Wednesday, August 27, 2014


This evening I begin a writing workshop course, part of the adult continuing education offerings from The New School. It is listed as an advanced course, for more experienced writers, with the intent of polishing a particular piece. As time passes, noodling around at my desk with various bits and pieces of nothing, I grow increasingly nervous. I was extraordinarily nervous when I signed up for the course earlier in the summer, but the sharp anxiety dissipated, ebbed back like a slow tide to some inner, quiet, tranquil recess of myself. Now that performance is imminent, it roars. I have not been in a classroom since I graduated from university; it was only five years ago, but those five years seem so much longer, so much more, tedious and titillating, compressed in those times, compared to the four years spent on my campus. While the years since academic pursuits have been busy, a seeming constant hustled trajectory, always moving, moving, they have not been filled with much writing. Some poems, the preludes to longer works of fiction, or not, various journal entries, various online essays and jaunts, many superficial blog posts. Jotted down notes in blank sketch books, scrawled bits of prose on the backs of shopping receipts. Rare do I return to these bits, to edit and rework and shape, sculpt into something more. Nothing substantial. Nothing with real meat, nothing that involved strenuous coaxing and cajoling and metaphoric, or literal, tears bringing that meat to life, to something beautiful with, in a way, its own life beyond the realm of my mind.

My writing has been haphazard, a dalliance, rather than something to which I am dedicated, for which I am proud.

I, like many, have always had a fear of rejection. Now, I am worried, I am starting to realize that I have developed a fear for effort. For the unknown risk.

The nerves are simultaneously hideous and lovely, evil and good; I can hardly wait.

(image taken from From Your Desks)

Monday, August 25, 2014


In the corner of the living room, a Christmas tree rots. It is not dried, crisp, brown, wizened, naked from shedding rains of sharp delicate needles, as would be expected. It is more akin to rotting flesh, a trophy carcass mounted, natural, leaving the innards as is, allowed to decompose and perfume the air. The glass ornament bulbs shine, glare, bouncing bands of light back and forth between them amidst the sea of dead branches. Underneath a scattering of wrapped presents, metallic bows and sheen paper glistening, pristine and ghastly against the backdrop of the rotting tree. 

It is April, we tell our father, and he seems confused by this, or maybe, more accurately, unconcerned. We have come to help clean, to expunge years of clutter and memories, and we have found the tree, unmoved since the death of our mother. She must have died, in this world, sometime around Christmas, or perhaps even before, the tree displayed as ritual routine, but the final step of discard too final, too difficult. Three adult children, musing on our mother, in this world, a victim who has succumbed to some unknown and looming cancer, that omnipotent sense of unstoppable dread and death. Maligned growth, badness propagated, until the good, the healthy, is just engulfed and pushed out. A sort of suffocation.

Someone tries to explain to our father the importance of moving forward. She is gone to us all. We receive no response, he sits silent in a chair, watching as we dismantle the tree-meat into pieces, to toss. Glass globes shatter, the shards piercing every corner of the room, pricking the tips of our fingers as we attempt to clean, coaxing blood and more to come to the surface.

I woke, disoriented, sweating, more tired, with the cheerful morning light cascading into my bedroom, than I had been last night, in the dark night. It takes a moment or two or more to distinguish in my mind the areas of separation and the areas of verisimilitude between that world and this one. Work drags. That evening, I call her, wanting to, irrationally, confirm she is still alive.

We talk about visiting friends; they arrived on a Wednesday, left on a Tuesday morning, flew into and out of this airport. Gate number, terminal. At the end of month, I will travel to Texas, visit my brother in his new city. We discuss dates, time of flights. I forget my words as I speak them.

I want to share with her my dream, my fears. I keep my mouth shut.

(image taken from Bert Stern)

Friday, August 8, 2014

Man on Wire

Spit through the mouth onto the concrete, from the belly of the meandering subway underground, I walk to work each day, head down, idly concentrating on the steps, avoiding the traps of laid by open grates, sidewalk cracks. Eyes blurred, oblivious to the squirming mass of bodies passing, others, walking to work, exploring, running, shouting, silent, heads down in camaraderie. Head down, dodging between mothers carting children, between European and Asian tourists posing for photographs in front of Madison Square Garden, posing beside crumpled fast food wrappers and homeless men with bloated feet, shaking their cans, shaking their heads. A familiar trajectory, a few blocks along the avenue, to a dusty building tucked just inside of the corner.

