Category Archives: Essays

New Haiku

pigeonsCetologists identify whales by the scars and general wear of their flukes, their idiosyncratic calling cards slipping into the deep again, marking years by disappearance and reappearance. When we moved in May, I thought I’d do the same with pigeons.

They must be as distinctive, I figured, and I meant to know my new neighborhood by its non-human citizens. For a time, on every walk exploring the new streets around us, I scrutinized each bird that lingered on the sidewalk. I meant to memorize a few, sure I’d meet some familiarity eventually.

Of course, I failed. The proliferation of pigeon colors and patterns can’t be captured by one mind, at least not one as small as mine. Even if I thought I remembered their odd, mixed variations of gray and white and brown, who could be sure? Was this pigeon a friend?

Over the last eight months, since abandoning my blog, I’ve written little, only haiku, and part of me discounts those seventeen (or so) syllables as frivolity, too easy to matter for much. They’re pigeons, perhaps beautiful if you’re prone to scrutinize but likely just another square of a sea’s surface or a patch of sky… more of the same.

Ezra Pound, a great lover of haiku, said, “The image itself is speech. The image is the word beyond formulated language.” If so, I wonder what those images add up to and how a person might turn so many disparate moments into anything comprehensive or consoling.

In May of 2015, I wrote a haiku,

eventually

enough raindrops will

wet this field

Maybe. If nothing else, belief intends sense. Each haiku promises content, however fleeting. My pigeon friends gather en masse in a parking lot near where I live. A step in their direction sends them wheeling into the air, and every distinction between them vanishes in shuddering wings and new perspectives of their flight. They’re no longer verifiably separate.

If haiku accomplish so much, perhaps that’s enough. When I was four, I remember scooting along the curb after a storm, my feet driving a wave of rainwater ahead of me. That instant persists because I seldom feel such power now. I’d like to write something substantial—a novel, a poem worthy of public attention, a collection of essays or short stories—and instead settle for the fitful awareness in haiku—they might add up, or, at the other extreme, one will be the apparition of faces in a crowd, petals plastered against a background making them visible at last.

One of Basho’s loveliest haiku reads,

winter solitude—

in a world of one color

the sound of the wind

Aren’t we always hoping for that, connectedness and singularity, belonging and the strange joy of feeling so?

I saw a pigeon recently I was sure I’d recall. It was ginger rather than gray, and one wing feather was a white vee, the other not. Turning to me as if it knew me, its strut faced my direction. I thought it spoke, issuing a challenge to be known and understood.

No haiku occurred to me, but I knew then what haiku is.

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Number 500

closed-signOnce or twice, after arriving at a favorite neighborhood restaurant, I’ve discovered it closed for good. On the door is a pithy thank you note to loyal patrons. First I think, “Oh no!” and then, “Are they calling me out? Wasn’t I loyal?”

They don’t have me in mind. Restaurants close all the time in Chicago. It’s rough getting started, rough maintaining quality, rough remaining relevant, and rough for owners who must sometimes resent the crazy, constant labor of their working lives. Even popular places can’t always make a go of it when the rent rises or someplace new opens nearby. More loyal patronage, I’ve decided, wouldn’t help. It’s the situation. Better to remember the wonderful meals you had there with friends and move on.

Today’s post is my last on Signals to Attend at least until the end of the year, and maybe forever. For some time, I’ve been thinking about closing. And though I haven’t decided entirely, I feel finished.

A blog isn’t like a restaurant. Few people make a profit, so money doesn’t matter. Nor do I rely on visitors as restaurants must. Okay… it sometimes bothers me when an essay or story I’ve slaved over gathers few readers, but then I tell myself I don’t do it for numbers. People are busy, and it’s nothing against me.

Which brings me to bloggers’ similarities with restaurant owners, at least the ones who never hit the big time. We don’t expect fame, maybe, but we hope to provide a place where pleasure might be found. We don’t imagine we’re the only choice or the most revered or the glitziest, buzziest choice, but we hope to satisfy those who happen in, loyal or not. And much of what we do is behind the scenes… necessarily so. The cycles of resupply and preparation that carry us from one offering to the next aren’t visible. We think, plan, and rethink until we’re ready, and, if  we aim for our best work, we don’t begrudge the labor.

