Category Archives: Envy

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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Filed under Aesthetics, Ambition, Anger, Apologies, Arguments, Art, Blogging, Desire, Doubt, Ego, Envy, Essays, Facebook, Fame, Identity, Laments, Meditations, Rationalizations, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Voice, Writing

On Will

spockWhen I first watched Star Trek, Spock affected me most. Captain Kirk was bolder, Scotty more resourceful, Bones more lovable, but Spock’s cool calm made him enviable. At the time, his logic was my ideal, and he sticks with me still.

In one episode, “Amok Time,” Spock experiences all adolescence in a fortnight—pon farr, a rage of hormones so intense that it floods him with lethal levels of adrenaline. The episode opens with Spock throwing Nurse Chapell’s offering of soup against a hallway wall. He composes himself long enough to request a leave of absence to visit Vulcan but can’t say why. Kirk agrees, then, when diplomacy moves Starfleet to divert the ship to another planet, Spock must admit his problem is “biology,” a need to mate as powerful as a salmon’s swim upstream. He says “biology” with such shame it’s clear he wants nothing to do with inconvenient bodily processes, emotion, or expressions of personal desire.

The first time I saw the episode, that’s what I wanted too, complete control over longing, the power to suppress every impulse. Spock tells Kirk that pon farr, “Stips our minds from us, brings a madness which rips away our veneer of civilization.” My veneer has never been glued down especially well and, back then, it kept getting ripped away by innocent teasing, by precipitous attachments to girls who never liked me enough, by thundering anger and sudden unaccountable tears. Even in pon farr ‘s throes, Spock remains articulate and controlled, exactly the sort of adolescence I sought.

That yearning for self-regulation has hardly left me. Even now, I engage in daily staring contests with acts that require self-discipline—willing myself to work out, to count calories, to write in my journal and sketch, to work on my next blog post, to create a to-do list each morning I’ll pursue all day. None of it will abide looking away. Spock never blinks, and if I do, some lazy, inconvenient, momentary urge wins over will. And, being less than what I want to be, I lose.

In “Amok Time,” Spock hopes to be spared his biology but, in real life, who can truly avoid feeling? My negotiations with emotion seem melodramatic, but the issue can’t be uncommon. I’ve learned, as Spock does, “The ancient drives are too strong. Eventually they catch up with us. We are driven by forces we cannot control.”

“It would be illogical to protest against our natures,” he tells Nurse Chapell.

I know that—and know how ridiculous it is to look to Star Trek for adolescent survival strategies—but, at that time, everything in my family felt like a contest to me. If you idly balanced a yardstick on your index finger, someone could do it longer. Someone could hide in a smaller space for more minutes or think of another name that began with B or present some trivia you didn’t know or ride a bike around the block faster. I obsessed over being or doing just one thing better than my siblings.

As I was a volatile child, the contests involving self-regulation had the greatest stakes—who could finish an ice cream cone last or win a game of “The next one to speak is a monkey for a week.” When an advertisement for Lays Potato Chips claimed no one could eat just one, I watched my family consume the whole bag before I crowed victory, my uneaten chip in my palm under the table. I counted licks of a Tootsie Pop without biting it… many times. I meant never to indicate anger or disappointment. Inevitably, I failed. So I tried harder.

My days repeat (and repeat) the age-old contest between stoicism and hedonism, debates over whether life’s purpose is nobility or pleasure. Most people let pleasure win, which goads me on. No one will regard me as lax or accuse me of choosing the easy way by going with the crowd, giving in, or giving up

Something won’t surrender—I’m determined, productive, diligent, ruminative, and not particularly happy. It hasn’t made me particularly any emotion. Most days I just tire and can’t push my sled anymore. It’s quite heavy and lacks dogs, nice slippery spots, and hills to coast down. It’s a blocking sled, really.

Instead I worry time has spent my inner Spock. My handwriting shows its age. The arches of n, h, and m have melted, the loops of o, p, e, d, and b are closed to daylight, and the lifts between letters drag, tripping at each attempt to leap another height. Once I took pride in writing neatly, fluently, and legibly. Penmanship was like any art—any activity—and required practice of the right sort, the kind that includes consistent effort and willful vigilance, commitment to do more than good-enough.

Though I like to believe I’ve abandoned Spock, scanning my handwriting reveals haste and capitulation to fatigue and utility. I can make-out what I’ve written—it hasn’t come to that yet!—but I can’t stand to look. “I used to try harder,” I say, “where has my discipline gone?”

