Monthly Archives: February 2013


broken+mirror+chaos+deities+deathHe cleaned the mirror, removed the gray, but he knew it’d do no good. His reflection disappeared. He looked down at his hands and arms, torso and legs, and saw he was there. Yet no eyes stared back, no clothes, no shape where his body should be.

It was embarrassing, inconvenient. He didn’t want to visit public restrooms when others might be there, and he rose earlier to wash before his wife. He made excuses to avoid the gym. Confirmation would be devastating.

He tried to state his problem, in oblique ways. “Can you see yourself clearly?” he asked, “Do you think you can know yourself?” Yet—try as he might—he crept no closer to confessing. Bigger than the challenge of shaving a missing face was what his absent reflection meant. Alone, he put his face close to the mirror, pressed his forehead to its cool glass, and saw the room behind him. He waited for someone else to see he was gone.

And every day he wished he might glance at some surface without forethought and discover he stood there. He examined photographs and lingered on his face beaming from group and action shots. He’d never wasted a moment revisiting the past, but now he wanted reassurance. He thought of sketching what he remembered of his face on a mirror, hoping the artificial image might lure the real thing back.

But he felt fine—whatever psychological loss he’d experienced wasn’t physical—and, if his attempts at magic failed, a solution would be that much further away. “No person really knows what he of she looks like” he told himself, “No one sees himself as others do.” He tried to believe he understood more because he understood that. Perhaps he was blessed.

Then, one day, waiting in line in the lobby of a hotel, his wife pointed to a reflective brass plate a few yards away. “Your shirt’s buttoned wrong,” and, looking down, he discovered she was right.  His mind spun, the vague nausea of his initial discovery returning. None of the perceived world was suspect to anyone else. Only his place—and really only his knowing his place—was missing.

“Thank you,” he said, but he didn’t mean it. Like a dead patch on his retina, black borders spread like an irresistible stain.


Filed under Allegory, Blogging, Doubt, Dreaming, Essays, Identity, Metaphor, Parables, Prose Poems, Thoughts, Voice, Worry

20 Confessions of a Parablist (11-20)

buddha-faceHere is the second half of a lyric essay about parables. If you want to begin at the start, read the February 20th post first, then this one. Or not. Maybe you can say whether the order is right.


A man came to Buddha with a problem that the Buddha admitted he couldn’t solve, so—thinking it was just that problem—the man presented another problem. The Buddha replied, “I can’t help with that one either,” but, being convinced by all he heard of the Buddha’s enlightenment, he presented another problem and another and another.

When the Buddha solved nothing, the man asked, “How can you help me if you can’t solve any of my problems?”

The Buddha replied, “Problems plague every life. If you have 83 problems, one will disappear and another will replace it. I can’t help you with that.”

Exasperated, the man asked, “Why do people call you enlightened then?”

He replied, “I can help you with the 84th problem.”

“What’s that?” the man asked.

“That you want to escape your 83 problems.”


Parables sometimes swing on a single hinge. Accept one transposition, they snap shut. Sometimes they’re perverse, promising more than they deliver, a trap that may have sprung… or only crept until it closed.


Every day, a pedestrian left his empty coffee cup on the ledge of bricks in front of a shop window. Before the worker who opened the shop entered for his shift, he retrieved the cup and threw it away. But one day, annoyed at having to clean up a stranger’s mess, he came early and lay in wait, sitting on a stool at the counter watching to see who left it. On that day, no cup appeared. So he tried again, and again no cup appeared. Whenever he arrived early, no cup appeared. Then he hid with the lights off, hoping he might lull the pedestrian into leaving the cup, but that didn’t work either.

It wasn’t long before he began to wonder what had happened to the pedestrian. The string of early mornings exhausted the worker, but he still arrived early and began standing outside before the shop opened, eying pedestrians carrying cups and studying them to determine if this or that person was the pedestrian he sought.

Some weeks later, he decided to give up—but not without regret. He’d failed in his mission after all, and the mystery remained unsolved in a most unsatisfactory way. Though he stayed in bed longer the next morning and tried to enjoy the extra time, he dozed restlessly and arrived at work crankier and later than he meant to.

