Tag Archives: Modern Life

What—Me Worry?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fiction in Truth: serialpodcast.org

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I doubt her more than Syed.

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

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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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A Dozen Paths To the End of the World

The-End-of-the-world-as-we-know-itThe number of apocalyptic movies, books, and news items out there led me to consider possibilities not yet fully explored. Too lazy to actually write them, however, I made it only as far as these twelve stand-alone sentences.

1. One of the more comfortable citizens first made an object stone by claiming it, but, by noon the next day, the entire town was solid.

2. Naturally, the last duel had no spectators.

3. Everyone started piling bicycles at the city limits and soon they’d walled themselves in with their only remaining means of escape.

4. For the longest time, the kind-hearted lived in enclaves, but jealousy outside assured they wouldn’t be left alone.

5. Someone else might have known the footprints he followed were his own, yet he noticed only when, too tired to continue, he sat down and examined them closely.

6. Their hairstyles grew so elaborate their necks lacked the strength to lift them.

7. Each bridge began on one shore and ended at its apex, just when building further threatened falling in the river.

8. They could have company, the letter said, if they learned to bake bread that filled the air with enticing smells, but their sort of baking was a gift they wouldn’t give up.

9. No one considered you could do nothing so long that nothing could be done.

10. In the courtyard’s strange echoes, birds seemed to speak in human voices, and soon neighbors, then strangers, stopped working to gather and listen.

11. Had not everyone been whimpering, someone would have quipped the world ended with a bang after all.

12. He sat south of the jetty near shops long looted and empty to watch the sun rise, expecting, any day now, it wouldn’t.

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Critiquing the Critic

MTE5NTU2MzE1ODYyNjMxOTQ3I value critics, but some take the job—and themselves—so seriously they go beyond illuminating their subject. Instead, they hint at their superior understanding. They assume awareness greater than those they criticize. They sound smug or condescending or dismissive and thus elicit criticism themselves.

In these publicity-hungry, hot-headed times, we’re accustomed to vehement critics. How valuable can a half-hearted viewpoint be, after all? Yet egotism often poisons criticism. Confidence helps, but self-assurance without self-awareness reveals ignorance akin to the cluelessness it denounces. Instead of discernment, the critic’s motives come first. Yet fighting over rectitude rarely convinces anyone. It rarely exposes something hidden and important. I wish all our social critics were a little less vociferous, but I prefer Jon Stewart’s dissections to Sean Hannity, Bill Mahr and Bill O’Reilly’s rants.

Printers’ Row, the book supplement associated with The Chicago Tribune, recently started a new feature called “Time Machine” offering old Tribune reviews of famous books. The first entry was H. L. Mencken’s response to The Great Gatsby, which I encountered with some skepticism. I mostly admire Fitzgerald and the novel, and the little I’ve read from and about Mencken fills me with ambivalence. Sometimes he’s witty, incisive, and unstinting. Sometimes he’s sarcastic, biting, and petty. And this review evoked both reactions—demonstrating, for me, when criticism does and doesn’t work.

In this case, I should say, “Doesn’t and does,” for Mencken swings his sword wildly in his opening before calming down to say something valuable. He calls the novel “No more than a glorified anecdote,” and writes off Gatsby as “a clown” and the other characters as “marionettes—often astonishingly lifelike, but nevertheless not quite alive.” In the end, he says, “The immense house of the Great Gatsby stands idle, its bedrooms given over to the bat and the owl, its cocktail shakers dry. The curtain lurches down.”

Maybe Mencken wanted to launch with a blast of his characteristic vitriol, but he seems so self-satisfied. As muscular as Mencken’s prose is and as much as I get his perspective, he speaks to those who enjoy (as Warren Buffet put it), “Interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.”

Granted, that’s most humans, but you either revel in his savagery or put the review aside immediately. If you’ve read the novel and agree, fine. If you haven’t, the critic’s snark is all you get. Illustrating broad proclamations is tricky, nigh impossible. Yet, if proof is impractical and explanation superfluous, only empty assertions remain.

Many of our pundits, politicians, and television personalities operate similarly. No longer inhabiting a three or four network world, we all have our shows. Whether to the left or right side of blue or red, you need never challenge prior conclusions. You can luxuriate in the affirmation of your disgust. Meanwhile, thought and self- examination suffer. Mencken described the U.S. as a “boobocracy,”  ruled by the uninformed. We’re no longer quite that (because it’s hard to be uninformed in a nation saturated with media), but we can bask in the sneering certainty of the critics we accept, which may be worse.

