Category Archives: Groundhog Day

Waking in Sleep

Zhzi5Sometimes—when I’m really tired—falling asleep reading or watching a movie doesn’t stop the story. My dreaming brain carries the plot forward and Macbeth meets a cousin who takes him to a loud but terribly run-down amusement park or Sully of Monsters Inc. repairs to a laboratory to work out the exact laughter-to-energy ratio to assure the imminent Holiday promotion will still make money. Any story can become Groundhog Day, as the last page or minute of consciousness walks into walls, backs up, and walks into them again.

Recently, reading a science fiction novel before bed, I dreamt its main character escaped his troubles by taking a rocket to the international space station and staying there, circling and circling in floating bliss. He wasn’t alone. A cranky Russian occasionally appeared with hectoring messages, but my new astronaut generally resisted any demand on his time or attention. He might have stayed there until morning, but he was due to check into a swanky hotel in an unspecified location. And then I was standing in its lobby, awed by the lush purples, blues, and reds of it complicated carpet, the golden glow of its fin de siècle fixtures. After the bright sterile white and brushed steel of the space station, all the colors and candlelit patches seemed wet. Somewhere in there—I couldn’t say when—the character became me.

Dreams are more transparent to others than they are to you, which is why telling them presents dangers. English teachers especially excel at picking out prominent symbols and translating them. When one student says to another, “You were in my dream last night!” I want to stop them there. That key he tried to get into a lock isn’t a key, and that lock gives me good reason to start class right then. And you don’t have to be an English teacher to read dreams.

Other people must comprehend my dreams as readily. But don’t bother. I think I understand. In fact, I’d love to reverse the process and speak in dream, to transform the vocabulary of daily life into a-logical analogues. Maybe that’s what fiction is, dreams cleaned up enough to fit in this world.

I fell asleep last night during Moonlight Kingdom and found myself in a world where everything lurked. Every person watched, and every statement paused on the brink of revelation. No one said exactly what he or she meant, but their expressions said they meant something. And it all seemed so yellow, as if dawn had never quite dawned and, like some Swedish summer, might never reach dark. I felt unfulfilled because I didn’t have glasses and everyone else did. Though I could see fine, I searched relentlessly as others talked about mysterious departures coming up soon. I was going to miss something. Yet, looking for my glasses, my vision became too foggy to pick them out of the crowded surfaces I scanned. I was in a Wes Anderson I Spy book and wanted out… or in… I’m not sure which.

My wife tapped my shoulder to say I should go to bed, and I did. But, just as consciousness infects dreams, the reverse occurs as well. In those groggy moments, life and fiction commingle and it all seems invented instead of perceived. I wonder what might happen if I dropped off during Awakenings, the Robin Williams film about the doctor who revives patients who have lived in stupors for years. Would I dream I was fully aware at last, face to face with pure reality?

Probably not. Chuang Tzu says Chang Chou dreamt he was a butterfly and flew around in utter joy from blossom to blossom not knowing he was Chuang Chou. And then he woke up. He knew he was Chuang Chou then, but he didn’t know if the butterfly dreamt Chuang Chou or the other way around. Clearly, some distinction separated the two states, but he couldn’t say which was true.

Where am I translating and where am I reading reality’s hard surfaces? It might be better not to think about it. Perhaps our dreams aren’t telling us something. Perhaps they are something. Perhaps our interpretations are the dreams.

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Filed under Aesthetics, Doubt, Dreaming, Essays, Fiction, Groundhog Day, Identity, life, Meditations, Metaphor, Reading, Thoughts, Worry

Skating on Walden Pond

I remember my high school chemistry teacher telling me how grateful I should be that water is densest at 4˚ C. If not for that quirk of nature, ice would sink. Streams, lakes, rivers, and ponds would freeze from the bottom up, and, eventually, underwater glaciers might incorporate surface water altogether.

I don’t have time to be scared by hypotheticals. Water isn’t denser at 0˚ C, and, if it were, the world would be on an entirely different track that wouldn’t include Mr. Chadwick explaining why. I am a great worrier, but I don’t worry about oxygen being lethal to humans or what the world might have been like if Eleanor Roosevelt had wings. Some possibilities reside outside the reality we occupy.

