Monthly Archives: August 2013

Walking Around The Year

First birthday cupcakeA week of milestones:

  • the new school year starting
  • two history classes (I’m usually an English teacher)
  • my daughter going to college (and my wife and I becoming empty nesters)
  • this blog cresting 1,000 followers
  • 150 on both derelict satellite and Haiku Streak
  • reaching 365 posts on this blog

Some parts of life are furniture. Your job, the tasks of buying food and other essentials, central relationships, and weekly avocations can be moved around, but once you have a couch you generally keep it a while. When the urge to rearrange the room strikes, your aim is always to get it right at last, to set items in convenient and pleasing order. None of the list above constitutes a new room, a new state, or a new country. All are matters of furniture.

The last, reaching a year’s worth of posts, is no change at all because I wrote a post on Tuesday, and I’m writing one today. Yet, it means something that someone might set out to read a post a day and arrive at the end more than a year later. I’m not recommending such a tour—I’m sure you’d discover unflattering truths I’d like to hide, my retold stories, the finitude of my topics, every bête noire and psychological stumbling block, the many potholes in the quality of my thought or expression. Nonetheless it’s something. It means this blog has passed my previous one. It means I’ve posted here for almost five years. It means that, if every post were the size of this one, I’ve written 225,000 words or 750 pages.

And constancy is something. WordPress suggests you gain readers by posting at regular times and regular intervals. As this offering arrives later on Saturday than usual, clearly I’m not perfect. But my practice has been disciplined (or retentively fastidious, depending on how you see it). I’ve thought of stopping several times because why do I need more labor in my life and who is out there, really? Still, I’m writing two times a week (and every day on haiku streak and twice a week on derelict satellite too), fighting through doubts and frustrations and questions that really ought to be settled by now. After 365 posts, I still experiment, looking for something (sometimes anything) new to say.

This 366th post sounds the usual alerts that come with hitting anticipated moments. No figurative or virtual or literal balloons will drop from the ceiling but, if this blog were a TV series, it would be high-time for a clip episode. I’ve thought about how to celebrate. In honor of this occasion, for instance, I might address the five posts with the greatest number of visitors:

The first two were “Freshly Pressed” and the last three I suspect are fodder for plagiarists and image seekers, so that won’t do. More interesting to me might be posts I liked that received less than 10 views:

That list seems desperate. And these “Greatest Hits” are inexhaustible. I might create an obliquely confessional list, a truly confessional list, an antic list, a lyrical list, a written-for-language-alone list, an oddly resonant list, a list list.

In fact, I just have, in case you haven’t noticed.

Yet, when you write to practice writing as I do here, words pulse only briefly before dimming, the most ephemeral of lightning bugs. And next Tuesday will come, and I’ll have another post to offer. It’s hard to speak of a body of work when that body changes each moment. We note the circles of the sun largely to acknowledge experience. It’s nice sometimes to pause and look back. What lies ahead is as frightening as it is enticing. But I need to keep walking.

I hope, Dear Reader, you will go with me. It means so much to have company, and I deeply appreciate hearing your voices in my mind.


Filed under Aging, Ambition, Blogging, Doubt, Essays, Experiments, Friendship, Gratitude, Home Life, Hope, Identity, life, Meditations, Memory, Resolutions, Survival, Thoughts, Uncategorized, Voice, Work, Writing

Strange Seas

???????????????????????????????I hardly have time to write. I’m waiting to board a flight to Philadelphia where, tomorrow, my wife and I will say goodbye to our daughter as she starts her freshman year in college. As our twenty-one year old son is starting his senior year, soon we’ll be empty-nesters.

Lest you think I’m spending these final moments with my daughter writing about it, she’s with my wife taking advantage of tax-free shopping in Delaware. They left this morning.

I’m not very good at these events. From a panoramic view, they look huge. Standing next to them, they fool you by blending into the immediate landscape. You can’t be sure exactly where you are. And no one is pausing here but me. I didn’t fly out earlier because school started yesterday, and I didn’t want to seem unprofessional by taking such early personal days. Teaching two classes today was, of course, unnecessary—my colleagues would cover for me—but I like handling these milestones with nonchalance. I mean to keep calm. God forbid anyone think I’m asking for special treatment.