As announced in the title, this post is number 500. I couldn’t begin to count the hours I’ve spent composing and revising for this blog. Dear Reader, it may not seem much, but for six years, my life has revolved around being here. Whatever else I was doing—reading, preparing for class, grading papers, coaching, writing grade reports, traveling, dealing with personal and family crises and celebrations, seeing to the rest of my creative life on my other blogs and in my other life as a visual artist—I appeared here at the requisite times. I wanted to post something new, and I’ve missed few deadlines I set for myself. Sometimes this blog felt like a part time job in a life too busy to accommodate one.

More so lately, not just because of the challenge of finding something new to say or because I’m still seeking different voices and styles but also because questions about my purpose nag me. Distinguishing between desire and obligation can be difficult, especially as visitors shrink and the thrill of twice being “Freshly Pressed” or cresting some follower milestone fade. I’m proud of my consistency—even if it’s crap, there’s a lot of it!—but when I mention my blog to friends and colleagues these days, they ask, “Are you still doing that?”

A restaurant owner might say doing anything for a long time—even when you try your damnedest to maintain quality—makes you reliable, which is not at all the same as exciting.

I’m not leaving the blogosphere entirely. I have a poetry blog I post to when I feel like it, a haiku-a-day site I’m devoted to, and the weekly cocktail blog I share with my brother. This site will stay open, if only as an archive.

So consider this my note on the door:

Thank you to all my loyal and not-so-loyal followers, my periodic and random visitors, my disgruntled objectors, my sympathetic ears, and my tsk-tskers. Your intelligent reading, your “Likes,” and especially your thoughtful comments inspired me and challenged me and helped me grow. You have been the center of my attention, and, though you may no longer find new material here, you haven’t left my thoughts.

 

 

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And?

ambition__media_cycleAnyone who has run competitively knows what it means to press. Exertion edges past comfort, and you pray for some pleasure in punishment, or at least you hope for an outcome erasing the torture whispering in your brain. When the voice grows loud and insistent, you tell yourself you’re a better person for enduring it, embracing it.

But you don’t need to run to know what pressing is. Some of the things you’re sure you want, you don’t want… and vice versa. You know—because you’ve been told—choosing to travel downstream means never seeing the mountains. If you do more than you think possible, you’ll redefine what possible is.

What does not destroy you… oh, you know the rest.

Yet my most rare pleasure is doing what occurs to me. I’m surprised when I find myself enjoying, without guilt or self-recrimination, some activity I wandered into. I’m happy for each break from thought and action. As a child I occupied time, and not in the way I use that expression now—as expending or wasting time before important events—but in the gentler sense of dwelling in and on the present’s comforts.

The line between relentless determination and masochism grows fuzzy. In the marshmallow test, the contest goes to the child who leaves the first sweet alone in anticipation of two later. The children who only want one, we’re told, go on to lives of mediocrity. Yet, the test seems biased. What if there truly is no time like the present? By what measure of success are the satisfied unsuccessful? What if contentedness is the ultimate success?

Today, like every day, I’ve jotted a list of what must be done. The day’s value comes from the number of check marks added to that list. Anything else distracts. Three phone calls, emails to answer, and every variety of follow-ups await me. Even this post makes the list—creativity becomes production. Because moving is crucial, every minute demands gripping the road, making progress on projects… whatever “progress” and “project” mean.

Though I recognize forces of instant gratification working in the world too, I’m of the bigger-better-faster generation. We’ve been conditioned to distrust comfort and complacency. We’ve been led to believe we’re useful only when we expend breakneck effort. Anything easy, my parents taught me, is not worth having, and, hence, I’ve come to believe less (and less) in accomplishments. Once attained, they tell me I’ve aimed too low.

Having makes me wonder about something more, harder, more worthy.

I’m not alone. We’ve forgotten how to rest. We want to devise, institute, adjust, amend, alter, generate, or overturn. Our phones are out and we’re doing and doing. We nurture hope the next moment will be better (or at least different). The present is perpetually incomplete. No subject or object can be left alone. Because we’re a half-turn from bringing everything into a more fulfilling alignment, we spin and spin.

I worry our addictions to novelty and progress will disqualify the value of the past. We seldom, if ever, consider what we give up. We miss the repeated lesson that heedless innovation produces unanticipated, often complicated and ambiguous, results. Despite our technology and sophistication, we remain animals who so fear being prey they don’t dare pause. We exhaust ourselves to attain some safe state of relaxation that never arrives.

Herds of lemmings, I understand, don’t really rush off cliffs… but we may if we whip ourselves into a dead run where we’re frantic, exhausted, and addled. Satisfaction and consummation obsesses us, but when do we have enough?

