Category Archives: Chicago

Shapes: An Essay in 15 Parts (8-15)

flyer03A4_291x400The second part of a lyric essay started on Saturday, 10/11

8.

Franklin P. Adams said, “I find that a great part of the information I have was acquired by looking up something and finding something else on the way.”

9.

Where anything might have a form (the noun) and anything might, naturally or unnaturally form (the verb), a heavier shadow stretches from the adjective “formal.”

Its connotations seem revealing. Whether you enjoy gowns and jackets with tails or not, whether you respond to a slight with a demand for a written apology or not, you have to recognize the effort in being formal. It holds an elevated status, occupies a plane higher than necessity. It’s neater, more definitive, pure.

But there’s another form, the sort you fill-out for Human Resources or in a doctor’s waiting room. All those blanks direct you through specific requests, and, when you finish, you fulfill what that page (or pages) meant to do. Its emptiness and completion are equally neat and equally formal.

9.

I have a friend who loathes the sort of essay you’re reading now. She finds these “lyric essays” loose, too easy because they favor association over logic and glorify evasiveness. To her, their hints only seem functional; really they’re an excuse not to focus your thinking or to lead anyone anywhere good.

She may be right, and she’s certainly identified what I enjoy about them.

10.

“It is a very sad thing,” Oscar Wilde wrote, “nowadays there’s so little useless information.”

11.

I have a crazy rereading of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” to offer, one that likely has nothing to do with the story’s actual purpose. Everyone knows the hero is the child who points out the naked Emperor. The innocent is saner and wiser than those seduced by pretense, those duped into denial because they fear standing alone. We know what it’s about.

But what if we revise it? The special state of believing a fiction may be just as impressive—maybe more?—than acknowledging plain truth. And what’s so terrible about nudity? Couldn’t clothing be more ridiculous than being our raw selves? What if the Emperor’s bare bottom is only an issue because it’s identified as bare? Is our adherence to the child’s view just as conformist as our going along with the royal tailor?

The mystery and messiness of the situation reaches a clear resolution when the child points and laughs, but the author could easily choose to leave that moment out. Then the fiction might speak to our daily uncertainty about what we’re supposed to know and do. The tale might be more interesting for eluding its obvious and commonplace function.

12.

I attended a lecture where Robert Creeley said Louis Sullivan’s “Form ever follows function” might be exactly wrong. Every poem chooses its own form—you know what you can and can’t do—and, in living with and/or strategically violating those rules, you determine what your work will and won’t be. Selection, he suggested, focuses a poem’s effect.

His theory echoed one of the most popular metaphors in my MFA classes, the poem as a machine, one with cooperative parts producing a collective effect. Discussing machine-poems sometimes confused me, however. I was unsure if I should gather fan belts and pulleys and wheels and cogs and carburetors and wings to fashion an engine or if a blueprint sent me searching for those parts. Neither process seemed particularly accurate, as my poems often felt equal parts destination and deviation. Some poems seemed to have one wing. Others were a slice of obsidian.

13.

Last night’s dream:

A regular and prolonged drone makes conversation almost impossible with my eighth grade gym coach, but that doesn’t matter too much because we are only trying to identify the sound which, come to think of it, seems evident only in our discussion and not something I’m experiencing firsthand. “He’s always like this,” I think, without examining what “like this” or “always” might mean, and, in any case, he says he has to go, and my next appointment will be arriving shortly. If it’s arriving. I may be the one traveling to meet someone for an appointment elsewhere. Coach is no help. The helicopter is driving him crazy, and he has to get out of there. No time for an answer.

Shall I interpret? Have I interpreted?

14.

“Inspiration may be a form of super-consciousness, or perhaps sub-consciousness,” Aaron Copeland said, “I wouldn’t know. But I’m sure it is the antithesis of self-consciousness.”

15.

I do believe a thesis is the backbone of every essay, even this one. I’m just not sure how much that means.

