Monthly Archives: January 2013

Eleven Fragments With No Home


An old running journal contains some code for torture:

1m warm, 6 x 400 @ 75 w\ 200 jog rest, 800 jog rest, 6 x 400 @ 75 w\ 200 jog rest, 1m cool

I’m too old to imagine my body at five-minute mile pace—even for one lap of the track, much less twelve separate times—and can’t believe in the metronomic mind that held itself to this rhythm of exertion and release. Another soul surged to the line, accelerated until the turns felt slippery, pushed to just the right possibility, and cupped breath like fire in its hands. Another soul relished this graduated exhaustion, the regular slip of power that, like looped rope dropping down a tall tree, sought ground again, wanted to look up and see descent plain.

Hardest to accept is how I loved it. When I wrote that code, I wouldn’t think of shirking. If I didn’t make it true, I wouldn’t be myself.

But, if he’s real, where has he gone?


Fundamentally, creation is making something where nothing was before, so I don’t much like the term “creative non-fiction,” which is wrong on two counts—if it’s truly non-fiction, it existed before being written down, and if it’d never been written down, just doing so makes it “creative.”

Plus, it’s a fiction-writer’s condescension… as if you really have to work very hard to make nonfiction creative.


Devon couldn’t catch me. Only seven, he leapt a moment too late, and, if I gave him my shoulder and took it away, he lunged helplessly off-balance. I darted in another direction, and his arms embraced air. He pursued me too but, as I was older, I could easily outrun him or turn abruptly until he charged past and I ran in the opposite direction.

At first, he laughed. The futility surprised and delighted him, but, as he grew tired and our effort slackened, he made only fitful attempts, relying on surprise instead of persistence. His face flushed with exertion and grew grimly annoyed with it all. When I offered truce, he grunted assent. He wouldn’t play chase with me again and made me sorry I’d missed the chance to let him catch me.


I fear becoming my mother in one respect—I don’t want to repeat stories as she does. I don’t want to wear out already threadbare anecdotes. It would be one thing if someone requested the account of my brother pulling one screw a day from my sister’s crib or the description of how my sisters fought in the closet to elude detection and punishment, but these stories resurface randomly like prairie dogs at the mouths of their holes, sniffing to see if the wind is right.


Recently I pulled a version of Huckleberry Finn from my shelf at school to retrieve some notes I remembered inside its cover. I stopped teaching that version long ago—never at my present school—and holding it felt strange. I’d forgotten the printing inside and, if I hadn’t recognized my handwriting, the words could have been someone else’s.

Turning to the title page, I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and, beneath that, in my own hand, similarly composed, And a Man With a Hacking Cough. In an almost cinematic flash, I remembered this addition, remembered writing it in a moment of boredom during a faculty meeting, remembered who was speaking, remembered the subject under consideration, remembered smirking, remembered how pleased I was with amusing myself, remembered remembering the next time I opened a new book.

I pulled more texts from my shelf, Catcher in the Rye and a Man With a Hacking Cough, The Curious Incident of a Dog in the Night-Time and a Man With a Hacking Cough, and my favorite, The Sun Also Rises on a Man With a Hacking Cough.

The margin of the last one hundred and fifty pages of Lord Jim and A Man With a Hacking Cough featured a flip book cartoon of the man at work, hacking.


I’m told smell is the most evocative sense. A whiff of chamomile returns you to your brother’s med school apartment awaiting his return from class. Wintergreen places you in the starting blocks, the oppressive heat shimmering off the track’s turn ahead. Some indescribable scent you call macaroni promises snow soon… because it did once.

You might be lost, and the smell finds you, shifting you into forgotten space.


The car eased to a stop, and, though I’d been driving for a while, I sat with the engine off. I wasn’t ready to go inside. My son was sleeping in his car seat. My wife was in Dallas, doing work. My parents expected me, and I’d spent the previous night at my sister’s house half way. She’d have called my mother to estimate when I’d arrive. My mom might have been standing at the window when I pulled into the driveway or heard the car dying beneath my parents’ bedroom window.

But I wasn’t ready. I could wake my son—he’d sleep better later if he woke. Yet, as the car’s air heated to match the temperature of late afternoon, I felt paralyzed. My father was also inside, his voice stilled by throat cancer surgery, and I couldn’t face the silence between grandfather and grandson, the perverse repetition of silences between my father and me, his son, most of my life. The odor of used diapers would soon fill the car, but still I sat there anticipating the moment I’d feel compelled to move.