The conclusion of “Amok Time” seems laughable now, typically Star Trek, with its philosophical overtones drowned by gaudy sets, Dutch angles, transparent stunt-double combat, loud soundtrack music, and a deus ex machina. Spock survives his pon farr, forms another tie with Kirk, and gets a smile out of it. The madness of Spock’s amok time, Bones says, may be “The price [Vulcans] pay for having no emotions the rest of the time.” While that certainly makes sense, the melodrama seems staged. Deadened feelings, numb routines, amplified editing and denial are just as likely costs as explosive outbursts.

My experience tells me so. Even now, Spock is at my shoulder whispering to buck up, toughen up, and shut up and, this late in the series, who could exorcise him?

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Filed under Aging, Ambition, Depression, Desire, Doubt, Envy, Essays, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Memory, Rationalizations, Spock, Star Trek, Thoughts, Time, Tributes, Worry

Interview With a Nearly Nobody

200px-Bob_Unglaub_baseball_card“I don’t understand sports all that well (because I’m not an avid watcher) but get what it means to be a ‘utility player,’ a teammate who fills an empty spot, who serves to advance base runners, leaps from the bench when summoned, fills one of the last lines of the stat sheet. The utility player isn’t a home run or triple hitter but reliable and versatile and decent. I’m not ashamed to be that guy.

“As nice as appearing in a headline might be, I’m happy with the fourth or fifth paragraph, a mention when the team needs a timely contribution and not a highlight. Stars swing for the fences, shoot from half-court, swat a tennis ball from between their legs, or snatch a pass from the air as if by magnetism. I’m at work the same time every morning, sitting quietly, slogging through regular and tedious tasks. Finding fault with my performance would be challenging. I make sure there’s little to criticize. No one calls me indispensable, but I’m extraordinarily consistent and predictable. I pride myself on that. I’m just where you expect.

“Predictability has a bad name. Not nearly as pleasing as bold ambition and surprise, a steady hand nonetheless lends complementary comfort and safety. A utility player knows others deserve the spotlight and anticipates being needed. Patience, diligence, and calm add to success too, particularly when everyone wants immediate action or credit for acting immediately. I try never to seek or take credit, even when solutions seem familiar.

“Part of utility is curbing your ego. If you see yourself as background, stepping aside isn’t so tough. Someone levels every tilt, lessens every unchecked swell. If the team needs cool water to make a risky boil subside, call me. The others may have forgotten I’m here, but I haven’t. No one is invisible to himself, after all, and nothing pleases me more than others glancing in my direction and asking me to enter the game. My gratitude explodes in those moments. It means so much to be of service.

“And, if I start to feel low, I try to remember that, in sports, more scholarly types sometimes excavate obscure players, memorize their record, delight in their spark of fame. They take a fetishist’s pride in loving what no one else noticed. History may discover you. There’s consolation.

“Stars don’t worry about utility players’ feelings, and that’s only right. Why should they? You don’t become a star by being accommodating. You become a star by standing in your rightful spot and knowing its rightfulness. The last second shot and the last at-bat belong to those prepared to take advantage, those the fans desire. A moment’s hesitation, a feeling someone else may be better suited to this circumstance, those doubts won’t yield triumph. At least, they seldom do. Oh, you might get lucky, but why trust that?

“Occasionally, the utility player can be of use. Afterward, a reporter catches him on the periphery and collars him for a question about his unlikely and fleeting stature. I’ve been in that position and know what’s required. Say you pride yourself on being ready. Say you are blessed and fortunate. Never boast the team could count on you more often. As teammates remind you—warn you—know your place. You’re unlikely to find a spotlight again.”

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Filed under Aging, Ambition, Desire, Doubt, Ego, Envy, Experiments, Fame, Fiction, Identity, Parody, Satire, Thoughts, Work

15 Specious Novel Openings

Psyche-and-Cupid-300x200A colleague sent me a list of famous opening lines from stories and novels—some usual suspects like “Call me Ishmael” and “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” and some I didn’t know, like “It was the day my grandmother exploded” (Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road, 1992) and “‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass” (Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond, 1956). That last one, my colleague pointed out, was the only dialogue in “The 100 Best First Lines from Novels.”

