NeverNesters

lefty politics, Asheville real estate, and what to expect when you're not

Loon Lake: A Meditation on Death and Tom Clancy

Posted on July 22, 2015

Well, now E.L. Doctorow is dead.

There’s a lot I don’t know about Doctorow. For instance, I am only just today, now that he’s dead, learning that he was, politically, a great lefty.

My dad gave me a book of his years ago called Loon Lake. I read some but not all of this book before putting it down. I’ve moved it approximately one million times. Early on it’d be taken from a bookshelf that was being moved too, filed with its colleagues into a cardboard box, lugged, then slipped back in among its colleagues onto the same bookshelf, now in some unfamiliar room. Eventually the bookshelves were replaced; the book kept moving.

In grad school I was struck when a professor referred to a book as a “technology”. It’s really an incredible piece of technology when you think about it, she said. We clashed a lot, this professor and I, although I ended up having nothing but affection for her. Affection can creep up on you like that, co-opting what’s mean in you.

But it’s true: they really are amazing pieces of technology. A book is a middle finger to Impermanence. Loon Lake had lives in the minds of probably hundreds of thousands of people, and even though its author is dead it will continue to. The ship doesn’t sink with the captain.

I don’t really have what you’d call a relationship with Loon Lake. I remember that there’s passengers on a train all heading in the same direction for different reasons, and that my dad had highlighted a monologue in which a grown-up was advising a youngster on the importance of determining what level of moral compromise he’d be willing to accept in life, and staying there, and not exceeding that level. I think.

This embarrasses me a little, even though it probably shouldn’t, but my first favorite author was Tom Clancy. I borrowed a copy of Patriot Games from my mom and read it when I was probably 12 or 13. Clancy didn’t used to be such a hack; there were very thoughtful explorations in that book, which had a lot to do with the Irish Republican Army, about terrorism. A lot of these passages were underlined in the book–passages concerning when it could be arguably permissable for a person to act if the state wouldn’t or couldn’t—and I remember being genuinely afraid that my sweet Baptist mother was hatching a terroristic scheme. Because you’re stupid when you’re a kid!

Then I realized the book originally belonged to her friend Beverly, and I felt a tremendous relief, because obviously Beverly was the terrorist, and my mom was safe.

I did the flashlight-under-the-blanket-thing with Larry Bond’s Cauldron, a global military techno thriller about a war in South Africa. I was way into tanks and shit, bombers. I had my own favorite Air Force jet. It wasn’t even an especially fast or powerful one—I just thought it looked cool. I watched a History Channel show narrated by George C. Scott (of course) called “Brute Force” and got really excited by the prospect of cruise missiles that delivered a payload of multiple independently-targeted heat-seeking bombs. I wrote long imitative fictions about the U.S. going to the brink of war with North Korea. I remember having a Secretary of Defense tell the President the line “You can’t spell nuclear without unclear” and thinking I was a chubby genius.

These young versions of you are ineradicable. I cannot erase the chubby genius with a hard-on for Jane’s Defence Weekly. Even in a Faulkner seminar in college, even unthreading The Sound and the Fury around a whisky-wet table with hot, smart friends, all of whom have lit cigarettes and divergent opinions, he haunts me. You’re more Benjy than Quentin, he says. You’d rather be reading 1960s baseball fiction—admit it. But why should I resent him? Why shouldn’t I just be grateful for having had a gateway passion and be done with it?

Because good lefties should start off reading Tolkien? I don’t know. Because I feel like a fake. Because now the chubby genius wants to be seen reading Pynchon. Because during one my blacker moods as an undergraduate it seemed that the study of literature trained readers how to appreciate what they didn’t love and dismiss what they did. Because if Loon Lake had been more like The Cardinal of the Kremlin and less like Loon Lake I probably finish it.

More and more these days I bump into the necessity of forgiving myself for being who I am. What a pain in the ass it is, always running yourself down and then picking yourself up. “You are a piece of shit, Walsh.” “Hey, go easy on him! He’s only human!” “Why didn’t you finish that fucking book?” “Calm down! Can’t you see he’s trying to sleep?”

It’s like you have to flog that flimsy genrelove out of you with Seriousness. Why can’t I can’t get affection to co-opt all that meanness?

Mostly what gnaws at me is the suspicion that my slavish commitment to Sloth is undermining my talent, consigning me to historical irrelevance and ruining Arielle’s life.

*

Speaking of ostentatious Pynchonianism: it is well known among The Bucktooth’d One’s fans that he writes with a Post-It note affixed to his monitor reading ESCHEW SLOTH. “And Sloth,” he wrote in an essay on the subject for the NYT, “being continual evasion, just kept piling up like a budget deficit, while the dimensions of the inevitable payback grew ever less merciful.”

