Monthly Archives: October 2013

What Work Is

Work+Life+BalanceYou know what work is—if you’re

old enough to read this you know what

work is, although you may not do it.

So many of my recent promises begin with, “When I finish my college recommendations….” Writing for my students is one of my most important tasks, a debt I owe for their receptivity, diligence, and learning. I want to communicate their talent and potential so I can give them the best boost I can. That said, I don’t exactly enjoy writing recs in the way I do most writing—the pleasure arises exclusively from completing the work to my satisfaction. They’re hard. They drain my reservoir of will for other writing.

The problem, I’ve been told, is mine, regarding some writing as work and some as play. It should all be play, people urge.

Mark Twain said, “’Work’ and ‘play’ are words used to describe the same thing under different conditions,” and of course that’s so. But now that my recommendations are finished, another season’s worth, the labor feels like a series of delirious births, neither work nor play but a necessity survived.

The difference between play and work, a mentor once told me, is wanting to continue the former and looking for the end of the latter. I’m not sure how this definition was supposed to aid me—it’s been impossible to get out of my head ever since—but he described my sense of life perfectly. Some jobs are finite and you want them to be. Others stretch beyond their borders and, though you know they must have limits, you never mind their sprawl. I enjoy preparing for class and would gladly spend two or three hours for a 50 minute period, but almost any grading feels onerous. I can fret the layout of a handout longer than I spend writing the handout in the first place. I get it.

But people who say they don’t distinguish between work and play fill me with wonder, envy, and disgust. They mean to say they enjoy their work and everything they do is playful. They mean to express their mind-over-matter dominance. If I ever say work and play are synonymous, however, you can assume I mean everything is work, a vast creeping fog from which there is no escape, a Macbethian nightmare promising no light to come.

I’m being a little dramatic, but you may know what I mean. The threshold of work can be matchbox height. Life is work, and work is life. And, at times, I’m not sure what not-working is, whether not-working is allowed at all.

One of my first jobs was at a swimming pool, and on Mondays, when it was closed, I went into work and backwashed the pumps and vacuumed the pool. Standing on the edge like a musing gondolier, I pushed the vacuum pole hand over hand along the bottom, watching the device through the distortion of water, sun, and current. Who knows if I was accomplishing anything at all—perhaps I only stirred up silt—but I enjoyed the simple motion of it, the unhurried solitude and peace of doing something so simple and satisfying.

Meeting that standard seems challenging now. Though nearly every part of teaching is quite familiar to me, it still requires brainpower, care, and attention. There’s little time for musing, now a euphemism for wasting time.

When I uploaded the last of my recommendations, I felt a small surge of pride. The mission stood before me, and I bettered it. I did not, however, mistake my duty for pleasure, though I wish I could.

“There is work that is work and there is play that is play; there is play that is work and work that is play,” Gelett Burgess said, “and in only one of these lies happiness.” After all these years, maybe I don’t yet understand. Happy work proves ever elusive still.

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Filed under Aging, Ambition, Desire, Doubt, Envy, Essays, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Modern Life, Play, Sturm und Drang, Teaching, Thoughts, Work, Writing

Duped By Progress

p208People argue for progress by citing the inconvenience of life before indoor plumbing or the health risks of unpreserved food or the ignorance and danger of primitive religion or the likelihood of death by unknown causes or the terrible poverty at the low end of the social scale or the stench of irregular bathing. In short, we should be glad to live now. Things are better, undoubtedly.

Yet, while we know what was missing then, no one can know the compensations of life in the past. Their less frenetic lives, as circumscribed as they may have been, probably included fewer desperate aspirations to progress. Certainly, no one then thought, “My goodness, I wish the toilet were inside,” or “When is someone finally going to invent deodorant?” Were they as trained to want as we are? Did they want all the time? If they enjoyed what they had more, perhaps we should envy them.

