January 31, 2005

Creative Writing: Mystery vs. Mystification

A young friend of mine has started to write poetry. He has a keen visual eye—the poems contain bursts of bright imagery, ten or twelve words at a time—and he seems to feel deeply about what he’s describing, but I can’t tell what he’s describing unless he says so in a note. “I like this imagery of silvery water and red lightning, but what does it actually refer to?” “Oh, that’s about the time when I was a kid and my younger brother got hit by a car.” Aha, that clears it up. Knowing what it’s about not only brings the images into better focus, but makes the poem more moving.

Many poets today seem to think that suppressing the narrative is a sophisticated move, making for an effect of mystery.

In American Lit nowadays, if you can create an air of transcendence, of awareness of another realm, it brings in extra critical points. The problem is, many writers do it through mere technical sleight of hand, by withholding information from the reader. This creates a sense of puzzlement as we’re reading, and when the story is cleared up, we shrug contentedly enough and say, “Okay, so that’s what it was all about.” But the facts the author withheld could just as easily have been given to us at the beginning. If so, where would the story have gone? The author wouldn’t have known where to take it because he didn’t actually have what his evasiveness implied he had: a vision going beyond the literal.

The word mystery has many meanings and I’m concerned with two of them here: 1) a profound truth beyond the reach of human reason; and 2) facts that are concealed from some people for a time.

When a writer or poet makes me feel that I am on the brink of contact with an inexpressible truth, that is what I call mystery in literature. When a writer makes me feel that he is withholding basic narrative facts as a substitute for unveiling truths, I call that fake mystery, or mystification.

Genuine mystery can only be achieved when the facts are laid bare. Only when the reader comprehends what is happening on the literal level can the possibility be raised for exploration of a higher level.

This, by the way, is why the mystery novel genre can rarely reach the height of art, even though it’s a lot of fun and often better–written than the “literary” novel. In a mystery novel the whole point is to prolong the reader’s mystification until the end, at which time the literal facts are revealed but nothing else is left.

Something that can also be done, on the technical level, is to leave out most of the detail but provide just enough grounding for the reader to feel the sensation—perhaps illusory, perhaps not—of a wide landscape opening up, waiting to be explored. I can write a 500–word story telling you just enough for you to imagine the areas of the picture I have not filled in. I can make you feel that even though I have only given you a glimpse, it is a glimpse of complex people who have full lives somewhere else.

On a higher level, though, a great writer can show all the facts in a blinding light and because of this, make you feel that you and the characters are stepping together onto a raised platform above the level of ordinary human living. In OEDIPUS AT COLONUS there are no literal facts left to be revealed. The whole mystery—in the mystery novel sense—was solved in OEDIPUS REX. In the sequel, there is just the immense, awe–inspiring mystery of how Oedipus in old age achieves blessedness and peace—and of how the ninety–year–old Sophocles knows how to write it.

January 30, 2005

The Humility Bowl

We got in as a wild card so that makes us the favorites. Our quarterback never passes and never runs—he just eats the ball every play. This confounds the opposition and earns us lots of points.

The opposition quarterback prostrates himself on the turf in front of me. “Master!” he says.

“You win!” I cry. Which is so humble of me, I win.

Now the touchy question: Am I going to accept the trophy?

Of course not. I give it to my stalwart opponent. “I will add this to my shelf of Humility Bowl trophies,” he says. A bad move!

“My trophy shelf is bare,” I cleverly murmur.

“Then you must have this one,” he says, trying to recover gracefully. “I’ll polish it for you.”

“Thank you, but keep it, I don’t deserve it,” I say.

“Another unearned trophy for my shelf, generously bestowed by my betters. Looking at them reminds me of how far I still have to go. I am still so pitifully attached to these miserable tokens of gain.”

“To be humble enough to admit you want the trophy—surely this brings you the victory.”

“No,” he says, bowing his head. “Winning a mere game is nothing. You are the true winner here.”

My next little move puts him in checkmate: “I humbly accept your gracious concession.”

The trophy is mine!

January 28, 2005

Modern Types, Part 4

“Well–Behaved Women Rarely Make History,” says her bumper sticker.

Putting it on her car is the boldest gesture she’s made since she was married.

She never leaves the office before 5:30, and before she rents a movie she phones her husband from the store to get his consent.

Modern Types, Part 3

He thinks his therapist, his realtor, and his personal trainer are his friends. He thinks his lawyer is his father. And he thinks his full–body masseuse may be falling in love with him.

Modern Types, Part 2

His title is Associate Administrator for Awards and Titles. His job is to think of new awards to give and titles to confer.

Last year he was nominated for “Best Concept for an Awards Ceremony, Industrial Division, Non–Televised.” Afterward, he gave out lots of his cards at the party for the winner.

He likes his job, but the meetings take forever because the people in the other departments have so little to do.

Sometimes when he looks out his office window, he forgets the name of the city he’s in.

What he really wants, he decides, what could really help, is a new title.

Modern Types, Part 1

She is too shy and insecure to do anything that might not materially advance her career.

January 27, 2005

Train Wrecks

When he made superficial cuts on his wrists and chest, that was a gesture.

When he parked his vehicle on the tracks and then fled because he lost his nerve, that was a gesture.

When a train smashed into his vehicle and killed at least 11, injuring almost 200, that was a reality.

He didn't understand until it was too late, because he lived in a culture that valued gesture above reality.

Meanwhile in Iraq…

The Unpeopled Graveyard

There’s a big graveyard not from the center of town with only a few graves in it. Four or five over by the shaded fence, and another two under a tree, though not too close to each other. This is the burying ground for those who have died while residing at the state hospital.

A man likes to go there and draw. He likes the light at sunset, and sometimes he watches a woman who comes in and illegally unleashes her big black dog.

He lives in fear that the state will sell the land to some developer for a mall or a housing tract. But he assures himself that the relatives of the deceased would protest and the media would take up the cause.

He himself would not join such a protest.

As the years go by he spends more and more time there. He stays there in all seasons and all times of day, even at night, drawing with a little flashlight that gets strapped around his forehead. The woman with the dog never comes there anymore.

He would like to camp out in the graveyard. He thinks about it often.

His fondest dream is to be buried there. But he knows he never will. He won’t qualify. He will always be on the outside. He is only pretending to belong in this graveyard.

He sits under the tree, near the headstones he knows by heart, and draws the same things he always draws, though perhaps a little differently each time, and looks at the single white cloud over the empty green field, and wonders why he is such a fraud.

January 26, 2005

The Favorite

There was once a man who had five daughters, each as splendid as the next. He loved them all equally and made sure never to say anything to any of them that might show favoritism.

The girls grew up into fine young women, perfect in every way but one: they were jealous of their father’s attention. At various times, each in turn was suspected by the other four of being his favorite. The hard feelings caused by this suspicion estranged the sisters from one another. The father was disappointed, for he had hoped his daughters would always remain great friends.

Then he came up with a plan. When the eldest was visiting him one day, he took her aside and said, “I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told anyone else, and I don’t want you to tell anyone else either. Especially not your sisters.”

