Category Archives: life

Another (In 12 Parts)

tesla-spacex-starman-falcon-heavy-rocket-elon-musk1.

In my backpack is a moleskin notebook containing to-do lists for the last few months. Each morning, I write the date and transfer every unaccomplished thing to another page. I add fresh imperatives—a deadline rushing up, an unexpected demand, some aspirational whims I rarely reach.

This habit doesn’t make me unusual, but sometimes, examining those pages, I regard them as others might, wondering at how repetitious my life is, how devoted I am to similar tasks.

2.

The word “another” is called a determiner, which describes words that modify nouns as adjectives do. Though grammarians classify determiners as adjectives however, they see them as different. Determiners require context. Adjectives make distinctions by differentiating one thing and another—the brown dog rather than the blue one—but determiners like “this,” “that,” “these,” “those,” and “another” rely on frames of reference understood by readers. To have another dog, you must know what a dog is. You must be sure of dogs as a species to identify another.

3.

So much of my mental energy focuses on the next few hours—tasks desired and dreaded, classes to meet, challenging colleagues and friends, presentations, tiresome meetings, and other obligations.

Expectation and experience mix like air and gasoline, and I sputter forward on my timeline, looking ahead and back, feeling the familiar in all of it.

4.

A search of “Another” on my haiku blog turns up more than fifty finds, proof I use the word frequently. When you add in work communication, personal emails, and other scribblings, it could be evidence little is new now. Maybe all I expected or didn’t has already come to pass.

5.

Elon Musk says, “If you get up in the morning and think the future is going to be better, it is a bright day. Otherwise, it’s not.” For me, most days, at my age, not.

Last week, Musk launched his Tesla roadster into orbit with a manikin bedecked in a space suit at the wheel. It’s a silly expense—he might have sent the entire senior class of several inner-city high schools to four-year colleges instead—but he must have meant to inaugurate his heavy lift rocket with a grand gesture. He’s said on multiple occasions that he wants us to be a “multi-planet species.” Any other fate, he says is “incredibly depressing.”

It occurs to me, however, that if we move to Mars, it will be us moving there, another footing but not another species. All our tragic flaws will come along for the ride. We aren’t manikins.

6.

What is hope minus surprise? Does hope necessitate believing in the unexpected?

7.

When I was eleven I found a black river stone I was sure could be magic. After soaking it in my sister’s perfume and lighting it on fire, I waited for it to cool and held it against my forehead. I pictured my thoughts moving from my brain through my skin and into igneous rock. Conceptions limit us, I believed then. Notions we didn’t question held us back, so, if you believed something could be—believed it enough—it could be.

Though my alchemy never worked (that I could tell) I carried that rock through another and another move and, even now, I think I know which plastic bin it’s in.

8.

The calendar is a strange instrument. It proceeds and circles. It originates, renews, and repeats. It contrives to describe time and does so in familiarly named days, weeks, months, and years aligned with predictable and comforting patterns.

For a teacher, the school calendar is especially rigid. People in “the real world” remind me their years have no clear demarcation of stopping or starting, no obvious moment of completion or break between one year and the next. I suppose that’s true, but the events in school year are nearly all rites and routines. When they aren’t, it’s usually bad.

9.

Once I argued with a student about social constructs. He was willing to accede we invent some distinctions we then see as real, but not everything, he said, is a social construct.

His example was progress. He couldn’t accept anyone saying we weren’t better off now than in the past. I tried pointing out parts of “primitive” societies that might be better—connections to nature, the sense of common work, lives devoted to essential needs, not material wants. While life then might be harder, harder wasn’t necessarily worse.

Truth is, I don’t really want to wrap my body in a buffalo hide or wipe my ass with a leaf, but I fought with fury for Neil Postman’s insight that every invention produces complicated and often contradictory consequences, and that every sign of “progress” is really “this and that” instead of “either-or.” But, to my student, history was a chain of skepticism like mine, the short-sighted carping about the latest invention—the steamboat or the telegraph or radio or television or computer—ruining things.

