mor·tal

Portrait of Philip Seymour Hoffman by Inez van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin

Portrait of Philip Seymour Hoffman by Inez van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin

 

mor·tal  (ˈmôrtl) adjective  1. (of a living human being, often in contrast to a divine being) subject to death: “all men are mortal” synonyms: perishable, physical, bodily, corporeal, fleshly, earthly, this-worldly, human, impermanent, transient, ephemeral; of or relating to humanity as subject to death: “the coffin held the mortal remains of her uncle”; informal  conceivable or imaginable: “punishment out of all mortal proportion to the offense”  2. causing or liable to cause death; fatal: “a mortal disease”  synonyms: deadly, fatal, lethal, death-dealing, murderous, terminal: “a mortal blow”; (of a battle) fought to the death: “from the outbuildings came the screams of men in mortal combat” synonyms: irreconcilable, deadly, sworn, bitter, out-and-out, implacable: “mortal enemies”; (of an enemy or a state of hostility) admitting or allowing no reconciliation until death synonyms: unpardonable, unforgivable “a mortal sin”; Christian Theology, denoting a grave sin that is regarded as depriving the soul of divine grace; (of a feeling, esp. fear) very intense:”parents live in mortal fear of children’s diseases” synonyms: extreme, (very) great, terrible, awful, dreadful intense, severe, grave, dire, unbearable: “living in mortal fear”; informal very great; informal dated long and tedious. noun  1. a human being subject to death, often contrasted with a divine being synonyms: human being, human, person, man/woman, earthling: “we are mere mortals”; humorous a persona contracted with others regarded as being of higher status or ability: “an ambassador had to live in a style that was not expected of lesser mortals.”

 

Like many, I was struck and deeply saddened by actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death earlier this week. As so many gifted artists do, he opened himself up to this world in order to make the work he did and he couldn’t, at this particular moment, contain it all. Being so permeable in a world so full can be hard to bear. Today, the dictionary project hosts an essay by Mike Miley in tribute to Philip Seymour Hoffman.

 

 

Tribute to Philip Seymour Hoffman

 

I can still remember the sense of wonder I felt the first time I noticed Philip Seymour Hoffman in Scent of a Woman. His performance in that film usually doesn’t get mentioned because the film is so clearly Oscar bait for Al Pacino, but in it Hoffman plays the nasty ringleader of Chris O’Donnell’s school chums, a real bastard whose sense of entitlement is surpassed only by his lack of remorse over it. While everyone else in that film was sheepishly letting Al Pacino chew up the movie, Hoffman was busy dominating the film with an unapologetic youthful bravado that demanded your attention and respect. I normally looked away from bullies in the movies, but I couldn’t take my eyes off him; he was just so real, so unlike anything I’d ever seen. In a perfect world, it would have been a star-making turn for Hoffman, but that wouldn’t come until later. Much later.

Plenty of acting and writing textbooks stress the importance of creating three-dimensional characters, but that all just sounds like empty platitudes after you’ve seen Philip Seymour Hoffman do it. Hoffman acted in 3-D long before such a thing was cool, and he did it selflessly, without calling attention to the fact that he was doing it and demanding your accolades. Even though that’s what all actors are supposed to do, he did it with such commitment, honesty, and passion that he revealed how much other actors had been holding back on us, slipping us illusion and evasion when they were supposed to be delivering truth and contact.

Hoffman gave each of his characters the fullest depth of emotion and transformed words on a page into living, breathing human beings who stumbled their way through life with dignity. Whether Hoffman was front-and-center in a film (the widely lauded Capote, the criminally underseen Owning Mahowny) or barely noticeable in the background (Magnolia, Moneyball, Almost Famous) he commanded the screen, making both the film and everyone around him better. Paradoxically, his smaller parts are where Hoffman made his largest impact in a film. In the hands of lesser actors, these would be considered thankless supporting roles, but in the hands of Hoffman, these roles are those ones that stuck with you because rather than settling for making these characters into cheap jokes, Hoffman made them human beings, warts and all. In fact, Hoffman made you love his characters because of their warts, because they were unguarded and caring enough to let you get close enough to see their flaws. Hoffman gave truth to such human shortcomings and made you feel less ashamed about the flaws you had.

Like most people feel about their favorite actors, I liked Hoffman best because I identified with him: overweight, pasty, equal parts ribald, joyous, compassionate, and pathetic—this guy was exactly how I saw myself. But now that I think about it, that’s just how we all are. That’s the kind of truth you can only learn from a great artist, and while we may have just lost a lot of great work from such a giving human being, he’s already showed us more about ourselves than we could ever hope to know.

 

 

photoMike Miley teaches Film Studies and Literature at Metairie Park Country Day School in Metairie, LA. His writing has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Film International, The Huffington Post, Moving Image Source, The New Orleans Review, and now here. He just #killed his Twitter for New Year’s and is toying with the idea of coming out of retirement and making films again.

Leave a comment

Filed under other words

re·cord

Music_Vinyl_records_014636_

 

 

 

re·cord  (ri-ˈkȯrd;  for  n.  &  adj., ˈre-kərd also -ˌkȯrd ),  v.t.  [ME. recorden; OFr. recorder; L. recordari, to call to mind, remember  < re-, again + cor, cordis, heart, mind],  1.  to set down, as in writing; preserve an account of: as, record the day’s events.  2.  to register in some permanent form, as on a graph or chart, an indication of (a motion or event) as it occurs: as, a seismograph records earthquakes.  3.  to serve as evidence of; tell of: as, the marks on the house record the height of the flood waters.  4.  a) to transform (sound) by electrical or mechanical means and register it in some permanent form, as the grooved track of a phonograph record, the magnetization of fine wire, etc. so that it can be reproduced at will by a reverse process.  b)  to register thus the performance of (a singer, orchestra, piece of music, etc).  5.  to show; indicate.  6.  to set down or have set down in a register: as, record a vote.  v.i.  1.  to record something.  2.  to admit of being recorded.  n.  [ME.; OFr.  <  the v.i]1.  a recording or being recorded; preservation in or as in writing.  2.  anything that is written down and preserved as evidence; account of events; anything that serves as evidence of an event, etc.  3.  anything that the written evidence is put on or in, as a register, monument, etc.  4.  an official written report of public proceedings, as in a legislature or court of law; documents preserved as evidence of proceedings, as of court.  5.  the known or recorded facts about anything, as about conduct, performance, one’s career, etc.  6.  a flat disk, cylinder, paper roll, etc. on which sound has been recorded.  7.  the best performance as the highest speed, greatest amount, highest rate, etc., reached and publicly recorded  adj.  making a record; being the largest, fastest, etc. of its kind: as, a record audience, record crop. Abbreviated rec.

 

 

 

 

As the marks on a house record the height of the flood waters, as the grooved track of a phonograph record

 

 

 

Facebook is a continuous looping record. In one convenient space, the site culls together notes and images about our lives, or rather the pieces of our lives we choose to acknowledge and honor. If we could print it out like ticker tape, there our life would be: photos of parties with friends, new love, graduations, jobs, promotions, holidays, our smiling glittering sparkly faces. Our status updates could be read aloud, providing a sort of voiceover featuring our own voice. How easy it would be to parse through this record and collate it in a binder. The table of contents categorized according to biographical data, friendship, love, career. Only we would know how far it is from the truth.

