Jordan

In third grade, a girl hit me in the face with a tetherball and knocked me down. Her name was Vanessa and she had three ponytails. After she and her friends called me a bad word and walked away I stayed where I was, lying on my back and looking up at the sun through the fingers of one hand. The color of the sunlight going through my skin was pretty great. It was the color of ripe papaya flesh, but I didn’t know that yet. It was almost the color of one of my least favorite Crayola colors, Atomic Tangerine. I never liked that crayon because when you draw with it it looks nothing like the wrapper. From where I was, lying on the tetherball court, I could see the kids from first and second grade walking to the cafeteria for lunch. They were sideways and small. They sounded like windup toys. I have never been in a fistfight but I think I would like to be.

Dream: Someone has made me very angry. I go up to him and poke him in the chest, twice, in his ugly blue shirt with its embroidered logo that says “Golfing!” I tell him to get out of here, but we are standing in the middle of nowhere, in a brilliantly hot desert on a hill above a blue sea. If he gets out of here, I will have to watch him walk away to make sure he really leaves. “If you think you can tell me what to do,” I say, but before I have a chance to issue a threat I see him swimming far off in the sea in all his clothes. He is the size of nothing, but I can still see him, no matter how far away he swims. He waves his hands at me and I wave back.

Bavaria

Between Sunday and Wednesday of this week, I wrote nineteen poems. Last week, I wrote six stories. The week before that, I wrote a very long essay. It was weird. To make up for how strange it was—for how irresponsible it seemed—I then made a list of the things I’m writing that have been unfinished for more than a couple of months. I hoped the list would give me a sense of obligation: either finish these things or abandon them completely, but in any case do something with them. I don’t like making lists, but I do like deleting things. It was a big deal.

I learned a lot from my list. The main thing I learned is that in 2012, which was in a real sense the year I started writing seriously, I wrote over 200 things that never made it past the third line or sentence. In 2010 and 2011, I wrote almost 300 poems, and one of them was good. Last year, I cleaned up after myself; there are no drafts, just finished things, that I could do something with now if I wanted to. 2014 was the year of half-built projects. Everything from 2014 is an enthusiastic burst of unbridled intention that stops dead in the middle of a sentence or a line. According to my computer, which has never lied to me, I never modified any of these files or even opened them again.

The thrilling conclusion to this story is that I went ahead and deleted everything I wrote before 2015.

Anyway, here’s a typewriter

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Yosemite

Because I haven’t been home a lot in the past two weeks, I’ve been having a lot of original ideas. They might not be good ideas but they’re ideas. In my house it is impossible to have a thought other than a thought that is about the screaming noise that the people and animals in my house are making. If there are any jobs out there that hire people who have a lot of thoughts about screaming, I am an ideal candidate. I will get the job done but it will be necessary for me to work from home if I am to complete the task.

I watched the movie Flicka last night because I was given no choice in the matter by the children who hold tyrannical sway over my destiny. In the movie Flicka, the actors who play the parents are the same age as the actors who play the children. The girl in the movie briefly dresses in drag and enters a small-time rodeo to avoid writing an essay about ghost horses. The movie is a commentary on the uselessness of creative writing programs. In the end her dad types an essay up from the notes in her composition book and emails it to the high school (englishclass@highschoolneartheranch.net), where Elmore Leonard is probably the principal and Thomas Pynchon the janitor. Everyone loves her dad’s essay. The girl’s horse also gives her a fever and the two of them enter into a symbiotic relationship characterized by low-pitched moaning. The music at the end is exactly the same as the X-Files music except for the last two notes in the phrase. This movie is about the serious consequences of not knuckling down and finishing your essays. If you live on a huge ranch in Wyoming and you don’t finish your essays, if you are not inspired, your horse will turn into E.T.

Dream: I don’t have dreams anymore but if I did they would all be about how much I would like to be able to sleep again. The dream I had last week, which I remember fondly because it was a dream and that means I was asleep, had to do with lying in a pool of cold water at the bottom of an ornate staircase where two houses met in the middle of an otherwise empty field. There was no one around for miles. I got out of the water and walked away from the stairs. I was too tired to climb them just then. Nothing made a sound for a thousand miles. The sun wasn’t too bright to look at. I stared at it for what seemed like hours, on the verge of free thought and enlightenment, until I woke up and discovered that I had left the lamp on the nightstand on all night.