I’ve been writing the same novel now for oh about three years. It’s great and I love it and when I can’t sleep at night I think about what’s happening in it, what’s happened in it, and what’s going to happen in it. It’s about 120- or 130-pages long, which is really bupkus for three years’ work. You have to put some pretty serious effort into just absolutely farting around in order to duck 300 pages after 1000 days.

I have a relationship with this inactivity. It evolves. Sometimes it’s the bane of my existence and other times it’s actually admirable, like in a tranquil, Zen sort of way. Finishing things is overrated, I think. It really is about the journey. Oh, but, by the way, you’re going to be 40 in the blink of an eye, so maybe you better get scrivening there, pal. 

Melville knew. What were those 400 pages in the middle of Moby Dick but a prolonged deferral of narrative obligation? “Dear Reader,” he might as well have written after approximately the fiftieth page, “thank you very much for buying my book. I know I’ve set up quite the gripping tale here, what with the maniac captain’s relentless pursuit of the demonic beast and all, but the thing is, I’m really just flat terrified of finishing this mother, so if you don’t mind, I’m going to spend around 400 pages on the subject of whales in general. Then at the end I’ll sink the ship and we can all just get on with our fucking lives. Deal? Deal.”

My sister told me once about how Zadie Smith confessed to spending loads of time on the first halves of her books before rushing through to the end, and she said this explained Zadie Smith books for her.

The chunk of my book that’s written has been polished to an extraordinary gleam. I stroll through it regularly, rubbing sentences, holding paragraphs up to the light. The other half swims mostly intact and alive but unfished in my imagination. At night I visit it in its aquarium, admiring its beauty, doing next to nothing to dredge it out splattering and sputtering onto the page. What isn’t written yet is perfect. Then you have to go and pin it down: a naturalist killing a butterfly. But I digress.

Friend of mine had a t-shirt in Junior High: “Top 10 Reasons to Procrastinate: #1:”

Well, anyway. This has been a delightful couple hours at the office. You cannot see in here all the breaks, the living ellipses: the twenty minutes reading Nearer My Couch to Thee; the episodic sessions surfing Astros chat forums; the occasional outbreaks of honest work done. This meditation is lousy with punched holes. It is interlarded with air. Like the soul, writes T.P. in Mason & Dixonbread is mostly air. 

Maybe that’s just another example of That Which is Below resembling That Which is Above: looking at me, the stranger cannot see the chubby genius thrillingly turning the pages of military potboilers; or the son putting down the book his father gave him to read and letting the memory of it vanish into the fog bank; or the thirtysomething donning a nightly mental hair shirt. We are each an index of what we can’t forget, and each alone in the remembering.

This year, as soon as I’ve finished THE THOMAS PYNCHON BOOK I’M CURRENTLY READING, I’ll pick up Loon Lake.

Thanks, mom, Thanks, dad. Thanks, Tom. Thanks, E.L.

D.W.

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The disordered room

Posted on April 8, 2015

I woke up this morning thinking about a poem one of Arielle’s friends read at our wedding: a Mary Oliver poem, “#13”, the last one in her excellent collection, West Wind. After a concise introduction (It is midnight, or almost), a long breath of wind rushes into the poet’s room, touching everything, upheaving her manuscripts, entering even the pockets of the clothes hanging in her closet and wobbling the lampshade before getting inhaled back toward the ocean and a sky rife with stars. The wind’s winding, almost punctuationless sentence concludes by placing the poet on the scene, sitting at her desk, smiling: I pick up a pencil, I put it down, I pick it up again. / I am thinking of you. / I am always thinking of you.

Originally I thought the wind was a metaphor for love: the singular disordering ungrammatical event of love. In its reckless, breathless sweep the alphabet is lost. Then, quickly, after frisking every interior surface of its object, it goes out the way it came in.

We were English majors! We were drunkards! Drunk with poetry, drunk with love, and quite often drunk with whisky. We were smart enough to get the most out of not knowing how to handle this new, ferocious, hilarious way of life. Our wedding program began with the epigram Robert Hass wrote for his 1979 collection, Praise:

We asked the captain what course

of action he proposed to take toward

a beast so large, terrifying, and

unpredictable. He hesitated to

answer, and then said judiciously:

“I think I shall praise it.”

Our previous lives were smashed by the Interloper. No sense resisting it. A moment ago our futures had contained infinite possibilities, now they just contained each other, and that was that. Only a fool would try and squash capital l Love down to something manageable. That’s why the poet smiling in her wind-tumbled room makes sense: she knows that this particular tyrannical visitor is to be welcomed—greedily. (Earlier, in probably the book’s most famous poem, “#2”, she instructs a young reader: There is life without love. It is not worth a bent penny, or a scuffed shoe. It is not worth the body of a dead dog nine days unburied.)