As a metaphor, however, underwater ice is powerful.

Ice does accumulate in the bottom of my life. On the surface, I’m the same body of water—sometimes choppy, sometimes serene, sometimes the color of the sky, and sometimes the color of whatever gunk is below, yet I’m roughly the same.

Something does grow down there, however. Molecule by molecule it inches to the surface.

Surface needs come first, and I never reach the bottom of what I want to accomplish. “Put more art on the walls” happens only when the realtor is on the way over, and “Make a will” will wait for my deathbed. Parents out there can identify. When you have small children, you are lucky to reach “Get a haircut.”

We could set a aside a holiday, “National Reckoning Day,” for citizens to write overdue e-mails, clean the bathroom, and send the package you taped and addressed three weeks ago and put in the coat closet…under the boots that were too small for your son two years ago but you meant to give to a colleague’s child when it actually was winter.

The trouble is, give me a holiday, and I’d squander it watching “Groundhog Day” for the twenty-seventh time. You don’t see me donning scuba gear and gathering a chisel and hammer to bust up the deep ice.

In Walden Thoreau asks, “Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life?…Men say that a stitch in time saves nine, and so they take a thousand stitches today to save nine tomorrow.” He would say I have too much to do and that too many of my goals are meaningless. I know, I know, I know already, I am a German Confederacy. I get it. I should live a more deliberate life, to make my tasks finite, “to front only the essentials of life.”

It’s on my list.

As in most matters, Thoreau is right, but Thoreau would be out of place in my neighborhood, mistaken for homeless and hassled by cops. How can I live by his priorities in Chicago, or anywhere? The trouble is knowing what’s essential. Some seeming unessentials give too much pleasure to be deferred, and some tasks have heads like hydras—chop off one and it grows two more, and so on until it becomes a bouquet of monsters.

Who has time to ferret out how to front what’s essential? That sort of clarity requires more space and occasion than urban—or suburban—life affords. “Simplify, Simplify, Simplify” has slipped to the bottom of my list, adding to the ominous ice down there, another cause to think myself inadequate… hmmmm, I meant to work on that.

School just ended, and I’m looking over all I must do this summer and wondering if I’ll complete half of it. More immediate needs take precedent. The refrigerator is empty. The sink is full of dishes. My daughter has items on her social calendar that may require my monitoring and assistance. While I don’t have to worry about what I’m teaching tomorrow or have the usual stack of papers to grade, I can think of five things I ought to be doing right now.

Plus it’s a beautiful out, which makes matters worse.

Still, here I am, picturing Henry David Thoreau figure skating on Walden Pond, his under-chin beard parting as he turns out of another relaxed toe-loop, smiling all the while. And I’m hating him for it.

Excuse me, I’ve got to do something productive now.

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Filed under Doubt, Essays, Groundhog Day, Home Life, Identity, Laments, life, Modern Life, Thoreau, Thoughts, Work, Worry

