Monthly Archives: June 2013

What’s What

Dad's JournalI try not to write about writing. The finitude of my understanding seems clear, and describing what I think only creates flights of fancy circling in ever smaller rings, which can come to no good end. Writing requires mystery, I know that. A writer needs faith that more remains to discover and master.

Yet, any writer with experience develops a regular prose patter no longer deliberate or conscious. I used to fantasize about passing through Picasso-ian periods or about suddenly producing the writing equivalent of Sgt Pepper’s. Now those leaps feel as likely as waking tomorrow with a new voice, one that stretches over multiple octaves. I’m resigned. Whatever singing I do will be with this instrument. I’ll make the best of it.

Every week I expect to have nothing to say, but some new concern presents itself, and I gather what wits I have to figure it out. Perhaps I’m rationalizing, but if you mean to reach new thoughts and feelings, maybe a limited voice helps. Having just these tools in your belt, you must be resourceful, working around your work-arounds to enlarge your understanding. I can’t really judge my success because any assessment comes from one perspective—mine—but the effort seems real, difficult and best so.

I came upon one of my father’s journals recently—I’d forgotten the journal existed—and it was strange to see his handwriting again, even stranger to hear him speaking through that messy script in a familiar way. He admits from the start that he isn’t a writer but says his own father left him little record of what he experienced and he intends some remedy. A few entries deal with memories, but many are simple observations about why a beloved dogwood died or his frustration working on particular committees. It’s venting, mostly. Were I his teacher, I might find plenty to criticize—why must he leave a subject just as its broader implications appear? What is satisfying about this journal, however, isn’t the subject matter, but the workings of his mind, the quirky humor, the feeling he’s being sincerely himself in it all. The prose is his voice.

In the same box, I found some written sketches I’d given my father on Christmas 1983. They are so pretentious I can hardly bear to read more than a sentence. I talk about making “A knotted weave of words and wearing them like a beggar’s shawl.” I write an Indian myth—as if I knew anything about one. My “First Page of an S-F Novel” is a parade of ignorant cliché and overblown description. Having read his journal, I wonder what he made of his self-absorbed son. I can only hope he was knowing, indulgent, tolerant.

The strangest element of writing might be its separation into what it is and what it does. Like the workings of a lens, foreground and background never quite mesh. Focus on expression, and content fades. Focus on content, and content is only what’s artlessly plain, apparent. I’ve learned enough to prefer my father’s answer—better to use your own eyes, to place yourself in view of the scene—but the author of those “Sketches” is still in me, grooming prose like a 18th century fop.

I often say the greatest gift any writer could receive is seeing his or her work as others do. I wonder if I could handle it. Unconsciousness might be better. Even if you betray yourself, even if you speak in an absolutely offensive way and present yourself a fool, at least you will be you, there and real. Only voice—the limitation that makes us—matters.

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Filed under Aging, Ambition, Art, Blogging, Doubt, Essays, Identity, Laments, Memory, Thoughts, Voice, Writing

Being Here

McQuayDuring NBC’s broadcast of last Saturday’s USA Track and Field Championships from Des Moines, just before the gun to start the mens’ 400 meter final, the screen fills with each participant, lanes two to eight. Ato Boldon, who does color commentary, offers each athlete’s resume, and, in lane five, he introduces Tony McQuay, former Florida Gator, silver medalist in the 2012 Olympic 4 x 400, and one of the race favorites.

McQuay finishes second. I was there.

In fact, if you pause your DVR at just the right moment and scour the spectators in the second row (just to the right of McQuay’s left ear) you’ll see my daughter leaning toward me. I’m wearing a Columbia blue cap—nearly white in the glare—and sunglasses.

I remember exactly what she said… “We’re probably on television right now.”

We watched the runners’ backs, and two pairs of cameramen and cord handlers played leapfrog as they rushed past the runner on screen to the runner next to appear. One pair had odd lanes, the other even. They deftly reached their spot and froze, listening through earbuds to commentary we couldn’t hear, gathering and playing out cord as needed. Just before the runners took their blocks, they scurried into the narrow alley between track and stadium wall, dragging line behind them. One dropped his camera on a tripod to capture the opening strides.