Seoul

Dreams: For the past four nights, I have dreamed of making a friend. In the first— and best—of these dreams, a woman I had been dream-friends with for a dream-lifetime succumbed to a mysterious illness. Together, before she died, we did all the things she wanted to do one last time. She wanted to eat rocky road ice cream at an ice cream parlor, swing on a swing, travel to Seoul to sample the cuisine, and ride a tandem bike. She wanted, also, to own a dog, but I cautioned her against this decision. The dog would live long after she passed away, and who would care for it? “You’re good with dogs,” she told me as we flew home from Seoul, gas masks dangling due to a harmless technical malfunction. I flicked the mask in front of me and reminded her that no one is “good with dogs.” I reminded her that it takes years of hard work and dedication to train a dog, and that any dogs she had seen me with were just such well-trained animals, and that this had created in her mind an illusion: that I was somehow gifted with animals. She wasn’t giving the dogs enough credit. As I spoke she looked at me with a pained but patient expression on her sick face. She supped at the oxygen mask, defying the flight attendants. I recognized at last that I was wasting the pittance of time that remained to her on my trademark pedantic logic. While technically accurate, it benefitted no one. In my dream I dreamed of a life turned over to art and mystery. And then we got her a medium sized dog, one that, like us, was old. Someone had already done the hard work. It was trained. It did not make a mess on the floor or chomp its leash or our fingers. My dream-friend, Sandra, grew frightened of her impending death. I took her to a playground and pushed her on the swing until her backlit face disappeared into the sky. The medium-sized yellow dog never barked. It sat next to my foot and yawned.

Paris

Sometimes, now that I live in California, people will tell me about my aura. It’s always people that I barely know. When I was walking through the neighborhood this morning, a woman told me that I was not centered. She said it would be easy to find my center. At the end of the leash she was holding was one of those small white dogs with yellowed fur around its eyes. The kind with fur that looks like a very old rug. I ran away. It was socially acceptable to run away because I was wearing athletic clothing and running shoes. Another time, a woman told me that she could tell by holding someone’s hand whether the aura was clear. I did not offer her my hand. It’s anybody’s guess whether my aura is clear. When I got home from walking and running I spilled kale juice all over the floor. While I was cleaning it up I wondered what was going on. And then I remembered that I was not centered, and cleaning up the kale juice seemed like no big deal by comparison.

Dream: I am on a field trip to the top of some monument in Paris. Whatever monument it is doesn’t make any sense, because it’s surrounded by extremely tall skyscrapers that all look like the Chrysler building, which is not in Paris. To get a better picture of the urban scenery, I have to stand on the ledge. A dizzying sensation overwhelms me, and in my own dream I look at myself and assure me that it’s fine to be afraid of heights and that I don’t have to go up high anymore if I don’t want to. I go downstairs to the restaurant and eat green beans and drink water and beer. This is one of the best dreams I’ve ever had.

Pennsylvania

 

Yesterday the Poetry Foundation shared my poem “Listening to Townes Van Zandt” on its Facebook page. Some people are having a thrilling argument in the comments about Screen Shot 2015-10-28 at 9.27.29 AMwhether Townes Van Zandt was a minor artist.

My next poem will be called “Listening to The Beatles” or “Listening to Taylor Swift” or “Listening to Major Artists.” I have not decided yet.

Dream: I am driving through a Pennsylvania forest, at night, in a red car. The radio will not turn on so I accelerate in hopes of generating enough noise from the engine and the wind resistance to distract me from my own thoughts, which are primarily about loss and baking. Before long, my passenger, who is wearing a baseball glove, has had enough of my driving. He exits through the window. As I watch him go, I grow distracted and accelerate even more. I look forward in time to see that I am about to collide with the parking garage. It’s too late to stop. I wake up before I can be trapped, permanently, in the parking garage.

 

Pond Scum Is Part of the Ecosystem

“On the whole,” he wrote, “it was not so impressive a scene as I might have expected. If I had found one body cast upon the beach in some lonely place, it would have affected me more. I sympathized rather with the winds and waves, as if to toss and mangle these poor human bodies was the order of the day. If this was the law of Nature, why waste any time in awe or pity?” This impassive witness also had stern words for those who, undone by the tragedy, could no longer enjoy strolling along the beach. Surely, he admonished, “its beauty was enhanced by wrecks like this, and it acquired thus a rarer and sublimer beauty still.”

Who was this cold-eyed man who saw in loss of life only aesthetic gain, who identified not with the drowned or the bereaved but with the storm? This was Henry David Thoreau

I read something this week that I thought was pretty lazy. It’s called “Pond Scum” by Kathryn Schulz in the New Yorker. It is a spectacular list of reasons about why Thoreau was not, in a word, worthwhile. The author does a good job of pointing out a lot of Thoreau's_cabin_insideinformation about Thoreau’s thoughts and his way of expressing himself by quoting his writing, at first, but the essay quickly devolves into less of an essay and more of a defensive position, such as the kind a very large army fighting a smaller army might take upon a hill. There is no real reason, other than vanity, to put a phalanx on the hill.