As he approached work, his eyes focused on shop windows facing the sidewalk. That time of year they reflected the sun, offering a perfect face of golden light. Looking ahead, however, he noticed—the pattern was complete everywhere but where he worked. An empty coffee cup sat on the ledge of bricks in front of the window. He collected it before unlocking the door and stepping inside.


I’m often unsure where I’m going and hope the next step lands on solid ground. I do look ahead, not exactly at inspiration but desiring signs I’m on a real path. Any certainty is satisfactory. You wish for company. You desire ends.


Once I said I’d substitute for a colleague, and he wanted me to teach Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony.” I pretended to know the story well but hadn’t read it in years. Reviewing the night before class left me baffled and scared.

If you don’t know the story, an “explorer” arrives on a fact-finding mission about an elaborate torture/execution machine that etches a prisoner’s sentence onto his skin and then allows the prisoner to die from the wound. The process takes a day, and, the sufferer experiences revelation in the final hours of pain. The story lovingly describes the device with a cold eye toward its victims. Meanwhile, the officer maintaining the device begs the explorer to argue on the machine’s behalf to the commandant. The explorer will make no such assurance, so the officer puts himself into the device with the sentence, “Be just.” However, the machine is in poor repair and stabs him to death without the attendant epiphany.

The tale is as strange as it sounds, and, though I like to think brilliant authors always know their way, it occurred to me that Kafka might mean nothing other than drawing and quartering readers with contradictory horrors or by disrupting certainties about the story’s implications.

Yet, the next day, the class went at it, cutting the story up as mercilessly as the machine itself. They considered multiple possibilities for every twist and followed alternatives like bloodhounds, sweeping left and right to determine the proper course. By the end of the period, a consensus arrived—don’t ask me to remember it, it wasn’t mine—and they left far happier than expected.

As I collected my things and departed for my next class, it occurred to me, “Maybe that’s what Kafka meant, that we can read and discuss something so appalling with barely a nod to what it really describes.”


After I irritated the theater chair in high school, he cast me as the narrator in a children’s production that used “Gulch” somewhere in its title. My job was to wear a white wig, a white uni-brow, and a white moppy moustache and lean against a split rail fence stage left or right. With my thumbs hooked in my belt loops or suspenders, I said things like, “Well, as you can imagin’, ole’ Scrappy didn’t appreciate bein’ treated so, and the next day, he arose with a purpose…”

Though the role couldn’t have been duller, it was large. I was onstage nearly constantly, mostly shadowed but waiting there to explain the self-evident. I hoped my participation might return me to the director’s good graces, but it didn’t.

Now I think about sabotage. What if I’d left the script and substituted my own explanations? “Ole’ Scrappy started collectin’ boxes that day and fillin’ each with some moment he’d lost,” I’d say, and “Inside each was a tear, for Ole’ Scrappy saw himself as a sort of snail leavin’ silver trails through the world…”

Would the narrative still assert itself or could I cut its roots and train it with wires like a bonsai, demanding it do my bidding until, wires removed, it was a stunted and twisted homunculus?


You might wonder how I know my stories are wrong, how I can say what an actual story is without being able to write one.

I have the editor’s curse, the capacity to see and understand what I can’t do. I’m good at discovering what authors accomplish surreptitiously and, if someone would ever hire me for the job, I might be good at helping authors make the most of accidents—making accidents appear designed. Intention is my specialty.

Not every coach does or did the sport. Some few know what’s right when they see it and what’s wrong when something is absent. Their love guides them.


I’m glad nothing prevents trying.


Every day, he wrote a bit more of his story. Though the main character evolved in subtle ways, he mostly stayed the same, and others, like his family and oldest friends, remained part of the plot line. Chapters covered separate locations and the different circles of people surrounding him as he changed jobs or situations. He looked for emerging themes and found them in obsessions and doubts he nudged toward resolution. Yet, most days, unmanageable twists and reversals undid any progress. The story featured so many obstacles, such slow accumulation of revelation. Few events equaled their promised significance.

