Tag Archives: Resolutions

Number 500

closed-signOnce or twice, after arriving at a favorite neighborhood restaurant, I’ve discovered it closed for good. On the door is a pithy thank you note to loyal patrons. First I think, “Oh no!” and then, “Are they calling me out? Wasn’t I loyal?”

They don’t have me in mind. Restaurants close all the time in Chicago. It’s rough getting started, rough maintaining quality, rough remaining relevant, and rough for owners who must sometimes resent the crazy, constant labor of their working lives. Even popular places can’t always make a go of it when the rent rises or someplace new opens nearby. More loyal patronage, I’ve decided, wouldn’t help. It’s the situation. Better to remember the wonderful meals you had there with friends and move on.

Today’s post is my last on Signals to Attend at least until the end of the year, and maybe forever. For some time, I’ve been thinking about closing. And though I haven’t decided entirely, I feel finished.

A blog isn’t like a restaurant. Few people make a profit, so money doesn’t matter. Nor do I rely on visitors as restaurants must. Okay… it sometimes bothers me when an essay or story I’ve slaved over gathers few readers, but then I tell myself I don’t do it for numbers. People are busy, and it’s nothing against me.

Which brings me to bloggers’ similarities with restaurant owners, at least the ones who never hit the big time. We don’t expect fame, maybe, but we hope to provide a place where pleasure might be found. We don’t imagine we’re the only choice or the most revered or the glitziest, buzziest choice, but we hope to satisfy those who happen in, loyal or not. And much of what we do is behind the scenes… necessarily so. The cycles of resupply and preparation that carry us from one offering to the next aren’t visible. We think, plan, and rethink until we’re ready, and, if  we aim for our best work, we don’t begrudge the labor.

As announced in the title, this post is number 500. I couldn’t begin to count the hours I’ve spent composing and revising for this blog. Dear Reader, it may not seem much, but for six years, my life has revolved around being here. Whatever else I was doing—reading, preparing for class, grading papers, coaching, writing grade reports, traveling, dealing with personal and family crises and celebrations, seeing to the rest of my creative life on my other blogs and in my other life as a visual artist—I appeared here at the requisite times. I wanted to post something new, and I’ve missed few deadlines I set for myself. Sometimes this blog felt like a part time job in a life too busy to accommodate one.

More so lately, not just because of the challenge of finding something new to say or because I’m still seeking different voices and styles but also because questions about my purpose nag me. Distinguishing between desire and obligation can be difficult, especially as visitors shrink and the thrill of twice being “Freshly Pressed” or cresting some follower milestone fade. I’m proud of my consistency—even if it’s crap, there’s a lot of it!—but when I mention my blog to friends and colleagues these days, they ask, “Are you still doing that?”

A restaurant owner might say doing anything for a long time—even when you try your damnedest to maintain quality—makes you reliable, which is not at all the same as exciting.

I’m not leaving the blogosphere entirely. I have a poetry blog I post to when I feel like it, a haiku-a-day site I’m devoted to, and the weekly cocktail blog I share with my brother. This site will stay open, if only as an archive.

So consider this my note on the door:

Thank you to all my loyal and not-so-loyal followers, my periodic and random visitors, my disgruntled objectors, my sympathetic ears, and my tsk-tskers. Your intelligent reading, your “Likes,” and especially your thoughtful comments inspired me and challenged me and helped me grow. You have been the center of my attention, and, though you may no longer find new material here, you haven’t left my thoughts.

 

 

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And by “You” I mean “I” (or “Me”)

round1To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men—that is genius.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Personal essays require believing you’re a valuable subject. The principle justification for writing about yourself comes from the granddaddy of personal essayists, Michel de Montaigne, who said individual experience is never purely individual. He believed, “Every man bears the whole stamp of the human condition.” And—if you accept his premise—the particular, paradoxically, illuminates the universal.

Philip Lopate goes further in his introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay by urging confession. Confession garners trust because, “The spectacle of baring the naked soul,” he says, “is meant to awaken the sympathy of the reader, who is apt to forgive the essayist’s self-absorption in return for the warmth of his or her candor.” In indicting yourself, the thinking goes, you must be honest.

