Category Archives: Epiphany

Getting Together

dinerAnother experiment. I always write fiction in third-person, and, truth is, it seems easier. First person requires more than changing perspective. It needs voice, a distinctive take on everything and an idiosyncratic way of expressing it. For me, writing in first-person makes the same demand as acting—find the foreign reaches of yourself as if they’re familiar territory.

I imagine this piece as the start of a story… though I haven’t conceived the rest yet… and will probably never write it.

The disappearing song of the bird that woke me had me thinking maybe it’d dissolved, the friction of flight whittling it into a sliver of itself that finally dropped from the air like a leaf. Then I thought, “Ah, the true message here is I’m a sliver of myself.”

Maybe she does this too, watching half-thoughts ripen into self-accusation. I could mention it. If she nods and says, “Yes,” I’ll know she isn’t one of those people who pretend to understand and get only as far as acknowledging someone might reach such a conclusion. Dozing and twilight encourage wild ideas. She doesn’t really know me, and I’m so much older.

Every morning, I roll from bed by deliberately repeating the previous day’s method because, some time ago, I decided it’s relatively pain-free. My wife remains settled in sleep like a buried object. Many mornings, she might be awake but won’t speak. Years of rising tell me she appreciates silence and oblivion. I might wish that for myself if pangs of pointless desire didn’t so often wake me.

I think sometimes about clocks’ regulation and about how ordinary it is to be shocked from sleep by shouting sounds and how you forget that other sorts of alarms alert people to fires, earthquakes, nuclear attack, the apocalypse. Starting with idle fantasies ought to be welcome. They at least spare me more noise.

So that day started gently. Though fall had fallen, the windows remained open all night. In our dark bedroom, I’d been conscious of the wash of traffic, the playground voices of twenty-somethings emerging from a bar down the street, the faint breaths of breezes that carried the wet dusty smells of a storm just passed. If I dared to be honest, I’d have acknowledged being too excited to sleep.

Of course I thought about what was next and felt—if not anticipation—then incipient meaning in meeting her. She’d been the one to say we should get together again, and she offered it unbidden. Memories of the first stir of attraction never fade enough, nor does hope, though I often wish they would. Every atom of sense says you’re past some mistakes, and still you don’t believe. I suppose I could have felt guilty too, but that’s the other half of attraction—possibility isn’t transgression.

Not that I had any experience. In my imagination, I’d replayed our conversation forward and backward looking for misread cues. It hardly seemed plausible she’d desire me and, when openings close and so much seems over, you ought to distrust smiles and leaning forward. Desperation reads into everything.

She asked where, and no alternative occurred to me, so we were to have lunch in the same spot again, the same time, the same day, a week later. I didn’t think about being seen. Initially, I didn’t think I had to, and, after that, I considered likely responses. All were quite unlikely, naturally, but delivery was all that mattered. I thought I was prepared, even when I couldn’t be. I’ve only ever misunderstood longing, the dark depths of ignorance…

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Filed under Aging, Doubt, Empathy, Epiphany, Fiction, Fiction writing, First-Person, Hope, Identity, Laments, life, Love, Meditations, Modern Life, Nostalgia, Rationalizations, Time, Writing

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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No True Past

reality%20show-thumbThis spring, when my history students asked how I felt about the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, I stretched to reach my earlier self. Like a fly in an expansive room, however, the past is there, but it’s never where you look. Who can answer, “How did you feel?” when the question requires re-knowing, and re-knowing is revision of what you might have felt?

Scientists say we remember the last time we remembered something and, after the first retrieval, never return to the true moment. You can only recall reading the previous sentence once. Then you are simply recalling remembering it. Each moment, like the one arriving and departing right now, is absolutely elusive.

I read an article by George Musser in the September 2011 edition of Scientific American complicating this dilemma. It suggests we construct time instead of perceiving it. We live 80 milliseconds behind so that each piece of sensory data has already passed. 80 milliseconds doesn’t seem much to me, but delay allows the brain time to work. According to physics, someone 30 meters away can clap hands and the sound will be late. Yet, at that distance, though two hands meeting and their sound shouldn’t be simultaneous, we sense they are. Take one step out of that zone and we exceed the brain’s capacity to mend discontinuity. Motion and sound no longer coincide.