I must have gone in eventually, but I only remember waiting.


“Forget injuries,” Confucius said, “but never forget kindness.”

Kindnesses are hard to forget, but, forgetting injuries depends on how injurious they were.

Some events I forget to remember, and they disappear even when I shut my eyes tight and say, “Remember.” Later they may wander back as I’m looking elsewhere. Or I’ll find them, lost just where I left them.

I build every barrier I can against black events I ought not re-examine. I always remember to forget them, but they return as well, seeping from corners and seams that can’t be properly caulked. They drip dark water like ink.


The wing hung loosely from the bird’s shoulder, and it couldn’t pull the wing entirely in. She wanted me to pick it up, but every time I came near, the bird hopped under the patio furniture near the door and then further inside again. If I moved more earnestly to grab the bird, it tried to fly, which turned it toward its injured side until it beat against the floor and slid. Every attempt only reminded it of its loss. After four or five near captures, I heard her crying behind me, the wringing, nervous cry of someone desperate for relief.

I stopped using my hands and relied on my feet instead, kicking it when it lifted an inch above the floor. She opened the screen door, and I kicked it out. It stood just where it landed, one wing down as if caught mid-curtsy, on a steppingstone just outside the porch lights’ illumination.

The other couple arrived soon after she’d composed herself. All evening she turned away from conversation to glance toward the steppingstone. When she laughed at something someone said or did, she finished by turning that direction, her smile dying as her head twisted back to look at me.


I had a Jew’s harp once. I’m not sure how I came by it, but, for years, it sat in the top center drawer of a dresser I still own.

If you’ve never seen one, it’s a loop of metal shaped like a light bulb’s profile, and a tine descends from the top of its loop to the narrowed end. The tine turns up at 90 degrees—you will have to think in three dimensions now—in what’s called its trigger.

This possession came up in class somehow and a student persuaded me to bring it to school the next day. I’d said I could play it, but I never really had, and I meant to give it a try before class but was too busy. So I presented the Jew’s harp and, after speaking expertly about how to use it, could produce no sound.

“Maybe if you held it in your teeth,” Terry Bach said. I did, and its spring reverberated in my skull, the audio to one morning’s humiliation, the sound I’ve associated with humiliation since.


Writing so much leaves me few memories left  to mine. Major events have been partitioned and presented apart and whole, and I’ve polished minor illustrations and examples to the glossiest sheen. The remaining episodes seem broken, potshards too muddy, scattered, and puzzling to assemble. Or they seem olifacts, whiffs of scent so fleeting you couldn’t say where they came from or where the wind would carry them next.

Maybe that’s why other writers prefer fiction—it allows assembly, making art from all the parts lying about awaiting harvest. Nuance doesn’t need particular truth, and, if the real meaning of the moment rests in its effect, who cares what detail creates it?

I don’t know why I don’t go along, why I’d rather be an archeologist than a shaman, a librarian instead of a bard.


Filed under Aesthetics, Aging, Art, Essays, Experiments, Fiction writing, Identity, Laments, life, Lyric Essays, Memory, Prose Poems, Recollection, Thoughts, Uncategorized, Voice, Writing

Teaching From the List

creative-writing-workshopIf you visit US airports, you’ve probably heard the announcement, “caution… the moving walkway is ending… caution… the moving walkway is ending.” In a figurative sense, even though I’ve taught over 30 years, this announcement doesn’t apply to me—my walkway will be moving for some years more—but I sometimes hear the voice from here.

Teaching can be as repetitious as that message. These days, I’m sure of my finitude, of the closed set of skills I have to teach. I sometimes console myself by saying my approximately 43 hard-won writing lessons are better than none, and teaching them well will be a great gift to my students. Yet, as every writing teacher knows, some advice will never be understood, some will be forgotten, some will need to be repeated nine more times, some will be resisted, and some will be understood as a teacher’s fetish, edicts to honor for one or two semesters. That’s not even considering the lessons that may be dubious to begin with. I worry. Adding my misfires up, less than one handful may remain.

But the best thing that can be said of any teacher is that he or she is earnest, and I’m certainly that. I tell myself that, if students accept even a little of my experience, if they absorb, adapt, and assimilate even a little of my wisdom, I can justify a lifetime devoted to teaching.

In other words, I’m fooling myself. Teaching writing isn’t about advice at all.