If you’re sincere, your “indictment” might include confusion and the hopelessness of ever deciding anything definitively. Admitting you don’t (and maybe can’t) understand could be part of every essay, especially if you undertake issues or questions hoping to resolve them. Montaigne said, “Anyone who studies himself attentively finds in himself and in his very judgment this whirring about and this discordancy.” He also says, “There is nothing I can say about myself as a whole simply and completely, without intermingling and admixture.” Yet confusion will likely frustrate your reader as much as you. Sympathy has limits. You’re supposed to say something worthy or why write? Expressing your finite intelligence isn’t helpful or winning or impressive.

What is? You can’t be sure. Personal essays involve inventing a tolerant audience willing to sympathize with tortuous, circular, and equivocal ruminations, fellow feeling that maybe might occur if your thoughts are new, relevant, incisive, clever, amusing. You could be the worst judge though, and not know it. Just as the tone deaf are least qualified to assess the quality of their own voices, you may sing on, missing cues signaling how discordant or flat you are. And any response, even the most muted and mixed, could produce disproportionate effects. Someone smiles or smirks, and you think, “Ah. I’ve said something. I’m communicating. An ear is listening at the other end of this line, after all.”

The high-wire risk of personal essays is faith. You pray you’re perching on insight. Keep going, write enough, and you’re sure to… you think. Life is finite, you think. One life may be different, you think, but, if you try hard enough or long enough, you’ll reach some truth, minor and irrelevant as it might be. Sure, quantity can be the enemy of impact, yet—you think—you’re an exception.

So you tread on. You reach your foot forward praying for something like solid ground or a great uplift of wind to keep you from falling.

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Danger Danger

8326674788_ffc5919ef8_zOccasionally people ask if I worry about posting online. They wonder about potential embarrassment to me or to my family, or the professional trouble I might get into if superiors or students read a post, or the hate even a mild point of view can inspire. I know the internet is prone to spinning gray into black and white and isn’t a natural place for the measured or reasonable. Anyone who reads comments sees the disproportion of cyberspace, the glee some take in judging others on the barest basis and then spewing ugly, often scary, venom.

But, no, I don’t worry about that. Statistics tell me how many people find this blog every day and who can be sure how many actually read? After four years, Signals to Attend has quite a few followers, but WordPress doesn’t say how many of those really follow and how many hope for a visitor or follower in return. For the record, I return visits (though not always with comments) and am grateful for whatever loyalty this blog cultivates. Reading and writing is, potentially, the positive side of the internet, its capacity to create community, and company. Whatever the risk of blogging, the benefit of meeting thoughtful writers is greater. For me, it has been anyway.

I don’t rely on limited visibility though. One wrong reader could make life miserable and, although sometimes my ire bubbles up, I try to moderate the ferment, to be circumspect, to watch my measures and combinations to make the best brew possible. I use no names not already in the public sphere. I name neither family members nor my workplace and try to protect anyone I do name by considering how it might feel to be the object of my criticism.

Writerly friends, in fact, sometimes urge taking more risks. They say I’d have more readers if my opinions ventured into perilous territory. Yet, the biggest risk, to me, is saying what you think or feel as exactly as you can. It’s easier to be dramatic and “out there” if you don’t worry how accurately you express yourself or communicate the truth you see. Getting your own heart right courts equivocation and complexity. In our world, maybe that’s the risky stance.

Every once in a while a comment arrives that might be summarized as “Why would you think such a stupid thing?” or offers unsolicited advice carefully tailored for the misguided… and tailored a couple of sizes too small. In those cases, I’m polite. They come from a desire to make things better. And, of course, they’re often right.

Plus risk is part of the process. Who would want to create no response? If writing were simple, we wouldn’t suffer so much over it and—suffer over it as much as we like—our writing is bound to be incomplete if we try (as we ought to) to sort out what we don’t understand. Anyone who can help me understand my topic or myself better is welcome. For that, I’m also grateful. Just assume my intentions are good, please.