 

Except for those folks who tip the balance strongly in the venting category: regularly acknowledging their sadness or anger, most of us hold back our hurts on facebook. I’m not talking about annoyances at the grocery store or anger at issues of social injustice: I’m talking about pain. We don’t want to burden others or we don’t want others to perceive us as having moments of weakness, sadness, and deep hurt (read: being human). So instead, we do the same thing to our image that we criticize advertisers for doing. We photoshop our lives. We crop. We blur. We dodge. We burn. We create a record of a life that we can be proud of.

 

There’s one problem with this. Our record is not real. As we shape ourselves, we deny parts of ourselves. And in not allowing people to see us in our full humanity, we don’t allow ourselves to be fully “like”d or loved. And we are all worthy of being loved not in spite of but because of our beautiful, flawed human selves.

 

There is danger in this limited perspective. As we spend more and more time socializing in these spheres presenting our constructed selves, we have less and less opportunity to connect with others and meet each another as we really are. We try to meet our needs for comfort and security in an artificial and inadequate space to meet these needs.

 
This blurring of the whole picture can happen in our real lives too. Even when I am in prolonged struggle, most people would not know this, sometimes not even dear friends. I don’t always show I’m having a hard time, but that doesn’t mean that I am not having a hard time.

 

I’m not suggesting codependency or suddenly flooding everyone we know with our deepest fears. I’m suggesting that we honestly let ourselves be seen, that we show up and allow others to show themselves to us in all their complexity. This kind of vulnerability can be challenging to bear on both ends. When we share, we face our deepest fears of rejection and defectiveness. When we listen, others’ vulnerability can remind us of our own in a way that may make us tempted to turn away.

 

Mindfulness has permeated all aspects of our culture these days. I recently read on The Huffington Post that 2014 is “The Year of Mindfulness.” Elementary schools have integrated it as a practice for kids to calm themselves. CEOs are meeting with mindfulness leaders for their own lives and to integrate it into business practices. The Seattle Seahawks announced after their recent Superbowl win that mindfulness meditation is part of their training regimen. I think the omnipresence of mindfulness talk now is in direct proportion to our need for it. In our high speed world, people need to learn how to sit and be with themselves. Mindfulness has so many benefits. Sitting and breathing and observing seems so simple so it can be misinterpreted as easy. However, it takes tremendous courage to show up and be present. It is brave to be with ourselves.

 

The other night, I watched an unexpected gem of a movie called Safety Not Guaranteed. The premise of the movie is largely unimportant to the undercurrents of the film but it is this: a journalist and two interns go to research a guy who has posted an advertisement asking for a partner to travel back in time with him. Experience with weapons is needed and safety is not guaranteed. You enter the film thinking it will show a humorous encounter in which these “normal” characters meet an “eccentric” character and the drama that ensues. But the film is really about intimacy: how each of these characters desperately wants to connect to someone and how they try and fail and sometimes succeed in this kind of connection. They gain faith and lose it and then gain it again. The opening that is required is risky. The staying, when all they want to do is go, is sometimes impossible. We observe them in the time between the desire to leap and the leaping itself.

 

I was in an improvisational dance workshop at the beginning of the new year and four rules were set up at the start as guidelines and gauges: Show Up; Pay Attention; Be Honest; Be Open to What Happens Next. I keep thinking about how simple these rules are about the process of being alive. And about how simple they are. Yet how everything in me resists these simple guidelines sometimes. Particularly the last one, being open to what happens next. Because that part, that what-happens-next part, is the part we have absolutely no control of. It’s why showing up and paying attention is threatening. We can have control over tuning out or remaining absent, even how honest we want to be with ourselves or others. But what happens next? The outcome? That is never ever in our control. The part that is in our control is the opening.

 

For the record, right now I am sitting at my desk (where I am trying to write now, I always end up on the couch) and as I type I am watching a cactus wren climb the dead branches outside. I know he is a cactus wren because of the white and black polka dot plumage on his back and the way he is poking his beak into the wood of the tree. Cactus wrens have never ceased to be exotic to me even though I have lived in the desert for six years.

 

I was talking with a friend last week about how I wish facebook had an “honesty button.” So you see someone’s status update about their promotion or the best night of their life and when you press the honesty button, a new window appears which says “I am also so afraid of getting older that I just spent the last forty-five minutes researching anti-aging creams” or “I’m worried I’ll never find meaningful work” or “My marriage is falling apart” or “I’m scared I’m a terrible mother” or “I’m worried I’ll never find love.” Next to the album of family holiday photos is an honesty button: “This perfect image was taken ten minutes after my eighteen-month-old threw up and my three-year-old threw himself on the floor in a tantrum when I was functioning on a few hours sleep.” I’m not asking for every vulnerability, just a little equilibrium. You know, for the record.

 

There are two of them now, the cactus wrens, and they are hopping up a long tree limb that hangs over the neighbors’ little wooden awning. One of them is hanging upside down as he pecks. I read on the Internet that cactus wrens form strong pair bonds, lifelong bonds, and defend their territory together.

 

I was on a walk with my dog this week when I heard the aggressive chirp of a hummingbird and looked up to see a gray bird with a green iridescent throat flying, suspended in air between the tree branches. Next, I saw the bird lean over, something in its beak. It took a second to register what was happening. Another tiny orange beak peaking out of a brown nest. A tiny bird being fed. I know these moments are happening all the time, but I was paying attention for this one.

 

My students are writing advice columns in which they use their own heartbreaks and moments of truth to advise others; I read them and think of how much wisdom they have already, at 18, 19. Last night, I went to a reading where one poet read poems about falling in love, accidentally, with their best friend several times. Another poet read about love and grief and loss and wild things. And on the patio, a woman pulled a bow across a violin making the strings scrape, a dissonant beautiful twinge. A man moved his hand towards and away from the radio and suddenly there was the piercing vertical rise and fall of a transmitter. We were all huddled in the courtyard listening.

 

Carl Sagan said, “For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.” Vastness and uncertainty is the raw material we have to work with. I believe we can bear the uncertainty if we bear it together. We can let go of what we think of ourselves and allow ourselves to come into being. We can make a record that is closer to what’s true and invite others to do the same.

1 Comment

Filed under weekly words

sum·ma·tion

summation2014

 

 

sum·ma·tion (səˈmāSHən ) noun

1. the process of adding things together: the summation of numbers of small pieces of evidence; a sum total of things added together.

2. the process of summing something up: these will need summation in a single document ; a summary; in Law, an attorney’s closing speech at the conclusion of the giving of evidence.

 

 

The end of the year is a time when we tend to take stock, to think about what has happened over the past year, to make peace, to give thanks, to look forward.

As is always true for me, the holidays are a mixed bag. I am reminded of those favor bags from kids’ birthday parties. Sometimes you get something really cool like a paddleball and sometimes you get those wax lips. Anyway, most of the time, you get a mix. It’s near impossible for me to get through the holidays without feeling a pretty large amount of gratitude for all the blessings in my life: not the least of which are dear ones, family, friends. I have a job. I have a roof over my head. I don’t want for food or clothing. I am not consumed by worry about my basic needs being met. I have amazingly creative, smart, caring people in my life.

