Tuesday, September 20, 2011


Last night, I started reading Elyn R. Saks's "The Center Cannot Hold." Saks's opening chapters do a deft job of defining the essential problems of living with various kinds/causes of instability: how does one expect to find a center, and then, what will give the center integrity such that one can trust it to hold? Her answer, it seems, is to begin and sustain a thoughtful dialogue about meaning and stability, so as to measure the gaps against the continuing pieces. This runs counter to one contemporary response to loss, which is to give it definitive beginnings and ends, to say that, much like an infection is cured by antibiotics, or a trash can is emptied and taken across town to the county dump, so too can we tinker with and compartmentalize the events and interruptions in a life. Later, Saks notes, "While medication had kept me alive, it had been psychoanalysis that helped me find a life worth living." Saks’s memoir looks to be, I think, the last entry in a summer's worth of solid memoir/essay reading (looking to my Kindle: In Pharaoh's Army, The Duke of Deception,History of a Suicide, A Journey with Two Maps, Speak, Memory, Just Kids, Memoranda During the War, Notes from No Man's Land, The Traveling Death and Resurrection Show, Reality Hunger).

Saks's "center" is a terrific concept. It suggests flatness, a total absence of hierarchy, and valuing by proximity, infinitely. But it also suggests limitation. Saks believes in the value of continuity, but also in defining limits, taking breaks, making choices, understanding opportunity costs. I don’t know that these are easy criteria to understand when writing about personal experience. It seems that the impulse to say everything often supersedes the selected moment, while representation in the particular event or action requires some sense of narrative, order, hierarchy. There is a nice moment at the beginning of season 2 of Breaking Bad, when a strung-out drug dealer shows up at an old friend’s house, and prattles on about how great it will be to get their band back together, while the friend feeds his toddler Cheerios, smiling, humoring him, catching every third word. As my friend Kelly once suggested, in a different context, it’s terrible to become a parody of oneself. Perhaps, also, to revisit the same old self, in the same ways, for the same reasons, again and again.

Paul Begala's recent Newsweek column makes a terrific defense of the U.S. federal government. He calls it "the greatest force for good in human history. Period." This might be a bit of an overreach--David Plotz has argued that China, in bringing basic amenities to hundreds of millions of its citizens, far outpaces other nations in the 20th century--but it is good to see someone thoughtfully, and outside of the usual Democratic talking points, taking up the cause of big government. Regulation instead of enterprise, obligation instead of need. It feels much-needed, but then I also understand that there is rarely much new under the American political sun. Perhaps Obama's reelection prospects come down to whether there is really any new way to triangulate entrenched interests. Clinton figured it out, but somehow nostalgia for the 90s seems to come forward in this conversation, rather than entitlement or tax reform. How strange to witness such nostalgia, especially considering that, as we lived through it, the dominant feeling seemed to be that we were tunneling head-first through a vacuous wasteland of recycled ideas about music, fashion, writing, and culture.

I gave a reading last week in San Francisco, as part of Jen Pitts’s terrific It’s Gotta Be True series, at Viracocha. The night before the reading, I practiced for Cait a lengthy quasi-academic introduction. It seemed important to give some kind of context for the poems, to prepare the audience a little before starting off. Cait said she liked the remarks, but they were dry; why not open instead with a story? When I was an undergraduate, I keep these two quotes pegged on note cards over my writing desk (Norman Mailer: the mark of the mediocre mind is to seek precedent;Warren Beatty: if you have a secret to keep, keep it). Then, I believed these quotes explained everything I would need to know in order to begin a writing life. Now, it seems funny, a little embarrassing, that I found such comfort in these semi-maxims, which would seem to exclude structurally much of what I try to do in my writing. How had I gotten it so wrong? Had these pithy phrases stuck with me for a reason? These seemed like important questions for understanding the creative process that enabled me to write the poems I eventually read that night.

I have alternated awe and ambivalence at the clips of Jim Corneilson singing the national anthem at Soldier Field, on the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks circulating via email and Facebook. Awe, because his is a magnificent and big-hearted performance, a patriotic march without the usual shock and timbre of a big brass band, that nonetheless riles a nervous crowd to dizzying heights of feeling. It's hard not to cheer along, to swell with feeling. Ambivalence, because there is something compensatory in that feeling, a desire for closure and triumph where it has yet to take, that feels, at the end, more than a little frantic and preemptive. What are we rooting for? Who are we rooting against? Where is the uncertainty, the intervening time that accommodates reflection, analysis, measured action in response? There is the initial deference, then the longer-term uncertainty that sets in and usually does not resolve with group singing. Perhaps a football game is not the right place to undertake nuanced contemplation, but then when and where is? It seems a state of permanent victimhood to insist repeatedly that one is unaffected and also stronger after a traumatic loss. It is a kind of willed imperviousness that makes me deeply uncomfortable.

Perhaps this is one expression of elegy, to name those symbols that contain grief and make it portable, even durable, as the world around it changes; think of the painted nails on Meghan O'Rourke's Aunts, Jack Gilbert's potted avocado,Longfellow's Cross of Snow. Paul Simon's performance of "The Boxer" on Saturday Night Live, shortly after September 11th, gets at the uncertainty and contemplation that follows grief and trauma in a much more meaningful way for me. Will we survive, seems the right question, followed closely by, And to what will we return? I love the ovation that Simon gets at the end. It is pure catharsis, unexpected, as though the audience had forgotten for a moment that it wants to applaud, that the song might end unexpectedly, without cue or triumph. What a testament to and expression of the shock and awe of having been attacked, and of feeling defenseless--the first gesture of naming and sustaining the true center that will hold after the one we imagined fell apart.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Quitting For Katie (Kyle's Project)

Katie's stepbrother (and KMF Director) Kyle Naff has undertaken a pretty impressive and unusual project, to improve his personal health and also raise money for KMF. It's called Quitting For Katie.

