Friday, February 15, 2013

Autoportrait III

(Part three of a series.)

My favorite writing utensil is a black pilot Razor-point pen. I don't like ballpoints. My handwriting is very tightly compressed and difficult for others to read, although I don't feel any need or desire to change it to suit others. I have changed a tire perhaps seven or eight times. The worst time experience was when I was outside an indoor soccer facility on a rainy winter night and drove the car through a puddle that was obscuring a pothole and it tore the tire in half. I had to change it in the cold and rain while my son played his soccer match indoors. Although I use it sparingly, my favorite punctuation mark is the semicolon. I do not have a favorite color or favorite day of the week. I have owned two Volkswagens, one Datsun, one Chevelle, one Chevette, and five Toyotas, in that order. Before that, I owned a Honda motorbike and later, a Honda motorcycle. Almost everything I wear is made of cotton. I like my bed hard and my pillows firm. I have no reason to believe that anything in the world is likely to get better in the future. I do not like the smell of perfume. I went for years without reading the paper. Now I skim the local paper daily but rarely find anything worth reading in it. I like going to art galleries. I read mostly lying down. I have taught myself to touch type, and have greatly improved my performance to do so by transcribing audiotapes I've made of comments one of my artist friends makes while he is doing demos. I no longer enjoy going to the beach. I have never been in a fistfight or punched anyone, although as a teenager I was punched several times by morons. Both of my parents believed in paying for quality. My mother used to say, with only a tinge of irony, "The best is none too good." The two times of day I enjoy the most are when I am setting off for work and when I am walking home. I get impatient with people who complain of being bored. I agree with the woman in The Glass Menagerie who argues that boredom betrays a lack of inner resources. I often surprise myself by weeping in movies and then feel ridiculous for doing so. It is my general practice to withhold my opinion unless I am asked for it, unless I am with people I know and trust. I have never been seriously hungry. I have never been in the armed services. I have never fired a machine gun. I have fired rifles, shotguns, and pistols. I've shot and killed woodchucks, crows, squirrels, rabbits, pheasant, and ruffed grouse. I rarely get headaches. My knowledge of world geography is sketchy at best. If I had to draw a map of Asia, I'd get most of the major countries but I have no real sense of how they interlock. I dislike Musak and Hallmark cards and all other forms of merchandized secondhand sentiment. When I was a child, I used to believe that there were animals outside the windows of my house waiting for me to come out so they could pounce on me. I used to follow my mother around the house because I thought I would be safer in her presence. I prefer abstract art to realistic art. I have fainted on several occasions, including once when I was serving as an altar boy at a confirmation ceremony and holding the bishop's crozier, which fell to the ground with a crash that startled everyone in the congregation when I passed out. When people ask me if I miss New England, I tell them I miss the last week of September and the first week of October, and that's about it. I do not like cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, artichokes, asparagus, eggplant, peas, corn, or lima beans. I generally fall asleep quickly and sleep solidly. Given a choice, I'd wear jeans, sandals, and a t-shirt all the time. I do not smoke. I do not drink coffee. It bothers me when people walk by art on the walls and do not even register that it is there, much less look at it. When I visit houses I am always drawn to look at what is on their bookshelves. I skateboarded long before skateboarding became a craze. I know how to whistle and sometimes like to do so, but it annoys me when others whistle so when I catch myself whistling in company I try to stop. I have had surgery for cancer; it saved my life. I cannot recall ever wanting to take revenge on anyone. While I am sometimes disappointed by the behavior of others, I do not generally get angry at them. I do get angry at myself. I don't believe in ghosts, but I do not necessarily disbelieve in them either. One of the scariest people I ever met claimed to have worked as a ghostbuster and he had detailed, very convincing stories of how he had worked with a team to make contact with spirits stuck in between the real world and the spirit world and to perform healing rituals to help them to the other side where they could be at peace. I nearly killed myself and my son when I drove in front of a truck while fumbling in the glove compartment for a pen. The car was totaled and by some miracle we were essentially unhurt. I am an unapologetic liberal democrat, and it distresses me that liberals over the last thirty years have let themselves be pushed around by conservative demagogues spouting utter nonsense. I know several poems by heart: Frost, Dickinson, W.S. Merwin, and William Carlos Williams. I have played chess for more than fifty years and am a decent player but probably not as good as I should be at this point. I've never been serious enough to really study the openings or analyze even the games I have played, much less the games of others. This particular autoportrait exercise produces a kind of writing which make me seem duller and less fully rounded than I feel myself to be. I like my life. I like to read and write. I love talking about ideas with students and colleagues. I've never wished to be anyone else or envied anyone else's life. I work hard, and I try to be useful in this world. I have few regrets and no complaints. It's good to be here, for as long as it lasts.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Autoportrait II

(This is part two of an exercise begun in the previous post.)

