Monthly Archives: December 2012

The Other Spider

spicafAnother parable…

Most spiders build well or beautifully. A special few do both, their art being function and their function being art. Dewy mornings display their webs’ perfect parallels and perfect circularities, and, though their work couldn’t be more visible, they catch wary prey looking too close. Drawn like moths to light, their victims barely struggle in the sticky strings of arrest. Acquiescence overcomes will. Even things that once flew know they’re had, and the web maker feels no impatience to meet and complete its kill. You’d call that sort of restraint self-control, but it isn’t control exactly when command requires little effort. Such a spider issues such a web, and waits. It seems made for that life.

There’s another spider, though, whose webs are neither expert nor special. Its abdomen is stuck open and launches filament after filament in a tangled, impatient mass. Its eight perpetually scrambling legs carry it from place to place, away from its leavings and toward any empty cranny, dragging its ductile chains. Design may govern even things so small, but this spider knows little government other than compulsion, moving because it must, because it cannot not. You’d recognize its webs—after so much practice how could they be anything but consistent?—but, unless you mistake uniformity for artistry—you’d find little to admire, especially when comparison is so easy and ready.

This spider feeds on the accident-prone, insects wandering from common paths and into shadowy niches. Bad fortune carries the spider’s food to the wrong places, and the spider, ever grateful for the least attention, wraps victims almost before they know they’ve been duped. The spider knows its clientele and strings the landscape with traps. It can’t do otherwise because no advantage lies in one well-made thing when making rather than capture dictates life. It wants to eat, that’s all. It needs to express sticky strands, so a diet of gnats is as good as a grasshopper.

The work of peers passes as the spider moves to undiscovered places. You’ll see no grumbling in its steps. There isn’t time but there also isn’t envy. Part of knowing place is knowing context. The spider sees its ways relative to others, and their judgment is his own. Sometimes, passing under the great arc of a masterpiece, the spider dips its head and recommits to the path before it, but whether that’s bowing to emulation or oblivion is unclear. Neither shows in its next effort in any case.

An ending to its restlessness might be welcome. Were its supply of web to cease, the spider could be content to play caretaker, to wander among its many webs watching to see if anything unsuspecting remains to be caught. Eventually the spider would see all the strands break and maybe then it would feel loss as its life dwindled, but perhaps not.

What future awaits has little place in the spider’s attention. It looks for new space. It means to work.

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A Christmas Message

Burning Christmas candlesI’ve been thinking recently about necessities fulfilled without human notice—the season change, the hibernation of plants, the sleepy obedience of animals, the shifts in daylight and night and all the planet’s other restless but essential motions. Other animals do what nature requires much more than we do. We set ourselves apart and operate as if noticing were a burden.

Truthfully, we follow necessity too. The tides of sleeping and waking pull us daily. We sense the shifts of clouds overhead as they extinguish the gentle warmth sun lends a cold day. We smell cooking when the wind wheels to a new direction, and some deep hunger stirs, bigger than the promise of food. We hear a bird cry in the cold and can’t help feeling how out of place its solitary song appears, how strange we feel in empathy.

But maybe I’m speaking for myself. A few weeks ago, some beloved readers commented on the despair they hear in me, the “vague loneliness” of “some melancholia or something heavy-pressing on the soul.” I try to laugh too (in my muted, sardonic way), but I suppose they’re right. It’s in the cadence of my posts, in my quiet enthusiasms and fitful peevishness, in stoic descriptions of shadow and weak sun. I guess this time of year stretches me out, attenuates pleasures I know I ought to appreciate more.

Which makes it important to compose what I hoped to today—a Christmas message. You see, I am appreciative. My faith in humanity wavers, days seldom deliver the joy I hope, and the frictions of existence chafe me endlessly. Still, I care about you. It will sound silly—corny even—to say so, but I never greet another person without real warmth. Though I can’t always show it, meeting another mind is such consolation and relief to me. When someone is open to talk, I’m equally open, and I love to hear a student’s latest lament about an unfair question or quiz, a cabby’s story of his biggest fare, a colleague’s memory of a disappointing fourth birthday, or a stranger’s gratitude when I give him the dollar he asks. And, though I sometimes have to withdraw from the world to meet it again, I don’t really like being alone, either in my thoughts or in my affections.