Mencken’s appraisal of Fitzgerald improves after his initial salvo, not because he begins to give the book some credit—Mencken continues to assert rather than demonstrate or prove—but because he uses the book to address the practice of writing, a subject bigger than the author, the novel, and the critic.

At first, Fitzgerald chiefly receives faint praise for improvement. According to Mencken, Fitzgerald’s earlier writing was “Slipshod—at times almost illiterate” and “devoid of any feeling for the color and savor of words.” Then, however, Mencken stops punching Fitzgerald, whose progress is, to Mencken, “Of an order not witnessed in American writers; and seldom, indeed, in those who start out with popular success.” Mencken’s point also stops being personal. It tackles artistry and success, how the latter blunts the ambition of the former. The popular author who has “Struck the bull’s-eye once” may stop learning new techniques, Mencken says, and undergo, “a gradual degeneration of whatever talent he had at the beginning. He begins to imitate himself. He peters out.”

Which seems, to me, wise and well-put. Mencken is no longer talking about Fitzgerald at all, but about the temptations and pitfalls of popular fiction. Fitzgerald is the opposite of Mencken’s scenario, a talentless author who achieves success and then labors to improve. He is the exception to a rule. Having dropped insults, Mencken also abandons dismissing The Great Gatsby and turns to what’s in it. He notes Fitzgerald’s interest in the elite’s “Idiotic pursuit of sensation, their almost incredible stupidity and triviality.” Mencken’s statement that “These are the things that go into his [Fitzgerald’s] notebook,” marks a shift toward description and criticism’s real power, its capacity for careful observation and valuable distinctions.

I wish all criticism were so thoughtful as those last few paragraphs and that all critics might leave off hollering to speak in more audible tones. I know that’s less entertaining, and maybe it’s our nature to slip into ad hominem. Yet, to me, criticism seems most effective when it’s respectful. Critics don’t have to love everything—that’d be a different evil—but it’d be nice if they made their work about their subject and not about self-righteousness.

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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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Jenny

rooney-mara-thomas-whiteside5Another character sketch. Another exercise. This time, I started with this picture of Rooney Mara and then wrote from that. I’m not sure what I’m doing with these yet…

The two hours before dawn passed in half-dreams and worries. A couple of times a voice seemingly outside Jenny’s mind spoke nonsensically—one silly pronouncement, like “It’s too cold for that!”—loud, as if she still shared the room with someone. She took these random pronouncements as signals she’d fall asleep again, but noticing them meant awakening too. Lately inattention required will, effort to elude and escape her thoughts.

Jenny tried not to look ahead to a midday meeting with her boss and instead recalled a high school hayride. One of the boys in her English class, a football player and avowed Christian, asked her out, and, worn down by the many times he’d tried, she agreed. She pictured the truck idling in a scrubby field at twilight. The scene reduced to that openbed truck, and the other couples—they were all couples—huddled under blankets amid hay bales, breathing exhaust. Jenny didn’t know the month exactly, but the chill of winter lay weeks away. During the ride, a sheen of sweat gathered on her legs under the blanket. She remembered that. The boy’s arm over her shoulder felt like wood, like the yoke the oxen wore on the cover of her US history textbook.

Her husband died in spring. At the wake, Jenny’s brothers and sister repeated how mercifully short his illness was. He’d been going to the gym daily before the diagnosis and, even in his final week, his eyes possessed their usual vitality. Up until the end, as frail as his body became, he still seemed young, joking that he’d finally lost those few extra pounds he’d been trying so hard to shed. She laughed because she thought it might make him happy. Just after he’d gone, she left him with his family and went outside to cry, the first light of the pale sky impossible to bear, its ill-timed beauty taunting her.

“You have to be ready,” he’d said the day before.

“I know, but let’s not talk about that.”

“Tell me you’re ready.”

“I am… but don’t want to be.”

This morning, Jenny opened her eyes to light and roused herself. The alarm hadn’t sounded, but an early start meant missing traffic. Her closet seemed spacious since she and his sister cleaned it out. Jenny laid the new blue skirt, a blouse, and her underthings over the rumpled covers of her bed.

She sighed as she turned the shower on. Her work had fallen off—her last review was not nearly as glowing as ones from last year—but her boss would be sympathetic, asking how she was “holding up” before turning to instructions repeated with a pleading expression she’d come to hate. She’d prepared for that day’s meeting until very late the night before, assembling a presentation full of statistics and new marketing plans. She shouldn’t have to bring work home, she knew that, but revising her resume and reaching out to contacts used up hours too. Jenny felt tired of driving, tired of working.

Water met skin like summer rain, tepid and gentle as another day began.

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