Some ambition is necessary—we have problems to solve, and that takes dedication. And I’m not against a runner’s type of pressing if your motive is to test your capacities, exercise your talents, generally revel in the blessings of being alive and strong. I’m all for the glory of that sort of effort. Yet, past a point I wish I could better define, ambition begins to look like compulsion, the twitching of a rabid mammal.

Can’t resting be glorious too?

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What—Me Worry?

CL50915When the person likely to be the next U.S. Senate Environmental Committee chair wrote a book called The Great Hoax denying global climate change, maybe it’s time to address a new strain of anti-intellectualism… delusion.

American ambivalence about intellect isn’t new. From the beginning Americans have favored plain-speech and uncomplicated thinking. They’ve always believed in simple answers to every complex problem. Trusting in fresh perspectives, putting aside received truths to encounter issues anew, that produces answers. The utopian “City on the Hill” faith in the possibility of starting over created the constitution.

However, the founding fathers, for all their flaws, were no dummies. They were subtle men whose elegant (and inelegant) solutions arose from rumination, deliberation, persuasion, and resourcefulness. They embraced complexity and kept up with the political science and regular science of their day.

They did not, as some do now, solve problems by denying they exist and vilifying any “overthinker” or “alarmist” who looks too closely.

Social scientists can offer decades of research on interdependent causes of poverty, and still some Americans cut through “all the crap” with the real truth—that some people don’t take advantage of opportunity. Graphs depicting the imbalanced distribution of wealth inspire yet another rags-to-riches tale, and, if social scientists unfavorably compare economic mobility in America to almost everywhere else, someone will assert the possibility, no matter how remote, is all that’s important. And, because if you work hard you should get ahead, those left behind must not have worked hard enough. They ought to blame themselves, the thinking goes, so helping them, giving them “handouts,” only saps their will to try harder. Cite economists who explain the mechanisms of inherited wealth and the game of musical chairs everyone else plays, and you’ll be accused of fomenting class warfare, plotting to rob the deserving, being a socialist. The deserving believe in “the market,” as a counterbalance to (and not a manifestation of) human greed—no regulation or redress is necessary.

Americans untroubled by economic inequality are equally prepared to discount social inequality as a vestige of bad old days now gone. The mountain of statistical and anecdotal evidence demonstrating white privilege, they judge, only rationalizes indolence. Some go as far as to say the problem of race in America is solved, and any talk about persistent intolerance—surrounding class, creed, and sexual orientation—only reignites dead flames. It seems as long as you believe you are not personally (or at least not obviously) racist, sexist, and bigoted, these issues don’t exist. And expressing desire for equity elicits petulance. Pundits cry they’re not only blameless but also oppressed.

Though in scientific circles, human causes for climate change are rarely debated, some Americans choose to believe we know nothing and can know nothing about greenhouse gasses and the melting ice caps. They treat scientists with disdain, either correcting them (very slowly, as they would a child) with fundamentally flawed conceptions of the physical world or, alternately, declare, “I’m not a scientist” to turn ignorance to their advantage. Both responses share a view of science as evil and/or unintelligible—sorcery, not one of humanity’s best methods of seeking truth.

The catalog could go on: Gun control, environmental regulations, banking abuses, corporate tax loopholes, and healthcare divide along similar lines with some seeking to study problems and devise solutions and others carping there IS no problem. If anything needs to be done, the carpers say, it’s rolling back the meager amelioration managed so far.

To be fair, sanctimony exists on both ends of the political spectrum. The left dismisses opposition as much as the right. Neither listens to the other. Most Americans, left or right, read and watch only what echoes their viewpoint, facts be damned. Worse, Americans’ healthy appetite for drama has inspired the creation of loud and insistent megaphones to shout half-truths and whole lies. Subtlety and intellectual rigor aren’t, everyone knows, very sexy.

The conservatives’ position seems more dangerous, however. It’s much too easy for them to get away without persuasion or policy. In making ignorance and denial viable political stances, they’ve institutionalized distrust of scientists, economists, environmental experts, social scientists, and intellectuals devoted to study, discovery, and—let’s be direct—reality.

And, in the process, their delusion has infected the general electorate with a nearly nihilist sense of hopelessness. How do you argue with someone who believes there’s nothing to argue, who vows nothing is known conclusively, who says nothing can be done, and, moreover, should be done?

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Fiction in Truth: serialpodcast.org

SONY DSCIn analyzing stories, “verisimilitude” refers to likelihood. But what of reality and “the facts”—does verisimilitude still apply?

I’ve been listening to the podcast called “Serial” and mulling over that question.