A better example, perhaps: you may have watched something where a speaker’s lips don’t quite match the words. Experiments indicate that, as long as the delay is under 80 milliseconds, we won’t notice. After that, we do.

The article describes other clever experiments exposing narratives our brains create. When you touch your nose and your toe at the same time, the sensory data arrives at the same time though the route from nose to brain is appreciably shorter. David Eagleman, a neurologist studying time, rigged up a light that, when you press a button, blinks after a slight delay. After 10 or so tries, the subjects’ brains align the button and the light—they appear consonant. Then when the lag decreases, subjects think the light blinks before they press.

This microcosmic failing is relevant to my macrocosmic memory of 1968. We’re hard-wired to construct reality from signs, to fix memory with prejudice. Another of Eagleman’s flashing light experiments asks observers to assess the duration a light stays on. The first occurrence or one that broke a pattern seems to last longer. Our narratives are sensitive to novelty, they gather impressions with significant bias, and we gain confidence when we’re sure we’ve experienced something distinctive.

It’s easy to remember Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination. I was 10 and lived in coastal Texas. It was early in my summer vacation. When I got up, the television was on, and my mother told me RFK had been shot and would likely die. The heat had already come, and, when I went outside, I felt—for maybe the first time—frightened by the world I occupied. Only part of it was the day’s news or Martin Luther King’s assassination two months before. Sitting on the curb, I thought about why Texas had to be so hot and whether the earth could ever be too hot to leave my house.

I may be inventing this scene. Neurologists say thoughts of past and future illuminate the same parts of our brains. Looking forward requires fabrication and so does looking back.

Malcolm MacIver, another scientist mentioned in the article, speculates evolution favors animals whose sensory volume (how far they can see, hear, smell, etc.) exceeds their motor volume (how well they move in the space they occupy). Consciousness itself, he argues, springs from knowing where we are according to where we’ve been and a plan to take advantage of what’s ahead. It’s all one big survival game relying on surmise.

My sensory volume is huge, doubled by my creative volume. Those most desperate for narratives are most susceptible to delusion. I seek comfort, and, if circumstances are uncomfortable, I at least think I know the trouble. I can’t answer my students’ questions about the ugly history I experienced, but I like thinking I can. Picture a 10 year-old sitting on the curb, sun baking him before noon, and perhaps that feels true to you.

He may not be me.

Memory is complicated to the point of deception. I see the world as through a telescope or periscope or microscope. My brain—our brains—make sense of observations we sometimes call “history.” We try to straighten out the past before we write it into books but never revisit the thing itself. We can’t.

We are time travelers only in our imaginations.

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Filed under Doubt, Education, Epiphany, Essays, High School Teaching, History, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Memory, Nostalgia, Recollection, Revision, Teaching, Thoughts, Time

Choose ONE

alternativesThe toughest part of any blog, I imagine, is finding what to write. I’m off to New York this week and don’t have time for a full post, but I’m offering openings I wrote and never pursued. Which would you’d like to see developed to full length? I’ll try, I promise.

1.

Some moments seems contiguous. The final gasps and throes of the coffeemaker, unvaried, could be one song. Initials in the sidewalk announce themselves as they always have, meaning to make today into yesterday, when you also noticed them. Tires drone between steady beats of highway seams. A furze of yellowy pink clings to a familiar flat horizon. More is similar than different, all one morning.

2.

You discover who you are by failing. It’s unfortunate, but bumping against the ceiling of your abilities or unveiling how wrong you were or seeing the familiar transformed by a new understanding or feeling, or blushing with deep embarrassment and error that says, “I’m not what I seem”—that’s what matters.

3.

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but I do. My appreciation for book designers rests on their nifty solutions to unseen needs. They shirk the profound pressure to entice. They remain somehow, despite it all, playful. They innovate. They renovate what you expect from text, turning letters into objects and images into signs. You can’t say how a cover affects you, but you know which do.