Nearly Synonymous

Tuesday is my 53rd birthday…

  1. All poetry as echoes, all echoes as poetry
  2. A colleague and I disputed the value of Thoreau’s statement “To regret deeply is to live afresh.” She said living fully meant regretting nothing, and I said I wished that were true.
  3. I once had this fantasy of forming speech bubbles like a comic strip. I’d pluck the best bits from the air and save them for later. But then I thought about what a curse that would be, and isn’t that what I do anyway?
  4. A spacecraft leaves earth orbit aimed for a square of black. Five decades into the journey, its destination is less sure, its origin less than a pinprick, and everything any of the passengers see as vital has been recycled again and again.
  5. A deck of cards plus a joker
  6. The internet promises to give us a thousand answers to every search, but all I find are a thousand different versions, each announcing its own validity.
  7. As photos age they shrink the fractions of life.
  8. The figures I no longer know are a court of statues in memory. They stand in passive attitudes abraded by erosion of wind, water, and time. Depending how long ago I lost them, they might not be human at all, just lumps standing in for someone whose name is gone, someone representative, someone swiftly becoming a thing.
  9. When I want to praise my father, I say that, as a pathologist, he possessed a medical vocabulary as large as my real vocabulary. Only now do I consider how odd that might be, hoarding words to describe a world shared with almost no one else.
  10. An extra week
  11. Mark Twain said that, 20 years hence, “You will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones that you did.” He meant to encourage risks, but the statement baffles me. Do relentlessly, the undone still taunts you.
  12. A window too small to see the whole mast of a passing ship
  13. In mathematics, a permutation is a rearrangement of the elements of an ordered list into a one-to-one correspondence with itself—one set, folded.
  14. In a list of “53 Things That Get Better With Age,” I found #14, “Acuity: When you’ve ‘been through it all,’ you recognize things in life that younger—less keen—people don’t.” There’s so much I’d enjoy overlooking again.
  15. In Feng Shui a mirror represents water that doubles chi by producing reverberations of energy and light. If reflection had such power, I might not find myself sinking instead.
  16. A boat on stilts, its keel matched to the curve of forgotten water.
  17. Socrates’ advice was “To know yourself,” but had he a longer life, I wonder if he’d advise knowing someone else instead.
  18. Isaiah 53 tells of “the suffering servant,” despised and abject, a weed that grew with no beauty and grace, undistinguished and plain, without praise or esteem. He kept silent. He returned no ill-will. God gave him these burdens and, by carrying castigation and punishment to his grave, he redeemed the real sinners’ iniquities. A familiar story—a life like a deep current, answering a hidden order.
  19. Every one of them is gone back: they are altogether soiled; none do good, not one.
  20. One way to describe a perpetual motion machine is an engine that needs no fuel.
  21. Sometimes fearsome puppets populate my dreams. They are the people I know behind the faces of people I’d forgotten, and both remind me how little I heed their words, how little I’ve learned.
  22. Shift
  23. Yang Xiong was born in 53 BCE in modern Sichuan. Scholars classify the Chinese poet as a Tao materialist and discuss his opposition to a lavish style of poetry called fu that presented multiple perspectives, consuming subjects in skillful imagery and deftly baroque manipulation of language. What Yang Xiong wanted was personal feeling. He didn’t see why truth had to impress. He believed art needn’t be artificial.
  24. When students ask for synonyms I have two or three to offer, but most only ever want one.
  25. When I picture my father at my present age, he’s in a spare bedroom of our old house, stooped over an art table, painting a watercolor landscape. Rarely did my father initiate conversations with me, but several times he asked me if I’d like to learn to paint. I always turned him down, believing secretly that all his work was the same, that he was painting one picture over and over and that he could only teach me how to paint it. My ambitions were greater then.
  26. The oblique angles of light in an empty room
  27. Transformation.
  28. The summer I was 19 I worked two jobs, lifeguard and movie concession worker. Both, it turns out, were mostly passing time. I talked to coworkers endlessly. All our conversations became one, studded by stories cut as carefully as diamonds, and by September, I couldn’t open my mouth without sighing at what I’d said so many times before.
