Monday, December 31, 2018

The Usual Glamour

Dressed as the Tin Man, handing out party favors at a casino on Dec. 31st, I assumed things wouldn't worsen. Then they confiscated my plastic ax. 

I was working a Professional Actor -- barely deserving of the capital-P or A.

I've oft conjured odd job experiences here on Essay Daily-- on many a New Year's (and ChristmasEve. It's like a holiday tradition (minus any majesty).

But I've never narrated the most humiliating.


What's the definition of arrogance in your early twenties?

"I'll support my writing with my acting!" I thought.

I'd dropped out of a top-notch acting program because I knew, finally, that I was to be a Genius Writer – still, I was practical. In the unlikely event that it took a while for said genius to pay dividends, the solution was simple:

I'll sully my artistic soul with endless dollars starring in TV commercials!

Attempting to support your writing with acting is like -- what? Propping up your juggling career with your slam poetry? Street miming to finance your podcast?

But I was determined. I saved up for headshots, then sent them to Agencies; readied my monologues. A few places called back -- and one hired me.


"Hi, hey, hello."

This is how the usual audition would go.

A cavernous warehouse downtown, ready for a post-apocalyptic photoshoot -- or conversion to luxury lofts. Bland-cool: whitewashed brick and high metal rafters. 

Your mission: Find a loading dock elevator, to find a floor, to find a room, where a man behind a desk asks:

"Who are you?" Hand him your headshot and wait in stylish chairs with other talky types, now quiet with concentration -- but a few can't help themselves. As they run their lines, they ask, "Who you with? They're good, right? God, that Delta audition, did you hear about who got...? Cool, cool..." 

Then the Casting Director emerges, calls your name, and ushers you into the sanctum sanctorum: An inner room filled with six men (maybe a few women) ensconced behind a conference table – watching with a tripod and a camera's eye, recording all. Pinning you to the wall.


"Can you take your shirt off?" one of the men asks.

"And put a stick in your mouth," another adds, "and swim around the floor?"

So, shirtless, I put a stick in my mouth and 'swim' around the room; I carpet-burn my stomach -- my chest hair embedding in the nap via my ground-bound breaststroke.

"He should— should he try a back stroke?" one man asks another.


Keeping the stick between my teeth, I roll over to try the backstroke.

"That's great," one man says. "Thanks. Thank you." I don my shirt and leave the room.

This was a real audition (and it wasn’t even the most absurd I attended); this was just the audition right before the casino gig on New Year's Eve. We were vying for a spot with the Minnesota State Lottery: A man paddles about with beavers, humorously showing how the lottery supports wildlife. 

The casting director was right -- that man was a better beaver.

Still, it's hard to not question one's life choices walking out of that room. I'd spent my Monday morning half-nude and supine, biting a wooden branch. 

Grabbing my jacket as I left the waiting room, another actor asked, "What's it like in there?"

"You know," I replied. "The usual glamour." He nodded.


That's how it was -- not just for callow kinds like me, but real artists, too.

Robert was the best actor I'd ever seen in person – but he’d show up at the same shitty auditions as myself. So we’d chat.

Robert owned endless, low-level IMDB credits -- but his theatrical exploits? They deserve endless acclaim he'll never know. I saw him perfectly embody Artie in House of Blue Leaves and Didi in Waiting for Godot; Beringer in Rhinoceros and "Robert" in A Life in the Theater.

Yep, Robert actually portrayed "Robert"--  an old actor portraying a guy in a play about an old actor. But there was one difference: in the play's script, Robert lost his job to a young up-and-comer.

In the real world, Robert’s rival wasn’t someone younger; Robert’s rival was something on YouTube, or social media. It was declining theatre audiences. He was one of the best theatrical actors in town but could still barely make ends meet.

The last time I saw him he said, “I’m down to the last five for the big Bing spot!” Bing, that failed search engine. But had Robert landed the commercial, Robert could’ve done all the theatre he wanted for the rest of his days. That spot payed over $200,000 – we heard it finally went some amateur in Houston.

Still, sometimes we hit the lottery.


My auditions were occasionally "successful" – as long as I make sure those quotation marks are big and bold. 

I play that ad for my Composition II students; it's a reward, so they can laugh at me after our unit on the rhetoric of Super Bowl ads.

I'll never know why the director opted for the take where I sexualize "Martha's Vineyard Black Raspberry" – though, of course, that is pretty sexy! I mostly remember the food stylist glaring at me, her ice cream melting beneath hot lights, as I messed up the monologue.

I've never looked that young – even then. My face was shorn and powdered for the shoot. They say the camera adds pounds but in this case it subtracted years. I can't remember that person. 


But who wouldn't want an extra $400 right before the New Year?

"They're sending out groups, there's a Star Wars group,” my agent was saying, "you'll be in the Wizard of Oz group…"

A local casino wanted wandering actors to hand out party favors to gamblers on the casino floor.

These were the wonderful weird gigs that sometimes popped up -- and they paid instantly! It wasn't like waiting for royalties. For example, I'd previously dressed up as a large M&M (the yellow one) for 3M’s company party. "I'm in!" I told my agent.

So, around 5:00 PM on New Year's Eve, a thick slab of silver icing was slathered across my face by Dorothy -- then she slathered a second coat. My face had to be fully covered with thick, metallic-grey paint. Finally, I was ready: my layered face embedding within the head of a 20-pound, highly-professional Tin Man costume. I looked like I was straight out of the movie. I was perfect.

And I was feeling no pain. Dorothy had provided us all (the Scarecrow, Lion, and myself) with many, mini-bottles of Schnapps. We'd conspired ahead of time, knowing this wouldn't be a great gig to do sober.

Casinos have many cameras, even in the empty conference room where we dressed -- but we outsmarted them: hiding and imbibing in the employee bathrooms.


I'd worked with Dorothy on a previous shoots -- our most memorable being one for Total Fitness. Together, we'd pretended to run the last part of a marathon (breaking the ribbon) fourteen different times. Afterward, we had wine. 

"Any liquor there?" she'd texted on her way to the casino.

"Not for us," I replied. "Find something!" She came through.

So: a boozy Lion, Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Dorothy all hit the casino floor, a bit loose and exceptionally enthusiastic.

We bore baskets filled with candy, confetti, noisemakers, blinking buttons -- the customers loved grabbing at the treats, and I felt expansive.

"Can I have a second candy bar?" asked an older woman. She'd just turned away from her slot machine. "No," I said, "you can take three!" She smiled and rummaged around until she found a full-sized Butterfinger – then held it up, triumphant.

"Happy New Year!" I yelled. Everything was lovely, within my happy Schnapp's haze.

But Dorothy was being harassed by odd old men. 

It started slowly but crescendo-ed quickly. Guys side-mouthed comments to her that I couldn't quite hear -- or pretended I couldn't hear. Why make waves? But the gamblers were enthused by her (not really) low-cut gingham dress.

Nearing the night's end, we walked up to a bank of slot machines; we offered noisemakers and Snickers-- but one old man blared back at us:

"Dorothy should sit on my lap!" 

We didn't know the right reply, so he helpfully added, "It's Christmas Eve!"

It wasn't. 


Luckily, Dorothy was surrounded by a cast straight out of a Frank Baum fever dream. Dorothy was protected by the Lion, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man…

But we did nothing.

