My Best Wishes

thThis is a present from a small distant world. A token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts, our feelings.

We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.

We hope someday, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations. This record represents our hope and our determination, our good will in a vast and awesome universe.

 Jimmy Carter’s Golden Record Message, Voyager, June 16, 1977

Is it terrible that I think humans—especially American humans—might have had their chance?

I greet the news each day with mixed anger and satisfaction—anger because little likeable happens and satisfaction because anything hastening the end of this misery can’t be bad. I live in a schadenfreude world, celebrating calamity because some part of me believes we deserve it. We can be a stupid species—centuries of missteps establish that—but we usually muster the wherewithal for survival when the moment demands. Now feels different.

These days, some Americans seem to love walking up to the abyss and staring over the edge, regarding brinkmanship as courage. Some want the rest of us to agree that unchecked greed, foolhardy optimism, and stubborn short-sightedness are fundamentally American. They deny the obvious and call their denial unconventional thinking. Facts are only one person’s facts, they say, and thus subject to dispute or eradication.

Despite the season, nostalgia offers little consolation. I suspect my memory. The good old days may only look better because I didn’t notice the same dark forces at work before. The most fortunate Americans have always crowed that their labors and not circumstances (or good fortune or  just plain luck) assured their success. They barely see costs. Having more and wanting more doesn’t spur their consciences. Acquiring so much and desiring more, they cry for additional power to protect their hoard against those who claw for what’s left. They’re angry at victims of their excesses.

The meek, it’s clear, will not inherit as hoped.

So, on this day before Christmas, I’m envisioning Dicken’s Christmas Carol, watching the spirit of Christmas Past open his robe to reveal a boy and girl who are “yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish.” The boy is Ignorance. The girl is Want, which in Dickens’ day meant poverty. Though Scrooge is appropriately appalled at the sight of humankind’s offspring, “he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.”

This post may be the worst Christmas message ever, but I can’t be party to lies either. The spirit tells Scrooge to fear both children, but to fear ignorance most, issuing a somewhat cryptic warning, “Deny it… slander those who tell it ye… Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And bide the end!”

I don’t speak Victorian, but he seems to identify those who will create our end: people who would deny the straits we’re in, people who would reject those who have reason and good sense to say so, and people who would use their errors to divide us further. The spirit says of Ignorance, “on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.”

“Doom” is an ugly word I’d like to erase. Many days, however, it’s apt. The best news I’ve heard lately is the NYTimes’ announcement that the U.S. military studies UFOs and that aliens may already be eying our planet. If so, perhaps they’re here to save us… or end us. Either might make me happy.

The best wishes I can muster echo the Voyager message that opens this post: Let us hope to survive, or, barring that, let us hope to do our best and leave at least a tiny legacy of a glimmer of good will to this vast and awesome universe.


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About Pursuit

57a101e3c724f.imageEvery year, in each of my classes, I try at least one of the assignments I give. My post today is my attempt at a “Hybrid Essay,” an essay I assigned to my American literature class that mixes critical and personal attention to a text, in this case Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad.

Though I’m slightly over the word count (300-600 words), I wanted to accomplish what I ask of my students, that they make their own encounter with the text the central and explicit subject. I’m asking them what the book makes them think about.

I’ve made some adjustments for a more general audience, and the page numbers refer to the hardback edition.

Midway through Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, the main character, the runaway slave Cora, asks about the word “ravening.” She encounters it in a North Carolina attic, in the Bible loaned her to practice reading while she awaits a chance to escape again. Martin Wells, her savior and captor, can’t define the word at first, but a few pages later, as Cora urges action, Martin reports, seemingly out of the blue, “Ravening—I think it means very hungry” (178). It means more. Its full definition refers to animals’ ferocious hunger as they seek prey. In the context of the moment, Martin recalls “ravening” as he thinks about Night Raiders, Whitehead’s version of the KKK. “The boys,” he says, “will be hungry for a souvenir” (178). In the context of the novel—and in the context of the issue of slavery and in the context of American life—“ravening” may be a key to our character.