If you haven’t tuned in, host Sarah Koenig is investigating the 1999 trial of Adnan Syed, in prison for the murder of Hae Min Lee, his high school classmate and former girlfriend. Each week, Koenig reveals what she’s discovered and examines holes in the case and pursues leads. More, we learn her process, how her thinking evolves toward knowing Syed’s guilt or innocence.

That is, we’re led to believe we may ultimately know. Koenig says we encounter the story as she does, that her search is ongoing, not packaging conclusions she’s reached and won’t share. The website posted a photo of her producing the next episode to assure us she’s in middle of it, not finished.

Withholding information is key to suspense. Being coy appeals to readers (and listeners) because unsatisfied needs are enticing. This podcast owes much to the serialization of novels by Dickens and others. Americans stood at the docks for the next installment of Dickens’ latest opus. They couldn’t wait to discover what was next. Each episode of Serial includes a “cliffhanger” of sorts too. I’m always anxious to learn more.

If I’m honest, however, the cliffhangers irk me a little. Being an able storyteller and effective guide, Dickens knew where he was going. What Dickens’ eager readers called “discoveries” were really “inventions,” integral and vital to his narrative. His suspense was designed, and his readers trusted he’d manage information to enhance enjoyment. The answer would out, delightfully.

I’m enjoying Serial (very much), yet I’m also bothered. Verisimilitude explains why. My misgivings aren’t simply Syed being actually wrongly or rightly accused. I’m well past squeamishness over using fictional technique to present fact. Every history selects and emphasizes information to create coherence, perspective, and drama. Yes, Syed is fodder, and maybe it’s not nice to say so, but I know I’m being entertained and accept it.

My misgivings arise from Koenig, whom I like (very much) but—I’m sorry—distrust as I don’t Dickens. The subtlest form of verisimilitude resides in a narrative’s construction. Obvious technique announces, “Hey, this is artifice” and ruins the story. The difference between artfulness and manipulation is intention. Once a tale becomes purely a tale, the teller’s sincerity appears unlikely, and the narrative’s style supplants its substance.

At times, I feel there’s something exploitive about presenting Koenig’s story as it goes along. Suddenly I focus on her rumination about Syed’s guilt rather than facts. If she were Dickens, Koenig would finish her investigation then masterfully cut it into digestible and suspenseful parts. Instead, she deliberately and repeatedly says, “I just don’t know if he did it or not” even as doubt amasses. She re-stirs and re-stirs troublesome evidence that, if not settled entirely, has been addressed exhaustively. When a team of expert retrial lawyers unanimously question Syed’s guilt, Koenig persists, “I don’t know.”

I guess she must. Her “big fat problems” can’t go away. She relies on them to create theater and emphasize her role as director. Regretfully (because I love the idea of this podcast) her indecision causes me to question what’s foremost, a satisfying conclusion—in this case, Truth—or engineering pathos.

I doubt her more than Syed.

At the end of the sixth episode, she recalls Syed asking why she was interested in “Doing all this.” Her answer, that she thinks he’s a really nice guy convicted of murder, produces an odd moment perfect for radio. We hear Syed pause and say, “Yeah. Oh, but you don’t really know me.” To Koenig, it’s confusing and chilling, as if he’s confessing something. To me, it reveals skepticism matching my own. He explains he’d prefer someone open to disputing the facts, and I guess that’s what I want too—more faith she’s truly on the case.

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And by “You” I mean “I” (or “Me”)

round1To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men—that is genius.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Personal essays require believing you’re a valuable subject. The principle justification for writing about yourself comes from the granddaddy of personal essayists, Michel de Montaigne, who said individual experience is never purely individual. He believed, “Every man bears the whole stamp of the human condition.” And—if you accept his premise—the particular, paradoxically, illuminates the universal.

Philip Lopate goes further in his introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay by urging confession. Confession garners trust because, “The spectacle of baring the naked soul,” he says, “is meant to awaken the sympathy of the reader, who is apt to forgive the essayist’s self-absorption in return for the warmth of his or her candor.” In indicting yourself, the thinking goes, you must be honest.

If you’re sincere, your “indictment” might include confusion and the hopelessness of ever deciding anything definitively. Admitting you don’t (and maybe can’t) understand could be part of every essay, especially if you undertake issues or questions hoping to resolve them. Montaigne said, “Anyone who studies himself attentively finds in himself and in his very judgment this whirring about and this discordancy.” He also says, “There is nothing I can say about myself as a whole simply and completely, without intermingling and admixture.” Yet confusion will likely frustrate your reader as much as you. Sympathy has limits. You’re supposed to say something worthy or why write? Expressing your finite intelligence isn’t helpful or winning or impressive.

