Category Archives: Blogging

From the Sargasso

SargassoSeaA date calculator online tells me that, at present pace, my 500th post on this blog will appear on December 27, 2014. As I sit here now, looking forward (or back to starting), the event seems impossible.

Time swims more than flies, each moment is flotsam and jetsam borne by calm waves, choppy conditions, unexpected tempests, and every other variety of sea change. As much as we may like to think we’re swimming straight, time carries us strange places. Little in the air impedes us, but tides move us without notice.

This blog contains hundreds of conceits like this—I may even have used this one before—and at the time each likely seemed definitive, revelation at last. In retrospect they’re often just clever, new ways of seeing matters that, for all my efforts to illuminate or explain, remain just what they are, as they were before. A continuous need for novelty will do that. In a doubtful state, you wonder if wanting to say what hasn’t been said is the same as desiring truth.

My writing might be described as defensive. I’ve given so much of my life to learning to write and wouldn’t dare not do it. Fear of stagnation motivates me, so much so I’m grateful to be borne by any current. If not for trouble, my commentary might be more limited, steadier intonations from a known voice.

I hope my voice is pleasant. Blogs rely on constancy, devotion, and companionship, which—believe me—I appreciate. Blogging could be the only writing venue where being yourself is enough. My practice at that is extensive.

My writer friends celebrate arrivals such as new books, appearances in magazines and journals and events. They mark the stages of their progress. My horizon is clear, the line between ocean and sky uncluttered. Perhaps among themselves my friends say my problem is ambition. A writer should seek a destination, a direction… whether he or she gets somewhere or not. My friends may say I fear rejection. They may be right. When I wrote The Lost Work of Wasps, I sought a goal and learned a great deal, but I published the book myself. Little aspiration arose from my endeavor—a few kind words, two generous opportunities to read, and one formal review.

I liked having complete control over design decisions that otherwise wouldn’t be mine. Yet, I’ll always wonder if my work was good enough for a publisher and will never know. The quiet response to my work suggests maybe I found its proper sphere. My writing colleagues would say, diplomatically, a self-published book still counts, but believing them is challenging, particularly for the sort of person who interprets silence as an indictment. My mother always said, “If you can’t find anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Nothing at all speaks on and on, for hours, days, months.

I’m winding my way to an essential question—not “What am I doing here?” because I’ve written on that before and, besides, I am here, until 500 at least. My question is “What’s next?” Candidly, if I woke up tomorrow morning having overcome my compulsion to create, I might be happier. Reaching a true acceptance of my shortcomings would be a great gift. Yet that seems unlikely because, despite what others may say, I am ambitious. Whatever my limits, I like the work of blogging and love the thought some unaccountable island of beauty will still rise from the horizon. I can’t seem to believe anything else.

Determination is a boon and a bane. You want so much, will work so hard for it, and cannot stop even if you sometimes think you should and would like rest. You can’t quit without surrendering who you are. That’s where I am now. By 500, I hope to find a more comfortable place, one way or another.

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Writing Funny

David-Sedaris_lYou may have to take my word for it, but in real life I have a sense of humor. Not one as reliable or uproarious as I’d like, but I ocassionally make others laugh, or, failing that, I laugh at stories, absurdities, clever turns of phrase. Laughter is a survival skill I appreciate, but I doubt any reader of this blog comes here for yucks.

Writing to be funny is a challenge I shirk. Oh, I try occasionally (I’ve tried more than once) and hope someone might laugh or smile at some point in nearly everything I write. But, with laughter, it’s so much easier when you sense live results. In the absence of a reaction, you fall into can’t-miss anecdotes or resort to formulae to entrap readers. Funny episodes, images, verbal combinations, and crazy lists occur to me, but, as I write them, my sails slacken. It all sounds artificial, contrived. Once I strain for a laugh, I lose will. I can’t tell you how many half-written, not-so-funny pieces I’ve spared you.

You’re welcome.

I’ve gone to see David Sedaris read a couple of times, and I’m continually amazed at the consistency of his work. He seems to have a nearly infallible sense of the comedic. Having the name “humorist,” Sedaris leads loyal readers to expect snorting, chuckling, guffawing even. While that expectation could be the worst sort of imprisonment for me, he ranges over all sorts of subjects, ambushing readers and listeners though they suspect what’s coming.