When he sat down to work, he felt how often he’d lived that moment, wrestling just as much with what had passed—what he’d written and couldn’t change—as he did with anything he hoped to write. He wanted to finish before he was finished.


To be a parablist is to see stark terms. A world redefined by its essentials—accurate or not—is flattened and reduced, limited in scope and dimension. And, because in parables everything is itself and something else, the parallels ache, each line attracted to the other but bending no closer even as they stretch into infinity. No story becomes real.

There’s sense, and there’s order. There’s narrative and a perspective, one voice. The horizon moves as the parablist advances—just as it does for anyone. The parablist can’t encompass all he sees or has seen, though he has his version ready and hopes it serves.

Leave a comment

Filed under Aesthetics, Aging, Allegory, Ambition, Buddhism, Doubt, Essays, Experiments, Fiction, Fiction writing, High School Teaching, Identity, Kafka, Laments, Lyric Essays, Meditations, Metaphor, Parables, Prose Poems, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Voice, Writing

20 Confessions of a Parablist (1-10)

00007662I’ve written a very long lyric essay this week, so, rather than tax anyone’s attention, I’m posting it in two parts. It’s annoying that ultimately the second half will precede the first half because of standard blog layout, but maybe that doesn’t matter. Lyric essays are meant to be rearranged.


A recent dream cast me as a bad soldier. I accepted the minor tasks given me—moving ammo and gathering weapons in anticipation of attacks—because the other soldiers were right about how unsuited I was to warfare. And they didn’t resent me but slapped me on the back, treating me as a talisman of good fortune.

But I had a healthy bit of schlepping to do because we weren’t doing well and had to snake into new trenches nearly constantly as the enemy pressed us harder and harder. Finally the other army was less than one hundred meters in front of us, close enough to see their commander exhorting his troops to charge us. I could hear him. Normally no one would be audible from that distance, but, in a dream, you know what’s convenient to know, though you don’t always figure out how handy your knowledge is until later.

I picked up a rifle on the ground beside me and spied the commander through its scope. He turned to his men and raised his arm. The cross hairs danced over his rectangular back—I was nervous, maybe—and then, adjusting my sight slightly upward as I imagined I’d been taught, I squeezed the trigger. The gun made no loud noise. It clicked. But the commander fell, and, though I didn’t see it, I knew I shot him in the head. His men ran, so I also knew we’d won somehow.

This dream woke me up, anxious to account for its troubling story. I’ve fired a weapon maybe six times in my life and imagine myself the soldier who started the dream, the genial, incompetent roadie to true warriors. The outcome, I assumed, must mean something. Each of the dream’s particulars must mean something. Because it unrolled as if already written and because no digression or distraction pulled it from its path, the dream felt like a visitation, not psychological straightening up.

That’s my problem. I have to take aim and weave my way toward targets, intent on lessons even when I don’t know where the story is going.


I’ve been writing parables for some time now—maybe always—but I wouldn’t have named them that if someone else hadn’t used the term. Like most labels, the name is convenience. It establishes a category and pours cement. I thought I wrote stories and preferred to define them so—but they won’t or don’t stand up that way.

From what my labeler said, writing parables means telling with too much purpose. It’s hiding in the open and speaking in an earnestly cryptic but calculated way. It says you have something definite to communicate but leave clues to your meaning instead.


For the etymologists out there, “parable” comes from Middle English via Anglo-French—its first use was in the 14th century, but it has roots in the Late Latin parabola and the Greek parabolē meaning comparison, from paraballein to compare, from para- + ballein to throw.

If that means nothing, notice a parable parallels, making implicit comparisons between what’s described and hidden causes. This story, it says, isn’t really about a vineyard, the 84th problem, or a coffee cup, but about everything that travels with those stories, matching its every move like a shadow… even when the sun barely shines enough to produce one.


In the parable of the vineyard (Matthew 20:1–16), a landowner goes out at daybreak to hire workers. He promises a penny a day and gathers many laborers, yet later he wants more and goes out again at the third hour to hire workers at, he tells them, whatever rate is right. He does so again at the sixth and ninth hour. Then, an hour before the sun falls, he goes out and asks some idle laborers why they aren’t working. They tell him no one hired them, and he sends them into his vineyard with the same promise he offered others during the day.