This semester, I’m covering a creative writing class while a colleague is away on sabbatical. As a successful short story writer and novelist, he is more expert than I am. His work has received deservedly glowing reviews and prestigious awards. He’s charming and confident, self-effacing but sure in his assessment of writing. He has a sharp eye and infallible judgment. I wouldn’t blame my students for wishing he were their teacher, and, in the terms I’ve described, he has 86 writing lessons to my 43, lessons coming with authority I envy. I wish I had more to offer.

But my creative writing students are wonderful, mostly seniors beginning to relax into the end of high school, ready to examine why they’re in school and what they might like to learn. They compete with classmates but also want to fashion effective and beautiful poems, stories, and essays like the literature they’ve studied these last four years. They choose to take this class. They’re ambitious, sometimes foolhardy, and compose assuming each project matters. They want to do their best.

And, because I’m the second string and doubt my qualifications to grade their work, I assign their marks according to their effort—the more assignments they do, the higher they will score—and I avoid ever having to say “This poem/story/essay wasn’t very good.” Instead, I can say, “You might try this or that in revision but you demonstrated a sincere effort to make the most of what you’ve created, full points.”

I like that stance better. Escaping grades changes their perspective and mine. I’m no longer their boss. Yesterday, during our first workshop, I commented on the first few lines of a writer’s poem. It wouldn’t be fair to quote my student’s work, but the gist of my criticism was that those lines were throat-clearing. The real poem, in my opinion, started in the third stanza. Before class, I’d written some “universal” lessons up on the board and meant to use this student’s work to prove that “It pays to know where your poem starts.”

The trouble was, almost no one agreed with me about the opening, and everyone wanted to say why. While some students acknowledged my point of view, many disputed my observations, suggesting all the ways those lines were essential to the poem that followed. I confess I was uncomfortable, unconvinced by their arguments and momentarily flummoxed by that odd chagrin teachers experience when someone asks for answers you’re unsure of or when someone questions your mastery. Blushing resentment rose like the sun popping out at the horizon.

Overcompensating for feelings of inadequacy, I’d tried to be an authority, and they weren’t having it. Fortunately, the moment passed as it should, replaced by a welcome reminder.

What I think I know about writing isn’t so important. I may be correct or incorrect, but listening to students express their discoveries is more powerful than offering my own. I ought to be helping them derive writing rules. I shouldn’t be listing advice on the board. As a writer, you transcend the novice stage—when the issues in your work are invisible—by questioning what you’ve done and recognizing that, whatever you do, it must be deliberate, on purpose. You need a reason even if that reason only appears in retrospect. Justifications for my students’ choices might come from me, but my job is really to foster their self-awareness, to help them trip into their own lessons, to teach them ways to assess their effectiveness and develop their own authority. Lessons—anyone’s lessons—matter little in comparison to students’ owning learning and finding out for themselves.

Somewhere in my subconscious, I know that. I have to put my own authority aside—even someone like me, a grizzled veteran of classrooms, has something to learn. I should be glad to discover I’m not as wise as I think. It’s liberating to elude the repetition of tired advice. To keep the walkway moving, you have to shut out any voice saying you’re finished.


Filed under Aging, Ambition, Anxiety, Art, Doubt, Ego, Essays, High School Teaching, Identity, Laments, Resolutions, Teaching, Thoughts, Worry, Writing

And I Am An Addict

thewestwing.banner.gettyDamn you, Netflix.

Recently Netflix posted 156 episodes of The West Wing, seven seasons, and I’m whistling the theme song, dreaming of C. J., and worrying about political disputes now 14 years old… and fictional.

I was once so proud of missing the first incarnation. From 1999-2006, when people talked about The West Wing, I shrugged and blithely said, “Never seen it.” When others writhed in disbelief, I smirked. When they insisted I could catch up and that catching up would be worth it, I resisted their evil temptations. I would hold out.

Then Netflix brought it back. Like my mother, hurt that I turned down last night’s boiled cabbage, Netflix brought me a steaming bowlful for breakfast. Only, in this analogy The West Wing isn’t boiled cabbage, it’s green eggs and ham—delicious and served in such perfect portions I always have room for one… more… episode.

Now I’m sleepy and cranky and interested in little else.

A colleague at work told me about someone on Twitter who shares my dilemma. Like me, he’s watching the series for the first time and tweeting witty exaltation about “developments” in the last episode he watched… as if it aired last night, as if anyone in this day and age knew what the hell he was talking about or could share his enthusiasm. But I do understand. I know. I too feel the urge to yell “Let Bartlet be Bartlet!” from the rooftops.