To be truly funny, I think, is to do more than surprise. In fact, writing humorously often means surpassing rather than violating expectations. The comedian Bob Hope, now long gone, kept a small and shifting stable of joke writers, and no one’s job was ever secure. They met together to pitch their best stuff, and when you came to this meeting with Mr. Hope, he only accepted jokes that made the other writers laugh… which meant those jokes made people laugh even when laughing at someone else might mean an end to your own employment.

In contrast, when I listen to comedians now or watch a comedy, I’m sometimes confused. Am I laughing because it’s genuinely funny or because the subject matter is shockingly out of bounds? Is what I’m hearing and seeing really funny or something so bizarre only laughter answers it? The two aren’t at all the same thing. As Hope’s mad method suggests, something is really funny only when you laugh despite yourself. Does laughing out of discomfort or embarrassment even count?

Funny is a cruel taskmaster. Sedaris’ early work contained odd turns into illuminating or even instructive territory, but I don’t see nearly so many of those interludes now. I wonder if sincerity seems glib or cliché to him, whether he worries any surprise of that sort would be the wrong sort. When he tries to be poignant, he could seem ironic or, worse, simply false. Perhaps it’s sour grapes, but I’m not sure I’d want t0 be Sedaris. I like the freedom to write what occurs to me, whether it’s happy, sad, funny, or just plain strange. Establish yourself as a comedian and suddenly the disassociative associative style that once seemed fresh can come across as meandering, lazy, being you, doing what you do.

Perhaps that explains why the half-lives of comic actors are shorter than dramatic actors. They play themselves out—we seem to want them to—or they turn, often unsuccessfully, to serious or mixed roles. If they can be more than the usual clown, they continue. The hardest task is to be taken seriously, to make us cry or make us care and make us laugh. Failing that, they’re gone.

All writing is magical, but funny writing particularly so. A writer can dazzle readers, as Sedaris has, with the escalating quirkiness and unpredictability of his actions and observations, but continuing success requires even more. It requires reinventing the way you write to attain the poignancy of Mark Twain or Kurt Vonnegut, producing effects that transcend pure humor or joke-telling.

Every writer is finite—housed by his or her idiosyncratic perspective and approach—but what do you do when you’ve overmined your life and find yourself sitting on a block of swiss cheese? All writers must worry what they will do when they run out of material, but funny ones have it hardest.

Maybe this blog post is all just an elaborate excuse—Dear Reader, I do wish I could make you laugh more, I really do—but I’m happier not raising your expectations. I’d rather be myself (whether that means being funny or not) and pray you hear something more genuine in my voice than wanting a laugh.

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Again, What—Exactly—Am I Doing Here?

doughThe other night, I dreamt of baking or, more accurately, of trying to bake. My dough reached the awkward stage when it should have formed one mass and instead insisted on crumbling cliffs of loose chunks falling in landslides, the relentless earthquake of failure. I worked the mass with a spoon and with my hands, added water and oil and a number of dream ingredients like tubbed bouillon and lemon zest. Still—no bolus, no bread.

For any Freudians listening in, I know, I know.

Even without Freud, however, this dream seems pretty transparent. It’s about the creative process, about times (like this one) when the moment calls for collection and synthesis, and nothing will satisfy more than a combination of incongruities ending in miracles. That my dream dough doesn’t achieve bread says something big and speaks to questions my recent writing raises.

Most notably, what magic will transform parts into a being?

Some nights I swing between unconsciousness and nutty, irrational, aggregating thoughts. I can’t think where I am and can’t answer how many hours I’ve “slept.” The clock says “11:17,” then it says, “12:45,” later, “3:28.” I hate these numbers and remember them. And each feels, at the time, like revelation.

Somewhere in my dream of dough I thought of Gollums, creatures assembled of clay and enacted by rabbis. My Gollum didn’t speak or walk, didn’t blink. He gave no sign of cooperation in genesis or animation. He never was, and yet I summoned him as if he’d come.

That’s faith. Even unanswered, it persists. You’re sure something must happen, if only by accident, some combination of words will form a spell.

I used to be a prolific visual artist. Every week and weekend, I’d produce a new image. Most of it was abstract, improvisational, and surprising because it was unplanned. More serendipity than scheme, my paintings arose from some deep unconscious memory or impulse. Their yeast was self-assurance and confidence the next step would swell the stuff. It’d declare its own end. I knew—or thought I knew—an outcome would materialize.

What do you do if such assurance disappears?

There’s much to be said for ambling, overturning rocks in hopes of finding something interesting beneath. That said, I sometimes long for an assignment. I’d welcome the chance to receive direction in place of supplying it myself.

