Monthly Archives: September 2014

Mr. Non Sequitur

nonsequiturMy father called my sister’s old boyfriend Charlie, Henry, and Scotty before he relearned his real name again. The boy’s name was Joey. Corrected, Dad used the right name for the next hour or so, then reverted to other names ending in “y.”

Some years later he told my sister, “I never cared for Joey,” and when my sister asked how he could recall Joey’s name after 15 years and not for more than an hour at the time, Dad answered, “Oh, I knew it. I just didn’t like him much.”

My father possessed a sneaky sense of humor. He could be silent a whole evening and then tell a joke that involved putting a napkin on his head. He could render statements meaningless by substituting whistling sounds for words he wished to hint—apparently most of them. He could hit you, as with a roundhouse punch, by giving the least likely answer to bland questions.

From him, I learned to consider the wrong response to every innocent query—a bad habit. When my children asked me what the stuffing was in one of their balls, I answered, “Human hair.” When they asked what I was eating so loudly, I covered my mouth and paused only long enough to mumble, “Pig molars.” Once, when they were curious about what might be making the odd noise outside, I said, with appropriate authority, “I believe that must be lovemaking weasels.”

These remarks aren’t funny—more troubling, really—and I hope I haven’t passed my father’s way of thinking on to my own children. A person with this ailment can look quite ordinary and yet live estranged. Aside from my incessant doodling, I’m sure I seem quite serious in faculty meetings, yet every question elicits dissonance first. “Torture,” “Borscht” and “Custom Toupees,” are answers that occur to me often. When it comes time to propose names, I’m always on the edge of nominating “Larry Storch, former star of F-Troop.”

Then, “Any other comments?” and the first thought passing through my mind is, “There’s a very loud amusement park across from my present dwelling.”

And I bite my tongue.

My daughter, who went to the school where I teach, used to say—sweetly—that I could never embarrass her, and I began to fantasize about announcements during assembly. In one I’d stand on stage with a plastic bag in my hand and say, “I’m looking for a partner to start a synchronized diving team.” Then I’d hold up the bag, “I already have the speedos!”

Perhaps it’s a terrible sign my daughter egged me on to enact every potentially embarrassing announcement I conceived.

When the situation calls for it, I maintain appropriate gravitas, and that other voice quiets down. I’m nothing if not serious—if you read this blog regularly, you know this—so I don’t compare an especially intractable problem to “wrestling a hippo in custard” or consider goat noises as the best way to quiet a class. Those thoughts only lurk. Still, knowing what not to say or do seems as easy as considering the proper course. Both often seem equally absurd.

Walter Mitty had his internal screenplays of grandeur, and I have my amusement park calliope music. With concentration, I reach past the wrong response to the right one. Yet sometimes I worry I see my future, the fury of not-at-all-funny (except to me) lunacy awaiting. You’ll find me on the street, shouting lines from Die Hard into a dead cellphone or miming the dance of a storm-soaked butterfly. Or clogging.

My father died 20 years ago, so I can’t ask him what to do. That may be all for the best, as I’m unsure he’d give a straight answer anyway.

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Another Exchange

800_Bare-Bulb-400x320I thought it might be fun to try something dark and Kafkaesque. I was wrong, but, nonetheless, here’s another twenty minute fiction…

The inspector says, “No good fortune eliminates life’s little troubles,” and, with that, breaks another finger on the accused’s left hand. The force—he knows from experience—is big enough, and the responding howl will diminish into a whimper before long.

When silence settles again, he readdresses the accused and says, “You couldn’t have expected anything else.” Really, expectations are immaterial—the inspector stopped thinking of justice as more than fiction long ago—but the statement sits in the script he’s built over years.

“Do you want something to drink?” he asks.

Perhaps the inspector pours too fast, but the accused doesn’t expect alcohol, and what he doesn’t spray across the room dribbles down his chin, pink with his own blood and thicker than it ought to be.