But my daughter deserves special treatment. The summer before college is strange. Through June, July, and especially August, my daughter sailed a sea that looked calm but hid strong currents. She felt independent and wasn’t yet, quite. My wife and I were not quite off the job either. We didn’t stop worrying during her absences, her long stretches of cellphone silence, her late returns, her conflicted expressions of indifference then affection then indifference again. She grabbed for the last bit of this or that with friends. At times, her behavior was maddening. Understandably, she’s grateful her hurry-up-and-wait will end soon. While I’ll miss my daughter terribly, I’m happy too because this confusing time will end for all of us.

Three years ago, when I bid farewell to my son, he gave me a brusque hug and said, “Bye. Thanks for the last 18 years. You’ve done a good job with me, and I’m grateful. Don’t worry.” He didn’t really look back after that, and, I realized immediately—but not before then—I shouldn’t have expected more. As a parent, you engineer your obsolescence. Given the challenges of raising a child, no parent should be blamed for looking forward to freedom. Yet, being needed is sweet too, and, where a child’s gaze aims ever forward, a parent’s aims ever back. You see the child, even when you look into a young adult’s face.

So, for the next 24 hours, I’ll define mixed emotion, swinging between impatience and neediness, between celebrating my daughter’s accomplishments (and the wonderful young woman she’s become) and somehow wanting just a little more of her. I want all her attention for one last time.

I’ll keep it together. I’ll pretend it’s no big deal. All the complications of moving and settling in may make the whole occasion seem a purely practical matter anyway. My daughter may want to keep her parents pragmatic, may want it over and Mom and Dad gone because what’s next is her focus. I completely understand—I remember even—but, as her future opens up before her, I wonder what I’m standing next to.


Filed under Aging, Doubt, Education, Essays, Home Life, Hope, Identity, life, Parenting, Thoughts, Worry

Back At It Again

school-bus-1024x767Daniel Hefko, my Facebook friend (and I hope my real friend too) posted the other day:

I have been, all morning, like a bee in a field of clover at the end of summer, drinking in the ink of one book and then another—a small store of sweetness swells invisibly inside me.

Beautifully put.

We’re both teachers watching our final days of summer lapse, and, like most teachers, I’m torn between preparing for the first day and relishing these last moments, gathering sustenance for sparse months ahead. I wrestle sometimes with summer’s purpose. Are June, July, and August supposed to be productive or recuperative? Should I row for all I’m worth or glide on the glassy time granted me?

Whichever, I often reach summer’s end dissatisfied. I don’t do enough with what I should be thankful for, or I do too much to feel rejuvenated. I’ve had plenty of practice but have yet to get these months right. In June, the previous school year seems soul-crushing. In August, the year ahead feels overwhelming. You tell yourself the initial class, the compulsion of a syllabus, a pile of ungraded homework will get you going, but year by year it becomes harder. My cistern drains as quickly as it fills. Wanting to be ready is seldom enough.

As Dan suggests, maybe the secret is eluding the idea of labor, understanding that ink sustains us. Loving learning and curiosity keep us moving. On the first few days I return from break, I feel wonderful if I’m satisfied by my answer to “How was your summer?” I want to be ready to discuss encounters with new places and books and people. Students return changed by every break, and keeping up with them would signal a perfect sojourn for me. Revelation is the soul of learning. My students grow physically as I never will again, but their new stature and faces are as metaphysical as they are physical. They remind me—experience ought to penetrate.

The bee Dan describes can seem a fickle guide. Some summers I sip flowers chaotically. A stack of half-read books piles on my bedside table. The starts of multiple projects lie about. Lists of aspirations sit poorly crossed-out or lost altogether. Though I try to remind myself range and depth are important, ignoring shortfalls proves difficult—I started with such high hopes!

But perhaps it’s a matter of being instead of achieving, I tell myself. Maybe a teacher needs reminding of the essential pleasures of having a brain. Teachers need to relearn the mind’s operations and whims and discoveries. Maybe the “small store of sweetness” Dan describes doesn’t have to be stored so much as savored. The grasshopper—the one who sang the gathering season away—may not have wasted his time. He may simply have used those months differently than the ants, to remind himself that, no matter the conditions of the weather or the world, living vividly counts most.