In the end, I surrendered. It isn’t my business to deny students hope. Still I heard his faith as proof humans are finite. He couldn’t believe another day wouldn’t bring us closer to perfection. From my perspective, another day couldn’t help being another day.

10.

I’m not saying humanity is like Macbeth whose “instructions… being taught, return to plague the inventor.” Some elements of the present make me happy. I delight as much as anyone in technology’s wonders. It’s just that inventions have been, and always will be, ours.

11.

Growing up in the heyday of NASA, I lived for launches and drew control panels on the underside of tables so I could pretend to run through checklists and play along with liftoffs.

You can monitor the progress of Elon Musk’s roadster online. It’s 1.8 million miles from earth, and its heading takes it beyond the orbit of Mars. Ben Pearson, an engineer who devised the site, saw that his projection of the roadster’s path didn’t match Musk’s and welcomed discovering he, and not Musk, was correct. “I was just relieved to know that I wasn’t doing anything critically wrong,” Pearson said, “Elon Musk is a visionary man, incredibly far forward, but there’s a reality distortion field when it comes to him.”

There’s something enviable in that distortion field, something experience disbelieves.

12.

It’s a point of pride with my school that it does not close, that no opportunity to learn is lost, so it was the rarest of events when, last week, I experienced a snow day. As soon as we learned we’d be off, colleagues asked each other what they’d do with this found time.

Like them, I came up with wild and mild possibilities. But I spent the day preparing and grading, barely questioning if I could do anything else.

“New,” I’m guessing, is also a determiner. Context matters. Who’s using the word, though, might matter more.

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The Stupor Bowl

Seattle Seahawks vs. Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII in East Rutherford, New JerseyI’m drawn to the Super Bowl the way junebugs in my Texas youth were drawn to our porchlight. Though the bulb sat inside four secure panes of glass with seemingly no junebug-sized access, every fall we opened the lamp to clear out remnants of another summer’s massacre.

There are so many reasons not to watch: seventeeen minutes of actual sports action in three-plus hours, the crass commercialization that preys on fans’ affection and loyalty, the exploitation of players asked to sacrifice healthy futures for their profession, the American-ness of American Football complete with faux patriotism and resistance to first amendment rights to protest, the gladiatorial, bread and circus nature of the contest itself, and the not-so-vaguely militaristic celebration of barely controlled violence.

That, and I loathe the Patriots.

Yet, at around 5:30 CST, I’ll probably be watching. Why? I’ve arrived at four answers:

Nostalgia: I played a lot of football growing up in Texas. Though I didn’t attain the height or weight to play for my high school, junior high, or even the peewee league, every fall weekend found me behind La Marque Intermediate School playing sandlot with my bigger and badder neighbors. If I could get tangled in their legs or bull-ride them down, I could gain some stature among them. And, yes, I enjoyed playing. For a long time, when I watched football on television I could imagine—fantasize, really—running routes or dropping back to snatch an interception from a sure-armed quarterback. My love of the Cowboys (sorry) made football my every third thought, and I still regard that era with some warmth. Of course, those were really times of ignorance not innocence, but football seemed purer when straight-arrow Roger Staubach led the team and strong and silent Tom Landry strode the sidelines.

FOMO: I might elude my nostalgia—I’m well over other youthful devotions—except that everyone else is watching the game. At work tomorrow, the first or second question from colleagues will be whether I saw some play or, just as likely, some commercial. It takes a person proud of splitting from the herd to leave the TV off. A strange and rare solidarity surrounds the event. We live in a Chicago neighborhood with multiple bars within earshot. Most nights we don’t hear them. Tonight, though, shouts will alert me to some highlight or turn in momentum I’m missing. Having spent 17 years in Delaware, well within the Eagles’ orbit, I’m not sure I’ll have the fight to resist tuning in.