When she promised not to divulge the secret, he whispered into her ear, “You are my favorite.”

The heart of the eldest was immediately gladdened, and after returning home, she was more loving with her sisters than she had been for many years.

Then the father invited each of the other daughters in turn to his house, and during each visit he took the young woman aside and said, “I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told anyone else… You are my favorite.”

January 25, 2005

The Sting of No Sting

A man sits crosslegged in a field, motionless, eyes lidded. A bee flies close and begins to study him.

The man thinks, “Yet another flashing of the phenomenal world.”

The bee buzzes around the man’s head. It does a dance to call the other bees.

“What is it, a statue?” dances a pale, hesitant young bee.

“I’ve seen this kind before,” dances the first bee. “They don’t make honey, they don’t build hives, they don’t sip nectar, they don’t dance, they don’t sting—they don’t do anything.”

All the bees fly inquisitively about the man’s head and torso. Bees brush his nostrils, tickle his eyelashes, nuzzle his earlobes. Bees tease his hair, bounce off his beard. “I am not attached to phenomena,” the man thinks.

“See what I mean?” the first bee dances. “Somebody sting it. Come on, who’s bee enough to sting it? You!” She gestures at the pale, hesitant young bee.

“Me? But ma’am—I mean, if I sting, I’ll—“

“Hey Sarge,” intercedes a more experienced bee. “She’s new, know what I mean? Still wet behind the thorax.”

“Arrgh, new recruits,” the first bee dances in disgust. “All right, everyone, fall out. Play time’s over, we got flowers to suck.”

Excitedly the bees depart in all directions, some darting across his field of vision, some circling around his neck, some landing briefly on his forearm before flying away. “There is no bee, there is no field, there is no one thinking, ‘There is no field,’” the man thinks.

Silence. A small fresh breeze. Sweet yellow grains of pollen drifting to the earth. With infinite slowness the man straightens his legs and rises, knees creaking. He hasn’t stood up for four days. There is a brook where he can wet his lips.

For no apparent reason, as he takes his first step, he begins swatting madly at his arms, his neck, his torso, his beard, his hair, his nostrils, his eyelashes, his earlobes.

January 24, 2005

New Blog: Jeffrey Hull

Many of my readers will recognize the name Jeffrey Hull as the author of poems that are appended to my site as comments. Dr. Hull (he’s a pediatrician) has a blog of his own now and posts his poems there, as well as—I hope!—continuing to read and comment on my stuff. It’s been in operation for just a week or so, and offers new poems as well as some that previously appeared here. All his poems are rhymed and metered and display a high level of craft, intellect, and wit. His site is primarily a personal journal for his family and friends, but he welcomes sympathetic new readers as well. Pay him a visit! I will be doing so regularly.

January 23, 2005

The Humility Championship

I enjoyed browsingThe Anchoress' interesting Christian site the other day (led there, as so often, by Dilys at Good and Happy), but at first I was put off by her description of herself as “Not meant to be famous. Not meant to be rich. Just meant to be a little voice of reason or rage.”

My cynicism went on orange alert. “What? She’s announcing to thousands of readers how modest and un-self-seeking she is? Isn’t that a bit of a contradiction? Isn’t she just acting the humble woman of God in order to win His approval, and maybe get a reputation as a holy person down here as well?”

You know that line of thought.

Thankfully I reined it in. I can do that by now. Who am I to doubt someone else’s sincerity, someone else’s humility, when I myself have tried for so long to move toward those goals? If she’s gone farther than I have, must I try to drag her backward to where I am? Shall I judge the rest of the world by my failings? And suppose her motives aren’t that much purer than mine: can’t I praise her for an imperfect progress toward the good, rather than scoring her for hypocrisy? Even if she were precisely as self–regarding as I am (and as I assume everyone else to be), why not accept her statement as a model to aspire to, just as we welcome the humane ideals of a novelist or philosopher who doesn’t always live up to those ideals? Even from my own selfish standpoint, wouldn’t I gain from learning to take a fellow human being at her own self–assessment, not doubting, not poking for flaws? And in any case, can’t I assume that she has faced all these issues long before I thought of raising them?

This, my mental writhing, as I struggle to accept the fact that someone I don’t even know has something I don’t have.

Someday I would like to be worthy of the Anchoress’ humility. In fact, someday I aim to win the humility championship. I intend to become the humility king.

January 22, 2005

My Heavens

Today my heavens began in a tipi on the grounds of a gardening center. I’d seen so many tipis in movies and TV shows and photographs and paintings, but in all those years this was the first time I’d ever set foot in one. It felt like being in a cathedral, looking up at that high vaulted cone with its ribs of thirty–foot, arm–thick, seasoned hardwood poles roped at the apex. A stained–glass window of blue sky gleamed through the smokehole onto the shaded floor. It was twenty–first century and sanitized, the brown sand floor raked clean and no charred bone or gristle in the ash in the fire circle, but I could feel how it would have been. I could smell the herd pawing the grass miles away—I could smell them on the prairie wind, not here in Texas but up in Montana, Wyoming—I could hear the chanting and the stomping around the flames in the dark after the hunt. I could tell what it would be like sitting in here with your family on a chilly night, chewing fire–cooked buffalo, telling stories, laughing when the kids fell in the ashes. This was no primitive makeshift, this was a perfect design refined by thousands of years of trial and error, an ideal movable home: the best thing for its place, making the place better.

Then my heaven was a grill terrace on the cliff above Lake Travis, breezy and clear with a cold front moving in and one white sail on the water. Chips and queso and the first–rate salsa you get in even the most mediocre restaurants around here. As the afternoon matured, the wind stiffened and the temperature dropped and a broad flat weave of cloud moved over the lake. You could see the exact boundary between the air masses. You could see weather being made. Driving back, we saw the tinted glass patios of hillside houses reflecting blue–green like aquariums.

Then we drove past a barbecue restaurant we hadn’t been to in a long time: it was in the parking lot of that very restaurant, eight years ago, house–hunting, that we had one of our last really awful fights, the ones that came (we understood much later) amid the stress of transitions. Since then it has hurt every time we’ve driven past that restaurant, but this time it didn’t hurt. We didn’t mention it and we didn’t have to struggle not to mention it. We kept driving past houses we had considered, and were glad we’d bought the one we had. I’d like to go back to that barbecue place sometime. They have the best beef ribs.

January 21, 2005


Althouse confesses this morning that she "adores" the Drudge Report. I might as well fess up: I've got a crush on Maureen Dowd. (It's okay, my wife knows.) I feel this way despite her stereotypically self-pitying January 13 column in which she claims that men don't want powerful, accomplished, brilliant women their own ages. I sure do. I'd be bored out of my mind otherwise. (Younger's fine too, of course, but not necessary.)

Women who don't believe that about men like me lose their chance at men like me.

I thought her December 19 column putting Donald Rumsfeld in an "It's a Wonderful Life" scenario was a flat-out masterpiece.