Perhaps you anticipate where I’m headed. As much as I enjoyed being at the championship (the tickets were a birthday gift from my daughter), I sometimes felt we real spectators were secondary.

I remember the cameramen well not only because I saw them more clearly than the runners but also because everyone seemed hyperaware of them. The crowd booed if the cameras intruded by lingering overlong, and, the day before, fans yelled at one of the cord handlers when he left a loop on the track as the athlete ran up in that lane. Though he yanked it out, it seemed a close call.

In track—as in many sports, I suspect—TV coverage beats being there. Being there, you feel the tension and anticipation of the big moment. You see the subtle expressions of athletes’ off-camera demeanors. The excitement of the crowd and athletes is viral. However, most races are blurs. With the limitations of the human eye to discern depth and distance, it’s tough to tell what’s happening on the far side. You can’t even tell who’s leading down the home stretch because you only have one angle.

You also wonder what television sees and you miss. When cameras eye their own monitors they discover tunnels of frames, a narrowing hall into infinity. Similarly, at a “live sporting event”—an odd label in itself—you fall prey to postmodern disassociation. It’s all about watching. And as I watched, I felt myself watching. If I’d had a portable TV, I might have seen myself and waved at myself waving.

The first time I went to one of my older brother’s high school meets under lights, I could hardly wait to go down onto the track and sprint between its lines. The moment, and place, seemed charged with glory. In Des Moines, some of the same urgency beset me, but usually during un-broadcast junior finals or deep prelim flights. Otherwise, I was strangely confused. Why were we there? Were we actors in the broadcast? My living room is certainly cooler and my favorite chair more comfortable than a bleacher bench. The food is better at home.

I thought about Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There, when he describes his main character, Chance, on a television talk show set:

The cameras were licking up the image of his body, were recording his every movement and noiselessly hurling them into millions of TV screens scattered around the world—into rooms, cars, boats, planes, living rooms, and bedrooms. He would be seen by more people than he could ever meet in his entire life—people who would never meet him. The people who watched him on their sets did not know who actually faced them; how could they, if they had never met him? Television reflected only people’s surfaces; it also kept peeling their images from their bodies until they were sucked into the caverns of viewers’ eyes, forever beyond retrieval, to disappear.

Forget my 1.5 seconds of fame—no one watches track!—if I felt licked up and/or peeled what about those at the center of this contest? And why stop with this meet or this medium? What does it mean to become an image, to distill experience and serve it so neatly? What about the living event?

Soon people will begin asking whether I enjoyed myself, and I’ll answer, truthfully, “Yes.” Yet, part of me wonders what I experienced, how much was real at all.

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Filed under Aesthetics, America, Brave New World, Doubt, Essays, Fame, Identity, Laments, Meditations, Modern Life, Place, Running, Sturm und Drang, Television, Thoughts

Large Talk

small-talk-graphic“Small talk” is a strange term for conversation intended to put people at ease. The terrain seems too expansive to be comfortable to me—what can you say about where you work, your education, or even tomorrow’s weather that’s small in any way?

“Do you like living in Chicago?” someone asks.

“Do you have an hour to discuss my mixed emotions?” I reply.

So, okay, maybe I’m just bad at keeping small talk small. If you ask me how I feel about something or what something is like or where I call home, I’m likely to fumble for what to say because, despite being prepared with a reliable answer, I can’t help thinking you really do want to know. And that means my answer is complicated, always complicated.

Those good at small talk manage to amuse while offering little. The friend I consider the greatest master of the art deflects every inquiry that penetrates more than a centimeter. He volleys like a tennis pro and wrong-foots listeners with spontaneous laughter and faux intimacies. He says nothing substantial, and everyone who meets him walks away a. liking him greatly and b. learning little. He likes to talk small.