Emerson described society as a wave, the energy moves and the material does not. What we call progress is often little more than something different, positive because it’s novel, advantageous in ways that, moments before, never occurred to us. We’re prompted to appreciate—usually through purchase—every semi-step forward. Yet, as Havelock Ellis said, “What we call progress is the exchange of one nuisance for another.”

We want to distance ourselves from yesterday, and the thought we might stand still keeps us dancing as if we stood barefoot on a griddle. The greater the expectation of progress, the more relentless and restless life becomes. Time accelerates. Promise crowds each moment and spills into disappointment when we can’t achieve impossible hopes. We are meant to advance, after all, because that’s what humans do.

Did the great historically unbathed—before the Enlightenment, say—expect so much? Perhaps acceptance, acquiescence, and resignation were bigger in their world, and they didn’t know to be unhappy. If the worship of progress is itself something new, should we call that worship progress, the perpetual feeling the present isn’t quite good enough?

It bears remembering that some of the hunger we feed only increases our appetite and that weapons and human depravity progress too. If humans were exclusively rational, we might expect reliably improved lives, but humans’ rationality is hardly dependable, and what we call progress today often proves naïve, ignorant of unanticipated consequences and side effects that sometimes surpass any pessimist’s prediction.

Belief in progress is finally faith, self-assurance today improves yesterday and tomorrow will be better still. The proof waits for a later stretching ever ahead. We will never know or prove things are better, but we may add to our present discontent by thinking things have to be.

In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Tom Stoppard wrote, “We cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and a presumption that once our eyes watered.”

The bridges we meet go only one way and, burning them behind us, we have nothing to show for it but tears. Yet with no clear memory of what caused those tears, we can’t imagine ourselves authors of our own displeasure. We go blindly, ever forward, assuming the future will save us from this strange smoke.

The past is bad, what’s ahead is better, and the present is only good for longing.


Filed under Ambition, Desire, Doubt, Emerson, Essays, Grief, Jeremiads, Laments, Modern Life, Opinion, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts

In the Space Between

flowers-sidewalk-crackThis week might be just another week to you, but for me it is the week after the week that ended the first academic quarter, and with so little time and energy to write, I decided to try a 20 minute essay this time, to just compose and revise until the kitchen timer went off…

The gaps between tasks are fertile. Weeds growing there—the fortuitous meeting with a stranger, a flame-tinged leaf floating to your feet, eavesdropped children—find a place to be and, being, thrive. Sometimes a stem stretches four ways until it locates the sun and then flowers. Sometimes a seed in just enough dirt grows into a tree, its roots strong enough to break stones around it.

A day flush with tasks accommodates no weeds. It’s smooth and seamless and allows no opening for accident. Its assembly brings satisfactions—neatness, productivity, completion—but little to remember. It’s every worker’s wish to begin a job and wake to find it done, with no reluctant or fitful will to prod or flog, but that’s the tale of the golden spool, the boy who’s given golden string and told unspooling a little will advance minutes and hours and days over rough spots. He finds the string, and his life, soon gone and nothing to remember.

Somehow the little spaces encourage memory. Someone told a story about an escaped parrot impossible to forget. Someone touched your shoulder and left with a word of encouragement. Someone sighed. Each seems itself because it’s nothing else, not part of an hour or day but a moment growing alone.

Unlikely life. The inevitable has a plan as relentless as ticking, but the good fortune of an idle instant comes of different fate, chance and luck and serendipity. You pause between two errands, and an errand bigger than both visits you, the thought you hadn’t had time to consider, a connection so long half-made, last night’s dream explaining itself, the right course at last, a dim image surfacing from deep memories, sweet and sour love felt in full.

The gaps are times for notebooks. Though weeds—by definition—aren’t planted, they need to be appreciated, recorded as miracles.

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Filed under Aging, Desire, Essays, Experiments, Home Life, Identity, life, Love, Meditations, Metaphor, Modern Life, Play, Prose Poems, Recollection, Survival, Thoughts, Voice, Writing

Chairs and Sofas

el-mundo-magazine_twwu-lisbon-bridgeAll this talk of government shutdown has me thinking (again) about the end of the world. I can’t explain my curiosity about doomsday—my MFA graduate lecture was titled “To Hell in a Hefty” and dealt with jeremiads of all shapes and colors. I often find myself saying, “Oh well.”