I use “our” deliberately. Dress it up as we will, all Americans seem touched by desperate ambition. Our ravening curiosity brought us to the moon, and our ravening desire created global business and industry. Our ravening idealism believed we might create a utopia where all people are endowed with an inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness—and life, and liberty.

The trouble begins with pursuit. In Underground Railroad, the slave catcher Arnold Ridgeway’s fascination with the “American Imperative” puts pursuit at the center of American life. He defines it as “the divine thread connecting all human behavior—if you can keep it, it is yours” (80). Something in us, some hunting impulse, believes in ambition even when its object is dubiously valuable and dubiously just.

Americans aren’t unique in their ambitions, but they may be the most conspicuously unapologetic about them. Ridgeway can’t resist bringing God into the American Imperative. The spirit that carried us to the new continent, he says, called us “to conquer and build and civilize,” and also “destroy what needs to be destroyed” (221). Charitably, he includes the will to “lift up the lesser races,” but adds “If not lift up, subjugate. And if not subjugate, exterminate” (222). All this ravening is, he suggests, “Our destiny by divine prescription” (222).

Ridgeway is a villain, and Whitehead can’t mean him to be an American Everyman. Yet his dark version of American ambition needs to be heard and understood as an inalienable American value. Ridgeway dies extolling his rectitude. “The American imperative is a splendid thing,” he sputters, “a shining beacon… born of necessity and virtue” (303). That label “beacon” sees the American Imperative as a signal aim—up on that City on the Hill—a virtue worth pursuing unquestioningly. Like many Americans, Ridgeway’s “greed is good” mentality places the side effect of progress ahead of primary effects like subjugation and destruction.

Alexis De Tocqueville believed Americans ought to amend “self-interest” with “rightly understood,” the comprehension that desires shouldn’t trammel or prevent others’ desires. Most of us know our aspirations are common. Whitehead goes further to create characters who sacrifice their desires. Cora lists them as “People she had loved, people who had helped her”: the Hob women, Lovey, Martin and Ethel, Fletcher (215). They seek to control what others are controlled by.

Trouble, Whitehead knows, comes from regarding documents like the Declaration of Independence as good and only good or bad and only bad. We must remember the Declaration did nothing to curb belief in slavery as natural or divinely ordained. Though we aren’t slavers anymore, the impulse to rationalize—and to fabricate—in order to justify personal advantage remains. We want to call ambition “the American Dream,” but Whitehead suggests we need to wake up and see its context. “The Declaration is like a map,” his Indiana teacher Georgina says, “You trust that it’s right, but you only know by going out and testing it for yourself” (240). We can’t become so ravenous we don’t continually test our map’s accuracy and limits.

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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.”


Filed under Aging, Apologies, Depression, Doubt, Dysthymia, Essays, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Memory, Recollection, Silence, Thoughts

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.


Filed under Aging, Alison Landsberg, Ambition, Blade Runner, Brooke Gladstone, Desire, Doubt, Essays, Film, Hope, Identity, life, Meditations, Memory, On the Media, Rationalizations, Resolutions, Science Fiction, Thoughts, Time, Writing

On Thanks

1200People sometimes imply I’m not grateful enough. I catch their hints and know they’re right, but agreeing doesn’t get me far.

Cultivating gratitude receives considerable attention in cognitive therapy’s efforts to confront negative thoughts and amend counterproductive behavior. You change the way you act in order to change the way you feel, and one prescription is ending each day with thanks—name five things that went well today or acknowledge a few moments that made you appreciate yourself and the people who love you.

Sounds good. I’m not oblivious enough to miss my advantages. Living in Chicago, I walk past desperate homeless every day. I see the tired, three-job, overworked souls slumped in L seats. I recognize my comforts, the safe and appreciative place I work and the warm and welcoming place I live. My worries, I know, hardly compare. I ought to be grateful and—mostly—am.