What is? You can’t be sure. Personal essays involve inventing a tolerant audience willing to sympathize with tortuous, circular, and equivocal ruminations, fellow feeling that maybe might occur if your thoughts are new, relevant, incisive, clever, amusing. You could be the worst judge though, and not know it. Just as the tone deaf are least qualified to assess the quality of their own voices, you may sing on, missing cues signaling how discordant or flat you are. And any response, even the most muted and mixed, could produce disproportionate effects. Someone smiles or smirks, and you think, “Ah. I’ve said something. I’m communicating. An ear is listening at the other end of this line, after all.”

The high-wire risk of personal essays is faith. You pray you’re perching on insight. Keep going, write enough, and you’re sure to… you think. Life is finite, you think. One life may be different, you think, but, if you try hard enough or long enough, you’ll reach some truth, minor and irrelevant as it might be. Sure, quantity can be the enemy of impact, yet—you think—you’re an exception.

So you tread on. You reach your foot forward praying for something like solid ground or a great uplift of wind to keep you from falling.

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A Journey of a Thousand Sentences

3D team standing togetherIn my first decade of teaching I created thousands of sentences. English—it was “Language Arts” then—required a mechanical mind. To stay ahead of students, I needed to deconstruct rules of usage I’d previously only sensed, and each quiz called for advanced mimicry of the battery of sentences in the grammar text.

“Clam digging is a blast,” Don said to Larry, “if you’re an amateur.”

Making sentences was fun, and not just because of the new vocabulary to describe parts of speech, agreement, punctuation, conjugation, and phrases and clauses (relative, subordinate, and independent). Students expected so little of my sentences—the content was so clearly secondary as to be invisible—I devoted myself to writing little stories, evocative, ironic, whimsical, mysterious.

In a moment of particular exhilaration, Veronica threw her hands in the air and cried, “Who would have thought fish sticks had so many other uses?”

Sentence-making still haunts me, but, as an English teacher, I’ve moved on. The hothouse approach to writing instruction is passé. We no longer believe you write well by putting your commas in the right place, and, rather than invent imaginary problems and drill, drill, drill, we teach usage by exploiting students’ own sentences. Meta-language has all but disappeared. The word “appositive” means nothing to most seniors, and if I say, “You need ‘which’ here because the subsequent phrase is nonrestrictive,” their faces sag. Discussing edits requires more resourcefulness. We employ plain speech and organic responses suited to the real world, not dusty Latinate taxonomy.

He began to believe the general outlook—that so many suffered for so few—and decided not to contribute to cruelties designed to appease the elite.

Most of my students haven’t been trained to think about writing as I do. Some recognize the shape and feel of a well-constructed sentence, but most form big pictures and regard smaller components like sentences as necessary… and incidental. Though they seem pleased when I note a deft and elegant expression of an idea, they also seem surprised. Later they may manipulate language more, but, right now, success arises from serendipity more than polish.

At first I overachieved even at overachieving, but then I learned: the more open-ended my expectations, the more liberated I felt.

I’m not judging. Quite the contrary. My devotion to parts isn’t better. Once the lessons of diagramming sentences became muscle memory to me, clarity and impact seemed to spring entirely from syntax. Writing well only required varying structure and rhythm. I began to swing between sentences like Tarzan choosing vines—the next told me where next to go. While my students think of the whole, my habit is to unroll the whole, sentence by sentence.

She took her parents, teachers, and bosses seriously when they said she just had to do her best. Turns out, she had to do what others considered her best.

Knowing where you are now doesn’t always get you somewhere. A new active verb, a turn toward quirky diction, ringing parallelism, surprising inversion, and exhaustive items in a series won’t rescue banality. They may relieve the tedium of reading but rely on accretion adding up. Sometimes, that hope fails. At each gap after a period—one space or two doesn’t matter—you start again. Composition morphs into a one step process, over and over.

You hope abstraction distills truth but may extract poison instead.

A friend who frequently reads my work commented that my sentences take me to the brink of trouble—they reach impossible places—and then find another step. He’s too kind, but he describes perfectly what my writing feels like, which is paving a road one stone at a time. When it doesn’t work, I have no aim besides labor. When it does, I travel by imagining another footfall.

Beneath an open window, computer keys sound like the empty vocalizations of a chattering monkey.

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