Work ends. The landowner instructs his steward to pay everyone a penny, those who came in the third, sixth, ninth, and eleventh hour included. Naturally, the workers who have put in a full day grumble, saying that isn’t fair. The landowner replies they all agreed. “Take that thine is, and go thy way,” he says, “I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.”

If you think of this vineyard symbolically, as the kingdom of heaven, the parable is plain. It matters little when you’re welcomed to salvation, only that you are welcomed, and those who come first experience God’s grace just as those who come last.

But the parable is also stubborn. Though it makes sense symbolically, its literal level is perverse, unsatisfying. Who among us wouldn’t resent working all day for the same wages as someone working an hour? In what human reality would anyone accept such inequity?

And perhaps that’s the parable’s deeper meaning. We aren’t talking about our reality here.


Confusion and mystery aren’t entirely different—both compel someone to answer—but mystery is a single shoe by the door and confusion re-labels the door as, “A portal to destinies estranged from here.” Mystery sees something hard to fathom. Confusion makes seeing difficult. One is poetic. The other poeticizes.


Examples of “parables” include plotlines with clear morals and stories—or even semi-stories—that invite head-scratching. One way to define “parable” is to apply it to any story bigger than its specific terms, a narrative that exists on a literal and a figurative level. Kafka’s Metamorphosis is a parable. The Old Man and the Sea might be one too. Cat in the Hat, Lord of the Flies, and Wise Blood all work as parables.

It’s enough to make you ask, “What story isn’t a parable?” Good question.


In high school, my brother wrote a story about a recluse who refused the gifts of a concerned community. Worried that he couldn’t subsist without them, the townspeople left gifts of food on his porch, which rotted when he pointedly ignored them. The story ends when—disgruntled by his ingratitude—they chase him over a cliff.

I liked that story and spent years trying to write something similar. Its clarity twisted my head to look and, when I looked, I understood. Nothing remained in doubt and, yet, nothing direct had been said.


My sincere attempts at fiction seem cartoonish. They mean rather than evoke, and the settings never quite stretch to the horizon. They repeat in obvious ways during every chase, and the characters sit half inflated, bobbing on the surface, ballooning or sagging as needed. They move like forms, their behavior abstracted, barely what people really do.

But once a parable alerts readers to its identity, every detail appears boldly, deliberately outlined, vivid not for its depth or verisimilitude but for its defined edges and black exclamatory rays shooting outward shouting, “I am not flat, but symbolic! I AM significant!” Parables plead forgiveness for unreality and say, “I’m not even trying to be a story.”

They are the perfect dodge.


I worry about wearing readers’ patience thin. I edit endlessly and eliminate every extra “that,” “the,” and prepositional phrase. If my prose isn’t good, at least it will be clean.

My worry extends to readers rejecting my emotions as just so much whining, more melodramatic, angsty confession, self-doubt, or thinly disguised self-importance. I tell myself I can’t write more self-loathing. I can’t write another essay on alienation or loss. No more sturm und drang, no more jeremiads, no more laments or plaints.

Writing a story—at least what I call one—is such a relief… though I’m in the story still… trying to be just clear enough.


I once thought the best use for parables was addressing what couldn’t be said, but it turns out I only use them to say what must not be said aloud.


The second part of this post will appear on Saturday 2/23.

1 Comment

Filed under Ambition, Blogging, Doubt, Essays, Experiments, Fiction, Fiction writing, Identity, Laments, Lyric Essays, Meditations, Parables, Prose Poems, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Voice, Writing

The Price of American Idealism

Benjamin-Franklin-U.S.-$100-billSomewhere in the past, nearly every American student read Ben Franklin’s Autobiography, but I only teach excerpts, and one moment always tells me why. In the middle of discussions of his life’s minutia—the people and events Franklin met—he says:

It was about this time I conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.

