Tag Archives: Sturm and Drang

Scriptio Inferior

Master-Harold-for-Blog-post-1024x7201.

A college course called “Meaning and Value in Western Thought” was my first exposure to palimpsests, ancient manuscripts washed or scraped to make way for new writing. I don’t remember what specific meaning or value survived well enough for scholars to find it later, but I do remember my professor using the occasion to develop a metaphor that, since then, has become familiar.

The past is a palimpsest and so are we.

2.

Apparently, my grandfather excelled at angry letters. I never knew him, but my father described him sitting at the kitchen table in his underwear, scratching out cutting phrases with a fountain pen and planting the seeds of deadly subtext. My father said he worked and reworked these letters for hours, pausing only long enough to chuckle at his handiwork.

3.

The pre-computer age required much more handwriting, and I enjoyed the negotiation of long-hand. Carets and cross-outs overwhelmed the text. Arrows led to sentences in the margin, and, at the top of the page, I questioned choices, determined to return to them later.

The effort transformed these drafts into holy objects I lacked courage to toss. Even after typing the final composition, I saved them. Some still lurk in my files, their cramped elaborations and digressions winding like varicose veins.

4.

We’re told now to wait before sending sensitive emails. We’re supposed to let them sit, or write them to get our true feelings out. Then, we must delete them. That process should create a more circumspect and neutral message… or a promise “to talk.”

5.

My father, like his father, wrote angry letters, but where my grandfather’s targets were columnists, politicians, and public figures, my father aired gripes about ball-point pens that failed before they expended all the ink in their barrels or coffee filters that weren’t sealed properly and left grounds in his morning cup.

He too delighted in his craft. He also received many unctuous replies and a lot of free shit.

6.

The expense of parchment made of lamb, calf, or goat skin (then known as pergamene) was a big reason palimpsests existed. The page was costly and hard to get, so no surface could be cast off or relegated to an archive. It needed reuse, and reuse required erasure.

Or so they thought. The underwriting or scriptio inferior persisted and could be recovered through various chemical processes—and now ultraviolet light.

What would the authors think? Would it feel like being caught talking to yourself?

7.

I do most of my drafting in my head now, revising and re-revising even as I speak. I mean to say just what I mean and express it just so. Magma-like anger does roil inside me—more than anyone may realize—but the few times it gets out in conversation, it immediately turns to steam amid raining apologies.

Confident people revel in righteous indignation. I ruminate over extenuating factors and my role in every galling slight. I swallow my angry letters.

Or write them to myself.

8.

Once, while I was directing a play in my first teaching job, I had to purchase a hammer before a set construction session. I kept the receipt and filled out a reimbursement complete with—the eighties—three colors and carbon paper between them. I needed the signature of the art department chair, and, hunched over his desk while he was away, affixed a post-it note to the form and scrawled, “I don’t know WHY they don’t trust me, and you have to verify I really bought a hammer, but here…”

My pique passed through every color and the carbons. The next day a smirking note arrived explaining proper procedure.

9.

This weekend, a situation at work required the most consequential form of charged communication. I felt ill-used and thought about retribution. In my imagination, either they would pay or I’d make myself heard, the bile inside voiced. Like colleagues who have real convictions and real gumption.

I wrote several drafts instead.

And—you can tell—I’m confessing nothing about the true subject.

10.

There’s a moment in Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold… and the Boys” I particularly appreciate. Two servants to Apartheid-era Harold have suffered such devastating slights and deliberate stabs from him, ending with Harold spitting in the servant Sam’s face. Sam turns to his co-worker Willie—in Harold’s presence—and asks, “And if he had done it to you, Willie?”

Willie replies, “Me? Spit at me like I was a dog? Ja, then I want to hit him. I want to hit him hard!… But maybe all I do is go cry at the back. He’s little boy, Sam.”

11.

The dissatisfaction of silence hasn’t kept me from tasting it constantly.

12.

In my pretend dialogue with my grandfather I ask if his conscience ever told him to restrain himself and say nothing and, if so—angry letter unsent—did he feel defeated?

I want to ask, “Where do feelings go when they go nowhere at all?

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Nuance-ing

“Nuance” isn’t a verb, though I heard it used as one recently. “We just haven’t nuanced the problem,” she said. My teacher-mind cringed. A second feeling chased the first, however. For the U.S., facing problems with so little thought, maybe we could use more nuancing.