4.

My people-watching grows more intense with age. Everyone, it seems, is more interesting than I am, more beautiful and/or paired with someone more beautiful than I am, off more purposefully to more interesting destinations uncolored by worry. They’re smarter, hipper, happier. They don’t care how very screwed the world is. They aren’t old.

5.

She sat on the floor and watched me cry, unmoved but interested, silently remarking and studying. You wouldn’t know she was the child and I the adult, and the power to make me cry—her influence over and exploitation of her parent didn’t seem to be her primary focus. She was shocked to see me dissolve.

6.

In my alternate lives, I travel more, draw more, talk with people much more intelligent than I am, find hidden strengths in myself, feel deeply, and make a bigger difference to myself and others. Perhaps it’s too late for redefinition at my age. Yet the futility of self-improvement does little to impede fantasy. Disappointment inspires bigger, better, bolder versions of my impossible, limited self.

7.

I don’t think often about former relationships. I’m happily married. But, if I do, the break-up scenes appear, angry accusations and bitter assessments, smolderingly indifferent verdicts, barely-beneath-the-surface hurt, resignation still tinged with faint hope, the most persistent denial. If you could collect all the people who’ve rejected me or I’ve rejected, the testimony might form a complete picture of why I’m such an ass.

8.

Why do I distrust certainty so? When someone says, “That’s just how it is,” I want to shout, “Is anything ever what we say it is? Isn’t saying what it is the same as revealing an unexpressed or unconscious wish it were and that we have no choice about it and this situation is what it must be?” I prefer those who say, “I don’t know, but intend to find out.” Do your best to reveal something closer to the truth. Don’t be sure.

9.

Maybe every child experiences being lost and approaching a stranger to ask (in some form), “Can you help me find my mommy?” You hope to be settled again and not so anchorless. More than anything else, you seek a sure sense of where you belong, what makes you feel whole and complete.

10.

When my history students ask about some time in my past—how I felt about MLK’s assassination or the end of the war in Vietnam, I stretch to reach an earlier self. Like a fly in an expansive room, it runs from me. How do you answer, “How did you feel?” when the question requires re-knowing, and re-knowing is fraught with revision, what you ought to have felt or might have felt or thought?

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Seeing Surprises

WheIannmen my son was very young, he told me he’d drawn a dragon on his play table. They weren’t his first marks there, so I needed to know what color he’d used to find this dragon amid the commotion of his earlier flailing. He held up a green marker, the color of new moss. I saw shapes in green, unclosed boxes, drunken circles, sinuous lines attached at one end.

Then I recognized what he meant. The shape was the first real, perceptible thing he’d drawn. The dragon was there, its eyes and scales and a second color—a lurid red—fanning from its mouth. They were flames, he said. I saw that.

Next week, my son graduates from college and a similar revelation lurks—funny how individual days amount to something recognizable at last. All the evenings at the kitchen table sighing over math problems or another wacky paragraph of The American Pageant or an online physics quiz led to something too, his graduation from high school four years ago.

But that I witnessed. Now I only see college pictures—he’s dressed up, standing with friends at a party, or hidden in sunglasses attending some sunny celebration. I don’t see him work or study, don’t experience the marks of knowledge and understanding amassing and something forming in the mess.

Over the phone, he sometimes tells me about a class, paper, or lecture but usually impatiently, always assuming—rightly—my limited comprehension. I like to think he believes me capable of understanding, but I’d have to be there to truly get it. Not being there sometimes seems the central quality of our new relationship, and, of course, I miss him.

And, thinking about his graduation is a little like realizing every mark on his play table is one unnoted image. When children are born, no one says you’ll discover they’re strangers. No one mentions the alien things they do and make and think on their own, quite apart from anything you give experientially or genetically. No one says they will surprise you or that, ultimately, it’s all surprise, a cascade of shock starting with the first identifiable word.