For me—and probably for many 21st century minds—this declaration is a punch line. A human seems as likely to reach “moral perfection” as to row across the Pacific in an ice bucket or to handwrite the sum of Wikipedia’s entries, from memory, on the back of a postage stamp. We would need a lifetime to debate what “moral” is and then another to address “perfection.” Then we could begin disputing what project might bring us there. By the time we resolved just that much, we would need to begin again.

At least Franklin calls his endeavor “bold and arduous.”

And you have to stand in awe of his chutzpah. Franklin wants “to live without committing any fault at any time” and “conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead him into.” He says, as if he were compiling this week’s grocery list, “As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other.”

He aspires to 13 virtues, each of which he delineates and describes. Among them are temperance, industry, sincerity, and chastity. He also desires silence, order, justice, and more. He plans to take these virtues one at a time and master each before moving on. His last virtue is humility, which—given what’s gone before—seems especially ambitious. Anyone who attained one of his virtues would rightfully feel a little boastful.

Every year when I encounter this passage, my inner John McEnroe screams, “You CAN’T be serious!” However, I’m much more restrained in class. “How should a reader regard Franklin’s plan?” I ask, “Is he sincere in the endeavor he describes or should we regard his proclamations as ‘tongue-in-cheek’ and intended to lampoon the Enlightenment’s faith in reason and order?”

They don’t know the biographical Franklin as I do, his reputed dalliances, his affection for fine wine and iconoclastic company, his acrimonious disputes and denunciations. They don’t know that among the inventions credited to him is an improvement on the condom.

At the end of his list, Franklin admits his intention was really to attain “the habitude of these virtues”; that is, he hoped to achieve all the signs of attaining them. Franklin says, “Constant vigilance was to be kept up” in order to “guard against the unremitting attraction of ancient habits, and the force of perpetual temptations.” The appearance, it appears, was all that mattered—to show them was, in large measure, to be them.

Routinely, a few students defend his sincerity—he is Ben Franklin after all—and they like to believe he means exactly what he says. When he turns to the 13th virtue, humility, they laud what they perceive as an honest admission:

My list of virtues contained at first but twelve, but a Quaker friend having kindly informed me that I was generally thought proud; that my pride showed itself frequently in conversation; that I was not content with being in the right when discussing any point, but was overbearing, and rather insolent, of which he convinced me by mentioning several instances; I determined endeavoring to cure myself, if I could, of this vice or folly among the rest, and I added humility to my list, giving extensive meaning to the word.

This moment, they say, is a demonstration of Franklin’s self-awareness, proof that he looks truly at his shortcomings and means to do better. And if he falls short, they argue, he is at least trying, and some virtue lies in the effort regardless of its outcome.

Their defense is charming. It goes a long way toward restoring my belief in the positive power of American idealism and—as they insist they believe in Franklin—they insist I believe in them. A better day lies ahead.

But then I read the next sentence, “I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it.” Pride, he says, is our abiding sin. “Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases,” Franklin admits, “it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself.” That’s the moment I really hear Franklin speak—we will never be perfect because we’ll spoil it.

Franklin concludes, should he achieve humility, he’d be proud of it.

Sometimes I wish I weren’t so infected by 21st century irony and accepted Franklin at his word. I wish I didn’t see him doubling meaning. Believing what he says could make me a better person, but, if that was Franklin’s hope, that the common, unsophisticated man—not knowing him—would take him at his word, he misunderstood humanity and the devastation arising from the ambition he fosters. Maybe we shouldn’t want perfection if it means flailing at whatever version appeals to us at the moment. Our effort does damage as well as good.

I wonder if we should write another autobiography, one sincerely facing flaws we’re heir to, one listing our abetting faults and creating a plan to acknowledge them squarely.


Filed under Ambition, America, Arguments, Ben Franklin, Doubt, Essays, Gemeinschaft, Gesellschaft, High School Teaching, Hope, Laments, Meditations, Modern Life, Sturm und Drang, Teaching, Thoughts

More Grading To Do

image08My new metaphor for grading is climbing an electric fence. I used to say grading papers was like sticking your finger in an electric socket a number of times equal to the number of papers you need to mark, but that comparison implies too much choice. Once you collect student work you have to keep climbing until you’re over the fence and standing on the other side. You really can’t pause to decide if you want more.

