Tag Archives: Modern Life

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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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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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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