Any excuse to celebrate: The game appears when my will is weakest. It’s a terrible gray day in Chicago with spitting snow and dropping temperatures. The holidays are long forgotten, and don’t I deserve a break, some excuse to eat poorly and let my resolve go for one night? Don’t I deserve some relief from bleak national news reports?

Cognitive Dissonance: Please don’t answer. The Super Bowl brings out all my greatest powers of denial. Watching or not watching is more than a contest between head and heart, knowing and feeling. It’s the same struggle of our time writ large. We live in a nation that isn’t what it once was, certainly not all it presents itself as. Football is just one example of clinging to what it is supposed to be instead of really scrutinizing what it is. Ultimately, I’ll be watching for the worst reason, to fill a deficit I feel in the rest of my life these days, a stubborn wish that, though this nation and its national sport don’t truly match what people want to believe, there may be a little dream left.

Fly, Eagles, fly.

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On Humor

article-0-0A6B4B82000005DC-470_468x560Has anyone who wanted to be funnier ever managed to become so?

This semester I’m teaching a class called “Humor and Satire,” and, though we haven’t reached the satire part, I’m beginning to wonder if I understand humor very well. So far, nothing on the reading list, apparently, is funny, and my students’ idea of what’s funny often doesn’t match my sense of humor either.

It occurs to me I might be better off teaching a course called “Humorless Sermons” than one that’s supposed to be funny. No one is laughing as much as I hoped, and, in the middle of the night when I wake up from twisted and disturbing dreams designed to sublimate my frustration, I ruminate on the very nature of humor and what skills or traits (or whatever) a person needs to get a joke and/or whether a sense of humor is inherently subjective, untouchable by education.

Some years ago, during my quixotic teaching years, I devised and taught another course called “The Comic View” and ran into different but similarly nettling issues. Then, students did find some of the content funny, but, beyond sharing what each person thought was funny, they weren’t interested in talking. I’d ask how humor worked—what we can learn about what elicits laughter—and the response would be… crickets. No one wanted to talk about why they were amused.

But at least they laughed at first.

I took over “Humor and Satire”—with considerable trepidation—from a colleague when the class wouldn’t fit into his schedule. He is a director and drama teacher and improv sponsor at our school. Unlike me, he’s quite funny, and, though he helped me design and organize the course and approved the books I chose, thus far I haven’t been able to create the magic he intended.

Why? It might be because I’m not funny or they are not sophisticated enough as readers to detect humor or humor itself is a challenging art form that’s easy to under-appreciate until you try it or maybe that humor, the minute you expose it to the spotlight of analysis, withers and dies. It could be all that and more.

For a recent assignment, I asked my class to write an essay (with the same title as this one) speculating on an essential trait of humor. The elusiveness of the answer, I hoped, would challenge them and—like the laboratory a course like this should be—lead us, together, to more sophisticated questions about what’s funny and why. I haven’t read their work yet, but, based on the number of times I answered, “Is it okay if we quote someone saying ‘fuck’?” I’m intimidated and afraid.

Were I writing the essay, I might argue similarly, that humor is inherently transgressive. It must cross a line or elude what’s “usual” or “acceptable” to hit its mark—but, if true, where does that leave stodgy (and older) professorial types like me? Does assigning a work as humor disqualify it as funny immediately?

My class, in their defense, puts up with me. My misguided enthusiasm, they communicate, is occasionally quaint and charming. I can’t help feeling a failure, however. Maybe an explained joke can’t be funny, but, if so, that truth doesn’t leave me much room to teach. The whole situation leads to a more existential question, “Can anything be taught at all?

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Artist’s Statement II

IMG_1995-1Though unpracticed at improv, I think I understand how the principle—place faith in skills you’ve developed and, when the moment comes to invent, you will respond. The same feelings apply to every art form. There are hours of experience… and right now.

