Category Archives: Nostalgia

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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On Being Out of Tune

n02Today is my birthday, and I’m looking around wondering where I’ve landed.

Everything falls into four categories for me these days: things I know, things I guess, things I know I don’t know (and may never), and things of which I’m (still, after all this time) entirely ignorant. Growing older and knowing more should quiet the other categories, but, mostly, I guess. Ignorance may not have diminished a decibel—it’s hard to say. I’m not wise. I’m out of tune.

When I walk I think, and lately I’ve been doing a lot of both. Though we’ve already experienced chilly weather in Chicago, chairs and tables remain outside restaurants, pedestrians crowd sidewalks, and people linger at windows eying what’s inside. Despite congregation, walks leave me lonely. I wouldn’t eat or drink streetside without an occasion. I recognize almost no one else. I can afford little in those stores, and most of what they sell belongs in a different life anyway.

As a younger man I anticipated future confidence and self-assurance, but, on these walks, others’ knowledge seems greater than mine. They look more comfortable and animated as they chat with companions or on their cell phones. Their strides appear purposeful. Clearly, they aren’t walking to think—as I am—but to get somewhere. They don’t guess destinations. When I try to detect our common humanity, they seldom look back, rarely make eye contact, even more rarely smile. I’m so alien I imagine myself invisible, sharing streets with the ghosts asking for money at corners.

I’d say this estrangement is an outdoor phenomenon except that I sense it no less online where, because human contact has no place, social interaction is a shadow play. I like, you like, he or she likes, but without investment or consequence. The volume of such muted and largely impersonal transactions defies recall and creates one continually washed-out present. It’s silly to be nostalgic for general stores or neighborhood pubs or small town main streets, but I think I might accept guessing in more reassuring company. At least we’d know we’re all a touch dissonant. More ordinary lives in my life might assure reality isn’t bigger than any capacity to understand it.

We’re so often outraged—intolerant of deliberation, angry… but too impatient to plan for futures more distant than the present news cycle. We continually urge a response, a decision, some action. Not to be ready is to lack initiative and leadership, to betray weakness. It won’t do to discuss, as words are just words. Musing is absolutely out. Thoughts are immaterial without practical or remunerative applications.

We ought to share more than vehemence.

One of the dog walkers on my block is especially friendly and has a loud voice. Sometimes, when my window is open, I listen in on his conversations with neighbors. They say little really. They verify last night’s roof deck party was loud and late, or they laugh over some poor pooch’s latest mishap. They gossip and make small talk. Yet, though I never participate, these exchanges do more for me than I can say. These aren’t friends meeting, exactly. They won’t settle anything. They’re humans communing, affirming what they know and guess.

At such moments, I’m grateful I have non-Facebook friends in my life, ones who hear and understand my doubts, who appreciate my desire to know more, who might touch my hand or throw an arm over my shoulder and walk with me.

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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

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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Then Silence

two_shadows“Silence propagates itself,” Samuel Johnson said, “and the longer talk has been suspended, the more difficult it is to find anything to say.”

When I’m sleepless in the middle of the night, I think about lost friends and wince over unreturned phone calls, emails, and letters, all the thank you notes, flowers, and thoughtful gestures I meant to make to show affection. Most of the people who haunt my insomnia have likely forgotten me or think no less of me for drifting on, but life would be richer with their continuing company. I find plenty of time to work, to engage in activity I forget a few days later. I put tasks before people, and, if I could reverse that, I might sleep better.

I enjoy company and find sympathetic souls everywhere. Only recently, though, have I tried to cultivate and keep friends. Carl Jung said the meeting of personalities is like a chemical reaction—both personalities are transformed by contact. His statement only makes sense if you and the other personality are reactive, if you’re willing to venture outside yourself. Most of my life I haven’t been willing. It’s easy to converse, to slot in personal stories your listener doesn’t yet know. You rifle through relevant and appropriate remarks and, like a good raconteur, offer your most skillful talk. Or you can take the more secure stance of bouncing everything back to the speaker. Now you see. I’m well-practiced at the familiar and accepted steps of civil discourse.

But careful and polished steps aren’t dancing. Dancing is chemical and requires more than keeping up.

