Saturday, April 4, 2015

My TedX Talk

Last February, I was so pleased to participate in the TEDx conference at Palo Alto High School. Here is the talk that I gave there, "The Things We Don't Mean to Prepare For."

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

There Is Only One of Everything

Last fall, I decided that all of the super hero theme songs were in my iTunes collection. They had been there all along. I was sick of toggling over to YouTube at red lights and in parking lots, only to burn through cellular data searching for the anthems of Spider-Man (vintage 60s), Green Lantern (cheap CGI reboot), Wonder Woman (poorly aging 70s show of my youth). And then, always: was the Bluetooth synched, were we in range, was the song so popular it had some ad click-through that terrified Baby and brother with some decibel-busting plywood pitch. Already, the pantheon was expanding faster than I could keep ahead of it. Our home celebrated bit player crossovers at Marvel and DC Comics, off-market Tinker Bells, the green fish on roller-skates with the British accent. And I didn’t really know. Did Ice Man even have a theme song? No, Daddy, one with words. It's not a theme song if it doesn't have words. So, now, Ice Man has a theme song. Performed by Kenny Loggins, of that oh-so-permanent-making flash of nostalgia by which the back catalogue slowly fills with Cyndi Lauper (FireStar!), Paul Simon live at the iTunes Festival (Falcon!), and Mr. Caddy Shack himself.

What are the Danger Zows? Walt asked yesterday on the way to preschool.

I turned down the Loggins. 

Well, I said, it's where you go when you fly in a really fast airplane.

He thought about this for a moment.

You mean Florida?

My parents live in Florida. I could see where this might end up.

Not Florida, exactly, I said. It's more like where army planes go.

He liked that answer.

To fight bad guys? 

Sure, I said, they used to. There aren't a lot of bad guys left who fly planes as fast as ours.

What about Lex Luthor? he asked, or maybe Wonder Woman. Her jet is invisible.

What about Elsa? I asked. Walt hates Elsa. He loves Elsa. I’m pretty sure Elsa keeps Walt awake late at night, wondering about her freezing power and pretty hair.

No, not Elsa! Walt said. Then, after a few seconds. Can we listen to “Let It Go”?

I've tried mixing in a few non-tights, semi-animated options. "I Thought I Saw Your Face Today" was a hit for a while, then the Mary Poppins soundtrack, "Everything is Awesome," "Nice To Be With You." A couple of weekends ago, Cait asked me to download "Midnight Train to Georgia." The one by the old blues guy, she said, and there was something like 300 versions on iTunes, mostly vintage and adult contemporary and karaoke versions, even a live cover by the Indigo Girls cover, but none by an old blues guy. Did she mean the Indigo Girls cover? Because I had my own, complicated, Elsa-like feelings about the Indigo Girls. So, we settled on the Gladys Knight version, and after a few listens, Walt started getting the "Woo Hoo!" in time with the chorus, and then he started asking questions.

Are they going to buy a minivan when they get to Georgia? 

Are they going to drive a car to the train station? 

Why is the mommy singing the song and the daddy isn't?

Are one of them your friends?

There’s a great Tom Hanks interview from a couple of years ago over at The Nerdist. At one point, talking about Busom Bodies, he joking refers to the 1980s as, “you know, that time in America when nothing good happened.” It’s funny how much has aged poorly since that seeming golden age of my synth-rock, anti-Communist, pro-aerosol youth. Not just Kenny Loggins, with the hoop, hair gel, and white T. I had forgotten until a friend reminded me recently that there was a stretch of years where Randy Macho Man Savage’s whole gimmick was to threaten to beat his wife.  I tried to put on He-Man for the boys, as an alternative to the snake-fighting Lego ninjas, and we didn’t make it much past the credits.

Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews have aged marvelously. Walt and Sammy don't deny it. We sit on the sofa and clap along to “Step in Time,” while the boys bounce on the cushions and kick furiously:

Of course, I’m always waiting for one of them to fall, and fall into the other, or splay and bonk head-first into the table, floor, wall, hutch. Who am I to deny them the manic pleasures of childhood? The guy who will take them to the ER, I guess, though so far (knock on wood), we're all intact.