I won’t try to write again about American anti-intellectualism—authors as far back as Alexis de Tocqueville have done so better than I—but I’ll describe five contemporary manifestations of the un-complications that plague us.

1. We’ve come to rely almost exclusively on one-size-fits-all-solutions. With hot-buttons particularly, we seek the simplest remedy. Gun advocates regard “gun control” as a guns-or-no-guns question. Because nuanced issues about abortions—how and when and if in what circumstances—suggest fine distinctions, some say we should ban them entirely.

More insidious is the collateral damage of good intentions. I can be momentarily generous and attribute good intentions to FCC chair Ajit Pai as he decries regulations as that, he says, discourage internet research and development, but ending net-neutrality, his one-size solution, seems a weed killer destined to take the lawn with it.

2. Part of our oversimplification arises from a desire to alleviate symptoms, not causes. Americans have a subject-object problem. They wish to treat opioid addicts without addressing the systemic origins of opioid addiction. They howl over individual instances of racism, sexism, and every other sort of bias but rarely get around to institutional forces proliferating them. The impoverished must solve poverty. If you’re feeling stressed by your circumstances, someone will help you deal with it. Just don’t try to cure its causes.

3. For simplicity’s sake, many Americans reduce groups like opioid addicts, immigrants, Democrats, or Republicans to monochromatic groups. A caravan racing from Guatemala must be bad hombres crashing our gates, and we’d prefer not to believe that those tiki-torch bearers, who appear otherwise conformist, yearn for white supremacy. It’s much too complicated to look closely at any one complicated member, never mind examining what subtle influences initiate and perpetuate socially and politically problematic attitudes.

4. Instead, we focus on individuals as emblems of broader concerns. We wish to believe our dilemmas might vanish if we could just get past the Trump presidency when, actually, Donald Trump may be the side effect of decades—and maybe centuries—of problematic American values. His removal may give hate and bigotry less credibility and a smaller megaphone, but what will happen to hate and bigotry?

And our obsession with emblems works the other way too. A figure like Martin Luther King can supply strict standards to complicated individuals with complicated circumstances. Being like MLK (or more accurately adhering to approved aspects of his thinking) can become a weapon to wield against dissent. Behavior like Trump’s or like King’s is aim or anathema, model or scapegoat. Either way it oversimplifies.

5. We look increasingly to humor or righteousness as a remedy, as if extremity substitutes for deliberation and verdicts or jokes are as worthy as science or rumination. Our laughter or pique is mostly confirmation, a pacifier to troubles we can know—and solve—only through contradiction and courage and disagreement and discussion. Yet it’s easier to assail enemies with oblique blows than to negotiate and/or reconcile.

In the end, you might dismiss my whining. I’m admittedly guilty of sweeping assumptions I rail against and, yes, have no answer myself. Before contradiction disqualifies me, however, let me defend myself. Solutions begin by identifying issues, though they may seem inconvenient or byzantine. We face so many troubles. Can we afford easy answers?

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Screed #468

spin_prod_206227001-1A favorite expression of mine is “When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Naturally, I use it to describe other people, not myself. But lately I’ve changed my mind.

I not only have a hammer, I am one.

On the most fundamental level, we rely on five senses that create as much as describe our world. We regard as immutable the output of the peculiar apparatus we operate, but temperature can’t exist without some variety of thermometer. The sightless, given sight, have no context for the odd and, to them, senseless stimulus they receive. Attributes we see as inherent can’t be divorced from how we perceive them. We would not detect a fourth or fifth dimension either, but that doesn’t mean one doesn’t exist.

Yet, even without the cosmic epiphany that nails are created by hammers, we fit everything we encounter into a system initiated by experience. Your father may have been a good man or a drunk, but, whatever he was, that relationship shapes your feelings about every interaction now and forever. My own father was a quiet man, not given to effusive expressions of feeling. Part of me resists repeating his example and part of me repeats it nonetheless. In either case, he moves me in largely unconscious ways though he’s been dead over twenty years.

Which might also explain the increased polarization of US and international politics. Indulged by the comfort of dwelling in cyber-zones sympathetic to our perspectives, we see our position as rectitude and everyone else’s as ignorance. I want to say the other side is simply wrong, but, more likely, they have their hammers out. No one likes to believe they’re mistaken. Few can accept being mistaken. Fewer still feel mistaken.

