giving up control and my right brain doesn’t like taking it, hence the headache.

Oddly, I don’t get headaches when I doodle or do abstract work. In that context, there’s no question my left brain is useless. These lines and shapes and colors are silly, not worth my left brain’s attention, and, so, when I go to a meeting I often doodle to keep my right brain busy while I concentrate on listening.

That’s how I explain my doodles anyway. The truth is, occasionally my left brain abandons the thread of talk—it’s all so familiar after all—and lurks at my right brain’s shoulder watching the work. It’s a huge relief when that happens. Then I wish I could give my left brain more regular rest because, though it doesn’t seem to want it, it so deserves it.

And that’s what I want. I want my right brain to say, confidently, “I got this.” That’s the main reason for taking this drawing class—trying to boost my right brain’s confidence in every area of art, to convince it (and that meddling left brain) that each half has a responsibility to take control every once in a while.

Who knows if it will work. Even as I write this, I hear my right brain grouse. The heightened awareness of the world is nice and all, but what about those headaches? Neither side seems to enjoy them much, and they don’t like fighting. More than that, they sense their uneasy peace shifting. All negotiations are new again. My left brain says everything is fine as it is. My right brain says my effort to reeducate it is much too sensible to be true.

Sometimes, neither side seems to listen at all.


Filed under Ambition, Art, Doubt, Education, Essays, Hope, Identity, Laments, life, Play, Thoughts, Visual Art, Work

Life in the Information Age

Newspapers taught us that something changes everyday. Radio taught us things change during the day. TV taught us things are always changing. And the internet teaches me I’m the only one who doesn’t know what’s going on right now.

I’ve developed a habit of checking my email and other online accounts hundreds of times an hour. Five minutes seems eternity because, who knows, maybe someone has answered my urgent inquiry about reimbursal for a taxi ride two weeks ago or located my lost pen cap. Perhaps another person in a group of people has viewed my profile on LinkedIn or written something witty about my distressed status on Facebook. Those cat pictures are really funny.

Someone may have answered my comment on that blog or have visited me here and liked what I wrote.

If people don’t like me, I start to feel lost, and, when my accounts remain empty or inactive, I begin to worry—what if everyone is away reading news of a cataclysmic event… or a campaign gaffe… or some celebrity misstep? Think of everything I’m missing writing this post right now and what you’re missing by reading it. I hope you have another window open and the sound unmuted.

I read recently somewhere that finding notifications online stimulates the brain just as game stimulated early human brains. I don’t remember where I encountered that piece of information—because so very much has happened since then—but it makes sense. I look for flags and numbers in precisely the same way I’d look for rabbits were I preternaturally hungry. Shifting my gaze from warren to warren, my heart palpitates in hope of catching one pair of eyes or ears, one subtle shift in the beige-brown background signaling something there to consume.

We’re all looking, and if no game appears, we have each others’ reports of game. You can rest assured someone has seen something somewhere and will let you know. Many of the reports I receive in email tell me about information elsewhere. I click on them, and they whisk me to new vistas. Click there, and I’m transported again. It’s doubly satisfying when something changes and your email changes to alert you to that change. You can open layers of layers of curtains before you spy the stage. And, even if what you encounter is a spot-lit bean on a broken stool, at least getting there was dramatic.

Please pardon my scattered thoughts. My attention span is shot. I can’t tell distraction from devotion and vital from new. Every task deserves interruption—if you even call them interruptions. Really they are messages from another source, one of the many sources we are so very lucky to access every second of every day in this modern technological marvel of a world. We can learn anything, we can know everything (or access anything known), and, if someone will only send me a text or tweet or email me where to look, I can get on that right away.

But, actually, maybe not now. An icon is leaping like a terrier at the edge of my sight. Some program needs updating, and if I don’t do it immediately, I may lose you forever.


Filed under Anxiety, Essays, Facebook, Laments, life, Modern Life, Satire, Thoreau, Thoughts, Worry