For about twenty years, I’ve been painting abstracts. Most of that time, I’ve sought only to play with marks, colors, and shapes to please myself. Every stage alternates pattern and variation, processes I commit to and then violate. Each layer superimposes on the last until the final picture emerges as something unexpected. I know artists who express frustration when their final product doesn’t match their visions, but I rarely feel that. Surprise satisfies me most. If the end point is unanticipated, that’s enough. I await serendipity.

Or failure. At some stage, I hate the painting emerging from blank space. I worry about sophistication most, whether what I’m creating is complex or interesting enough to reward scrutiny and whether it possesses enough skill to seem virtuous. Of course, I can’t see my art as others do—like a grown child, each stage remains visible to me in the final product. But all art, I suppose, rests on faith. If you like it, you think, someone else may possibly (hopefully) like it too.

IMG_0711-1And, anyway, only a fool expects people to appreciate abstract art generally. When I show my work, most people profess to like the colors or specific interesting shapes. They ask, “What did you have in mind—what were you thinking about?” I have answers—a cracked sidewalk, a koi pond viewed from overhead, roots laid bare by erosion, failing paint beneath leaf shadows—but we’re both being polite. Most of the time, my making supplanted my thinking. Referents appear only in retrospect.

Jackson Pollock described his work as “Energy and motion made visible—memories arrested in space.” Abstraction, Robert Motherwell said, is “nakedness, an art stripped bare.”

I try not to care whether I’m any good or not. I mean only to open a conduit to my unconscious and what I’ve seen and absorbed and can offer back—however mixed up—without excessive interference from impulses that might organize or otherwise impose.

IMG_2050Writing, the other great creative venture of my life, is different. In discussing visual art, I feel the danger of explanation. Writing essays like this one, I think explanation might be everything. Gerhard Richter once compared abstract art to fiction. Abstract paintings, he said, “make visible a reality we can neither see nor describe, but whose existence we can postulate.”

A closer comparison  might be poetry, an effort to represent the most elusive elements of experience. After so many years of trying to say exactly what I mean, Richter’s “postulation” has much to recommend it—regardless of what, in the end, it says.

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Mrs. Stone

lesleyannwarrenIn third grade, I was always afraid classmates heard my teacher call me up so she could whisper “Smile.”

Mrs. Stone meant well. She must have monitored me at “seat work,” watched my brow knit or heard the diaphragm-deep sighs I haven’t yet learned to suppress. She probably noticed that, when the three R’s paused for recess, I was last to leave and first to request re-entry. I don’t remember—but have no trouble imagining—my third-grade self. I’m still that ruminative boy. When I’m not apprehensive about tasks ahead, I’m spent, world-weary.

Perhaps Mrs. Stone’s psychology class in teaching college alerted her to look out for Eeyores like me. She may have been on an investigative mission to detect the cause of depression in children. More likely though, she found my behavior baffling—because what does a third grader have to be depressed about? Or tiresome—maybe I was the itch that always needed scratching.

I bet I apologized. I often apologize for struggling to smile. Mrs. Stone probably couldn’t name my issue—it may not have had a name yet—but in the DSM-5 it’s called “Dysthymia,” or “Persistent Depressive Disorder.” It’s characterized by “Depressed mood for most of the day, for more days than not, as indicated by either subjective account or observation by others, for at least two years.” It’s often resistant to drug therapy. In children, diagnosis requires only a year.

The boy in my school photo from Mrs. Stone’s class isn’t smiling. He leans toward the camera with a persimmon-y look. His hair, parted severely, communicates distinct self-command and control.

I was a ten-year-old Eric Sevareid.

Mrs. Stone looked a lot like Leslie Ann Warren, a star back then because she played Cinderella in a “live version” of the Hammerstein’s musical that regularly reappeared on TV. Third-graders may not be capable of full-blooded crushes, but my appreciation of Mrs. Stone confused me enough to make her regard crucial. Picture a ten-year old summoned by a beautiful actress and asked what he had to be so unhappy about, what harm it would do to put on a happy face. Picture a beautiful actress summoning a ten-year to tell him what an old man he is.