Really, my only worry about posting online is that my time and effort may be wasted. Everyone knows the Oscar Wilde quotation, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” As many bloggers must, I worry about dancing to my own tune, calling “important” what’s actually self-indulgent and solipsistic. Worse than wandering into trouble is wandering into dark and empty rooms. I think of closing this blog down every time I pass a significant number of posts, but it’s never because I fear backlash. What I fear is that the trouble is all mine or that my best escape from issues is being irrelevant.

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Commute

d9d4c68cb3bb5818776e12b294909c8bThe key wouldn’t turn the way it needed to. He tried for some time and then had to go to work. On the way he told himself an unlocked door is fine as long as no one tries it, and he couldn’t be late again or he’d have no money for rent.

He thought briefly about calling her because she still had a key and might have the touch to make the lock work. She did much better with objects, understood subtle shifts of position and emphasis that made them cooperate. Every thing seemed troublesome to him. At first, she’d found his confusion charming and laughed at his clumsy handling, but her impatience grew like a bass hum in an audio line, building until it overwhelmed the signal.

On the day she left, she locked the door. He returned expecting to find the apartment open and her inside making something to eat, as that morning she’d offered. Instead, he found a note on the bare table explaining she’d taken most of her things and would be back for the others that weekend. Nothing in the note explained why really, but he understood.

They could be friends, she promised.

He’d be late anyway. The L always chose the worst time to delay and, between each station, a voice announced, “Your attention please: We are standing momentarily, waiting for signal clearance. We expect to be moving shortly.” Sometimes the message just finished as the train lurched to life, the air conditioner stirring as it engaged. Sometimes the lull continued, passengers doing their best to pretend they hadn’t heard.

“What are your ambitions?” she’d asked him once.

He shrugged. The degree he’d earned wasn’t practical, and, encouraged by his parents to “follow his bliss,” he’d never thought much about income. He’d always worked, never at anything, however, he’d devote a life to. He settled between jobs. He knew what he’d like and what, in the meantime, he might do to get by. When the getting by squeezed everything else out, he felt strange relief. Absolved from dreaming, he could live instead.

She might have left him when she took her new post or three months later when she received her first promotion. He took her staying as proof she loved him as he was but also detected her restlessness, the way she seldom sat with him anymore, never simply read or watched something with him.

Before the L reached his stop, he’d vacated his seat for an old man bent by labor or some previous injury into an awkward S. They’d passed a light smile, and he thought momentarily about speaking but recalled how she hated that, her forced laugh when he’d explained his parents’ faith in casual conversation.

One of his friends asked if he knew she’d started seeing someone else. He said, “Yes,” though, of course, he hadn’t. In retrospect, the hints lay everywhere, but he’d thrown himself into work, taking unnecessary shifts and covering co-workers when they or family members became ill. She’d scolded him. He might have noticed how he neglected her.

“And for what?” He almost said the words aloud.

Every time he passed through the revolving door at the station he had to think which way to turn—something in the bars scared him, and those exits always reminded him of factory machines to knead or slice bread. A man in a business suit behind him almost ran over him. He glanced back in mute apology.

On the street, peeking at his phone, he saw the hour had passed. The manager wouldn’t really be angry because he’d been a dutiful employee and a good co-worker, a good boy. Still, involuntarily, his pace quickened.

Their first conversation after she left was to arrange a meeting that never happened. She needed to talk to someone, and he said he had a conflict too. Since then, they’d spoken twice on the phone. The second time, he’d meant to be dignified when she asked how he’d been, but he’d been honest.

“I’m pretty miserable,” he said.

She tried to console him, but nothing she said stuck.

Down the block, he saw the familiar storefront and one of his coworkers cranking the handle to release and extend the awning. That was his job, he thought, and then he heard his own voice, barely audible on the busy street.

“Go home,” it said, “call a locksmith.” And, before another moment passed, he turned and went.

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Thoughts of a Struggling Diarist

photo 1-33Lists of famous diarists run many pages, going on so long you begin to believe anyone who desires merit must keep a diary. I know I’m confusing correlation and causation, but journal writing has been urged upon me so many times, there must be something to it… that so far eludes me.