A professional writer might say, “Be careful what you wish for,” but conception is tiring.  Twice a week I need a subject that mustn’t be world-weariness. I count on inspiration. I count on novelty. I’m waiting for another voice to tell me to get going on the ark or to desist building this crazy tower to God.

Maybe every artist, on some level, desires direction. It’d be nice to feel moved, to find compulsions quite outside yourself. Yet muses rarely speak. You invoke them, invoke them again, and still they wait, looking for the perfect entry. You hope, in the end, to produce something and experience a glancing brush with inspiration, and to speak.

Whoever knows if you actually do.

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Starting by Finishing

Library_of_Ashurbanipal_synonym_list_tabletPeriodically, I feel compelled to present capricious visitations of ideas—random brainstorms that never make it as complete essays or posts. Maybe somewhere in these 25 openings is a longer composition, but they seemed complete almost before I finished expressing them…

1. When it comes time to write another post, I often have only the first line, and everything unreels from it.

2. One impulse from childhood has never left me—if I see a branch barely hanging from a tree, or find a hole not quite punched out of a page of loose leaf, or hear a song nearing its end as I leave a store, or notice a speck of lint on a woman’s black sweater, or encounter a gate just ajar—well, you get the idea.

3. As you grow older, you change enough to think your memories might belong to someone else.

4. In third grade, I was always afraid classmates heard when my teacher called me up to her desk to tell me to smile.

5. People sometimes imply I’m not grateful enough—I don’t miss their hints and I don’t think they’re wrong—but agreeing doesn’t seem to get me far.

6. Here’s a list I’ve been idly compiling recently—foods that are just too laborious to eat.

7. Sometimes I imagine famous writers looking over my shoulder as I compose my posts, and they are almost always full of disdain.

8. Whenever someone pauses for comments, or asks some assembly whether anyone has an announcement, or if I visit a place with a guest book waiting for my name, home, and some short note, I’m always tempted to paraphrase Nabokov’s Pale Fire, “There’s a very loud amusement park across from my present dwelling”—for some reason, that sentence is, reliably, the first thought passing through my mind.

9. I’d love to write about the great abiding things in life—stars and seasons, small talk and people in cars glancing my way, the sudden smile of someone who’s just had a revelation or eyes cast down or away—but I wonder if I could make them interesting again.

10. Has anyone who wanted to be funnier ever managed to become so?

11. Perhaps a valuable object is among items I’ve squirreled away in disused drawers and boxes in boxes, but I didn’t put them there to save them—I wanted them out of my sight.

12. My peculiar brand of egotism includes believing I’ve got the market cornered on laments, that no one can speak to feelings of inadequacy better than I can.

13. The other night, when I couldn’t sleep I tried to remember places I only visited once and discovered how very many such places there are.

14. Reading poetry always makes me want to write, and sometimes I don’t finish a poem, half-afraid it will get to what I want to say.

15. Is it terrible that I think humans might have had their chance?

16. All my life I’ve been saving material for the one time I’m allowed to write about having nothing to write about.

17. I use so many analogies in my daily conversation I’ve tried to come up with an analogy for why they seem so useful.

18. It’s occurred to me that not being able to play a single card in solitaire may be far more rare than winning.

19. Once someone asked me, “If you were in an airplane of famous poets, and it was going down, sure to crash, and there was only one parachute left, what poet would you give it up for?” I still don’t have an answer because I can’t get past visualizing the hypothetical.

20. My conversation and writing abound with phrasing and vocabulary I’ve encountered (and reencountered and reencountered) in books and poems I’ve taught, and I keep hoping someone notices.

21. Track workouts in high school taught me how to count tortures. “After this lap,” I told myself, “I can say ‘after this one, I can say, “after this one, one more.”’”

22. “Familiarity breeds contempt” and “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” so I’ve been studying the right moment to get lost.

23. One of my students asked me if I thought I had “a novel in me,” and I wish I’d considered how she’d react before I answered, “Sure, I’m a sack of novels just waiting to rip open.”

24. I’d like to assemble all the people I care about (but lost track of) so I can apologize.

25. In middle school a forensic event called “Extemporaneous Speaking” taught me you can always find something worthless to say.

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Trying Again

086001You are reading my second blog post today. This morning I wrote about my students and the particular burdens we adults put on them. Now it sits in a virtual scrapyard labeled “Orphans” on my computer. Essays and fragments of essays land there when I lose interest, reach an insurmountable obstacle, or see myself drop into a rut I’ve carved too many times. Most attempts I abandon midway when doubt overcomes will.