Some moment in November, I will try to remember August. College recommendations will be due soon, and the endgame of the semester and all I have yet to accomplish will loom. I’ll try to recall being a bee, the field of clover then so far away. I’ll try to bring back the taste of ink and its essential value—its sweetness—and nutrition. I may not succeed. I may regard these summer months as wasted. But if, as Dan suggests, I can bring back that store—its substance and its memory—perhaps I’ll be okay. Some “swelling” will persist still, maybe not what I hoped to save but what I can appreciate as on-going, the life of a scholar, its pleasures and profits.


Filed under Aging, Ambition, Doubt, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Home Life, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Resolutions, Summer, Teaching, Thoughts, Work, Worry


imagesAnother 20 minute story:

I know I’ve lost these keys before—I remember—and, if I can recall where I found them last time, I might find them again.

The shelves are dusty. Iris did that. Was it yesterday I thought I heard her asking if I’d walked the dog? Do you have an early meeting today?

If my son visits later, I’ll ask him to help me find what I’ve lost. Iris would. She’d hover, trying to stop me from getting frantic, spray water on my temper. “Relax,” her favorite word. I’ve forgotten the anger passing between us, my son says. A blessing.

My son wonders if I remember this day or that. The doctors told him to. How can you recall what you’ve forgotten? “Oh yeah,” I say to him, “That’s gone,” and I laugh, “but that’s my life, not yours. Why do you remember?” Maybe I’ve said so before.

He means to be good. Lately, when he’s away I can’t bring back his face. Sometimes, he disappears even standing right here. It’s what they give me, what that stuff is supposed to do.

Everything seems cramped, each direction a wall. Outside it’s tight, crowded.

Iris grabbed my hand at night, just before sleep. The last thing she did, at night. I feel her squeezing sometimes.

They say the last time I got sick, I hit her. I hit everybody, orderlies and nurses. But it wasn’t me who send her away. Something took her face too, and nothing to fix it. Her face comes to me as a stranger now. All of it’s stranger, new, bound up in knots so it’s never coming free, no matter I what expect, ever.

Now nothing is ever expected, never.

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Filed under Aging, Anger, Doubt, Fiction, Fiction writing, Home Life, Identity, Laments, life, Memory, Recollection, Survival, Thoughts, Voice, Worry, Writing

Que sais-Je?: After Montaigne

008-Anonymous-17th century“I believe it to be true that dreams are the true interpreters of our inclinations; but there is art required to sort and understand them.”

“If my mind could gain a firm footing I would not write essays, I would make decisions.”

Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592)

The other night I dreamt I stood outside an unfamiliar room. We discussed going in—someone was with me, though I can’t remember whom—and he was all for it, ready to turn the knob and march on. But we didn’t. Instead, we kept whispering in the golden, lamp-lit lobby of the old hotel. The burgundy Persian rug, rich with patterned foliage too ornate to be untangled, oppressed me. The wood grain of dark, over-varnished paneling oppressed me. They say you can’t read in dreams, and that’s how looking around felt. My companion listened to my reluctance to intrude, my concerns about propriety, my fear of reprimand, my questions about purpose. We never entered.

Before you interpret this dream, let me try. Work will start again soon, and I’m worried about whether I’m ready to begin teaching again. My companion is my double. He reassures my apprehensive part. He’s rational. The rug and wood grain are the complexity of starting something new and yet familiar, not knowing where to—or knowing why or whether I want to—begin.

Over the last few weeks, it’s been unusually cool in Chicago. We’ve kept our windows open, and I’ve been listening to workers on breaks, to kids playing in the neighborhood, to dog walkers exchanging small talk about canine life. In almost every case, I’m envious. The rest of the world seems to feel abandon I seldom experience. It knows, or senses it knows, everything. It laughs freely, thinks of adjacent moments, and revels in light companionship. Meanwhile, my brooding imagination dwells on how different it is, sending it deeper into brooding.

Another part of me laughs at how absurd my worries are, can think of no reason not to chide me, and discounts doubts as wasting time that should be spent in action. That alter-ego means to cajole me, sometimes to shame me. Too bad neither side wins. I suspect I could be happy if either felt confident of its rectitude. The argument isn’t angry, but it goes on, and neither side seems purely convinced by its position.