Champagne: A True Story

We had one bottle of champagne left from our wedding, which was ten years ago. A Washington State sparkling wine, not even a vintage, though a good label. We’d drunk the last case little by little, when something fortunate happened or we just felt capricious, but a few months ago the second to last bottle was flat and watery, undrinkable. This last one, we didn’t know what to do with, except that I didn’t want to throw it out. Why she put it in the refrigerator, I’m not sure, since she insisted she didn’t want to drink it, but last night she announced she was going to pour it down the sink.

“Wait, don’t, maybe we can cook with it,” I said. “At least let me have a sip just to see what it’s turned into.”

So she poured one tall fluted glass—and it foamed to the top like new. “Hey!” The straw color had darkened a little to a pinkish cantaloupe, but it smelled like real champagne. And it tasted as good as ever, the same as ten years ago except a little sweeter, a little richer. I remembered it exactly.

I’m not much of a drinker, but I drank that first glass in big, long–tasting swallows, then filled a second glass, foam overflowing, she and the kids laughing and wondering. I gulped it all through dinner on this no–occasion night, with an entrée of hamburger and potato chips and a dessert of an oatmeal raisin cookie.

January 20, 2005

I’m the Boss in My House and I Have the Wife’s Permission to Say So

That’s a bumper sticker I saw on a pickup truck in Austin today. You could write a dissertation about that bumper sticker: its ambiguities and ironies, its possible contexts and subtexts.

What would the female equivalent be? “Say I’m powerless or else”?

The President

In my lifetime there has only been one whom I thought of without qualification or irony or doubt as “The President.” Maybe I was only a boy, but the whole world was younger then, and he made it younger when he stepped into office. He spoke in sentences, not sound bites, and the sentences became watchwords that echo still. Those who heard the wit and charm of his answers at press conferences cannot listen to the stiff, coached stammerings of his successors with anything but disgust. Now we learn that his great—his only—inaugural speech was much more his own creation than the cynics would have us think.

For a generation it has been fashionable to discover his imperfections. They mean nothing to me. If your dashing, gallant father had been murdered in front of your eyes, would you turn against him on learning that he was a fallible human being? And we would be a saner nation if we understood that it doesn’t matter who the president—or our neighbor—sleeps with.

Don’t believe those who claim that he became a legend only in death. In his lifetime he was more adulated than any movie star. With a single bareheaded appearance he made men’s hats obsolete. He began a lasting craze by mentioning that he had liked an Ian Fleming book. A hit movie was made about him while he was in office, and the actor who played him made no attempt to impersonate his famous accent: it would have been trespassing.

In August, 1963 my family stayed on Cape Cod. One weekend the radio told us that he and his family were on Hyannis Port. Sunday morning we drove across the Cape just on the chance of seeing him leave church, and joined a crowd of thousands of people filling block after block, standing on tiptoe and craning their necks for a sight of thatched brown hair: “Did you see him? I think I saw him!”

If he had lived he would not have solved every problem or responded the best way to every crisis. But because of his death, we will always be able to name the exact moment when our nation turned onto the wrong path.

January 19, 2005

Creative Writing: Yesteryear’s Honor Roll

John O’Hara, James Gould Cozzens, John P. Marquard, Ross Lockridge Jr., Bruce Jay Friedman, A. E. Coppard, James Jones… Gifted men—serious honest craftsmen—their sentences so much like the sentences of those who have lasted—their very names evoke the sound and look of their eras. Yet on rereading we find we had cause not to be interested anymore. What were they lacking, to please so many, so well, so perishably?

Maybe at certain junctures we learn less from thinking about what Tolstoy and Joyce had than about what these others lacked. Not to chase the dazzling archangels who leave footprints pressed into the lawn—but to wrestle the shadows slipping back into the dusk…

Literary Ancestry of this Blog

Yasunari Kawabata’s PALM-OF-THE-HAND STORIES
Kafka’s shorter stories, such as A HUNGER ARTIST and FIRST SORROW
the poems of Jack Gilbert, for style
the poems of C. K. Williams, for substance
Pascal’s PENSEES
Robert Henri’s THE ART SPIRIT
the interchapters in Hemingway’s IN OUR TIME
Stan Mack’s REAL LIFE FUNNIES (comic strip in the VILLAGE VOICE in the 1970s, all dialogue verbatim from life; matchless scene–reporting of that era; a book collection of it, published by Putnam in 1979, is currently #1,951,319 on amazon)
spoken witness at Quaker meetings
Connect–the–dots art. I put in the dots, you connect them.

Interesting Blog: Dancing on Fly Ash

There’s a lot of lousy fiction being put online these days, but there’s bright, vigorous stuff too, written by gifted young (mostly) people indifferent to the demands of the publishing establishment. If we’re lucky, it will turn out to be our equivalent of the indie rock and indie movies of the 1990s: energetic, fresh, uneven, and evidence that the creative animal will unstoppably burrow new tunnels when the old tunnels have collapsed.

An example is the blog called DANCING ON FLY ASH, put out by two twenty-something guys from Saginaw, Michigan named Matt Bell and Josh Maday. Each story on this blog is 100 words or less—a challenging exercise for the writer and a quick bite for the story–hungry reader. The tight word limit doesn’t read like a gimmick: the stories for the most part occupy their confined quarters comfortably, giving sharply elliptical glimpses of lives beset by anguish and longing. Sometimes it’s remarkable how much detail they can fit in without sacrificing readability.

Josh has a ten-part series entitled “Interview with a Dealer in Celebrity Memorabilia” which reminds me of J. G. Ballard (himself an experimenter with very short forms) in its vision of contemporary life as a prefab ruin. His stories often put cultural icons—Mozart, Elvis, Neitzsche, Kierkegaard, Madonna—or sometimes stand-ins who resemble them—through the paces of quirky, ultimately humanistic, fantasies.

Matt’s newest story, “The Anorexics’ Ball,” is a witty and bleak commentary on modern mores. Some of his recent stories, such as “The Potter’s Defense,” and “New American Language?” deal ironically yet sympathetically with the discovery of banality at the end of an arduous search for self-expression. “All the Words Are Lies, All the Songs Are True” is a bittersweet portrait of a has-been rock star.

Two craftsmen putting themselves through a rigorous self–imposed apprenticeship, and we get to watch them grow.

January 18, 2005

Exasperating Drivers

(* = only found outside New York City ** = diagnostic of the “Texas driver”)

They have to swing out to the left before they can make a right turn.*

They never occupy fewer than two parking spaces at a time.**

The four–door pickup truck is parked in the “Compact Cars Only” row.** (*Noncommercial pickups illegal in NYNY.)

The famous middle–American six–second delay before starting up from a green light.* (Time enough to tell oneself, “Oh, the light just turned green. That means I can go.”)

The excessively polite driver who stops at an intersection where he has no stop sign, to yield to someone who does. Never suspecting that there might be drivers behind him.*

She makes an illegal turn that would have totaled your car if you didn’t have the reflexes of a fly—and gives you an “Oops!” grin and a wave as she drives off to her next encounter. (I leave it to your imagination what communication devices, grooming implements, comestibles, reading materials, etc., share the cockpit with her.)