Small talk, he says, is personality sampling. You communicate yourself. Content is irrelevant. If people believe they know you, it’s because they see how you talk and how you think. Possibly, they know nothing, but belief matters. They meet, they think, a genuine you.

Men seem to be the smallest talkers. We expect other men to avoid emotion and speak sports. In the absence of a postage stamp of common territory, we generally meet there. I know enough about baseball, basketball, or football to understand the language, but, when I turn the conversation to running—the only athletics I sincerely care about—small talk founders. My conversation mate’s face says I’m teaching.

And teaching isn’t small.

I live for the moments talk goes large. From my perspective, the unlikely reunion of strangers offers a precious opportunity for anonymous confession. We might get to discuss what these small talk questions mean, what they imply about human interaction and where and how we protect ourselves.

At one of my wife’s work parties, someone wanted to know whether students had changed in all the years I’ve been teaching, and we wandered into discussing nostalgia and the personally revealing nature of what we wish to believe about the past. We didn’t learn each other’s names, but if I ever saw her again, we could start just where we stopped when her husband joined us and started talking about the Bulls’ chances once Derrick Rose returns.

Because it’s modular and superficial, small talk can’t truly be interrupted. Mingling must be fluid. It requires elusiveness and suggests being no one. Large talk, in contrast,  says you should be universal, human, real, vivid, and sincere… as anyone actual might be.

Unfortunately, I’m a failure as a decorative spouse or crowd-sweller. I misread when the desire for large talk is mutual and welcome. Instead of both parties venturing and returning important statements, I convince listeners I’m a little off. I console myself believing I’ve given them something to begin their next, smaller conversation, but mostly I’m awkward.

At a recent gathering, the topic turned to the paleo-diet, the eating plan that has people eat only what early humans might. I commented, as food was scarce, early humans would have to be omnivores and, if you left a case of Pepsi or an open bag of Cheetos, they’d consume it… so maybe, I suggested, we’re already on the paleo-diet.

Some people laughed, but then I said, “I wonder about paleo-parties. Do you think early humans talked about their diets? Do you think they had paleo-chit-chat?”

Silence.

I have to learn to stay small.

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Filed under Anxiety, Apologies, Doubt, Essays, Home Life, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Modern Life, Pain, Thoughts, Words

17 One-Sentence Stories

20080609_subdivision_900x600Another experiment in fiction…

1. He left his castle in the sandbox hoping someone might visit it.

2. It was a street added to tendrils in his imagination.

3. Their neighbor’s “hello” weaved past empty boxes stacked in the entrance hall.

4. Summer baked the pavement—heat rose as from a new hell beneath his feet.

5. The girl in the desk ahead glanced to the side, perhaps to look at him.

6. When he reread the note later, he knew he couldn’t give it to her.

7. The dance not even half-way over, he worried no slow songs remained.

8. Her mom called her in, but he stayed in the tree’s vee dreaming her echo.

9. His father stayed shut in his bedroom, and that winter seemed chiefly gray.

10. The red eye of the phone machine blinked, its endless notice persistent.

11. His best friend warned him no one wants to be known as one half of a pair.

12. The cellar door promised cooler darkness—they took the steps together.

13. They would drive separately along highways she’d marked in daisy yellow.

14. Memory is cruel and made him believe what is so was always so.

15. What if other lives cross into this one, creating alternate webs?

16. Amid everything strewn about, nothing seemed accidentally broken.

17. She did his laundry then left his bag wide open on their unmade bed.

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Filed under American Sentences, Doubt, Experiments, Fiction, Fiction writing, Identity, Laments, life, Love, Memory, Nostalgia, Place, Writing

When Americans Became Americans

000_0699My assignment this summer is to review an American history textbook in preparation for teaching in the fall. This week I hoped to reach the revolution, but I keep stopping to look for the adult US in the accounts of the child.

