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July 2006
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July 2007

Picnic

After we eat, Beth’s telling us
about the bags, how the remains
were raked up from the roadside and
shipped home to Stockbridge on a jet.

“A charter jet," she says, “The military
goes all out.” (This praise
from one who’s seen some fancy stuff
at her Daddy’s funeral home.)

Jamie, Beth and I agree,
“It’s the least they can do.” I see
the ants have found their way up from
the playground mulch into our cups.

Our husbands are on swing patrol,
keeping the small ones in motion with just
their fingertips. They fling their
stubby limbs up to the pines.

“The eulogy was weird. The guy
went on and on about Buddha,”
she laughs and straps a velcro
harness to her youngest boy.

And he orbits her in tiny steps,
unearths a dull plastic barrette,
and chicken bone. He hasn’t touched
the ham and cheese that bears his name.

"Daddy was chatting with the guy,
Like, what a shame it is, so young.
The escort looked ahead and goes,
‘This is war. Somebody’s got to die.’”

Yes, he said that, and he told her,
and she’s telling us. (Just like when we
were girls, she claimed they let her play
dress up with the bodies.)


Meet the Class

Twice today we had to go around the table introducing ourselves to the class. Where we’re from, what we do, why we’re here, in this particular program. The retirees tend to go on and on. We hear about all their former careers, plus their grandchildren. The guys joke a little, but its too early and nobody has a sense of humor. The young women demure, keeping it to three or four modest statements.

At one table we had a retired priest and a retired minister, a teacher of music and a professor of mathematics, a guy who worked construction to pay for grad school and a poet who had a published a few books, but wouldn’t say how many because, “one doesn’t stay up all night counting.”

When it’s my turn, I blush. God, what did I say? I introduced myself as a graphic designer by trade, quick to distinguish myself. I regret saying I married “an Atlanta boy,” a term I have never used before. I regret pronouncing the “t” in Atlanta, instead of saying it the way we normally would: “Atlanna.” I hate it when people do that. I regret going on about myself for too long. I regret not saying enough. But the biggest whopper I told was this:

“There are lots of little things I’ve been blogging about and I’m hoping this program will help me actually finish them.”

Not to be superstitious, but I will pay for this baloney. First of all, to call myself a blogger is a stretch. Second, it strains credulity to think that these postings are or will become anything more than just that: disjointed diary entries. Not one hour after making this statement, I read that ebook article from the last post which argues that closure is overrated, and maybe even obsolete to this form.


Platform issues

I tried to do some homework last night that involved flipping through four thick, paperback literature anthologies with flimsy pages. Authentic, old-fashioned research. I even performed this activity by checking out real heavy books in a spooky library that looks to be straight out of Hogwarts.

I kept getting distracted and stopping to read other pieces, stuff it seems like I ought to have already read. I stole a moment with H.L. Mencken, Gone With the Wind and Wendell Berry’s essay about why he’ll never get a computer. This kind of skimming or sampling has more in common with the hungry ADD of web-surfing and you just can’t read a Norton Anthology like it’s a blog. But before you luddites think I’m completely corrupted by Nintendo, I remember having the same level of curiosity and distraction as a kid looking up words in the dictionary.

At one point I was searching for Robert E. Lee’s name on a page and itching to use a “Find” or “Sort” function like I would in any digital medium. The effort of having to read deeply, so inefficient, was almost making me growl. I'm tempted to say that lame old print is to blame. Then again, I sometimes find myself reaching for the command+Z key when I pour too much milk in my cereal, or nick my ankles shaving– whenever it would be convenient to “Undo” the last action. So maybe the medium is not the culprit, but user conditioning?

Going back to printed books is like switching platforms. I’m not sure what to think of these minor exercises in taming my reflexes. I suspect it means everything to the way I write, read, think and work. Which is something I bet Wendell Berry didn't foresee when he wrote his protest in 1987. I cannot imagine writing these words, for example, without copy & paste, linked references, instant publication, and the potential for feedback. Writing without these tools would change my motivations entirely, not just my methods.


S.O.L.

It was another night occupied with processing the mundane. I woke up earlier this morning and started the catalog of my dreams, then fell asleep again and it was all erased. Recall, reset, and clear the cache to make way for more information. My mind is missing its dual processor. Mug, how is your thinking these days?

It is strange to be back in the world of words. The S.O.L. (School of Letters) is housed in a recently renovated stone building, a state-of-the-art temple of learning. Students decorate the perfectly groomed grounds, engrossed in reading. But does nobody else notice that the furniture is tasteless, all 90s mauves and hunter green? The glossy mahogany and brass accents look like a parody of academia next to the hotel carpet.

Books are stacked up to the ceiling. So many titles that I’ve never read, it makes my head spin. Everywhere I look, I analyze typography to still the compulsion to read the text. Here the fetish is not interior design, but Faulkner, Shakespeare and the OED. I retreat into design critique before I admit that it’s all a bit intimidating. It’s vice versa when I’m in a crowd of designers.

Yesterday was the first day of our Southern Literature class. We were asked to examine some of the editorial decisions of our assigned anthologies, specifically, how the content is organized. “This book has no pictures,” was my first comment, which got a laugh. But now I think I was testing the crowd at the risk of looking like a ditz. I can’t be the only one here with aesthetic requirements beyond the written word.


The Double Process

Captain's Log:
Bad dreams again. Suffocating, being chased but unable to run. Hiding under a bed, in a clothes dryer, more gasping for air. Sources: Mad Max, Mad Max II. The Road Warrior, severe allergies and respiratory congestion, the fearsome “social hour” here at school and 4 attempts at deciding what to wear.