In short, Kyle will be using a blog to gather sponsors and take donations in his quest to quit smoking. All of the money he raises will go directly to support KMF's programs. At Quitting For Katie you can follow his progress and cheer him on. It's easy to support Kyle in his quest. Here's the link:

Please spread the word far and wide. In these tough economic times, fundraising is challenging for nonprofits. Even with our awesome donor base, KMF is no exception.

Thanks to Kyle for all of his great work. And of course, Kyle, GOOD LUCK with Quitting For Katie!



Sunday, September 11, 2011


Netflix has recently put a back catalog of professional wrestling videos into its instant stream. These are low-budget compilation videos that either highlight certain career arcs or rank wrestlers from different eras according to an arbitrary, if fairly predictable, matrix of profitability and profile. On the whole, the matches have aged very poorly; a tradeoff of spectacle for skill masks over the glaring deficiencies of the most popular wrestlers, while the best technical wrestlers aren't popular enough to warrant a big-market compilation video. I might argue here that the most skillful matches of all-time are lost in the ether of memory and anecdote, somewhere between Memphis and Tuscaloosa, to the heyday of traveling circus shows and local circuits, rather than carefully scripted television events, but this would be confusing with its popularity the basic argument of wrestling. A wrestling match is spectacle. It teases and cajoles. It holds our attention until we pause a moment to catch our breath, and when we look back, against our better judgment, we wonder: how was this outcome ever in doubt?

Wrestling and politics work within similar, stable grammars of prediction and preordination. In pure wrestling terms, Barack Obama is a face, Mitt Romney is a face, and Rick Perry is a heel who has arrived on the scene quickly and forcefully to clear the ring and put Romney over with a skeptical base. If Romney beats Perry by seeming more reasonable and electable, then Perry will have done his job, in much the same way that Perry's arrival already diminishes Michelle Bachman's meteoric rise and fall. If you liked Bachman, the reasoning goes, because you wanted a charismatic fringe candidate who spoke truth to power, truth be damned, then you could do better to pick the big-state governor over the blue-state Congressperson. Perry is ultimately unstable, prone to gaffes, hyperbole, and blunder; this is his role as a heel, to show us how calm, cool, vetted, and venerable Romney seems in comparison. Perry comes forward to remind us not to elect candidates like him, to choose them as heroes, to love them as spoilers, but, in the end, root for the guy who really has the chance to win.

Roland Barthes loved wrestling. In his terrific 1957 essay, The World of Wrestling, Barthes locates wrestling in a long tradition of Western spectacles:

"...wrestling partakes of the nature of the great solar spectacles, Greek drama, and bullfights: in both, a light without shadow generates an emotion without reserve...The public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so; it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle, which is to abolish all motives and all consequences: what matters is not what it thinks but what it sees."

I think that I was hoping to find such a cathartic moment in flipping through the Netflix catalog of wrestling moments past, but instead, I found myself fast-forwarding, over and over, to the very ends of matches, and feeling more than a little hollow as, time and again, the hero emerged, bloodied, wobbly, and victorious. Why did I want my boyhood heroes to suffer so mightily? I don't admire it now. Their Olympian physiques seem cartoonish, yes, but also strange and vulnerable for the bulges of fat, and the absence, and the plain, blunt literalness of so much muscle on slender, small frames. Always some knee is being crushed, worked over, worn down. You can see on the foreheads of old wrestlers thin scars from where they cut themselves with razor blades. Then, you only saw the blood. Now, the gesture of suffering is symbolic, persuasive even, but the blood is still real. The audience roars. It is keen to judge the worthiness of a sacrifice. The sacrifice is rehearsed and I fear that the witness is cued, and so, performed, too. What I feel now starts as expectation and ends as nostalgia, but also disappointment that I dismiss the range of this thing I once so admired as to study and love it, passionately and exclusively as what I love now.

A friend asked recently if I was writing about Walt and the first year of his life in my poems; do new poems reflect as intense an engagement with present-day subject matter as older ones do with the past? The answer, not surprisingly, is that I don't take as much time to write the catalog of Walt's first year. We do scrapbook. We take photos and share them with friends and family members. We write email updates and every once in a while I work into this blog a paragraph about something Walt and I have done together. I think there is a predictability in what I might enjoy during my time with Walt that may seem very familiar to how our culture thinks about new parents, and to what just-parents remember about their own experience. I don't mean to deny the common ground. But I wonder if it's as interesting and useful to articulate it. The best poems, for me, are those that have a voice in which I believe, to which I want to listen, and also a subject matter that I find interesting. I really have no reason not to write poems about Walt, except that at the moment, I'm writing about and trying to make sense of other things. With that in mind, I'll close with two striking poems by Michael Longley:

The Ice-Cream Man

Rum and raisin, vanilla, butter-scotch, walnut, peach:
You would rhyme off the flavours. That was before
They murdered the ice-cream man on the Lisburn Road
And you bought carnations to lay outside his shop.
I named for you all the wild flowers of the Burren
I had seen in one day: thyme, valerian, loosestrife,
Meadowsweet, tway blade, crowfoot, ling, angelica,
Herb robert, marjoram, cow parsley, sundew, vetch,
Mountain avens, wood sage, ragged robin, stitchwort,
Yarrow, lady’s bedstraw, bindweed, bog pimpernel.

The Design

Sometimes the quilts were white for weddings, the design
Made up of stitches and the shadows cast by stitches.
And the quilts for funerals? How do you sew the night?