I heard once that levels of nitrous oxide—N2O—are rising nearly one hundred fold in the Indian Ocean. Before that instant, I thought of N2O as laughing gas, the stuff dentists use to anaesthetize patients. I didn’t know nitrous oxide existed in nature, and, apparently, it shouldn’t much. It comes from fertilizer run-off.

Nitrous oxide, the story explained, may be a double threat, depleting the ozone layer and contributing to green house gasses. The atmosphere grows more permeable to radiation while it holds more radiation in as heat. Which is to say, forget global climate change, nitrous oxide will

Sometimes I stagger punch-drunk through the paper, taking every blow because I’m too weary to get out of the way. Past a certain point, all the bad news becomes one warning—love your family, love your life, the end is nigh.

It’s more accurate to say humanity is in trouble, and I’ve written before about the planet without us, one filled with bird and insect sounds and collapsed houses and high rises barely visible beneath vines and spring green trees. Smears of algae will run down streets littered with the carapaces of cars enveloped in morning glories. The air will smell like orchids in bloom, heavy and fertile.

In E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End, the main character Margaret Schlegel Wilcox repeats her sister’s quip that, in the end, the world will be “a desert of chairs and sofas,” and that version is more clever, a massive Ethan Allen catalog, all the settees and breakfast nooks artfully intact. Objects d’art scrupulously well-positioned, if dusty.

I much prefer slanting mellow light across a subtle plaid to the image of my family sitting around, sunburned and steaming, laughing our asses off on N2O.

Okay, so maybe that’s a step too far. Once I begin to think of people I love, any end time seems too harsh to contemplate, too painful and real. Yet that’s where my mind goes, and wouldn’t it be great if thoughts of family saved us from our crazy flirtations with catastrophe. But I’m not the only one who thinks catastrophe, in the abstract, is fun to consider. And some people are self-centered enough to overlook everyone else.

Once I had a dream that I was going to a photo exhibit of pictures taken with telephoto lenses from Manhattan rooftops. The photographers shot images of families through the windows of their apartments. Some caught the families eating or arguing or laughing over a board game like a Milton Bradley advertisement, but the longer I walked the walls of the gallery, the more photos depicted bodies bathed in television glow, strewn like sacks of flour around a white fire. The TV screens and their broadcasts never appeared, just mid-flicker radiation illuminating the slack, open-eyed faces of the recumbent.

I had some trouble getting back to sleep.

In the news stories I encounter, people are data, not individuals as complex as my wife and children. No one, despite the best journalistic effort, is anyone I know. Predictions of economic collapse, monster storms, rising sea levels, and impossible droughts and floods are just ideas, vast forces scything us down gently. The temptation to feel fatalistic is strong. What can be done? To everything—turn, turn, turn—there is a season…

W. S. Merwin contemplates his death in his poem “For The Anniversary of My Death.” He speaks somewhat wistfully about the way, even in the ugliest moment, life can surprise us with simple beauty—in Merwin’s case, a wren singing. After three days of rain, the bird’s song finds him, “bowing not knowing to what.” Try as you might, catastrophe can’t remain abstract. There’s so much to cling to here.

I have a friend who is more frightened of death than anything else. I’m not. I know my time will come. What bothers me more is thinking that, each year, as the anniversary of my demise passes, I’m wasting my time here.

What can I do to respond to great, abstract forces? I can’t march on Washington or single-handedly reduce the carbon footprint of the planet. I recycle. I shrink my environmental effect yearly by walking and watching my wastefulness. I support environmental groups financially. I’m nice and vote, as best I can, only for those who seem to seek something rather than seek to ruin what rivals want. But I’m not an industrialist, a congressman, a CEO, or anyone with any sort of power. Those people are hard at work. My actions are desperate faith.