Did you see that restored Rolls Royce, slow rolling along?

Did you see that artist, releasing small balloons into the sky, bits of poems attached to scatter for the world?

Did you see that chimpanzee, in a tuxedo, a monkey suit?

My eyes seem shut, like I want to pass through the world untouched, forgotten, blind.

A few years ago, I watched Man on Wire, the absolutely stunning documentary revealing the story behind Philippe Petit and his awesome, magnificent feat, tight-rope walking between the Twin Towers. Today is the fortieth anniversary of his feat, that testament to the power of the artistic spirit, the power for the romantic to prevail over the pragmatic and the bureaucratic, the feat that reminded the world that sometimes, life is simple, pure, a walk across a bit of taut rope, a commune with the air. As the film illustrates, this beautiful story is also a testament to the power of trust and confidence; Petit would never have been able to accomplish his acrobatic poem without the love, trust, support, encouragement of others, friends, family, lover, strangers. People who helped him arduously train. People who simply looked the other way, let the experiment play out. Some of these people, after the success of the mission, Petit never speaks to again, his relationships clouded with his artistic narcissism. Like so many of the glorious feats of man, this one, watching it replayed, with a cushion of time and subjective documentary lens between us, incited that odd simultaneous conflict of sadness and of inspiration. Anything is possible. Look at the perseverance, amid a backdrop of uncertainty. From our perspective, on the ground, how tiny he was. And from his perspective, we, on the ground, how small, how insignificant.

The Twin Towers have been destroyed for over a decade now, but that fact is eclipsed by so many other reasons this type of stunt seems impossible to replicate. It seems impossible to imagine that morning commute in the city, sipping on scalding coffee, looking up to see some miniscule figure, appearing to walk amongst the clouds, above the towers of the buildings, to flit and dance in the sky. An individual with the fortitude, the vision, the passion, the selfishness, is rare, rare among the grains of sands of people across countries and generations. Petit was, truly, unique.  

(image taken from ABC Australia)

Friday, August 1, 2014

Walking the Right of Way

A number of weeks ago, our table flooded with red wine and remnants of local meat, some friends of mine and I discussed the vehement trend in contemporary independent films: reaching so hard for subdued, quiet moments with emotionally violent characters where nothing is at stake. These films reek in their efforts for subtlety, for sympathy, for connectivity, for that actually quite challenging balance of celebration of the banal and the unique but universal feeling of daily human interaction. We laughed and joked, disinterested with the romantic entanglements and affairs of the bored housewife, the pathetic attempts of the dead-beat father to reach his angst-fueled son. Many of these films are attempting to penetrate a realm where some of my favorite and most beloved literature holds reign: the short fiction of Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Lydia Davis. Precise and concise, with purposeful and profound small moments, magnificent in the way they touch you, course through like a sharp synapse. 