I’m especially appreciative of family—extended and nuclear—that accepts me as I am and doesn’t ask me to pretend to more. They forgive me when I need it and prod me when I need it and reassure me when I need it and offer me solace when I need it. They keep me, in the absolute sense of that word—to hold, protect, preserve, and cherish. And I try to keep them as well… partly by keeping Christmas.

Christmas doesn’t mean anything to some people and everything to others, but it’s just a day. The frontier of dawn races around the planet as it always does. People wake to jobs and responsibilities, to troubles, to tiny disasters and private triumphs and loss and love. The dishes shuffle. Mouths and minds fill with words and empty again. Eyes drift over the familiar and unfamiliar, storing it all.

But, even if you regard Christmas as the sorriest excuse for materialism and an emblem of Christian myopia, indulge me at least this Christmas message. I meet you today with peace and love. I’m grateful for you. And I mean to appreciate the world more.

Merry Christmas.

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Writing in Smoke

1643fig1Forgive my discontent—I’ve been grading for seven days straight and am fighting an overwhelming sense of irrelevancy that started with one simple event.

You see, the word “want” has a double meaning. As a verb it’s “to desire.” As a noun—particularly in nineteenth century texts—it means “a lack.” So, when Emerson says, “The reliance on property… is the want of self-reliance,” it’s clear he intends to communicate property reduces our self-reliance. He goes on to explain that we depend upon the things we have instead of upon ourselves. Having property, we need not rely on our own skills, talents, and acumen.

You see the problem of mistaking one meaning of “want” for the other. If you think “want” is a way to say “desire” (the noun), you might think Emerson favored property, that the desire for property is a desire for self-reliance.

I offered just this explanation to a class, and they nodded with understanding. They heard me. Their comprehension of the paragraph broadened, and a student explained how it made sense, how this notion fit with all of Emerson’s ideas. A few wrote it down, but a very few. After all, they understood, and the moment would be memorable.

Later I gave the class, in advance, passages that might appear on a quiz. One of those was the passage above. On the quiz I asked, “What does ‘want of self-reliance’ mean?”

Over three-quarters answered “a desire for self-reliance.”

It’s likely my state of mind assigns too much meaning to their error, and it’s an ugly thing to shame students. And I’m ashamed I’m doing it. I like these students, a lot. Yet, no frustration is greater than feeling inaudible. Between papers I’ve formed cynical theories for why they would miss this question. I have 15:

1. Anything significant appears in multiple formats, different media, and in duplicated settings, and I only explained the confusion between “want” and “desire” a couple of times.

2. Why write anything down you think you’ll remember? Why remember anything you can find elsewhere? Is memory of obscure information even important?

3. These days, everything is redundant, or—if it isn’t—anything that isn’t redundant isn’t important.

4. As consumers we choose products we want and need. We know what’s important.

5. Data that takes more than three seconds to load requires patience, and I take so much longer.

6. The more we seek and praise ease and efficiency in learning, the harder real learning seems.

7. Pleasing—even when it’s insincere—is the way to go. Easier to appear than to be.

8. Text and uninterrupted voice are linear, and words travel like boxcars on rails you can’t get off. I love to ride the rails but my tastes are peculiar.

9. Electronic media is bifurcation, every track splitting into two new lines every moment.

10. Until Emerson includes sound, images, movement, and links, his work will seem to come from another dimension where sound, images, movement, or links don’t exist.

11. If you can’t guess what’s inside frogs, you have to dissect one. Explaining Emerson is dissecting a frog. The frog rarely survives.

12. Cursors slide and I want students to bear down. Their pens and pencils barely graze paper and a trillion miles of curlicues knot with themselves. It’s all one Jackson Pollock, lovely but inscrutable.

13. Information passes, a parade barely visible beyond the screens interposing between us and the world.

14. The spotlight I stand in isn’t any more hot or cool than any other illuminated space vying for attention.

15. You don’t have to understand Emerson or like him to fulfill his warning that property–electronic property–might own us.