And so fatalism seems valid. Though doing nothing much feels cowardly, may make me part of the problem, and will hasten ends I envision, all the hope I have left is to elude regret, to try to love it while I’m here.

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Filed under America, Doubt, Essays, Grief, Identity, Jeremiads, Laments, life, Politics, Sturm und Drang, Survival, Thoughts, Worry

Speaking Truly

okore_rope3Another 20 minute story

Every man, wherever he goes, is encompassed by a cloud of comforting convictions, which move with him like flies on a summer day. —Bertrand Russell, Skeptical Essays (1928)

He knows not to make his ugly confession—he rereads his work over and over. He knows it a complete waste of time, but a deep need for confirmation possesses him. He thinks, “Yes, I’ve written,” and, “yes, what I’ve written is solid and permanent.”

“If I do nothing else,” he thinks, “at least I’ve done this.”

Some people rely on affirmations repeated in each breath, the equivalent of uttering over and over “I believe I can.” He leans on evidence, the solid, accumulated words of a lifetime amassing words. He never knows if they’re good words, or if they’re arranged in any order felicitous to anyone else, but he sees them there. They’re preserved.

When he speaks, sometimes his listeners wear an unmistakable expression that says he’s wrong. Often, he’s sure nothing he says penetrates. He means to reveal his true self, admit every doubt, and request the mercy flawed people deserve. Instead, others hear him as betraying himself, who he is, what his statements really mean.

He tries to believe he imagines their skepticism, but he only escapes judgment on the page. Not seeing listeners, he makes them sympathetic. Comfort comes from faith in an audience leaning forward, tuned to this peculiar syntax, and still. In his imagination, he can keep them there, always attentive, agreeable.

If he could take the miles of marching prose, twist it like a rope, and coil it on the deck of a vessel set loose on the sea, he might be happy. He’d be safe. The thought of even one sailor unsettles him. If anyone can kick the pile into the ocean with all the rest of the earth’s words, someone will.

He sees the whole sinking into deep shadows, unreeling, its meaning lost as easily as if it never existed.

As a boy he could invent and he could believe. He found enough space in his room to pretend and didn’t need to come out. He’s afraid to come out.

A cloud of delusion clings to him. He knows it and wants to protect it. He wants to keep it with him, be alone with it, alone with his work.

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Filed under Anxiety, Art, Desire, Doubt, Ego, Experiments, Fiction, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Parables, Solitude, Sturm und Drang, Writing

Standing in the Way

water-pipeBetween emails, marginal scrawl in books and on compositions, writing here and elsewhere, plus college recommendations demanding attention this fall, I’m producing a torrent of words. Sometimes I’m unsure if I’m the pipe or standing in front of it, meeting its relentless affront.

There’s no valve.

I like words and find I can understand and say little without them. Still I long sometimes for wordlessness, a vacation when I uncover an essay I’d meant to post and forgotten, when a poem surfaces pristine from the swamp of past work, or a letter appears from my sleep whole and otherworldly. Of course that never happens. Sentences demand assembly. They don’t present themselves. They’re summoned. They insist on being new.

People occasionally ask me if I’d like to make a living as a writer, and I think I would. But prose is so insistent, such a bossy presence, I worry I’d wallow in obligation and necessity. The life of a real writer is strange—what if words were everything, not just an urge or visitation but obsession, compulsion as deep as breathing? Perhaps it’s better to slum with words, better to vamp, better to blog.

The writing I like best is haiku. My attention to my subject is minute or distant or abstract and I can shape an aloof impression that’s not quite the thing but mimics its effect. The rest of writing means to clad its subject like polystyrene, hugging close, intending never to let go… though I want only to cast.

I like to let go. My best moments arrive when the narrowest light illuminates a subject. The rest of the time, I’m adjusting, adjusting, adjusting to stand something in the sun. Each movement suggests more manipulation, exploitation, intention. It’s work when it ought to be natural, as natural as speaking or being.