Chuck Klosterman had a nice thought recently about “Boyhood,” that, in scene after scene, it plays against our movie-going expectation that dangerous situations will always end in violence. Year after year, Mason’s friends make skateboard ramps, careen in cars, handle guns, intoxicate themselves, and everyone is fine. Time passes. Before you know it, Mason is off to college. I have a year still before Walt is as old as Mason in the first shot of the movie, and since I watched it, I’ve had a kind of helpless wonder at how exceptionally hard it is to acknowledge happiness and trust it. There is a great poem from Margaret Atwood’s 1974 collection, You Are Happy, that I’ll paste below. I remember reading it first as an undergraduate and loving it as a love poem, though now it inflects all these great secondary readings about stability, pleasure, and of course, bittersweet loneliness. There is only one of everything, of course, and if you’re a super-hero, then you’re lucky to get a theme song at all.

There Is Only One of Everything (Margaret Atwood)

Not a tree but the tree
we saw, it will never exist, split by the wind and bending down
like that again. What will push out of the earth

later, making it summer, will not be
grass, leaves, repetition, there will
have to be other words. When my

eyes close language vanishes. The cat
with the divided face, half black half orange
nests in my scruffy fur coat, I drink tea,

fingers curved around the cup, impossible
to duplicate these flavours. The table
and freak plates glow softly, consuming themselves,

I look out at you and you occur
in this winter kitchen, random as trees or sentences,
entering me, fading like them, in time you will disappear

but the way you dance by yourself
on the tile floor to a worn song, flat and mournful,
so delighted, spoon waved in one hand, wisps of roughened hair

sticking up from your head, it's your surprised
body, pleasure I like. I can even say it,
though only once and it won't

last: I want this. I want

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Vast, Encompassing Circle

It's a strange thing to worry about writing with a newborn in the house. The baby sleeps, his brothers race and cavort, suffer and secret off into their room for secret fun. In the tub last night, Walt held out a plastic yellow cup to Sam, whispered, "Mug," and both broke into hysterics. This happened at least eight times in a row. Toward the end, Sam picked up a plastic brick and whacked it at Walt's head, which often signals the end to such fun. Except Walt didn't flinch. He offered the mug faster. Sam whacked harder. They both kept laughing. Being the oldest, Walt is easier to get out of the tub. We offer the new shiny carrot: bubblegum-flavored mouthwash. Still, Walt is heartbroken to leave the bath when Sam gets to stay a little longer. Sam is thrilled to stretch out in the tub, more than half its length now. Sam has a lower boiling point but he recovers from his heartaches faster. Such is the lot in life of the middle child toddler, I guess. I still don't think of Sam as the middle child, since only five weeks ago he was the younger boy and Walt was the older. Walt is older still, but of course, now he's the oldest. Now, Monty is the baby. He gets his own bath and bedtime, and hours upon hours of being held by the people who love him, which these last two weeks has included my parents visiting from Florida, showing up first thing in the morning to get us an extra hour of sleep, fold laundry, hang curtains, make meals, help with the preschool drop-offs and pick-ups. Cait and I have even gone out on a couple of afternoon dates. Tomorrow, we're off to JC Penny's to take a family portrait. Then it's back to the trenches, the wonderful pleasant trenches, to keep our heads down and the boys amused--stories, games, drawing, backyard LARP-ing--and at night, if the baby is sleeping and the boys are sleeping and Cait is sleeping, if there is any time leftover, I'm sitting down to try to work piecemeal through something that can become the next poem, essay, book. Which is its own kind of romantic worry, that there will be more time, but also, that such time is worth saving outside of the present moment, before it races past memory and into imagination; when, whatever else we feel, we feel very needed and alive. 

Poem Written in A Copy of Beowulf

At various times, I have asked myself what reasons
moved me to study, while my night came down,
without particular hope of satisfaction,
the language of the blunt-tongued Anglo-Saxons.

Used up by the years, my memory
loses its grip on words that I have vainly
repeated and repeated. My life in the same way
weaves and unweaves its weary history.

Then I tell myself: it must be that the soul
has some secret, sufficient way of knowing
that it is immortal, that its vast, encompassing
circle can take in all, can accomplish all.

Beyond my anxiety, beyond this writing,
the universe waits, inexhaustible, inviting.

