Friday, December 19, 2008

In Praise of Stripes


To the extent that the world is striped it is a happy place.

I call your attention to the following: awnings, beach umbrellas, cabana huts along the Riviera, gondolier's shirts, straw hats, tigers and zebras, barber poles, candy canes and silk pajamas, breton sweaters, skunk and raccoon tails, flags and bunting, bumble bees, circus tents, popcorn vending machines, racing cars, towels and ties, frogs and fish, Edwardian swimming costumes . . . 

Among striped objects it is possible to find things sad or ugly, but unlikely. Prisoners uniforms come to mind, as do guard houses and crossing gates. There is something admonishing or even of a warning nature in stripes, potentially, something that cautions, warns, shouts and screams. Why do prisoners wear stripes? Do the horizontal bands counterman the vertical bars? Is there some rhyme or reason there? Or are (were, for the custom has passed) a prisoner's stripes a mere attempt to inject some gaiety, charm and wit into their otherwise gray, dreary days? In which case why black and white stripes; why not red and yellow?

But I refuse to see stripes in a negative light. Stripes have always been my friends. Even the stripes on the American flag can arouse the patriot in me. 

I wrote a story once about stripes, about a boy searching for red and gray wide-striped pajamas like the ones his dead father used to wear. I wrote it fifteen years ago, or so. Just recently my brother shipped me a package for Christmas. I couldn't wait and tore it open. Inside, a lovely pair of English pajamas: pure silk, with red, gray and blue stripes. I put them on straightaway. They felt so soft. Silky. Silkier still for being striped, the vertical lines of color slithering cool over my flesh like bright tandem snakes.

Stripes were meant to be gay. Imagine the gay nineties without stripes! They embody the spirit of summer and celebration, of endless days soaked in sunlight, of shady awnings and umbrellas angled against blazing days. Sailors adorn their gray ships with striped uniforms; the blue and white stripes meant to symbolize, probably, the sea—but also to add a note of cheer between bouts of warfare and seasickness.

The gondolier's striped shirt is emblematic of his masculinity: he can get away with it, so he does. His cousin the pizza vendor also wears stripes, thinner ones of red to go with the pizza sauce. Butchers, too, wore stripes once upon a time, likewise red, though in their case the red stood for blood. But in all cases a note of joy is attached to servitude.

With pajamas, too, the case is such: for just as the gondolier is a prisoner of his gondola, and the pizza man must whirl his pies, and the butcher must wrestle with bone and gristle, and the prisoner serves time, the pajama wearer is a servant of sleep. 

Even awnings and umbrellas serve: so you see the bottom line as it pertains to stripes: joyful obedience. Any wonder a sergeant earns his stripes? Or that a tiger doesn't change his?

I say that a joyful obedience is all we can ask of life. It is what the religious prophets called for and what anyone who has lost his— or herself in servitude to a higher cause will claim as the source of bliss. As a writer, as an artist, I have known such blissful surrender, such gay and happy imprisonment. I have known the pain and pleasure of artistic discipline, the forces of creativity arranged in bright, regimented rows: inspiration, talent, craft, labor. 

Stripes are nothing if not enterprising.

So I invest in striped sheets, striped socks (I have two dozen pair), striped sweaters and shirts, striped tea and coffee mugs, striped bed sheets, towels, upholstery and linens. Color my world striped. Whatever happened to Stripe toothpaste? 

Civilization  should be striped: that is, it should be brightly disciplined, colorfully tame, cheerfully regimented. 

Like Tommy Steele's blazers in Half a Sixpense. 

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The World is My Mentor


To relax this is what I do: I sit down at the computer pretending to be the curator of the world's largest and most important museum of contemporary art. I am the ultimate arbiter of fine art, the highest court, the judge of judges: my word is final.

I execute an image search, sometimes for something specific ("sunflowers acrylic"), sometimes not ("oil on panel"). What I want are pictures to look at, images of paintings, mostly of artists unknown--at least to me. Good, that's how I like it.

With each search dozens, hundred of images confront me. With lightning speed scan through them, dismissing most as too dull, too clichéd, too poorly executed, too glib, to earnest, too silly, too harsh, too ugly, too insipid. Nothing is easier to dismiss than a painting. It takes so little effort to look at one, and even less effort not to look. Ninety-nine percent of what I see I dismiss. How nice to be the curator and not the curated!

The other day (or evening) I came across the painting above. I had no idea who the artist was, or even if the artist was living. It might have been the work of some amateur, for all I knew, or even that of a child—but I very much doubted it. You see, I have an excellent eye: for what it's worth, and if I say so myself, I think I have one of the best eyes. I know good work when I see it, and—except when applied to my own work—I seldom doubt my judgement.

Do you find these statements conceited? You shouldn't. When someone merely states facts, they shouldn't be called immodest.

When an image strikes me I do two things: first, I download it to my computer, to be stored in a folder where I've collected other favored images. Next, I look up the artist in the hope of finding other pleasing images and, with luck, of learning more about him or her.

In the case of the above painting, the artists turned out to be one Stephen Newton, a painter living and working in England who is also a writer and professor, presently a visiting lecturer at the University of Northumbria in Newcastle, England.

Sometimes an artist's work moves me so I must tell them. I did so with Mr. Newton. I send him the following simple email:

Dear Mr. Newton,

I was trolling for good art online (a form of relaxation and inspiration) and came upon your good work. I just wanted to say how much I like your work, the honest simplicity of the paintings especially. For me the challenge of painting is to arrive at solutions that are honest, simple, sincere—and yet not simplistic, and that invite the viewer both into subject and surface. Your “solutions,” I think, are efficient and elegant.

Best,

Peter
A few hourslater Mr. Newton replied:

How kind of you - and in a way apt, as I am just making my way to a PV of my latest show. Keep in touch,

sincerely

Stephen

Having just finished my ocean liner painting (see below) I could not resist. I emailed back:

May I send you one painting of mine? Just one? I would love to have you see it.

--P

"Yes," Mr. Newton replied promptly, "please do—but I tend to be honest in my opinion!"

I wasn't afraid; in fact I was thrilled to know that I would get this man's honest opinion. To be taken that seriously by a real artist—not by some gallery owner or other self-appointed "expert," but of someone who really knows a thing or two about art—as Mr. Newton clearly does, judging both from his own work and from his writings about art, some of which I had meanwhile read. I wrote back that he should be as honest as possible, and to take his time; I was not in a hurry. Indeed, he did not write back until the following day.

Dear Peter,

Having 'slept' on your work I can make one or two c omments. Bear in mind that I am responding to the painting exclusively - I do not know you, what age you are - or background. Usually in a tutorial situation the work can be put in a context: what are you trying to achieve and how I could help you to do it, what artists you admire or have drawn upon. For example if you said you liked Alfred Wallis or Paul Klee for instance, then I would understand why your design is rigidly structured and compartmentalised. Indeed, the word 'design' was to the forefront when looking at your work. If I had just seen the image without any contact from you at all, I would have assumed it was a design of some sort - painted of course, but still a design. It looks like a design for a wall mural, or printed textile, card even, or maybe a contemporary stained glass window depicting a modern Noah's Ark. Bear in mind that acrylic paint compounds this effect, being very plastic, unremitting and hard.

I'm not sure why the idea of Noah's Ark kept coming into my mind. From one perspective it looks like a medieval image of Noah's Ark - the black stars against a thick blue sky seem very icon-like. It's interesting that you say that you have had a hiatus in your painting (two years?). It's as if you have constructed a personal liner - or ark, which you have packed with your own motifs or artistic forms: shapes, lines, dots, circles etc., which are sailing off with you to a new beginning, or new start in20painting?

Of course it is a powerful and striking image, difficult to categorise because it is not really primitive or faux-naif, or naive or childlike. The image is very tightly and rigidly gripped suggesting you are pretty determined in what you do. But it is not really painterly and elements in the ocean seem to suggest you are searching for a licence to be free and painterly. When your motifs disembark maybe they will be set free to serve you in the future. Clearly I can understand much better the comments you made on my work—for I think that they could equally be said of your own.

best

Stephen

My response to this was pure delight—and I wasted no time telling him so:


Dear Stephen,

I can’t tell you how happy and even thrilled your response to my painting has made me—though having read some of your writing I am not the least bit surprised by it’s astuteness and sensitivity. We do have things in common. My own compact critique of my work as a painter over the past few years is this: the painter mano-a-mano with the illustrator, with the illustrator, alas, always winning.