I’ve outmaneuvered Mr. Musclecar all through downtown, but when traffic clears he storms past me—bullying through a red light—to show that he can do 45.

He’s bought the latest high–profile box, but it’s so tall and narrow that it’s obviously going to roll over in the first stiff wind, and when you’re behind him you can’t see anything ahead.

The NASCAR wannabe who not only won’t move into the middle lane to let you onto the freeway, but speeds up alongside the entry lane to block you.**

Bad enough that someone’s going only 60 mph in the left lane of the interstate, but the guy behind him tailgates rather than commit the indiscretion of passing on the right.

Waiting to enter the thoroughfare from a driveway, she looks cautiously this way and that when you’re a hundred yards away—hesitates, doesn’t know if she has time to enter in front of you—tries to remember what she learned at driving school—until, flustered but still slowed by caution, she creeps into your path ten yards in front of you.

Drivers who, when stopped at a long light, never look around at other cars. Can we possibly share the same Linnaean nomenclature?

Instinctively they flock to the longest line at the toolbooth, the traffic light, or the driveup bank window.* That’s okay, they keep the short line short for me.

The Blogs at 4 am

I wake up in the dark, the wife and kids still invisible and inaudible in the predawn gray. I put on a sweatsuit but I'm too lazy to go out to the gym—I'll write something, or at least think about what to write. First I'll check my favorite blogs for inspiration—are any of them up at this hour? Will I be the first to post today? Nothing on Althouse for almost 24 hours—unusual. Nothing on AmbivaBlog or her brother True Ancestor, with whom I'm feeling a steady, growing affinity. Aha, here's something on Good and Happy dated January 18—and my name's the first word in it!

Now I really can't sleep.

January 17, 2005

How Do You Want to be Remembered?

On the banks of the Colorado there’s a bronze statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan overlooking a wide, level park dotted with live oaks and pecans. Stevie wears a big bronze poncho and a flat–topped bronze cowboy hat, and his bronze guitar stands upright by his side, his fingertip touching the tip of its neck. His long shadow, and that of his guitar, is cast in bronze on the marble base, but this Sunday noon there is no sun–cast shadow, just bright radiance on all the world. A woman sits at the edge of the statue and asks into her phone, “Does he have a new girlfriend?” A passerby says, “I wish I had a poncho like that.”

The new path, with its well–planned overlooks and clean green benches, cuts past a disused power plant and a tributary creek littered with cardboard signs and sleeping bags. Concrete blocks and cylinders, obscure in function, rise from the ground, with rusted cut–off cables twisting from them. Along a bicycle railing, half a dozen colorful paintings stand—one of them a painting of this very scene—not bad, though of course not good enough. The artist stands far back under a tree, scowling through dark glasses, as hundreds of pedestrians and bicyclists pass by. How would he act if someone bought one?

By the littered creek, a young man in a tight–fitting knit cap walks back and forth, muttering to himself, sometimes picking up a dry reed or a soggy stick and putting it down in a new place. When we approach, he turns his back and steps into the shadow of the exit staircase, staring angrily at its concrete wall.

A couple in sweatsuits are stretching their limbs at the bicycle rail: the man, finishing, slaps the woman on the buttocks to hurry her, and she grins and keeps on stretching in the endless daylight. It’s a day when everything seems alive—windows, bicycles, ripples of water, how can they not be alive with all this sun on them? A country singer on a passing radio rocks out: “We’re happy doin’ what we’re doin’/ We’re happy ‘cause we’re doin’ it right.” The anonymous session guitarist rips out a solo, tangy as barbecue sauce, furious with joy, note rising after note toward the shining blue sky, rising and rising and rising. When the notes enter it, the transparent blue turns solid as a monument, and for exactly long enough the solo lasts forever.

January 16, 2005

Viewing Log: Andy Goldsworthy

British sculptor, born 1956, living in rural Scotland. Goldsworthy creates ephemeral art from the materials of nature, set in the landscapes in which he finds those materials. An arch made of slabs of snow that melt in the sun as the days go on. A large ovoid made of smooth beach stones, placed where the high tide will drown and dismantle it. A circle of patterned leaves stuck with the artist’s saliva to the face of a cliff, where the wind will blow them away.

Goldsworthy is descended from the British and American “land” sculptors of the late 1960s and 1970s, but unlike them he is not urban, edgy, ironic, or cool. He does not apologize for the fact that his work is beautiful. To archive his works, he photographs each one himself, adding a poem–length title that describes the landscape and weather in which the work was made, and the photographs are of slick, coffee–table–book quality rather than the deliberately careless throwaways that used to be popular in his genre. He understands evanescence, and welcomes it as an intrinsic part of his work, but he doesn’t strike a puristic pose about it. Implicitly he salutes the doomed, brave human longing to endure.

Because of that, his work is available in several books and in a 90–minute documentary (now on DVD) that has done very well on the festival circuit. It’s called RIVERS AND TIDES and it shows Goldsworthy making his art, seeking his materials, deciding how to work with them (sewing leaves into a line by using their stems as thread; using his hands to melt ice blocks which he then refreezes in the cold air), and sometimes failing (piles of sticks or stones that he has spent hours carefully balancing may suddenly fall, or on a difficult patch of ground he may tumble into his own construction). With what loving patience he builds things he knows can’t last!

What I’ve learned from him, aside from the acceptance of ephemerality: he tries to make something every day, however small, and he knows that in most months, only a few of his efforts will work out.

An exhibit of Goldsworthy’s work, including the video RIVERS AND TIDES, is at theAustin Museum of Art till Feb, 20.

Mr. Impatient

If his overnight package doesn’t arrive by 10:15, he starts to pace.

If his web browser takes a few extra seconds, he bites his nails.

If the check he’s expecting is a couple of days late, he’s on the phone nagging clerks.

And as for that cemetery plot he bought himself…

January 15, 2005

To Blink or not to Blink

I don’t need to read the whole book BLINK, the bestseller by NEW YORKER writer Malcolm Gladwell—a quick flip through it convinces me not to waste the time. The author’s contention is that many important decisions could be made much more quickly and just as effectively by discarding most variables as unimportant. He cites as evidence a study finding that college students exposed to a professor’s teaching for only a few minutes gave evaluations similar to those given by the professor’s own classes after a semester.

To anyone who knows college students, this is laughable. More realistic to turn the conclusion around: after a whole semester, students were unable to give a more well–considered evaluation than if they’d heard the professor teach for only a few minutes.

We all know the brilliant, committed, scholarly professor who gets low teaching evaluations because he isn’t a standup comedian, doesn’t stroke or spoonfeed in order to boost his annual raise, and expects his students to read and think about difficult material. A recurring experience for such professors is having a former student return years later and say, “I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but you taught me more than anyone else.”

