Monthly Archives: July 2013

On Noodling

photo-14Some artists want credit for every note, brush stroke, or word. Others see themselves as instruments of random instructions from the ether. For every Elizabeth Bishop, Bridget Riley, or Johann Bach there is a Charles Bukowski, Sam Francis, or John Cage. But most artists land between extremes, negotiating control and surprise anew each time, hoping to make peace between intentions and possibilities along the way.

I’m no Frank O’Hara or Jackson Pollock. I appreciate spontaneous, idiosyncratic expression, but hoping perspective and voice will carry me through every project—that just being myself and “doing what I do” will be enough—brings me face-to-face with my finitude. I imitate myself.  The accidental becomes incidental, the choice becomes a choice, another manifestation of familiar, eventually parodic, technique.

It’s hard to imagine Hemingway writing without his characteristic economy—and the influence of his style is impossible to measure—but I’ve long suspected his voice was his undoing. Artists working in a personal mode chafe against it eventually. After a career of writing spare, imagistic poetry, William Carlos Williams turned expansionist. Each time others settled on a definition of Picasso’s approach, he looked anew. I’d rather not be myself all the time.

Sunflowers copyYet exclusive attention to innovation, improvisation, and play—to being someone different each time out—seems no answer either.

This summer, I’ve been fooling around with iOrnament, an app for iPad. It works with the various forms of symmetry (apparently, there are mathematically only seven—who knew?), and the program allows anyone to transform a simple design into something dramatic as one basic line or shape or form or space radiates, mirrors, reverses, flips, and proliferates. I’ve experimented endlessly, playing “What if?” with bright or dull, variably saturated, thick and thin, blurry and sharp lines. I’ve tried something new with every attempt and created interesting fabrics and/or wrapping paper. Each time I’ve asked how much is me and how much is iOrnament making it easy to shake out possibilities until something hits. In other terms, what do I learn?

Paradoxically, taking a new route each time out can become as safe and devastating as using your one voice and one perspective. Improvisation excuses me from deliberation or consequence.

At her readings in the eighties, one of my poetry teachers used to crumple her work up and toss it at her audience, shouting, “Poetry to throw away! Poetry to throw away!” The audience obliged. The difference between innovation and gimmick is a lasting result, repeatability that opens new and viable roads of expression—new ways of doing—instead of achieving pure novelty.

image-4I like looking at what I produce on iOrnament but never feel responsible for it.

In the memoir Lost in Place: Growing Up Absurd in Suburbia, Mark Salzman describes his high school experimentation with Jazz cello, his (often high) application of years of cello instruction to produce wild and brilliant (at least from his perspective) musical inventions. After a summer of relentless noodling, his nearly infinitely patient social worker father puts an end to the noise in a moment of released fury, finally calling Mark’s music what he hears, “Bullshit.”

Progress in art means recognizing what happened last time, avoiding it, extending it, amending it to locate something fresh. I’m not sure what will happen to all I’ve produced in iOrnament other than decorating this post and stuffing the memory of my iPad. Eventually, I’ll have to decide what’s worth keeping and what the program teaches me, what it might help me do with my real art.

An artist who studies his or her work may seem to violate spontaneity and creating “in the moment,” but anyone initiating inspiring (and not so inspiring) approaches  stretches to greater altitude. Focusing and developing  talents, an artist diversifies techniques and adds to the range of methods available and discovers how to apply them.

Be relentlessly yourself or run away from yourself—you become stagnant either way. Look for a way to incorporate experimentation, you make what you learn a part of you.

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Filed under Aesthetics, Ambition, Art, Doubt, Essays, Experiments, Identity, life, Meditations, Play, Revision, Thoughts, Visual Art, Voice, Work, Writing

25 Unsent Letters to My First Best Friend

tbt_bferry61.

My first thought today brought back Bolivar. When I stayed with you there, foghorns on tugboats pushing barges lowed in the Intracoastal Waterway. Even when I didn’t hear them, I held them in my head like thoughts loosely tethered together.

2.

If we saw a butterfly, bird, snake, or insect, one of my brother’s books would identify it. We leaned over the pages as if we were looking into a deep hole. We didn’t mind touching. The object of our search didn’t always appear, so we whispered to catalog everything we had seen, pointing and saying when and where we’d encountered it.

3.

Early on, I thought of friendship as gathering together-stories, the time we shot a mocking bird with your b-b gun and buried it so the police wouldn’t discover we murdered the state bird, or the time we cut sections of grape vine to smoke and coughed for a week, or the time we soaked your sister’s underwear, froze it, and returned it to her drawer.