But the holidays often demand that we be perpetually cheery and grateful, that we shelve our uncertainty. This is not realistic or fair to ourselves. Our uncertainty is always there, and it is pretty friendly with fear and doubt. The holidays also bring with them the end of the year, and for many of us, the end of the year brings an appraisal. It’s as if our lives are our finances and we are working them out in an Excel spreadsheet. Was there enough personal growth? Can we tally a sizable number of accomplishments? How did we fare in love?  How many friends and family are we in touch with and how can we measure their love? It is always easier to remember the heartache and trials. Those arise readily. It seems like there can be a process of looking at the year, judging it and deciding if this year merited itself.

For some of us, this begins, albeit unconsciously, before we enter the holiday fray. We think about what it is we are going to talk about from our year. What aspect of our lives will make sense to our friends and family? How do we make our lives measurable? I find this process exhausting. Because the heart of the heart of my year doesn’t happen in these large moves, defeats or accomplishments but rather in moments of profundity and understanding and grief and joy.

A dear friend of mine told me last night that she is making a “Good Things Jar” for the new year. Next to a large mason jar, she will place scraps of different colored paper, ready and waiting to mark the good things that happen in her life. The small and the big ones. She will fill the jar with these things and next year, on New Year’s Eve, she will read them: remembering her year and all the good that was present in it. I love this idea. I love the ways we can remind ourselves of all that is good. Because we need reminding.

In The Buddha’s Brain, neuropsychologist Rick Hanson writes about how the brain is like velcro for negative experiences and teflon for positive ones. We are hardwired that way, because for our ancient ancestors, survival depended upon it. If they didn’t remember what could kill them, they died. The way it plays out for us nowadays is that we ruminate and fixate and mull over negative experiences, not just the ones that are going to kill us but the ones that caused us pain. What once protected us from dying can now prevent us from being fully alive.

There is a term in Buddhism called “mudita.” It means joy. However, it goes beyond that. Mudita is about experiencing genuine joy for others. And while it seems like this comes from a selfless place, it doesn’t. Mudita comes from a place of recognizing our oneness with others. If we are having a hard time but are able to partake in another’s joy, if we can recognize how we are connected to this other person, we can be joyful as well. Still, joy is something we have to come into on our own.

I have known people who will ask how I am and, when I answer honestly about having a challenging day or a hard time, will say things like: “Well, you have so much be grateful for” or “Think about all your blessings” or “Look at how many people are worse off.” And that doesn’t feel honoring. It feels like they are made uncomfortable by my grief or fear and are trying to excise it. Perhaps because my grief or fear reminds them of their own. But we cannot be coaxed into joy. We must find it ourselves.

I think the way that we find it is by being more aware, by making the conscious choice to stay with our joy when we feel it. Good things jars and recalling happy memories with family and literally counting our blessings are all ways to build our own joy, which can become a kind of refuge when fear or uncertainty or envy arise. Mostly though, we need to pay attention when are feeling joyful. As Thich Nhat Hanh would say, we need to water the seeds of joy in ourselves and others. Hanson writes in Buddha’s Brain a few simple steps to take throughout our days to grow our joy:

  1. Help positive events become positive experience: Pay extra attention to the good things in the world and in yourself. For example, notice things that go well, or people who treat you kindly, or when you succeed at something. As we know, it is ignorance, fundamentally, that leads to suffering – and not seeing the good that is actually present is a kind of ignorance.  As a mindfulness practice, focus on the sensations and the feelings in your positive experiences since they are the pathway to emotional memory.  Deliberately create positive experiences for yourself. Examples include acts of generosity, evoking compassion, or recalling a time when you were happy.
  2. Savor the experience as a kind of concentration practice; keep your attention on it for many seconds while letting it fill your body and mind.
  3. Sense that the experience is soaking into you, registering deeply in emotional memory. You could imagine that it’s sinking into your chest and back and brainstem, or imagine a treasure chest in your heart.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Often, we will make a list of new year’s resolutions, most of which point to areas in which we feel inadequate. They point to our own sense of lack. But maybe resolutions don’t need to be about dramatic change in behavior or in circumstance. Perhaps the simplest and best new year’s resolution is to resolve to pay attention. To notice all the opportunities for joy we already have. Then our intentions for the year aren’t built on a belief in our deficiency but on a recognition of our own abundance.

Life is not a score tally for a board game. I find that the greatest pain and suffering for others and myself comes when we try to keep score with our lives. There is no way to add and subtract and compare two different lives. To do so is to pretend that we know the intimacies of someone else’s path. To do so is to pretend we know what is going to happen in our future. We simply have to honor where we are and honor that means we don’t know quite a bit.

I read an old Charlie Brown cartoon today where Charlie tells Lucy: “Life isn’t like a textbook. The answers aren’t at the back of the book.” What if instead of this becoming a source of frustration it became an opportunity for wonder? Look at how much I don’t know! Look at how much I have the opportunity to learn!

I like watching lawyer shows where the attorneys deliver their summations in court. So often they are clear and wrapped up tightly, like the bow on a Christmas present. The decision seems so simple and easy. Life is not like that. We deliver our summation and then a few days or weeks or months later, we deliver it again. At the end of the year, we look and listen and sum our lives and then we do the same thing a year later. But the words are always changing, the verdict is malleable.

As we approach the new year, perhaps we could remember all that we have learned this past year that has prepared us for the new one. Perhaps we could remember that this new year brings not one but countless opportunities to begin again. We can choose to remember in the myriad of experiences we have that they all add up to being truly alive.

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under weekly words

Xan·a·du

OLJ xanadu

 

xanadu2

 
 

On this last day of november and for our last post of nonfiction november, we are excited to share this piece by PR Griffis on Xanadu. Enjoy!

 
 

Xan·a·du   /ˈzanəˌdo͞o/   n.  a poem by English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge: an idyllic, exotic, or luxurious place.

 
 
xanadu 800px-Xanadu_on_Map_of_Asia

 
 

XANADU

 

I was eight years old in 1980 when Xanadu, the film starring Olivia Newton John, was released. I don’t remember much of the film itself—something maybe about Greek goddesses come to life through a billboard and arriving in sunny Southern California to rollerskate. It seems like maybe there was an older gentleman who wore a yachting outfit, or maybe that was one of those B-list-star-filled episodes of CHiPs.

 

Two things are important to me where Xanadu, the film, is concerned. First, I was in love with Olivia Newton John, and had been since I saw Grease at the drive-in two years before. She might have been my first cinematic crush. Good girl, poodle-skirt, bobby socks, and saddle shoes Sandy, or teased hair, black leather, high spiky heels Sandy, either one. As with Bewitched, where Elizabeth Montgomery played both blonde housewife witch Samantha and Aquarian-age party-girl witch cousin Serena, it was only different flavors of the same thing, each impossibly lovely in its own way.

 
skatesxanadu-poster
 
Second, the thing I remember best about Xanadu is the title song from the soundtrack, sung (natch) by Olivia Newton-John. This, of course, only a year or so before “Let’s Get Physical.” Which: yes, please.

 

I was surprised and saddened as a child to discover that Olivia Newton-John and Juice “Angel of the Morning” Newton weren’t related. I was particularly taken with female singers—Crystal Gayle, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn—especially of the crossover type, of which there were a plethora in the late 1970s.