This morning, though, yet a little flighty with dream logic, I thought: it’s not Love, it’s Time, Love’s interloping cousin.

Time, which, though always happening, tends only to occur to us in gusts. Time, which, in its ceaseless pouring, shuffles the indices of our minds, crawls through our bookshelves, intermixes our chapters. Time, which, while invisible, adjusts the light we see ourselves in.

In one thought I thought: Isn’t it funny: am I only now, seven years later, thinking about this? and No, no—I’ve always thought this, haven’t I?

*

I have been preoccupied lately with the idea of “the past”. In a recent very vivid and internally logical dream I assembled a minor philosophy of life revolving around the concept of memory: it is chiefly what separates us from our cats, say, who can be livid with you one second and five minutes later purring and supplicant. Memory of the past is what makes us smarter than we were in the past. By definition, we improve at life every day because we have a greater reservoir of past to draw on. There’s an inverse relationship between the length of our future and its immediate quality.

Then I’ve been thinking: actually the past is stupid, as in intransigent, like a mule. It’s stupid because you can’t do anything about it. It just fucking sits there being what it is. It doesn’t even have respect for you enough to cackle or taunt or sneer. You’re irrelevant to the past, yea tho’ thou plow and sow It, tho’ It be meat and milk to thee.

But, truth is, the past’s a malleable, liquidy thing, perforated with lacunae. We’ve each of us got darkened wings in our libraries, entire card catalogues locked and keyless.

I was recently reminded of an incident in grade school: a food fight that led to my and a classmate’s week-long internment in separate little rooms: In School Suspension. Was this before or after she and I shared our first French kiss? Don’t know. Don’t remember. I’m not even sure I honestly remember the food fight, or the ISS. I may have populated the recounting with a troupe of old feelings trained in the School of Trouble and convinced myself I remembered. Like moths feel made of other moths, memories sometimes are Lego constructions of other memories.

Could it be this was the first time I was in serious trouble? Could be, sure. Maybe someone else has access to this particular cache. I do not.

We are just flat stuck in these rooms. It’s always nearly midnight in them, and the moment you find time to sit and write something sensical, great big snapping bolts of time come in and blow everything around. Did you always feel this way, or is it just occurring to you now? Can you even tell the difference?

*

It’s helpful to have big ass epic moments standing out back there amid all the fog to, if nothing else, show how far you’ve come.

At our ceremony, Julia’s voice caught somewhere between the poem’s last two sentences. You don’t realize how much heavy “#13is packing until the end. Mary Oliver is a tall woman, but she hides behind that wind and then socks your nose in the last stanza.

Her voice caught, which of course meant both Arielle and I got misty, locked eyes.

The wind, time, whatever, it was just distraction; just some noise while I thought about you. Not even the sifting ocean of the past can bury that.

—D.W.

And now, reproduced for you, in its entirety and without permission, the poem:

West Wind #13

It is midnight, or almost.

Out in the world the wind stretches

bundles back into itself like a hundred

bolts of lace then stretches again

flows itself over the windowsill and into the room

it scatters the papers from the desk

it is in love with disorganization

now the manuscript is on the floor, and reshuffled

now the chapters have married each other

now the alphabet is lost

now the white curtains are tossing wing on wing

now the body of the wind snaps

it sniffs the closet it touches into the pockets of the coats

it touches the shells upon the shelves

it touches the tops of the books

it slides along the walls

now the light lamp wavers

as the body of the wind swings over the light

outside a million stars are burning

now the ocean calls to the wind

now the wind, like water slips under the sash

into the yard the garden the long black sky

in my room after such disturbance I sit, smiling.

I pick up a pencil, I put it down, I pick it up again.

I am thinking of you.

I am always thinking of you.

      —Mary Oliver

“It is all right to hold a conversation, but you should let go of it now and then.”

Posted on March 4, 2015

Couple years ago I was washing the dishes and listening to All Things Considered when I made a minor discovery about growing up. It was triggered, this discovery, by the transition music between stories. Some anonymous NPR sound tech had excerpted an instrumental passage from an M.C. 900 Foot Jesus song, of all things. If you’ve never heard of M.C. 900 Foot Jesus, you’re not alone. That boat you’re in contains nearly the entire human race. All I can tell you about him is that for a minute in the nineties he was probably America’s most famous white Texan rapper. (In a similar vein, I believe I am the most famous Devin Abraham Sorrell Walsh born on April 17th, 1980, ever.) Around the same time, I’d heard P.J. Harvey sampled on Marketplace. My peeps were growing up.