None of these explanations help at all. I’m not a crowing Jeremiah. Quite the contrary, in my imagination I hear colleagues accuse me of ossification, of denial, of being a Luddite, of not adapting to the material I’m given, of not being resourceful or inventive enough, of teaching material inappropriate to the grade level, of having a bad attitude, of teaching outdated, outmoded, and irrelevant texts, of taking tacks no longer viable, of removing myself from the world instead of immersing myself in it, of not following where the puck is going, of mistaking different for worse, of not being student-centered, of undervaluing new ways of learning, of focusing too narrowly on deficits instead of assets, of falling hopelessly behind.

Over the last week or so I’ve examined and accepted all these personal faults. I feel them… and acutely too. I know how strident I sound, and I’m sorry for it. But I can’t help myself. I also fear the future. As a teacher, it’s my job to pass on skills I’ve learned to value as part of my own self-reliance.

Or do I have that wrong too?

I guess I’m ready for a break.

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Speaking Impersonally (And For Myself)

Critical Writing Skills-resized-600A small figurative fire broke out in an English department meeting this fall when we discussed critical essays. The dispute started with whether students should be allowed to use first person in their essays and spread to bigger questions like “How equipped are high school writers to compose critical essays?” and “Can vital writing skills be taught exclusively through personal writing?” Our questions follow in the wake of recent debates about proper methods to teach writing.

My colleagues were civil, articulate, and persuasive. Just as you’d expect among people trained to have minutely defined and immovably correct points of view, everyone had something important to say.

I left confused. My students’ personal writing (where, gasp, I allow them to say “I”) almost always possesses a spirit and vitality missing in their critical work, and when students’ personal writing is flawed, they seem more willing to correct it. At the same time, I do wonder if personal writing tests them as much as deconstructing and explaining literature. Writing about a subject outside yourself generally requires a higher order of thinking, and speaking as “a reader” instead of as yourself necessitates anchoring thoughts in discerning and resourceful detail and explaining your perceptions and conclusions precisely.

English teachers can write in a spirited way about something abstract and impersonal. They see all writing as personal expression, even if it’s not overtly so, and may obsess over Twain’s attention to clothing in Huck Finn or exhaust themselves refuting another scholar’s view of punctuation in Mrs. Dalloway. They are, in other words, freaks.

Literature fascinates a few of my students in the same way, and their work is inspiring. However most students aren’t future English teachers, and I could starve on the meager diet of inspiration provided by the desultory literary analysis I encounter. It may be thorough and strenuous, but it’s also dutiful and dull, seeking nothing much more than completion and the true path to “what the teacher wants” and a good grade.

Maybe the biggest question is, “How do you get students to regard critical essays as personal essays, as opportunities to reveal distinctive outlooks and a vibrant voice?”

Occasionally, I discover the personal in students’ critical work even when they can’t. Once I begin to recognize them as thinkers and learn their idiosyncratic habits of attention, I can understand one student forms uneasy bonds with protagonists and monitors his sympathy and antipathy with each act. I can work with that. Another notices the minor bric a brac of stories, the odd objects every story pulls into its vortex. I can work with that. Another student projects her current obsession onto the latest text and sees that obsession as the explanation for everything. I can work with that. I can work with any modicum of curiosity and fail only when I find none. Even the most perfunctory work can grant a glimmer of personality if I have the willpower to look and can invest in asking, “Why would this writer care about this subject?”

In graduate school (the first time) I wrote two master theses, one for each semester. The first was on Tennyson’s In Memoriam and the second on “Andrea del Sarto” by Robert Browning. I cared about In Memoriam because it described an emotional conflict I understood well, struggling over our (Tennyson’s and my) incapacity to convince ourselves of anything and our equally potent optimism the next effort might just accomplish the feat.

I cared about Andrea del Sarto because I am Andrea del Sarto. The poem describes a renaissance painter with sterling technique, capable of photo-realism long before anyone—not even da Vinci—thought of it. Del Sarto’s trouble, ironically, was spirit. For all his expertise, he never found as much life in his subjects as Michelangelo or Raphael or da Vinci did. Other artists’ imperfection bespoke a human embracing a human subject. In contrast, del Sarto sees his world as a still-life, a collection of things. Even people are things. Though his wife’s voice never enters the poem, del Sarto makes her dissatisfaction plain. He will never be revered as other artists are. Their commissions and prices will always dwarf his because they sense something real he cannot.