I know, I know, that means nothing to you. That’s the trouble with television series on the computer, they are my ugly secret, drinking I do alone in the dim house. My wife discovers me in the middle of the night, bleary-eyed and babbling about getting one more fix. So many ugly confessions to make—Friday Night Lights, Life, Eureka, Dollhouse, Arrested Development, Battlestar Galactica, Jericho, Downton Abbey, Mad Men, Better Off Ted, Pushing Daisies, Sports Night, Slings and Arrows, The Tudors, A Gifted Man.

I’m hopeless and will need at least 20 steps to get better. Yet who can understand? Who will be my sponsor? I’m caught in a time warp—sort of like Life on Mars, which shouldn’t have been cancelled. I carry my furtive addiction like a looped spoon and a length of surgical tubing, afraid to admit my sickness and afraid to find company, afraid to quit and afraid to seek help.

Last night I finished the end of West Wing’s first season, and I thought I could cut myself off there, go cold turkey, but, after a Town Hall in which—between the President’s brilliant answers during Q and A—Toby learned his brother on the broken space shuttle landed safely, some West Virginian white supremacist Nazi took a shot at Charlie because he’s dating Zooey! I could hardly be expected to wait… how did people manage it when summer months passed between one season and the next? I had to see what happened and what happened had two parts.

122 episodes to go. Help me.


Filed under Doubt, Essays, Home Life, Identity, Laments, life, Modern Life, Television, The West Wing, Thoughts, Worry

Doodle Lessons


Figure 1

In the Venn diagram that is my life, doodling occupies a circle labeled “Not Work” devoted to the set of activities that don’t sustain life. “Work” is activity with a return (like eating and seeking shelter from weather or any employment intended to defray their expense) essential to continued existence and involving a perceived cost in effort.

The short version: I don’t have to doodle.

Doodling is also play. I’ll spare you the definition of play—I’m not sure I’m up to the effort right now—but “Play” is not purely “Not Work,” because it usually has an end in mind, just as watching television—or any purely passive activity—isn’t work, and it isn’t play because it has no real end in mind. I’ll explain, but, to me, the sets of “Work,” “Not Work,” and “Play,” fit in the cloverleaf configuration of a classic three-set Venn diagram (figure 1). In that diagram, doodling is in the sliver of an intersection between “Not Work” and “Play,” a fun activity that isn’t necessary to survival.

hover.croptTypically, I doodle as colleagues speak in faculty meetings or when I’m listening to a radio program or half-watching television. Every doodle exercises pattern and variation. I decide to make a certain kind of line then might put the same shape at one end of each and then outline the lines and the shapes then develop the spaces defined by what I’ve done before. I do something for a while and then do something else. Describing it so simply demonstrates how mechanical it can be, especially when I use familiar lines, shapes, and forms. Someone watching might think my mind concentrates on the page, but I attend better—at least in an auditory sense—when the distractible part of me busies itself with lines and shapes and dividing space into zones. I don’t think about doodles much. They are not work.

I could easily teach you to doodle as I do. The only true creativity in the process resides in decisions along the way: where to go next, what might balance what’s gone before, or noting what’s missing. Some people say artists have distinctive marks, and their personality emerges in the weight of the pen or brush and the characteristic way it clings to curves and carves a page. I suppose that’s so, but everyone has marks and there’s no effort in making them as you do.

leaves.croptRecently, I’ve been doodling a lot. We are having a faculty-student-staff exhibit at school honoring the planet, and I created a book of doodles inspired by shapes in nature. All the doodles in this post come from that book, titled “After Earth.” What made these doodles “Play,” was their variation, an effort to make each one unique and not just mindless revisitations. To someone else, they might look the same—one mind made them, after all—but, for me their attempt at novelty is their play. I wanted to challenge myself, to put myself in a place where I’d have to be resourceful or fail, and I hoped for surprise because surprising yourself is the greatest pleasure of play. Discovery may be central to play’s definition.

If I could sell my doodles, maybe I’d move into that elusive curved triangle at the center of the cloverleaf—the place where you are supporting survival with seemingly no effort and having fun. But I’m not sure… because even doodling might become work if more were at stake, if my family relied on my doodling desirably.

strawnwater.cropt2I’m tempted to take a hard right here and assert, “Life is like that.” We search for that space where we’re unconscious of effort, enjoying ourselves, yet aiding our livelihood. Getting there can be a dream come true or a nightmare that transforms pleasure into drudgery.