Then, after a loooong pause, I heroically intervened: Shaking my basket, I said, "Hey man, how 'bout some candy! Happy New Year!" Yes, I'd courageously rewarded his crass comments with an offer of sugar. 

He detached his gaze from Dorothy and turned his drunken head--slowly--like a tank turret, targeting me: "I oughta kick you in the balls," he said.

We all laughed awkwardly and ran off; soon after, security confiscated my ax (“no weapons on the gaming floor,” they said, and I wondered about the other teams’ lightsabers). We clocked out shortly after midnight.


If you want New Year’s Optimism, don’t look to Literature. I researched a lot of it, prior to this post, and most of it's dour. Poets pouring out misgivings, fears, about the New Year (Sylvia Plath's "New Year on Dartmoor" sees her delivering bald truths to her two-year old, portending that the new calendar will be filled mostly with disillusion and "the blind, white, awful, inaccessible slant"; A. E. Housman's "New Year's Eve" hears the holiday's bells "ringing no tune" with their "dead knells"; etc.) . The poets are rarely celebratory on the 31st, it seems, and the prose writers aren't much better (Rosemary meets her baby, the Antichrist, on that date; and both Zadie Smith's White Teeth and Nick Hornby's Long Way Down feature major character intending to off themselves on the portentous day).

I mention this because there's such forced merriment on New Year's Eve -- but if you're feeling a little wary rather than celebratory, you're in good company.

And I mention this because I think some of that dour air pervaded our little foursome as the night wound-down at the bar, post-casino.

In the clean, overly-bright lounge of the Residence Inn, Dorothy held up a toast. We’d decided on shots, for our success. “For the Wizard of Oz,” she said. “And our glamorous lives!” 

We all smiled one of those smiles -- half-fake and half-sincere, unsure which would be the most appropriate for the coming year.

Dave Mondy's essays have been named Notable in Best American Essays 2015 and 2017, Best American Sports Writing 2017, and have appeared in Best Food Writing 2014 and 2015. He has also received multiple Solas Awards for his travel writingHis work can be found in Slate, The Iowa Review, The Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere. He received his MFA in Creative Nonfiction from The University of Arizona, and he's currently working on a book about the true stories and strange truths hidden within famous sports photos.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Dec 25: Alison Hawthorne Deming on Bruno Latour's DOWN TO EARTH


on Bruno Latour’s Down to Earth


Last summer I took a charter flight in a small single engine plane over the waters surrounding Grand Manan Island in the Bay of Fundy, where I live for part of the year. I had been researching the weir-based herring fishery of the region for several years, and the pilot of the charter service had promised he could show me what he called “the rock weirs” off shore. I was dubious, as were many of the knowledgeable fisherpeople on the island. Never heard of them, most of them said, until one said, Yes, they used to be so thick in Cow Passage you could hardly get a boat from White Head up to Flagg Cove. I decided to take the flight and see what I could see from the air.
     Herring weirs built offshore used to be a common sight around the island. As recently as the 1930s there were nearly one hundred of these graceful structures built of tall timbers driven into the sea floor, topped with birch saplings that hold the twine that catches the fish. This was a commercial adaptation of aboriginal fishing methods. It made this small island in the Bay of Fundy the Sardine Capital of the World in the 1800s. But fish are dwindling and deep water seiners can chase the remaining fish out in deeper waters, making weirs a fading art. In recent years there have nine or ten weirs built around the island, and no one feels optimistic that they will again be central to the island’s economy. The tale of loss tolls and tolls. And it makes me wonder what has already been lost in this place that no one remembers.
     From 500 feet up, the shapes do not resolve. At 1,000 feet, as the little plane tilts for a more precise view, suddenly the stones jump into view, a huge circle with a broad mouth from which two long wings stretch out. Then another and another. Then a bar weir. The shapes are beautiful, the craft so refined that these stone remnants of ballasted weirs have stood up to the tides for as long as one hundred years. They are oriented so that when herring come into the channel stemming the tide, as is their nature, the wings guide them into the circle where they are trapped. At low tide, men would bring ox carts into the passage, load them to the brim, and haul the fish off to smokehouses. It was an industry perfectly suited to its time and place. The beauty of the structures—or at least their remains—says that the builders were masterful, artisans of refined skill, who knew something profound in their bones about the relationship between form and function.
     The point of telling this story is to say that sometimes it is necessary to get a bird’s eye view, a view from a particular vantage, in order to see clearly something that should be obvious but has remained obscure. And this leads me to Bruno Latour’s brilliant essay Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regime. I am a partisan of this kind of essay of ideas. While the vogue today is to ground essays in image, scene and story, I’ve had my brain pleasantly rearranged numerous times over the years by essayists who can pick up an idea and hold onto for a hundred pages or so: Emerson, Hannah Arendt, Gaston Bachelard, Octavio Paz come to mind. This is a good moment for good thinking, when the public discourse has become a content-free nonstop argument fueled by outrage and ridicule.
     How are we to think about the enormous challenges civilization faces, a constellation of pressures that Latour summarizes as the trifecta of globalization, migration, and inequity? It seems head-scratchingly impossible to get away from the struggle between Local and Global, Left and Right, Modernity and Traditionalism. All is a contest of opposing forces, when none of the forces are clearly understood or articulated. It is a content-free free-for-all. Meanwhile suffering mounts, the planet degrades, and democracy fails to give confidence in the future. Reading Latour’s hundred-page essay is like taking a flight in a small plane from which one can see the territory laid out clearly below.
     And it is territory, literally, upon which he grounds his argument—territory Earth, the new “theater of operations,” the degradation of which is the wellspring of the flood of conflicts we face. “Migrations, explosions of inequality and the New Climate Regime: these are one and the same threat” (Latour’s emphasis). The Earth seemed stable, a place we occupied, colonizer and colonized alike. But the New Climate Regime makes clear that a new story is writing itself, a co-production of human beings and planet. “But how are we to act if the territory itself,” he writes, “begins to participate in history, to fight back, in short, to concern itself with us—how do we occupy a land if it is this land itself that is occupying us.”
     The Earth is rising up as actor and agent in resistance to our dysfunction. It is not a matter simply of taking care of the Earth, as if it were just one more possession the maintenance of which is our duty. There is not enough planet to support the project of globalization. And yet a return to the local, as the nationalist impulse promises, will not satisfy the drive for the advantages of the modern age. And modernity’s disdain for anyone attached to the land as being backward keeps the polarization rolling. It’s a lose-lose proposition to suggest the future must choose either the Global or the Local. There is a matter of definition here to be considered—and Latour has created a tour de force in defining the terms of engagement that have become so hollow in the argumentative sphere. Globalization should not be exclusionary but rather lead us “to cherish a maximum number of alternative ways to belong to the world.” Globalization cannot be oblivious to climate, which Latour defines as “the relationship between human beings and the material conditions of their lives.” It is insanity to destroy that on which we depend for our subsistence. The polis we inhabit now is not the nation-state nor the ethnic state but the Terrestrial, a territory that is atmospheric and will not be denied. The Earth speaks back with increasing force and violence in reaction to what globalization has done to it.
     What are we to do with these insights? Investigate, interrogate, catalog grievances, redefine “where you would like to land and with whom you agree to share a dwelling place.” I cannot do justice to the essay without noting the Monson-worthy schematic diagrams (vectors and attractors) he uses as his argument unfolds—a template of the flow of ideas and the force that might come from taking the trifecta of critical concerns out of the theater of oppositional vacuity and into a politics that leads toward the Earth. The new task of politics is to bring us down to the reality of being terrestrial. “Saying ‘We are earthbound, we are terrestrials amid terrestrials,’ does not lead to the same politics as saying ‘We are humans in nature.’” Can this idea give meaning and force to political action that has floundered in the face of a crisis in which all forms of belonging are called into question?
     Latour is a French philosopher, sociologist and anthropologist, and framing his arguments through a European gaze is very helpful. His take on the migrant crisis in Europe is bracing. The colonized have returned to haunt the colonizers. Trump’s election—and the ensuing “epistemological delirium that has taken hold of the public stage”—was the catalyst for this book. Latour thanks Trump for placing Earth in center stage by his renunciation of the Paris Climate Accord. Trump has forced the issue with his ignorance, greed and recalcitrant defiance. Is any nation counting on America to bail it out of crisis? Responsibility is diffused now and that may be a good thing, though I don’t want to suggest America is not responsible for bailing herself out from this damaged and reckless ship of state.
     An essay of ideas can be confounding and obtuse. Latour’s is lucid and brisk. He interrogates words and fills them up with new ideas. He deploys metaphor artfully. “When the rug is pulled out from under your feet, you understand at once that you are going to have to be concerned with the floor.” And he asks hard questions without polemics, making the questions feel like invitations rather than indictments. “How can we reassure those who see salvation only in the recollection of a national or ethnic identity, always freshly invented? And, in addition, how can we organize a collective life around the extraordinary challenge of accompanying millions of foreigners in their search for lasting ground?” Latour’s thinking is fueled with urgency, his questioning a means to liberate the mind from calcified polarities. I did not know how starved I was for the nourishment of good ideas until I sat down to this feast.