One of my first real friends welcomed me to his lunch table after I’d been exiled from another. Middle school cool failed me, and my usual companions froze me out. My new friend barely knew me, knew only that I had nowhere to sit and invited me over, but vulnerability proved a good place for us to start. His kindness endeared him to me, but hurt created our relationship. No purpose in pretense, we began with honesty instead.

His family invited me on vacation, he ate over my house whenever I could make him stay, and, even after I moved away, we exchanged antic letters full of imaginary schemes for becoming treasure hunters or famous tag-team auctioneers or dueling butter sculptors or engineers specializing in converting schools to bumper cars. We laughed, I think, because we knew we needed to. We were seldom comfortable except in the company of the other.

Some people believe no true friendship can ever cease, that, even after years of neglect, friends feel the same old understanding and affection. That thought consoles me at 3 am—though, in most cases, I can’t verify it. I wouldn’t know how to start looking for many of the people I’ve lost. In some cases, I remember how I felt with them and not their names. And though we might achieve familiar rapport if we were thrown together, what I’ve missed would be just as telling.

Next weekend my younger brother is going on a golf outing, and some of the people are part of a group of friends he sees frequently, old friends from high school and college he’s seen through every stage of life. I don’t care about golf—it’d be horrifying to even try playing—but I’m jealous. My oldest and best friends are, right this second, elsewhere, expecting and accepting the usual distance between us. We will talk when we talk. His friends wouldn’t let him neglect them. He wouldn’t allow it either.

After receiving a commission to West Point, my friend came home in three weeks. He wrote a letter that was meant to be funny but threw me. I wasn’t sure how I felt, how to console him or whether he wanted consolation and can’t recall now what I did say to him, if I did. Some nights I can’t convince myself I wrote back. I continued to hear reports of him—he went to college locally and then law school, he excelled in moot court and sang in his church choir. He married and had a daughter.

But by the time I looked for him—finding him was why I joined Facebook—someone told me he was gone, killed in a traffic accident a couple of weeks before. I read the obituary and thought again and again of writing his widow, his daughter, his mom. Perhaps he mentioned me. They donated a bench in Central Park because he liked to visit New York, and I could find it and sit on it.

I didn’t. I haven’t. It isn’t just that my right to speak seems lost, and that every day pushes him and our history further into the past. I’m beginning to think the best way—the only way—to honor him is to try harder to be an actual friend, the sort he was to me.

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Another Attempt

One of the nicest reviews of my book was in Haibun Today. I sent it there thinking it was a haibun, but the reviewer, who I trust entirely, said no. Since then, I’ve been reading more haibun both in Haibun Today and elsewhere.

I’ve learned haibun present minutely descriptive moments, scenes, or statements. According to Wikipedia, they may “occupy a wholly fictional or dream-like space.” All haibun, however, need haiku that communicate, overtly or covertly, an essence of the account.

The four haibun below are new tries. I’m hoping to solicit my reviewer’s opinion on what I have and haven’t accomplished. I’ve included some of my art.

Clippingsedi.

Sometimes memories of crabbing return. The morning sun raised the scent of creosote from the ties of the railroad bridge, and I squatted, tugging—as slowly as I could—the package string. Either the loose skin of the chicken neck wavered like a ghost into view, or the broad green back of my prey materialized from dark. Everyone said they felt crabs chewing, but I guessed. Often, circular rainbows of fat surfaced when just meat arrived. Any hope, and I’d call my sister over with the net. She was swifter, decisive at the right instant. In the wide-bottom bucket nearby, the already captured edged along the walls, claws half-raised against their fellows.

from deep night,

lapping waves, echoes

of passing barges

glasspideredii.

A recent dream happened in many rooms, each weighted with complicated Persian rugs, ornate burgundy upholstery, blocky tables, and mahogany paneled walls. The lamps offered barely enough light to dislodge shadows. Each room, roughly the same, still seemed different, as if only this stage were suitable for this conversation. We moved from place to place, recalling what we never quite said.

sandalwood and smoke

she whispered another name

to call dawn

orchidsediii.

My anger comes out in hints, never visible enough to define. I like thinking it’s veiled by smiles.

a twist of wind

spinning and dropped, flattened,

wheels of dust

When people are mad, it feels like the moment just after someone shoves me. Their faces say distance, the stretch of a landscape moving away, but nothing happened. No one budged, though the room seems changed.