Apparently, the key to success in these pre–deluge years is going to be the ability to make ever–snappier snap judgments. Go to war or not? No problem, the fix was in before any of the evidence was gathered. Undo seventy years of lawmaking that makes most Americans’ lives less of a desperate struggle? We’re getting right to it! Destroy vast tracts of irreplaceable wilderness in order to feed our money addiction? Sure, who needs them, they’re not worth anything!

In a culture where sustained attention is obsolete, where the workforce has an almost 50% annual turnover rate, where the president doesn’t do nuance and subtlety is for losers, BLINK provides the perfect justification for those who feel most fulfilled when creating messes for later arrivals to clean up. Its cultural origin—not that anyone cares—is the Old West motto, “Shoot first, ask questions later.”

A more sensible view, it seems to me, is that "Only bad things happen quickly." That's one of thirty "true things you need to know" proposed by psychologist Gordon Livingston in his new book TOO SOON OLD, TOO LATE SMART. The "only" is hyperbole, of course, but the underlying truth is one that endures, and has endured, and will endure, after the fad for snap judgments has blinked itself out. And it’s authentic conservatism, not the reactionary madness that has misappropriated that honorable word.

You can browse these books, and lots of other stuff I mention in this blog, by clicking the amazon search button on my sidebar. (Including my own books, by the way.)

Thanks to G as in Good H as in Happy for the (b)links.

January 14, 2005

The Man Who Praised

There was once a boy who did not know how to praise—had never been taught it. The people who raised him thought that cursing and complaining, envy and insult, were the smart way, and when they heard praise they thought it was stupidity, or a trick played by the cunning on the naïve. The boy grew up thinking this was normal. But then he went to live in a different place, and he heard people praising, and he wondered, "Where is the cursing, the complaining, the envy, the insult?" He missed it. Yet this new thing was good.

He tried to praise but he didn't know how. It sounded wrong whenever he tried it. Those around him praised him for trying, but he didn't trust what they said. It made him mad, and he decided that rather than join the praisers, he would introduce cursing and complaining, envy and insult among them.

But when he tried it, no one responded, and he found himself alone.

So he grudgingly joined them, resigned to doing his inadequate best. Slowly he practiced praising, and after many years he felt he had almost got to the point where he was doing a good imitation of the praisers around him. They, at least, seemed to be fooled—which made him wonder whether they were all fooling each other. He told himself to get rid of that thought, to accept that they were sincerely praising. And in doing so, he began to feel for the first time that he too was almost ready to begin to really praise. And it caught him by surprise, once he made this first admission, how fast everything followed and helter–skelter he was doing what he had never expected to do.

He went around praising all day, praising everything, and it felt like the first good and right thing he had ever known. I'll never feel the old way again, he thought. I'll never curse and complain, envy and insult.

But the very mention of cursing and complaining, of envying and insulting, worked on him, made him remember the bitter past, and he felt the raging honesty of his youth fill him again, the lonely strength in knowing the worst. Tears flowed from his eyes; hot anger reddened his cheeks; howls burst from his lungs; a deadening chill froze his limbs.

This is real, he told himself. The other was a fake, I never really learned how to praise, I couldn't from the start. And he couldn't face the praisers anymore. He hid in a hole and listened to them praising outside as he shriveled into the darkness.

Good for you, he told himself, for not falling for that praise scam.

And it sounded weirdly familiar to him, like a bird calling through prison bars. The sound of himself praising.

He tried it again: Good for you, good for me.

A pleasing song.

Was it anything like the praising outside? He listened. It was. He couldn't deny it. Was this wrong, this wanting to praise? Could he be punished for it?

There he was in his dark hole and he wanted to praise something, so what could he do? He praised the dark hole. He praised the mistake of having entered it.

And he understood that his weeping was only the rains of spring, and his red anger was only the heat of summer, and his howling was only the wind of autumn, and his frozen chill was only winter, and it would all come and go and come again.

He rushed outside, telling everyone about the wonderful dark hole he had found and what he had learned in it. They didn't understand anything about dark holes, but they praised him anyway for coming out of it.

You'll never have to go into that dark hole again, they told him.

No, no, he corrected—and yet even that was praise. I'll go back! Whenever I want, the hole's still there. It's as beautiful as any place.

And he praised all his seasons, and praised the years of curse and complaint, of envy and insult, for they were a privilege that had been given to him and not to other praisers. And from one moment to the next, he never knew when he would curse or complain, envy or insult. He could not lose any of it. It was all praise.

January 13, 2005

Reproachful Trees

Leaning into the lint–white winter sky, the gray branches of thin front–yard trees. They reproach me for not knowing their names. They reproach me for not being able to describe them better. These are trees I didn’t climb in childhood, these are trees my children climb. When I was in the pram, my mother tells me, I used to point up and call out in delight as I passed under light–shot linden leaves. And one of my first words was tree—the sound I made for it was “key.” Inhaling the sap scent of a pine’s weeping trunk, feeling through the hard ridges of maple bark to the wood beneath, still does something nothing else does. Why have I loved trees so much and learned so little about them? If we come back I want to come back as a tree, a big grandfather oak. There were times I spent with my grandfather that I remember as momentous, though nothing much visible was happening. In my snowsuit, I got stuck between two vertical pikes of our apartment building fence and panicked, thinking I’d be stuck forever. He said calmly, “If you got yourself in, you can get yourself out,” and that has been right ever since. Or the time—was I four?—we were tossing a spaldeen in the park and I threw the little pink ball high up in the air, it came straight down to me and I caught it magically on the thumb side of my fist without the slightest wobble. Ever since, I’ve thought of myself as a fielder. When a series of little strokes in his eighties had made him querulous and angry—and more than anything, I’m sure, terrified—he snapped out of it for an instant and asked me, “You mean writing books, stories?” “Yes,” I answered brusquely, ashamed of my hopes, and that was the last conversation we ever had.

January 12, 2005

It's All in the Translation

I've been emailing with AmbivaBlog about the beauty or lack of it of certain words (e.g. "blog"), and mentioned that many of my favorite words are place names, such as Manhattan and Chicago. She rejoined that Chicago means “skunk cabbage.” I always thought it means “wild onions.” Evidently both of those phrases were translated from the same Algonquian word. (Webster’s New World College Dictionary gives “place of the wild onions.”)

BTW, I welcome ambivablog to my blogroll (see sidebar), and another new entry, Butterflies and Wheels, a British philosophy metablog that opposes the “fashionable nonsense” of epistemic relativism, Intelligent Design theory, and other things it considers pseudoscience. The site’s two editors consider themselves leftists but are troubled by the left’s willingness “to subjugate the rational assessment of truth-claims to the demands of a variety of pre-existing political and moral frameworks.” They seek to “defend the left from a trendy segment of itself.” Right on!

Let's Visit Dad

His two college–age sons from his first marriage are flying in, an event that occurs every year or two. At the airport they exchange brisk, friendly handshakes. In the car they discuss the kind of aircraft it was and why the local billboard advertising market is weak. At the ranch his sleek young wife has a simple, exquisite meal waiting. She sits with one hand on her husband’s shoulder, smiling quietly, giving the boys time for themselves. No one in his family has the slightest idea of what she’s all about.