I’m not sure why affirmations rarely work for me. Intellectually, they make sense, but my relatively good health, relatively good pay, and relatively good emotions don’t fill me up. Try as I might, satisfaction feels somehow false. Doing what a cognitive therapist asks feels like prayer from memorization rather than faith, an act.

Even Thanksgiving, the national holiday of gratitude, exudes desire—company, decor, celebration, and food—ultimately unsated by the most extreme excess. Like the rest of the U.S., it seems, I’m never sure how much is enough. With potential continually thrown in my face, the day ends without fulfilling its promise. Part of me remains empty and insatiable. Do I have higher hopes than can be fulfilled?

The Buddhist in me says, “Live now,” the corporate advertising machine says “Buy.” I fantasize sometimes about dire circumstances, the lower limit of what’s essential, what few things might actually be necessary for happiness—a good bowl of oatmeal, a working pen, a thoughtful companion, a book I relish rereading. Yet little in this world helps me discover what I must have… yet.

Perhaps some poverty ahead will help me decide. For now, I’ll join the chorus of gratitude, if only half-heartedly. For all my doubts, Thanksgiving is still my favorite holiday, the least acquisitive of all the acquisitive holidays. I only wish to mean it more, to realize emotionally what I recognize rationally, to feel what I know—that I am indeed lucky.

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Where I Am

3849820311_f5668a3d0c_oI found an old blog post of unexplored openings and decided to try one…

Here’s a list I’ve been idly compiling recently—foods that are just too laborious to eat. It includes the obvious (un-cracked crabs), the tedious (pumpkin seeds), the tragic (barely cooked stir-fry), and the sneaky (those half-exploded kernels at the bottom of a bag of movie popcorn).

Each addition—and conceiving of such a list at all—is symptomatic of a new attitude creeping into my life. It’s best summarized by a reply I could make seven or eight times a day:

“Really… again?”

I accept the part of my reaction that comes of aging. I don’t need to attend another “team meeting” or to compile another list of professional goals (with action plans) or to create another report describing the stultifying details of my extraordinarily ordinary task-laden job. But the problem is, unfortunately, bigger than exhaustion.

Once, I called staying power my chief strength. So great was my tolerance for minutiae that I believed I might sort a fifty-pound sack of mixed beans without complaint. I might agree to write the Gettysburg Address, circular fashion, around a half stick of chalk, just for fun. I could outline, then re-outline darker, the tiniest interstices of a child’s scribble. I’d take notes when the business manager of another school described the changed provisions of their health plan.

Now I sigh. I sigh so much that my officemates peek around the walls of their cubicles to ask, “Is everything alright?” What I hear them saying is, “Enough with the sighing, already,” or “Jesus, can’t you just get on with it?” I half-answer, tired of my reply before I reach the end.

As a teacher, I’m traveling a loop of familiarity. I picture riding a miniature train in my youth in Texas, the San Antonio Brackenridge Zoo train, folded at the hip and crying not from motion sickness but from pure ennui. I picture my son in the bouncy chair callipered to the lintel of dining room door, joyous for two minutes and then lolling, weeping, that he might be freed.

I’m not sure I have the will to finish this post.

Last week, my department chair asked me to answer questions about where I am in my courses and what I hope to accomplish before semester’s end. I thought, “I want to get there.” More, I want to get to someplace else, turn to some new and fresh task. What I call exhaustion is really desire for some new aim to target.

My age makes it easy to say little is left, but, really, so much remains unexplored. Those foods that challenge me need not defeat me. I may discover more laborious matters to chew, but I can embrace undercooked broccoli if I can believe in novelty. Just planning another life, and not sighing, would be a start.

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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.


Filed under Aesthetics, Aging, Ambition, Art, Desire, Education, Ego, Essays, Fame, Identity, life, Memory, MFA, Rationalizations, Resolutions, Thoughts, Voice, Writing