A thesis can be as rigorous as an argument with your lifelong friend or as diffuse and nonspecific as the persistent whisper three tables away. It can insist, and it can flash and fade like sunlight in a partly cloudy sky.

Someone might want me to say more, and, usually, I do too.

The compulsion to express yourself neatly, however, is hard to read. You may be getting yourself out of trouble or into it. Sometimes only the slanted truth presents itself and straightening it out feels like a violation. Other times you want that jacket with tails, the spats, top hat, and cane. The form may already exist… or it may be invented altogether.

Other people know which. I’m trying to be content not knowing.

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Filed under Aesthetics, Arguments, Art, Chicago, Criticism, Doubt, Essays, Experiments, Identity, Lyric Essays, Meditations, Play, Thoughts, Voice, Words, Writing

Shapes: An Essay in 15 Parts (1-7)

Louis+Sullivan+CarsonThe other parts will appear here on Tuesday, 10/14…

“Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless,” John Steinbeck

1.

Near here, at the back of a liquor superstore, is the section where the fussy drinkers shop, and amid the calibrated jiggers, cherry swords, and seasonal bottle stoppers, are molds for making exciting ice cubes. The forms they create—spheres, giant and perfect cubes, bars, lips, dollar signs, and zeroes—are really only frozen water, as all ice is, but these vessels sculpt what flows from the tap into something more special than industrial cubes from my freezer.

They make ice notable again, give the commonplace shape, render it visible.

2.

A certain kind of artist distrusts form. If you mean to write from a true place, they argue, you cannot impose or superimpose on expression. You cannot restrict or constrict. Once you do, you court artifice, and anything that arises from artifice will be false. Worse still is working to fill a frame or template, which is absolute chicanery.

I won’t reenter this debate because I’ve said enough already, but I think about a still life. Even the most photorealistic communicates choice. You arranged the objects as you did. You lit them as you did. You placed the edges of the painting, the proportion of its focus, your angle of attention, determined how you will represent texture, color, and shade.

Whether these decisions were conscious or not, what is art without them? When do these choices shift from representation to imposition? When is form absent? How can it be right or wrong if it is inevitable?

3.

The quotation, “Form follows function” derives from Louis Sullivan, the Chicago architect. In 1896, in An Autobiography of an Idea, he said:

It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.

The quotation has always bothered me for philosophical reasons. It assumes utility is the highest standard, that each function suggests one proper form that only needs to be discovered, that only the essential belongs in any design, that surplus is never an option. I could go on.

As a Chicagoan, I’ve seen a lot of Sullivan’s work and certainly understand the statement as it applies to skyscrapers and the steel beams that simplified their form and permitted their skyward stretch. Yet the statement makes less sense when you consider Sullivan’s ironwork, especially the elaborately tangled, storms of shapes I see as I walk in the city. They seem to have no function other than ornamentation, and it’s their excess—albeit geometric, neatly symmetrical and controlled excess—that makes them impressive.

Were I channeling Sullivan, I might say arresting a viewer’s attention is their function, and something simple might not achieve it as well. Perhaps these baroque, proliferating, woven, fever-dream effusions of dramatic contours are a type of utilitarianism too, but I’d rather they weren’t. I’d rather they were born of their own necessity, reflective of Sullivan’s mind unwound, taking a form that brings his soul to light.

4.

As is often the case with creation myths, the Mayan story of the first humans is a complicated affair. It involves twins seeking to rescue their father’s severed head from the underworld and, after their success, their ascension to the heavens to become the sun and moon. Only then can men be properly formed.

What’s intriguing to me, though, are all the failures in the account. Once the gods decided they needed someone to worship them and be “keepers of the days,” they tried to shape humans from mud. These mud creatures, however, wouldn’t hold souls, and soon the gods sent a great flood to wash them away. Then the gods tried wood, which didn’t work either, though these wooden beings became monkeys.

Finally, in defeating the gods in an underworld ball game, liberating their father’s noggin, and rising to illuminate everything, the miraculous twins permitted humans’ true form. Men were made of white and yellow corn.