“A shame” the inspector mutters. He half-expects the accused to say the same in unison—some relief might be welcome—but somehow that never happens.

“Can’t you speak?” he asks instead.

The accused’s crime remains unnamed, needs no name. The way of things places them in these roles, and they act. Outside this room, the inspector hears birds, their song filling the lapses between sobs and heaves of breath sawing the air. A gust stirs the leaves. Sunlight surges and fades as clouds pass.

“You might as well,” the inspector says, “it doesn’t matter.”

The accused is mute. It’s the nature of an accused to be so. Some transcendence would be nice but, to the inspector, it’s all so predictable—the questions, the answers, the inevitable. Sometimes, he finds himself suddenly as here-and-now as the accused, but the inspector slides into another moment, no second persisting long at all.

“Listen,” the inspector says, “We only want something, anything you can give.”

The accused may be unconscious—so hard to distinguish—and that’s fine with the inspector. The best time for acquiescence is exhaustion. Accept a reality other than your own and you shall be freed.

“Yes,” the accused whispers.

The rest joins history.

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Blogging’s Faint Stamp of Approval

imagesMy wife and I sat at a picnic table, and next to us were three strangers eating in advance of the same outdoor Shakespeare performance we were attending.

One of them asked the other about a daughter who recently graduated from college, and she answered, “My daughter wants to be a writer.”

“Has she published anything?” the first said.

“No. Right now, she has a blog.”

I tried not to spy but didn’t need to look over to hear the message behind the answer—embarrassment, putting a positive face on the only response possible. She might have substituted, “No, not yet… but, you know, she’s pretending.”

That’s the trouble with blogging. Anything in magazines, journals, newspapers, books, or even commercial promotions comes with verification. Some authority says this writing deserves notice. In contrast, posts only require clicking “publish,” a faint stamp of approval that—most people assume—comes too readily. Based on this overheard conversation, the writer-daughter takes herself seriously, maybe thinks a great deal of her own work. The rest is up for grabs.

Any blogger’s vindication of blogs sounds like rationalization, further effort to gild the author’s own work. I felt for this girl’s mother. Naturally, a mom wants to believe, and, though blogging is hardly the same as appearing in The New Yorker or even the local paper, her daughter means to ply her craft, to pursue a dream, to practice by taking baby steps toward something brag-worthy. More than that, she may want to be read, and creating a blog assures a voice and audience… albeit a limited, often intimate audience. Which, she may think, isn’t so bad and certainly better than no readers. She might even like blogging and regard it as a distinct form with idiosyncratic challenges and potential.

Eavesdropping, I couldn’t help thinking about this blog as it approaches its 500th post. Am I still, after all this time, practicing for something real? Am I more proud (and appreciative) than I ought to be of my tiny audience? Am I alone in valuing my labor while real writers snicker? Have I, all along, been deluding myself to avoid actual evaluation and accomplishment? Does self-expression only count when someone else says it does?

This week a colleague posted on Facebook, “I’m writing everywhere else but on my blog, which means I’m finally working. I won’t be stopped.” In no way did he mean to direct the comment at me, but my spirit sunk nonetheless. My inner Rodney Dangerfield started muttering, “I get no respect. I get no respect at all.”

He meant, I’m sure, to say his blog has faded as more public writing projects took precedence, but the assumption seemed to be—or my defensiveness heard—you can’t be serious and simply blog. Blogging is what you do while waiting for anything better. In itself, as a writing genre (if it is), it sometimes seems the equivalent of copy printed on grocery-brand macaroni and cheese. Though cute, it hardly counts.

A fury of counterarguments rears: if you’re not a published writer does it mean more or less that people choose to read you (based necessarily on content rather than name, reputation or designation by Important People)? What sort of motive to write takes precedence when fame and remuneration are unlikely? Do readers from the Philippines, India, Botswana, and Latvia counterbalance having a small audience? What does it say when readers feel compelled to comment fresh from encountering ideas—can that be bad?