Speaking of subdued anxiety, I found an acknowledgement, kind of a clinical diagnosis of my writerly schizophrenia:

“…the double process, excessive preoccupation and identification with the lives of others, and at the same time a monstrous detachment…The tension between standing apart and being fully involved: that is what makes a writer.” –Nadine Gordimer

(I mark these quotes in a paperback with a pencil is named “Black Warrior.” This kind of detail would turn up in a dream unless I exorcise it now in words.)

Atwood spends a whole chapter expounding on this condition, how “the mere act of writing splits the self into two.” Which seems a little over-the-top to me. The same could be said of psychology or art or religion or science¬– any system that seeks to examine or criticize life in real time. Like Mug’s favorite quote from Hegel- something about how awareness intrudes into art.

So now I’m thinking about the idea of being a whole, or integrated person as I’m doing the dirty work of writing. More specifically, writing stuff that could be read by my employers and grandparents, and still be appreciated by my invisible literary audience. I tend to clam up or disown my writing, rather than face the consequences. This self-editing is yet another edge to the compulsive self-consciousness that enables me to write in the first place.

So the idea of a “double,” an evil twin who does all the writing is pretty handy when it comes to spreading blame. Its not an exaggeration to say that some of my best writing is hardly recognizable to me. Like Borges, I have “turned out some decent enough pages,” but I can’t take credit for them. Even in relating my dreams, I feel like a plagarist.

Blogging is the ultimate stream of consciousness method with no apologies towards anonymity. Though more ephemeral than the printed page, the blog, “like the graffiti artist, is freer than the tale-teller: he doesn’t stick around for feedback.”

Maybe this tentative, crowd pleasing writing is really only half-assed craft. To do my job properly, I should be crossing the Rubicon.


Sitting & Silence

I read this right before bed last night:
“Come my dear, do you know nothing? Relate something to us, like the others.” She said: Then I will relate a dream.” -The Robber Bridegroom, from the Brothers Grimm

Then I had the first of my anxiety dreams:
I’m at a party, or watching a movie of a party, can’t tell which one. Miranda July is there, I think that’s her, or somebody with her style- eyeliner, prim 80s hairdo and silk blouse. An old friend is there, a boy named Ben I used to crave, with his bright orange hair in a long mullet/Mohawk. I can tell that Miranda is his kind of girl. Everyone seems to be galloping around in the basement of an art museum or something. Surrounded by cool people, like Myra said at the club on Saturday, I felt a pang of longing. I should have worn something different.

Perhaps they are making a movie together. Does she collaborate with her boyfriends? That is so cool. I didn’t know her boyfriend was Mike Mills, the graphic designer. I read this in a magazine last week and it was as titillating to me as a grocery store tabloid. Like Britney and Ryan Phillipe. Anyways, I saw his name in the dream, but not his face. “Mills” as a logo, as in the trucking company– thick circus type in yellow and red on blue. It would make a nice tag, a vinyl sticker. I must have seen it on a truck on the drive up I-75 north, just passing through my peripheral.

I like to parse my dreams. Here we find an examined life where nothing is original. Roadside advertising, magazine celebrity, young art stars, old crushes and envious hairstyles. Is this really what goes on in my head? Apparently.

Picked up Margaret Atwood's book on writing and here's some lines that rang a bell:
Writers share “the inability to distinguish between the real and the imagined, or rather the attitude that what we consider real is also imagined: every life lived is also an inner life, a life created.”

Are writers somehow dishonest? In denial? I am trying to find out if other people narrarate their quiet actions the way I do. This sense of the constant voice, the dialogue in my head that is both supremely self-conscious and wildly oblivious. I first noticed I was doing it while climbing a hill by my elementary school. Is this what is meant by “living in the moment” ?

“Three kinds of books: books read in school as part of the course, acceptable books read openly outside of school- found lying around the house or got from the library- and books suspected of being taboo, peeked at while baby-sitting for careless neighbors.”

This is funny because I remember reaching the age, just past graduation, where these divisions disappeared and all books fell in to one vast non-category. I kept pointing out to people that I was free to read whatever I wanted, what a thrill. I started developing my own outlines for “media studies,” including “old books I ought to have read,” “publishing phenomena,” “the kind of writing I might like to do some day,” and “novels of distraction.” Also, I did a lot of the 3rd type of reading while babysitting and hanging out at Grandma’s condo.

“We shared many of the same childhood pursuits, but he gave them up and turned to other forms of amusement, and I did not.”

She was referring to her brother, who once surprised her by admitting that he had entertained the idea of becoming a writer. We like these blunt statements about the difference between a writer and everyone else. We want to believe that it’s really that simple. This goes hand in hand with the quote from Graham Greene: "One has no talent... I have no talent. It's just a question of working, of being willing to put in the time." Also, Atwood talks about the importance of books and solitude in her childhood, which seems like a basic formula. Even though I imagine it’s not that simple, I’m promising myself and Jason and our future children more of that.

I heard Sarah Vowell give a reading and she commented that if she’s doing her job properly, it involves lots of sitting in one spot for long periods of time. And I remember seeing Flannery O’Connor’s desk at Andalusia, her crutches leaning against the chair. Loneliness is built in to this process. Books and solitude, sitting and silence.

Along those lines:
“True silence which is creative silence is the most demanding activity God asks of any of us. Here it is that heart and mind and will, memory and imagination are gathered up and collected in God.”
-Robert Llewelyn

I am only silent when I am disciplined- reading, writing, designing, praying, running and flossing.