The boys stay three days because Ben Franklin said that fish and visitors stink after that amount of time. Dad shows them his new elk rifle, and they analyze the scope and take some practice in the woods. Warmed up, the boys play fierce tennis on the court while Dad sits watching and officiating. “You still don’t have a net game,” he calls out to one of them. Afterward he asks them what they think accounts for the stark difference in their playing styles. They shrug and mumble identically. Over drinks he gives them the latest word on their investments.

They go to sleep much later than Dad and wake up after most of his morning is gone. The two brothers, who go to school three thousand miles apart, hardly seem to exchange a word during the visit, yet they have insisted on coming at the same time. They wander off separately to make phone calls or spend long periods in the attic or the woods.

Dad and his wife drive the guys back to the airport. The men exchange brisk, friendly handshakes. “Remember what I told you,” Dad says. When they are safely checked in, Dad drives off. He drives fast, then faster, too fast, then slows with a sudden stamping on the brake and has to keep the car from skidding, and turns into the empty parking lot of a defunct furniture store and shuts the engine and looks past the flat fields to the control tower, and names aloud the airline and body type of each plane that rises, his wife’s hand lightly on his shoulder, until—though it’s surely way too early—he spots one that he thinks must be the boys’ plane, and watches it slant upward through a gold–rimmed cloud, and puts his forehead down onto the steering wheel, and grasps the wheel tight as if to stop its shaking, the whole car shaking from within, and sobs, “My babies!”

January 11, 2005

The Strange Young Couple

They pass by on my street every so often, he tall with long hair, she short with short, and he’s always talking. I mean always. He doesn’t pause and she doesn’t interrupt. His head tilts slightly toward her, his long strides measure the breaths of his monologue, he searches his pockets to bring out his important points, his voice soft and urgent. It always sounds as if he’s explaining something to her. She walks placidly by his side, looking ahead, barely nodding. I’ve never checked their fingers for rings, but whether it’s official or not they’re deeply married.

My ingrained reaction is to be indignant on her behalf. How can she stand to listen to him all day? What makes her so passive? Why doesn’t she tell him, “I have something to say, too, you know”?

But after I’ve seen them a few times, it sinks in that things can’t be that simple. She gets as much as he from this, maybe, and who’s the needier one here? Maybe she doesn’t like talking, or is afraid to, and he speaks up for both—maybe it’s his burden. Maybe she’s the controller—without her he’d have no one to talk to—he’s scared she’ll leave and she knows it. Maybe she has hard days and these walks are what she looks forward to, a relaxed, silent amble, her mind wandering freely and his soft, wise voice soothing her from a distance. Maybe she doesn’t care what he says. Or maybe it’s the most important thing in the world and exactly what she wants to hear.

Next time, I’m lucky enough to be walking in the same direction about ten feet behind them. I speed up just enough to eavesdrop, softening my footsteps, focusing my ears. To my surprise, he’s not explicating an engineering problem or launching a conspiracy theory: he’s talking about people, human individuals. Describing this person and that person, physical appearance, interactions with third parties—it would be gossip if she were contributing.

Another half–block, and the next thing dawns on me. There’s something odd about the people he’s describing. They don’t sound completely real. They all have physical eccentricities—a bizarre haircut, a limp, eyes of unmatched colors—and their actions, their motives, are outlined in thick, blatant strokes. This one wants revenge at all costs, that one cares only about his family honor. Comic book characters. Is he just a guy with a satirical bent, or…

Wait, now I think I know what’s going on. These people are characters he’s made up. He’s a student filmmaker or a novelist or graphic novelist or what have you. Maybe it’s a computer game he’s designing, one of those role–playing things. His wife critiques all this scenarios—he wouldn’t dare put an idea into production if she didn’t love it. She doesn’t have to say a word: he’s hanging desperately on the simple yes or no she’ll give him at the end of the walk. He keeps adding more and more to delay his dread of her answer—to plead with her for his characters’ existence.

These imaginary people are this couple’s hope for the future. On top of that, they fill hours and hours when they wouldn’t have known what to talk about. These imaginary beings he soliloquizes about are the reality in their lives.

My steps quicken—we’re coming to a street corner—I have to pass them or else I’ll arouse their suspicion. But I’m hooked: who are those characters, what is that screenplay he’s working on, or that fantasy game? Is there really a chance he’ll make it, or is this a dream like most others? Or is there no product at all—does he just spin these characters out of nothing and return them to nothing—do this young man and woman play a private game no one else will ever join?

Walking to my own destination, I keep thinking about them, wishing I’d heard more. I’ve glimpsed a world and don’t want to leave it. I try to fill in his screenplay characters out of my own invention, but I don’t have enough to hook onto—it’s only the young couple themselves I can imagine.

Breathing and stepping, I bring them into being, imagining the young couple’s home life, what kind of apartment they have, what they’re studying, where they come from, what their future is. What the young man’s characters are for the couple, the couple are for me.

And for whom am I that? And for whom are you that?

January 10, 2005

Love Stories

You rent the newest movie about young love and watch it with your current love. Sitting side by side throughout the movie, both of you remember your own young loves, and the far distant places where they were set. You remember how the air and light felt. It was like always being in a movie. Your facial muscles remember a kind of smile you used to have.

Throughout the rented movie, songs go through your head—not the songs in the movie, but the songs of your own young love, half a decade apart from the songs that are going through your current love’s head. By the end of the movie you are smiling so much in the old way, your current love gives you a strange smile back. You hold hands to keep each other here.

It’s not that you really want to go back to that time. Things are much saner now. What you would really like to do is talk to the young couple in the movie. You follow them through the sunlit, cobbled streets of their movie. Then you follow them through the streets of your own distant past. This is a movie that gets better every time you see it.

In your old movie they are walking down a flight of steps to a city park, beneath an ivied stone arch. You strain to hear what they are saying. Any little thing might tear them apart—a look in the wrong direction, a word that stirs false doubts. You sit at a neighboring table in an outdoor café and wait for a tactful moment to tell them how you once did all these same things. All the mistakes you made, you’ll warn them of, and their eyes will widen and they’ll go on in safety.

If only they could be real, you think, all the air and light around you would be different, and you too would be different.

January 09, 2005

Banished Words for 2005

Lake Superior University has released its annual list of banished words and phrases. Don't let yourself use any of the following (among others):

• blue states/red states ("a good map has more than two colors")

• pockets of resistance ("are we talking about someone not buying a round of drinks or people shooting at each other?")

•the prefix "uber"

• the suffix "izzle" (I'd never heard of this one -- I'll have to ramp up my exposure to popular culture)

• body wash ("also known as soap")

• "all new" in reference to TV episodes

...and of course...

• "blog" and all its forms (I've never liked the word, myself. It's childishly clownish. Almost any word would have been better——lampshade, tomato, anything. But we're stuck with it and in a few years, if it doesn't seem quaint, it'll seem as natural as if it had always existed.)