4.

In my memory you never ask me to go to your house after school, never show up at my door to ask me to play, never say “Best Friend.” Our parents negotiate our visits and sleepovers. We have no plans. We account for time by being together.

5.

Mom says the school must have separated us because we’d be trouble together. You may recall that after first grade, we never sat in adjacent desks.

6.

Concentrating, I can bring back your scent. It hits me just as the first whiff of your house did when I walked through your door.

7.

Do you remember all the accidents I witnessed? I was present when you spilled boiling water on your chest, cut your foot jumping out of the window over your garage, split your knee open as we skim-boarded after a morning thunderstorm. Your mother was so calm. She sent me home as if we both needed soothing.

8.

I don’t do friendship well anymore, as it requires leaving the room of myself, something strangely challenging. But our hours seemed easy, as neutral as the sun’s indecisive attention to shadows on a cloud-crowded day.

9.

We must have fought but I don’t remember apologies.

10.

People in the neighborhood often mistook me for you, partly because we were the same size but mostly because we shared the same first name. Did you know when they meant me? Did you correct them?

11.

The depression in the center of your chest troubled me. Where my sternum was straight as a last yours seemed to leave no room for your heart to beat.

12.

During all the weekends I spent with your family in Bolivar, the house remained unfinished. When we returned from roaming the salt marshes looking for Jean Lafitte’s treasure, empty cans of Falstaff and Lone Star gathered near sites of fitful labor.

13.

Mom says your dad was one of the most handsome men she’d ever seen. She thought you and I looked alike, but I wasn’t sure she approved of you. Sometimes you can tell when, inside, someone sneers.

14.

When people use the expression “Something came between us,” I imagine a scary story you made up once about a husband and wife waking with a corpse.

15.

We saw the moon landing together. Of everything I’ve reported, I’m sure you don’t need to be told that.

16.

Later we shared friends. They were your friends first, then mine. Being with them when you weren’t present felt like winging around in a looser orbit. One punched me in the face when I beat him at basketball. Another invited a girl over so I could learn how to French kiss. One day, out with one of your friends, we broke into an empty house to smoke cigarettes and the cops came. You may actually have been there too. It feels like it.

17.

You convinced me to explore the network of cement storm sewer tubes crisscrossing under our neighborhood. You kept saying how surprised people would be when we suddenly appeared somewhere else. Girls would be impressed, you said.

18.

I just remembered the summer I invented a language you refused to speak.

19.

There must have been a day I stopped calling you my best friend.

20.

Maybe memory stumbles here, but I connect every friend to you. Not directly, because all those separate steps disappear, but in character—as if they stood in the same circle of smoke blowing from the same fire.

21.

When people run into other people who know people they know or are people they know, they say, “It’s a small world.”  Maybe that’s the biggest change since last we met. It hasn’t felt small enough for me in quite some time.

22.

One of my college roommates regarded friendship as a test. If you passed, you couldn’t un-pass. He took you on forever, though not really. I expected to finally relax but never overcame feeling indebted. When I tried to explain my discomfort to another roommate, I used you to demonstrate proper friendship. I’m ashamed I’ve exploited your memory for such petty causes.

23.

The summer I left our hometown, I imagined saying goodbye to you, but, by then, we barely knew each other and practicing our conversation was like talking with a ghost who’d left the attic long before.

24.

People brought me news of you after I moved away—some of it horrifying and heartbreaking—but those accounts were as fanciful as games we played as boys, when it was fun to imagine the neighborhood as a harsher, less forgiving landscape.

25.

I’ve never reinvented you as a character in a story. The few times I’ve tried to describe you in writing before now, the prose slipped from my grip like a kite that slackened and fell as soon as I stopped tugging.

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Filed under Aging, Doubt, Essays, Experiments, Friendship, Gratitude, Identity, Laments, Letters, life, Lyric Essays, Meditations, Memory, Nostalgia, Recollection, Thoughts, Tributes, Voice, Writing

Not Worth Saying

iPhone+Instagram+Photo+Library+Card+Due+DateHere is the last (at least until I write more…) of my 20-minute stories.

I talk too much. It always happens. At first people hear me, and then I’m a sound. The refrigerator, air conditioner, and a thousand household machines speak daily, but people stop noticing them. The brain turns their volume to silence.

Everyone tells stories about having odd uncles with grubby secrets, about the car breaking down somewhere unlucky, about being mistaken for a more important person. I am a collection of these narratives, a library book with old due dates stamped inside the back cover, phrases and words underlined in faint pencil. If you knew me better, you’d remember I’ve used this metaphor before, in just this context, with just this timing and emphasis.