  29. I can’t understand T-shirts labeling the wearer “Aged to perfection.” Isn’t fermentation just controlled purification?
  30. I’m in my thirtieth year of teaching, and lately I’ve been dropping that fact into conversations. Yet I still sometimes count on my fingers all the graduating classes I’ve taught, just to make sure it’s true.
  31. In a dream last week, I went on a lecture tour exhorting audiences to “Expect surprises.” City after city, crowded hall after crowded hall, that was my solitary message.
  32. Everyone says we should be willing to fail, that failure is the secret to success, but life is heading toward failure so physical it looks like oblivion.
  33. I wonder about fulcrums, the turning points that, after the fact, seem to have reversed your orientation.
  34. The wind turning, its fresh direction another temperature, a new scent.
  35. Growing up, my sister carved deep grooves into a Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young album that told me, “We are stardust.” Even then, I knew the lyrics to be literally true—our atoms are from exploded stars—but I didn’t feel consoled. Everything we are is elemental, and anything distinctive arises from combinations so complex chance must create them.
  36. I’m told that, if the U.S. were cut into equal sized states, there would be 53.
  37. I remember little about math class, but one indelible lesson remains: Xeno’s paradox. If someone shoots an arrow at someone else, it is only logical that to reach that person the arrow has to travel half-way, and to reach from the half-way point to the person, it has to travel half-way again, and then half-way again, and half-way again. But if this travel by halves is true, the arrow never gets there. It’s still flying in staccato bursts, traveling increasingly invisible distances.
  38. Once, I had a writing teacher who urged me to write a wordless poem, the idea being that, if I could fall into channels of sound or thought already laid, I might utter the truth in the background of everything known.
  39. An overstuffed sock drawer impossible to open
  40. My daughter requires several alarms to wake up. The layered beeping, buzzing, and chimes gather and still she doesn’t stir to silence them. Even when she turns them off, they persist in my mind. Sometimes they go on for hours, faint distress to accompany my day.
  41. “It is not length of Life,” Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “but depth of life.” So why do I feel like a skipping stone?
  42. Groundhog Day is my favorite movie, and I bet I’ve seen it 20 times. Since the movie is just one day relived endless times, how many days does that make? When do I reach the point I’ve lived more days than Bill Murray?
  43. Modification
  44. I’m just getting comfortable feeling I only have so much to teach.
  45. Miss Stone, my third grade teacher, used to invite me to the front of the room while my classmates completed worksheets. “Smile,” she whispered, “what have you got to be so worried about?” That’s when I discovered language’s limits, its inadequacy describing anything it couldn’t name.
  46. Aside from movies, no one says, “You’ll never amount to anything.” Its dismissal is too complete. But when I say it to myself, it’s different.
  47. My daughter and I sometimes have strange rendezvous in the middle of the night when I find her sitting in front of a glowing computer. I tell her she has to get to sleep and that it’s silly to sabotage the next day and her health for something frivolous. Then I stomp back to bed to toss and turn and ruminate for hours about nothing I remember.
  48. M. C. Escher said, “They who wonder discover that this in itself is wonder,” suggesting that to wonder about his statement is to wonder about wondering about wonder,” which, I think, goes a long way toward explaining his art.
  49.  When I teach The Odyssey, I can’t help picturing the future Odysseus, the one who, after walking inland and appeasing Poseidon by planting an oar the locals call a winnowing fan, still sails through the Pillars of Hercules intent on completing his last futility.
  50. Long-exposure photographs of traffic capture a life I sense and can’t see.
  51. Recently I read some writing advice from Kurt Vonnegut, “It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.” I’d love to comply, but what if language is the only handle you hold and all you care for?
  52. The best analogy for my life would have to include an analogy of its own.
  53. Dan Gustav was the first to tell me being an adult was way funner than being our age. I still believe him.