Which says something about corn’s importance in Mayan culture but also begs the question “Why corn?” If the Mayan gods sought a race to be “keepers of the days,” maybe organisms that germinated, grew, and died marked time in ways gods could not. Maybe the gods sought something that would rely on light, moisture, and soil to echo humans’ dependence on them. Maybe corn is more sturdy than mud and more pliable than wood.

5.

“We need poetry because names die,” John Vernon says, “because objects resist their names, because the world overflows and escapes its names.”

6.

My daughter told me a version of the Mayan creation myth as interesting as the original. The way she remembered the story, the gods first tried water (which wouldn’t hold together), then stone (which could not move), and then turned to corn.

I still wonder, “Why corn?” but more important is the linearity of her description. In offering a cleaner plot, her revision presents each stage as an important step toward the ultimate ideal, as if the earlier forms weren’t properly “mistakes” at all because they led the Mayan gods to the answer. Each had utility.

That’s very different from the narrative I’ve learned since, which bends into odd, dream-like curlicues and rises in smoke. I like my daughter’s story. I like the Mayans’ more.

7.

My son took me to a bar that served cocktails containing exotic ice. His drink arrived with a single cube so large it barely found room to move in the glass, and mine included an equally large sphere that, every time I tried to imbibe, avalanched onto my nose.

We laughed about how challenging the experience was, speculated that the bartender was playing some whimsical trick on us. But the jester bartender didn’t stop us from drinking. Or ordering another.

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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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Filed under Brave New World, Chicago, Doubt, Empathy, Essays, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Metaphor, Modern Life, Rationalizations, Shakespeare, St. Thérèse, Thoughts, Worry

Commute

d9d4c68cb3bb5818776e12b294909c8bThe key wouldn’t turn the way it needed to. He tried for some time and then had to go to work. On the way he told himself an unlocked door is fine as long as no one tries it, and he couldn’t be late again or he’d have no money for rent.

He thought briefly about calling her because she still had a key and might have the touch to make the lock work. She did much better with objects, understood subtle shifts of position and emphasis that made them cooperate. Every thing seemed troublesome to him. At first, she’d found his confusion charming and laughed at his clumsy handling, but her impatience grew like a bass hum in an audio line, building until it overwhelmed the signal.

On the day she left, she locked the door. He returned expecting to find the apartment open and her inside making something to eat, as that morning she’d offered. Instead, he found a note on the bare table explaining she’d taken most of her things and would be back for the others that weekend. Nothing in the note explained why really, but he understood.

They could be friends, she promised.

He’d be late anyway. The L always chose the worst time to delay and, between each station, a voice announced, “Your attention please: We are standing momentarily, waiting for signal clearance. We expect to be moving shortly.” Sometimes the message just finished as the train lurched to life, the air conditioner stirring as it engaged. Sometimes the lull continued, passengers doing their best to pretend they hadn’t heard.

“What are your ambitions?” she’d asked him once.

He shrugged. The degree he’d earned wasn’t practical, and, encouraged by his parents to “follow his bliss,” he’d never thought much about income. He’d always worked, never at anything, however, he’d devote a life to. He settled between jobs. He knew what he’d like and what, in the meantime, he might do to get by. When the getting by squeezed everything else out, he felt strange relief. Absolved from dreaming, he could live instead.

She might have left him when she took her new post or three months later when she received her first promotion. He took her staying as proof she loved him as he was but also detected her restlessness, the way she seldom sat with him anymore, never simply read or watched something with him.

Before the L reached his stop, he’d vacated his seat for an old man bent by labor or some previous injury into an awkward S. They’d passed a light smile, and he thought momentarily about speaking but recalled how she hated that, her forced laugh when he’d explained his parents’ faith in casual conversation.

One of his friends asked if he knew she’d started seeing someone else. He said, “Yes,” though, of course, he hadn’t. In retrospect, the hints lay everywhere, but he’d thrown himself into work, taking unnecessary shifts and covering co-workers when they or family members became ill. She’d scolded him. He might have noticed how he neglected her.