 

“Xanadu,” the song is, if you’re not familiar with it, a dreamy disco tune, ONJ’s voice undulating beneath swirling veils of layered synth. It is also personally notable as the first instance I can recall of misapprehending lyrics. I was maybe twenty before I came to understand that what I had heard as testing me wasn’t right was actually destiny will arrive.

 

“Kubla Khan,” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, from which Xanadu enters the western lexicon, is notable for beginning with the workmanlike slack-stress metrics of which junior high poetry unit horrors are made: In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree.

 

Coleridge claimed to have received the inspiration for “Kubla Khan” after reading Purchas, his Pilgrimage, or Relations of the World and Religions Observed in All Ages and Places Discovered, from the Creation to the Present, which ponderously-titled book details the travels of Marco Polo, who is believed to have visited Xanadu, the summer palace of Kubla Khan, ruler of Mongolia and part of China, in the late 1200s.

 

Also notable: Coleridge had administered himself “an anodyne for a slight indisposition” (read: opiates) and fallen asleep for a few hours after reading Purchas. The poem, he claimed, came to him fully formed during this sleep.

 

So, after a three-hour dope nod, he roused and wrote “Kubla Khan” the place of stately pleasure domes, the place of sacred rivers running through caverns fathomless to man.
 

378px-KublaKhan
 

Did I first play Marco Polo at about this same time—eight or nine years old—or shortly after? When was it that I first assumed the role of blind explorer, navigating chest deep and unseen water, attempting to reach far-flung and ever-shifting ports of call?

 

Coleridge claimed to have been interrupted in the midst of his writing by a man on business from Porlock, the remainder of the poem evaporating, the phrase “a man on business from Porlock” now a synonym for interrupted genius.

 

Grease was my favorite movie when I was seven, in 1978; “Xanadu” was my favorite song in 1980, when I was nine. Somewhere in there was Charlie’s Angels. I was in love with Kate Jackson, Jacklyn Smith, and Farrah Fawcett, in that order. I knew, deep down, I was supposed to be in love with Farrah Fawcett, if for no other reason because she was married to the Six-Million-Dollar Man, Lee Majors. She was, during this time, Farrah Fawcett-Majors.

 

One has to imagine that transoceanic travel, travel east from Europe to Asia in general, must have been fairly dodgy if Columbus, some two hundred years after Marco Polo’s voyage, tried to establish a route by heading in the opposite direction. Travel of that sort at that time being akin to—maybe even more dangerous than, statistically speaking—the space travel of our own age. And certainly, the desire to boldy go where no man has gone before, the human yen for discovery—equal parts a pull of the unknown and a pushing away from the known, the ultimately unsatisfactory—is well documented throughout human history.

 

Zeitgeist, maybe, is nothing more than a convergence of arrangements from possibilities theretofore nonexistent or inaccessible. Marco Polo, certainly, enlarged the realm of possibilities through his travels to and return from Asia, as did the introduction of culture and technology represented by the Moorish conquest of Iberia. Would the transatlantic voyage of Christopher Columbus have been within the realm of possibility without these happenings? Is it coincidence that the reconquista of the last Moorish-held Iberian lands and Columbus’s voyage both occurred in 1492?

 

2001: A Space Odyssey was released in 1968, three years before I was born, the year before men landed on the moon. Interestingly, Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” David Bowie’s “Star Man,” and Lou Reed’s “Satellite of Love,” all of which take as their subject matter space travel, all came out in 1972. It’s as if these songs are the product of some Aquarian age that had as its focus some tenable objective correlative, a means by which we might transcend the bonds of space and time, some century after time and distance had been shattered by means of the telegraph and railroad, the means by which we might realize a place where we could make ourselves anew.

 

The Velvet Underground’s 1967 “I’m Waiting for the Man” is about scoring dope in Harlem, a venture much less dodgy than traipsing through Mongolia in the late 1200s, to say nothing of (a diminuendo, voices dying with a dying fall beneath the music from a farther room) rocketing into outer space.

 

When I was seven, my best friend Weldon and I used to take turns being Farrah Fawcett and Lee Majors. His bed was an ocean, the sheets were the waves, and we would dive under the water and kiss open mouthed. Because we were only aping what we’d seen on TV, we didn’t know that there was supposed to be tongue involvement. I don’t remember either of us being concerned who was Lee Majors and who Farrah Fawcett-Majors.

 

In 1980, it was Xanadu and Olivia Newton John. By 1981, I wanted to see The Road Warrior more than I wanted anything. The next year, Conan the Barbarian came out, and I wanted to see that more than anything.

 

Does it reflect some grimmer reality in the national zeitgeist, this trending away from disco, from dancing, from musicals and magic? Or is it a graphing of the process by which a boy who saw no difference between playing with Barbies and GI Joe, a boy with no firmly fixed gender predilections, learned his place?

 

Travel, journey, being the primary means by which American narrative is given structure. If you are dissatisfied with your lot, move. Move from Europe to the Americas. The primary motivation of the Spanish foot soldiers who first came to the Americas—a journey from which they might not return—was the promise of land, of gold, of glory, all of which are ways of saying opportunity. Move. Move from the East to the Midwest, the South, the West. Move out onto the oceans and hunt white whales, move out onto the plains and hunt buffalo and first peoples and precious metals and one another.

 

And once even space and ocean have been thoroughly explored, begin in earnest the inner exploration, the exploration that does unto self what exploration did to the oceans and the west and the south and the east. Rocket off into inner space. Is it coincidence or convergence that syringes and Saturn rockets bear a striking resemblance to one another?

 

Xanadu, now, is a synonym for paradise. The final frontier, inner or outer. When we were twelve, my friend Robert and I rode our bicycles out into the country—white rock roads sectioning off ten-square-mile tracts of farmland—and found a low water crossing that emptied into a small pond. The idea of a place where water washed over the road and into a small limestone pond, wreathed round with willows, it was almost too much for the mind to bear. I decided that we would call it Xanadu. Because this is what we do with places that were already there when we arrived. We name them to suit us. We name them in keeping with the breadth of our understanding (see: The New World).

 

I didn’t know what to call the thing I discovered I could bring into being when I was nine or maybe ten, a year or two after we’d moved to a new and smaller town, where I was at first and for some years largely friendless. Call it The Man From Porlock. Call it Xanadu. Call it The Autoerotic Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Another kind of blind exploration, in any case, there in the dark of my bedroom. Marco. Polo.

 

How elegant the space station in 2001. How workmanlike, how quotidian, the International Space Station. How sad that our grasp for the stars has been shuffled off, that astronauts from the country who first put men on the moon now have to fly coach. How strange that some three short years after Kubrick realized his masterpiece of humanity’s uneasy relationship with technology, that technology became firmly means to end, just one more way to speak of distance, a means of metaphor.

 

The space program having, of course, its roots in the Nazi V2 rocket program, the same technology used to propel our most ardent aspirations towards the stars was wedded to one of the dirtiest moments in US history, another product of World War II. Little Boy, all grown up and become the ICBM, with something like 500 times the destructive force. Perhaps the fact that Russian and American scientists now work side-by-side in the ISS is a step towards the kind of utopian ideals embraced in, say, Star Trek.