The things I enjoy doing the most require are not in any way reflective of who I am or how I am different from anyone else. I like simple, repetitive tasks that have a physical component; for example, washing the dishes after dinner, then drying them, putting them away, and wiping the counters. I love a warm shower. I enjoy the short morning walk from my home to my office, although I have to keep my wits about me. Today as I was walking across the street in the crosswalk, the first car coming toward me stopped and the one behind it wasn't watching and had to slam on the brakes and screech to a halt, very nearly rear-ending the car in front. I generally am reading five or six books at a time. I've just begun Autoportrait by Edouard Levé, which is the ur-text from which what I am writing now derives. I am the sort of person to whom the word ur-text occurs naturally; it wasn't something I had to wrack my brains for. At one point in my life I took care of seven horses. My mother took up smoking on the advice of her doctor, who told her that it would do her good to sit down and smoke a cigarette several times a day. She lived into her nineties. I do not like to drink alcohol. In my family, some of us had straight teeth that were soft and got cavities easily, and some of us had crooked teeth with hard enamel. I got the hard teeth. My father bought each of his sons a rifle when we were twelve, and taught us how to use it. I've read and written poetry for my entire adult life. Some people would find that ridiculous or off-putting. I don't care much about what people think. I have been described as anti-social, as too serious, as intimidating. I do not see myself that way, but I don't go out of my way to alleviate those impressions. I generally don't enjoy meeting new people unless it's in the context of work to be done. Nor do I like saying goodbye, even to people I know well and am fond of. I don't like the girls at the mall who try to start up a conversation as you walk by so that they can sell you face cream or swirly dresses. When I was in China this summer, I was put off by the department store salespeople who attach themselves to you the minute you walk in the door and walk around the store with you grabbing items from the racks and holding them up in front of your face. I eat the same breakfast pretty much every day on alternate days: one day cereal and banana, the next day a toasted bagel. I used to do crossword puzzles religiously, as did my mother. I sometimes wonder at what point exactly my life closed down to these narrow obsessive rituals. I rarely laugh out loud except when I'm reading something funny. I enjoy napping. I like the feel of my body in motion. My vision of an ideal afterlife would be an endless pickup basketball game.  I read somewhere a long time ago that there is an antiworld that is moving toward us from the future at the same speed that we are moving toward it from the past, and the collision of the two worlds will be the end of time. I don't watch television. There is another autoportrait exactly like this one, except that all of the sentences are saying things that I cannot or will not say here. I have a family, for example, but I do not believe it would be okay for me or acceptable to them if I were to drag them into this, except for my parents, who are no longer alive and who would perhaps forgive me in any case. The form of this exercise contributes to a certain tonality and flatness of affect. My father died when I was eleven and I was angry at him for having worked himself to death. I like being able to be of assistance to others, but I don't like asking for help. I don't believe in God. I'm not sure I ever did. I'm happier with a Hershey Bar than a fancy chocolate truffle. I love the smell and taste of vanilla. I dream vividly when I sleep but rarely can remember my dreams when I awaken. Sometimes when I am arising from sleep a phrase or a sentence sticks with me and I write it down before I get up. I've come up with the start of some interesting poems that way. I once saw Eldridge Cleaver give a speech to undergrads at Vassar College in which he told them to remember that "political power springs from the lips of the pussy." I am generally more comfortable in the company of women than of men, unless there's a card game or work to be done. I have trouble finding sneakers that fit me. I've never met anyone famous. I've never been interested in being famous myself. I don't care about money, except to the extent that I want to be able to support myself and have a little to spend. I like building fires, but have no use for a fireplace where I live now. The most influential teacher in my life advised me, after I had been teaching for fifteen years, to leave education and broaden myself by trying something else. I never did. If I had to choose, I'd rather be too hot than too cold. Swimming is the most tiring of exercises for me. I tried surfing once but fell off my board and had to swim through the whitewash to get to it, and was so exhausted by the time I got to it that I wasn't interested in paddling out for another try. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich is still one of my favorite meals. Robert Rauschenberg was onto something when he said "Whatever I've used and whatever I've done, the method was always closer to a collaboration with materials than to any kind of conscious manipulation or control." To some extent that's what's going on here. I used to wonder how you would know when you had become an adult.

Process Reflection: Autoportrait I was interesting enough as a writing exercise that I wanted to return to it and extend it. The basic rules as I understand them are 1) that every sentence is a statement and 2) that each statement is true. Perhaps there's also an expectation of some degree of spontaneity, which implies that you don't go back and mess with it too much. (I did some light editing in this one, and moved two or three sentences; I feel a little conflicted about that, but what the hell.) Writing something of this nature puts you in a different kind of box and basically forces you to write differently than you normally would, which provides at least the opportunity for surprise. I had no idea what was coming next as I was writing, and I kind of like being in that space.  It's like a building a collage or a doing pointillist painting: you lay down one unit after the other, and the odd juxtapositions create energies of various kinds in the spaces between them in ways that are not quite predictable. I found myself thinking a lot this time about what I was NOT writing, and added in a line about that.