Alison Hawthorne Deming's most recent books are Stairway to Heaven and Zoologies. She is Regents' Professor at University of Arizona. 

Monday, December 24, 2018

Dec 24, Dave Griffith: Something Uneasy in the Air

“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
      Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

“There is something uneasy in the Los Angeles air this afternoon, some unnatural stillness, some tension,” Joan Didion begins her 1964 essay “Los Angeles Notebook,” one of the twenty essays in her 1968 collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

“What it means,” Didion continues, “is that tonight a Santa Ana will begin to blow, a hot wind from the northeast whining down through the Cajon and San Gorgonio Passes, blowing up sand storms out along Route 66, drying the hills and the nerves to flash point.”

How ridiculous this sentiment sounds fifty years later — “some” unnatural stillness, “some” tension — at a moment when thousands of acres in California lay scorched from two wildfires, the Woolsey Fire, which burned 96,949 acres and 15,000 structures, and the Camp Fire, officially the largest and deadliest fire in state history, which decimated 153,336 acres and nearly 18,000 structures. The death toll is over 90.

Compounding this tension is now nearly two month-long search for motives in the shooting of 12 people at the Borderline in Thousand Oaks, a town that barely missed being consumed by the Woolsey fire. The gunman, an Afghanistan war veteran, opened fire just before midnight on November 7th. Both the Woolsey and Camp fires began in the early hours of the 8th.

The essay, which is a B-side in this collection that famously takes its name from Yeats’ apocalyptic poem “The Second Coming,” filled with hits such as “Goodbye to All That,” seems, at first glance, just a moody vignette, a torn-out page from one of Didion’s notebooks, describing the Santa Ana winds. The dry winds form over the Colorado Plateau then pick up dust and debris in the Great Basin and Mojave Desert before blowing fast and hot down the western slopes of the Transverse Ranges, a three-hundred mile long series of mountain ridges stretching from Santa Barbara in the west to the Mojave in the east.

But like much of Didion’s work it is really a meditation on the strange relationship between the atmospheric extremes of California and the mercurial inner-weather of human beings at a time in American history when, to quote Yeats again, “...the centre cannot hold.”

“In Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” another notable essay in Slouching, in which she profiles a woman who kills her husband by setting fire to his car, with him in it, the Santa Anas again loom:
October is the bad month for the wind, the month when breathing is difficult and the hills blaze up spontaneously. There has been no rain since April. Every voice seems a scream. It is the season of suicide and divorce and prickly dread, wherever the wind blows.
But what does it mean, this correlation between these winds and the feeling of dread and tension in the air? Does the presence of smoke mushrooming over a ridge miles away during your morning commute, or as you tend to the backyard BBQ, exert a psychological pressure, a literary sense of foreboding? Are humans really this fragile, this susceptible to changes in weather, or is it more a cumulative effect?

Didion ends the opening paragraph of “Los Angeles Notebook” with a curious and troubling answer: “To live with the Santa Ana is to accept, consciously or unconsciously, a deeply mechanistic view of human behavior.”

A “mechanistic view” of human behavior is what philosophers call a form of scientific reduction, in which all phenomena can be explained by, or reduced to, physical and chemical facts.

From a mechanistic view, people are no different than the plants John McPhee writes about in his New Yorker article, “Los Angeles Against the Mountains”:
When chamise and other chaparral plants sense the presence of Santa Ana winds, their level of moisture drops, and they become even more flammable than they were before.
From a mechanistic view, depression, anxiety, all of our other emotions, are chemical reactions in the body, as measurable and knowable as the dryness of flammable brush.

Didion’s fascination with a mechanistic view comes to a fine point in her 1,800 word “On Morality,” penned while sitting in a motel room in Death Valley on a day when the temperature has reached 119 degrees:
There is some sinister hysteria in the air out here tonight, some hint of the monstrous perversion to which any human idea can come.
Didion seems to imply that the hysteria isn’t so much in the air, as it is because of the air, as if a Victorian notion of “bad air” is upsetting the balance of our humors.

The idea that ions effect our moods was in vogue in the late 60s. Didion cites research by an Israeli scientist on the role that positive ions carried by the wind play in making people feel unhappy. “No one seems to know exactly why that should be,” she writes, though that doesn’t stop her from asserting the possibility that it is true.

In the late 70s, researchers in the US claimed that an overabundance of positive ions led to serotonin hyperproduction, known to cause irritation, adrenal deficiency, exhaustion, hyperthyroidism, anxiety and sleeplessness. However, violent crime statistics during periods of Santa Ana winds show little to no correlation, and a 2013 meta-analysis of data from 1957 to 2012 found "no consistent influence of positive or negative air ionization on anxiety, mood, relaxation, sleep, and personal comfort measures."

In the closing paragraph of “Los Angeles Notebook” states the obvious before leading us to a revelation:
Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.
If we look at storytelling as a mechanistic tool, it is tempting to become wrapped up in cause and effect: positive ions are driving people crazy; wildfires are the result of climate change; gun control will stop the epidemic of mass shootings. Instead Didion finds the edge, and tries to understand what has brought us, individuals, to that point of desperation.

Through her essays, Didion is attempting to counteract the effects of what Henry A. Giroux in his 2014 book The Violence of Organized Forgetting calls the “new authoritarianism.” Under the new authoritarianism “. . . the relationship between personal troubles and social realities are covered over,” leading to a situation where “very little foundation remains on which we can build connections between facts and wider theoretical frameworks in order to strengthen the public’s awareness of power and its operations.”

The center will not hold, literally, because attempts to make sense of violence, poverty, and other social ills are shouted down--scientific evidence is disregarded as just another opinion. Instability is the goal.