Both metaphors involve electricity because, as any teacher will tell you, being locked with another mind on paper is an intense experience. Teachers may do nothing more important than helping students write, and wanting to do a good job contributes to the agony. When you have to guess what the writer means, when you have to complete circuits, when you must make thoughtful suggestions for revisions (which you may then also have to assess), you begin to feel like a masochist who never quite reaches the pleasure part.

Sometimes—foolishly—I complain to students about all the grading I must do. Their response is predictable. “Then don’t assign so much writing,” they say. The trouble, of course, is how to teach writing without having them write. Computers make it easier to compose, correct, and revise, but they don’t (yet) create essays. The labor of getting ideas down is the same, and no technological substitute (yet) transforms thoughts into coherent sentences, paragraphs, and compositions.

The same is true of grading. I can lean on rubrics. I can “track changes” on Word. I can create a catalog of frequent comments on Each might improve the feedback I offer, but none save time. The synapse between their thinking and my response gapes regardless. Student writers still present patchy thinking, trip into what I’ve suggested they avoid, and abandon exploring ideas just when they reach the interesting part.

I know writing is challenging. You have a picture in your mind of a finished product and can’t quite get there or, perhaps worse, the picture changes as it stretches toward new interests, new connections, new insights, new organization and phrasing. To use another metaphor, writing is building a bridge from one bank, a process filled with reconsidering and shoring up, all while you watch currents churning beneath you. Rarely do essays turn out as you expect and even more rarely do they turn out as you hope.

Yet, sympathizing doesn’t help me grade any faster. I stand before that fence, dreading the climb. Once I begin, I want it over but, until I begin, I wait for dedication and courage. My policy is to allow three or four class days to return student work, but, if that span doesn’t include a weekend, uh oh. A full day teaching doesn’t prepare me to sit before a stack of essays, and any diversion will draw me off. I’m avoiding papers right now… though, when is that not true?

In education, we are always after a better way. Seduced by project based learning, collaborative learning, authentic learning, outcome-based learning, quantifiable learning, differentiated learning, deep learning, experiential learning, technology-enhanced learning, empathetic learning, focused learning, mixed modality learning, brain-based learning—or whatever new learning will be uncovered this week—we look for entry, another means to reach students. Yet, no matter which method we choose, we serve them—our clients, our charges, our object, our learners.

And maybe it’s that necessity, finally, that makes marking papers so arduous. After more than 30 years teaching, I know what will happen when I turn this Sunday’s papers back. Some students will read comments closely and some will turn to the last page, but few will appreciate my aching eyes, my buzzing mind, my gratitude standing on solid ground again.

All of us will groan—students outwardly, and me inwardly—when the next assignment arrives, but, at least for a few seconds, I’d love them to know I’ve done something important.

Leave a comment

Filed under Ambition, Anxiety, Doubt, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Identity, Laments, Metaphor, Pain, Procrastination, Teaching, Thoughts, Work, Writing

She Echoes

sibylThis morning, another parable…

Prophecies came casually at first, events she couldn’t tell she dreamed or remembered, déjà vu more powerful than before. Then she reached up to her ear knowing her earring was gone, and soon every lost thing announced its departure just as she sought it. She felt absence an instant early. Of course, for a while, she disbelieved.

She told a girlfriend, “Everything feels so familiar lately,” and left it at that.

When her father died in an accident on another continent, she dropped to her knees to allow the wave of recognition to break over her. Then her phone rang. She knew not to say what she saw. Maybe anticipating her dad’s death avowed a special connection, a case that wouldn’t repeat.

The failure of her marriage arrived more slowly, like a hiss she heard long before it became audible. In some impossible to isolate moment, it asserted itself as certainty. She sensed a new attachment, and she didn’t need missing hours, strange perfume, or unnecessary fictions to divine his affair. Long before he confessed, before he pronounced his lover’s name, she heard a name in her head.

Her calm shocked him, but then, she’d known. She planned to deny him the satisfaction of recrimination and emotion. She packed him efficiently and dispassionately as if lists of his necessary possessions existed before him.