At its best, writing is revelation, the proper thing presenting itself at the proper time. I feel that state when I write haiku, as if I only uncovered what’d been buried. I might write “blank” to fill a syllable and the space instantly fills, as if the solution waited for worrying to pause. Some fate delays… and then is here.

Wanting to do well is hardly a help. When I’m writing something I know important, I stand at the doorway of a sentence or phrase or word for ten minutes. When the task is going right, only being receptive matters. If  the words shoot as from a fire hose, I accept them. They may know what I don’t. They intend to expose what I wouldn’t see without words.

I don’t know if I’ll ever understand “my process,” if “my process” exists at all. But understanding I’m part of what emerges helps me accept what appears.  The torrent has its own direction, its own compulsion, its own being. I’m in it but also watching, wondering at what I see.


Filed under Ambition, Desire, Doubt, Essays, Haiku, Hope, Identity, Kenko, Meditations, Thoughts, Voice, Work, Writing

Thoughts After A Busy Day

thomas-hawk-blurry-street-ipad-wallpaperThe teacher moved from table to table releasing ink into still glasses of water with an eyedropper. She’d taught the word “diffusion”—a big word—but it said little about the bloom of color stretching into blue smoke and disappearing as we watched. We were to guess what could cause such a thing, and some classmates did. I only wanted more ink.

Diffusion reveals greater implications as its literal meaning stretches into the figurative. Ideas are diffused into society, and prose can be diffuse when a lot of it says little. When light comes from everywhere and nowhere, it’s diffuse. Just about anything you would like to isolate and identify but can’t has diffused, is now invisible in its homogeneity.

My life is often diffuse too, spread through different roles over varied terrain, and, sometimes, daily color loses any locus. Routine isn’t vivid enough to be memorable, and time passes in a fog of activity:

I answer email and prepare for class, make my bag lunch, stuff my backpack with ungraded papers and fold up my computer, pull the graded papers from my bag and pass them out, unfold my computer and plug it in to make it visible on the smart board, pull my pen and glasses from my pocket to read and mark text in tomorrow’s assignment, laugh with colleagues over gossip so similar to last week’s, last month’s and some years’ gossip, eat my lunch at my desk, the parts disappearing before I remember to enjoy it, walk to class, wait for stillness, remind students of homework and arrange to meet one or two to go over questions or comments on their essays.

The essays follow as deep a pattern as leopards in the shadows of a rainforest. Only some are dramatic enough to be seen. The world leans toward entropy. It means not to be noticed. It means to escape recognition.

I can’t recall whether diffusion is active or passive. My teacher taught me something about the agitation of molecules, and I pictured them rubbing ink out, so maybe seven-handed multi-tasking explains it. Every second, cyber-demands reach with the promise of accomplishing more with just a bit more time and effort… until all activity, buffeted by vibrating time, blurs to static.

Alternately, maybe it’s perspective—a lazy mind losing the habit of differentiating. Pale hours are seconds and minutes that make less of an impression. Days are a colorful caravan of hours passing unbidden in twilight. Back in school my teacher came around with a sheet of paper, and, against a white field, the ink stretched like faint nebulae. They may still, if I’d see them.

The word “diffusion” itself fades with use—say any word enough and it will—but I feel it just the same, know what I can’t explain, sense its meaning as it happens again right now.


Filed under Aging, Buddhism, Doubt, Essays, High School Teaching, Identity, Letters, life, Meditations, Modern Life, Prose Poems, Recollection, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Words, Work

On More

ambitionMan is the only animal whose desires increase as they are fed, the only animal that is never satisfied.  —Henry George (1839-1897)

I wonder sometimes at desire, how the fabulously rich person can covet more profit or how the powerful senator or representative can begrudge the slightest compromise or how the famously successful artist can worry he or she has lost relevance.

Yet truly I understand. Getting whets desire. Having what you always wanted frees you to want more. At least, it must. I don’t know how it feels to be rich, powerful, or successful, but I can easily understand not wanting to stay where you are. I feel the desire for progress and further success. I’d like to think that, if I ever attain a comfortable situation, I’ll be content, but humans don’t seem built for contentment.