When I was young, I sometimes lurked in my bedroom, rehearsing scenes I’d face. As I played both parts, my fantasies devolved into Mitty-esque displays of wit and charm, smooth grace and social aplomb. It didn’t take me long to understand even my worst improvisation surpassed my best performance. Speaking my intended lines felt like quoting. If I listened to myself talk, I heard a stranger who needed shushing.

The difference now is that I rehearse and don’t use the material.

Silly as it sounds, I want to blame society. Who can exist in our advertising era without living in gaps between what is and—according to absolute, invisible standards—ought to be. Yet, intellectualized consolation isn’t satisfying. When you hold yourself to higher ideals, you have a mirror before you. No one else matters. Your actions are your responsibility.

The most enjoyable moments I know are undoubled, and they’re rare. My education tells me the unexamined life isn’t worth living and self-consciousness—that’s what we’re discussing here—assures twice as much (and twice as profound) experience. I believe that. I only wish my stereoscopic view were more focused.

Without self-recrimination, I might act immediately. I might always be prepared because I lived between waves of experience, fielding one and bracing for another. There’d be so much less effort in compelling myself to get busy, so much less torture.

I undo surprise with seven layers of anticipation and eight layers of after-the-fact analysis. I want to open the door.


Filed under Aesthetics, Ambition, Anxiety, Art, Doubt, Dreaming, Essays, Experiments, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Michel de Montaigne, Modern Life, Resolutions, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Voice, Worry

A Drink With My Brother

DRINKSI’ve never been as patient as I’d like to be, and recently less so. The blame rests partly with the pace of my life, which seems wired to split my attention and atomize my every attempt to ease my fretful existence.

Technology makes relentless activity possible, and none of us can do anything about the electronic landscape—the toothpaste is out of the tube, ground into the carpet, rubbed onto the walls, and diffused molecule by molecule into even the most remote parts of the world. But technology is not all the problem. You can shut devices down for a few hours. The issue is recharging yourself as devotedly as you do your devices.

Instant and ubiquitous access, gratification, and flexibility mean time has few anchors. I drift according to what I feel like doing right now because it seldom matters when you do anything. Life’s simple pleasures sometimes seem unimpressive because talking to friends, seeing movies, or playing games can occur any time you desire… and nearly all the time, if you desire that.

Lately I’ve been thinking about those regular social events that enticed earlier generations to celebrate life more deliberately—their high teas and tea ceremonies, their Sunday dinners with family, their ritual chores and seasonal obligations, their extended family picnics, even their network-mandated TV viewing.

Once you had to watch when things were on—though that would be annoying for us, it compelled people to spend time together and share common experience… and without multi-“tasking” on phones, laptops, and iPads.

Some people keep together time sacred, but I don’t. So last weekend, I sent my brother a proposal to start a remote cocktail club. We can’t meet—we live in different cities—but we can share making a drink even if we can’t drink it together. Each week, one of will offer a drink recipe—the more elaborate, the better—and we’ll try it. Not together, but we’ll share our outcomes. Just talking that much, I’m embarrassed to say, will necessitate communicating more than we usually do, but it will also hold us responsible for one weekly celebration of life. We’ll expand not only our liquor cabinets but also our knowledge and expertise. We’ll learn something, and possibly more than just how to make cocktails. We’ll slow down long enough to do something frivolous and fun.

You, dear reader, are welcome to join us. I’ve created a blog to record our journey, A Drink With My Brother: The Adventures of Two Not-So-Savvy Cocktailians. As the mission page says, “Big things start small. Maybe a few more casual celebrations can make the world a calmer place.”

One weekly cocktail won’t slow the unremitting rush of my life, but it’s an experiment worth trying. It will be strange (and nice) to schedule a little revelry.

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Filed under Aging, Ambition, Blogging, Essays, Experiments, Gratitude, Home Life, Hope, life, Modern Life, Nostalgia, Play, Resolutions, Survival, Thoughts, Writing

On Accident: 12 Thoughts


The more empty your day, the more you fill it with thought experiments. Canvassing the plausible, improbable, and impossible passes time, stimulates the brain. You can’t know everything—everyone knows that—and something unnoticed always hides in all that’s plain. In idle moments, you may be happy to discover what you haven’t considered before, and, besides, dreaming a world where nothing can be new or unanticipated is nightmarish.