People who do know me tell me to stop, stop now. They’ve heard it, they say, and then I leave off rifling through my memory looking for relevant remarks that might pass as new. None of it is new. Life echoes infinitely, I’ve learned this.

I’m not sure when my catalog of anecdotes filled. Maybe around the time my wife left. She said I should get a dog that would have to listen, but instead I talk to her chair. Though nothing really helps me imagine her interested, after I drink enough, I try. The stories roll like boulders beneath a glacier, and I dream of them deposited in a field, incongruous and dramatic. I like to think of my wife’s smile before those last grim stages, before her face formed a rictus of pain whenever I opened my mouth.

Since she left, I’m alone. My car drives itself to and from work, and I’m a passenger. Colleagues are pulsing clock parts, whirring, rocking, or inching forward as demanded. Meals and sleep are processes. Time is territory so familiar as to be invisible. I blink and discover another day, season, or year.

And, sometimes, when evenings grow long, I bear down with this pen, hoping to force something new from my mind but only come up with this same account of my trouble, the only trouble I know, my most recent—that is to say, my last—discovery.

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Filed under Aesthetics, Aging, Ambition, Experiments, Fiction, Fiction writing, Identity, Kafka, Laments, life, Metaphor, Modern Life, Parables, Play, Sturm und Drang, Surrealism, Thoughts, Voice, Worry

Calling All Veterans of World War Z

world-war-z-wallpaperI’m no zombie fan. I don’t dust myself with powder, smear on fake blood, and plod along in “zombie walks” that, I hear, draw as many as 4,000 participants. I’m not devoted to The Walking Dead and haven’t even seen the granddaddy of all zombie movies, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.

And, honestly, zombies don’t interest or scare me much. They’re relentless and contagious, sure, and their lax dress and hygiene is unpleasant to be around. Their stubborn refusal to just-stay-dead-already is problematic too, absolutely. Yet they seem so lost, so remote, so one-tracked, so barely with us. It’s as if they’re trying to operate heavy machinery—and any tool seems heavy to them—while opiated. We sober folk know no good can come of that, but zombies don’t worry. Self-awareness and planning aren’t their strongest assets. Living people have some decided and winning advantages.

Given my perspective on the undead, I was surprised to find myself in a darkened theater as World War Z engulfed the planet. There I was, watching zombies chasing panicked pedestrians through Philadelphia, zombies amassing like Amazonian army ants to surmount a wall outside Tel Aviv. There I was scrutinizing a zombie face impotently clicking its unflossed, unbrushed teeth outside a bulletproof window. Though the movie is diverting, suspenseful, and exciting, not a moment of fear passed through me. The zombies of World War Z are meaner and stronger and faster than most, but they’re still dead—which is to say, not living, not conscious, and really not at all smart. They don’t have a chance against Brad Pitt… which, to me, says a lot.

Sarah Lauro, an English professor at Clemson, writes about the zombie phenomena. Just as paranoia about communist infiltration brought us body-snatchers, and HIV pathogenic human blood returned our attention to vampires, Lauro believes zombies say something about contemporary anxieties and obsessions. For her, the current zombie fascination began with dissatisfaction over American involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. “It was a way that the population was getting to exercise the fact that they felt like they hadn’t been listened to by the Bush administration,” she says.

I have a simpler theory. Those zombies are us. Their restlessness, their overwhelmed and frenetically purposeful purposelessness, their over-caffeinated focus? All seem terribly familiar. Their expressions say, “Now, why the hell am I doing this again?” and, when they’re not eating people, they just look like tired office workers, so ready to abandon agendas clearly not their own. If they were self-conscious (at all) and spoke (at all), they might yell, “What a nightmare! I’m dead and still can’t get any peace and quiet!”

In World War Z, Pitt plays Gerry Lane, a former UN operative who gave up his important, dangerous, and prestigious job for some homeland tranquility. He wants to be a family man. In the opening scene he’s making pancakes for his wife and daughters—and they say that’s all he does. He answers, “But I’m good at it.” I haven’t seen many zombie movies, yet I know enough to say that anyone who tries to hole-up the way Gerry does is eventually going to face serious home-invasion issues. And he does. Later he tells one zombie-besieged family that survival depends on moving, that “Movement is life.” No one can stand still, zombies or their victims, and domesticity is out of the question …at least until we get rid of these pesky zombies.