Our tragic flaw as a species may be restlessness, a deeply embedded longing to move and move again. Once survival must have rested on shoring up against unanticipated shortfalls or migrating from favorable positions in anticipation of their becoming unfavorable. Once we persisted because of worries, because the contented came to no good end.

Of course we ought to rest sometimes. No one needs Bill Gates’ wealth or Mitch McConnell’s influence or Lady Gaga’s cache. No one needs anything more than today’s meals, a restful place to sleep, and enough activity to prevent boredom and feelings of unimportance. Yet that’s seldom enough. My own life is full enough, and nothing tells me another essay or poem will fulfill me. Intellectually I know. Emotionally, just the opposite. It’s more what not posting means, a concession, a settling, an act commensurate with sacrifice or surrender or quitting.

I think of Odysseus who, having appeased Poseidon at last with his winnowing fan, presses through the Pillars of Hercules and sails off the elbowed edge of the known world. I think of the pursuit of outer space, a place finally empty and vast enough to accommodate our ambition. Must we? Yes, I suppose, we must. Something positively biological compels us.

Still sometimes we shouldn’t. Alexis de Tocqueville said American society depended on “Self-interest, rightly understood,” that our greatest motivation benefits ourselves but should extend only so far.  No benefit should impinge on another’s. He described more than Americans, I think. Humans want and want until every other human disappears—we survive by thinking of current rewards and future advantages, which often don’t include rewards for others. Some people can rationalize, can say “Greed is good,” and assert that what improves one of us improves us all, but when has history ratified that contention? Instead, it’s filled with personal victories that place the hopes and ambitions of native peoples, of workers and slaves and quasi-slaves into shadow.

Societies like the Amish who base their lives on standing still seem eccentric to us. We have the better notion, we believe, which is to forge ahead. We won’t put the genie back in the bottle and won’t even acknowledge the feasibility of doing so. The world moves relentlessly forward, however dubious the word “forward” may seem.

I only wish I could believe in satisfaction and rewire the deep genetic intelligence of our species, but I can’t for me and I can’t for you. Desire confines us. Yet I worry sometimes if our survival depends on the greatest ambition of all, fighting our nature and accepting contentment as real.


Filed under Ambition, America, Desire, Essays, Fame, Gemeinschaft, Gesellschaft, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Modern Life, Politics, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Worry

The Messenger

chicago-downtown-sunset_30728_990x742I’m having a busy week and only found time to get a little writing exercise. I’ve tried to compose a very little story of ten sentences, the first of 50 words, the second of 45, the third 4o… you get the idea. It felt a little like rolling downhill, and the tone and content may have tumbled with it…

Because you left the door open and because your expression said you meant for me to enter, I walked through it, and, though you wanted comfort—isn’t comfort all we ever want?—I was only silent company, another heart in a room, a near stranger often worthless even to himself. Once, as my mother waited for my father, sitting in the gray light of a Saturday’s end, an empty glass in her hand, her hand resting on the table, staring toward the street, she hummed music I barely heard and didn’t know, and I spoke. She turned as you turned, eyes landing on my face as if my face were dusk itself, the final whisper of light when sun slips past the last obstacle, and every echo of reflected gold in every window blinks out. Now I don’t remember exactly what either of us said, but her half smile, which she hoped offered warmth and attention, couldn’t hold its place on her lips and, despite her, fell with her tears. So perhaps you understand why I didn’t extend a word but sat just out of your reach and vision, more keen to be present, frightened to topple your fragile calm. When you grow up in a house that swings between ferocity and exhaustion, you harmonize without noticing, settling into whatever keeps you safe but close. And what was there to say that you didn’t know?—he was gone and meant to be, wouldn’t be back. Sorry as I was then, I couldn’t tell you so because I loved him too. He left both of us, and he meant to leave. I only found him gone.

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