Over the years, I’ve come up with so many tragic flaws for humanity—our unbridled ambition broaching no objection, our reluctance to divorce ourselves from the past, our self-interest, our desperate need for approval, our proclivity for vengeance and hate—but all might be subsumed under the tools that make us tools.

It’s hard to imagine organisms not imprisoned by their bodies and minds, but we have no trouble considering humans free of restraint. We alone, we believe, are unlimited. Maybe our curse is the assumption we alone elude biology. Perhaps the problem is our biology—not hand guns, but gun hands. Our hammers are out and nails are everywhere.

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15 Thoughts About Things (1-8)

800px-WLA_vanda_Netsuke_4I’ve written another long lyric essay this week, so I’m posting it in two parts to avoid trying anyone’s attention. Ultimately the second half will land on top of the first half because that’s how blogs lay out. I’m sorry about that, but my excuse is that lyric essays are meant to be rearranged.

1.

In the 1970’s, a game show called “The Pyramid” (in various dollar amounts) asked contestants to label a category by offering items from it. For instance, you might say “hammer, square, tape measure, drill, screwdriver” and I’d guess “Carpenters’ Tools.”

In the big prize round, the categories reached strange dimensions, and the contestant or a celebrity helper would lead his or her partner to guess “Things A Mother Says,” “Things You Do To Escape Prison,” or “Things You Accidentally Leave Behind on Vacation.”

Watching a team climb the pyramid excited me, but the reorganization of reality opened my young brain to see everything as part of categories, simple ones like “Things To Do Before Going to Sleep,” and “Things I Want to Study” but also darker ones—“Things I Wish I Could Forget” and “Things That Lead to Overpowering Feelings of Personal Futility and Worthlessness.”

2.

Thoreau says, “Let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail.” The “Chopping sea of civilized life” he says, requires a “a great calculator” to navigate fully. We can’t trust to any innate sense of direction because, having abandoned it so long ago, we’ve lost it.

Out walking in a city you see so many people engrossed by smart phones, and, on a crowed L car with no seats remaining and most people standing, you find only one or two passengers not using some device.

I think sometimes of all those devises hold. Were they books, tape recorders, short wave radios or primitive mainframes, pedestrians might be dragging overburdened carts behind them, and every L train would sink on its tracks, paralyzed by friction.

3.

Recently I said that, if I could choose a religion, I’d pick Buddhism, and someone laughed. “You know Buddhists are supposed to live in the moment, right? You know they don’t believe in guilt?”

Maybe she’s right, maybe I carry too much to exist immediately.

4.

Being part of “People Who Create Categories” means you live between giant blocks of experience. It’s never just one thing you’re looking at or thinking about. It’s a condition. You can feel squished.

5.

As the utility of memory fades, our searches become more complicated, though easier. Finding the virtual storage site of an individual detail through Google requires knowing how to call it forth, and, having called it, we let it slip back into smoke. In grade school, my teachers advised me to use a dictionary to check the spelling of words, but sometimes I couldn’t spell the word well enough to find it quickly. When I did locate the word, it became another of many similar searches, each difficult to distinguish and remember.

6.

Only feelings persist, a vague sense of familiarity as words move from pile to pile, useful for what they are and where they lay in an ocean of associations.

7.

Having a middle school girlfriend meant gathering conversation in advance. Though I had no literal notecards, I’d have a pocketful if I’d written everything down. She might lose interest, I thought, if I didn’t always know what to say, and so I spent time between meetings mentally rehearsing. All the back of the class witticism, the cafeteria gaffs, the teachers’ lunacy became filed away bits.

And if she said anything outside my store, I would look to others: “Stories About Misidentification,” “Stories About Parents,” “Stories About the Unfair Nature of the World,”

“Stories Explaining the Source and Strength of My Desperation.”

8.

This is that too.

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On Resting

6a00d8341c595453ef010536b12fe0970b-320wiThe frontier between wakefulness and sleep is a demilitarized zone planted with bulbs and landmines. It’s where silly thoughts arise—a casting agency for dreams, methods of organizing sound effects, plans to market masks of people’s younger faces—placed next to all things horrifying. One of three nights, I suffer potential illnesses and accidents followed by unreeling deliberations about how to survive the end of the world.