But those are framed questions, as all my questions are. They dig the hole (from which I shout) deeper. They evoke that unfortunate parent proffering her daughter’s blog as proof she’s a writer.

Perhaps there’s no satisfactory vindication or apology. As seriously and carefully as bloggers compose, the possibility lurks they have no place else to be writers and their only claim to the title is one they’ve asserted themselves.

Although, to me, these essays, stories, poems, and haiku feel quite real.

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Habitual

fountain-pen-writingAnother odd fiction….

Joan writes with invisible ink.

She started when she was young. Her secrets should be lost, she thought, and once she’d spilled her emotions, words’ effectiveness ended anyway. In the beginning, she never returned to her pages except to assure they’d faded and, sometimes, if they didn’t, she sought an unnoticed patch of sunlight to erase them.

Friends and family watched Joan march parades of words through her notebooks, the prose dropping like a curtain line after line. When she was a teenager, her father counted notebooks on the shelves in her room, called her “His scribbler,” and pleaded.

“What stories you must have told by now—why won’t you let us read?”

Joan stared at the page and pretended to recite what she found there, all of her speech invented, all of it strange and estranging. Her father listened as well as he could as long as he could but soon found reason to leave. Joan hid her notebooks after that.

Though she needn’t have. They were empty. When she left for college she discovered she could refill the earliest books and did, again and again, wondering whether she followed the actual ruts of what she’d written before or how these thoughts might echo earlier ones. Nothing seemed fresh, and, try as she might, her dreams of novelty disappointed.

Her husband was the one who encouraged her to become an actual writer. By then she’d stopped refilling notebooks, but her family told stories of Joan’s late hours poised in a puddle of light at her desk, her pen pirouetting. For their first anniversary, her husband bought a fountain pen, sturdy ink labeled “archival,” and several blank books with pages opaque as canvas and suitable for sails.

Joan started immediately, and the habit came back like breath. Soon, her husband fell asleep to her scratching. Moons presided over tidal confession.

He wanted to hear what she was saying to her blank books, but, through an odd alchemy, something in Joan’s mind and hand invaded the pen and transmuted the ink. Permanence, it turned out, didn’t arise from circumstance as much as routine. What she’d written the week before disappeared as it always had. She kept books closed to preserve words, but—in light or darkness—they slipped from sight. Joan cried. The tears washed pigment from the page.

For some weeks, she traced the trail of prior days’ signs, but her hand cramped, her mind quit. Shadow overtook her. In its wake, little remained.

So Joan pretended again, speaking invention instead of reading. Blank books gathered in plain sight, but her husband, respecting her privacy, stopped asking.

Then Joan only sat at her desk, studying her husband’s sleep and dreaming what writing might mean, imagining her words honored by attention, their sounds real, important to more than her.

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It Raineth

painting1As I write, it’s rainy—no downpour, but the sky hangs heavy, prematurely as dim as dusk… and deep gray. I have no reason to go out, thankfully.

On days like today, if anyone complained about the weather, a former colleague said, “Into each life, some rain must fall.” He taught English, and at first I assumed the quotation came from Shakespeare, but it’s actually from a poem by Longfellow that, like the weather outside (possibly), seems headed for gloom before it turns toward sunshine instead.

Here’s the last stanza:

Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.

The poem’s consolation—that “the common fate of all” dictates we suffer a day of rain here or there—balances against that “still shining sun” above the clouds or elsewhere. The last line, “Some days must be dark and dreary,” suggests the necessity of variation, not the prominence of rain or “dark and dreary” days. The metaphoric lesson behind the poem is that, when things look bad, you do well to remember they’re not always so and not for everyone. So “cease repining,” stop complaining, and get going.

