Monthly Archives: January 2016

Mirrors, carried down roads

I’m happy to report that I have a new essay up at Open Letters Monthly. It’s called “My Disappearance” and it’s about teaching creative writing, David Foster Wallace, the idea of mentors, being turned into a fictional character, and John Barth. And so much more!

Well, not really: that’s actually what it’s about, but you know, spooled out into many more words and riveting anecdotes. Anyway, please go check it out. I can’t think of any pithy, meta angle to take on this piece; it’s already fairly meta as it is.

Okay, I lied: here are two meta-bits. In the essay, there’s some stuff about funhouse mirrors, à la Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse, and this has gotten me thinking about weird mirror effects. I’ve only taken a few selfies thus far in my life, which probably tells you more about my age and disposition than I care to admit, but one of them was in an elevator, alone, just as the doors closed. It was one of those elevators whose door interior was all reflective, and I had two competing reflections of myself sliding toward each other on each half, except that when they met and sealed me in, my head disappeared. The rest of my wide body reflected, but my noggin was erased. And that’s the photo I got. I’m not sure where that photo is at the moment, or I would post it. It’s lost somewhere in the ever-expanding junk drawer of digital documentation. Someone should become the Marie Kondo of data storage.

Second, Graceland. Everyone should visit Graceland, not just because Elvis lived there but because the combination of irony and sentiment and kitsch whirs together into something that ends up feeling like pathos. But one of the many great moments in Graceland, when you take the tour, is when you walk down the stairs into Elvis’s basement. The walls and the ceiling of the stairwell are completely covered in mirrors, and the panoramic reflection of yourself and the rest of the tourists is overwhelming. If there is a heaven, Elvis is there, giggling.

Note on Marilynne Robinson

I’m happy to report that I have a review in the latest issue of The Quarterly Conversation, this time of Marilynne Robinson’s new collection of essays The Givenness of Things.

And now here is a little thought fragment that did not make it into the review: In the review I joke briefly about the idea of Robinson running for president and dicuss the interview/conversation between her and President Obama that appeared recently in the New York Review of Books. In that talk, which is more than anything a chance for Obama to interview a writer he admires, Robinson discusses her parents:

The President: Were your parents into books, or did they just kind of encourage you or tolerate your quirkiness?

Robinson: There was great tolerance in the house for quirkiness. No, it’s a funny thing because on the one hand, I’m absolutely indebted to my origins, whatever they are, whatever that means. On the other hand, with all love and respect, my parents were not particularly bookish people.

The President: Well, that’s why you have good sense along with sort of an overlay of books on top of good sense. What did your mom and dad do?

Robinson: My mother was a stay-at-home mother. My father was a sort of middle-management lumber company guy.

The President: But they encouraged it.

Robinson: You know what, they were the adults and we were the kids, you know what I mean? Sort of like two species. But if they noticed we were doing something — drawing or painting or whatever we were doing — then they would get us what we needed to do that, and silently go on with it. One of the things that I think is very liberating is that if I had lived any honest life, my parents would have been equally happy. I was under no pressure.

Now, compare this parental residue to a real-life presidential candidate, whose parents are a known entity: Jeb Bush. A few weeks ago, Jeb! had this exchange:

The next morning in Manchester, after a child asked what it was like to grow up the son of a president, Bush told a room full of kids that his father’s approval weighed on him.

“All he had to do was say, ‘I’m disappointed in you,’ and it would send me in a deep, spiraling depression,” he said.

I’m struck by the overwhelming sadness of that statement — how haunted and trapped he must feel. Think of having to run for president in order to alleviate your father’s disappointment in you, or perhaps to preempt it.

And then think, on the other side, the Robinson side, of the freedom that she received instead, a freedom that comes from a kind of love, almost a careless love, almost a form of inattention. As someone who is now a parent myself, I am haunted by these two anecdotes. It could be argued that Jeb is the much more successful adult in many contemporary, measurable ways, and yet one doesn’t have to pay much attention to perceive who the more seemingly content figure is, spiritually or otherwise. In that race, Robinson wins by a landslide.

Can walk, chew gum

When I was in fifth grade and about to join middle school band, the band director at the time was trying to dissuade me from being a percussionist. “Anyone who can walk and chew bubble gum at the same time can play drums,” he said.

Now, being the son of a drummer, this was like being told you came from a blighted people — a hunchback-and-boil–type people. The band director needed trombonists, and I admittedly didn’t have the lip fortitude to handle the trumpet, which I’d been eyeing. I stuck with drums.

But these many years later I still have a hard time walking and chewing gum simultaneously, which is my roundabout explanation for why I haven’t posted any writing here on this international website of text for months and months. I didn’t intend to stop posting (at too long a length, somewhat monthly); it’s just that I’ve been over here chewing on some Wrigley with great intensity.*

I realize no one cares about this. At all. That was one of the painful yet freeing discoveries recently, made in private, worth nothing to no one. No one cares if you don’t update your blog. Consequently, no one cares if you start updating your blog again. You don’t even need a reason!

So here I am, again.

*And by chewing Wrigley I of course mean working on a novel.