Not being a pro doodler, I meander. Pure play has an end in mind—a win, a performance, a product. Doodling passes time, the way some living does, without anxiety. It explores without destination.

People ask me when I know I’m finished with a doodle, and I never answer well. Sometimes I’m too anxious and don’t even really seriously start, sometimes another task takes my attention away before the end, and sometimes I don’t know at all and keep going until I realize I’ve gone too far. The only true way is seeing the doodle finished.

There the art is—unexpected, unnecessary, and effortless—sort of the way I wish all efforts in life were.


Filed under Aesthetics, Allegory, Ambition, Anxiety, Art, Doubt, Essays, Identity, life, Meditations, Metaphor, Modern Life, Play, Thoughts, Visual Art, Work, Writing

With or Without Us

tumblr_lrpd8sGBYy1qll8yzo1_500Nature is trying very hard to make us succeed, but nature does not depend on us. We are not the only experiment. –Buckminster Fuller

Living in Chicago, I see few creatures other than humans. Plenty of dogs walk their masters, and lurking window cats probably spy me leaving my building. I see a few rats and countless pigeons surviving on Chicagoans’ waste. Near the L down the street, a solitary bunny hops about, but none of them count as wildlife. In a city you begin to believe only humans matter. Little here isn’t from us, about us, and beneath us. We might as well occupy the planet alone.

We don’t, of course. If you watched Life After People on the History Channel or read The World Without Us, you know unpainted bridges rust, roads will grow grass, and tendrils pull even glass buildings down. Nature can reabsorb us, and, occasionally, I derive consolation from knowing human works aren’t permanent. Our effects have limits, so we needn’t take ourselves so seriously. We can’t destroy nature, only our ability to survive in it.

George Carlin used to laugh at overestimating our importance so stupidly. “When the planet is finished with us,” he sneered, “it will shake us off like so many fleas.” We may face the same options confronting every animal soiling its own nest—adapt or die.

Yet seeing human civilization in proper proportion doesn’t spare me worry. Like any organism, I’m hard-wired to desire survival, and, while I wish I could be as blissfully ignorant as some pundits, I know 2012 was the hottest year ever recorded in the US by far, that parts of the country are in the midst of year-long droughts, and that Chicago is on its 330-somethingth day without more than an inch of snow. Meanwhile, the other side of the globe freezes and freak storms rip spaces between. Account for climate figures as natural variations if you like, but, to do so successfully, you have to be the worst sort of groundhog, assuring your safety by never looking outside.

I worry that, despite knowing the causes for global climate change, we have no brakes powerful enough to stop them. What we call progress is mostly consumption, comfort, and carelessness. We express smiling optimism we will get ourselves together when we need to. We place faith in science. It will save us from our errors, we say, just wait and see.

Sometimes science seems to create new dilemmas as fast as new solutions, however. And, though we like to see our age as more enlightened because it’s no longer beholden to blind religiosity or foolish superstition, we’ve also lost much of our belief in anything bigger than ourselves. We’ve never been more self-absorbed. When did self-interest become the best standard for our choices? Is humanity—by nature—capable of sacrifice? Can we give up our own ease to ease a stranger? Do strangers, not being us, truly matter?

My culminating lecture when I studied non-fiction in MFA school was called “Going to Hell in a Hefty,” and it concerned jeremiads, specifically the perverse appeal of writing that embraces readers’ worst cynicism, doubt, and pessimism. Looking back, however, I never truly took jeremiads seriously and instead regarded them as an anthropologist might a fascinating culture on the frayed edge of civilization. I liked to think myself unflinching. I could hear the worst news without a hint of alarm, could greet a herald of a coming apocalypse with a hardy, “How interesting!”

I’m trying to take the same perspective now. In idle moments I think about the city greening and the prairie touching the lake. I picture how lovely the world may be again, without us. But, the truth is, I’m failing. I have children, and so an unaccountable ire rises—how, after all our glories, all the art and heroism and discovery and beauty, can such ignorance damn us?

Maybe nature never intended to make us supreme at all.


Filed under Aging, America, Anxiety, Doubt, Essays, Jeremiads, Laments, life, Modern Life, Sturm und Drang, Survival, Thoughts, Urban Life, Worry

Rebuilding the House

SweptCircle.croptWorkers have been renovating a house across the alley from my classroom, and students sometimes stand at the window and lament the slow progress of the project. They say reconstruction has been going on for years, forever almost. If so, forever isn’t long, since the workers started six months ago, at the end of the last school year.