That’s harder than it appears. Misfortune isn’t always so rationally and easily explained away. The notions “this too shall pass” and “others have it worse” may make absolute intellectual sense, but suffering people don’t excel at abstraction any more than someone concussed excels at math. Minds are much easier to change than emotions, and rarely does reprimanding someone for being unhappy—no, I’d say never—works.

In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the fool Feste sings a song about life, and its reprised line, “For the rain it raineth every day” offers an alternative perspective. Recognizing rain’s frequency adjusts expectations. You would be wise, he implies, to expect rain, to keep it in mind rather than explain it away as variation because, well, it’s going to happen. His last stanza is:

A great while ago the world begun,

With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,

But that’s all one, our play is done,

And we’ll strive to please you every day.

Compensation becomes the focus. “That’s all one,” Feste sings. It is what it is, and so perhaps it’s better to battle what’s inevitable than to live in expectation of relief or in the celebration that other people have sunshine. “We’ll strive to please you every day,” puts emphasis squarely on verbs, striving to please, efforts to answer vicissitudes, not erase them with phony affirmations or life-coaching.

As in most matters, I’m more Shakespearian than Longfellowian. Though it may seem grim to live with daily rain, I prefer an alternative acknowledging humanity and empathy. That the sun shines elsewhere promises statistical solace—well, a lot of other people are doing fine—whereas Feste speaks a blues truth, “it be’s like that sometimes.”

And not just sometimes. Someone somewhere is getting wet. Right now.

I have no reason to go out but don’t rejoice. Many people will be making their way home without umbrellas. I’ve been where they are and wouldn’t presume to remind them of those who checked the forecast or stowed a rain coat. I’d never preach, as many do, that though they are the unfortunate today, if they try harder next time, they may not possibly, if they are lucky, always be.

I’m thankful I’m dry but recall my miseries. It rains. It rains every day.

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Irene

20140410-18043552Today’s post is sort of character sketch for a story I’ve been mulling over…

Irene awoke from dozing, the book in her lap finally registering as weight and heat. Soon she’d make dinner, and somewhere in the preparations, her thoughts would light on her husband, how his sigh or grunt signaled his feelings about the meal she’d planned. He was dead ten years now, and she was free from that. But Irene heard him nonetheless. It wasn’t that she missed him, just that he echoed, especially in this solitary space.

Her daughter called earlier to report trouble at work, a new boss who didn’t think much of women, and Irene listened as she always did, with more concern than interest. Her days stretched out, not as her cat did—as if trying to release something locked—but, desperately, as toward the finish, its desire dawning as it reached completion. From the instant she roused, Irene thought of ends. She worried she’d taken too good care of herself and might last forever… or that she might at least outlast her money, which might be worse.

Her daughter often talked of her marriage, but, as her mother, Irene couldn’t really know her son-in-law. She never had much to add. She appreciated he fixed things and paid stiff deference to her age. She liked his laugh and valued his efforts to make her life easier but felt too tired for affection. Commitment like that was beyond her. Irene found no room for warmth. That stage passed.

Instead, Irene wandered in books. They were better than the babbling TV, and sometimes their emotions affected her. They transported her a bit, lifting her to moments she remembered but never discussed. She hadn’t always been old, after all, and couldn’t help returning to images of intimacies that might horrify her children. She didn’t dwell on men who never worked out, but the romance novels she read could recall their hands and the way her own heart rose to meet theirs. Once, her stakes climbed in arousal. Sometimes she still wished for risks younger women take in riding to the brink of release.

She counted three weeks since her son’s last call. Like his father, work possessed him, and, when he did call, his mind seemed absent. “Uh huh,” he said, until the sound became an empty rhythm. As a boy, he’d always been distracted, his eyes focused on places and people far from here and now. He was always excusing himself from the table to do something important. She might have known his future entirely then but hoped for more. “A son never loves his mother enough,” Irene’s mother said, and Irene tried to believe it.