You mentioned A. Wallis and Klee as influences. Spot-on. I have a book of Wallis’ work on the shelf here next to me, and of his compatriot in St. Ives, a Mr. Crane. And next to that book one of Ben Nicholson’s work—Nicholson who was himself (as you know) influenced20and inspired by these two “primitives.” Other painters I’d add to my favorites/influences: Debuffet, Rouault. I love both deeply. But then I am also very interested in so-called folk or naïve art, in work that is pure-hearted, as opposed to so much so-called “fine-art” (with quotation marks duly noted)—the sort of art that (alas) curators always favor over work that is more authentic, more sincere. Work that tries to be profound is never so. Given a choice between forced “profundity” (another word that more often than not should be straight-jacketed by quotation marks) and no profundity at all (Wallis) I’ll take the latter anyday.

Funny, too, that you should mention Noah’s ark; another friend made the same comment about the painting, though there are no overt references to the ark, and though I had no such intention (my intention, for what it’s worth, aside from considerations of color, design, texture, pleasing effects of that sort) was the painted equivalent of a golden retriever running up to and jumping on your lap, to capture a sense of innocent and even ignorant glee. Why must or should paintings be sober? Why does so much “serious” art lack even a trace of charm or wit?

We both have dealt with icons in our work. For me the totemic objects have been ocean liners (specifically the Titanic and Queen Mary), the Empire State Building, sunflowers, the Pantheon, and the blue bridge spanning the Spuyten Duyvi l to link the Bronx (where I live) with Manhattan. But practically any subject—a typewriter, a portrait—can be given this iconic treatment, as you do with your upholstered chairs and doors. (You’ve seen Charlotte Salomon’s gauaches? Your work reminds me of hers).

I adore symmetry; I have no interest whatsoever in the effects of natural light, or in so-called linear perspective (which, anyway, is curved). Your paintings hold pretty much all the things I value in painting; and the most important: that the technique of a painting conveys a sense of joy in its own making, that it makes you want to paint. I used to admire paintings that look as if they took all kinds of time and effort (Church’s Niagara Falls!); now I pass them by in favor of paintings that look as though they were arrived at easily, simply, with minimal effort. But then I keep looking until I’m assured that looks deceive...

Yes—I am “searching for license to be free and painterly.” In works like yours I find it. Now to put it to work.

Thank you so much for this. I will treasure it. I hope your show is a great success and that we keep in touch.

Best,

Peter

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Painting Again


I hadn't painted in months. This is what happens: I swear that I won't paint again, that I've had it with brushes and paints, with color stains on my pants, my shirts, my carpet, my skin. I will give myself fully to dry words; I will stop cheating with that other mistress—the wet, messy one. I won't so much as look at a painting book. When I pass by Utrecht or one of the other art supply stores, I will avert my glance from sale tubes of bright paint, easels, fancy watercolor sets, and other items on display in the window. I will be pure of heart.

It never works. After two months I'm starved for images, and not just for images, but for surfaces coated and scumbled and crusted in and with paint. I start going to galleries and museums. Most of what I see I merely dislike; the rest either offends or inspires. One good painting--that's all it takes to set my heart ablaze and make me want to dig brushes loaded with paint into grounds rigid and flexible. I long for endless hours in the studio among pots, tubes, buckets and plates of paint. I long to get away from dry words and to dirty my fingers and clothes with bright plastic colors.

And so this past weekend, saturated with a longing for texture and color, for the the things I merely feint at with words, I put on my painting pants—a pair of gray trousers splotched with paints of every color—and a slate blue t-shirt likewise spattered and smudged and daubed and smeared with motley hues—and went into the studio. I found a clean stretched canvas still wrapped in cellophane and pulled it from the high shelf where I store large paintings. I put some music on the player—Chopin etudes. I took down my jars of paint and laid them out on the stainless steel table. I filled three coffee cans with cold water, and grabbed some brushes from a fourth can—one large flat, one small flat, one Japanese sumi brush. I pried open a big plastic bucket of white gesso. I arranged the canvas on my drafting table and started.

I had in mind a painting of a ship, an ocean liner. A big, bright, beautiful ocean liner, with three burning red funnels. Ocean liners are for me what bowls of fruit were to Cézanne, what hay stacks were for Monet, what clowns and judges were to Rouault, what bulls and satyrs were to Picasso. They remind me of those trips to Manhattan I took with my father as a boy and return to me my child's sense of unmitigated joy.

I start with the ground, the surface. I dislike the texture of canvas--especially of cheap cotton duck. Why anyone paints on it I can't understand. I always want to do something to it first. This time what I did was this: I took sheets of colored paper, mostly hand-made with lots of rag in it. I cut and crumpled them up and glued the wrinkled pieces down in random patches using thick coats of acrylic polymer medium, like someone papering a wall. With the entire surface coated I trimmed the edges. 

Then I began to paint. I started with black, creating a matrix of thick sloppy black lines that would serve as the architecture or the armature of the painting. Here you see Rouault's influence. No one ever made more of black as a color than Rouault. The drawing is everything. This is what most people who set out to paint fail to understand. For painting drawing is the equivalent of point-of-view. It is the foundation of everything that follows. To be any good even an abstract painting must be built on a solid foundation of drawing. No drawing, no painting. If i am any good at all as a painter it is only because I draw well (on the other hand if I am no good at all it is for the same reason).

One the matrix of lines has been created, then it is time to paint. I lay in thick coats of colors, working dark to light, letting the colors spill over the black lines, knowing that the matrix can always be reinforced if need be. I try very hard to be careless. All good painting is the result of happy accidents. Anything that follows too closely to a plan is doomed to failures. Artists must take risks. The risks are where all art happens. The rest is preparation. If we are careful at all in what we do, it is by way of preparing for happy accidents.

In and out of the black lines I work my colors, always being careful to NOT be careful, trying against every force of reason in me to defy the urge for precision. Precision matters only in so far as it accentuates and draws attention to what is fortuitous and spontaneous and incidental. When one looks at a painting, precision seduces one; but what resonates is always incidental. Only accidents really matter.

I worked all day and into the evening. I could not get the color of the funnels right. I was unhappy with the blue of the waves. The smoke from the stacks was too rigid. The whole painting was too rigid. I painted over sections, always letting the colors underneath show through, hoping for more and better accidents and incidentals. This is what painters do. After all these years I am still not a real painter, but I can dream.

At last I finished. There was nothing more to be done but to make it worse. I wrapped the finished painting in a gold frame found in my closet.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A Monumental Modesty: Morandi at the Met

For as long as I can remember I've been drawn to Morandi's paintings of bottles and vases arranged with "fearful symmetry." Maybe because the artist was Italian, like my parents, and named Giorgio, like my cousin in Genoa—or because his paintings put me in mind (they still do) of my father's humble paintings that adorned my childhood walls. Or they reminded me of my own paintings—those I had yet to paint, but when I did they would bear his influence.

The exhibit is located in the Robert Lehman wing, the paintings arranged in chronological order, more or less, around the circular hall. The earliest works date from 1914, when the artist was clearly influenced by Cezanne, cubism, and the Futurists. Born in 1890 in Bologna—the city where he would remain his entire life—Morandi served briefly in the army during the Great War, but suffered a mental breakdown and was soon discharged. For several years afterwards he experimented with Metaphysical painting, his own canvasses reflecting those of his fellow Italians De Chirico and Carlo Carrà. But within a few short years he would settle into his own permanent style, one that would carry him through four decades to his death in 1964.

Like all of my favorite artists—like all artists worthy of the name—Morandi was his own man. Though he dabbled in all the "isms"—Cubism, Futurism, Surrealism, Primitivism—he never remained in any "school" for long. Like Rouault, his contemporary, he shunned all trends and marched to his own drumbeat while enduring the silence, scorn and faint praise of critics and curators. 

Even for a man who cherished his privacy as Morandi did (in his lifetime he granted only two published interviews), such contempt and neglect couldn't have been easily born. Swept aside by the whirlwinds of Picasso, DeKooning, Dali and Pollack—his quiet little paintings shoved into a dusty corner of art history, and the artist himself treated like a shy boy among shouting drunken louts: that's how I think of Morandi. As a drab diffident among colorful brutes. 

One thinks Morandi and one thinks "bottles." Yes, there are paintings of bottles—bottles and vases. But to see only bottles is to miss the point. Really they are paintings of silence. Of silence, of patience, of devotion, of acceptance and even of resignation: the paintings of a man who has had a glimpse of the larger world and rejected it, who has said first to himself and then to the world through his work: this is mine; this is enough. His are devotional paintings; paintings as prayer painted with the colors of earth: sand, mud, sepia, flesh, chalk, stone, clay, soil, dust and ashes.