Once my mother spoke to me through a door she wouldn’t open for an apology. I heard half her words but understood I’d gone too far, said too much. Time would never settle our struggle entirely.

a blackbird chooses

now to cry—his brown notes

a song for dusk

lockworksediv.

shattered beer bottle,

afternoon sun, sparks of blindness

salting sight

When sleep eludes me, I think of it as madness I want to charm and trap. Odd but welcome associations of amber and shoes, or rust and old horses, or a gardenia blossom in a bowl and waning tides—any irrationality creeping closer—and I say, “Stay.” If I’m unlucky, sanity reasserts itself, another list unreeling or a new bulb of worry blinking to life. Around the room, points of reflection map depth and dimension. The heater breathes. On a good night, I may hear a voice as if it’s outside my mind and believe it. Then I know sleep summons. I let it. I close my eyes to join.

past midnight

buildings blend into sky,

piles of lost objects

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Another Exchange

ptg01511781We weren’t the only Marshalls in La Marque, Texas. Others lived on the opposite side of the highway, in another part of town we seldom visited and were encouraged to avoid.

I knew Kirby and Landis, two of the other Marshalls, because they were in my gym classes. We lined up beside each other when Coach read the roll, and sometimes Landis would pick me for a team when I was left over. Otherwise, we seldom encountered each other. He was black, and I was white. In La Marque, that meant nearly everything.

Still some strange surname solidarity must have moved him to choose me. I wasn’t tall or coordinated or strong, so I wasn’t always wanted. Seldom, really. The one athletic ability I did have was speed. My genetics or running from my angry brothers made me fast, and, even if I couldn’t snag a spiral or hit with a racket or kick a rolling ball, I could almost always catch someone or—more usefully—flee.

Once in eighth grade, during the track and field unit, we were making relay teams, and Landis urged one of his black friends to pick me for their team.

He leaned toward his friend. “Honky’s fast,” he whispered, loud enough for me to hear.

But his friend wasn’t as generous as Landis and passed me over. Landis ran the first leg and put his team well in the lead. My team, though they weren’t as good, were game, and, by the time I received the baton on the last leg, we were only twenty yards behind. The boy who’d rejected me was ahead, and, when I saw that, a familiar surge went through me.

Back then, the strangest element of running was knowing. Sometimes I saw someone in front of me and just knew where I’d end up. When I felt that unaccountable certainly, I ran faster. Races often fulfilled a script my mind wrote, with little or no doubt. I wish that were still true now.

It took me nearly the entire lap, but by the time I reached the final turn, I was even with Landis’ friend. On the home stretch I pulled away and won. Over the last twenty or thirty yards of the race—when the outcome was truly known—I heard Landis in the infield laughing and shouting at his teammate. “I told you, man! I told you, man! You can’t beat no Marshalls. You can’t!”

If this event were an afterschool special, Landis and I would become best friends, but I only remember handing the baton to Coach and going inside, dreading the shower he’d make me take. Landis and I must have been on teams together after that—if I had a chance to pick him, I’m sure I was smart and did—but I can’t remember a single conversation between us.

My family left La Marque after my sophomore year in high school when my father took a new job in North Carolina. I didn’t fuss because, then, La Marque was a small place you might know nearly everyone. We all attended school together from the beginning of time and, if you wanted the salt from the next table, you found the name to ask… even if you hadn’t uttered it since fourth grade. So leaving and dropping into a world of new names seemed exciting.

Those last, odd couple of months, my younger brother and I ran summer track, and one of our sporadic teammates was Kirby Marshall. My brother may know if Kirby and Landis were related, but I didn’t. And didn’t ask. Yet I begged our coach to put us on a relay together because I thought it would be funny to go Marshall to Marshall to Marshall to… I suppose I had some fantasy that Landis might join us.

I didn’t know Landis outside my imagination, wouldn’t know how to find him, wouldn’t know how he might react to being found.

Yet, in my head, we talked. He explained his living wherever I dreamed he did, and I talked about my neighborhood and all its odd characters. I told him about my dad, my family, the inadequacy I felt living amid expectations, and the absence of any true friend. He understood.

He was imaginary and had no other choice.

When we left town, he stood among the ghosts I’d miss most. I’d never really known him in any meaningful way at all.

I think sometimes of people and picture them at this, very, moment. In another world, Landis and I might lament our divided lives and wonder how much we lost through disconnection. In that separate dimension, we might be real friends.

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