I know my son is anxious about what’s next, and in these times I don’t blame him. His mom and I are nervous too, but mostly we’re proud, happy to accept whatever credit people want to give us for who he’s become, but well aware he’s responsible. His voracious curiosity began the moment he opened his eyes and has hardly paused since. He and his sister are the brilliant lights of our lives.

Once he learned to speak he talked all day, from the moment he woke to the moment he slipped into sleep mid-sentence. Like any parent I still see that little boy when I look at him in tie or tux, but I also know everything he’s made himself. I’m sure he worries it isn’t enough, and some employer will ask for more. I hope he can put his apprehension aside and pause to celebrate his accomplishment. My wife and I care less about what others might want from him and more about what he wants, his continuing desire to learn and do and play and work and feel.

We are in awe of our beautiful stranger.

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Thursday Haibun (Episode Three)

basho-loc-01518vI’m celebrating NaPoWriMo (Poem a Day Writing Month) by writing haiku and prose in haibun. I’m posting them each Thursday in April. The entries below are yesterday’s attempts. The numbers communicate how many I’ve written so far.

 liii.

Wandering the neighborhood when I was young, I passed a juniper bush and pulled dusty, blue-gray berries from branches and squeezed them between finger and thumb. The scent rising from the collision improved on any cologne I knew.

a gust rubs

leaves together—the rough sound

affection

Some smells affect me still. I can’t smell bayberry and balsam without thinking about Christmas or licorice without thinking of Easter.

a child told me

the chalk was hers, the drawing

her sister’s

I can’t smell bergamot without thinking of that afternoon in London when, having spent the day at the National Museum after finding no one to share my excursion, I wandered into a shop and ordered Earl Grey. It was after tea time and too early for supper. The evening stretched over the scarred table, all the pocks and pits craters in my close attention. Then my waitress sat down with me, asking me question after question until I felt I’d had an adventure.

We said goodbye knowing we knew one another.

incidental—

morning’s attention to

a lost glove

liv.

Watch enough sci-fi and you think of meeting extraterrestrials, stretching, stretching, stretching to imagine something outside your conception. If you really reached such possibilities, you’d be lost—words and gestures and emotions disparate, a meeting of rock and rock.

sparrow, I see you—

air separates us, time stalls

between us

lv.

One of my college roommates taught me to drive stick using my other roommate’s car. We never told him. In the Sunday parking lot, I lurched from start to stop, and soon the whole affair became purely laughable. We lifted into an ether of hilarity and sometimes had to pause to breathe enough oxygen. The car complained, but we didn’t. We enjoyed everything absurd in it, as, at that moment, we thought anyone would.

windows filmed:

I look out—the broken

gaze of shutters

Some weeks later, the car’s clutch died. I never spoke to either roommate about it, ducking my head to avoid revelation.

the last page—

notes I don’t understand

in my hand

lvi.

Sometimes reviewing memories means thinking of all I might have said. When my colleague asked, I didn’t exactly say what happened and, when she wanted to know about what he said, well…

outside this room,

arguing—her voice sings

a half-pitch too high

The problem is honesty—it always is—and what the occasion occasions and what transpires. I want to be proud. Instead, I feel flushed with confusion.

 inside this box,

another—another in that—

deep promises

She asked me. She asked what had been said against her and who spoke on her behalf. I remember she wanted to know, “Who was in the room?” and “Did you defend me?” They were questions I’d been instructed not to answer by people I cared less about. They were questions more likely than anyone in the room acknowledged.

Still, I said nothing. I quailed. Maybe I feared for my job.

hens’ posture

in the yard—strutting

inside the wire

 lvii.

When the sun sags toward buildings, I think it’s lazy, exhausted by its relentless, unvarying journey. I know that’s me—I’m tired.

the orchids

take days—grins unopened,

unknown

lviii.

I said you didn’t know me though I know you did.

at the bottom

a message—a moment’s

scrawl, wriggling

A sort of quiet calls for respect. You spoke and waited, watching me form responses from air. You may have known how little could be said, how evidence conspires, how a halting voice says more than words.

leaves reversed

awaiting rain, their gray

an extra face

We barely saw each other through dusk, as was proper. The edge of trees lost themselves in night sky.

 lix.