― Jorge Luis Borges

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Purge #3

Things are going. They are nearly gone. That corner where we kept the shiny appliance boxes in case the machines broke or we needed to return them? Clean and papered over. The snap-in child seat strollers? Pushed to one side and wheeled, ended to end, beside the makeshift tool box, Christmas decorations, and emergency earthquake kit. A new steel shelf is up and ready to store still more dry goods, paper products, and pounds upon pounds of diapers and nut butters. Never mind we are a five-minute drive from several supermarkets and one conspicuous wholesaler, or that we have done this twice before. The garage is our off-site bunker. We’re ready to unleash the baby swing, neglect-o-pod, co-sleeper, and bouncer. In the meantime, several boxes of books can be bought for two or three dollars on Amazon. Find Cait's seller page. Look for the poetry books I bought in graduate school, and then schlepped to Romania, Indiana, and San Francisco, the baby books with purple and red page borders, the copy of Infinite Jest I bought to read before the last baby arrived, the companion guide to Infinite Jest I eventually read instead.

TimeOut Chicago ran last week a list of gone-but-not-forgotten theater companies in Chicago. I had to check that my beloved StageLeft was still there, in the building down the street from the old apartment. Katie and I saw The Good Person of Szechuan, there, and a couple of hometown musicals, but the one that knocked our socks off was Mrs. Mackenzie's Beginner's Guide to the Blues, about a high school teacher who has an affair with her ambitious, if cynical student, to whom she later outgrows her usefulness. This was April, 2002. The play was heartbreaking, especially the Clapton-esque fan favorite that the boy became, riffing onstage, at the very end: all skill and no heart. The Famous Door, however, is long gone. A few weeks after “Mackenzie’s….” Katie and I took in their all-day, one-hundred-roles adaptation of Cider House Rules. We had never seen anything like it. We became members there, too, though even the manager warned there probably wouldn't be a next season. The theather that housed company is now a gym. The neighborhood that houses the gym has turned over a few of its landmarks: the Turkish restaurant with the mat seats, the pet store, the used-record shop with the Specials poster in the window.

Last March, when the books came out, I paid the discount author's rate to buy two boxes filled to the brim with each: poetry in one box, memoir in the other. The boxes are gone now. The books are gone, too. I've sold them at readings and given them to friends. I donated one copy to the local library and sent another to a man in Kentucky, who wrote to say that he'd just gone through something similar. Last week, I bought a used copy of the memoir from Amazon.Com for fifteen cents. I was curious who was selling the book so soon after it came out. The copy was in pristine shape, unsigned; hardly opened. Whoever purged that copy did so quickly. 

Cait and I’s lesson plans are set (more or less) two and three weeks out. We've fixed the closet door and kitchen drawer, the bath mats, grill grate, dishwasher valve, and socket. We have a new rice cooker, new car seat, new computer cables, new diaper rash ointment and dozens of AA and AAA batteries. The tubs of baby clothes, sorted by size, are stacked by the garage door. I brought in a couple of the baby toys that Walt spotted when we were putting away bikes the other afternoon. I plugged in the batteries and, as he flicked the different switches, various Sesame Street characters took turns popping through doors and singing their songs. I knew all the songs and could imitate the voices pretty well, which thrilled Walt. Sam was thrilled, too. Across the room, for a few beautiful minutes, he had the whole burgeoning LEGO empire to himself, though of course he eventually toddled over, climbed up onto the sofa, and worked poor Cookie Monster until the orange cookie finally refused to pop back up.

Walt was twenty-one months the day that Sam arrived. I remember a whole spring of sepia-toned afternoons, gardens in full bloom, and long walks around the block with my only boy. I remember reading a few of the sibling books and going for long runs through the neighborhood, listening to music on my phone, certain Cait would call any minute to say the labor had begun the new baby was on his way. Of course, she never did. Sam came into this world right on time, and a few days later, we were mapping out our afternoons and evenings, me with Walt and Cait with Sam, our routines suddenly simultaneous and escalating and two-fold, like birds arriving to the duck pond where Walt and I used to take crackers and stale bread to kill the morning, or Gremlins breeding in darkness. The reality of two kinds under two years of age set in. We were off to the races.