In the absence of heart, skill is cold and sterile. Being able to form a fine sentence—even a fine, interesting sentence—is nothing to forming one that’s true, that moves the receiver instead of asserts or proclaims its veracity. A writer who collects well-crafted sentences will be admired. A writer who stirs a reader will be loved. Praise for a perfect, fastidious product is nice, but Andrea del Sarto and I would gladly trade it for some sloppy sympathy.

And I may seem well off the subject here, but I’m not. The dispute over personal and critical writing is really a battle of expertise and sincerity. It would be wonderful to have both—to read only essays perfectly constructed to communicate enthusiastic adoration of literature, but, if I had to choose between perfect construction and personal truth, I’d rather be Michelangelo. If I have to pick skillful execution or sincere emotion, I prefer emotion.

Colleagues who answer the opposite way deserve and earn my respect. I’ll continue trying to instruct students to express their true selves in the indirection of third-person analysis. But my mind sees a clear distinction between saying something well and expressing my thoughts and, especially, feelings. Even if I seldom accomplish that task to my satisfaction, I want my students to try, and, to do so, maybe they need to speak afresh, as themselves, about something they’re sure matters.

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When Winter Arrives

chicago+at+dawnTwice a week, I find myself here at my laptop considering what else I might possibly have to say. It isn’t work exactly—so far, the crop yields—but it’s daunting. Often I wonder if I’m using my thoughts properly, whether they have a purpose other than expression.

As I write, it’s dark. The streetlamps preside over a still and empty block and, though I’m safely inside, it looks cold out. The branches shed leaves weeks ago and, where their reach crosses patches of sky, they are frozen in place, no wind to stir them. They aren’t waving but standing. The sun won’t be up for another hour, but a hard blue is already dawning, and it will be a beautiful day, the uncomplicated sort, without rain or any of snow’s ambiguous varieties.

In second grade my class spent what I remember as weeks studying maple syrup production. For a boy in coastal Texas, the subject felt curious—trees bleeding their sap, the children gathering buckets, the boiling and steaming vats, the sleds and snow, the faded illustrations of harvest celebrations with people so swaddled in coats, hats, and scarfs they were only blobs of ink. I knew no other liquid crops, nothing so hidden in reserve, nothing so latent.

Late December begins Chicagoans’ withdrawal. Thus far uncharacteristically mild temperatures mean people wander as they usually do—and they have shopping to do. But wind will inevitably deliver weather to discourage going out. I’m ahead of the fronts by sitting and staring out the window. Whatever the weather is today, I’m not ready for it. I’ll have another cup of coffee and put aside my real work for a while longer.

My own sap barely flows this time of year. A maple tree must want to keep its life—why would it sacrifice its essence?—and I need reserves to sustain myself in this sometimes terrible world. The news brings fresh calamities, the worst parts of humanity amplified, and it makes me think maybe a miserly soul is the only sure protection. Confucius said that, even in safety, a prudent person doesn’t forget potential dangers or forget that ruin awaits everyone. “When all is orderly,” he says, “he does not forget that disorder may come,” and a sensible person is thus sustained.

But I don’t want his solution—it hardly seems possible to hibernate and at the same time guard a sense of imminent danger and readiness. Something in me needs to be safely home, to quiet my anxieties and obsessions. Here I am telling you so, but I worry I’ll run out of words if I don’t keep some thoughts to myself, if I don’t keep to myself sometimes.

The L never stops rumbling down the block when I write. I just stop noticing, and now I notice cars cross the intersection. Early light draws defined shadows. The streetlamps will blink out soon. People and dogs have begun walking by again. I will have to stop typing and rejoin a life where others want words from me, but my seasons of rest seem too brief. This time of year I think I could be content sitting with silence as company, that I might never speak again if I can’t find peace now.