As the term "still life" (natura morta) suggests, they are dead, these paintings, both in their silence and in the cadaver-like range of their hues; not subdued, as some might have you think, but absolutely, resolutely dead—drained of color and life, embalmed in silence and stillness. This sounds like an insult, but isn't meant to be: I mean it as high praise. To capture the stillness of death isn't easy. And when I say "death" I mean the death that implies eternity, for only through death is eternity achieved. Morandi knew this. Or at any rate his paintings know it.

So tentative, so meek: such diffidence is rarely known in art. To approach it one needs to look to such paintings as one finds occasionally in flea markets, or jammed into the corner of a junk shop—paintings of unknown amateurs whose modesties are entirely accidental, the result of amateurishness. But theirs are small, inconsequential modesties as compared with Morandi's monumental modesty—a modesty arrived at through years of hard study and work; a modesty held in place by the armature of an enormous, unflinching ego. That quivering pencil line, those tentative brushstrokes, the tenuous forms verging on (and often spilling into) amorphousness—to paint like that one must be one of two things: a complete amateur or a genius. As Picasso is said to have responded to a man who remarked of one of his paintings, "My six year old could have done that!" 

"True, but could he do it at my age?"

But more than their forms and outlines I'm drawn to Morandi's colors—drawn to them as one is drawn to the smell of leaf smoke in autumn, or to the yawning shells of abandoned buildings. Morandi's palette is so low-key you need a spectrometer to distinguish one hue from the next, but not really: the attentive eye will do. The ochres and pale pinks and browns remind me of the crumbling walls of the Bologna where he lived. Desert colors: cream and sand, butter and dust, butterscotch and clay, terra-cotta and dried blood.

To choose a favorite among Morandi's paintings is impossible, since they are all the same painting, essentially, rendered in colors so subtle they do not even yield a whisper but stand mute as the stars in heaven, humble as the walls over which they hang. These paintings are so modest you see the struggle of the framer to select a frame that will not overwhelm the masterpiece, a struggle lost in every instance, for even the most modest of cornices cannot fail to compete with and overwhelm Morandi's supreme modesty. 

One thinks of the martial artist who defeats his opponent by doing less, by doing nothing, by simply holding his ground, conserving energy as his adversary exhausts himself. In this sense Morandi's paintings are great conservators of energy. No wonder Morandi's dusty bottles have survived so well for so long. Through two World Wars they emerge dusty as ever but without a chip or a crack. The dust is that of decades. It is the dust raised by wars and by other artists of great broiling aggression—a dust that has at last settled to cloak Morandi's paintings in an ever more perfect and enduring silence. One walks out of this exhibit into the halls of modern art as from a cloister into Times Square. 

What sort of man paints himself into such a silence? A man who preferred empty vessels to his fellow creatures—as wed to his dusty bottles as a monk to God. I doubt I would have liked him. I don't for a minute imagine him charming, like Picasso. A misanthrope, perhaps. But if so this misanthrope has left us a great gift—the great gift of peace. He has, with his brushes and paints, grabbed hold of eternity and framed it forever.

Or should I say: he has poured a measure of eternity into his dusty bottles that we may sip from them in appreciative silence.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Mr. Fesh and the Meaning of Life

Yesterday afternoon I read at a Barnes & Noble book store in Danbury, Connecticut, a few miles from the town where I grew up and lived for eighteen years. A beautiful autumn day, sunny, breezy and cool (as the forecasters like to say). On the drive up from the Bronx my companion and I marveled at the fiery displays of bright colors in the trees along the Saw Mill Parkway. This is my favorite time of year, when the leaves begin to fall, when the sky rains dry flecks of yellow and the earth wears a bright-colored quilt of red and golden leaves. I wondered, on such a beautiful day, who would want to spend an hour indoors listening to someone read from a book?

To my surprise—quite a few people, many of them strangers, and many more familiar. My proud mother invited many of her friends, and there were faces I recognized from my undergraduate year at Western Connecticut State University, and even a few faces of people I'd gone to high school with in Bethel. One friend, Mark, had driven down from Vermont with his new family, a beautiful wife and two equally beautiful boys, one still at his mother's breast. Mark and I had been in touch but hadn't seen each other in years (Mark looked good—a little huskier, his hair gone completely white, but otherwise unchanged, and with a fixed smile that spoke eloquently of the pleasures of fatherhood and family).

But of all the faces familiar and unfamiliar one touched me more deeply than any other. I was speaking to Mark's wife when I looked up and saw a man approaching. He wore a white windbreaker and a baseball cap—Yankees, I think. He was tall, broad-shouldered. It took me only a moment or two to recognize him despite his being out of the narrow focal range of my nearsighted eyes; and even after I had recognized him, still, there was a moment of confusion, since I was unprepared to believe what my eyes told me, and what seemed a little too much like a dream. For here was my sixth grade teacher, Mr. Fesh, come to check on his pupil.

"I know this man," I said to myself and out loud as he approached, a smile already spreading itself across my face.

In forty years he hadn't changed that much. He was still tall, still good-looking (from what I could see under the shadowy visor of the baseball cap). I recognized his deep voice. "Mr. Selgin," he said—the same form of address he had used in sixth grade. I didn't say, "Mr. Fesh!" I didn't have to; my smile spoke for me. 

We shook hands, but that wouldn't do: I had to give him a hug. 

In sixth grade I had a crush on him. Not a homosexual crush, but the crush of a sixth-grader ripe for role-models. My father, after all, was much older than most fathers a I knew, and though I loved him dearly I found him lacking in certain physical respects (he detested all sports and refused to jump into water). And here was this teacher, a man—the first male teacher I'd ever had—handsome, tall (my father was handsome but already gray, half-bald, and with a paunch, and not tall), scarcely twenty-four years old. He looked like Paul Newman. 

Back then, Mr. Fesh still had all of his hair and didn't need the baseball cap. He wore spiffy blazers, pale blue oxford cloth shirts, and sharp red and blue neckties with silver tie pins. I remember going to the local Caldor department store and searching among the racks for ties and blazers like the ones Mr. Fesh wore, and gleaming tie clips to go with them. I had no reason to where such garments and no place to wear them to, but still, I wanted them, because I wanted to be like Mr. Fesh. He wore shiny brown wing-tips; I begged my mother for a pair. 

I think Mr. Fesh must have known that I had a crush on him—a teacher's pet crush. I suspect he enjoyed it (I'm a teacher now and wouldn't mind thinking that one or two of my students look up to me that way, though I don't imagine any of them do; but they are older undergraduates, children of a more cynical time, and much less inclined to look up to their teachers). 

I remember one evening my mother invited Mr. Fesh and his wife for dinner. What an exciting night! For me it was like having the Pope or the Beatles over for supper. About that evening I remember nothing but my excitement. Mr. Fesh drove a red convertible Mustang: the perfect car for a male role-model. I remember watching through the window and seeing it come up the driveway, the feeling of unreality that accompanied this spectacle, the sense that the impossible was happening, that miracles existed in the world.

Having taught sixth grade for a year or two, Mr. Fesh went on to become a phys ed instructor. His son—one of his sons—had a brief baseball career and played in the major leagues for several seasons (I forget what team) until an injury of some sort cut his career short. I imagine that this was a huge blow to his father, a kind of death. Mr. Fesh, meanwhile, became a baseball scout. I learned these things through the grape vine over the years.

Now here was Mr. Fesh, my sixth grade teacher, alive and looking well. Retired, he told me. I asked if he would stay for the reading. "Nah," he said, shaking his head. "I don't think so. Too boring." And then I recognized that glint in his eye, and remembered his dead-pan delivery. "Now there's someone I need to say hello to," he sad, and I followed the trajectory of his eyes as they took in my eighty year-old mother. I remembered how he and my mother used to flirt with each other, how several times on school field trips they had sat together on the bus until someone warned Mr. Fesh, "You'd better stop sitting next to that lady; people are starting to talk." My mother and I both had a crush on Mr. Fesh. But hers was reciprocated.

While I read, I saw no sign of Mr. Fesh in the audience; perhaps he had left, after all. But when I had finished he appeared again, off to the side, giving me the thumbs-up. "I'm proud of you," he said. If my dead father had risen from the grave to say the same words to me I wouldn't have been more pleased. 