Consider this: everyone has embarrassment to recall.

two cars both ease

into a crossroad, close

enough to meet eyes

In fifth grade, Mrs. Cullen read my hijacked my note to Linda McClinton aloud. Mrs. Cullen emoted where the text demanded—the moment I said I really liked Linda and didn’t understand why she didn’t like me. The class laughed, especially Linda.

What choice did I have but to laugh too? The moment belonged in a book, the passage underlined.

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Everything, Everything, Everything is Crap

urca42ckfu0qgllaty5jSometimes, in conversation, you criticize someone or something, and another after another complaint comes out. Soon indignation climbs on indignation until you’re riled. The world fills with unjust and intolerable and dumb circumstances. People around you are insensitive and/or ignorant. You’re incensed, as you should be.

A sympathetic listener nods and sighs, perhaps clapping a hand over yours, whispering, “Yes, the world is misguided… all but us.”

And sometimes you hear your laments as they’re heard by others. Your listener’s eyes lose focus or shift to a screen, window, or plant nearby. In that context, sighs have a different meaning. Air goes dry. The keening noise, that shaking-fists-at-the-sky, ready-to-leap voice, is yours. You’re as wrong as anyone.

I have opinions. When I evaluate poor decisions, miscues, and the culprits behind the blunders around me, I believe I’m right. I see the blunders and the blunderers, which some people—those people—don’t.

Then, in an instant, I hate listening to myself. Judgment is a terrible default, yet anything anyone tells me or anything I read or anything I experience instantly becomes good or bad, right or wrong, sensible or silly, feeling or unfeeling, interesting or dull.

I’d be happier with curiosity or sympathy or a profound desire to investigate and learn.

But perhaps I shouldn’t assess myself so harshly. American society is judgmental. One party and candidate sneers at the other. One product puts another in the shade. Arguments make good TV punditry, and all those people stranded on islands or traveling and the dancers and singers and generally talented people, they need eliminating. Cooks need eliminating. Disdain permeates media and politics. We enjoy laughing and love a snappy put-down or gotcha.

Even a president explaining the Affordable Care Act does so in mocking-cable format on Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis on Funny or Die. The President must follow the script—“C’mon everyone knows it’s a script, Obama is so wooden!” the critics cry—as he continually insults the cluelessly obtuse, hapless comedian. At last, he reaches his plug, his plug being openly dismissed as “a plug.” The comedian interrupts the President to point out how dull his message is. “This is what they must mean by a drone, ” Galifianakis opines.

My history classes listened to Franklin Roosevelt’s first Fireside Chat praising the American people for their understanding of the Emergency Bank Holiday, lauding the two political parties for their patriotic cooperation, and applauding the financial sector for self-sacrifice as we (plural) met the unexpected crisis.

The contrast woke me up. Of course, I could and maybe should be skeptical, critical even. FDR isn’t be telling the whole truth—history records his many detractors and the friction his reforms met—but speaking praise without fear of censure seems, in our age, surprising. He too needed to plug, to justify government action, but he explained with poise and calm. No one was hurt or threatened in the making of his broadcast. Many felt reassured.

My students seem better prepared for the mixed humor and earnestness of Between Two Ferns, and, even now, I hear them judging me, saying I’m clueless They’d say Americans are honest now. FDR’s Fireside Chat—really just as calculated as Obama’s appearance—exploited Americans too, only less openly. We can’t be so easily exploited now.

Maybe, but the extremity and judgment that permeate humor and earnestness exemplify our strident age. Nothing is solely what it is—it’s itself and what it’s worth.

Dear Reader, you may find me strident now. I’m ready to accept my part of the problem. I’m as cynical as the next American and won’t make any ridiculous, cringe-worthy (and judgment-worthy) resolutions to change. I won’t spout bombastic, self-righteous calls for others to change.

Instead, I’ll just say I hear myself now. Some matters deserve censure, others not.

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