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Comin’: The Calvinist Strains of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town”

200px-MerryOldSantaI have an odd holiday tradition of writing a parody of a critical essay about a Christmas carol each December. Maybe it’s revenge for the five-paragraph literary essays I read all year, maybe it’s a perverse desire to fight back against a song I’ve heard 238, 243 times. Whatever it is, here it is:

Though giddy carolers yearly celebrate the jolly figure Michel Fousault once called, “that nitrous oxide huffing gelatinous mass,” some say Santa took a decidedly Puritan turn in 1934 when Eddie Cantor first sang “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” on radio. Children who never expected the avuncular cookie-cruncher to make good on his punitive threats suddenly faced a leaner, meaner John Brown-style Santa, a Santa as intimate with the fragility of salvation as Jonathan Edwards, a fiery judge, a vigilant killjoy, an Old Testament avenger. Modern listeners may accept this horrifying tale of predestination and the inevitable naughtiness of humanity as just so much accompaniment for egg nog chugging contests, but Christmas carol scholars know—Santa Claus is coming to town, and he’s bringing a bag full of damnation.

The first three words of the song set the tone—“You better not”—and so begins its long series of not-so-veiled threats. Among the forbidden actions are “crying” and “pouting,” but what this Santa really decries is any complaint. Fate is inexorable, and the song prepares children for disappointment when, fallen human nature assured by their postlapsarian existence, they fall into La Brea Tar Pit of iniquity. There is simply no point in “crying” and “pouting” for both will do no good, and, noted scholar Karl Sharfenberger’s nude dancing rendition of the tune aside, no one dares tempt a Santa whose exhaustive “List” pens the elect and the condemned in permanent ink. Famous philatelist Dennis Tooletone may believe that “Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice” implies ongoing assessment, free will, and the opportunity to elude sin, but he hasn’t done his Puritan homework and still lives with his sister in Queens. During The Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards also touted the beneficence of a God that held human souls by a spider’s web over the eternal flames of hell. That was “gonna” too, the implication that at some point or another “finding out” meant discovering which souls plunged and which kept barbequing. In 1958, during a polka contest at the annual conference of the Modern Caroling Association, Fousault uttered what are perhaps his most famous words on the song. Between panting and just before his coronary, Fousault said, “Ack, I see him comin’, I see him comin’.” Everyone there heard Fousault’s final apostrophes loud and clear. The Santa comin’ for Fousault knew who had been “bad or good” and didn’t need a lousy list. The list, like Edward’s spider web, is just for show.

Perhaps the most troubling element of this troubling paean to humanity’s fate is Santa’s vigilance. The song reports that “He sees you when you’re sleeping / He knows when you’re awake.” Santa watches even when it appears he does not need to. The kids are asleep for God’s sake! But Santa’s business is the unconscious inclinations of sinners, reading their dreams the way Coach Van Haverbeek read your thoughts during those Boys’ Health films. That Santa “knows when you’re awake,” suggests that any attempt at fakery—anyone who’s been to Camp Karankawa knows shut eyes don’t mean sleep—will be futile. Santa will know, and your effort to save yourself from dreaming of that cute girl three cabins down toward the lake will surely fail. “You better watch out!” the singer screams, but a listener is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. Santa has him in a triple-bind. A person cannot watch himself while he is sleeping or while he has his eyes closed pretending to snooze or when he’s subject to the capricious visit of his all-too-vivid imagination during roll call. And, if the listeners hoped to escape Santa’s prying eyes while the fat man directs his attention elsewhere, forget it. The great eye of Sauron in the J. R. R. Tolkein classic Lord of the Rings has nothing on Santa. As the song crows, Santa checks his list twice. The list is unalterable and set since the time elves, dwarves, hobbits, and orcs roamed the earth, and still he checks his list twice. Jonathan Edwards at least promised God’s mercy though God had no reason to spare anyone. The Santa who comes to town is not so kind.

And hope has no place in the song. The lyrics state “You’d better be good for goodness sake,” and scholars like Bertram Chert demanded listeners regard those words colloquially, like “For goodness sake, this bathing cap is tight!” Chert’s sanity was already compromised at that point, of course, but he also was flat wrong. Suppose someone isn’t one of the elect destined to receive Santa’s beneficence, suppose someone had some minor slip up like cursing under his breath or working for a few months after college slaughtering lab animals, his only choice—having been marked by Santa’s anagramatical twin, Satan—is to be good for its own sake, because what other reason might you have for being good when a listener knows, deep down and in his very bones, that being good will really do no good at all. Drunk carolers have long noted that Santa is curiously absent from “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.” He is the unmoved mover of Christmas fates slouching toward Bethlehem to be born like the beast of W. B. Yeats’ apocalyptic poem, “Second Coming,” and his actual whereabouts are as mysterious as his feelings about a listener’s miserable soul. Santa will not speak for himself and lets some unnamed herald deliver his fire and brimstone for him. A mortal cannot know Santa’s mind. Don’t even try.