Rarely do I finish a post and then file the entirety as a failure, as I did today. And today’s reason is rare too—I wrote something I don’t believe. When I was in high school and college and even in graduate school (the first time), I could get so caught up in making an argument that, right or wrong, I’d run it down, run it to death. In the end, I either convinced myself (at least until I reread it later) or felt such pride in my well wrought object I wasn’t interested in truth anymore. I don’t do that so often now, but I guess I’m not over it.

Sometimes writing feels wildly creative, as if you were Tarzan picking out just the vines to cross the jungle, each grip presenting itself, a path through the air somehow illuminated before you. But writing can also be mechanical. You need to avoid overusing the verb “to be” or want to replace the prepositional phrase “in my room” with the possessive “room’s” or seek to sidestep using “I” once more. And the line between creative and mechanical can be faint. One moment your choices fulfill a sort of fate, the next they repeat a process as engrained as factory work.

This morning, I began with a quotation by Jonathan Swift, “No wise man ever wished to be younger.” I didn’t know what I wanted to say about it really, but set out to dispute it. How could I not envy my students, after all? I said they, “Possess the foolishness of invincibility and are well armed for adversity, having barely tested their response to it.” The only reason I might not envy them, I decided, is the pressure they feel, pressure imposed by us, the parents, teachers, and other adults in their life.

Sounds good, but 447 words later, having flown through my jungle of thoughts in an impassioned plea on their behalf, I wondered if I’d told the truth… or, worse, if I’d even told my truth.

Writing often has its own agenda, not a desire for completion so much as neatness, an idea combed or arranged with just the right sort of disarray. Here is a paragraph from my aborted post:

My students love the word “pressure” and use it constantly. They can’t help noticing the dome of hope they live under, the pre-supposed life story they hear retold and retold, a tall tale that often drains joy and spontaneity from this subject, this class, this now. We want the best for them but, for them, that translates as wanting more. Why are we surprised they find ways to appear to be what we want… and are something else when we’re not looking? Why are we surprised by their duplicitous, dishonest lives?

When a metaphor presents itself—a dome of hope—the compulsion to harmonize comes over me. Everything I write after must agree in some way. That life story they hear and rehear, the protection from spontaneity, the wall separating them from now, all those quasi-images extend the original assertion. Yet each also contradicts my original observation that youth are well-armed, insensitive to limitations. Each stepped away from the last.

And are youth insensitive or not? Many—how could I ever even imagine speaking for all of them?—feel expectations keenly. For those students, the issue with pressure is hypersensitivity. Sometimes they seem nervous parrots afraid to step from their cages. A few are so afraid of screwing up they eschew any public or private risk. As it’s messy to explain how complicated and variable the situation is, I stooped to rhetorical questions, which answer nothing and only propose reexamination.

In other words (the short version), I found myself speaking to speak and not truly to communicate. Those moments leave me wishing to apologize to myself. I turned my head for sound and fury. I hadn’t been faithful.

When I cast aside something I’ve written, I grieve. A whole essay, like this morning’s, causes particular grief because all my effort and all my hope came to nothing… and I still have a post to write. Yet given a little time I get over it and even, as now, can appreciate it. A writer’s lessons may never stick but they’re also always new. The challenge is always new, and maybe that, as much as truth, keeps me going.

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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.

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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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What’s What

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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15 Thoughts About Things (1-8)

800px-WLA_vanda_Netsuke_4I’ve written another long lyric essay this week, so I’m posting it in two parts to avoid trying anyone’s attention. Ultimately the second half will land on top of the first half because that’s how blogs lay out. I’m sorry about that, but my excuse is that lyric essays are meant to be rearranged.

1.

In the 1970’s, a game show called “The Pyramid” (in various dollar amounts) asked contestants to label a category by offering items from it. For instance, you might say “hammer, square, tape measure, drill, screwdriver” and I’d guess “Carpenters’ Tools.”

In the big prize round, the categories reached strange dimensions, and the contestant or a celebrity helper would lead his or her partner to guess “Things A Mother Says,” “Things You Do To Escape Prison,” or “Things You Accidentally Leave Behind on Vacation.”

Watching a team climb the pyramid excited me, but the reorganization of reality opened my young brain to see everything as part of categories, simple ones like “Things To Do Before Going to Sleep,” and “Things I Want to Study” but also darker ones—“Things I Wish I Could Forget” and “Things That Lead to Overpowering Feelings of Personal Futility and Worthlessness.”

2.