If over the years I've had reasons to wonder if it's all been worth it, if all the rejection, all the struggle, all the disappointments and despairand disillusionment  have served up any purpose, if there's been a meaning to all that I've done or tried to do over the last forty years. Most of all I've wondered if the sacrifices (money, children, sound sleep, peace of mind) have been worth it. Yesterday afternoon when Mr. Fesh gave me the thumbs-up I had my answer and the answer was a resounding "Yes."

Sometimes, if only for a moment or two, life really does mean something.

Thanks, Mr. Fesh.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Okay, so That Was a Bit Harsh. . .

The other day I wrote to you, my students:

I love you all BUT:

I'm disappointed (and annoyed) at how few of you did the assigned reading. Some of you admitted honestly that you simply hadn't done it; others claimed the material was boring.* (see footnote). But there is NO EXCUSE for not doing your assigned work. What it says to me is that you don't care. And that you don't belong in a university.

Furthermore, given that you don't care to learn, why should I or anyone care to teach you? Or give you a passing grade?

Sometimes students are so advanced that they can afford to skip classes and assignments and will still turn in papers so accomplished, so brilliant, that they're professors have no choice but to pass them. Rest assured that is not the case with any of my current students.

That you've missed this last assignment will be reflected in your grades.

On a related note: I have spoken to you several times about the need to make appointments with me and (if necessary) the writing center. Many of you have yet to do so. I suggest you do. The responsibility is yours.

On Thursday, Nov. 6 we will begin discussing your final paper: the research paper.

And don't forget to vote!!!

*footnote: When students say they are bored by someone else's work (like Carl Sagan, who, by the way, was one of the most accomplished and brilliant scientists of the last 50 years), my response is that it isn't the man or his work that is boring, but you who bored yourself through your lack of intellectual curiosity, patience, and engagement. You want knowledge to be spoon-fed to you in sugary, bite-sized pieces—like candy? But knowledge is not candy; you won't find it at the bottom of a box of Cracker Jacks. True knowledge requires EFFORT. And EFFORT means enduring something that may not be as entertaining as a vampire novel or a Disney movie, but may have MUCH MORE to teach you. This is what college is all about: to expose you to realms of thought that you might not be exposed to otherwise. But it is also why some people—those with NO intellectual curiosity or interest in expanding their minds—should probably not be in college.

End of editorial.

Okay, so that was a bit harsh ... and not meant to apply to all of you. To those to whom it didn't apply my apologies. But I see my job here, with this course and for you, as not just a matter of helping you to become better readers, writers, and thinkers, but to see to it that you are equipped in other important ways to succeed through these next few years of university—and beyond—into what I hope and imagine will be successful futures.

Let me tell you a story, a little personal anecdote, if I may. In 1983 I got my bachelor's degree—I say I "got" it because, to be honest, I'm not entirely sure that I earned it. It took me a while (I graduated from high school in 1975; do the math). What did I do in those eight years? Well, mostly I ran around in search of "experience." And though I did have some good (and bad) experiences, and may even have learned a thing or two, mostly I was running AWAY from my education. I told myself that life was too interesting to waste four years of it moldering in classrooms. School was unreal. Who needs it? That's what I told myself.

In fact I was AFRAID of school, afraid of the whole academic world: afraid of tests, of professors, or grades, or being judged and, worst of all, of finding out I wasn't as damned "brilliant" as I pretended to be, but—somewhere deep inside—suspected I wasn't.

Like someone walking down a flight of stairs into a basement, I transferred from one college to another, in order of descending reputation, until finally I ended up in a state university (Western Connecticut—a place no better or worse than Montclair). If I went to school at all it was only so as not to break my mother's heart. But I honestly still thought it a waste of time.

Like many of you I phoned in my assignments and barely studied. And like some of you I was a wise-ass in class in a way that charmed some of my teachers, and annoyed others. (It should go without saying that I thought I was smarter than most of my teachers; after all, look where THEY ended up!)...

Well, here I am, turned into one of those teachers that I so took for granted back then. But then I'm actually lucky; I've done okay, considering. Over twenty years after taking my despised Bachelor's Degree (the whereabouts of the actual document escapes me, that's how little I cared), with a VERY different attitude toward education, I applied for graduate school and got in—no thanks to my undergraduate grades, but because, in the meantime, I worked hard at my writing and, since I had published some stories, was able to convince my sponsors that I was not the complete academic jackass that my college transcripts may have suggested that I was.

I consider myself VERY fortunate to be able to stand in front of you and be your teacher—a position that, twenty years ago, in my youthful defensive arrogance, I would have frowned upon.

The short of it is that—had I known back then what I am sure of now—I would have taken my education MUCH more sriously; I would have seen it as the glorious privilege and opportunity that it was, a chance to deepen my mind and soul, to learn from men and women older and wiser than I, to read things I would NEVER have read on my own; to surrender my arrogant, defensive, and largely pretentious beliefs, and replace them with earned, genuine, and generous ones. To replace cynical arrogance with humble authority: THAT's the main purpose of education—one of the main purposes.

Ah, but if I had known way back then what I know now! What I am doing now at age 50 I might have started doing at age 40 or 30 instead; I would be that much further ahead. As it is I've had to struggle very hard to get where I might have gotten much more easily if ONLY I had taken more seriously to my studies as a younger person.

Consider mine a cautionary tale. I believe that many of you can and will do better by your own education. If I am hard on you, it is because I WANT you to do as well as you can, to not waste your time—and, more importantly, to have the futures that I'm sure you deserve.

So—I take back what I said in frustration. You all DO belong in college. So did I 30 years ago.

But I didn't believe it, and I wish that you all would.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Reading Out Loud

I write to read--not just to myself, but to others. There is something about holding a book in my hands and reading words off the page to others that fills me with a warm sense of communion and connection, of reaching out and touching others. Writing is a lonesome practice. You sit alone in a room, alone with your thoughts, alone with your words. The page doesn't laugh or smile, doesn't gasp or applaud; the computor screen stares at you. Your words echo off walls and ceiling, or fall with a dead thud to the floor. Words live only in the eyes of readers or in the ears of listeners.

With two books coming out I've had plenty of opportunities to read to people, with a dozen readings booked for October and November alone, here in New York City, but also in Westchester, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachussetts.

Last night I read at the only book store in the Bronx, a Barnes & Noble at Baychester Mall, near Coop City. A small but packed audience of mostly black and Hispanic people. I was among four performers, including two poets and a singer-songwriter. When my turn came to read I chose a story about an impoverished Dominican who steals and drives off with a shiny convertible as a means of regaining some of his lost dignity and youth. I read without a microphone, choosing instead to stand in front of the podium, close to my listeners. As I usually do when I read I focused on one audience member, a dark-skinned, middle-aged woman seated with her husband in the second row. Why her? Because her eyes had an intent gleam and she smiled and I knew she would like the story. I read to her: she was my real audience.

When I read, I feel as if I am feeding people, spoonful by spoonful, a special broth that will enrich their lives in a special way. The soup is warm and savory and made of words. I feed them my special soup which they ingest through their ears and digest not in their bellies but with their minds and imaginations. Listen carefully, I say to them: I have a story here to tell you. If I have done my job well, then my words will beckon them like a curled finger to come hither, to listen deeply, to pay attention.

As I read my story about the Dominican and the car the woman's smile grew more and more fixed, and the gleam in her eyes grew brighter, and I knew I had her; that she had left her stiff seat and entered the world of my story, with its hot Dominican sun and sweet brown smoke from the sugar cane factory. The act of listening smoothed the wrinkles from her face, released the tension from her jaw. She left her body. I saw it. When a story works, it makes you forget yourself. You leave the hard world behind and enter the soft world of imaginings.

I try very hard to read slowly, to pronounce each and every word, to enjam certain sentences so that prose turns into poetry, to read the words as if they are poetry. I try to seduce the listener with the sounds of images. It is very much like making love: each word a touch, a caress, a kiss, an embrace. There is but one way to read to people and that is with love. You have to love them with each word, to let each syllable offer its caress. With each sentence you draw them closer to you, until you have drawn them into your heart and your mind, until these become shared organs, until you and your listeners form a single joined entity, like Siamese twins.

If a reading goes well, then an act of surrender occurs. The audience must surrender to the power of your words, must abandon the body's insistence on the evidence provided by one set of sensory data--on the immediate sensory phenomenon of hard chair and fluorescent lighting--and accept instead the sensory phenomenon provided by a story's words. That this secondary set of sensory data can overwhelm the first, that is the miracle of good writing. The hard world melts away; the fictional world takes over; the dream solidifies into something more solid and real than the room, the lights, the chair.