Shadows lengthened across the carpet. Irene’s husband would have said, “The drinking lamp is lit.” Glancing at her watch, she wondered if she might have another bout of sleep before pulling herself from this chair to make dinner. Her husband never allowed such lassitude. He wanted every destination clear and another meal in the offing.

Irene closed her eyes, purple afterimages blooming and fading like bruises.

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Greetings From Austenland

388px-Jane_Austen_coloured_versionAs an English teacher and someone who devotes considerable time to writing, I’m always interpreting and positioning words. Every day, I look for (and create) patterns, searching for fresh and resourceful arrangements that communicate thoughts separate from my physical setting. I suspect my world is different from some people’s. At least, I hope they experience life more directly—without so much analysis, commentary, or judgment.

Reading Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park hasn’t been good for me. Austen’s hikes through internal landscapes make mine look like speedboat tours. Ten minutes of Fanny Price’s thinking—roughly four pages—considers seven angles on one aspect of Mr. Crawford’s reaction to her body language after his failed proposal. Sir Thomas says six words before the 500 addressing their meaning to him, the situation, relationships (past, present and future), and the nature of social interaction in general.

I’m barely exaggerating. Austen’s prose evokes thoughts and emotions so subtle I start to feel like a cartoon chameleon crossing plaid. It’s hard to keep up.

Early on in life we’re taught to anticipate, rewarded for guessing, and urged to see beyond this moment. History and current events interpret more than they report, and we assess now by comparing it to our expectations. Partly, that’s what humans do. Our survival relies on seeing some distance. Yet many religious traditions—particularly Buddhism—encourage us to “be here now,” to allow “present” to live up to its name.

Austen would make a lousy Buddhist. After reading Mansfield Park, I step out of the novel as off a treadmill. The world won’t be still. The implications of every moment outrace time, and everything is more (and less) than it seems. Here’s Edmund Bertram telling Fanny about his angsty courtship of Miss Crawford:

I know her disposition as sweet and faultless as your own, but the influence of the former companions makes her seem—gives to her conversation, to her professed opinions, sometimes a tinge of wrong. She does not think evil, but she speaks it, speaks it in playfulness; and though I know it to be playfulness, it grieves me to the soul.

Meaning slips and slides all over the page as Edmund asserts what he knows (but clearly doesn’t, or he wouldn’t need to speak) and then unravels it in repeated reclassification and qualification (her professed opinions, echoed from former companions, to her conversation, sometimes, a tinge, speaking but not thinking, only playfully). What do you grip here?

Before Edmund begins the attempted explanation above, he tells Fanny he “Can’t get the better of ” his thoughts, and, the trouble is, neither can I. What’s actual and imagined switches places constantly. Austen loves characters who build reality from ideas that carry them far away from here-and-now. I go with them.

The 2013 movie Austenland (based on the novel by Shannon Hale) describes Jane Hayes’ (Kerri Russell) visit to a theme park based on Austen’s novels. She spills her savings to go, and (without spoiling too much for you) discovers only the fruition of Austen’s stories satisfy. The rest—murky motives, couched comments, pretense that isn’t really but could be, and notions of yourself and others neither you nor any other person can pin down—all that is a special sort of agony, a ring of hell Austen’s romantic reputation doesn’t advertise.

For me, Samuel Becket has nothing on Jane Austen. He may give a reader little to assemble into meaning, but she gives so much that, at least until the last few chapters, won’t assemble. No surprise, then, when Jane of Austenland decides, “I don’t want to play anymore… I want something real.” That’s my reaction too.

Don’t get me wrong. Austen’s effect does her credit. I admire her artistry. Sometimes, I just wish she weren’t so good, so in sync with the way I perceive, think, feel, and live. She makes me hungry for moments my mind quiets, the positions, angles, and relations of objects become plain, the scene around me solidifies, and the sun discovers a room more real than my mind’s wanderings.

I think, “Hey, it’s pretty nice here. I really should get out of my head more.”

 

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