But, in life, less so.


One of the English teachers at my school devised a course called “Happily Ever After” featuring literature that ends positively. It can’t have been easy to teach the class or, for that matter, to choose texts. Mistakes compel attention and explanation. Good fortune, a gift, begs acknowledgement, acceptance, and little more.

Some years ago, I taught a similar course called “The Comic View.” My purpose was to examine the way comedy works, its motivations and its mechanisms and its perspective and its effect. I got nowhere. Most conversations began by nodding at what was funny or fortunate—the class agreed to pursue at least that line of questioning—yet, the moment discussion turned to why we laughed or what it might say about us, the students sighed. They might be interested, I told myself, if only I could  get them started, but no cajoling worked long. No one wanted relief to end.

“Here,” they seemed to say, “see, something good happened. Let’s not ask why.”


I read an essay where the author described a bird dropping from several stories, then—as if the bird bounced on hard air—it leapt back into flight. It flew back to the roof where it started and fell again. Again and again. I would like to see that bird, or to see any animal defy its gifts. Some secret waits there. If a true test can have no witnesses, then success and failure, whatever the terms mean, must happen in solitude. The bird caught itself in time, but that can’t always be the case.

Birds must fall. If the rest of the animal kingdom resembles us, it must resemble us in mishap. Our lapses crush steel and glass. They sacrifice our limbs to machines. They wipe our lives, and other lives, away. We watch these moments in the past and, recalling them imperfectly, can’t guess causes exactly… including what’s meant, not meant, and in-between.


Bumper stickers recognize shit happens, but no bumper sticker will ever attain the length required to explain why.


A new upscale market in our neighborhood teems with friendly helpers in natty black T-shirts. When I visit, I try to come up with some missing item. “Do you have kamut puffs?” I ask, or “I’m looking for pickled brussel sprouts…” or “I notice you don’t have any ESBs, do all your beers have IBUs above 45?”

Where do my interactions go? Do they drop them in the box for crazy and misguided requests or take them as a challenge to anticipate the unanticipated? What if I visited the market daily without explaining why—how long before they’d acknowledge the finitude of their collection, the absolute certainty they’ve missed something?

More practically, how long before they bar me?


The Christian use of “accident” comes from Aristotle (as co-opted by Thomas Aquinas) and describes unessential aspects. The Eucharist is transubstantiated as the body and blood of Christ, Aquinas said, and its existence as bread and wine is accidental. Its essential substance is miraculous even if its earthly nature seems ordinary. The specific food and drink don’t matter.

Aristotle delineates nine traits as accidental: quantity, quality, relation, habitus (state or condition), time, location, situation or position, and passion (how a thing is acted upon).

The first time I encountered his list, I thought, “What’s left?” It seemed to me an exhaustive description of any item’s traits. I never reached reconciling his “accident” with the word’s colloquial meaning as “an unforeseen and unplanned event or circumstance.”

I’ve tried since. Everything, it seems, is accidental. That is, nothing is at last essential in anything we see or experience. If the essential exists, it’s not defined by any of the traits Aristotle identified. Those traits are perceivable, and the essential, it appears, is not.

The implications of unanticipated events elude understanding. What happens was never meant, wasn’t essential, and didn’t have to be. We just can’t let accidents be. We have to account, explain, make them into more than they may be.


Not to be irreverent, but I wonder if any priest has ever tried Twinkies and Welch’s. If the accident doesn’t matter, any perverse or ordinary thing should do.


The eponymous event of Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake dictates human beings repeat the years 1991 through 2001 with no hope of correcting mistakes they made. They cause and suffer the same accidents. They experience the same joy and the same grief, and their lives run an identical path with only one difference—they know it.

In Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, the alien Tralfamadorians compare the human perception of time to riding a flatcar, chained down, wearing a helmet that prevents looking left or right, and spying the world exclusively through a six foot long tube. A comic retelling of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” the analogy relies on a similar twist—we don’t know. The situation seems, to us, utterly ordinary.