I’ve been ill this week and haven’t the concentration or will to write much, so I’m posting 15 opening lines for imaginary fiction. I’ve also supplied pretend titles and years to reflect styles of the time, and, yes, one uses dialogue. If you read a lot, you may recognize I’m parroting writers I’ve encountered.

Here goes:

1. He found nowhere to sit, which annoyed him, and the hammering conversation, laughter, synthpop, and his third gin and tonic compounded the headache that met him at the door. (Silverhair, 1985)

2. Sydney put his hat on the shelf in the coat closet and called his wife’s name. (Sydney Burroughs, 1938)

3. She wiped the blood from her finger onto her cheek and giggled. (Polly, 1971)

4. When Henry Stanbury cleared the mist within the carriage window with his ungloved hand, he discovered another layer of grey without, a city half-hidden in fog, and a few drifting souls making and breathing the steam of reluctant dawn. (Castle Palace, 1862)

5. The last thing to worry about, I’ve discovered, is finding something to eat. (The Farrier’s Promise, 2004)

6. There was a mole to begin with, but that was enough. (The Medical Expert, 1925)

7. I could have told you my brother lied about our parents and all the good they did for strangers because I grew up in the same house and watched them every morning put on masks and become strangers themselves. (Glad Is Your Reward, 1956)

8. “You must understand, lapshichka,” Grandpa would say, “no woman thinks first of the circus.” (The Beaten Road, 1978)

9. The noontime sun slanting through the jail window reached just his foot, and he dipped his toes into and out of the light considering (with no success) when in his drunk wandering he’d taken his shoe off. (The Coopers, 1948)

10. Our house blazed all night to neighbors’ oohs and aahs. (Miranda, 1996)

11. The screen door snapped shut behind him, and he turned to face a kitchen scene including Theodora Roos retching in the sink, her children spooning Alpha Bits into their maws, and Theodora’s husband Kenny reading or, more properly, shouting from a letter announcing the failure of their appeal and the imminent evaporation of all their hopes for a substantial settlement. (The Passage of Night Planes, 1966)

12. The bay stilled as the sun fell, and the city’s lights shone on its surface like jewels in gunmetal. (Pyroglyph, 1986)

13. Those well familiar with the affair counted it as indeed fortunate more damage to young Crosswick’s reputation did not accrue from his misstep, but Frederick Crosswick was not finished yet. (A Spring in Mercia, 1896)

14. I wasn’t there, but when I was twelve a boy named Otto who lived just down the block died when he fell from a tree and onto his bicycle. (Ithaca, 2009)

15. Every book begins by announcing itself—think of the blast of the ship horn and it’s done. (When the Moon Droops, trans. from Italian, 1989)

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Filed under Aesthetics, American Sentences, Art, Charles Dickens, E. M. Forster, Envy, Experiments, Fiction, Fiction writing, Identity, J. D. Salinger, Kafka, Parody, Play, Reading, Revision, Satire, Saul Bellow, Teaching, Tributes, Voice, Writing

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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Filed under Anger, Apologies, Chicago, Desire, Envy, Experiments, Fiction, Identity, life, Love, Memory, Pain, Voice

Pinned

Pinned-Moths_LGIn a recent dream I found my limbs crossed under rubble—arm rested on arm and leg on leg and no moving them. And when I shifted in bed to relieve the thought, my neck hinged with all the weight of my body above it, loading it. Moving once more, the hinge transferred to my waist. I couldn’t unbend because this dream was cramped, no room remained.

Waking was wonderful. Having so much space relieved me, and I walked downstairs, drank a glass of water, and traveled back to my bed again, banishing the dream and reminding myself of the square feet of my home, my comfort and safety. I slept well after that.

I’m unclear why this dream visited or what it meant to say. We’re all prone to those cul-de-sacs that unsettle sleep, sick dreams with stuttering plot lines reveling in futility. An arm pinned beneath me, an extra fold of pillow, an overused posture may have started it, or something less physical. Maybe the day’s frustrations butted into corners again. Maybe earlier conversations turned on themselves, and spun like drunks stuck between walls.

As a fifth grader, I used to ride my bike to school and, nervous even then, I’d wake too early just to assure I’d set off in time. My clock radio clicked, and nearly every day—heavy radio rotation being what it was—I heard “Everybody’s Talkin’” by Harry Nilsson, a song I only understood as tone, his grayish brown moaning akin to clouds hanging over Texas City, the next town over, home of Union Carbide and Monsanto refineries.