Weary from an exhausting day of cubicle-languishing and computer screen glare, the other evening I relaxed with The Station Agent, about a decade old but recently lauded by friends and family. A beautiful story softly unfurls, three unlikely strangers, each with diverse burdens to bear and accompanying defense mechanisms to cope, forge a compelling and believable friendship. The protagonist, Fin, a dwarf, dons a misanthropic cloak, a hardened shell he thinks will protect him from what he perceives to be the innate cruelty. He seeks solitude in an abandoned train station property inherited from his sole friend, who dies within the first minutes of the film, proclaims himself a pariah, and greets those around him with a brusque demeanor  and incredulity. His becomes a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy: he expects meanness, acts mean to others, and so many people often reciprocate. That being said, he is not completely foolish and unjustified in his expectations; scenes of mild humiliation, from the obvious long stare of a passerby to the snap of a photograph by a store proprietor, to scenes of greater tumbles with flagrant ignorant threats and stupidity serve as a foundation and a reminder to the viewer that despite the displays of kindness and of generosity by some, Fin's life is one fettered with prejudice and adversity. These moments are not bombastic or overly wrought, and as they are interspersed with times when Fin meets others with insensitivities, they are realistic in their portrayal. Olivia, the second in the trio of misfits, is a middle-aged woman, separated from her typically bland wealthy husband, and is equally cloaked in an intense grief over the sudden death of her young son. Similar to Fin, Olivia seeks solitude in her empty and impressive vacation home in this remote rural town, paints large canvases, avoids telephone calls and visitors. Joe, the gregarious son of local coffee and food truck vendor, tempers the group and the tone of the film, but is not without his own struggles; his father, local celebrity who we never meet, is ill and he has abandoned his busy urban life to care for him. In a way, the lack of background for Joe, the sense that coming to this small town was obligation, rather than choice as it was for Fin and Olivia, earn his character a similar sense of pathos; he, too, exhibits emotional fortitude in the face of mountainous problems, but in choosing to do so with a grin and a healthy dose of confidence, he helps save the film from the realm of doldrums, steers the film away from trite. 

Despite their occasionally successful efforts to alienate the others, Fin, Olivia, and Joe connect, surprise themselves even at how easy it can be, despite ostensible differences, to laugh with one another, to get drunk with one another, to speak about life, or not speak about life, until late in the night with one another. Fin's passion for and knowledge of trains, an interest that has escalated to obsession and a mechanism for alienation, infects both Olivia and Joe. As they accompany Fin on his excursions walking the right of way, the train fascination framework fades, is a device that becomes less important, merely a vehicle for their growing bonds. An interest in bird watching, or old model cars, or baking, or ceramics, all also activities fit for those with a proclivity for solace, could have been substituted. For each, in their own way grappling with grief, wanting to sink into a familiar sludge of loneliness and self-pity, life unveils wonder again, adventure again, as they trudge along the train tracks, passing bucolic views, abandoned stations. Thankfully, this is all accomplished with a delicate directorial hand, astute writing, and beautiful acting. I truly believed in this troupe, in their genuine affections and respect for one another.

In some ways, Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson, and Bobby Cannavale play familiar variations of other characters they have played before or since, familiar tropes: the sage misanthrope who is misunderstood and also gets trapped by his own myopic views, the grieving mother who can barely survive after the death of her child and marriage, the buffon who offers comedic relief but wants also to be heard and taken seriously. Each actor is magnificent, well directed, and avoids maneuvering into a realm of caricature. 

While this is certainly a film on friendship, on unlikely meetings and surprise relationships despite the best attempts at misanthropy, romantic tension, a sense of yearning is inherent to these relationships, among Fin, Olivia, and Joe, as well as some of the other side characters. I am sure for many, the flirtatious back and forth, the sort of tenuous attraction, between Fin and local librarian, Emily, is a central point of interest in the trajectory of the film. I was ensnared by more subdued, and I think poignant moments: the interactions between Fin and a chubby, African-American grade school girl, Cleo. She is naturally curious about Fin, about his love for trains, his life in the old abandoned station, and he, failing to see the innocence of her curiosity, is frustrated and wary, spurning her friendly advances, her earnest questions. Throughout the course of the story, Cleo adamant in her decision to cultivate an interest in trains as well, Fin eventually comes to realize that she, as a fat girl with darker skin than most of her peers, may be subject to similar stares, similar ostracism. With her persistent attempts to befriend him, to show she cares, through exploring old rail cars, walking the tracks, and, ultimately, inviting Fin to speak about trains to her class, Cleo coaxes Fin out of his proverbial pity shell.

"Walking the right of way" has its colloquial grounding in the times of governmental imminent domain during the epoch of burgeoning industries; as the railroads were built, for transport and commerce, private property was seized. The rails had the right of way, to build bridges between cities, across the land. As the characters trek along the tracks, walking the right of way reveals itself as a grander metaphor: moving forward through life, persevering, thriving, even against some inexplicable power of fate, some authority. There is challenge we can alter, change, and challenge that we cannot, but with the solace of others, we can endure.

(image taken from Superior Pics)