 

Robert and I figured out later that the creek that supplied the water to Xanadu—our found and primeval paradise—ran through a cow pasture. Which meant that the water in Xanadu, in which we’d swum and splashed with such abandon, was chock-full of cow shit and all other manner of agricultural effluvia.

 

David Bowie, of course, released “Space Oddity” in 1969, the year after (and inspired by) Kubrick’s release of 2001: A Space Odyssey; “Space Oddity” introducing into the lexicon the figure of the lost astronaut Major Tom.

 

Odysseus, of course, being a Greek soldier who had a hell of a time getting home from the Trojan War.

 

In 1980, Bowie sings “Ashes to ashes, fun to funky/ We know Major Tom’s a junkie.”

 

Coleridge wrote to John Thelwall in 1797: “I should much wish, like the Indian Vishnu, to float about along an infinite ocean cradled in the flower of the Lotus, & wake once in a million years for a few minutes… I can at times feel strong the beauties you describe… but more frequently all things appear little – all the knowledge that can be acquired child’s play – the universe itself – what but an immense heap of little things?

 

Time speeds up as we age. The hours before it is permissible to wake one’s parents on Christmas morning, the last few weeks of summer vacation, when no more swimming or playing or reading or sleeping will satisfy—sated with relaxation—these lasted lifetimes. Now, months pass in no time at all. The three and a half years I spent in the Army, the four years I spent in high school, these seemed like a million years. Everything—time, distance, suffering, joy—is relative, is how I understood Einstein’s theory. Who, for instance, is to say a three-hour dream of paradise is not one million years slept and awoken from?

 

Weldon was not the last guy I did stuff with. Into my early teens, I dated girls, and I experimented with boys. Girls were terrifying in their terra incognita, as boys were terrifying in their potential, should our experimentations become public knowledge. The small Texas town where I grew up having clearly defined boundaries, and fairly heinous standards and practices for people who transgressed them, I wasn’t certain enough in my orientation—a Kinsey Scale 2, say—to risk the potential for social and physical harm to act any further than I did on what was, in any case, more curiosity than identity.

 

A few years after Robert and I discovered Xanadu, we found an abandoned limestone quarry outside of town. There were a couple of places where the water was deep enough to jump off the ledges into the pools below. If you hit the bottom, though, it raised up purplish clouds that gave off an awful stink. After we’d been swimming there for awhile, we saw the rancher whose farm the quarry bordered dumping a wheelbarrow-full of horseshit into the water from just about the spot where we usually jumped.

 

I traded one identity for another, always, I think, wanting to feel safe. To feel accepted. Musicals for post-apocalypse, disco for metal, extroverted and nerdy for stoned and jockish, push-ups and sit-ups for things that worked faster and more reliably, gender-fluid for gender rigidly defined.

 

Growing up in an agrarian community in Central Texas, my youth was at least somewhat defined by small bodies of water and the presence of animal shit. That, and an uneasy relationship with gender, with White Male Power that probably defined—necessitated—my movements outward, onward. As with Marco Polo, as with the conquistadors, as with Lou Reed and David Bowie and Elton John, I had to move, pushed as much as pulled. I was defined by all of these, and that discovery of personal Xanadu—and what is paradise for us here on earth but a moment’s reprieve, one moment being all we have at any time—of a dozen different sorts, of personal erasure and continuous making anew.

 

 

 

Author PhotoPR Griffis lives and writes in Willimantic Connecticut with his wife, the writer Mika Taylor, and their dog, Petunia Von Scampers. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Fuse, Diagram, Defunct, and Devil’s Lake. He is currently at work on a collection of essays and a novel of as-yet-undetermined length, and sometimes attempts to Twitter: @PR_Griffis

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under nonfiction november

whack

"Why You Can't Ring the Bell of 'High Striker,'" Popular Mechanics, 1935

“Why You Can’t Ring the Bell of ‘High Striker,'” Popular Mechanics, 1935

 

Banksy, Upper West Side, New York City

Banksy, Upper West Side, New York City

 

Today, in our fifth post of nonfiction november, we feature an essay by Raha Namy on the word whack. Enjoy!

 

whack  \hwak\  vb.  1:  to strike with a strong or resounding blow  2:  to cut with or as with a whack

 


Whack

You are in bed, in Denver. It is 18th of November, 2013, late at night. The lights are off and you are Viber messaging with him on your iphone. He is in his office, in Tehran, 28th of Aban 1392, morning. You send hugs and kisses and wish him a peaceful day. You tell him how much you appreciate his being supportive of you applying to the teaching position in Beirut, Lebanon. He sends you goodnight kisses.

You go on FB.  You respond to a friend’s message from Baltimore who is checking up on you to see how the edits for his translation of a TED talk on the subject of metaphors are going on. You have not even started yet, you text him. You need to get everything for the job application ready in less than a week.

The position begins at the beginning of the next academic year. You planned to stay in Denver and write and translate for another year, but the job is too appealing to just disregard. And you did not go looking for it; it came find you. A German-American friend, a colleague writer, who knows you enough to know what inspires you, texted you yesterday and said, “Do you know about this position?”

Still on FB, you get another message. The circle with the face of the friend in Tucson appears on the screen. You are to write something for the nonfiction month of The Dictionary Project. You stop yourself from immediately checking the message and continue on with the other conversation, all the while hoping for a word your ESL can handle. Even though you are a writer writing in English, the language is and will forever remain your second one.

You finally open the message box and read: “Hi. Your word, freshly bibliomanced, is: Whack.” You think, “What? What the hell does that mean?” You have a sense that it is a colloquial word, but you have no idea what to with it. You are sure you have never used it in any of your writings or in conversation. You continue to read:

“\hwak\  vb.  1:  to strike with a strong or resounding blow 2:  to cut with or as with a whack.”

That is not really helpful. You check your iphone’s Merriam-Webster app, then the iFarsi one. Now you can’t go to sleep. You get up and turn on the lights and your laptop. The New Oxford American Dictionary on your Apple tells you:

 

“whack |(h)wak| informal

verb [ with obj. ]

strike forcefully with a sharp blow: his attacker whacked him on the head | [ no obj. ] : she found a stick to whack at the branches.

• murder: he was whacked while sitting in his car.

noun

1 a sharp or resounding blow.

2 a try or attempt: we decided to take a whack at spotting the decade’s trends.

3 Brit. a specified share of or contribution to something: motorists pay a fair whack for the use of the roads through taxes.

PHRASES

at a (or one ) whack at one time: he built twenty houses at one whack.

out of whack out of order; not working: all their calculations were out of whack.

PHRASAL VERBS

whack off vulgar slang masturbate.

DERIVATIVES

whacker noun

ORIGIN early 18th cent.: imitative, or perhaps an alteration of TWACK”

 

You check The Free Online Dictionary, use Google Translate, check the Urban Dictionary, the Aryanpour Online Persian Dictionary.

You then go to your bookshelf. You check your Little Oxford Thesaurus from 1998 and the word does not exist in there. You check your Longman Lexicon of Contemporary English from 1981 and the word does not exist in there. You check your Hezareh English-Persian Dictionary that is shedding more and more pages everyday. It reads:

 

whack

 

You have no idea what you are going to do with the word. You have six days to write your essay, you tell yourself. Nothing will be resolved tonight. Go back to bed.