An empty house was nothing new, being the state she long expected, a loneliness to which she’d resigned herself. The television her husband bought the year before sat idle on the altar assigned to it. The thought of turning it on opened floodgates to what she was certain to see, and she sighed and sat down at her spot on the sofa instead. Books she started contained chapters she’d read. Mail arrived from predictable places and piled up on the dining room table, a stack of messages already answered.

Her life felt neater. She perceived her friends’ concern forming on the horizon, so she prepared for their rescue, clearing everything away before they appeared and making her living space as neat as a cell. That’s what life was, a sentence to fulfill. For a time, she looked for liberation, a morning she might awake to a real and vivid life. Yet the future, which seemed otherwise perfectly intelligible, denied that one expectation. The path she walked went on and on with no visible end.

Her boss gave her an amazing evaluation, wondering at her calm, efficiency, and foresight. His only hope, she saw clearly, was that she do her job as if it were already done, and she arrived each day with a simple plan—complete the expected and go home. Work was a to-do list—the only remaining item was to check off tasks completed.

Most people barely feel a desire for surprise. Accidents follow insensible, alien rhythms. Lives resemble chaotic fireworks, going off in random order, sometimes distant and beautiful, sometimes close and threatening. But, knowing gunpowder might ignite in a purse or pocket, you move tentatively, grateful for unencumbered steps. Or you court willful ignorance in hopes of remaining bold.

She did neither.

Late at night, she replayed her past because it still lived, and she could re-examine choices, tracing branching limbs of possibility the future didn’t offer. She clothed memories in thick coats of imaginary leaves, romanticizing and embellishing without regard for what actually happened. She saw no harm in doing so. She might make a forest of them. She might live in that forest. She had no mights left in life and guarded stories like visions. In comparison, prophecy was a flat and empty plain where every inch of earth faced relentless sun.

And she waited for fatigue to take her, dreams her only other solace. In dreams, her role remained unwritten, and she could say lines never heard before. In dreams, her expectations replaced everything expected of her, and she moved with strange freedom she never lived elsewhere.

“Tonight,” she thought, “I will dream an end to this, a change to make everything new.”


Filed under Allegory, Ambition, Doubt, Essays, Experiments, Fiction, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Metaphor, Parables, Thoughts, Work

Respectfully, They Disagree

Eugene_V._Debs,_1907If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. —Henry David Thoreau

Buried deep in the definition of dissent is its legal meaning, “the voicing of a minority opinion.” A court of judges deciding on a legal issue expresses the majority decision and the dissenting opinion. Practically speaking, this dissent is immaterial—it has no bearing on what’s next—but civil society honors dissenters by acknowledging every opinion is important. Silencing any point of view is dangerous because it limits our perspective, and the majority isn’t always right (or is only right presently). Besides, any point of view, even a view most people agree upon, ought to face the burden of justification. A society without dissent is like a person without self-consciousness, prone to act thoughtlessly, blind to alternatives.

Explaining the place and importance of dissent is easy, but living with it isn’t. We often regard the person who expresses misgivings as an annoyance, and, even when the situation compels us to listen to these people, we sometimes feel sorry for them or grant them a chance to speak because doing so is harmless. The formality is easy to obey, really listening nearly impossible. We often assign other motives for the dissenter’s thinking, assuming that he or she must be this or that kind of person to think so aberrantly. “They are so out of touch,” we think, or “How sad to be so stuck in your ways” or “My aren’t they defensive.” Going along and getting along are crucial to the smooth operation of institutions and communities, and nothing is so tiresome as a grain of sand or shoe that might stop the wheels and obstruct what’s already underway. Progress can pause but it cannot stop, and we see resisting the inevitable as a foolish waste of time and energy.

However, dissenters don’t always want to convince us or alter our actions. Sometimes they know where they are and assess their chances more accurately than we think. Often they ask only to be heard without dismissal, condemnation, or character assassination. Typically, we the majority have our say and plenty—we like nothing so much as to revel in our solidarity and optimism, a self-assurance that sometimes edges into self-congratulation. At that point, any sensible person, even the foolish dissenter, can see the future clearly and recognize how futile resistance may be. That someone could be quixotic enough to disagree in those circumstances—even when the majority offers little or no sign of changing course—suggests a deep need for expression. And maybe courage.