I either drift into unconsciousness or take a u-turn, embracing gentle senselessness or fighting cold sweats. Sleep has never been easy for me, and sometimes I concentrate on images—one picture leading to another and another—and gingerly celebrate when an arational association suggests utter darkness ahead. When I fail, a shovel swings, and one dire possibility outdoes the last. I dig deeper until I achieve hyper-consciousness, staring up at the still bright sky from a trap I’ve made myself.

Stephen Wright used to joke: “People ask, ‘How did you sleep?’ I answer ‘I made a couple of mistakes’.”

The other night, I started thinking about my son’s spring break road trip and tried to settle all my questions about medical care in faraway states and the various ways to reach him quickly if he needed us. I finally fell asleep when I considered how difficult it might be to travel with penguins.

There is, in all this wavering between worry and fantasy, a larger observation about how we humans operate. The mind has its own agenda and carries us directions we don’t control. Were I an inventor or one of those exceptionally creative types who turn accidents into opportunities, were I sure each random thought offered limitless potential, I might be glad, but mostly I want rest, relief from ambition and aspiration and promise.

A rear-guard reaction comes with every hope—“This will work if…” or “What we need to pay attention to is…” I wish I might put everything aside and live. It’s an unpopular perspective to offer in a society obsessed with what wonderfulness awaits us, but I’m not sure what our “progress” has wrought. Have you ever considered humanity without a fixation on the future? What dreams do plants or other animals have? What rest—offered to every other organism—eludes us? Are we superior or tragic, endowed by our creator with special powers or damned by our minds and our pride in our intelligence and get-up-and-go?

These questions may revisit me tonight. If they do, my only real defense will be slipping past them and into random, spontaneous, and unplanned whimsy. Another moment may bring something new, and, if it’s a splash of the surreal, something visited upon me rather than constructed with my all-powerful, all-anxious human brain, perhaps I’ll delight in it. Perhaps I’ll be. Perhaps I’ll rest, assured a place after all, a role in the world that isn’t running it.

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Respectfully, They Disagree

Eugene_V._Debs,_1907If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. —Henry David Thoreau

Buried deep in the definition of dissent is its legal meaning, “the voicing of a minority opinion.” A court of judges deciding on a legal issue expresses the majority decision and the dissenting opinion. Practically speaking, this dissent is immaterial—it has no bearing on what’s next—but civil society honors dissenters by acknowledging every opinion is important. Silencing any point of view is dangerous because it limits our perspective, and the majority isn’t always right (or is only right presently). Besides, any point of view, even a view most people agree upon, ought to face the burden of justification. A society without dissent is like a person without self-consciousness, prone to act thoughtlessly, blind to alternatives.

Explaining the place and importance of dissent is easy, but living with it isn’t. We often regard the person who expresses misgivings as an annoyance, and, even when the situation compels us to listen to these people, we sometimes feel sorry for them or grant them a chance to speak because doing so is harmless. The formality is easy to obey, really listening nearly impossible. We often assign other motives for the dissenter’s thinking, assuming that he or she must be this or that kind of person to think so aberrantly. “They are so out of touch,” we think, or “How sad to be so stuck in your ways” or “My aren’t they defensive.” Going along and getting along are crucial to the smooth operation of institutions and communities, and nothing is so tiresome as a grain of sand or shoe that might stop the wheels and obstruct what’s already underway. Progress can pause but it cannot stop, and we see resisting the inevitable as a foolish waste of time and energy.

However, dissenters don’t always want to convince us or alter our actions. Sometimes they know where they are and assess their chances more accurately than we think. Often they ask only to be heard without dismissal, condemnation, or character assassination. Typically, we the majority have our say and plenty—we like nothing so much as to revel in our solidarity and optimism, a self-assurance that sometimes edges into self-congratulation. At that point, any sensible person, even the foolish dissenter, can see the future clearly and recognize how futile resistance may be. That someone could be quixotic enough to disagree in those circumstances—even when the majority offers little or no sign of changing course—suggests a deep need for expression. And maybe courage.