Now, of course, those exhausted mornings chasing one boy out the door while holding the other in my arms, warming up some milk, have matured into busy afternoons at the park, quick trips in the car, long plane flights when the boys travel well and we know enough to (usually) stay ahead of their distractions and (sometimes) make it into a game. Our Gremlins are furry and cute again. The afternoons are again sepia-toned. Sam and Walt can scoot their balance-bikes through the neighborhood and I’d like to think, because we’ve done this before, I’ll do a better job of enjoying the first few weeks of Three-Pete’s life. Probably, I should know better. All those easy routines and comforts of becoming a family that fall apart, Jenga-like, with missed sleep, spiked fevers, or cantankerous siblings, may compound exponentially; what more than a few friends have described as dropping out of man-to-man into a zone coverage. Then, we’ll emerge out of our fog. Walt is already four. Sam is two. Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. Our new plan is nearly complete. I’m glad we’ve made one, regardless of whether it will prove to be of any use. For now, at least, we have the clean floors, tidy shelves, and stockpiles of food to sustain these next few weeks of waiting.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Let’s Stop Asking Ourselves to be Fine

Last week, I called my friend Eric to talk about Robin Williams’s death. For fifteen years, now, Eric and I have talked about movies. He always has something interesting to say about the movies I like, and he makes good recommendations of the ones I haven’t seen. This all started as Peace Corps trainees, when we used to walk across Mymensingh together, running down the catalog of great movies we’d both seen and loved. I can still picture the route in my mind pretty well, most of the way, though photos don’t really do the route justice. As we talked, it turned out that Eric and I had both listened to Marc Maron’s reposted 2010 interview with Robin Williams. Eric had watched the 1998 Hollywood Squares episode that Whoopi Goldberg posted in memoriam. I paraphrased some of Chris Connelly’s eloquent remembrance. I was happy to hear Eric’s voice, and to think we both had something interesting to say about someone neither of us knew. I’ve spent more time than I would have expected sorting through the noise around Robin William’s death, listening (to paraphrase the Chicago doc) for some kind of signal, frustrated by the bland consensus (he was a flawed genius who died before his time; he was a sick man who loved to entertain people) and my own very small sense of touchstone (in middle school, I wore out my parents’ VHS copy of Good Morning, Vietnam trying to memorize the disc jockey parts; World’s Greatest Dad [see below] is surprisingly good).

What is the essence of that noise that gathers so quickly around an unexpected public death? I think it has something to do with candor. We do not want the people around us to die. We certainly hope they will not die unexpectedly. But more than that, we want to know that the people we know and love, and even, the people we admire, are well and will be well, more or less, in the long-term. That they might not be well becomes a kind of uncertainty that does not follow entirely from good wishes and warm feelings. The un-well are not always polite. They seem, sometimes, unpredictable. And what would it mean for a chronic illness to persist, what with all the various pills of all shapes, sizes, and colors; a clinically-trialed forgetting pill; those colorful and elaborate scans on late-night PBS of cranial electrochemistry; the seeming advances in therapeutic treatment? No matter than a century or so ago the shape and size of the cranium clearly indicated character and mental ability, whose ills cocaine alleviated. We want treatments to fix, fully and well. The persistent natures of chronic and complicated feelings—despair, neglect, vulnerability, self-destructiveness—and situations—grief, disease, neglect—remind us too much of our own humanity, which, by its very nature, is provisional and vulnerable.

One of the louder moments of consensus following Robin Williams’s death has been the well-meaning suggestion that friends and family members suffering from clinical depression should ask for help. Jimmy Kimmel said it like this: if you’re sad, please tell someone. As though someone in the middle (or, worse, at the end) of a profound depression, to the point of being suicidal, might pause their illness long enough to recognize and understand it, poke their head out of the shell, and then speak of their illness to a neighbor, a sibling, someone sitting across from them on the northbound El. Never mind, for a moment, the remarkable similarity to those post-9/11 NYC subway ads about terrorists. What responsibility exactly are we undertaking with such recognition? What should the informed person exactly do: call a friend, their doctor, a hotline, the police? How is the recognition of real helplessness a symptom of sanity? I’m thinking of the beginning of Catch-22:

“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

"That's some catch, that Catch-22," he observed.

"It's the best there is," Doc Daneeka agreed.”