Like a lot of clinical descriptions, the list of symptoms for dysthymia includes many not-clauses. Dysthymia needs to be the only diagnosis possible—it can’t be medical or drug-related or the result of a depressive episode. It can’t arise from schizophrenia or be better explained by cyclothymic disorder (manic depression). It can’t, in sum, be a major depressive disorder. As mental illnesses go, it’s pathetic. It will never merit a telethon.

Dysthymia’s key criteria are that it’s chronic and not necessarily debilitative. Someone suffering from mild to moderate dysthymia can get up and get to work. Work can be, in fact, a saving grace distracting a sufferer from symptoms like “poor appetite or overeating,” “insomnia or hypersomnia,” “low energy or fatigue,” “low self-esteem,” “poor concentration or difficulty making decisions,” and “feelings of hopelessness.”

I doubt I ever tried to explain myself to Mrs. Stone. If memory is (as I wrote last week) more emblematic than descriptive, then a few episodes morph into a something-not-worth-mentioning. Naming codifies, after all, and labels render the transient solid. Even now, I don’t state my illness much. It’s not admissible.

Two of Eeyore’s most underrated traits are his efforts not to burden those around him and his appreciation for any attention. I loved being invited to roller skating parties and asking someone to come over, but I never knew what to do then… and still don’t. Part of any persistent state is becoming inured to it, forgetting what its absence might be like. When my family, friends, and colleagues tease me for being so relentlessly under-enthusiastic, I laugh. I AM an Eeyore. I accept the label and embrace it. Like it or not, I am become him.

So, time machine obtained, I might stand with my younger self and tell Mrs. Stone, “Smiling is relief he wishes he could count on more. For reasons that elude him, he can’t step out of his mood as much as he’d like. This third-grader haunts the adult more than he’d like to admit, and, even now, he feels like apologizing for saying so.”

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A City of Selves

blade-runner-2049_u4chAs you grow older, you change enough to think your memories might belong to someone else.

Updating my resume, I see responsibilities I’ve shed, positions I’ve forgotten, expertise I’ve come to distrust, and degrees that ought to have expired by now. Items come with a memory or two—choosing art for my office as a college counselor and the face of the actor who played Emily in a production of Our Town I once directed. I recall arriving 45 minutes early to learn the drills I’d have to teach third grade soccer players, though I never played soccer.

Each moment seems foreign now, not just in the haze of distance but in their storage as discrete things. They are blocky buildings far away, a city of separate selves.

In 2004, a cultural studies theorist named Alison Landsberg wrote a book called Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture. Brooke Gladstone recently interviewed her for the podcast On the Media, where Landsberg described memory as a means “to narrate ourselves.” “We call on the past to open up trajectories for us to become the kind of people that we want to be,” she said, just as “societies or nation states select particular aspects or events of the past that justify who they are in the present.”

For Landsberg, those memories don’t have to be real. Discussing the recent Blade Runner 2049, its 1982 predecessor, and other sci-fi like Total Recall and HBO’s Westworld, she said, “These films end up arguing quite powerfully that authenticity is not the most important criteria for memory.” More important, she said, is “how it is that we use those memories in our daily life.”

If I’m using my memories, they operate subconsciously. I rarely scare them to the surface, and they sometimes seem no more a part of me than episodes in books I’ve read or movies and TV I’ve seen. My first classroom, its glass door to the narrow and dark hall and opposing wall of windows, is now a set. Specific students are silent slides in a Kodak carousel.

In the original Blade Runner, Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkell) considers memory a means of controlling the artificially human replicants. He tells Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), “If we gift them a past, we create a cushion or a pillow for their emotions and, consequently, we can control them better.”

Perhaps my memories create similar constraint. They delineate borders. They whisper when I fulfill my sense of self and when I leave the reservation. They warn.