In my backpack I keep a notebook where I occasionally jot ideas. It includes recommended books and movies, sentences revised and re-revised, odd overheard statements, and strange sights. My attempts at a daily journal, however, typically fail. A few days in, I ask why I’m telling myself what I already know or why it’s vital to describe in tiresome detail events that just occurred and hardly seem worth remembering. Writers laud journals as practice, which certainly makes sense, but my skepticism rears. What kind of practice? My audience, myself, will accept any old thing, and, though he’s unimpressed with the familiar, gets little else. If I perform the way I rehearse—which most people do—journaling won’t create brilliance. Quite the opposite.

I never re-read. Though writing-to-think is a valuable process, my journals meander in the dark, prodded by obligation, trying one direction and another and hoping, half-heartedly, to trip over treasure.

If you’re a journal-er, you’ll say my problem is the author. I do wonder—if I can commit, will I discover how life changes when I record it? Since school ended, I’ve been trying again, scheduling a regular visit to a blank sketchbook filling up with scrawl and doodles. The secret, I tell myself, is to think of this journal as a savings bank where investments in self-examination will grow.

According to Susan Sontag, it’s “Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one’s private, secret thoughts—like a confidante who is deaf, dumb and illiterate.” For her, the journal is not a place to “Express myself more openly than I could to any person,” but a place where, “I create myself.”

“People who keep journals have life twice,” Jessamyn West said, and Anaïs Nin called her diary “My kief, hashish, and opium pipe… my drug and my vice.”

One of my former colleagues kept journals and, during one of his free periods each day, covered exactly one page. I watched, without reading, as he somehow spent thoughts to die out on the last line. He didn’t share his entries with me or anyone and said he had shelves of journals dating back to the sixties that he never, never, never revisited.

His writing was, I’m guessing, a continual reshoring, a levee preserving his sense of himself. Without reading a single entry, I picture him reassuring, encouraging, redesigning. In my imagination, he plans how to be, his range and domain.

But my experience so far tells me I’m romanticizing. My entries are dull, larded with worries about productivity and self-worth… which, it turns out, are often the same thing.

Virginia Woolf said she’d like her journal to:

Resemble some deep old desk, or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking them through. I should like to come back, after a year or two, and find that the collection had sorted itself and refined itself and coalesced, as such deposits so mysteriously do, into a mould, transparent enough to reflect the light of our life, and yet steady, tranquil compounds with the aloofness of a work of art.

I’d like that too. But how do I become Virginia Woolf? How do you ask so much so regularly? How do you battle the relentless, regular tide of personality? How can you try so hard when no one watches or cares?

These mysteries I can only settle over time, I tell myself. Right now, my journal feels like investment, pretty in its script and drawings… but vapid. I have almost no interest in history, being able to say on such and such a day such and such happened, but then what am I interested in, what steady voice emerges?

“The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one,” Joan Didion says, “inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself.”

Maybe my journal writing will only become important as it approaches compulsion, as it embraces no justification beyond blind obsession.

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Big Big Plans

KING LEAR by ShakespeareYesterday I woke with the idea of adapting a one-person version of King Lear for security cameras. I debated whether I had to include the Edgar-Gloucester-Edmund plot, then chose scenes, then determined how to split myself into the daughters, then considered what might be lost without Shakespeare’s actual text and if placards would help or distract. My thoughts ran to ground somewhere between a scheme to stage it all in one place (and thus hope someone in security would piece the event together) or staging it many places (and thus be satisfied with knowing I’d done it).

Idle thoughts have that power—absurd plans occupy me for hours, and I sort through the finest minutia as if I were plotting an invasion of Sicily (which I did plot, last Wednesday afternoon). I begin with “what if” and stay there. The walk to work is long enough to blueprint coming out with a line of shower curtains. On the way to the grocery I conceive a few rudimentary designs for barware no one yet knows they need. Waiting for the bus, I arrange a mental list of illustrated parables I’ll compose for adults. I weigh likely publishers.

And perhaps it’s the influence of a Catholic upbringing, but acknowledging ambition is enough. Once I reach work, or pull the grocery list from my back pocket, or climb on the bus, I’m finished. I’ve as good as done Lear.

It was brilliant, in my mind, mad and hilarious and yet, in some hard-to-define way, said exactly what Shakespeare meant. Finally, someone understands Lear as it’s meant to be understood. That someone is me… in my mind.