Does the dissenter hope to dissuade or cast doubt? Of course, the minority wants just what we do, to win the day… although they suspect they won’t receive the same respect, trust, or credence. Anyone who’s shouted anyone down knows that, when dissenters can’t be dismissed, our next best alternative is to engage in arguments designed to demonstrate our rectitude. Potentially, debates exchange ideas freely and benefit both sides, but they’re seldom fair fights. We have several voices for every dissenting one, and the two sides are never truly equals. Freedom of expression is a good thing for us, not always for others. Dissenters must be debated out of existence, their viewpoints discounted, their perspectives erased.

If we could accept disagreement and live by the intellectual ideal of honoring every point of view, we might be a more open-minded and deliberative species, but perhaps it’s human nature—for both the minority and majority—to desire victory. Dissenters may not change anything. Usually they simply have to go along and do the best they can. Yet it’s the worse sort of bullying to neglect a point of view simply because fewer people hold it. That may be the dissenters’ ultimate message: “Please don’t ask me to equivocate or be silent. I have my own thoughts and feelings and, if you must be true to yours, allow me be true to mine… even though it’s clear you and nearly everyone else believes something is wrong with me that I see matters as I do.”

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With or Without Us

tumblr_lrpd8sGBYy1qll8yzo1_500Nature is trying very hard to make us succeed, but nature does not depend on us. We are not the only experiment. –Buckminster Fuller

Living in Chicago, I see few creatures other than humans. Plenty of dogs walk their masters, and lurking window cats probably spy me leaving my building. I see a few rats and countless pigeons surviving on Chicagoans’ waste. Near the L down the street, a solitary bunny hops about, but none of them count as wildlife. In a city you begin to believe only humans matter. Little here isn’t from us, about us, and beneath us. We might as well occupy the planet alone.

We don’t, of course. If you watched Life After People on the History Channel or read The World Without Us, you know unpainted bridges rust, roads will grow grass, and tendrils pull even glass buildings down. Nature can reabsorb us, and, occasionally, I derive consolation from knowing human works aren’t permanent. Our effects have limits, so we needn’t take ourselves so seriously. We can’t destroy nature, only our ability to survive in it.

George Carlin used to laugh at overestimating our importance so stupidly. “When the planet is finished with us,” he sneered, “it will shake us off like so many fleas.” We may face the same options confronting every animal soiling its own nest—adapt or die.

Yet seeing human civilization in proper proportion doesn’t spare me worry. Like any organism, I’m hard-wired to desire survival, and, while I wish I could be as blissfully ignorant as some pundits, I know 2012 was the hottest year ever recorded in the US by far, that parts of the country are in the midst of year-long droughts, and that Chicago is on its 330-somethingth day without more than an inch of snow. Meanwhile, the other side of the globe freezes and freak storms rip spaces between. Account for climate figures as natural variations if you like, but, to do so successfully, you have to be the worst sort of groundhog, assuring your safety by never looking outside.

I worry that, despite knowing the causes for global climate change, we have no brakes powerful enough to stop them. What we call progress is mostly consumption, comfort, and carelessness. We express smiling optimism we will get ourselves together when we need to. We place faith in science. It will save us from our errors, we say, just wait and see.

Sometimes science seems to create new dilemmas as fast as new solutions, however. And, though we like to see our age as more enlightened because it’s no longer beholden to blind religiosity or foolish superstition, we’ve also lost much of our belief in anything bigger than ourselves. We’ve never been more self-absorbed. When did self-interest become the best standard for our choices? Is humanity—by nature—capable of sacrifice? Can we give up our own ease to ease a stranger? Do strangers, not being us, truly matter?

My culminating lecture when I studied non-fiction in MFA school was called “Going to Hell in a Hefty,” and it concerned jeremiads, specifically the perverse appeal of writing that embraces readers’ worst cynicism, doubt, and pessimism. Looking back, however, I never truly took jeremiads seriously and instead regarded them as an anthropologist might a fascinating culture on the frayed edge of civilization. I liked to think myself unflinching. I could hear the worst news without a hint of alarm, could greet a herald of a coming apocalypse with a hardy, “How interesting!”

I’m trying to take the same perspective now. In idle moments I think about the city greening and the prairie touching the lake. I picture how lovely the world may be again, without us. But, the truth is, I’m failing. I have children, and so an unaccountable ire rises—how, after all our glories, all the art and heroism and discovery and beauty, can such ignorance damn us?

Maybe nature never intended to make us supreme at all.

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