When I read out loud to somebody, when I am able to draw them away from the hard world and into my dreams, this, for me, is the point of writing, of my writing. It is what the writer in me lives for. At bottom I am a sensualist and a flirt, or no, not a flirt: not a flirt because I make no promises that I'm unwilling to fulfil. I sincerely wish to make love to the world through and with words, my words. I want to seduce, but also to carry through on the act of seduction: to love, to connect.

When the story ended and the old Dominican took his death plunge in his Cadillac over a cliff and into the ocean, I heard the woman give a little gasp. The story had done its job. My words had touched at least this one person. For a few minutes she belonged to me and to my story; she was an old Dominican with no teeth driving a stolen car. So was I. She took the plunge over the cliff. So did I. That a stranger could trust me so much, could leave herself in my hands, could accept whatever experiences I put her through with my words . . . This is the beauty of writing, which is really an act of trust, an act of love.

To love someone is to trust them, to trust, and, to a certain extent and by mutual agreement, to surrender to their powers. A mutual surrender. When I read to an audience, I put myself at the mercy of their willingness to open themselves to my words and understand me. Maybe they won't understand; maybe they will refuse the world I offer to them as a temporary alternative to their own world. Maybe they will sit there with arms locked and jaws jutting defiantly, and they will refuse to be moved. There is that risk writers  take.

But if they do listen, if they do let themselves be moved, then that is the greatest of all rewards and author can get for his work.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Head of Christ


Yesterday in class I shared with my students what I called an "appreciation" essay by a Romanian painter named Joel Klepac. The object of Klepac's enthusiasm was the French post-Impressionist (to the extent that he is categorizable) George Rouault, who happens to be my favorite painter as well. Specifically, it was one of Rouault's "head of Christ" paintings, of which I would guess the artist did hundreds.

Klepac's enthusiasm for his subject is contagious, which is precisely why I chose to share his essay, as for me the acid test of an appreciation essay is the extent to which it infects the reader with the author's positive feelings. A quote:

Next I was escorted into a large shared office where Rouault’s “Head of Christ” had been carted to wait for me, placed on a chair. At first I experienced the disorienting feeling of suddenly being face-to-face with a celebrity, but little by little the painting opened its doors. Deep blues and greens, reds, smears of black, and yellows are piled together; years of tortured layers a half inch thick in some areas. Christ’s head is slightly tilted. He has an elongated nose and small mouth, and the ears almost disappear in the black outlines of the head. But it is His eyes that were most startling. In those 45 minutes, Christ’s eyes pierced me. Somehow gathered behind them were all the tears of the boys on the street of Romania whom I have come to know, all that inner pain, those graphic histories of abandonment, mocking, and abuse. And here I also saw my own poverty, my loneliness, fear and lost relationships. There is nothing of the cheap plastic smile that one finds on so many sentimentalized images of Christ. Rouault’s Christ looks me in the eyes until he finally has my attention, and says, “I suffer with you. I love you."

I am not a religious man. To say I don't believe in God (or his resurrected son) doesn't quite go far enough: I don't believe in believing. I could, like some, finesse this and say that, while I don't believe in a personal or personified God or in the resurrection as a fact, I DO believe in it as myth and metaphor: but that would be a lie, since one doesn't have to "believe in" a myth or a metaphor; in so far as the word "belief" means anything there's nothing to believe in, no reason to suspend impirical observation or judgment. No, believing in metaphors requires no leap of logic or faith. If a metaphor functions, it exists; and by extension it exists to the extent that it functions.

What I do believe in is the beauty of art and of metaphor and myth—which, if not works of art in and of themselves, are constituents or components of art. As fiction the story of Jesus can't be beat. It has it all: drama, suspense, magic, tears, guilt, reversals, catharsis, poetic justice. There can be few if any images as powerful as that of Christ on the cross. And as a fictional character I can think of none more complex or subtle. Gatsby, Ahab, Lord Jim—none even come close.

It is the tactile substance of Rouault's paintings that moves me most, that touches me like the skin of a lover. To encounter his paintings in the flesh is to encounter flesh: a flesh formed of layer upon layer of encrusted oil paint—so thick, so crusty, so organically rich in texture and spontaneity—like the patterns made by fallen autumn leaves, or any of the perfect accidents of nature, the one artist incapable of a false stroke. 

Rouault has always been one of my favorite painters. When I'm feeling low or insecure, when my writing doesn't go well, when I can't bear words any longer and want to sink into colors and shapes and texture, next to a walk in a forest, Rouault’s canvasses are the next best thing. His series of crusty crucifixions pleases me more than anything—in spite of their religious vehemence and my atheism, they please me.  It's not that I don't give a damn about Christ or the crucifixion; it is merely that I am more moved by the colors and the textures of Rouault's paintings than by their themes or subjects. For me, the story is secondary, something that happened long, long ago if at all. But the painting itself is alive; the painted surface a kind of living tissue or flesh. No one ever did more with paint than Rouault—or with color, for that matter. Between recklessly bold swipes of thinned black, viscous reds, yellows and greens ooze like blood and puss from a festering, gangrenous wound. Perhaps because Rouault had been a glazier in his early life his critics tend to compare his paintings to stained glass windows. But for me they are more like divine autopsies, pious corpses spread out and splayed with a palette knife on canvas—stained windows of blood, flesh, bone and gristle. As Christ redeemed man by rescuing him from his sins, Rouault’s paintings redeem Christ by rescuing Him from the abyss of cliché.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

"Finished"

Yesterday I "finished" a draft of a new novel.

Finished? What does that mean—especially when I know from experience that I'm likely to do another three, four, five, maybe even fifteen drafts? And just what qualifies as a draft, anyway?

Was it Paul Valery who said, "A poem is never finished, only abandoned"? Trust me, the same can be said of a novel—or a play, or a painting, or an essay. At some point we've done all we can do; at least, we feel as if we've done all we can do. And at that point we have two choices: two walks away temporarily, or to walk away for good. But we must walk away.

All that's implied by the word "draft," therefore, is that it is something you will walk away from, but only temporarily. It exists merely to be returned to. It is neither finished nor abandoned, but exists in a sort of twilight state between these two phases. You might call it the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning. 

The last novel I wrote took me fifteen years. I don't mean fifteen years wall-to-wall (in that case, the "walls" would need to be padded); I mean fifteen years on and odd. Still, if I added all the hours and days together spent working on that novel during those years, I would not be surprised to discover that they would fill five to six years—with just barely enough time left over for meals and sleep.

Five to six years working full time to create a novel which, when it finally sold, earned me an advance of . . . well, I won't say exactly how much money I got. Suffice it to say that it's hardly enough to live on for a year. In fact, it's hardly enough to live on for half a year. And I don't mean in New York City; I mean somewhere like Cleveland, Ohio. Or maybe Somalia.

In few words I probably earned about .25¢ per hour. But hey—who's counting?

And yet I have to tell you that with each new revision of that work, I felt renewed: I felt as though I have been granted a new lease on life, a new chance to make good of something that I had already sacrificed so much time and effort on. This time (I said to myself at the onset of each revision), this time I'll get it right; this time my efforts will not be in vain. I shall be redeemed. 

Redemption—what does it mean? In the case of my novel, it means a contract that will pay me (once all advances are collected) 25¢ per hour plus expenses on a ten city reading tour. And the glory of seeing my words finally put to bed in print. Yes, that's the real payment: to see one's vision at last realized, one's words set to type on and printed good quality paper between well-designed covers. To be able to say to those who have witnessed your years of slogging struggle, "My book is published. It exists. It has its own life now. BUY IT!" And—most of all—to hold in one's hand the product of that struggle, all those years of effort and disappointment and tears and ages bent over a keyboard compacted into this small, dense object. A book! No longer trapped inside me as a series of worries and visions, but an independent entity, a thing with its own life. Yes, like having a child, sort of (I guess).

But for a writer one "child" is seldom enough. We are greedy that way. We want more and more progeny—as if the world isn't already overpopulated with books; as if there's weren't already ten thousands times as many books as there are those willing to read them. What, I ask you, do we need another one for? 

We don't. But some of us—like me—still need to write them.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Thinking on Paper

The more papers I read by my undergraduate students, the more I come away convinced of this: that their problems have less to do with the mechanics of writing (though many have problems here as well) as with the thinking that goes into a piece of writing. 

I'm not sure that a lot of my students really understand what is meant by the verb to think. That the word is a verb gives us a strong clue to set out with. Thinking is a process; it doesn't simply happen, or happen simply. It is NOT easy, nor is it meant to be, any more than lifting weights, running a marathon, or doing a valve job is meant to be easy. It takes time; it takes effort. Thinking is an active process. It is work. It requires effort.