Just as now, sleep seemed better. Why should I get up? My dreams hadn’t granted much respite, and the day promised little. Harry Nilsson couldn’t even make words, going “Wahh, Waaahh-wa-waaah-wahn-wah” and dooming the next hours before they started. Oh, what gratitude I felt when, for whatever reason muster-able, I wouldn’t have to go. Absolved, I’d sleep again. In complete peace.

Not much has changed. The importance of routine makes a bigger impression now that I’ve grown up—I know how daily workouts or a regular schedule or positive patterns of waking and sleeping add up. And I don’t really want to not work. Yet affirmations don’t make tedium easier. Though nearly every 7:15 am finds me sitting at my desk, slumped over a stack of papers, the greatest reprieve is still turning, stretching, and returning to sleep.

But you shouldn’t admit that. I think sometimes how far we are from early humanity and what they may have felt with no alarm to wake them. They must have had their own anxieties—like being hunted and mauled—but all of what we call progress could mean nothing to them. We might explain it. They might understand, and then ask, “And, that’s better because…?”

We make more and more, not just physically but conceptually, so much so our inventions seem material, the necessities that are truly fabricated and the obligations written in stone that really belong in sand. We can’t give ourselves a break. We can’t rest.

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Filed under Aging, Doubt, Envy, Essays, Home Life, Identity, Insomnia, Laments, life, Meditations, Modern Life, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Time, Worry

Outside Sentimentia

mediumIn MFA school, a teacher mailed me a cassette entitled “Mess o’ Sentimentia.” His thinking was that heart-friendly tunes might spur the emotion he saw missing in my work. He wanted me to be more effusive. It didn’t really matter to him if I was more sad, angry, loving, giddy, or resentful, as long as I was less fastidious.

Hearing his plan did make me experience one of those feelings—I’ll leave you to guess which one.

Being described as fastidious could be complimentary if it meant only “attentive to detail,” but the connotation is clear. To be fastidious is to be neat in the most annoying way. For a writer, “fastidious” isn’t far from “constipated.”

Though I promised to listen to his tape, I was relieved when the cassette arrived and, through some error in dubbing, was entirely blank. The list of titles and accompanying hour and a half of silence seemed a condemned man’s reprieve. I’m a dutiful student and debated and debated what to do. I finally decided not to alert him to the problem.

My reasoning—it wasn’t a problem.

Of course, maybe it was. Maybe it still is. I’ve always thought nature abhors a vacuum, and readers abhor the unsaid and supply it, feeling they realized instead of having revelations proffered. To say too much, I figure, is to be treacly or maudlin, and that way lies backlash, a reader’s resentful, “Oh yeah?”

But hiding is just as dangerous. I groom sentences because the simplest is most direct, but my mannered writing must sometimes seem inconsistent with the sloppiness of real emotion. I do feel and, though I’m sometimes afraid to, I like to believe my sadness, anger, love, giddiness, and resentfulness are audible. My heart is never silent.

I envy the disarray of writers who know how to voice undiverted sensations in their own terms, without translation. It’s hard for me to leave any page a mess. I hope neatness signals something too. I have to.

When one of my classes has a “silent conversation” and passes around sheets of paper that contain one student’s question and many students’ answers, I sometimes put on soundtrack music I’ve gathered from various movies. All this music comes from movies unknown to my students. The raw strings and sinking resolution of these pieces, their minor chords and major movements, their clashing waves of piano or invisible, nearly imperceptibly building notes turn the students’ faces to the page. Their pens dance en pointe. Someone invariably says, “This music makes everything I write sound so important!”

That was my teacher’s idea—to open up my apertures to self-expression, to get me believing I have something worth saying. I might have appreciated his gesture more, and, had his “Mess o’ Sentimentia” found volume, perhaps I’d have found myself. He must have hoped he’d draw my genuine soul out.

But those words “sound so important” bother me because who wants their writing to sound important instead of be important? To be true to myself is to distrust every word I utter. A restrained soul communicates itself in reluctance the way stretching a sore muscle yields both relief and pain. My restrained soul—embarrassed by effusiveness or grandiosity—shrinks instead of shouts. Perhaps I don’t know my voice’s full volume, but arrested expression can be real too, the clearest sign of emotions that cannot, dare not, be named.

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