“And for what?” He almost said the words aloud.

Every time he passed through the revolving door at the station he had to think which way to turn—something in the bars scared him, and those exits always reminded him of factory machines to knead or slice bread. A man in a business suit behind him almost ran over him. He glanced back in mute apology.

On the street, peeking at his phone, he saw the hour had passed. The manager wouldn’t really be angry because he’d been a dutiful employee and a good co-worker, a good boy. Still, involuntarily, his pace quickened.

Their first conversation after she left was to arrange a meeting that never happened. She needed to talk to someone, and he said he had a conflict too. Since then, they’d spoken twice on the phone. The second time, he’d meant to be dignified when she asked how he’d been, but he’d been honest.

“I’m pretty miserable,” he said.

She tried to console him, but nothing she said stuck.

Down the block, he saw the familiar storefront and one of his coworkers cranking the handle to release and extend the awning. That was his job, he thought, and then he heard his own voice, barely audible on the busy street.

“Go home,” it said, “call a locksmith.” And, before another moment passed, he turned and went.

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Finding Myself Here

bwphoto_assignment_3+copyMore flash fiction…

One tail of his shirt lay outside his pants, which I noted as he spun to face me. His tie hung loose. His right fist hovered like a hammer before its fall.

“You have no idea!” he yelled.

But I did. He pelted me with his breath, beer-sour, as dank as bars he and I knew, ones created to serve desperation.

“You don’t know her!”

Even closer. So that, had I less control we might bump and, from there, tangle. I resolved to go limp if our skin met, but my skin buzzed of its own accord.

“Listen…” I said

Some hopelessness swallows expression. You reach the end of air before really speaking. The silence of dread follows.

“You fucker!”

“I…”

“Shut the hell up…”

As boys out on the lake we’d worked as halves, reacting to the least shift in wind with the proper measure of canvas and rope. We’d never needed voices, even the time we’d capsized and clung to the hull. Then I’d only heard him chuckle from the other side.

The first blow hit my temple and slid off as I turned my head, but the second, in my stomach, departed before I knew he’d launched it. I’m not sure how I landed on all fours, but when he kicked my side, I arched like a cat, the keen taste of bile in my mouth. The rest was lost in scraping along the asphalt parking lot ahead of his pursuit, all elbows and knees, forehead, shoulder, hip. I may have fought back but can’t remember.

When I opened my eyes, I was between two cars. He’d left me the strange stillness of dusk. Only the sky remained bright. The rest bathed in gray, and no one stood near. I was afraid he would be close before realizing I didn’t care, that I might prefer it.

“I’m sorry,” I said. I crawled two more steps and lifted myself up by the car’s sides.

When I kissed her the first time, I pictured this. I peeked to see her eyes closed, the hint of a smile daring fate and abandon.

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Someone Who Sees

grain-electric-love-ring-diy-7Because my life follows regular patterns and others’ lives do too, my daily walk to work crosses the same people going the opposite direction. Of course, we don’t acknowledge each other, but I know them. They must know me.

One is an older man, though he may be no older than I am, just more wrinkled. He carries a notepad, reporter fashion, pen ready to record some detail worth jotting down. He pauses periodically and glances up at streetlights lit on mornings this time of year. Or he turns to the opposite side of North Avenue and people rushing into Walgreens or Starbucks. Or he dips his head and stops to read his writing, and the sidewalk traffic flows around him.

Including me. The other day, as the pedestrian timer started to count down at an intersection a block ahead, I grabbed the straps of my backpack and made a run for it. He’d just stopped. I had to swerve to avoid him, and he glanced directly at me, his pen going from still to ready. He nearly looked at me, but only nearly because, from my perspective, his eyes didn’t have time to grip my image or attend.

He wrote something down. Safely on the other side of the street, I looked back and saw it.