When the military makes the inevitable pitch to Gerry’s special skills and experience, when they say in effect, “The whole world depends on you, man,” Gerry replies, “You’re asking me to leave my family,” then, “I can’t leave my family.” He wants so desperately to cocoon, as do many of us.

He can’t, of course. The naval commander tells him, “Don’t pretend your family is exempt when we talk about the end of humanity.” Only the collective demise of humankind can pull him from the griddle. Even so, along the way, he fusses over his loved ones and picks up strays. We hope that’s what makes us different from zombies, after all—we know what matters, who matters, the purpose behind all our mad activity.

Spoiler alert!

(Though not actually because you can guess what happens)

Gerry Lane figures out how to battle the zombies. Once the store of victims shrinks, the zombies don’t do much but stand around like train passengers waiting for the big board in Grand Central Station to tell them where to go (like most urbanites, zombies aren’t interested in one another). Lane, reunited with his family in the Thoreauvian wonderland of Nova Scotia, putters up in a slo-mo inflatable boat and hugs them (for, like, half an hour) while a voice-over intones, “This isn’t the end, not even close.”

No rest for the weary, I guess. Yet the end of humanity, it turns out, is really the beginning of a richer, more purposeful humanity, one that spares us the zombies and, we hope, our own zombie-like tendencies. Now we have a reason to live—to kill zombies!

Okay, so my theory doesn’t cover everything. To those of you dressing up in tattered clothes, creating pretend wounds, artfully dabbing red glycerin in order to sleepwalk authentically down city streets, I can only say, “Have fun!” Maybe being a zombie is a relief. At least you’re not confused about why you’re here. And, if there truly is no way to prevent becoming undead, why not embrace it?

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Filed under America, Brave New World, Buddhism, Criticism, Doubt, Essays, Film, Laments, Metaphor, Modern Life, Parables, Sturm und Drang, Thoreau, Thoughts, Worry

Coming Home

il_fullxfull.436891681_gdroHere’s the second 20-minute story I wrote during a writing workshop in Ohio. Though I have no great gift for fiction, I’d recommend this exercise to anyone interested in stretching their skills. Something about being in the crucible of the moment makes you focus on the essential elements of a narrative.

Mom wore an expression I recognized—the wary one she once showed strangers who dared to approach me in a playground or anyone who asked for “a moment of her time”—and she gripped Dad’s arm just above the elbow.

“May we help you?” Dad asked.

I moved to gather the backpack and duffle bag I’d dropped to ring the bell, and they stood squarely in the doorframe.

“How’re you guys? I had a break in the semester and—“

Sometimes you look into a different face when you deliver news it didn’t know or when you disprove facts it’s repeated confidently for years.

My parents’ faces steeled.

“Excuse me?” Dad said. My mother pulled herself closer to him. “Do we know you?”

“Jesus, Dad!”

They blocked my way as if I were our cat, instinctively and with a mind to try as many times as necessary. I should have visited sooner, but school work rose like walls before me. I’d just found time to see my way through.

“Look,” I said, “I’m sorry. I should have called, but—”

“I don’t know you, but if you try to come in here, we’re calling the cops!”

Sometime, my mother left him, retreating into the house, and her flight alerted me to all that was altered. The table in the entry hall was Pennsylvania Dutch instead of sleek Danish, adorned with a plastic bouquet in a teapot instead of three gray paper flowers in a glass vase.

“Dad.”

I might have stood there longer, implored longer, insisted whatever prank should end, but my mother returned wielding a handgun and shouting for me to leave.

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Filed under Doubt, Experiments, Fiction, Fiction writing, Gratitude, Home Life, Identity, Memory, Metaphor, Parenting, Writing

Asking For It

statusTwo responses to my artwork and writing I hear often: “My, you’re prolific,” and “How clever.” I try to appreciate these observations. Since creating any art takes chutzpah and faith, making a lot of it is a measure of dedication, devotion. Calling something “clever” usually means it’s inventive, something a viewer or reader never considered. These statements seem fair and safe too. I’m on my 352nd post on Signals to Attend, my 234th on derelict satellite and approaching my 1000th haiku on Haiku Streak.

And, yes, it’s also true my work is often deliberately odd.

So perhaps I ought to feel good. After all, as Samuel Johnson said, “Where there is no difficulty, there is no praise,” and at least my work embraces quantitative and qualitative challenges. I create a lot and try not to repeat myself.