I’m not so good at placing events in time myself, but I jotted a haiku in my moleskin, dated 6/4/12:

workers like ants

study brick as if no one

had let them in

Haiku make odd labels for time, recording more about the sensations of particular days than events. As above, you can reconstitute the occurrences, but you return to what you made of them, not what they were. And big things—births and deaths and special days—appear as through a keyhole, the rest imagined from finite observations and feelings.

Yet haiku don’t seem false to me but somehow essential, closer to exact moments than anything I write. In a college philosophy text, I read Immanuel Kant led a severely constrained life. He didn’t travel except to take daily walks neighbors set their clocks to. Most of the time, he watched the world from a single window and must have mused over scenes branded onto his cortex. I picture him pausing pen in hand, thoughts adhering to a bird passing or a gust tugging the last leaf from a tree. I picture him forging universal sense from just that.

Haiku are made. Constructed from words, they aren’t the scenes they describe and aren’t the impulse behind their creation. At the same time, they carry odd truth, if only in how they’re made and how their making reflects the maker. Kant said, “The hand is the window to the mind,” suggesting our reconstruction of the world communicates our peculiar perspective and vision. There must be habits, patterns, and models behind our inventions. That we can’t see them clearly ourselves means they may be more true than anything we say about ourselves.

One of my colleagues looked at one of my doodles after a faculty meeting and said, “It’s like seeing your brain turned inside out.” Nothing on the page represented anything visible in the room, but she was right, everything I felt appeared in the organization of its marks. Haiku sometimes seem like that, less about a dance than about movement itself.

Three weeks ago, when I returned to Haiku Streak, a daily haiku blog I’d abandoned in January 2011, I felt as though I were walking into a house of still air. Everything collected was familiar. Some bore tags attaching them to specific days and realizations, but mostly they spoke of a collector who would gather these word objects. I decided to begin building haiku again and now I’m back at it, looking for keyholes, cutting the world into rectangles of single windows.

Across the alley, workers continue hammering wooden frames and draping them in insulating film. The bricks will come soon and the project will be finished. But it won’t really be finished, it will smolder in what they’ve built, their minds made visible.

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Filed under Aesthetics, Aging, Art, Essays, Haiku, Identity, life, Meditations, Memory, Metaphor, Poetry, Recollection, Thoughts, Visual Art, Voice, Work, Writing

My Problem

man-reading-with-magnifying-glass-new-york-1959Most of the reading I do online is extractive—I’m looking for something on Wikipedia or dropping through layers of Google links to assess my best chance for success. When I reach a hopeful destination, I scan. I dart around paragraphs alighting on key terms and use the “find” function when simple searching doesn’t work. Then I move on, grazing impatiently on acres of electronic text like a horse fly in an inconceivably expansive and ripe landfill.

Reading for pleasure is different—immersive rather than extractive—and, when I can slow down enough to do it, no compulsion rushes me. My eyes sweep left and right in steady rhythm, happy when words disappear and imagination falls into another world. Oddly, the satisfaction of immersive reading assures more detail sticks. Desire is a better taskmaster than desperation, and an engaged mind beats a restive one.

You can read books extractively and electronic texts immersively—the problem isn’t the technology but the user—yet every technology carries its secret ideology, its assumptions about what’s valuable and important, what’s advantageous and essential. The ideology of electronic media is speed. It promises facility, accessibility, and infinite resources. And its assurance of a ready pay-off requires a different sort of persistence unlike the stick-to-it-iveness of standard reading. If at first a user doesn’t find what he or she wishes electronically, the best solution is to abandon ship and search for another ship and another and another, etc because, in the cyberworld, any pause elicits instant irritation. Electronic media has changed my reading habits, and often I find myself slipping over surfaces I once penetrated. My mind grows impatient. I watch words cross the page and curse the uneven surfaces of challenging prose rather than trying to fit my own mind to it. A dark voice cries, “Where’s the answer here and how far to the end… or another alternative?”