He wears glasses doctored by wire. Maybe the elaboration of blue and orange and gray and red and black is decorative rather than functional. His glasses are now mostly wire. They’d have to be fragmented and loose to need all that scaffolding. What he sees must be adorned by multicolored vines framing the world, so his moments of accounting come with a vague squint, as if he’s confused by which is the distraction, his job recording or life itself.

I observe him as he observes me. I can’t weave my way into other minds and discover what’s really there, but I think I understand him. We go in opposite directions yet occupy the same spaces together. His brain may be blurrier, but it’s a conglomeration of wet cells with spindly strands between them. The same arcs of impulse seize us both, though the impulses may be different. And perhaps they aren’t that different. I am, after all, a recorder too.

Lately fatigue has settled in my chest, as if my spine, tired of bracing against the engine of my heart, can no longer stay its vibrations. My posture, I’ve been told, is weak. My head slides forward by degrees. My back bows. Though people often remind me I’m still a young man, I recall what youth feels like.

My alter ego hunches over his pad, his brows concentrated behind his improbable glasses, expressing the exertion in his task. He doesn’t appear tired, just purposeful. If I weren’t always anxious to do what I’d meant to do the day before, I might turn to follow him and see what he’s looking at or looking for.

I’m sure he’s crazy, another of the lost souls cities attract and perhaps cauterized by horrendous experiences I’ll never know or understand, but he’s also oddly enviable, possessed by something bigger than the accumulation of days, something bigger than his own mind.

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On Being Wayward

TO13-3Though I have a decent sense of direction, I get lost often. The maps I draw don’t say whether the scene in front of me is at the top of the page, at the bottom, or if I’m presently observing the left or the right margin. Maps’ two dimensions leave me wondering how these buildings spring from this page and what street may cut between the blocks ahead. Lists of lefts and rights and roads’ names and numbers unravel as the center line turns somewhat left and splits, both ways labeled at an angle I can’t read. Signs disappear when you’re moving. Lanes become turn-only, and you can’t turn back.

Sometimes I rely on figuring it all out once I get started—the proper course does occasionally become clear, after all—and I foolishly believe people who utter too much and add, “Anyway, it’s not hard to get there.”

Everyone else has an iPhone to guide them, and its voice speaks without judgment. I don’t mind humbling myself to ask directions, but the instructions I receive often baffle me. Then I won’t ask again. People never insist I repeat what they just said to assure I got it right, and they ought to. It’s simple enough to them, and I don’t want to make further fuss.

The world seems less complicated for other people. They don’t think twice about traveling to strange, unknown, and terrifying locales. Their faith outpaces mine, and, where I’d like to anticipate every twist—to picture it and two other possibilities besides—others love improvisation and the spots you find when you mean to go somewhere else. “Getting lost,” they tell me, “is half the fun.”

I heard an episode of Radiolab discussing Australian aborigines who embed directions deep in their language. You don’t just leave the house but leave it in a northwesterly direction, and they have a word for that. They have 80 words for directions, and instead of “How are you?” they say, “Where are you going?” I wish I could answer. For me, such certainty would be magic akin to being home everywhere.

The moment I begin to think, I begin to be lost—second and third guessing doom me most—and comfort flees like steam. It’s my directional deficit, which means I can’t borrow knowing, can’t look to be other people, won’t learn to speak Aboriginal Australian in the time left to me. The problem is in me and not the world, and I must own my bewilderment.

Leaving early helps, and, even if I arrive an hour before necessary, at least I’m there and not making torturous revisions. The idle time I earn is solace I appreciate. “Have you been waiting long?” my companion may ask. “No,” I lie and feel momentarily like someone who arrives just where he should be when he should be with nonchalant finesse.

Perhaps I’m more lost inside than out. My waywardness may all be in my head, a matter of shutting out doubt or pretending better. I’d love to believe everyone is like me and stuck without a bird’s eye view in a maze of impossible-to-read alternatives. I’d prefer thinking I’m geographically rather than generally lost. But, as the only map I have is my own, I may never know.

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