Though they say they hate to write, what many of my students reveal to me (in writing to me about their relationship to writing) is that they resent and resist the process of thinking. They resent the necessary effort. It hurts their brains—just as lifting weights hurts other parts of the body. Anything we do to improve our minds "hurts our brains." To grow in any way is to experience—if not pain–discomfort. If it doesn't hurt, then you're not growing.

What my students have said to me very candidly in their papers—though this may not have been what they thought they were saying—is that they want to learn and grow; they want to become better at writing, as long as it doesn't hurt. In other words, as long as it requires a modest effort or, better still, no effort at all.

Sorry, folks: growth doesn't work that way, and neither does learning. If your parents didn't teach you that, then I'm sorry. But you'll learn it now. You get back what you put in.

As for thinking (and I'm talking here not about daydreaming or random thoughts or feelings, but about analytical thinking, the kind of thinking that looks into ideas, that examines and inspects them, that digs for deeper truths), it takes us beyond our perceptions, beyond common knowledge, beyond assumptions and opinions toward something deeper, toward—hopefully—ideas that we can genuinely claim as our own. Or, at the very least, thinking takes us beyond the ideas and opinions that we already have to new ideas and opinions. 

To think, one must question. When one makes a statement, when one says, for instance, "I hate writing about boring topics," one should ask oneself, on behalf of the reader but also one one's own behalf, a) what are these topics and b) what makes them boring? By way of the first answer one student of mine wrote in a paper, "boring subjects like Shakespeare" and left it at that—as if it were plain as day that Shakespeare is a boring subject—as if this were knowledge as common as the roundness of the earth. Well, maybe a majority of college undergraduates feel this way. But even that doesn't make it true (truth, by the way, is not a popularity contest).

If my students were to examine this statement, this idea, this notion that Shakespeare is boring, if he or she were to think about it, he or she might realize that root of the boredom lies not in the subject  of the sentence "Shakespeare bores me," but in its object. It is the "me" who supplies the boredom, not Shakespeare (whose plays have been amusing people for 400 years, and thus, whatever else he is, is not "boring"). What my student experiences when asked to write about Shakespeare is not boredom but mental and intellectual paralysis: he (or she) has nothing to say, or rather he is unwilling or unable to pierce the thick hide of insecurity that divides him from his own perceptions and feelings, and therefore unable to get at what lies beneath. The thing that bores him is not Shakespeare but himself as he sits there with a mind as blank as the page in front of him. To say in such an instance that Shakespeare is boring makes about as much sense as saying "the blank screen on my computer is boring me." It's not my mind that's empty—it's the computer!

Thinking hurts. But it hurts less the more we get used to doing it, and many of my younger students are not used to thinking analytically. They have managed to go through twelve years of lower education with little if any true engagement with that process. Instead they have spent their time memorizing things, learning by wrote, passing tests and getting grades. Thinking has not been a part of the curriculum. They are not used to it, and those who ask them to think are asking them to use muscles that burn with the slightest strain. In this way among others the system has failed them. 

The good news is that these muscles can be developed at any point in life. It's a simple matter of being willing to endure a modest amount of "pain" (I put the word in quotation marks, because, really, it's not even as painful as a small headache). To think is to ask a series of questions that takes us deeper and deeper into whatever subject we are looking into. If we write, "I have no time for writing," the question to ask then is: why? And then we discover, perhaps, that we have more time than we thought. Or we discover that our lives are truly such that we have no time not only for writing, but for self-examination (this is true for many if not most people).

When I say that my students don't know how to think, I hope they don't take this as an insult. It's not meant to be: it's only meant to be an observation. It is not a negative comment on their intelligence. I find most if not all of my students to be intelligent; some are witty as well; a few are wise beyond their years. But the resource of thinking has not been developed in them. They pass judgments and make statements in writing that clearly show this. They don't question themselves. They are content with having an opinion and feel no need to challenge or defend it. They want to "express themselves," which, translated, means they don't want to have to take any responsibility for their ideas or sentiments, to have to verify or back them up with any evidence or facts: indeed, they resent this requirement. "If it's my opinion it's my opinion," they say. "I don't need to defend or argue it!" No—and you can be ignorant, too; I suppose that's your right. But that ignorance won't serve you or society. It will only serve to blind you to your own blindness. It will protect you from ever realizing how ignorant you are. This is the strategy of the ostrich that buries its head in the sand to protect itself from its predators. In this case the predator is ignorance; the enemy is self-awareness; the thing most feared, paradoxically, is that one might actually learn something that might really protect one.

Students, together let us help and encourage each other to think. Let us become thinkers, and be not just better writers for it, but better people. That's my goal for you all in this class. If you learn to write, that's good; if you learn to think analytically—and better still to make a habit of thinking—that's better. That's powerful.


Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Welcome to Interesting Times

Remember the Great Depression? The stock market crash of 1929? Ticker tape machines? Men jumping out of windows? Bathtub Gin? Giggle water? Al Capone? Neither do I; I wasn't even born. But I don't feel too bad and you shouldn't either. Because though we missed out on the Great Depression, thanks to the greedy, stupid people who run our financial empires you and I are soon to be treated to the New, Improved, Even Greater Depression.

As the Chinese curse puts it: may you live in interesting times.

Today Federal Reserve Chairmen Ben Bernanke pleaded his case before Congress, asking them (us) to front them—run that figure by me again?—$700 billion (I don't even know how many zeroes that is) dollars to loan to those poor nice people on Wall Street: that's right, to the very people who got us into this mess.

An analogy comes to mind. You and I are passengers in an airplane known as the US Economy (really the global economy, but let's not quibble). The pilots in charge of that economy are, or have been, the financial wizards of Wall Street. Thanks to their bumbling, the plane is in a free fall and about to crash. There are a dozen parachutes on hand., locked in a safe. Question: who should get them? The pilots who doomed the plane, or the innocent passengers who trusted them with their lives?

For parachutes read: 700 billion dollars of our taxpayer money. Going to Wall Street. To bail them out. And (excuse me) what do we get in return for this loan? Besides a lump of coal in the Christmas stocking?

Already the powers—meaning the Wall Street institutional and banking lobbies—have balked at having any "strings" attached to this loan (like being forced to cut the salaries and bonuses of executives of firms on the receiving end). You might rightly ask just how is it that they are in any position to balk at anything? Is it not said that beggars can't be choosers? And does not desperately needing $700 billion dollars qualify one as a beggar? And yet they want no strings. In fact one institution had the nerve to say, in few words, "If you force any such restrictions on us, we'll refuse the loan." To which I can think of only one appropriate response—unutterable here. Heaven forbid they should have to cut down on their fleets of BMWs and Mercedes and wear watches worth less than our cars.

Imagine you or I strutting into one of their banks and asking for a loan with nothing more to offer as collateral but a bunch of worthless mortgages on properties impossible to sell. They'd laugh—or call security.

But they don't just want our money; they want it no strings attached.

And they'll likely get it. Remember, this is Congress we're talking about, Congress that's being solicited, and by institutions represented by powerful lobbies: by the very people who fund the campaigns of Congressmen. The fix is in: the strings are attached and the beggars are pulling them.

What will make this depression greater than the Great Depression? Aside from the very real possibility that it will be deeper, longer, and spread across the entire globe? That it was so predictable, and so preventable. Anyone with eyes to see who had been looking could have seen it coming long ago. Those who were saying, less than three weeks ago, "The situation is contained; the worst is over," knew better; they had to know better. I'm talking President Bush; I'm talking Bernanke; I'm talking all the talking heads of Wall Street. A moron could have told them otherwise, that when you build a financial empire on bad mortgages, and then sell those bad mortgages to other banks and institutions, and they sell them to portfolio managers, and so on, you are building your empire on sand and it will collapse. Once the first wave hit, they had to know it was the end, that the whole house of cards would tumble down. They knew it, and said and did nothing. Because they figured in the end only those at the very bottom would lose theirs. It's called a Pyramid Scheme. Or, on Wall Street, business as usual.

If this $700 billion loan goes through, every taxpayer in America will have entered into that pyramid scheme at the very bottom. We will be left holding the bag for all the greedy dumb sons of bitches who filled the bag with bad debt. The French are laughing at us; so are the Germans. They say they told us so. They 're right; they did.