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Filed under Aging, Art, Blogging, Doubt, Dreaming, Essays, Experiments, Groundhog Day, Identity, Insomnia, Kurt Vonnegut, Laments, life, Meditations, Memory, Modern Life, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Worry, Writing

Fun With Numbers

This weekend I’m busy, so I’ve collected and edited 15 thoughts jotted into my notebook over the last few months.  Some are quite random and may be a bit strange, but I chose them for the conversations they seem to have with each other.

I used a random number generator to put them in this order.

For fun, you could REorder them—just set the parameters of the generator to “15 random integers between 1 and 15 with unique values.”

  1. I worry about missing moments of change, not because I’d want to stop them but because I’m afraid of having nothing to remember.
  2. Once I dreamt of a house constructed from lint, and, every time it rained, I reshaped it with bare hands.
  3. I can’t be the only person who thinks numbers have personalities.
  4. In my urban neighborhood, I see the same unacknowledged faces everyday… but I bet I’ve said so before.
  5. Replacing dates of the year with colors might set time free at last.
  6. One of the floodlights in our kitchen emits a nearly inaudible high-pitched tone, and, once I hear it, I begin to think it’s screaming.
  7. My vocabulary is finite—how do I ever reach anything new?  Perhaps I’ve only forgotten what my brain has already said.
  8. What would my neighbors think if I numbered all of the uncollected dog shit on our block?
  9. In a meeting, I began to imagine amusement parks have opposites.  All the gray rides and attractions aimed at tedium and boredom.
  10. The thought of being heard keeps me silent; the thought of silence gives me peace.
  11. Every day I pass ghostly landmarks, memories my mind is too lazy to retrieve fully but which still emit faint feelings.
  12. Of all my senses, smell seems to grow stronger… because what I’ve seen and heard before fades from notice.
  13. I’m sick of the cut and paste conversations patching my life.
  14. What people call metaphors are animals lured from hiding places: we knew they were there and hadn’t seen them.
  15. Some ideas are clay, others dust—you hope for water.

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Filed under Art, Blogging, Doubt, Experiments, Groundhog Day, Home Life, Kenko, Laments, life, Meditations, Memory, Modern Life, Numbers, Recollection, Thoughts, Urban Life, Words, Work, Writing

Walking My Shoes Home

Like the fall of the Roman Empire, the end of winter in Chicago can’t be placed on a single date. Instead, we get glimpses of yellow grass beneath snow and whiffs of sodden, fertile earth. We have days when the sun feels a little more energetic on our ten exposed square inches, as if light is getting ready to shrink the eccentric white shapes sitting on every horizontal.

Occasionally our discontent thaws enough to venture out, hoping the breeze won’t sting.

I’ve lived here four years, and old-timers tell me that, thanks to global climate change, the winters are milder now. In that case, it won’t be long before Chicago is habitable in January. Eskimos have seven words for snow, and we have at least that many types—wet and dry, firm and fluffy, granular and smooth, snow that gathers under your boots like uncooked pie crust, and stuff that won’t stay, dancing off rooftops and glittering into your eyes.

Other cities brag more brutal winters—Milwaukee has more snow, Minneapolis is colder, Detroit and Cleveland are subject to sudden onslaughts—but Chicago boasts its amplifying wind, wind that insults injury and laughingly tosses freezing air every which way.

Plus, we have gray. This time of year some sidewalks offer single tracks between berms—on one side is unshoveled snow, on the other is a reef of plowed snow that’s started to melt and then refrozen, each time taking on a darker shade of grim. When and if spring comes, they will dwindle to reveal their full store of litter, but now we only see the half a wrapper, half a bottle, half a shoe, half a wig they’ve captured.

So living here requires managing hope. By all means, enjoy the day the temperature soars over freezing—let your crazy soul live in the moment—but don’t think spring is here yet. It’s still a dream to cherish, akin to the Cubs winning the series, a consummation devoutly to be wished, sure, but something that might be better where it is, in fantasy land. What would we do if this balmy 35º were spring?

As a newcomer, I might not have the right to say so, but that perspective IS Chicago, a sort of odd pride in misery, as if we’ve tied our self-worth to futility and hope. We’re yanked endlessly between the two, know not to hope too much, and are proud not to hope too much.

New Yorkers carry a black look with them on the street every day, but their expressions don’t fool me. Their masks don’t penetrate. The true Chicagoan has made black as much a part of him as the plowed ice has absorbed the city’s smoke. People in Chicago laugh and smile and jest, but whatever midwestern charm remains after one winter hardens into determination: I can survive this. I can survive anything.

For the last three winters, with the first snowfall in November, I’ve worn boots to work and carried my dress shoes. They stay at work, almost uninterruptedly, until March, and every morning I change, Mr. Rogers style, from serious boots (or my more serious boots) into those shoes. It adds a few minutes and a little hassle to the start and end of my day, but I do it without grumbling. I have nothing I’m willing to complain about. One day—though certainly not today and certainly not too soon—I’ll walk those shoes home. At least, I almost hope so.

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Filed under Chicago, Essays, Groundhog Day, Hope, Meditations, Survival, Urban Life, Winter