Robin Williams acted well and often, and seeing him from the distance of a career, he behaved publicly with a grace and kindness—a sanity—that made his public appearances, however zany, feel like great performances. Recognizably manic: human. And yet, like most ticket buyers, I stopped expecting very much from his acting. Then, I stopped buying tickets to his movies. I agreed he was very good in the beginning, and that something then sort of fizzled out once I recognized his tricks. Like most of America, apparently, Cait and I re-watched Dead Poet’s Society last week, a movie that I swore at some point I’d never watch again. It had settled in my mind as Hollywood bunk about creativity; a movie that, as a teenager, seemed liberating, and then fizzled out into something not so good. After his death, the movie came instantly to mind to remember him, suddenly iconic and signature. The movie itself is still uneven. But something in that movie is good, and it comes forward with more clarity the few times Williams is on-screen.

Really, the later-period Robin Williams gem is World’s Greatest Dad. Williams is terrific in it, largely because his performance in the movie seems distinctly un-Robin Williams. With none of the usual tricks, he inhabits that most inarticulate quality of grief—ambivalence—without doing much of anything I recognize as acting. Reading about Williams’s life, I kept thinking of that paragraph toward the end of Scott Russell Sanders’s essay about his father’s alcoholism, Under the Influence, in which Sanders passes through an intervening eighteen years of sobriety, to the back-end of the time during which his father drank himself to death. During his interview with Marc Maron, Williams talked about his twenty years of sobriety, and then the moment of a hotel mini-bar, and the following years of struggle, which seem, in the accounts of his death, some part of a stalled and ultimately failing effort, the gun in the first act, the broken promise.

What did Robin Williams ever promise me that I felt entitled to hold him personally to account? I didn’t know the man. Like so much feeling, my reaction falls along an incriminating and messy spectrum of contradiction and irresolution, the ebb and flow of meaning and fact. To quote the fantastic opening of Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression:

Depression is the flaw in love. To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of that despair. When it comes, it degrades one's self and ultimately eclipses the capacity to give or receive affection…In depression, the meaninglessness of every enterprise and every emotion, the meaninglessness of life itself, becomes self-evident. The only feeling left in this loveless state is insignificance.

It’s an awful thing to feel loveless, to despair, to neglect what we know better than to take for granted. But when we rush to comfort people who truly suffer with bland sentiments of “it gets better,” and “ask for help,” etc., I think we patronize them a bit. In such moments, we’re really speaking to ourselves. We are assuring ourselves that there is an end to suffering, and a clear path to that ending. And yet, we know that suffering follows no clear path to its end, if it ends at all. In place of sympathy, perhaps, we might try honesty, and barring that, simple consideration:

At the time [Emily Post] undertook her book of etiquette, there would have been few American households untouched by the influenza pandemic of 1918. Death was up close, at home. The average adult was expected to deal competently, and also sensitively, with its aftermath. When someone dies, I was taught growing up in California, you bake a ham. You drop it by the house. You go to the funeral. If the family is Catholic you also go to the rosary but you do not wail or keep or in any other way demand the attention of the family. In the end Emily Post’s 1922 etiquette book turned out to be as acute in its apprehension of this other way of death, and as prescriptive in its treatment of grief, as anything else I read. I will not forget the instinctive wisdom of the friend who, every day for those first few weeks, brought me a quart container of scallion-and-ginger congee from Chinatown. Congee I could eat. Congee was all I could eat. (The Year of Magical Thinking)

Public figures are easy to imagine. We don’t know them at all. We’re happy marking them to a place and time in our life, a performance in a movie, a haircut, a grace of the body, that asks them forever to, always, please, just stand in place. As movies, as in life. We look for one thing until we’re sure we see it, after which, we miss all the rest. Most of the explanations we make after a death are about ourselves: what we fear still, the mistakes we do not mean to make again in our lives, the cautions we relive or wish someone had made to us, how we suffered our own cataclysmic loss. Which is how I think it should be. The initial reaction is the public part. The private part is all the rest. At first, we’re lucky to think we can make any sense at all, with spouses, family members, strangers, even good friends, at that moment when the beautiful life, however flawed, is suddenly gone, and our memory of that life fills with clues, which are useless now for how they make sense.