It’s all there, the best and the worst: conflicts of justice and profit; idealism and its steady drift toward self-righteousness; deep devotion that excuses persecution; autonomy dismissive of interconnectedness and gratitude; practical tolerance and its red-line limits; everything-is-possible (and allowable) ambition; can-do self-assurance that here, at last, is something different… and better.

One of the most interesting questions in American history is when we stopped thinking of ourselves as British subjects and became Americans. Well into the 1760’s, the textbook says, Americans still thought of themselves as British subjects. According to the book, British mismanagement (specifically all those taxation and regulatory acts that I will have to get straight one of these days) galvanized Americans as Americans.

Though I’ll be teaching history in the fall, I’m no historian. I wonder, however, if the textbook’s account of our origins follows another American tendency—self-justification. We like to believe that, as victims of circumstance, we’ve responded to necessity. Whatever trouble we get into, we like to believe someone else started it, caused it, created it when, from the beginning, we’ve made choices to set ourselves apart.

The textbook contains a two-page spread asking whether slavery arose from racism or whether racism arose from slavery. However, both options put the blame elsewhere. If slavery comes first—because Africans captured to be slaves and transported to the colonies as slaves were slaves when they arrived—then colonists only took part in an existing institution. If racism came first, the colonists’ cultural circumstances prevented them from fully seeing the great evil of their actions.

Yet, the French and Spanish models of colonization were quite different. The French trapped furs alongside the native population, and, though their approach also exploited opportunities (and set environmentally disastrous precedents), they traded with Native Americans, and intermarried with them. The Spanish were perhaps as cruel as the British, but their paternalistic model sought to “help” indigenous people through conversion, organized farming, and mutual protection. You might argue they faced different environments and needs, but neither group turned to importing slaves or embraced slavery on the scale British colonists did.

For the British colonists, slavery arose after indentured servitude failed to provide labor forces of the size, economy, and quality desired. When indentured servants fulfilled their terms, their caretakers provided little to assure any future, and former workers roamed the countryside begging alms and/or robbing the local population. Land owners weren’t willing to pay former servants to stick around nor were they willing to offer incentives to attract more laborers from overseas. African slaves, in contrast, needed no incentive other than compulsion, and the institution itself assured that no reward would be necessary either. Slavery was, in other words, a rational second option for colonial farmers, one entered into consciously and deliberately. Neither racism nor slavery mattered as much as economic advantage. Both justified money-making choices.

Peter Wood, a historian writing in the seventies, offered accounts of colonists and Africans working side-by-side in the early years of settlement before the rigid plantation model supplanted the more flexible and intimate system that preceded it. Early colonists faced the choice of working on a smaller and less profitable scale. Instead they refined means of forced subjugation. They nurtured it. They profited from it. They perfected it, and institutionalized cruelty marked its improved apparatus.

One example does not a case make, but the history of slavery in the British colonies (and later the US) suggests something was fundamentally different about the American colonies from the start. Out of communication with the capitals of Europe and old-world values, British colonists experienced unprecedented freedom to reinvent society—and to do so, in the case of slavery, with depraved cynicism and for economic and pragmatic ends. Though they may have called themselves British subjects into the 1760s, they were, from the start, set apart, not yet renamed, but different because they were free to act according to their own ways.

I’m reminded here of a former student who chided classmates whenever they turned to listing “American” traits. She would say that Americans are people, that the characteristics we ascribe to them are human characteristics, not American ones. Perhaps, but the American experiment granted human nature unprecedented liberty. The child who grows up away from its parents, who, in the absence of absolutes, creates its own codes and rationalizations for selfish actions, who invents its own self-esteem and pride… that child grows into a very different adult.

And what you call that adult may matter less than recognizing its defining and abiding nature.

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Filed under America, Arguments, Essays, Identity, Laments, Opinion, Place, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts

Fixing Everything

errata-voltaireFiction in an alternative form…

Errata [ih-rah-tuh, ih-rey-, ih-rat-uh] noun 1. plural of erratum. 2. a list of errors and their corrections inserted, usually on a separate page or slip of paper, in a book or other publication; corrigenda.

