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 LevĂ©, 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.

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