Under such conditions, the connection between the personal trauma of a war veteran, the pervasive cultural belief that violence is an ethical and, increasingly, righteous means of solving problems, plus the near-holiness and talismanic power of firearms is characterized by many on the right as a laughable, when in reality perpetrators of mass shootings regularly cite such beliefs. Violence is a way of making people pay for the personal anguish they are enduring.

Didion’s meditation on the Santa Anas also nails the current cultural division over climate change. The personal tragedies of the nearly 100 people who lost their lives in the recent fires, and the thousands of Californian’s whose homes and communities burned to the ground are characterized by our president as the result of negligent forest management by the Forest Service.

What’s vital about Didion’s work now more than ever is that her antidote to such willfully anti-scientific and anti-intellectual stances is not to explicate the theories but to describe just how unstable reality is. “The center was not holding,” she begins the title essay of Slouching--literally.

What to do in the face of such mayhem and instability?

In Linda Kuehl’s 1978 interview with Didion for the Paris Review, she asks, “You have said that writing is a hostile act; I have always wanted to ask you why."

It's hostile in that you're trying to make somebody see something the way you see it, trying to impose your idea, your picture. It's hostile to try to wrench around someone else's mind that way. Quite often you want to tell somebody your dream, your nightmare. Well, nobody wants to hear about someone else's dream, good or bad; nobody wants to walk around with it. The writer is always tricking the reader into listening to the dream.
Most writers I know resist framing writing in terms of trickery. And yet, to approach a discussion of the causes of violence requires some amount of misdirection. We must move the reader from a position of self-righteousness to one of vulnerability, where we are open to wrestling with our own participation and complicity in the horrors.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Didion famously begins “The White Album.”

What story do we tell ourselves about this moment, as evacuees return to the burned-out husks of their homes and begin to rebuild? As three hundred mass shootings take place in a single year? It’s hard not to think mechanistically. It’s hard not to think that we are plants deprived of air, plants drained of moisture and made brittle, combustible. So how do we find breathing room, soil to thrive in?

Didion’s work provides no easy answers to these questions. She could not have anticipated back in 1968 that in the future the vast majority of us would carry around in our pockets devices that constantly bombard us with tragic news, and hateful speech, and, yes, ions; that we would have a President whose main political tactic is to fill the airwaves with abusive, incoherent ravings that embolden those who proudly occupy the edges and threaten those on the margins.

When I think of answers, of solutions, I think of my children, 12 and 8, and how they are the inheritors of these conditions. I think about how anxious they are when they hear of another mass shooting on the radio; how my son asked me “Dad, are the bad guys coming here? Will they come here?” I think of how scared my daughter gets when the sky goes dark and the wind picks up because once, years ago, a windstorm toppled huge trees onto our house. I think of how powerless I am--we all are--in face of these forces, mechanisms that have been wound up and now set loose.

I think of Didion’s meeting with Jeff and Debbie, 15 and 16 year old runaways, in Golden Gate Park, which she describes in a brief scene in “Slouching Toward Bethlehem.” They had come to the Haight to find jobs and a place to live. Didion buys them hamburgers and Cokes and interviews them. They complain about being made to go to Church and do chores. Debbie complains that her mother made her wear skirts that were longer than any of her other 7th grade classmates. Jeff complains that he had to iron his shirts or be grounded from going out on the weekend, and that he was hassled for wearing his hair too long. All pretty standard. And yet something in the air, something in that moment in history, made running away seem reasonable.

Didion is deeply troubled by what she sees. “...[w]e had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we happened to be playing,” she writes. “Maybe we had stopped believing in the rules ourselves, maybe we were having a failure of nerve about the game. Maybe there were just too few people around to do the telling.”

What are these rules? Who made them? What is this game? What forces are pressing on these young people? What can be done to help them?

Perhaps what she means is that we have neglected to take seriously just how susceptible we are to the Golden Dream, to believing in a version of reality ruled by magical thinking, where the weather is always sunny, where everyone is free to live lives free of tragedy.

Having tragically lost her husband and daughter in the same year, Didion is as keenly aware as anyone of this dream, and has spent the last several years chronicling that loss of innocence. During her book tour for Blue Nights, a memoir reflection on the loss of her daughter, I saw her speak at an old theater in Washington D.C. She was very prickly with the crowd, especially when they asked her questions about where she got the strength to persevere in the face of so much loss.

Afterwards, waiting in the book-singing line, I decided I would ask her a question that had been on my mind for many years: Did she know what happened to Jeff and Debbie. By the way she was curtly signing books and barely making eye contact with fawning fans, I worried that she would find my question an annoyance, but I asked anyway. “Ms. Didion, do you know what happened to Jeff and Debbie?”

She stopped signing my book and looked up. Her face, which had been so hard and distant throughout the event had completely changed. It was softer and her eyes lit up with the presence of a memory. She said, “You know, years ago I was on a call-in talk show and a woman called in. It was Debbie. She said, ‘I just wanted to let you know that I am ok.’”

I don’t know why, but as I walked away towards the back of the theater, signed book in hand, I began to cry. In the midst of so much loss and broken dreams, someone had made it through.

Still, whenever I think of this story, I cry. I cry, I think, because of how mechanistic and determinate it all feels, how the fires in the hills and in ourselves sometimes must run their course, burn themselves out. I cry because of how powerless I feel to stop the pain that I know will inevitably come.

“We know it because we feel it,” Didion writes of the mood-altering Santa Anas. “The baby frets. The maid sulks. I rekindle a waning argument with the telephone company, then cut my losses and lie down, given over to whatever it is in the air.”

Part of the sickening dread in the air right now is that the story we are telling ourselves is that there is nothing to be done about the winds and fires, nothing to be done to save those teetering on the edge from bursting into flame and taking others with them.

And yet we continue to hope that the new year there will bring some renewal, some coming to our senses; that our rituals of gathering and celebrating will turn the hearts of the despots; that our promises and resolutions will stick; that the rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem will somehow birth a miraculous change in the arc of history.

As naive as this hope might seem, Joan Didion, one of our most clear-eyed, unsentimental writers, opens us up to the possibility that despite our fragility all will be well; that out of the fire come stories of endurance and grace.


Dave Griffith is the author of A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America. His essays and reviews have appeared in the Utne Reader, The Normal School, Image, and Creative Nonfiction, and on-line at Killing the Buddha, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Paris Review.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Dec 23: Dorian Rolston: Mirror Me

The best essay is the one that can’t be written. The second best essay, the one that shouldn’t be. Baring that, I guess you’re on your own to find those essays that “need” to be written, but I’m not sure any essays need to be written—ever, or at least now that a lot of essays already exist. I’m not saying that writing them doesn’t provide some psychic benefit to the writer, and in this sense of “need,” then, need to be written, therapeutically speaking or as a kind of memento to the occasion of composition (like one of those Christmas baubles your kids help craft, maybe with a little handprint smeared on the shiny slow-swiveling surface). But this is a very private need, and it’s not for me to say what a general public gets out of one’s private life, apart from—loosely speaking—the privates, the intimacies we’re hungry for, us voyeurs. But what I can say, now that I’ve gotten my little spiel on canonization out of the way, is that something interesting happens when you’re not sure whether the essay you’re writing can’t or shouldn’t or needs to be written. Such is the case with this essay.