1. page 29 (third paragraph break, seventh line): The text “The outcome of this contest was fair” should read “…was fare.”

Early hopes are disappointed, and everyone knows so. Men and women can love whom they wish, and, in competitions of the heart, someone will slip into shadows, someone will find a lover’s eyes pointed elsewhere. Someone will sit, await a lover’s return, and discover the world cold, outside and inside. In the best moments—much later perhaps—a person hopes to build on the fiasco, to pay the full price to learn and accept it at last.

2. page 64 (first paragraph break, first line): The word “stupid” was inadvertently omitted from the sentence “The ceremony celebrated another [stupid] display of affection between them.”

So much of what passes as beautiful and momentous ends up noise. People mean to make others believe they’ve gripped fate when, really, they only find what’s satisfactory. Their solutions absorbed some but excluded others. Those left out try to believe the hierarchy these occasions suggest—what’s proper has happened—but how can you tell? Isn’t every vow—even a wedding vow—an assertion of just one fate? People want to believe in an absolute end and embrace it… but that’s just one choice.

3. page 123 (sixth paragraph break, second line): The waiter inserted here that his lover never cared and that this job, like the others, substituted for what he might be.

What makes this moment memorable is the waiter’s hand, paused on the plate before he lifted it away. The ceiling fans circulated heavy, humid air. The windows opened on the tidal basin and the occasional whiff of empty oyster shells piled outside. Boats with loud motors broke into conversation, but the waiter’s meaning was clear. His eyes settled on spots around the room as he spoke. The question was innocent, the response something else, and anyone listening would have felt the same sympathy for being alone among people who professed affection. Before that moment’s relevance bloomed, it was easy to overlook, which is why it eluded notice at the time.

4. page 186 (second paragraph break, seventh line): In no way did the author mean to imply that all solitude is lonely. Quite the contrary, readers will note that, only seven pages before, he describes being trapped on an elevator as strangely tranquil.

Memory swims in and out as if prodded invisibly, like the tide. Maybe something celestial dictates everything. Sitting on the floor of its cage, the chimpanzee feels and accepts moments as inevitable and fitting in some shaded sense. The chimpanzee doesn’t feel compelled to exploit one moment to improve the next and doesn’t think what the present lacks, all the ways it’s pale and mute and disappointing measured against his hopes. Yet that sort of peace seems rare to us. It’s tough to believe in quiet contentment. We’re taught peace of mind should be blissful. It isn’t meant to be mundane or blend one hour with others in our accustomed soup, a meal we eat daily.

5. page 237 (third paragraph break, eleventh line): You may not realize the universe conspires against such moments of clarity. Epiphany often seems delusion amid life’s chaos.

Once I thought I saw a scene clearly. I was eating alone, and, half a bottle in, I watched the shuffle of passers-by flowing on the sidewalk. A woman much too young to care about me locked eyes and smiled. Perhaps she delighted in being noticed—my eyes and mind might have been too open—but I felt understanding between us, an instant history forming to make us familiars. My lips parted to speak, and she raised a hand. It may have been a greeting, a gesture to silence my speech as unnecessary, or a rebuff. But it felt all three. The purest fiction has no certain place, only effect. The effect is all that counts.

6. page 321 (fourth paragraph, seventh line): Please add, “There is a very loud amusement park across from my present dwelling.”

Forgive me. I’ve tried to speak confidently, but there’s so little I feel certainly. Sometimes my perception shrinks to light and color, sound and smell… and texture, and flavor. The world had so many opportunities to choose me and went on blaring and flashing. It went on shouting other names, and any intimacy I expected ran into the puddled ruts of wheels long passed, reflecting the red, yellow, and blue blinking lights of more vivid life I’ve known secondhand.

7. page 411 (seventh paragraph break, third line): Of course, the sum of all things can’t be counted, and so “sum” is itself fallacious, a way to abridge and not to describe.