I have nothing against Kindles, iPad, Nooks, or any other electronic reader, laptop, or desktop computer. When I remind myself, “This is a book too. You don’t need to be in a hurry,” I encounter them just the way I do paper books, looking to step into the reading rather than ski on it. I’m lucky, though. I know the old ways. I learned to read from paper, and its low-tech format trained me in plodding attention. No built-in distractions lurked in the document itself. I’m more than capable of distracting myself, so I wonder how I might have turned out if glowing words dotted the page and alternative routes popped-up on every edge. I’m not a fast reader but a thorough one—I learned to get as much as I could from the one page given me. I had to be patient. Picking up and leaving wasn’t much of an option.

Students who have read more electronic than physical text feel quite impatient. They arrive irked by the 20 pages I’ve assigned. “What were we supposed to get out of that chapter?” they ask, or they say, “I didn’t follow that at all. What was he going on and on about?” Their chief concern is a quiz asking about minor details they worry they missed. For some, it seems all the details are minor… or major. When your purpose is extraction, every text is a pile, and cohesive elements that ought to hold the pile together or make sense of it—like narrative, argument, development, or progression—are irrelevant and/or annoying. Students who are bold enough to admit they hate reading tell me it’s too slow. Not enough happens fast enough, and much of what they encounter has no obvious (enough) point.

I understand. I feel their frustration. The first moments of reading, before I flip the switch from extractive to immersive, feel like gripping an electronic fence. I wonder if I can hold on. The secret is to quiet the impatience of a mind now hopelessly addicted to diversion, nomadism, and faith in greener grass. If I can commit my mind to following sentences and paragraphs before me, I find immersive pleasure again, but it’s hard and, in the technological context to which I’ve become accustomed, it seems alien.

Technophiles at school suggest this distrust of electronic reading may be my problem. Being trained in an outmoded technology, they say, I’d rather cling to what I know. I’m too timid to give up my precious paper, they imply, even though anyone can see technology promises greater ease, variety, innovation, and novelty. Maybe they are right, but, nonetheless, I can’t help being grateful for my past, happy I have an extractive to immersive switch to flip. That switch doesn’t work as well in some of my students. Technology doesn’t exclude or eliminate immersive reading and can never do so—I know that—but with each improvement I’m finding depth harder to find.


Filed under Aesthetics, Doubt, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Identity, Jeremiads, Laments, Modern Life, Neil Postman, Reading, Sturm und Drang, Teaching, Thoreau, Thoughts, Work, Worry

The State (and History) of My Blogs

roofs_of_prizziWordPress says 2012 was my biggest year as a blogger. Though statistics are crass and don’t say much in the end, being “Freshly Pressed” in August helped nearly double my visitors this year. And I have many more followers, for which—I can’t say often enough, Dear Reader—I’m grateful.

But 2012 wasn’t really my best year as a blogger. In 2008, my totals were twice this year’s.

Signals to Attend, derelict satellite, and Haiku Streak (the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria of my blogs) are my fourth incarnation as a blogger. I can’t remember the name of my first blog on Earthlink, but I wrote a haiku a day and an essay a month, book reviews every once in a while, and, if I couldn’t think of anything else, I pasted in poems I’d written long before. I posted so infrequently only an audience who liked watching flowers turn to the sun would enjoy following my work.

I resolved to start over and do better, but my still-born second blog was so flawed in conception and design that it lasted only long enough to gasp its last breath. I think my first post might have been about how I couldn’t possibly hope to go on.

Then I started an anonymous blog, Joe Felso, on WordPress, and, for reasons I never really understood, it grew and grew. Maybe because I posted every day for months, people visited and continued to visit even when I slowed to four posts a week. No one would mistake me for a self-promotion machine, but, as Joe Felso, I courted readers and became part of a circle of popular blogs. Though I wasn’t posting to Joe Felso at all after 2009, that blog remained my most popular until, finally, this blog surpassed it in 2012.

When I gave Joe Felso up after three years, it was at its peak popularity. Exhausted and blocked, I couldn’t think of anything new to say, and the anonymous mask chafed. I’d had enough, I thought, and decided blogging was more burden than blessing. I didn’t need it.

Only a few months later, in January of 2009, I started here, using my real name, posting once a week and then, later, twice a week on this blog and derelict satellite… four posts a week, just like before. All I’d really given up was my audience. I intended to shut Joe Felso down but left it open as a sort of museum and stole from it once a week, revising or rewriting posts I’d made before. That well has since dried up. Everything you find here, and on derelict satellite, is newly minted twice a week. Only today, I finally made Joe Felso invisible.

All told—on and off—I’ve been blogging ten years, a long time in blogging terms. I’m approaching my 300th post on Signals to Attend and am well over 1000 posts, counting my various lives as a blogger. The quantity of my readership hasn’t grown though the quality has.