January 08, 2005

Interesting Blog: Camassia

It's Saturday morning so I'm sitting around discovering blogs. Camassia is a progressive Christian with a strong scientific bent, with thought-provoking posts (and comments) on the theology of nature. Her 1/5/05 post "Born free, but everywhere in chains," touches on the tsunami, prison ministry, C. S. Lewis, social engineering, and free will—all with useful links. Via ambivablog (see previous post).

Can Camassia doubt free will and still be a Christian? And can she at least say a good word about CSL's prose style? I'll keep reading her posts for updates on these and other questions.

New Blog: True Ancestor

The writer of True Ancestoris an observant Jew who is also an ordained lay Zen monk. A couple of his recent posts offer thoughtful religious perspectives on the tsunami, with intriguing links to (mostly) Jewish commentators. A post entitled "Mindfulness and Family Business" muses on what Buddhists call "right livelihood" (he doesn't use that term).

I was led there by Ambivablog, which is always well worth reading.

Austin Notes: The Theme Restaurant, $50 Per Person

It claims to present a Northern Italian dining experience. The setting is a renovated barn with a gas hearth in the middle, and two special reservable tables high up in a loft. The tomato sauce is spicy hot because this is Texas. The traditional Tuscan soup is low–salt, and excessively herbed to make up for that. The veal is not young, it’s almost beef. The ice water is filtered, the water connoisseur at our table tells us impressively. The wine list is unimpeachable and the waiter, a design major, knows the terminology. All the dishes on the four–page bound and laminated menu are named in Italian, but nobody in the kitchen is Italian. The owners went on a whirlwind culinary tour of Italy after they opened the place, to bone up. The crème brulée (or whatever it’s called in Italian) looks and tastes exactly like Jello vanilla pudding. From a private banquet room comes the screeching laughter of Texas college girls and boys celebrating—I guess this is something you could really find in Italy if it were summer break. Only one man in the place is wearing a jacket, and he’s got white hair. Outside, the parking lot is filled with Volvos, Saabs, Lexi, and Cadillac/Lincoln/Mercedes SUVs, and the parking valets are hopping.

Austin Notes: Calling Marie Antoinette

The gourmet supermarket has installed a pair of flour–milling machines. The clear plastic vat is filled with perfect brown grains of wheat—single varietal, of course. You press a button and out of the chute slides a dune of clean white flour you have ground all by yourself.

In an upscale strip mall in a neighborhood of doctors and high–tech entrepreneurs, a store advertises “Rustic Furniture.”

January 07, 2005

Creative Writing: Two Beauties

The beauty of the perfect and the beauty of the flawed.

One is the beauty of the mathematical theorem, the well–designed experiment, the consistent data set. It is the beauty of exemplifying a successful type. A uniform field of corn, a regularly spaced grove of full–crowned trees. This is the beauty of sexual selection and of business: it decides who finds a mate, what books get published and movies made, what companies prosper, what candidates win.

But then there is the beauty of the shriveled, varicolored, worm–eaten ear of corn, the gnarled and twisted tree, the broken statue, the statistical outlier. This is the beauty of variation, mutation, adaptation. The beauty of stubborn survival, and of decay preparing the ground for the new. This is the beauty that lets species and art forms evolve.

Our sense of it makes compassion possible.

Reading Log: Linda Gregg

This poet has a neopagan answer for the problem of suffering: the gods want the honey. They want the hive to be fumigated with burning thyme so that the bees will swarm away in confusion and the honey will be left for the gods’ delight. We are the bees. What is the honey?

See her poem “The Ninth Dawn” in her 1994 book CHOSEN BY THE LION.

Linda Gregg is herself the object of a small cult, along with her ex–husband Jack Gilbert, of whom more in some future posting. Both these poets write terse, stripped–down verse. Everything pared away. Lots of sentence fragments. Gilbert the troubled mentor, Gregg the splendid protégée. Lots of romantic pain on view. They lived for several years on a Greek island, and their marriage collapsed in the most beautiful setting on earth. Now they take each other’s book jacket photos and mention each other in poems about later loves.

January 06, 2005

Reading Log: Thomas Nagel

This NYU philosopher is renowned for summing up complex, life–affecting issues in a readable way, with lucid logic backed up by personal involvement. (One of his memorable presentations of the importance of perspective in matters of life and death is an anecdote about his encounter with a spider in a university urinal.) Reading one of his books, like MORTAL QUESTIONS or THE VIEW FROM NOWHERE, is like taking a course from a teacher whose lessons will come back to you at moments of crisis long after you graduate. Old and ailing questions such as “Who am I?” and “Which is preferable, the good life or the moral life?” revive under his care.

In THE VIEW FROM NOWHERE, which I’m currently reading, he examines the gap between our subjective view of ourselves as supremely important and our presumably more objective (and yet how do we know that?) view of our cosmic insignificance. Rather than reconciling these opposites, he concludes that the disjunction is an insoluble mystery which adds to the richness of our lives. Understanding the dangers of egotism, but resisting the temptation to dismiss individual selfhood as an illusion, he recommends a “nonegocentric engagement with the particular” that sounds very much like a sane practice of meditation. As for the withering away of the ego, he is skeptical about the impulse and the results:

“I cannot speak from experience, but this seems to me a high price to pay for spiritual harmony. The amputation of so much of oneself to secure the unequivocal affirmation of the rest seems a waste of consciousness. I would rather lead an absurd life engaged in the particular than a seamless transcendental life immersed in the universal. Perhaps those who have tried both would laugh inscrutably at this preference. It reflects the belief that the absurdity of human life is not such a bad thing. There are limits to what we should be prepared to do to escape it—apart from the point of view that some of these cures may be more absurd than the disease.”

I read Nagel in order to remember what reason sounds like, and what a life of reason looks like.

What the Buddha's Driving

Are you sure you want to be so enlightened that when a baby-blue Thunderbird with a black convertible top drives by, you won't wish you owned one?

January 05, 2005

The Fall

The old lady falls while reaching for her walker, and where she lands, in the middle of the living room carpet, there’s nothing for her to grasp onto to pull herself up. She crawls to a dining chair but when she tries to hoist herself she pulls the chair down on top of her: after years of sitting inert, her only exercise dragging herself along behind a walker, she no longer has the arm strength or coordination. Scalp and shoulders hurting where the chair has struck, she crawls to an end table and pulls at the telephone cord. The phone falls to the carpet with a jarring series of clangs, allowing her to call the front desk for help.

An aide comes and lifts her up. A nurse comes and looks her over. The old lady tells the story of her fall, but it gets so mixed up with the stories of what she was eating for breakfast and whether she should cancel her podiatrist’s appointment and how her children are all working in other cities, the nurse and the aide can hardly follow it. The nurse gently chides the old lady for not taking long hikes up and down the hallways, for not lifting her one–pound weights up and down every day, but the lady rambles through so many excuses that the two helpers end up just gingerly consoling her and leaving.