I am reminded of a passage in a book by a favorite author of mine. His name is Nelson Algren, and the book is called A Walk on the Wild Side. In it Algren writes of that other depression, one that we may soon look back upon with wistful eyes (like trains and movie stars, depressions were so much better back then!). Here's Algren on that Depression:

The Ladder of Success had been inverted; the top was the bottom, and the bottom was the top. Leaders of men still sporting gold watches were lugging baby photographs door to door with their soles flapping. Physicians were out selling skin lighteners and ship captains queued in hope of a cabin boy's mop and pail.

Offices of great fire insurance companies went up in smoke, which seemed no more than just. When the fire department—long unpaid—cleared off, little remained but scorched files, swivel-chairs on which no one would ever swivel again, lovely heaps of frosted glass, and all that mahogany.

All that mahogany that hadn't helped anybody but brokers after all. Then the brokers began jumping off rooftops with no greater consideration for those passing below than they'd had when their luck was running. Emperors of industry snatched all the loose cash on which they could lay hand and made on fast last run. Lawyers sued one another just to keep in practice.

The more things change . . .

Back then, at least, the brokers and bankers had the decency to jump. Now they run screaming to Uncle Sam for $$$. Instead of snatching loose cash they snatch the taxpayer's purse.

Welcome to Interesting Times.

Friday, September 19, 2008

David Foster Wallace—R.I.P.

Like everyone else, I was shocked to learn of David Foster Wallace's suicide last Friday, and of the unendurably long winter of depression that preceded it. Up to the moment when I heard the news on the radio Wallace had been, for me, a writer of annoyingly enviable success, the sort of prodigious talent that makes you—or anyway made me—despair of ever being worthy enough to tie his tennis sneakers.

Like Moby Dick and Ulysses, Infinite Jest, Wallace's thousand-plus page tour-de-force doorstopper of a novel, belongs securely to the short lost of paradoxical masterpieces brilliant and (all but) unreadable—but then one doesn't have to read it to know it's brilliant: you can feel the energy pouring out of its heaped dense pages; you can heft its brilliance; you can weigh its ambition. Books like Infinite Jest seemed designed to make pip-squeak writers like me want to kill ourselves. So it seemed monstrously absurd to me that this man, five years my junior and far more successful by any measure than I, had gone into the basement of his Claremont, California home and hanged himself.

Wallace suffered from deep chronic depression, and had suffered from it much of his life. I hadn't known this. But a closer reading of his work should have given me a very strong clue. Loneliness and sadness had been strong, steady themes in his work, and in retrospect the gargantuan energy that powers his prose can be viewed as the antithetical manic outpouring of a soul steeped in the entropy and inertia of chronic malaise. For every action an equal and opposite reaction. It stands to reason—again, with hindsight—that a man whose work brims with brio, bravado, and brilliance had an opposite dark side. Scratch a comedian and find Hamlet.

As with many writers, for Wallace writing was a means of both confronting and heading off existential dread, of quelling the loneliness he experienced so deep down in his bones. To write is to connect—with a presumed audience of readers, of course, but also, in the act of writing, with one's own soul. Asked what was uniquely magical about fiction, Wallace responded, "Well, the first line of attack for that question is that there is this existential loneliness in the real world. I don't know what you're thinking or what it's like inside you and you don't know what it's like inside me. In fiction I think we can leap over that wall itself in a certain way. But that's just the first level, because the idea of mental or emotional intimacy with a character is a delusion or a contrivance that's set up through art by the writer. There's another level that a piece of fiction is a conversation. There's a relationship set up between the reader and the writer that's very strange and very complicated and hard to talk about. A really great piece of fiction for me may or may not take me away and make me forget that I'm sitting in a chair. There's real commercial stuff can do that, and a riveting plot can do that, but it doesn't make me feel less lonely."

What Wallace says here about fiction is, I think, true of any kind of writing that deserves to be called "creative": that it bridges the boundaries that separate and distinguish us as human beings, those false walls that say, "You are you, and I am I, and never the twain shall meet." At bottom, though, we suffer the same needs and longings and dreads—and this is why we read (and write) fiction: to learn that we are not so unique, not so isolated, not so alone as we might think. But anyone who has read the essays of Montaigne, Camus, or Natalia Ginzberg, or the poetry of Philip Larkin or Robert Frost, knows that, when it comes to dispersing solitude, in the world of letters fiction owns no monopoly.

Which isn't to say that writing cures loneliness or depression. Obviously, for Wallace, as a cure it finally failed—at least in the long run—though one may argue that, were it not for the act of writing, we'd not have had the pleasure of his company for as long as we did, and that what finally did him in was the inability to write because of his depression (one can't help thinking of Van Gogh).

But though it may not cure loneliness, writing can certainly assuage and mitigate it. Even as it immerses us in our awareness of the human condition, it also tells us that this is a condition that we all, at bottom, share.

As Saul Bellow once put it (succinctly if rather naughtily): "The uncontemplated life may not be worth living, but the contemplated life makes you want to kill yourself." Which is to say that the more alive we are, the more we suffer. But then—if you are not alive to begin with—there is no "self" to kill.

A preemptive suicide of the soul may be one solution to the "problem" of existence, but it's a poor solution, and an ignoble one. Clearly it wasn't David Foster Wallace's solution. Tragic though his end was, the pitched battle Wallace launched in writing against the teamed demons of sadness and solitude is now and will forever be cause for celebration.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Armadillo Syndrome

If there's one thing I can't accuse my students of, it's dishonesty. They are, to say the least, candid—refreshingly so—in part because I've asked them to be. And because I've assured them that in my classroom their honesty will never be held against them. I meant it. 

But as refreshing as candor can be, it can also be downright disturbing. Like today, when one of my students said what pretty much amounts to this: that she has no real interest in the class, that she's strictly there because it's required, that she thinks it's a waste of her time—especially given that she's already a good writer.

That's candid. And it's scary. And depressing--to me, at least, since it's my job to teach this person something. And basically I've just been told, Fuggedaboudit.

The arms may or may not be crossed, but the mental posture is entirely one of defiance. The expression on the face says, I dare you to teach me anything. What impresses me most about this stance is that it will probably take this student as much or more energy to resist learning anything from me as it might take for her to learn something. 

Or, put another way: it will take as much or more energy to sit there wasting an hour and a quarter of both of our lives as it would take NOT to waste the same amount of time.

I'm reminded of two things: first of an armadillo, which when threatened from without curls up into a stone-like ball. 

Second, I'm reminded of a neighbor who lives in my building. Call him Hank. Until he retired a few years ago, Hank was a fireman. A lovely guy, and very intelligent. But when it comes to art, Hank's favorite line is, "I don't know nothin' about art." Every time we met, he finds some reason to say it, probably because he knows I write and paint.

Whenever he says it to me I say to Hank, "What do you want to know."

"I don't know," says Hank. "But I don't know nothin' about art."

"But I do know something," I say. "If you ask me a question, I'll gladly try and answer it."

Hanks shakes his head. "I just don't know nothin' about art and that's all there is too it."

Mind you, were this a conversation about filing income taxes or about gall stones or car repair, and were I not an artist but an accountant, a doctor, or a mechanic, odds are (I'd bet) that Hank would not be so predisposed against learning something from me. But I am an artist, and therefore an enigma: on this Hank absolutely insists. No amount of persuading on my part can convince him otherwise. Art is something that normal guys like Hank don't understand. And furthermore it cannot be understood by normal guys like Hank. Period. 

Why (I ask myself) do I consider Hank's posture with regard to art a personal threat—one that makes me want to curl up like an armadillo?

Because I well know that people are mistrustful of things that they do not understand, and furthermore that what they find incomprehensible they tend to either hold in awe or in contempt, or to ignore completely. And when it comes to art, many people are contemptuous. Which means they don't trust artists. Which means they don't buy their paintings or read their novels. They don't like artists. Which means they don't like me.

As a person who likes to be liked, yes, I find that threatening. Which is why whenever I see him I offer to demystify Hank.

But Hank won't hear of it. Hank insists on remaining mystified. He crosses his arms. He curls up like an armadillo. He doesn't even dare me to teach him; he defies me. He is as invested in his ignorance as the armadillo is invested in its plated shell. But unlike the armadillo's shell, his ignorance can't protect him from anything but knowledge.

What is true of Hank is, I'm afraid, true of some of my students.

What can I do? How can I convince these students to cast off their armadillo shells, that there's no danger in learning; and that furthermore their time is better spent being curious and open than being incurious and close-minded? That their willingness to learn will make the world a better place to live in not just for them, but for others, too? 

Imagine a world where no one is curious or open to knew knowledge? Now imagine on where everyone is eager and willing to learn. Which world would you rather live in?