Thoreau says, “Let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail.” The “Chopping sea of civilized life” he says, requires a “a great calculator” to navigate fully. We can’t trust to any innate sense of direction because, having abandoned it so long ago, we’ve lost it.

Out walking in a city you see so many people engrossed by smart phones, and, on a crowed L car with no seats remaining and most people standing, you find only one or two passengers not using some device.

I think sometimes of all those devises hold. Were they books, tape recorders, short wave radios or primitive mainframes, pedestrians might be dragging overburdened carts behind them, and every L train would sink on its tracks, paralyzed by friction.

3.

Recently I said that, if I could choose a religion, I’d pick Buddhism, and someone laughed. “You know Buddhists are supposed to live in the moment, right? You know they don’t believe in guilt?”

Maybe she’s right, maybe I carry too much to exist immediately.

4.

Being part of “People Who Create Categories” means you live between giant blocks of experience. It’s never just one thing you’re looking at or thinking about. It’s a condition. You can feel squished.

5.

As the utility of memory fades, our searches become more complicated, though easier. Finding the virtual storage site of an individual detail through Google requires knowing how to call it forth, and, having called it, we let it slip back into smoke. In grade school, my teachers advised me to use a dictionary to check the spelling of words, but sometimes I couldn’t spell the word well enough to find it quickly. When I did locate the word, it became another of many similar searches, each difficult to distinguish and remember.

6.

Only feelings persist, a vague sense of familiarity as words move from pile to pile, useful for what they are and where they lay in an ocean of associations.

7.

Having a middle school girlfriend meant gathering conversation in advance. Though I had no literal notecards, I’d have a pocketful if I’d written everything down. She might lose interest, I thought, if I didn’t always know what to say, and so I spent time between meetings mentally rehearsing. All the back of the class witticism, the cafeteria gaffs, the teachers’ lunacy became filed away bits.

And if she said anything outside my store, I would look to others: “Stories About Misidentification,” “Stories About Parents,” “Stories About the Unfair Nature of the World,”

“Stories Explaining the Source and Strength of My Desperation.”

8.

This is that too.

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Collecting

727755015_94987219cf_zI have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth. —Umberto Eco

At first, he put the new shell nowhere near the last, but soon that became impossible. Shells gathered like barnacles clinging to a hull where the air was a vast sea. No one came to tidy up because, as far as he knew, no one visited except him. Whether that did or didn’t make this spot the shrine he imagined, he was loyal.

He half-thought—half-hoped—someone might happen upon his work. A stranger might read signs of loving days, recognize accretion of attention in so many shells so meticulously arranged. When he feared they wouldn’t, he felt vague and unanchored dread, but, as time passed and his daily burden gathered, the shrine spoke its own mystery and meaning apart from him.

Each shell represented careful choice. He might have chosen many others. Some shells he must have passed by before, as they looked almost resigned where they lay, as if they already knew they wouldn’t leave that spot and accepted it. Others cried out. He didn’t always pick the loud ones but noticed their intentions. The silent conversation he shared with shells ran like an undercurrent through his thoughts every morning he walked the shore. He felt important amid all their insistence and also humbled, cowed by what he might do for them.

Yet that day’s shell grew lighter as he carried it. His hand’s warmth stirred the smell of the sea and the absence in the shell’s cavity. A shell is a dead thing—only imagination makes it live again. When you put a shell to your ear, you hear not the distant sea but your own blood rushing invisibly, amplified and echoing, trapped in a labyrinth, the spiral corridors and its abandoned rooms.

He’d started as a boy, and at first it’d meant nothing to leave each shell. It was something he did, and fervor came later. To abandon his task is to acquiesce, to break a chain of days.

In dark moments he stared at his city of shells and wondered about devotion, about compulsion, about obsession, about what separated them. Looking at the spaces he’d ringed and the towers he’d piled in loving balance, he liked to believe his own architecture found expression. A hidden order needed notice. Yet, how could he tell? Maybe desperation is the fundamental necessity. What would he have without a shrine, what other reason might he find for continuing?

The answer crept like tides—inevitable, dawning, adamant—approaching and withdrawing. Nothing else interested him. Walking in the diminished ripples of breakers, he thought about alternatives, what might satisfy his yearnings or fill the blank spots in his imagination. Before he sensed what he was doing, he reached into the surf and saved another shell from vanishing. He shook it in the receding water. He brought it up to his eyes and regarded it. Something said it was the last, the best, the final word.

He’d be back the next day. He wasn’t finished. He couldn’t bear being finished.

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