“If I ever end up like that, I want you to shoot me,” the aide whispers to the nurse, in the hallway with doors leading to a dozen more old people.

But she knows it isn’t true. She imagines herself thirty years in the future, doddering and frail, living in her memories, overwrought about whether to have tomato juice or prune—tumbling on her way to the toilet, breaking her wrist on the hard tile, in agony dragging herself to the emergency buzzer—helpless in the grip of sour, underpaid people with problems of their own that she’s intruding on—unable to chew properly, unable to eat half the things she used to enjoy—her body emitting embarrassing sounds, scents, substances at all the worst moments—bothering her children, scarcely able to remember her grandchildren—spending years in a slowly thickening fog, watching herself slip back into the mist—thinking aloud to a husband who’s been gone longer than he was here—muscles turning to jelly, nerves to raw rope, brain cells flickering lower and lower—all things blending into a sometimes pleasant waking dream—and she thinks, “That would be better. Better than nothing—and sometimes better than this.” Even the poorest, weakest, dribbling, babbling life, she thinks, the feeblest whine, the flexing of a toe, the last spark in the brain, would be better than eternity.

January 04, 2005

What Scientists Believe

NYT has an entertaining abridgement of this year's annual question asked by the Edge, an online science forum run by literary agent and author John Brockman. The question: "What do you believe even though you cannot prove it?" The full response on the Edge site contains 117 replies, 60,000 words total, including replies from Nicholas Humprhey (who wrote the question), Benoit Mandelbroit, Richard Dawkins, Howard Gardner, Mihaly Csikzszentmihalyi, and others of comparable stature.

Some samples:

Roger Schank does not believe that people are capabale of rational decision-making.

Joseph LeDoux believes that animals have emotions and consciousnesss, however different from ours.

Donald Hoffman believes that consciousness is all that exists.

Nicholas Humphrey believes that consciusness is "a conjuring trick."

Alsion Gopnik believes that babies and young children are more conscious than adults.

David Buss believes in true love, though he believes it's very rare.

I don't know which of them to believe.

January 03, 2005


His mom’s girlfriend is getting a sex change. In a few months she will become his mom’s boyfriend. The boy is great about it, he’s cool. You know kids nowadays, they get everything from the media. If they go online to research a second grade science report, they end up who knows where learning who knows what.

He gets along great with his mom’s girlfriend. They’re pals. They watch football games together. They toss the ball around. She teaches him how to use tools. They saw wood. They drill holes in walls and screw in brackets. He listens to her voice get deeper, watches hairs begin to grow on her chin.

He keeps looking at her when she’s not looking. He’s trying to figure out where maleness and femaleness come from, where they’re located. He knows the technical answer, but surely that’s not enough. It’s got to be something more, something surrounding a person, issuing from her head. Maybe there’s a whole bunch of different selves inside your head and you can pick one or another at any time, like picking the candy you want from a wall full of candy jars.

The big day approaches. His mom straightens up the house like mad. Buys new window treatments, gets the upholstery cleaned. Everything is perfect for the convalescent. Every five seconds it’s, “Can I get you anything, honey? Do you need another pillow, honey?” The boy wonders if it’s nice to be treated like that.

When the boyfriend is feeling fit enough, he takes the boy’s mom out to dinner at the fanciest place in town, a place where everyone calls him “Sir.” Italian suit and silk tie for the boyfriend, slinky black dress and pearls for the girlfriend. Corsage at the door like at a prom, the school prom where the boyfriend, as a girl long ago, despaired.

The boy can’t sleep. He stays up impatiently waiting for their return. But when they return he has to pretend he’s asleep, because of the storm around their heads. His mom is weeping. Every half minute a thunderclap bursts from her mouth. Each time, the boyfriend replies with something acquiescent and sorry. Then the boy’s mom rushes around the house shutting off all the lights, and comes into the boy’s room for such a quick kiss he’d rather believe he dreamed it. Then everything goes silent.

Everything seems normal in the morning, but a couple of days later the boyfriend stops his hammer swing in the midst of hitting a nail and turns to the boy. “Did your mom tell you I’m going to be moving to a place of my own?”

The boy can’t say anything for a while. Then all he can say is a small, “No.”

“I love your mom. It’s just that a man needs to be on his own, you know?” The man tousles the boy’s hair. “We’ll still be pals. I’ll take you to a football game sometime.”

The boy tries nodding.

Soon there’s more room in the house. The boy’s mom says she’s thinking of advertising for a roommate to help pay the mortgage.

The boy sits in his room playing with decks of fantasy game cards. He wishes he could help his mom pay the mortgage but he just can’t think how.

Going for a bathroom break, he stops at the sight of himself in the mirror. He cocks his hip and flips his wrist, wiggling coquettishly, and gives himself a sultry come–on wink. But the attempt is a sour disappointment, it doesn’t feel like him at all.

Then he opens a drawer and takes out his mom’s razor, the one she shaves her legs with. He opens the tap and wets his scalp with his hand. Carefully he separates the strands of hair on the top of his head, and draws the razor blade down the length of the part. In there, that’s where all the selves are. He needs to give them more room, he needs to let them out. He makes a second swipe with the razor, and a third, and pulls at the skin to make more space. But it doesn’t work.

January 02, 2005

Fresh Starts: Fiction and Non

1. The aging rock musician gets a liver transplant. His first thought upon recovery: “Now I can get high with a clean slate.”

2. I’m beginning the new year in an optimistic frame of mind. I’m as contented with my life as it’s healthy to be. I’m looking forward, not backward.

3a. Of paragraphs 1 and 2, one is fiction and one is nonfiction and I know which.

3b. I don’t know whether 3a is fiction or nonfiction.

January 01, 2005

The First Broken Resolution

On New Year’s Eve he resolves, “I’m not going to stay up till midnight this year. I’ve seen enough of them in my time. An assault of cacophony, a futile denial of mortality.”

After a heavy and wine–filled dinner, he stretches out in bed at ten o’clock and begins to snooze.

Sure enough, his inner clock wakes him an hour and a half later. He shuffles into the TV room, rubbing his eyes. Everyone’s gathered there. They’re laughing at a TV comedian, the kids are wrestling on the carpet, the grownups are shouting merrily above the kids’ noise. He stays to watch the ball drop. He takes a sip of champagne and then, what the hell, downs the whole glass. Goes back to bed at one.

He wakes up the next morning parched and headachy, bedsheets sweaty from bad dreams, and he’s grumpy and disappointed with himself all day.

New Things

A couple of months ago life seemed stale. It felt as if I’d done the main things I’d set out to do—sometimes successfully, sometimes not, but I’d tried them and seen them through. No new vistas had opened to me for a long time, and some had closed down. I dreaded that the remainder of life might turn out to be a long holding action.

Since then, I’ve started working in a new medium, have had successful treatment for a nagging health complaint, and—most unexpectedly of all—got my first cell phone. (I’d planned to be the last person in America to do so.) Everything feels like it’s starting anew, with more energy than I’ve had for a long time.

“At the extreme of yin, yang is ready to emerge.”