And every time I approach a milestone—like 300—I think of stopping.

The internet continually reminds me how little it needs my additions. My crowd of words gathers on the edge of an abyss, waiting for each new post to push more words over. My numbers are nice—better than some, I suppose—and still I wonder what I have to say that I haven’t said before and how much pleasure I can expect from expressing myself again. I have only my voice after all and no real, dramatic destination or goal.

I might be asking for affirmation, but I’m not being glib. Crises of faith that hit others once a lifetime seem to befall me four times a week. Perhaps it’s our accelerated world. It could be the stakes I seem to face every moment. Maybe doubt— through all my blogs, the only sustained reason I’ve ever found to write—fuels me.

The new year dawns. I’ll continue, and, begging your patience again, I will tell whatever truth I understand. When I pass 300, I will try not to look back. Something must compel me, who knows what, and I can’t shut up.


Filed under Aesthetics, Ambition, Anxiety, Blogging, Doubt, Essays, Fame, Identity, Laments, life, Numbers, Thoughts, Writing

On Making Phrases

6a00d8341c58f853ef015431f1d498970c-550wiSometime during the chaotic night of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Martha shouts at her husband George, “Phrasemaker!” Like many moments in the play, it’s tense and comic, another hinge in their inscrutably serpentine relationship. Martha aims the word like an insult, but she and George laugh.

The irony is that George, Martha, their author Edward Albee, and his readers are necessarily “phrasemakers.” They can be nothing else. What other means do humans have to communicate, to pass what they know, feel, and understand onto and into one another? Though they make phrases in different languages and can’t rely on being understood even in a shared language, the impulse to codify and describe and classify and… phrase defines humanity. Other animals may speak too, but homo sapiens are the ultimate phrasemakers, driven by belief in the unsaid, in believing something will always remain unsaid.

Sometimes words translate thoughts poorly—the deeper feeling never truly surfaces, or it finds misleading expression when words themselves take command and, despite willful resistance against neatness, arrive at sense without fidelity or sincerity. Some phrases are more orderly and understandable than the emotions and thoughts behind them.

Flannery O’Connor once told an interviewer, “I don’t know so well what I think until I see what I say,” and many writers describe the same state. An idea has its own will, characters recoil at instruction, and words align themselves on tracks seemingly laid outside the writer’s mind. Finishing a poem, essay, or story can feel like discovering the object already fabricated, a thing waiting to be realized all along. Writing can be channeling, and sometimes a writer starts composing without direction or purpose at all, simply hoping a filament will catch, throwing words into voids expecting responses to come soon.

And thus they speak to speak. In conversation, this faith seems more pronounced. People meet and begin talking and continue until time says to part or someone says something suggesting an end. Students fill classrooms with answers sculpted from air, and their teachers try to grasp ideas without handles, often without true intent. The teachers add utterances themselves, not only to complete the time but also to fulfill the convention of being there together. They must accomplish learning, and learning, the theory goes, begins in expression, caging elusive reality in words.

What if all phrasemaking is fiction? Albee may think so. Martha and George create as much as they describe. So much of their lives didn’t exist until they said so, and what those lives really are won’t sift out of what they call their lives. If there is a “really” at all, Albee suggests, it could just as easily be formed by what they name each other, how they pigeonhole past events, why they say they can or can’t persist.

Humanity’s pride in language isn’t that different from the rest of human beings’ relentless making. Their creations produce harm as well as help… and harm disguised as help and vice versa. Fitful, sputtering words may arise from a similar impulse not to live in the world, to separate from it and shelter themselves from the unpredictable and uncontrollable weather everything else must face. They create objects to top nature, and—as Albee hinted—make bombs and monsters when boredom strikes.

These aren’t new ideas, and others phrase them better. Humanity’s greatest hubris could be thinking it knows, a faith stemming, inescapably, from labels pasted on everything, labels that hide as well as describe. Of course, it’s impossible to think of homo sapiens any other way, but if language disconnects from reality and leaves it altogether, perhaps it has another power too, to consider every alternative, actual or imagined.

What if humans never spoke or, barring that, what if they truly understood language as a bane and a blessing, a boon and a curse?


Filed under Allegory, Ambition, Arguments, Criticism, Doubt, Essays, Fiction, Gemeinschaft, Gesellschaft, Identity, Meditations, Modern Life, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Voice, Words, Writing