Sometime during the night you dream of a cemetery. In the distance a mass of black bodies moves slowly toward you. Puppets. Wooden. Much taller than humans. Women. Wrapped in black veils. Only their faces showing. They move as if being dragged on a hidden conveyor belt. You hear voices. From their direction. None of the mouths move. The voices ask, “What happened to our children?” The bodies move. The wind blows. “Where are our children?”

You wake up around 7:30 with a Viber message that reads, “Kisses. Wake up beauty.” You send a kiss back and write, “Have fun and say hi to everyone.” You know he is out with friends. You turn around in bed. You open the BBC page on your iphone. The first headline reads, “Lebanon blasts hit Iran’s embassy in Beirut.”

 

P.S. Three days later you send in your application documents for the teaching position in Beirut.

 

 

R. Namy is a freelance writer and translator. Wandering everywhere, she has given up on finding home anywhere.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under nonfiction november

sor⋅row

LOM_PIANO_TRIO

Aboard Le Mistral, France 1975/ Charles Harbutt

Aboard Le Mistral, France 1975/ Charles Harbutt

black-and-white-audience

 

For our fourth post of nonfiction november, we are pleased to feature an essay on the symphonics and sorrow by Megan Kimble. Please enjoy!

 

sorrow  (särō),  n.  1.  distress caused by loss, affliction, disappointment, etc.; grief sadness or regret.  2.  a cause or occasion of grief or regret, as an affliction, a misfortune, or trouble:  His first sorrow was the book failure.  3.  the expression of grief, sadness, disappointment, or the like:  muffled sorrow.  –v.i.  4.  to feel sorrow; grieve.

 

 

At 7:25 p.m., Cory and I slide past the elderly couple occupying L9 and L10, respectively, and sink into L11 and L12. As we settle in, I realize: not only are we the last to arrive, we are also, it seems, the youngest—the only heads of brown in a sea of white and grey.

We have donned our finest and come to the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music concert to see the Vienna Piano Trio because Cory’s landlord, a board member of Friends, had offered Cory free tickets when he expressed interest. Why not? An excuse to dress up—a cultural outing rare for a Wednesday.

We settled in; we stopped our shuffling; I took one picture with my iPhone before folding under the consternated gaze of the woman to my right.

Bows on strings; arms askance, necks askew. A pounding piano, a scattering of keys. When the first movement ends, the musicians bow and leave the stage. Cory and I look at each other, confused; the rest of the audience, trained for this moment, claps. Thus beckoned, the musicians return to the stage and settled in for the second movement.

And with the second movement comes sorrow—it is unmistakable. When piano punctuates violin, when E flat major modulates C major, when the melody waits. The word likely wouldn’t have popped into my mind, save for this assignment. I would have simply thought, or said, or hovered on a thing called sadness.

In Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, an elderly couple travels on a train together. They are sad because they will soon die; they are happy because they are together. “The sadness was form, the happiness content. Happiness filled the space of sadness.”

Of course, sorrow and sadness are not the same. Sorrow is that thing, whole—it is content and form. Sorrow depends on the two, the two in concert—a violin’s strings, plucked low; a piano’s key, hit high—wound together.

In Google Book’s Ngram Viewer—a searchable word frequency database—incidences of the word “sorrow” have fallen by nearly 75 percent since the early 1800s. Ngram has collected the “data” (words) from 5.2 million digitized books into a collective cultural archive of 500 billion words: the dictionary to end all dictionaries. (Although, it too, peaked in popularity, with a short burst of exuberantly analytical fame in late 2010.)

Perhaps it is because sorrow “implies a long term state,” writes Anna Wierzbicka in Emotions across Languages and Cultures. “Sorrow—but not unhappiness—suggests a degree of resignation…which lends sorrow its peculiar air of dignity.” Sorrow is sadness dressed in cocktail attire, waiting to be driven home after the piano concert. Resignation is a quality that ages well—that arrives with age—and so, perhaps, too, is sorrow. Sorrow is sadness without youth’s fight—without belief in difference, change, movement (a quality we sometimes call “naïve.”)

When violin punctures cello, when C major repeats, when the melody repeats, we are offered a glimpse of lightness, a way out from under the weight. Youth believes the glimpse will widen. Sorrow suggests lightness as the anomaly.

After the second movement, after the musicians repeat the inexplicable bow, exit, and return, the third movement ends in intermission. After intermission, the musicians settle in—they don’t leave the stage again.

I begin to think of age. Of what it might feel like when I am contained in a slower, older, greyer body. Sorrow sounds—looks, even—old. It leans forward, o lilting into w which leans into an echo. (Sorrow-o-o-o.) When I think of sorrow, I think of morrow—parting is such sweet. A soul laden with.

When we leave, Cory and I compare notes. How we are and how we were, then, submerged in sound. After intermission, we’d both leaned forward in our seats, chin in hand—the only ones in the room reaching towards the stage in such a stance. My body relaxed, forgot itself, and my mind had meandered from memory to memory, each tumble of notes pushing it in a different direction—up and down, dark into light, water wearing on smooth stones, questions of past, uncertainty of future.

If sorrow has gone out of style—in our culture, happiness is expected to exist without sadness’s bound—then perhaps for the same reason, the symphony has, too. I don’t think you are supposed to lean forward in your seat—to press against the low-pitched darkness, to believe—to hope—that when C major modulates E major that the higher of the two pitches will prevail.

 

 

 

mkphotoMegan Kimble lives in Tucson, where she works as the managing editor of Edible Baja Arizona, a local foods magazine serving Tucson and the borderlands. She is a regular contributor to Los Angeles Times, and her articles and essays have appeared in High Country News, The Bellevue Literary Review, Sage Magazine, and Gulf Coast. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing nonfiction from the University of Arizona and speaks Spanish and Portuguese.

5 Comments

Filed under nonfiction november

the dictionary project presents: deep & Diana

IMG_1416

 

Last Saturday, the dictionary project presents! featured the word deep with our writers parsing out, responding to, delving into, working with the word in the multitude of possibilities the word offers. There was sex and intimacy. There was grief and grieving. There was hiding and uncovering. There was literal and metaphorical digging. There were altars and beaches and coalmines.

We videotaped the readers, but until we are able to offer those pieces, we are posting the long overdue readings from our third the dictionary project presents! event in spring which featured the word Diana.

Lisa O’Neill:

Kindall Gray:

Ian Ellasante:

Tere Fowler-Chapman:

Tc Tolbert:

Leave a comment

Filed under the dictionary project presents

sum

Complex mathematics

 

 

For our third post of nonfiction november, we are excited to have a piece on algebra and adding up by Molly McCloy. Please enjoy!

 

 

sum  /səm/  noun  1.  a particular amount of money: “they could not afford such a sum”  2.  the total amount resulting from the addition of two or more numbers, amounts, or items: “the sum of two prime numbers”

 

 

Sum

 

 
I liked addition. I didn’t mind carrying. It was division I hated. And subtraction. And borrowing.

In seventh grade I watched this preppy girl with a blonde ponytail just stomp all over this lesbian math teacher who was wearing an ugly vinyl coat. “You are a homosexual, aren’t you? Just admit it,” said Blonde Ponytail.