I was going to—just about—say this essay about “blank,” where the blank would obviously be filled in, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. This person, like most people in my life I’m close to, doesn’t deserve to be reduced to the subject of an essay, shoved into the spotlight of a thesis statement. This person, though they have a particularly low tolerance for attention, and may even be said to have an aversion to it (unless, as is often the case, they get to control how they’re center of it), has every right to privacy, a bit of stage fright being more than enough reason. On top of that, I have to appreciate how much I know about this person, which I’ll have to selectively leave out in order to preserve the sanctity of our relationship while also somehow doing my due diligence as an essayist and exploring the subject at hand—them—in full. Perhaps that’s some of the gossipy drama of an essay: Just what’ll they say about them next! But I don’t think it’s necessary; I’m more interested in the ideas, which around this time of year tend to revolve around family.

I suppose I could turn my family, and my friends for that matter, into a kind of reality television spectacle, where I get to play man with a movie camera. But for starters, there’s nothing so spectacular about my family, which I realize may make the Rolstons even better fodder for essaying, since it’s the shared human condition we’re after—and, I bet, you could relate. Still, there’d be no real drama, and the show would get cancelled after one season, leaving the cast all the more humiliated for having bared their all-too ordinary souls for all to see (only for you to turn away). And then otherwise the stakes would be so high, to try to keep the show alive, that either the Rolstons would start suddenly acting out of character, doing the most outlandish things just to get your attention (basically the entirety of my angsty teenage years), and thus sacrifice fidelity for intrigue; or the payoff in the end would be so disappointing, a shrug as the credits roll, “Oh, we’re just like them,” that we’d have to wonder why we all went through it in the first place. So I guess what I’m saying is, I’d like to keep my family and friends right where they are, thank you very much: I’m your show for tonight (and also your host).

The trouble is, as soon as I start talking about myself I start talking about those around me, and the spotlight seems to expand, backstage. For instance, I’ve already mentioned family, and those of you who know me know who’s visiting me over the holidays, and thus the family I mean. If I were to then start telling you about, say, the nature of luxury, you’d then know exactly my interlocutor on this long drive on which we passed a state prison, prompting discussion about where I fell on the self-proclaimed Luxury Spectrum: Did I need the five-star resort from which we’d come, with its seeming infinitude of pools and related accouterments (towels and pillows and chairs, oh my), or would three squares a day behind the high-walled concertina do? If this doesn’t seem like a particularly revealing exchange, one neither worth reporting in the abstract (as such) nor recounting in fuller identifying detail (as not), well, I can only say that I respect the wishes of my interlocutor and, frankly, see their point. Why would I need to say who they are to say what’s most interesting about them? Especially when what I want to do is deepen my connection to them, and to the world in general, with the work I do here? I no longer see this as a space for airing grievances or holding grudges; for finger pointing or public shaming (except, granted, when there’s political just cause); for talking, in a way, publicly behind the backs of those we’re closest to. I just want to make myself better.

And so, part of what I’m thinking about this Christmas, is how I can be better in the New Year—and, to that end, use this as a scratch pad for betterness. (Already, those of you who know, again, know what publication I must be writing this for, and which editor there in particular, to whom I have a thesis manuscript due.) If this sounds like the sanctimony of New Year’s Resolutions, bound to fail (but not before making everyone else feel guilty for not doing theirs), fear not! I don’t actually have any high hopes for future self-betterment, no promises to keep; rather, I just want to see how I can change, for the better, right now. Through the writing itself, I want to arrive at some better version of myself, such that I can take back to my various relationships with the people I would’ve otherwise been writing about, likely blaming them for my misfortune. The closest thing I can think of to this is lucid dreaming, which so happens to be another subject I once wrote about where the real subject—subject qua person—didn’t want to appear. Could I have salvaged the ideas, I wonder, and gotten away with insight and the relationship intact? Perhaps I can do so now.

A lucid dream is a dream in which you know you are dreaming. It’s a technical definition, so-defined by actual lab work that became very controversial, whereby sleepers signaled to the scientists that they were dreaming and knew it by gaining control of their rapid eye movements and enacting a kind of Morse code. I guess this sounds fantastical, though I’m sure someone explained to me how the eyes are among the only body parts still potentially under your volition while sleeping; in any case, that’s how they proved lucid dreaming is a thing, more than simply subjective reports, and that’s what a lucid dream is. The point of all this is to say that once you become aware you’re dreaming, you can gain control of the dream itself, somewhat, and begin to shape its content intentionally. One of the first things newly lucid dreamers do—obviously—is try to have sex or take flight, call it fucking or flying (or both). But this excitement apparently wears off after a while, and then the lucidity can be used more productively: for training purposes, most memorably. I remember one guy learned martial arts; another, the cello; a third even used the dream world almost as I intend to use this one, to confront difficult people in their life (without any of the repercussions of actually doing so).

But I don’t mean to suggest any of these lovely people I’m writing about not writing about are difficult (though of course they are), only to use them as prompts to write about my own difficulties. I guess they are like mirrors, and you don’t tend to name your mirrors. (In “Mirror, Mirror, on the wall,” the mirror’s just called Mirror.) Now, there’s an animal I know—and hear the strain of this constraint, like the branches of the Christmas tree weighed down by too much decoration—who has a particularly interesting relationship with mirrors, such that the self is not recognized as such, but neither is it other. You’ve all seen the way dogs approach their face in the glass: not shocking self-consciousness, not barking at the other mutt, but simply approaching the glass as such. This leads me to believe that such an animal would be okay to write about, since lacking the selfhood necessary for protecting with anonymity, but then I also think that’s not quite true either. While the animal wouldn’t be reading this, the fact of their inclusion would be known to me, which would change my relationship with them, such that I began to see them as somehow less than the others I’ve chosen not to identify. Or “less” isn’t quite right, but less self’d. There’s a famous essay about this that speculates about the nature of bat consciousness, to get at the limits of what we can know about it, and I have to believe that’s true: we know more about those limits, and thus about ourselves, than we do the animals. As another famous writer put it: “If the lion could speak, we wouldn’t understand him.” I see how it’s getting a bit tricky, now, to lump animals (the differently sentient) and authors (the mostly dead) together in that same category of unidentifiable; not that there’s an unfortunate equivalency implied between them, which there is, but rather that we have a system of authorial attribution I’m skirting here. I don’t want to be mean to anyone!

But again, if my main aim is to scratch-pad myself better, then I’ve got to think about the relationships I’m trying to be better for. Animals singled out for the permissibility of naming would thereby be reduced in my eyes; authors cited, while in keeping with best practice, would also thereby be reduced, if only because I’d allowed myself to name-drop them in order to sound smart, thus use them. Or is it rather that I’m afraid to identify myself? That my interdependence and interconnectedness, to use that religion’s key tenant, scares me? That I must retreat to find where I end and they—whoever they are—begin?

Perhaps this is all riding off a recent anxiety I developed about my existence at the five-star resort. Indeed, there was something spooky about the nonexistence that five stars implies, such that no matter what you did there was no trace—every towel replaced, the pyramids of white scrolls forever unchanged. (Toweling off with these tabula rasas, you can see why anyone would have a complex!) The service was so good, in other words, as to sustain the illusion of your invincibility (on the upside), and your invisibility (on the down). I wish I could say that I relished this miracle of hospitality, my every need not only met and anticipated but kind of apologized for; every room service person was profusely apologetic to find me there, when in fact it was I who was in their way (of helping me). And moreover if there’s anyone who really ought to be named in this, it’s those who go unnamed in life, such as the already anonymous staff whose living is made to kindly sweep up yours. But then I suppose this is just one of the many areas in which I have to improve, thankfully brought to my attention here by focusing on myself: I should’ve tipped more, been kinder, and not tried so damn hard to shatter the illusion.