The truth lies somewhere between. Maybe we do know. Perhaps not. In the context of the moment, everything seems accidental, the sum of multitudinous causes and therefore arbitrary. Yet, among the possibilities, is the prospect it’s not so, that we never see the essential necessity of events, their solidity and surity.


Just now I have a headache and think I know why. I’ve had too much coffee this week. By drinking coffee, I’ve prepared to work instead of working. Though I hoped to enhance my wakefulness and concentration for mental labor, I’ve been lost in a cloud of misty connections instead, jangled and diffuse in attention to what I ought to be doing. Off caffeine, I suffer the expected results—I’m not worth a damn.

My explanation, however, is self-serving. Faced with onerous tasks, I’ve found a way to end my responsibility in a way that isn’t altogether unpleasant. Work awaits, but circumstances cooperated to put it aside. I’m only capable of composing this post… which is what I wanted to do in the first place.

The inevitable often seems so sure.


Perhaps you remember the vertigo you felt when you thought for the first time that everything, everything, everything might be part of your imagination. My variation on that moment led me to posit I imagined every limit. If I could only believe a sub-eight second 100 meters were possible, I might run one.

As you may expect, I put the theory to many tests. I ran away from the sun, chasing my shadow, and tried to anticipate overtaking it. My choice was faith, and faith, I trusted, would make my desires real. The results disappointed. Still, sometimes I blame my mind’s limits, its imprisonment in what I’d learned was irrevocable cause and effect. Obliged to fulfill what I’d experienced, I couldn’t conceive what might—really—happen.


Comfort with uncertainty defines the modern mind, or so we like to think. We’re all negatively capable, cognitively dissonant, unsure and happy. If nothing is known, everything is known. We can be pleased with that.

You may also believe deficits and assets reach a rough balance every sundown. You invest in trusting a final summation is impossible and will never come in any case. Certainly, our own end will never come—it’s intolerable to think so. Despite our flirtations with dire consequences, no accident looms. Only some outcomes can occur. Only some thoughts.

Stuck in paradoxes, you let them lie. What’s accidental and incidental and intentional will work itself out according to rules we can’t know. What’s certain and essential is never either. You delight in surprise. You face tragedy if and when it arrives.


Accidents are either terrifying or enticing… and unknowable regardless. What choice do I have except to explain?

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Filed under Allegory, Anxiety, Doubt, Essays, Experiments, Kurt Vonnegut, Laments, life, Lyric Essays, Meditations, Parables, Thoughts, Words



Stalingrad at the end of World War II

Another 20 minute fiction… So grim. What does it say that such stories surface in me?

How strange the day after surrender—the city still ruined, the same deprivation, the smoke, the ash, the puddles darker than the sky. So what changes? I’ve slept, that’s all.

And I dreamed. A convoy of vehicles came down the block, each panting hefty clouds of exhaust, and, hanging from every possible perch, was everyone I knew gone. The neighbor’s son beamed with the smile of a saint, and his father, who died just a week and a half ago with a gun in his mouth, watched him with sheepish regret. In my dreams, I’m the one missing and so I wasn’t there, but I believed myself, somehow, like the place itself, space that never changes no matter what happens in it.

I don’t know what to feel but that may be how I feel. Surviving isn’t the burden I expected. It’s invisibility. Some stream of time sweeps by you, and you’re a rock that parted it. What came together before you split around you and rejoined a little farther on.

Early in the war, every breeze of news lifted us. We didn’t just expect to triumph but thought a new order would rearrange the world. Our beloved state would be a great civic garden of monuments and blossoms. We wasted a good deal of colored paper, lost precious energy in dancing, marching, and shouting.

Old-timers knew to begin secreting supplies and heard our pleas long before we made them. Later, they shut their eyes and wagged their heads. Some wanted to help, but all blamed us. They would rather have slept. We were sorry to rob them. They were regret we wished to silence, and now I wonder if all they hoarded was our shame.

This morning the street is not as empty. People scour the remnants of kitchens, stores, and factories for anything that might sustain them—surrender won’t feed us—but those spots are worn bare. No one missed anything. We have taken it all, witnessed it all, the noisy fires and teetering crumble of cement and tangled skeletons of houses and flesh smells.

You want to forget, want to remember. Another morning and another after that might let amnesia creep in and then all will seem morning again, all promise and light. How do you sustain a nightmare when the only cure is waking?