I'm used to following the rhythms of my thought as I write and more or less consciously building sequences and structures that create emphasis and give the opportunity for humor or self-questioning. In my regular writing I rely heavily on paragraph breaks and signposting with words like "similarly" or "furthermore" or "on the other hand." Now even writing something as functional and utilitarian as this process reflection feels luxurious; I can get a line of thought going and run with it as far as I like: a sentence, a paragraph, a full-blown essay. Having done the autopilot exercise as a kind of five-finger-exercise, I can return to my normal writing feeling refreshed and freed up. I sometimes used to do a thing in class with students where I would speak in monotone, monorhythmic syllables that – sound – like – this – and – take – a – way – all – norm – al – in – to – na – tion – and – the – ef – fect – is – im –med – i – ate – ly – ap – par – ent. It was always a relief, for them and for me, to go back to normal speech patterns, which are inflected in completely unconscious but highly sophisticated ways. The point being that every element of verbal discourse is subject to strategic manipulation, and in fact when you write and speak "naturally" there is always somebody at the controls, it's just not your conscious mind. One way to alert the conscious mind to the fact that there's somebody else in charge is to place yourself under the kinds of constraints represented by this exercise or, say, by what Padgett Powell does in his novel "The Interrogative Mood," which consists entirely of questions. When you say to yourself, okay, now, I'm back, the question facing you is: so what are you going to do with it?

All of which is to say, this is pretty interesting. I may not be done yet.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Autoportrait I

So  okay. I have not yet finished what I started. I didn't even get up a good head of steam. I did three posts in early January that were going to be part of a series and then I walked away for a while. The next book in line is the Tao Te Ching, and that's a simple book with a complicated story and I haven't had the gumption to get going with it; it feels too big too me.

What I've figured out is that given the number of distractor factors I've got going on right now (Tumblr, Pinterest, my artwork, chess, reading, and oh yeah, my job), the only way I'm going to get into a regular writing rhythm again is to attempt smaller bites, try my hand at things that look more like fun and less like work. That doesn't mean I'm not going to keep going with the bookshelf thing, I will. But in between I'm going to play a little bit.

One of the things I like about Tumblr is that the posts generally include links not only to the person who most recently put up the post but also to the people who posted originally. So when time permits you can do a bit of surfing to find other blogs. That's how I ran across a blog I really like maintained by Stephen Sparks called Invisible Stories. It's got some interesting layers. On Wednesday his post began like this:

[After reading Édouard Levé’s Autoportrait in January ‘12, I attempted—as an exercise in personality upkeep—to compose a series of declarative statements of my own. I succeeded for a few months before fragmenting into sentences surrounded by comforting white space. With the same intentions, but hopefully better resolve, I attempt another stab (in the dark) here.]

He then posted a short essayish sort of compilation of declarative sentences that I found interesting to read both for what they had to say and for the territory they suggested might be there to be explored. Cool idea, I said to myself. That might be fun, I said to myself. So here goes:

I'm now five years older than my father was when he passed away. I've lived in Honolulu for almost fifteen years now. I like living in a state with no majority population. I like the air, the potable tapwater, the sunshine, temperatures in the eighties all year round. But it irks me that in a small city with a perfect climate there is no infrastructure for bicycles. We're choking on traffic. And in an environment where we have access to wind and sun and wave energy every single day, we generate more than 90% of our electricity by burning petroleum. There was a time in my life when I was a political activist, but politics discourages me now. People will go to extraordinary lengths to deny the most obvious truths if they do not fit with their predispositions. Al Gore wrote a book about that. I suspect that he had hopes that the book would be a game changer. The game has not changed. Before I wound up with arthritis in my hips, I used to play, and coach, basketball. Before I wound up with nerve damage in my shoulder, I used to play guitar. Before I became an administrator, I used to teach. I've been a voracious reader all my life. I read less now. I find it harder to get lit up by books these days. My life seems to be devolving into a series of departures. All of which are, let us say, rehearsals. I begin every day with a routine of stretching that borrows bits and pieces from yoga and tai chi. It takes about ten to fifteen minutes. Then I shower, make breakfast and go off to work. I like going to work as the sun is rising, but in the winter months it's often still dark when I reach my office. My office is always cold. It's in a big building with central air which seems always to be set at the same temperature whether the days are long and sunny or short and rainy. During the winter it's cold. I've worn a blue fleece jacket in my office every day for five years. I take it off when I go outside. I don't like travelling much. I like being at home. I like having time to myself. For the last several months I've been spending time in the evenings making collages out of old books and photographs. (Before that it was drawings. Before that it was prints. Before that it was idiosyncratic oddball abstract paintings.) I sit and piece bits of paper and cardboard together and glue them down with acrylic medium. It's somehow very satisfying, this business of pasting bits of old things down to make something new. Often while I work I find myself thinking of my father, who spent time most evenings in his study, pasting pictures and newspaper columns into scrapbooks with hunting and fishing themes. Dad liked to think of himself as an outdoorsman. He was a meticulous man, and his scrapbooks were elegantly maintained. He's been dead for 55 years. The scrapbooks are gone. I don't know where.