This last is particularly painful, as it came to a head over dinner the last night—the last supper indeed, as so much there was religiously inflected, including the flashing “Nativity Scene” sign by which I oriented back to our room at night—when I whispered, but with full awareness of likely being overheard, something about “the illusion of Santa.” (Somehow the whole place had come to seem like one great Christmas hoax to me, and I was onto them--high-minded, even for the hoity-toity.) Two little girls, no more than about four and six respectively, swung round and stared, mouths half-full of fries (maybe one or two even dropped out, like loose baby teeth). The older of the two looked, agape, with dismay, bordering on rather precocious disapproval; but the youngest, I’ll never forget. For she was blank.

Dorian Rolston is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of Arizona, where he's nonfiction editor for Sonora Review. He's currently at work on a thesis manuscript, from which this is an excerpt.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Dec 22: Joe Slocum on Brian Doyle

My grocery store has 112 different types of BBQ sauce. I have four Gmail accounts. My phone pings constant reminders to check email, texts, and Twitter. There are events to ignore on my calendar and updates that seem to have no impact on my life whatsoever. Does anyone care that maps or Skype was updated? There are calls to make. Office hours to hold. Who is making dinner? Is this clean? Someone had a baby, cool. It is easy to get distracted. But those moments on the page, like when the late Brian Doyle informs us that we have approximately two billion heart beats to spend, remind me that I have a life to live.
     The fear of missing out is very real in regular life and in life on the page. There is a desire to go faster and get more done. I want to see it all and still find time to write something that matters. Doyle told us that all stories are prayers. He said that story catching and storytelling are the secret to everything. By being good storytellers and good listeners, we can learn the secrets of this life. One of my favorite moments as a reader and a writer is when an essay blooms and reveals one of those secrets. Those moments are sudden and shocking. All of it is so honest, so real it almost feels like my memory. Those lines of text are often met with wonder, frustration, and other complications. How did they do that? I’ve felt the same—why didn’t I write that? Those revelations pull me to write and bring about shame for not having written more. After all, what else could have been so important?
     In a sense, those moments where I receive an “unexpected gift” from an essay are like flashbacks. If you’ve never had the pleasure, a flashback can make you question the invalidity of memory. I had my first at thirty. I was in a dentists’ chair and the magic gas strapped to my face made me lower my guard just long enough for the repressed memory to break free. I was physically in a room in Spokane, but in my mind, I was 8 years old in my bedroom. I could see the green and gold checkerboard carpet and feel the crusty Kool Aid stain I was keeping covered with a toy bin. My mother had a new haircut. There was lemon meringue pie in the oven. My Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were sticky. Pa was home from the hospital. I could feel and see everything. It was scary and exciting and as real as the keyboard under my fingers right now. That memory was locked away out of sight in my mind for twenty-two years waiting to surface when the moment was right.
     A psychologist friend of mine told me that flashbacks are often scary because they happen fast and the memory is so clear. We are not used to “seeing” memories in HD. It happens this way because you haven’t accessed the memory before. The fresh pages of the memory are still warm. They have not yet been creased or underlined.
     When an essay reveals a secret, it can be as shocking as a flashback. They show me that someone feels the same way. They serve as a reminder for something felt and forgotten. The writer, in that moment, found a feeling from somewhere deep and real for me and you. They are the look-at-what-we-can-do moments that I think everyone craves. More intimate than recounting a memory, they are transactions of insight. In “A Mohawk in the House” Doyle chronicles his lacking barber-shop skills that result in one of his sons wearing a mohawk for a day. It’s a small but significant moment of bonding between father and sons. It’s a disaster, but everyone laughs and goes to bed happy at the end. Before this essay, it must have been a decade since I recalled my father buzzing my hair off, much like Doyle, while I was sitting on an unsteady stool in the backyard one summer day. I will always remember the look on my father’s face when he said, “I’ve always wanted to do this” before running the clippers along the top of my head. The essay concludes:
All in all this was a pretty good day, as the non-Mohawk twin said to me sleepily, after I finished telling the boys stories and tucking them in. We saw a thrush, and there was a Mohawk in the house. Even now, all these years later, that last seems like a particularly lovely sentence to me, one that I will always be happy I heard.
     I too am happy I heard that sentence. Without the essay to remind me that feeling would be buried in memory.
     It seems to almost be a rule that revealing a secret on the page must come out of nowhere. Brian Doyle considers the hummingbird, the blue whale, unicellular bacteria and delivers, “We all churn inside.” He has many sentences that I wish were mine, but right now that is the one I want most. As 2018 nears an end, this feels important; we are not so different. Most people would agree with Doyle that you should not spit on a butterfly. Everyone can think back to a fork in the road where sound advice was heard or ignored. We appreciate good story tellers. Bless the good listeners one and all. Everyone likes to get a letter.
     Take a minute to visit the works of Brian Doyle. Churn through the moments he shares with the world. If nothing else read “Letters and Comments on My Writing.” If great works of literature teach us how to live, that essay is a master class on dealing with haters. The work he left behind for all of us has reminded me to slow down and to spend more heartbeats on the page.

Joe Slocum earned his MFA from the Inland Northwest Center for Writers in 2013. In 2011 he won the Patrick F. McManus prize from Eastern Washington University. He teaches and writes in Houghton, MI. You can follow him on Twitter @this_is_flannel.  

Friday, December 21, 2018

Dec 21: Brian Blanchfield on the Day as a Literary Unit

Differences from Yesterday, a Day like Today

[a talk given at NonfictioNow 2018]

When “Writing the Day” was sent to me as a prompt, the proposed date, the summer solstice, put me in mind of the most influential day, as such, in contemporary poetry, Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day. A novella-length, six-part maximalist poem (an epic, say some) whose intention was to get down everything that happened in the poet’s life and mind on a single day in 1978, December 22. The eventual feat was greater for having chosen for the experiment the shortest day of the year. Mayer’s quotidian is subversive even within the particular avant-garde tradition of the New York School poets—Frank O’Hara’s lunch poems never included diapers or pills or cleaning products; his social, cruisy public square wasn’t like hers in Lenox, Mass, where she might be asked outside the post office if she’d mind some pointers about her last dinner party. The work belongs to poetry as much as to conceptual art, and indeed a similar book of Mayer’s, Memory, was a central exhibit in WACK, the 2007 feminist conceptual art retrospective in Los Angeles, alongside other auto-documentary and bio-metric art that used the day as a unit: notably Mary Kelly’s framed records of the input (mashed peas, bananas, and in what quantities) and actual smears of “output” from her baby boy, day by day, tracking also his vocalizations and the attributes of her emotions about their mutual need. The day in such work is a convenient reset, comparable to days before and after, syntagmatic, ongoing, contingent.