“That word doesn’t mean anything. It just means ‘same sex,’” said the math teacher, but the whole class knew that Blonde Ponytail had rattled her nerves and would rule each of their verbal exchanges for the rest of the year. I quietly removed “lesbian math teacher in vinyl coat” from my list of possible career options.

I was too slow at math anyway. I wanted to study genetics because I loved my seventh-grade science teacher, Mr. F., who taught us about dominant and recessive genes and was kind to that girl who broke down crying during her oral report about chickens.

But the bad math and science teachers added up. Freshman science teacher Mr. P. had been committed to a mental institution because he heard voices that told him he was Elvis with God living in his knee. When Mr. P. returned to teaching, he immediately did an Elvis impersonation for the school talent show, jumpsuit and all

Sophomore Biology was a madhouse because Mr. L. who was bald and had a handlebar mustache like a strongman in the circus would take attendance and then retreat to his office for the rest of the class period while we stole graduated cylinders to make into bongs.

Mrs. B. was a sour old coot who had no sense of humor and I suffered with her for two years of algebra and one of geometry. Junior year I wanted to take a chemistry class because I’d heard that class had the one good science teacher in the whole school, but on the first day I shared a table with these guys who had sexually harassed my friend, so I dropped it for study hall. I took exactly one algebra class in college taught by a guy who always ate cheap chow mein in the window of the Kung Fu Noodle Shop.

Then in 2011, a local politician demeaned my community college teaching career by saying, “You still have to teach them how to write? That’s worthless. That’s for high school.”

I wanted to say, “And who are you, lady? Some hack playing dress-up-West-Wing?”

Instead I thought, “I want to finally take that chemistry class.” Everyone seemed so happy with the STEM people. They made all the money.

To take chemistry, I had to take a math class first. Certainly working a couple of math problems would be less painful than all those years adjunct-teaching writing courses for pennies on the dollar.

It had been 23 years, so my last math class was older than some of my fellow students.  On the first day, the teacher didn’t orchestrate all the complicated icebreakers used by English teachers. She finally mentioned her own name in the last ten minutes, just tossed it in as an afterthought.

On the second day, the Iraq War vet on my right asked, “Why does it smell like formaldehyde in the college cafeteria?” and the redhead guy on my left answered, “Homeless guy smoking PCP?” It was a feasible theory for the downtown campus, so all three of us laughed. I’d already found my people, two guys half my age.

Later that class the teacher was trying to make a joke about the old Kung Fu show on TV, but when she mentioned David Carradine, Redhead said, “What a way to die,” and I said, “Yeah, Michael Hutchence from INXS went the same way,” but the teacher said, “What was the Kung Fu nickname for a young student….yes, Grasshopper, when you can solve the quadratic equation, it will be time for you to go.”

That’s when I noticed the teacher was wearing a T-shirt with the words “Hairy Potter” underneath the image of a dog wearing the little Harry Potter glasses. What had I been thinking? Of course there would be no algebra class discussion on the topic of autoerotic asphyxiation.

After a few weeks I was really hating this kind of problem, ripped up my scratch paper, almost cried actual tears over it: “Solve for x,y, and z: 3/4x -5/2y-1/3z=-14; x+3/4y +7/2z=-26; 2x-3y-4z=-4.” Eventually I realized it was my sloppiness that was screwing me up. I crammed tiny numbers into corners of scratch paper. I couldn’t read my own handwriting.

Three days after Father’s Day, a Tucson police officer entered the classroom and called War Vet’s name. War Vet exited the room with the officer and whispered, “He’s probably here to tell me my father finally died.”

He came back five minutes later and said, “Yeah, my dad died.” I touched his arm. The girl in the next row touched his arm. Redhead touched his arm. Other classmates out of reach extended their arms as if in an effort to touch War Vet’s arm. War Vet stared straight ahead, seemingly unmoved. “I don’t care,” he said. “I don’t feel anything at all.” The teacher came back in and we solved for x, y, and z for the rest of the hour.

Towards the end of the term, a student who had been absent due to the birth of his child asked me to teach him how to solve a complex equation with plenty of exponents and negative exponents and four full equations stacked on top of each other in the form of fractions. As he watched, I executed this elaborate drawing, flip-flopping the fractions to divide, drawing arrows to little subsidiary equations I had to create, changing negative numbers to positives and positives to negatives. “There,” I said, “that’s how you do it.”

I received a reaction I hadn’t experienced since the stoner in the back row of my writing class at DeVry saluted that “We Real Cool” poem with a standing ovation. My classmate, the twenty-something new father, looked at me and said, “That was beautiful.”

 

 

 

578548_10151786765702913_1249793942_nTucson writer and Moth storytelling slam winner Molly McCloy has published work in Nerve, Swink, and Slate. Find out more at mollymccloy.com.

Leave a comment

Filed under nonfiction november

the dictionary project presents: volume 4

hint2

hint1

hint3

 

Saturday night, we will be hosting our fourth  installment in The Dictionary Project Presents! reading series at Casa Libre in Tucson, AZ.

As with the project itself, the reading series is rooted in serendipity, play, and love of language. For The Dictionary Project Presents! reading, our readers get the same word two weeks prior to the event and in that time, compose a piece to share with a live audience that is born from that word. We aren’t announcing the word until the night of the event, but there are a few hints in the photos.

We are delighted to have the following writers participating:

Em Bowen is a storyteller, a daughter, a writer, a sister, an amigo, a cat-owner, a story encourager, an editor, never a girlfriend, occasionally a boyfriend and always changing (much as we all are, whether we realize it or not). They went to college in a big university in the Southwest complete with a college town and artsy people. They preferred and still prefer the artsy people. They moved to Portland, Oregon for a while but now reside in Tucson, Arizona again where they like to imagine that they wake up every morning and kick each day in the face. Their work pieces through the human condition, queerness, honesty and the ways in which we learn to survive better.

Garrett Faulkner  writes fiction and catches hell for his surname often. He is a fifth-semester student at the University of Arizona’s Creative Writing MFA program, and is interested in the history of systemic injustice within southern Appalachian communities. Among the august ranks of the MFA contingent here, he is the one most likely to be seen at a bar table surrounded by four or five beautiful women of exotic provenance, sobbing over a tumbler of Campari and grapefruit juice. He will kick this habit after his thesis semester.

Cybele Knowles writes poems, essays, stories, and screenplays. Her work is forthcoming or published in Fairy Tale Review, The Destroyer, Diagram, Spiral Orb, Pindeldyboz, The Asian Pacific American Journal, Faucheuse, and The Prose Poem. She works as a program coordinator at the UA Poetry Center.

Molly Little’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in American Poetry Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, New England Review, The Missouri Review, and the Southern Review. Originally from Rhode Island, she has lived in Tucson since 2009.

Matt Mendez lives in Tucson with his wife and daughters. He writes, too. His first book, I, is out from Floricanto Press.

1 Comment

Filed under the dictionary project presents

split

SplitSittingBuddha.jpg

 

Here we are: post #2 of nonfiction november. The word is split and we are delighted to have a piece by Aisha Sabatini Sloan.