I must be nearer the end than the beginning. If I found you, and if you wanted to start again, would time cooperate, would I be able to say who I am relative to who I was, or would my face speak something I’d have to deny?

8. page 438 (first paragraph, twelfth line): When I consider what might be said, I realize all I’ve said is incomplete, wrong in some grave sense.

When we met, you said you knew me without my having to speak. At the time, I took that as warmth, a sign we matched. Now I think you already knew me as finite. I wish I knew myself that way. The sun rises, solitary. I pair with it. I think of you.

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Filed under Apologies, Doubt, Experiments, Fiction, Hope, Identity, Laments, life, Love, Nostalgia, Play, Prose Poems, Solitude, Voice, Worry

Thoughts in Third Person (8-15)

hqdefaultThe second half of the lyric essay posted on Wednesday 6/5.

8.

After hundreds of pages, Henry Adams’ illeism feels different. His chief complaint about the modern world is that it had no place for him. He never exactly says so, but his alienation seems plain nonetheless. The rest of humanity sees matters one way, and he another. Yet he can’t help feeling right. Perhaps he hopes others will agree.

9.

Writers sometimes inject themselves into narratives, as when a character sits down across from a novel’s author on a train or, after presenting a stray bit of dialogue, the narration identifies the speaker as the book’s author.

These moments ostensibly announce artifice. Lest the reader forget a story has a creator, there he or she is, suddenly present and intruding. The author, this sudden appearance may imply, is merely another character, another fictional creation.

But why couldn’t an author’s reality be a nod to fact? 18th century novels sometimes referred to characters as Mr. ___________ because they wished to protect identities when, actually, authors fabricated these identities. If the author lands suddenly in a scene, then perhaps he or she was there recording, did live these events, even if much of the rest the author dreamed. Is the creator’s appearance artificial or the closest brush with witnessed reality?

10.

Maybe fiction means to disorient, to lull readers into false security and then shift the rule of horizon, earth, and sky and make up down and the opposite, to establish everything as chosen and arbitrary. Everything becomes intention. No place remains for comfortable observers, and everywhere is someplace deliberately strange.

11.

The conceit of modernism—and post-modernism after it—is that it’s all fiction.

12.

Episodes of the 1960 children’s program “Romper Room” included an odd moment with an emptied hand mirror. Through the open space where reflections normally appeared, the host peered into the camera and said, “I see Gwen, and I see Alan, and I see Debbie, and I see David….”

These names may have been random—or perhaps producers harvested them from fan mail—but, to some of the program’s audience, such encounters must have seemed real and frightening. Children usually protected by confident subjectivity may not have been prepared to be called out and seen by everyone—or by television, as close to “everyone” as a child can consider.

13.

Despite his multiverse and third-person stance, Henry Adams creates companions in readers. They sit to listen, and, in doing so, expect something they know. They also expect to hear what they don’t know, but only sympathy compels them to keep silent and still. They expect to be drawn in. They desire it.

14.

Notes after a loved one’s death sting with sympathy. They are sweetly painful and elicit the oddest gratitude. A shared appreciation and acknowledgment of pain seems an essential stage of separation. “You will move on,” these notes seem to say, “but you’re permitted to revel in the exclusivity of your grief. You may mourn.”

15.

Henry Adams had hands and feet. He sat in trains, laughing with friends, and perhaps strangers. He turned his head to scan the landscape slipping through the window and smelled smoke and pollen, food and filth, perfume and decomposition. His eyes moved to his wife. His eyes moved to his memory, to the page of handwriting before him.

He gathered everything he made and pored over it, grooming the words until they spoke just what he wished or the closest he could come. He must have thought of readers, even if he invented them.

They would know him. He would have to be sure of that, I’m sure.

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Filed under Aesthetics, Aging, Art, Doubt, Education, Ego, Essays, Experiments, Fiction writing, Genius, Henry Adams, Hope, Identity, life, Lyric Essays, Meditations, Memory, Modern Life, Reading, Recollection, Thoughts, Writing