I don’t mean to be ungrateful. Nonetheless, I sense something lurking behind comments about my prolific cleverness. What artist would want to be notable purely for production, and doesn’t “clever” also connote “merely intellectual,” “synthetic,” maybe “calculating,” “clinical,” or “gimmicky”?

Such safe praise comes close to faint praise, an idea first expressed in Alexander Pope’s “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot,” when he wrote:

Damn with faint praise, assent with civil leer

And without sneering, teach the rest to sneer

As Mr. Pope points out, the most insidious aspects of faint praise are its power to illuminate the gap between good and great and its emphasis on the critic’s superior judgment. Ennobled by its admiration instead of censure, faint praise receives credit for being nice, yet the risk is negligible. Its actual effect is also negligible, except that it allows others to feel good without helping anyone else reach higher—and hidden—standards.

In the context of my living room, I’m a great artist, possibly the greatest since my wife writes letters only occasionally, my son does most of his painting at college, and my daughter has a job at a sleep-away camp this summer. When I leave this place, however, I see my limitations. Though I’m not inviting abuse—I’d prefer to preserve my aspirations—I expect to hear honest assessment when I participate in a class with that purpose. While I agree with Marcus Aurelius that any beautiful thing derives its value from itself and asks for nothing more, I want to learn, particularly from the instructor, where I’ve succeeded and where not. I’d like to develop as an artist, and safe praise doesn’t help.

In education, we’re taught to offer students “shit sandwiches.” A response to their work should begin, we’re told, with something nice, then turn to something not so nice, and end with some encouraging path to improvement. Yet, insincere praise—and my students seem too smart to miss insincerity—is worse than censure. It begins and ends in disrespect. Your work isn’t all it might be, it seems to say, and, what’s more, you can’t handle hearing that.

Maybe open-face sandwiches are better—“Here’s what looks flawed to me, let’s discuss some strategies for achieving all you hope.” We like praise best from those who are praiseworthy, and any reader’s honest, earnest, and inspired effort to help someone achieve his or her best work certainly seems praiseworthy to me.

Okay, perhaps I’m misinterpreting compliments about how much I write and how smart it is. If so, I’m sorry. I may be in a lose-lose situation here because I’m not exactly sure what I hope to gain from sharing my writing in workshop or offering my art up for critique. I don’t mean to be peevish. Yet, my mother taught me, “If you have nothing good to say, say nothing at all,” and safe praise, coming so close to nothing, leaves too much to imagine.

Clearly, I’m imagining the worst, so do your worst. In this case as in most cases, honesty is truly the best policy.

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Filed under Aesthetics, Ambition, Art, Criticism, Doubt, Education, Ego, Essays, Laments, Opinion, Teaching, Thoughts, Voice, Worry, Writing

About Bob

5200159769_33ab841800_zAt a recent writing workshop I attended in Ohio, our instructor led us through a number of fruitful exercises, including the 20-minute stories popularized by McSweeney’s. I’ll be sharing the results for my mid-week posts over the next month or so. These stories have been edited since I wrote them, but minimally… particularly this one!

WARNING: These are strange. Please don’t worry about me.

x

Bob rubbed chicken fat under his arms. It was something he’d always done and never said so. Since he’d married Claire, he’d thought repeatedly about confessing. “Listen Claire,” he’d say, or “By the way, Claire,” or “Claire, you want to hear something funny about me you don’t know?”

Claire was his first, his only love. They met one moonless night at the Dairy Queen lot. She dropped the chocolate-coated dome of her cone to the asphalt and cursed a streak of colorfully jimmied words. Then she spied him leaning on the hood of his car.

She looked at him dolefully, “Fate cooperates once again to bring my dismay, alas.”

Because she’d spent her last dollar, he bought her another ice cream, and they talked. As they conversed he felt the ooze at his sides like loosening worry. He noticed the smell for nearly the first time.

“I could really use some fried chicken,” Claire said, idly.

Chicken fat does nothing for perspiration, nothing for hygiene in general or well-being. Bob didn’t even regard it as fetish anymore, just routine.

7:35 am: chicken fat.

After marrying Claire, however, he created a ritual. The tub of fat needed obtaining, needed hiding. It’s application needed timing and perfect privacy. Every day Bob feared discovery.

Though he succeeded in decreasing the amount, he couldn’t do without chicken fat altogether and told himself every marriage should have secrets. “It’s my mystery,” he whispered to himself.

The day Bob came home to discover Claire’s dresser drawers open and empty, he ran first to his clandestine spot under the sink, but there it was, the tub of chicken fat still hidden, its contents untouched.

Bob cried for a time at the kitchen sink before relief flooded in.

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