When I place my faith, or reset my faith, in a daily writing practice these days, I navigate by the star of James Schuyler, the poet and art writer and diarist and reader of diaries (Gilbert White’s and Virginia Woolf’s, continually). He’s known, like Mayer, for his small-scoped epics (“A Few Days,” “The Morning of the Poem”), but also for his skinny, hyperattentive lyrics that consider the single day, the whole day, as an entity. Among them are the poems “December 28, 1974” and “February 13, 1975” and “I think” (which begins “I will write you a letter, June day. Dear June 5th”) and “Song” which enacts the close of a day: “A weeping beech is gray, / a copper beech is copper red. / Tennis nets hang / unused in unused stillness.  / A car starts up and / whispers into what will soon be night. / A tennis ball is served. / A horsefly vanishes. / A smoking cigarette. / A day (so many and so few) / dies down a hardened sky / and leaves are lap-held notebook leaves / discriminated barely / in light no longer layered.” James Schuyler: expert noticer, and aficionado of the indefinite pronoun. Each element introduced carries with it a suggestion that it is just one of its kind, a specimen, but its chance appearance is celebrated, another daub of paint in the composition.

Schuyler’s best friend, the painter Fairfield Porter, said that an artist is someone who “distinguishes endlessly.” I like this definition, by which Schuyler certainly qualifies. His “selecting eye,” as Eileen Myles has called it, typically sifts among equivalences in the field. Douglas Crase, in a wonderful essay on Schuyler called “A Voice Like the Day” quotes Porter again to say that there are many artists in history who have had an “afternoon sensibility,” that is a sensibility of reflection, but few that have a “morning sensibility” like Schuyler’s, a sensibility of observation. Just to say what is. Or, more to the point, to note, as Schuyler puts it in the opening line of a poem, like a banner naming his intention to discern: “differences from yesterday.”

“Differences from yesterday.” I’ve titled my current morning notebook that. Or, rather, each time I type in a few more days from my notebook into my computer, I do so in a growing document called “Differences from Yesterday.” I live in Moscow, Idaho, and there’s a place outside I can sit in the warm month mornings. I scan my little downslope part of “Orchard Addition,” which is the official name for our neighborhood, as the country assessor parcels it. I’ve lived here about fifteen months. So I know from experience what follows what. The crocuses, the cherry tree, the poppies, the bee balm, the lavender, the lunaria annua. We pull a new dry stalk of lunaria for our giant plastic wall peacock to wear as a topknot crest: that’s when it’s winter.

In May after the creek is highest from snowmelt, there are morels like little canelés hidden on the south sides of forested hills. Look for where a trickle might collect, up against a knob of cedar root. The last rain falls in late June. The sun’s transit just tops the tall fir tree east of us: then it’s summer. The bachelor quail are up and down from the sloped roof in a business I do not understand. The two kinds of ant. The wheat goes blond. The squirrels eat the Bings higher up in the tree and drop the pits. The two kinds of cicada, one blind, pinging into your water bottle on the north side of hills. The haze first and then the smell of wildfire. The crabapples fall. In the last week before first frost, the plague of aphids, descending daily by midafternoon to pedestrian breathing level. The pileated woodpeckers. The first moose sighting, behind the Wendy’s, in the Moscow Pullman Daily News. I write first thing in the morning, and I might track some one or two micro-events I spot, and permit entry to passing thoughts or dedicatory feelings or regrets or flashes of overnight visions, and I might pivot on something about yesterday: the smallest thing I saw, the moment I felt acutely alive. It’s a ledger for one but not the other kind of knowing: connaître (familiarity), not savoir, as the poet and essayist Merrill Gilfillan claims about his “days in place” writings.

One more quote from Schuyler that is apt, from my favorite poem of his, “A Stone Knife,” poem as thank you note, dated (of course) December 26, 1969. Kenward Elmslie had given him a letter knife. The poem contains what passes for his own definition of art: “object in which / the surprise is that / the surprise, once / past, is always there: / which to enjoy is / not to consume.” It’s this rising wakeful sense of discovery that I count on, writing the day, tracking real phenomena, integrating mental or emotional weather, incorporating an item or phrase from our eight-page daily newspaper, working and cascading it all in sentences over line breaks. When something comes of the assemblage, it is, however miniature, a place to dwell, a supply not to exhaust. I wouldn’t be the first to call it prayer. Ann Lauterbach calls it traction, what we risk forfeiting in our edgeless over-mediated world, what we return to art for, “a proxy experience of the artist in relationship with her materials.” We value “the ways of distinguishing, turns of mind, indeed the very moments of choice in the motions of composition.”

In Calamities, her 2016 book of short essays, poetic daily dispatches, Renee Gladman is in close relationship with her materials. I return to it often. Each of more than fifty prose entries opens identically, “I began the day…” It is a pleasure at a certain point to realize the book is conducting a repeatable experiment, a ritual. Each day opens either with a bit of dream capture to unspool and study, or an activity, including mental activity, to chronicle. Sometimes of a kind of private metaphysics you are astounded to recognize as like your own, but never before articulated. Other days the author’s particularity is no one else’s, as when, while reading Herta Müller, she determines that she herself is Eastern European, irked that she can get no one in her life to agree that she is “an Eastern European African American.” Gladman is writing a daybook, but she is also building an apparatus, a kind of algorithmic machine into which the material of the next new day can be input to run the program. This self-accommodation, or psychic processing, comes to be profound, poignant, when it becomes clear that the author is waking every morning in a season of actual professional humiliation, as her tenure at Brown is being denied, because, as we overhear the university president telling her, she is as a fiction writer “not exactly a slam dunk.” The metaphor only underlines the apparently racist situation of her peer review. Here are the opening paragraphs of two entries in Calamities. Which—neither, both—is a dream?
I began the day in a faculty meeting—though I was late in coming, having just walked into the room. I didn’t know how I had gotten there. The doors were closed—that’s how I knew I was late—and, much worse, locked when quietly I tried to open them. However, upon knocking, I heard the director say my name, and I thought at least I had been expected. A senior member opened the door and thought it would be a good time to play on joke on me, saying you can’t come in here, though I’d just heard my name. I didn’t think it was funny since often I can’t attend meetings, since being junior often meant I couldn’t. But everyone laughed and welcomed me seniorly. Faculty meetings are strange; there is always someone those whose rank you don’t understand, someone who had seemed just a visiting lecturer or scholar now sitting with his back very straight and holding a clipboard. (Calamities, 12)
I began the day thinking about the university level—where it was and who was allowed to go there—and felt in my body a sense that there were a series of gates to pass through, a grand lawn, a series of gates and then an elevator to take you down into the earth. The university level would be on the top floor of something that rose above all the surrounding structures but did so, inversely, deep beneath the ground, perhaps forty levels below, where meaning was made and the core burned brightly. (66)
The nightmare comes and goes in the machinery into which she feeds the material of her life.

Good evening once again from our NBC headquarters here in New York. This was day Day 651 of the Trump Administration. When Brian Williams’s signature opening of The 11th Hour numbered the days only in the single digits—it seemed then that impeachment or resignation was the likeliest outcome. How long could it go on? In January 2017, when John and I were living in a furnished sublet in Iowa City where I was teaching for a semester, I had just begun the other daybook project I’ve been keeping on and off since. Just after my first classes but before the inauguration, we raised the blinds on the last window in the house, in the guest room we’d been using to stow the homeowner’s uglier art and furniture: there between the storm pane and the wire mesh of the screen was a small brown bat, suspended, alone. It was, we came to realize, in torpor.