 

split (split),  v.t.  [SPLIT or obs. SPLITTED (-id), SPLITTING], [MD, splitten; akin to MHG. splizen; IE. base *(s)plei-, to split, crack],  1.  to separate, cut, or divide into two or more parts; cause to separate along the grain or length; break into layers.  2.  to break or tear apart by force; burst; rend.  3.  to divide into parts or shares; portion out: as, they split the cost of the trip.  4.  to cause (a group, political party, etc.) to separate into divisions or factions; disunite.  5.  in chemistry, a) to break (a molecule) into atoms; separate the components of.  b)  to produce nuclear fission in (at atom or atoms).  v.i.  1.  to separate or divide lengthwise into two or more parts; separate along the grain or length.  2.  to break or tear apart; burst; rend.  3.  to separate or break up through failure to agree, etc.  4.  [Colloq.], to divide something with another or others, each taking a share: as, winners split.  5.  [19th –c Slang], to inform on an accomplice; peach.  n.  1.  the act or process of splitting.  2. the result of spitting; specifically, a) a break; fissure; crack; tear.  b) a breach or division in a group, between persons, etc.  3.  a splinter; sliver.  4.  a single thickness of hide split horizontally.  5.  a flexible strip of wood used in basketmaking.  6.  a confection made of a split banana or other fruit with ice cream, nuts, sauces, whipped cream, etc.  7.  often pl.  the feat of spreading the legs apart until they lie flat on the floor, the body remaining upright.  8.  [Colloq.], a) a small bottle of carbonated water, wine, etc., half the usual size, often about six ounces. b) a drink or portion half the usual size. c) a half pint.  9.  [Slang], a share, as of loot or booty. 10.  in bowling, an arrangement of pins after the first bowl, so separated as to make a spare almost impossible.  adj.  1. divided or separated along the length or grain; broken into parts.  2.  sixteenths, and not in eighths: said of a quotation smaller than the normal trading unit.—SYN. see break.

 

 

That night, I watched a woman nudge her husband, who seemed to have broken his leg. He followed her gaze and looked with horror at a man nearby, who had two metal clamps sticking out of his neck. It was hard to tell if the clamps were supposed to be there, or if he’d been impaled. When the man with the broken leg was finally called and his wife wheeled him away, the man with the clamps looked at us and muttered, “That looked bad.” Hannah held her middle and I read to her from an article about Kanye and Kim.

 

The next day, on the emergency room’s TV screen, a CNN anchor reports on the typhoon in the Philippines, about a moment when “the dust died down.”

 

When I am not craning my neck to look at the television screen, I am trying to read Karen Armstrong’s biography of the Buddha. He left home when his son was born. The Buddha was worried that his attachment to the people he loved would bind him to a life of sorrow: “Some of the monks used to compare this kind of passion and craving for perishable things to a ‘dust’ which weighed the soul down and prevented it from soaring to the pinnacle of the universe.”

 

A scream from the children’s waiting room sounds just like a parrot, irritating the woman with a swollen neck. Months ago in my notebook, I wrote, “Limbo allows for enlightenment, but if you’re not prepared, you’ll experience it as projection of all your demons.”

 

Across from us, a woman laughs at her own confusion. The sound of a bottle falling in the vending machine was just like that of a body hitting the floor in a hallway or bathroom. After absorbing the shock of the sound, our eyes meet and we giggle, a moment I’ve been craving for hours. This atmosphere is vaguely competitive. People scan one another for injury as they wait for their names to be called. Before we gave up and left last night, we had been waiting for three and a half hours. Some people had been waiting for nine.

 

Hannah said it felt like her stomach was being sliced by knives. For three and a half hours, her face switched back and forth between the way the cartoon face looks at numbers nine and ten of the pain scale. And then, the knives stopped. Everybody has heard a story of a ruptured appendix: the sudden end of pain opening out into a body full of poison. So upon waking, we get dressed, pack a lunch, and come back.

 

CNN discusses what we have to worry about next. “Disease,” somebody says, “a secondary disaster.”

 

“Suppose,” the Buddha said, “I start to look for the unborn, the unaging, unailing, deathless, sorrowless, incorrupt and supreme freedom from this bondage?”

 

A nurse calls for a man who does not hear her. When she asks him point blank if he is who she’s looking for, he says yes. “Let me help you, my friend,” she says, her tone softening as she saunters behind his wheelchair and begins to push.

 

Earlier, CNN featured an interview with Sarah Palin. She was trying to explain why it wasn’t racist for her to use the word “slavery” to talk about Obama’s health care law. The night before in the ER, Hannah asked if she could help a woman with dyed red hair. She looked confused, facing the men’s bathroom with her temporary wheelchair and all her belongings on the floor. “I’m just trying to get away from the sound of Piers Morgan’s voice,” she said, as Hannah grabbed her purse and I picked up her steaming cup of hot chocolate, following her to the other side of the waiting room.

 

Now, they talk about women and children begging in the streets of the Philippines, though the streets are becoming increasingly dangerous. “That seems odd,” I say, looking at the footage of wood planks and discombobulated faces. “Everything is the street now,” Hannah says, finishing my thought.

 

Armstrong writes, “Adam and Eve lived in harmony, unaware of their sexual difference or of the distinction between good and evil. It is a unity that is impossible for us to imagine in our more fragmented existence, but in almost every culture, the myth of this primal concord showed that human beings continued to yearn for a peace and wholeness that they felt to be the proper state of humanity.”

 

We all gaze at the ultrasound together. It looks like we’re looking up through the ocean at the water’s surface. “Some see monsters, some see animals,” the sonographer laughs. “I only see organs.” She has an Eastern European accent. It makes me anxious to look at all these murky, unidentifiable shapes, so I sit down and hide from the screen behind the sonographer’s body.

 

“How long did it take you to you get used to the sound of screaming?” I ask the woman who pushes Hannah’s stretcher from one room to the other. She responds, unphased, “I have two kids, so.”

 

Outside, there are cop cars. I think of the little boy who was staring at us the night before. He had come in with a family flanked by policemen. He and his sister were left alone in the waiting room for close to an hour while their family disappeared behind closed doors. All of the sudden, the children stood up from their seats. As if on cue, the double doors opened. Two adults came to retrieve them.

 

As I drive to the Vietnamese restaurant for our dinner, it feels later than it is. I feel nostalgic for the ER now, and hurry to get back to it.

 

While I am not in the room, the doctor comes to check in on Hannah, and takes a phone call about another patient. “The bullet went in his back and came out of his neck,” she reports when I return.

 

I live across the street from the hospital, and often bike through the emergency room’s parking lot on my way home from work. Each time, I think with a commuter’s impatience about how long someone is pausing at the stop sign, sometimes shouting out loud.

 

Today at work, I was nicer to my students. Not on purpose, but out of exhaustion or surrender. As I traveled through the ER’s parking lot, peering into the newly arrived ambulances, I experienced the space anew. As a point of fracture. Something swollen. A kind of seam.

 

 

 

aishaAisha Sabatini Sloan grew up in an apartment building five miles from the ocean. Because the blue condo at the end of the block with porthole style windows was built around the same time that she was born, she always assumed she was going to be given one of the apartments for free.

 

 

And a little something extra: here is an oddly appropriate Volvo Ad–featuring Jean Claude Van Damme, two semis, and a soundtrack of Enya–that just came out this week:

2 Comments

Filed under nonfiction november