I’d like to see something beautiful today—would like to make something beautiful—but no raw material remains to create it. And my mind, empty of nearly every face once floating through, lives only because it insists.

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Not a Diet, A Lifestyle

home-5d75bad805b9382457be8d50231b6e95I hoped growing older might dry-up the appetites that beset me, that age might turn me into a wizened old gentleman for whom asceticism is natural—like breathing—and that air, and maybe some water and crackers, might become the only essentials to my continued existence. In short, I wanted to slowly and imperceptibly (and painlessly, please) grow happy as a monk. After decades of daily struggle with blind, ignorant yearning, can’t my brain finally win?

This summer, I’ve been counting calories. I was reasonably healthy before, not medically overweight or (chronically) immoderate in my eating. Being attractive isn’t even essential to men of my age and circumstance. Yet I see young, muscular males walking about and note their ubiquitous presence on television and the internet, in magazines and advertisements looming over the city. This imagery is enough to remind me of my inadequacy. Sure, my brain knows those expectations are artificial. Very few men look that way naturally, without rigorous physical training—or photoshop—and I might not desire weight loss without such clear messages about the importance of thin.

The Confucian philosopher Xunzi (ca. 312–230 BCE) made a distinction between xing and wei. The immediate aspects of existence fall under xing, which describes human nature at its most basic, including all the desires—he says bodily satisfaction, comfort, and prominence are chief—linking us to other animals. Though not exclusively evil, our xing needs training and channeling by our wei. Wei is artifice, the deliberate and conscious acknowledgement that our spontaneous whims must be controlled if we hope to cultivate proper habits. Wei is the first step toward virtue, as trying to be our best selves won’t happen naturally.

Something Spartan lurks in his philosophy that appeals to me. To get what you truly desire you must overcome your desires. If thin is good, make peace with eating the number of daily calories dictated by your current weight, your age, your activity level, and your goals.

Though it’d be easy to call Xunzi a Hobbesian cynic, his belief in our capacities over our proclivities is idealistic. For example, we may desire skill in painting, writing, and music because it brings us prominence, but we train as artists because of wei. We exercise those skills conscientiously and diligently knowing that, if anything of universal value is to come of them, we must find willpower and self-discipline. Anything requiring effort ultimately separates us from our xing. Desire created our goals, but artifice expressed their best form. Unlike Mencius, another prominent Confucian, Xunzi doesn’t believe we can do much with our basic appetites—xing isn’t good and is never good—but it can be overcome. Wei will supplant xing.

Yet, I suspect any distinction neatly dividing overlapping human impulses. I have questions: If we all have the capacity for wei, does that make it natural or artificial? What about wanting to have the best wei on the block, where do you put that impulse? Xunzi’s appreciation of the war between nature and artifice as the key struggle of existence seems right, and I’d love to believe wei will win. But can the brain and body ever make peace?

Xunzi’s answer was his faith in “approval,” by which he meant the heart’s decision to do what’s best, even if it opposes our appetites. According to Xunzi, we inevitably settle on what we should do and not what we want. Because health is the greater good, I sacrifice to achieve it… putting aside, of course, that vanity isn’t healthy.

The creation of “approval” helps assure Xunzi that proper behavior can exist without squelching natural desires. When “approval” takes over, reason—or, in my case, calorie counting—won’t dominate for long. We don’t develop habitual denial without training, but, to Xunzi, it becomes a part of us. Eventually, doing right requires neither thought nor effort. I WILL embrace 1500 calories before adding in extra for time on the elliptical.

Really? So far, my experiment suggests Xunzi is delusional. Granted, ours is not an age of self-denial, but it seems the gap between what you want and what you get will always be obvious. How can you act against your nature without knowing it? How long does it take to forget you’re acting against your nature?

I’d like to reach that stage tomorrow.

I battle my xing mightily, I do, and right now I’m bravely conserving the planet’s food resources for others. I cast aside spontaneous needs in favor of conscientious retraining, even though I’m probably old enough not to give a shit. But where do I find “approval” and how will I know my heart, and not Calvin Klein, is behind it?

Maybe I shouldn’t ask these questions, but I’m not thinking straight. Truth is, I’m very hungry.


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