Unfortunately, even my semi-serious and serious plans occupy the magical land of Whatif (which is also the location for a fantasy novel I’ve been outlining on the elliptical at the gym). My aspirations come with ready-made mental timelines and freshly self-disciplined routines and inevitably stunning outcomes. They involve, in other words, someone I’m not. Each is more impressive in its initial stages than in its execution. True accomplishment is in follow-through, and follow-through isn’t my specialty.

Some misinformed people may marvel at my productivity. They ask me how I’ve managed so much output, but you have to understand I complete about one-third of what I dream. Scrutinize this blog, for instance, and you’ll discover efforts to sell my art online, resolutions to submit my work for publication, determination to start a podcast, whims of all sorts, and convictions I can make various physical and metaphysical changes in my life. Few come to pass.

The slog of living stamps them out and so does determination’s life-cycle, which begins in possibility and ends in delusion. It’s all just so challenging, especially when conception is easy and execution complicated.

What I need is a staff, some crowd of interns (you don’t think I’d pay people, do you?) waiting at the kitchen table each morning, jotting my fancies down, elbowing each other to impress me with the alacrity of their fruition. They ask what I want, and I say. They ask how, and I say how. They ask, “Will this do?” and I say, “It isn’t quite what I pictured. Keep trying.”

This staff, of course, is another fiction, another visit from desire that barely lasts beyond its expression. Since breakfast, I’ve have seven such dreams. Tomorrow I have more time. Maybe I’ll reach 20.

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To Continue

mouth_speaking_by_naraosga_stockHere’s another odd 20 minute (or so) fiction…

He continued, not with the speech he planned but with a test. He wondered how long his audience might listen. He began conventionally enough—a joke to loosen them up and gain their acceptance, an anecdote familiar and just a touch strange, like food you think fresh that nonetheless gives off a whiff of earthy decay. Most laughed, only a few uncomfortably, their heads tipped too far back, their eyes clenched.

He meant to tender their common humanity, the currency of every soul present, but he also meant to say he wasn’t of them exactly and soon might turn on them. When he began to twist his words, to tighten his syntax into baroque skeins of language, their attention relaxed. He started to confess—tales of indiscretion too complicated to follow and yet too plain not to feel. He unreeled a scroll of shame, and some people looked up from their laps. Some looked down. They crossed their legs. They angled away.

Yet, at three quarters of an hour, most remained. Some, elbows on knees, tilted forward as if the slightest provocation might lift them and send them to the exit.

“I’m apt to cry at odd intervals,” he heard himself say and then made good on the statement, choking as he trudged through halting incoherence. One or two people slipped into the aisle.

“I want to say what I’ve always meant to,” he said, and more faces, pained with civility, glanced back at him. Some offered sympathy, so he directed his stare toward those, curling his lip as if somewhere between cackling and tears.

The small fraction still there couldn’t stay much longer, or, of necessity, they’d remove themselves some other way, listening to internal alternatives, lists of tasks unperformed, conversations revised, fantasies.

Next came a long deconstruction of everything he’d said so far. He doubled back to explain his opening joke as if they’d been too dull to understand and had only laughed not to be left out. He insulted himself by critiquing every loose trap he’d set. He repeated himself nearly exactly, just differently enough to enhance their now mutual agony. He could be quite savage and was quite practiced at it. Were he nice he might have spared them, as—now—when they turned woeful eyes in his direction, begging for mercy.

Never has anyone spoken so long for so little purpose and with so little pleasure. He told them so, but many had gone, sighing to lead the way. The audience thinned to just a few stalwarts and a few curious. A child remained and watched him as if he were a circus act hypnotizing in its mystery. For that child, he felt some warmth and paused between sentences to give him a sliver of a smile.

Someone thought to clap then, someone who must have hoped to force him to conclude. But he shouted over the gathering noise. Their anger followed. Some shouted “Get off!” and others hurled more complicated messages. He blocked them out. He continued.

Almost two hours in, he saw a few sleeping forms and no eyes at all. As they woke and stumbled out, as the auditorium finally emptied entirely, he kept talking, barely listening himself.

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