During On the Media, Gladstone plays a clip from Westworld when the maker Ford (Anthony Hopkins) tells the host Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), “Every host needs a backstory, Bernard. You know that. The self is a kind of fiction, for hosts and humans alike. It’s a story we tell ourselves.”

So, as I’m maker and host, what I’ve done matters little, except as characterization.

That revelation may sound depressing, but—like many revelations—it’s also promising. If I’m not the person who sang and danced as Linus in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, or the person who hosted a talent show in a banana yellow tux, I’m the author who thought them within the range of my characterization. I’m editor too, deciding what episodes—good or bad—seem characteristic and uncharacteristic. As I’ve never liked myself much, it is also some consolation to be a maker who can forestall the desperate desire to add new episodes and honors that I, as a host, always think will redeem my sorry history at last… and don’t.

Deckard’s memory of a unicorn is one of the ways viewers identify him—a blade runner who decommissions errant replicants—as a replicant himself. Unicorns aren’t real, which marks that memory as implanted. Alison Landsberg points out, however, “There’s a way in which all of our memories are implanted.” Our parents’ stories implant some, photographs implant others, and books, film, and television implant too. “But it’s what use we make of these memories, real or not, that’s most important,” Landsberg says. She reminds me that people are defined by actions. “Whether those actions are made possible by prosthetic memories or memories based on lived experience,” she says, “makes little difference.”

Though I’m not ashamed of the items on my resume, I might enjoy being the sort of replicant who more consciously engineers his own identity.

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I No Longer Say I’m a Writer

47cdbc1e7d2aa37dac054a2258d6a939Back when Big Chief tablets reigned, I only had to make my pencil rise and fall between the blue horizontal lines to call myself a writer, and what letters described hardly mattered—a boy, a girl, a dog, a hat, some short verbs. Words were unsure of themselves. They carried little inherent meaning. They sat slack-jawed, evidential.

At each stage of education, however, I burdened words more and more. When they started to disappear beneath their loads of thoughts, my teachers called me a “writer.” At first, the label must have been aspirational, designed to puff up my ambition and flatter my “potential.” But what passed for thought was still often evidential, the mental equivalent of “See?”

There’s no defining what happened next because some of it—like the poetry and hand-wringing prose of middle and high school “journals”—happened during. Along the way, words asserted themselves again, insisting on their beauty, crying to be arranged. I began to call myself a writer, and thoughts became my thoughts, which only the right words could describe. Compositions meant to evidence the voice and mind behind them. Foolishly or selfishly or both, I needed to write and, intermittently, believed the world needed to read me.

You write, writers are told, because you can’t not. It’s a compulsion to be heard, and you go on shouting, speaking, or whispering because you must. You wouldn’t be yourself without something auxiliary to yourself, an outrigger of words built just so. The siren of art calls you onto the rocks, and you give yourself to a doom worth embracing. You get an MFA.

But I wonder lately if I’m over that vision of writing. Like walking or breathing, writing is something we do, and, like walking and breathing, the quality of the act appears only at extremes. For writers like me who reside between failure and success, as much energy goes into convincing ourselves we’re special as goes into craft. Reading others’ work, I see some craft is clearly virtuous, is clearly real. And some writers’ faith is redeemed whether the craft is real or not. Outside those two states, though, writers endure. My endurance has run down.

John Berryman famously said no writer will ever know if he or she is any good or not. It’s true you’ll never be certain because you occupy only your own mind, but not-knowing seems more critical now than good or bad. Ambitious writers cling to hope, dreaming of wordless poems or a finally ideal expression of personal truths. “Who knows?” they think.

Not-knowing is a talent I’ve never possessed for long. Because, most of the time now, whether I’m accurate or not, I think I do know. At least, I’ve read enough great writing that pausing between conception and execution usually assures execution never occurs. Generally, I’m okay with that. I’m working on not-caring. Let others want to be authors.

The urge remains—I’m here now, after all—but it’s an urge, not a compulsion. The reason I write, when I write at all, is that I like to. I’m more at peace with putting my pencil down.

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