I would walk in, in the mornings, sometimes sketch it (right down to the metatarsals, only two toes curled in the tiny squares of the mesh were holding its body weight), note how and where its posture or position in the window was different. I thought of coma patients whose movements are involuntary flexions or extensions. Speculate a little bit about it, essaying, then take in the brown, cold, hard day beyond it. I never saw its face, facing north from our north-facing window.

Eventually the little park you could see through the bare trees would have people shooting baskets in gloves, bundled toddlers on the swings. Wintering was durational. It was a hard season for me and John. One day sunshine, the smell of marijuana, frat boys dragging out their cornhole ramps, plunk of beanbag and—“dude”—masculinist strain in the voices no less vernal for it. The bat had let down a wing overhead, like a sail. It was a thrill: translucent, like brown bubble gum stretched yellowly. The daybook I was keeping, about the bat in the morning, about the house and our relationship never finding the right room in it, about the first hundred days of the Trump administration, on the ground and in the air, about MSNBC and The West Wing on which we binged at night—the project came to hover around one pressing inquiry: when would the end of torpor come, how would this creature know, what thermostat or sensor did it have to cue whatever pheromone that would resuscitate the system again and resume its active life? In some ways, that’s still the inquiry that I reset and investigate in the local atmosphere I walk in, from house to studio, one foot still in the orchard of dream.

Brian Blanchfield is the author of three books of prose and poetry, including, most recently, Proxies: Essays Near Knowing. The recipient of a 2016 Whiting Award in Nonfiction and The Academy of American Poets' 2014 James Laughlin Award, he teaches creative writing at The University of Idaho and in The Bennington Writing Seminars. 

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Dec 20: Susan Briante's "Little Christmas"

Before the moody strings slide under his voice like a silk pillow under a heavy head, the song begins with just Sinatra unaccompanied: “Have yourself a merry little Christmas.” A down-hearted wish, a six-word prayer, a sparrow with its wings folded in on itself in the snow. In June, my father died in hospital emergency room 2,000 miles away from me. My mother died in hospice four years ago. During this first Christmas without either of them, the song is the only one I want to hear.

When I was a kid my parents tuned into an all Sinatra radio show on Sunday nights, watched his movies, played his albums. But I had no love for the fat old guy singing “My Way” as if it was a revelation. Why should I care if Sinatra got it the way he wanted. Guys like Sinatra, like my Dad (both working-class Italian-American kids from New Jersey), were always getting their way no matter what it meant to the people around them.

My mom never liked Christmas. Every year when she was a kid, Santa would bring her and her two sisters the same doll and same doll carriage, which were rolled back into the same closet after a few days to be rolled out again the following year. Her father was a controlling alcoholic, another man doing things the way he wanted. My mom would say he was so cheap, he would not give my grandmother the bus fare to visit us when we moved to the suburbs 20 minutes away from the one-bedroom apartment where my mom and her three siblings grew up.

“Have yourself a merry little Christmas,” my daughter sings along with Sinatra. “May your heart be light. From now on our troubles will be outta’ sight.” What sadness will she carry for me? What closeted gifts will she take out and wheel around? At eight years old, she has lost all her grandparents and the security of immortality. “I did the math,” she tells me one night from her bed. “If you die when you are 80 (the age her grandfather was when he died), I will only be 38 and that’s too young.” And she’s right, although what she may not realize is that she will be too young no matter what age I die.

Maybe because my father understood my mother’s sadness or maybe because he did not want me or my brothers to inherit it, my father was always at his best during Christmas: Putting the plastic candles in our windows. Decorating the tree. Did my mother work more than him during the holidays? Probably. Many years, I’d go to our unfinished basement to help him wrap her presents. “She’s going to take those back,” I would tell him handing him tape or scissors. It was mostly true. It was hard for my mother to be satisfied. But he didn’t care. And when he got her a present she liked: a bracelet or earrings he’d bury at the bottom of her stocking, they might both be in tears: a little softness in what was often a tinderbox of a relationship, a little Christmas despite the other 364 days of the year.

“Have yourself a merry little Christmas,” Sinatra sings. “Make the yule tide gay. From now on our troubles will be miles away.” But you know he doesn’t believe it. The song was written for a 1944 Judy Garland movie in which a family readies for an unwanted move. Garland’s character sings the song to cheer up her despondent five‐year‐old sister on Christmas Eve. The original lyrics were such a downer the movie producer begged song writer Hugh Martin to change them. When Sinatra recorded his version in 1957, he asked for additional revisions. And while the song has come to be a sort of a “buck up and enjoy it” carol, its melancholy has always been its key ingredient. In the movie, the five‐year‐old sister in the movie responds to Garland’s version of the song by beating up a snowman version of her family.

Should I tell you about my father’s worst? His judgment and anger. How his fears of precarity and dependence on cable news fueled a racism and sexism that shrunk him as he aged especially after my mother died. It made him smaller and weaker than any disease he ever faced, made me sometimes despise him, as I did my mother’s father, as I did Sinatra. For guys like my Dad, Sinatra was a mirror, a sign that they had made it in America. Sinatra turned assimilation into a gesture as easy as tossing a suit jacket over one’s shoulder, never mind the ugly rooms of ignorance and fear they were walking into.

I feel bad sharing my Dad’s worst, so here’s his best: he gave his money and volunteered his time to St. Benedicts Preparatory School, his alma mater, in inner‐city Newark, NJ. He volunteered at his church. He sacrificed and supported our family. He loved me (as he loved all his children and his grandchildren) fiercely, even though he sometimes hurt me. And I loved him back. He was my first model for joy and not just at Christmas. He shared his joy. And he made me feel sometimes like I deserved to get my way, too. Did he always get things his way? Of course not. Not when my mother died. “Through the years we all will be together, if the fates allow,” Sinatra sings in his Christmas carol. But life tells us otherwise.

In December, when night whittles day to a sliver of bone, across cultures we celebrate festivals of light. It’s no wonder the musical climax of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” comes when Sinatra sings: “Hang a shining star upon the highest bow.” In the darkness we see the heavens so much clearer: Orion and Taurus, Perseus and Canis.

A shining star on the top of a Christmas tree is a signal of hope meant to be seen. To be seen is what’s in play in love and parenting. My parents’ love was often not the love I needed. But while they were alive, so was the promise that it could be.

Sometimes I hate the way men occupy space: their wide stances, their proprietary looks, their voices booming across rooms and through my head. But then I think of Orion sprawled across the heavens every winter and fall. If I were on another planet, Orion would be gone. All the geometry that makes him, wrecked from another angle. And I am comforted to find him in a sky cold and vast with possibility.

This year I want to find a version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” with just Sinatra’s voice. Although I am not sure what I want to hear: another version of him, of my family?

I don’t believe in heaven. But I have read we all come from the elements and compounds forged in stars, perhaps carried to our planet on comets or meteors. My father has returned to something in the night sky just as he came from it. And sometimes when I look up on winter evenings, I imagine,  wherever he is, he can see me now as I am trying to see him from another perspective.


Susan Briante is the author of three books of poetry: Pioneers in the Study of Motion, Utopia Minus, and The Market Wonders. She is an associate professor of English, Creative Writing, at the University of Arizona, where she serves as co-coordinator for the Southwest Field Studies in Writing Program. Briante also produces and hosts the radio program Speedway and Swan, an hour of free-form poetry and music on KXCI 91.3 Tucson. Her book Defacing the Monument, a lyric investigation of documentary poetics, is forthcoming from Noemi Press in 2019.