Eddie Cantor reportedly cried as soon as he sang the last note of this keening wail of a famously misunderstood Christmas tune, or so someone’s cousin said. That’s probably false, but, in case it is not, an attentive listener might regard Santa’s coming to town as a vow akin to the Lord’s promise to burn the sinful denizens of Sodom and Gomorrah. A town is no place for virtue. Look back or don’t look back. It will not matter. Santa has decided, and, chances are, nearly everyone is on the wrong list.

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Waking in Sleep

Zhzi5Sometimes—when I’m really tired—falling asleep reading or watching a movie doesn’t stop the story. My dreaming brain carries the plot forward and Macbeth meets a cousin who takes him to a loud but terribly run-down amusement park or Sully of Monsters Inc. repairs to a laboratory to work out the exact laughter-to-energy ratio to assure the imminent Holiday promotion will still make money. Any story can become Groundhog Day, as the last page or minute of consciousness walks into walls, backs up, and walks into them again.

Recently, reading a science fiction novel before bed, I dreamt its main character escaped his troubles by taking a rocket to the international space station and staying there, circling and circling in floating bliss. He wasn’t alone. A cranky Russian occasionally appeared with hectoring messages, but my new astronaut generally resisted any demand on his time or attention. He might have stayed there until morning, but he was due to check into a swanky hotel in an unspecified location. And then I was standing in its lobby, awed by the lush purples, blues, and reds of it complicated carpet, the golden glow of its fin de siècle fixtures. After the bright sterile white and brushed steel of the space station, all the colors and candlelit patches seemed wet. Somewhere in there—I couldn’t say when—the character became me.

Dreams are more transparent to others than they are to you, which is why telling them presents dangers. English teachers especially excel at picking out prominent symbols and translating them. When one student says to another, “You were in my dream last night!” I want to stop them there. That key he tried to get into a lock isn’t a key, and that lock gives me good reason to start class right then. And you don’t have to be an English teacher to read dreams.

Other people must comprehend my dreams as readily. But don’t bother. I think I understand. In fact, I’d love to reverse the process and speak in dream, to transform the vocabulary of daily life into a-logical analogues. Maybe that’s what fiction is, dreams cleaned up enough to fit in this world.

I fell asleep last night during Moonlight Kingdom and found myself in a world where everything lurked. Every person watched, and every statement paused on the brink of revelation. No one said exactly what he or she meant, but their expressions said they meant something. And it all seemed so yellow, as if dawn had never quite dawned and, like some Swedish summer, might never reach dark. I felt unfulfilled because I didn’t have glasses and everyone else did. Though I could see fine, I searched relentlessly as others talked about mysterious departures coming up soon. I was going to miss something. Yet, looking for my glasses, my vision became too foggy to pick them out of the crowded surfaces I scanned. I was in a Wes Anderson I Spy book and wanted out… or in… I’m not sure which.

My wife tapped my shoulder to say I should go to bed, and I did. But, just as consciousness infects dreams, the reverse occurs as well. In those groggy moments, life and fiction commingle and it all seems invented instead of perceived. I wonder what might happen if I dropped off during Awakenings, the Robin Williams film about the doctor who revives patients who have lived in stupors for years. Would I dream I was fully aware at last, face to face with pure reality?

Probably not. Chuang Tzu says Chang Chou dreamt he was a butterfly and flew around in utter joy from blossom to blossom not knowing he was Chuang Chou. And then he woke up. He knew he was Chuang Chou then, but he didn’t know if the butterfly dreamt Chuang Chou or the other way around. Clearly, some distinction separated the two states, but he couldn’t say which was true.

Where am I translating and where am I reading reality’s hard surfaces? It might be better not to think about it. Perhaps our dreams aren’t telling us something. Perhaps they are something. Perhaps our interpretations are the dreams.

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