If you answered, "A: the one where no one's curious" I hope you're being facetious.

If not I'll make a deal with you: I'll give you a D+, you'll technically pass the class, and you don't ever have to come to class again. 

And I don't have to waste my time NOT teaching you a damned thing.

The irony of course is that if you're reading this blog you're almost certainly NOT the kind of student I'm writing about here.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

To See Again

"I can't fix a blank page," bestselling author Nora Roberts has famously said, providing me with the best if not the only excuse I can imagine for those often frightening documents called "first drafts." In Bird By Bird, her inspirational guide for writers, Anne Lamott sanctions "shitty first drafts" as a crucial first step in the process of creating—if not a masterpiece, at least a readable piece of writing.

Beginning writers fear and loathe revision. Having written something once, they see no need to write it again. When it comes to revision, the philosophy of most undergraduates seems to run along the lines of, "Make me write an essay once, shame on you; get me to write it twice, shame on me." Which explains why, when most students "revise" their work, they do so tentatively, changing a word here, a comma there, taking into account specific notes made by their teacher, and doing little more. To my mind the result hardly qualifies as a revision.

It's hard for me to relate, since of all parts of writing I love revising most. That's when I get to see my work come to life, and even, at times, shine. It's putting the polish on, or—short of that —getting the thing to work. Because I'm result oriented, I want a finished product. Rough drafts are for me just an end to that means. Until they've gone through the revision process, I feel about them as one feels about an unglazed ceramic or an unbaked cake. Of first drafts Hemingway said, "They are excrement" (in fact I think he used the four-letter equivalent of that word). But with this difference: you can't shine excrement. You can polish a first draft.

As I said to one of my classes, some of my published stories went through fifteen and even twenty drafts, over periods of years, before seeing print. But when they did get published they were published well. Those are the stories I'm proudest of. Did it bug me to have to do so many revisions? Well, no, not really. Because in writing each of those fifteen to twenty revisions I wasn't just retyping; I really was re-envisioning: seeing again. It was as if each time I sat down to work on the story again I had a whole new idea about it. Each time I believe that this would be the final draft, the one that would lead to triumph in the form of publication. That my belief turned out to be wrong mattered little once I sat down to revise again: for with each revision a new hope flourished. I drew my inspiration not from past failures, but from the possibility of success that always seemed to there waiting for me. Just one more draft, my muse whispered. Just one more. This will be it! ...

For many of my students, the idea of writing two or three drafts--let alone fifteen--seems absurd enough. But it only seems absurd if you approach it with the wrong attitude, which is that you're writing the same work over again. Zen philosophy tells us that we can never enter the same river twice. And the same is true for a story or an essay or even a book: each time we revise, we enter a different story, essay, or book. Between the time we completed the last draft and the time we set out to do the next, we've changed; the world has changed. We're not the same people we were yesterday, let alone two weeks ago. It's not just our words that we're revising when we revise, but our vision, our understanding.

This is why, when revising, I always tell students, Begin with a blank document; re-keyboard from scratch. When I tell them this my students think I'm nuts. You mean do all that typing over again? Yes, do all that "typing" over again. But compared to thinking, typing takes very little energy. And what matters is that you really reconsider every thought/sentence as you revise. If you're inserting changes, you're not revising; you're just editing. There's a difference. To revise is to see again; to see fresh, to reevaluate. 

For me, that chance to see again is also a chance to get things write; to make something strong if not perfect. To create something I can be proud of, and that may even last.

Friday, September 12, 2008

My Opinion

In one of my classes yesterday we were discussing the "cheating" essays. I tried to generalize about their weakness (a mistake, probably, since whenever we generalize we almost always do so in error). Still, with no time to deal with 30 essays on an individual basis, I felt the need to make at least some general points. And one of these points had to do with insubstantial sentences: in other words, with sentences that, though they may sound perfectly innocent, say nothing, or say things that are entirely obvious—which, for me, amounts to the same thing.

Well, it didn't take long for me to get into trouble. I  gave what I thought was a good example of an "obvious" sentence (I won't quote it verbatim, for fear of singling out any student or his/her work), one that read something like, "These days, most people try to accomplish as much as they can." No sooner did I do so than a flurry of hands went up.

"I didn't think it was obvious!"

"Neither did I."

"Really?" I said. "What's not obvious about it?"

"They're just stating their opinion," said one student.

"Yeah," said another. "What's wrong with that."

"Nothing," I said. "If the opinion isn't obvious."

"It's not obvious!"

"Again I ask you—what isn't obvious about it?"

We went back and forth like this for a while. Clearly, the argument would not be settled this way. At last I said, "Maybe the sentence isn't obvious, but it's not exactly gripping, is it?"

"That's just your opinion!" said a student.

Oh, boy, I thought. Here we go. Just my opinion. True, very true. But then if a teacher's opinion doesn't count for more than his or her students', then what's the point of having a teacher? I said, "Yes, it's my opinion. But not all opinions are created equal. Some have more authority than others. Some are based on more experience than others."

"But there's all kinds of books and things being written out there by all kinds of people with all kinds of different opinions," said the same student. "Who's to say that one opinion is better than any other?"

We call this relativism: that notion that all things, including ideas and opinions, are equal or should be treated as such. Hence, Beethhoven's Fifth Symphony is no better than a  song by Barry Manilow. And a meal at The Four Season's or Lutece is no better than one from a McDonald's drive-thru window. And a three year-old's crayon scrawl is no less worthy of our admiration and respect than the Sistine Chapel.

But even if we aren't relativists, still, how do we know—how can we be sure—that one opinion is more authoritative than another? Answer: by the skill of the argument[s] used to defend it. This is why, when you (my students) write your papers, I ask you to defend your claims—those that beg defending— with examples, illustrations, statistics, and other kinds of evidence.

Can I prove that the sentence, "These days, most people try to accomplish as much as they can" is a dull, obvious, empty sentence? Can I argue my opinion? I think so. Let's take one part of the sentence at a time. First, "These days"—meaning when, exactly? Today? All right: today. "Most people"—since most is vague we can reduce that to "people." "Try to accomplish." In other words, they "do." "As much as they can"—meaning "what they can." So, distilled, the sentence reads, "Today people do what they can." Since "today" is implied we can reduce that further to, "People do what they can." Note that nothing crucial has been lost from the initial sentence; the information conveyed is identical. 

Now is it obvious? Supposing we turn the thought on its head. "Some people don't try to do [as much as] they can." Well, some people don't, I guess. But that is certainly obvious. And if it's obvious that some people don't do as much as they can, must it not therefore be equally obvious that the rest do do as much as they can? I think so.

Were I to make this argument in class, I would be perceived (rightly, I think) as an intellectual bully. After all, one of my main goals in these classes is to get my students to feel comfortable so they'll take part in discussions and ask questions. If I back them into dialectical corners, if I harangue them with arguments, how will that help me achieve my goal? 

It won't.

In exchange for a lively classroom I'll gladly accept a little relativism. Far as I'm concerned, it's a fair trade.


Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Asking Questions

It comes up (usually because I bring it up) at every new Montclair class, the question of questions, namely: why don't my students ask more questions?

Today, though, I was grateful to get some honest answers. We don't want to be wrong. We don't want people to think we're stupid. We don't want to stick our necks out.

Fair enough. I thought those might be the answers. My question to myself: how do I create an atmosphere in the classroom where it's safe to ask as many questions as often as you like? How do I convince you, dear students, that the only foolish question is the one you don't ask? How do I assure you that in asking question you won't be seen as dumb; on the contrary, others will be grateful. In fact one person in that classroom, I guarantee you, who'll be most the grateful of all. Me.

Why? Because teaching a class where no one ever asks questions is about as much fun and as easy as having to eat a box of light bulbs (without salt). Because teaching to a room full of Easter Island Statues makes me want to run screaming out of the classroom. And after a few weeks of doing it I'll be ready to go home and mix myself a nice, tall drink of arsenic, with a cyanide chaser.

Because when no one asks questions, I can't tell if anything I'm saying makes any sense at all. I can't even tell if my students are listening, or if they're awake, or if they have heartbeats and pulses. For all I know, they are text messaging love letters under their notebooks (well, at least they're writing).

The thing is, I don't really want to teach a whole class every day. Ideally, I'd like to teach about 1/4 or maybe 1/3 of a class--and let you (my students) teach the rest—by asking questions, by talking, by sharing ideas and experiences.

Otherwise, guess what?

You're stuck with me and my ideas.

And so am I.