In general, I do not agree with the tack of surrounding the entire life’s work of an author and firing weapons at it. If you ask me in five years I may have changed my mind; I have not read all the authors of the past to see just how bad-to-the-bone they were. I can’t say. In any event, that is what this person has done in her essay. Here is one of the stranger excerpts:

Thoreau went to Walden, he tells us, “to learn what are the gross necessaries of life”: whatever is so essential to survival “that few, if any, whether from savageness, or poverty, or philosophy, ever attempt to do without it.” Put differently, he wanted to try what we would today call subsistence living, a condition attractive chiefly to those not obliged to endure it. It attracted Thoreau because he “wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life.” Tucked into that sentence is a strange distinction; apparently, some of the things we experience while alive count as life while others do not. In “Walden,” Thoreau made it his business to distinguish between them.

I do believe that most people I know, and I will cautiously include myself here, make distinctions and distinguish between them when it comes to what counts as life, whether consciously or not. I also believe that people have thoughts, and write them down, for purposes other than to please other people who may someday write for The New Yorker. I have carried out experiments in hunger and abstinence. I have pushed my body to extreme physical limits. I have been, unwisely, vegan. I have camped far from a shower. I have gone without styling my hair for years at a time. I have, also, chosen thrilling hobbies that make me feel more alive. I have watched dozens of episodes of Forensic Files on Netflix in the dark of night when I am alone. I have eaten large slices of cake. All of these things, Spartan or not, give me joy and make me feel alert. When my friends go skydiving, or SCUBA diving, I don’t choose to join them. They are making it their business to map out and tentatively define the parameters of life that make them happy. I could not be more delighted for them. As they go whipping through the air with their hair and cheeks flapping strangely or sinking heavily to the depths of the sea with their mouths wrapped around large plastic implements, they are either sucking out the marrow of life or transplanting it with some other, more vivid, marrow. When they describe these adventures to me, I will not warn them that they are making distinctions. I will just listen.

While calling Thoreau’s morality “myopic,” the author herself has drawn so uncomfortably close to the outline of his proscriptions and musings that she, herself, may now need to put on a strong pair of glasses when she looks away. “I cannot idolize anyone who opposes coffee ,” she says, while going on to call into question Thoreau’s asceticism part and parcel, as if to try and temper one extreme with a tincture of hedonism to which we might all grudgingly and guiltily relate. This is a truly strange and malformed position to take. When I read Jane Eyre, for instance, I don’t tend to stop and say “I cannot idolize anyone who puts his wife in confinement in an isolated wing of a large house.” I tend to say “oh my” very quietly and go on reading. When I read, in general, I do not stop and think about which parts of what I’m reading are good and bad. There is one exception: essays about Henry David Thoreau’s legacy in the canon.

It appears, then, that Schulz has made the grand mistake of taking either insult or offense to the mind of another person. This is clear because, in the wake of her slew of examples that pinpoint the incorrect ways in which Thoreau’s principles are counted as American, she allows her depiction of his work and her suppositions about his beliefs to veer completely away from curiosity and examination and well into the auspices of the Not In My Mental Backyard organization. It is this new American tradition—not the traditions of duality and harmony with nature and individualism that Schulz dislikes— that I do not particularly care for, the one that makes me stop reading and say “I don’t agree” – the art of passing judgment on every last unit of an author’s work with the wave of one’s modern, social index finger. If this approach is to be taken seriously much longer, we will soon have to give new and young writers a test before they are allowed to continue with even their most unambitious projects. We will have to do away with writing done by people who might like to discuss living simply or quietly lest their recommendations make us uncomfortable in the morning when our donuts and coffee are firmly in hand or at night when we are drinking quartinos of wine and looking at pictures of our friends online. We will have to stop ourselves from reading most things that are not perfect.

It might do us some good to advocate a style of reading and writing that is slightly more permissive of things that are interesting. (I would go so far as to say that Thoreau (the writer, not the person) is “interesting.”) Here is what Schulz says at one point:

This comprehensive arrogance is captured in one of Thoreau’s most famous lines: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” It is a mystery to me how a claim so simultaneously insufferable and absurd ever entered the canon of popular quotations.

I do not believe her when she says that. It is not a mystery to see how an astute observation that clearly draws on varied experience from within and without (she argues against this, saying that Thoreau never experienced anything to do with people) and uses crisp syntax to express its amazing point has entered the canon of popular quotations. Whether Thoreau intended it as such or not, it is a sentence that makes its reader reflect. Why must we excoriate an author for having made people reflect on themselves, whether in agreement with him or not?

A better approach — one that doesn’t imply that a writer must painstakingly take every possible reader and stance into account before beginning to put his or her words on paper, must do social good in the world, and ought to finish only one perfect book per lifetime — could be to discuss things with a conscience ever so slightly less subject to outside influence.