Does the dissenter hope to dissuade or cast doubt? Of course, the minority wants just what we do, to win the day… although they suspect they won’t receive the same respect, trust, or credence. Anyone who’s shouted anyone down knows that, when dissenters can’t be dismissed, our next best alternative is to engage in arguments designed to demonstrate our rectitude. Potentially, debates exchange ideas freely and benefit both sides, but they’re seldom fair fights. We have several voices for every dissenting one, and the two sides are never truly equals. Freedom of expression is a good thing for us, not always for others. Dissenters must be debated out of existence, their viewpoints discounted, their perspectives erased.

If we could accept disagreement and live by the intellectual ideal of honoring every point of view, we might be a more open-minded and deliberative species, but perhaps it’s human nature—for both the minority and majority—to desire victory. Dissenters may not change anything. Usually they simply have to go along and do the best they can. Yet it’s the worse sort of bullying to neglect a point of view simply because fewer people hold it. That may be the dissenters’ ultimate message: “Please don’t ask me to equivocate or be silent. I have my own thoughts and feelings and, if you must be true to yours, allow me be true to mine… even though it’s clear you and nearly everyone else believes something is wrong with me that I see matters as I do.”


Filed under Aging, America, Arguments, Dissent, Ego, Essays, Identity, Jeremiads, Laments, Meditations, Modern Life, Sturm und Drang, Thoreau, Thoughts, Tributes

A Necessary Virtue: Saturday Morning

bronze_armchairA busy day awaits, so I tried to make a virtue of necessity and allowed myself an hour to write this morning. Here’s what came up with, probably more exercise than composition, but all I can manage:

Quiet seems more complete when the heater’s blowers die, and the outside noises that our inside noises erase suddenly become audible—the L roaring past, tires crushing snow, a whoop of laughter into a cell phone. Inside, everything is still but an insulating film over the fireplace, a covering my wife added during bitter cold two weeks ago. It bellows with drafts and winds, and I imagine it as a giant eardrum, sighing on its own as it gathers every vibration and variation of pressure.

The house is so still this morning, I see myself in every object and perceive them as companionable. My family shares our home with things we admired, wanted, needed, received, surrendered to. Sometimes these things have their own voices, announcing their provenance as your eye falls on them:

  • a drawing an art teacher at my old school gave me, a casual doodle that once seemed the dissected limb of an alien but now, sun worn, returns to whiteness again.
  • my daughter’s backpack beached beside the chair we threw it out of
  • boots and shoes on a mat by the door, speaking the desperation with which they were thrown off, home at last—their hulls bump as if some unseen current moved them
  • the cutting board squeezed between the drainer and the sink wall in the part we never use, the board’s face scratched and scarred with incidental art
  • a nearly finished sweater, a Christmas present from mother to daughter—green nearly black in the twilight this time of day—draped over the back of the couch and trailing yarn to the floor. It looks marine to me, a sinuous creature attenuated by life in the sea and unsuited to gravity
  • a badly stacked pile of folded New York Times Book Reviews, all unread, their half-faces staring up blankly

Meanwhile, as I create this list, the day stirs. Three floors down, someone scrapes the sidewalk of last night’s snow. Upstairs, my wife clicks the computer mouse. These noises don’t advance time as a watch ticking does, but, irregular as they are, they mark moments as well, alerting me to the doing I ought to start too. The L passes. The heater kicks to life—the blower followed by the throat-clearing ignition of flames to heat air. No silence will stay. I can’t stay. Light, even the gray light of an overcast day, demands motion.

Maybe things watch me as I do them, each of us having our instant of visibility, our utterance, our place, our beginning, our purpose. Something calls us, and we are. Something prods me on.


Filed under Blogging, Chicago, Essays, Experiments, Home Life, Identity, life, Meditations, Metaphor, Modern Life, Place, Prose Poems, Silence, Solitude, Thoughts, Urban Life, Voice, Winter, Writing