The kids I played four-square with were employed in public radio now, smuggling their culture into the larger American conversation vis a vis transition music. Siegel finishes talking and, boom: it’s 1997 again. It seemed possible that soon enough the whole country would sound different: just as our parents grew up in a world that sounded like Perry Como, Johnny Mathis and Bing Crosby and engineered it into one that sounded like the Beatles, the Supremes and Led Zeppelin, we would grow up in a country that sounded like the Beatles, the Supremes and Led Zeppelin and engineer it into one that sounded like Outkast, Radiohead and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.*

I remember getting pretty cheesed when it was reported that W.’s speechwriters coded allusions into his formal statements only the devout among his listeners could identify as biblical; the rest of us just whistling obliviously on as the chief executive secured camouflaged grappling hooks to the wall between church and state. (Actually not obliviously whistling, just pissed about something else.) But there’s something cool about it, too: a sneaky, sophisticated method of communicating different things to different audiences though reading from just one script; a way to say shibboleth without the enemy even hearing.

Anyway, that’s what the M.C. 900 Foot Jesus person was doing, too. Even though I was wrist-deep in suds in an Asheville kitchen, and he or she was punching buttons in a radio control booth in D.C., we were in communication. The tech was saying: Our turn.

I’ve been thinking about this lately because, even though musically the U.S. is still pretty firmly under the Boomer moon, the conversation I’m hearing more and more on the news and in social media does in fact seem to revolve around issues of emotional and intellectual development germane to the 30-something. People be talking about how they finally don’t care what other people think of them. People be talking about learning to be different without judgment, to respect difference, listen, stand up for themselves, admit their shortcomings, stop lying.

Meanwhile, the news is dripping with vaccines and saddled with college debt—issues my parents must be relieved they don’t need to worry about too much.

But this is always happening. In another thirty years the national dialogue I’m taking part in will resemble what my folks’ sounds like now (albeit with more flooding and less retirement security). People in their early 20s will be scheming their future greatness while preoccupied with sex. Middle schoolers will have their own Beavis & Butthead to mimic into exhaustion. Kids will rove into their back yards with whatever species of superhero action figure you have to have, and will pour their liquid minds into the console game they’ll ironically-unironically claim still to love a couple decades later. The conversations stay the same, the proper nouns change, the speakers cycle through.

The illusion is reinforced by the fact that I’m just not Facebook friends with many 60-year-olds or 8th graders.

*

I’m more capable of having better, more substantive conversations than I used to be. This stems in large part from figuring out how to better suppress my ego—that obnoxious little lunatic that lives between my belly and my crotch. If you come at a conversation from a position of wanting to inquire, rather than wanting to teach or show-off; if you’re uncowed by the prospect of being judged; if you insist on taking everyone seriously and you demand candor from yourself—all operations the little lunatic quakes against—you improve the quality of your conversation.

Arielle and I recently had lunch with a former real estate client who is suffering from a pretty bad break-up. Conversation-wise, heartbreak’s got a lot of juice. It can get you fairly heavily divulging to near-strangers. (If I were an evil genius professional interrogator, I would inflict heartbreak on all my subjects and then get them at their lowest.) Anyway, our pal had a lot to say, and I was struck by how rare an occasion it is: to be the audience for a genuine emotional outpour. This got me thinking about conversations in general; hence the blog post, the title of which is a quotation by the deceased Ogden Nashy American poet Richard Armour. How often have you had a conversation you let go into? If you’re like me, you can count them on both hands.

I remember one at a sleepover at a friend’s house when I was probably 12, another with my best friend during high school, a bunch with young women I’ve loved, a series with a pair of buddies in my early 20s… Age tends to be a common denominator, another is that I mostly don’t recall what we discussed, only how. At the heart of each was a mutual disarmament. That Jean-Luc Picard knew his stuff: if you want to make friends, try not raising your shields. Suddenly the world is busy with dimensions you couldn’t articulate before; rich with texture you couldn’t feel before; you’re not alone—or you’re still alone, possibly even aloner, but so is your friend, so is everyone.

I’m not sure if it’s sad that I remember so few or if I should be grateful to remember so many.

*

My nephew and I were watching Transformers: Rescuebots over the weekend.

(This must be one of the dearest privileges of parenthood: having a supple-minded little kid you can talk to. When else—and with whom but family—do we routinely engage in candid personal cross-generational dialogue?)

We got to talking about ghosts, ’cause of the episode, and one thing led to another, and I was defining “sexy” for him and discussing holograms and time travel and he asked me: “Is the future real?”

Judging from my own experience, he won’t remember that conversation for long. But I will. I mean, are you kidding? Is the future real? That just freaking wins.

D.W.

*Full body chills moment: the afternoon after writing this, and after spending an inordinate amount of time mulling over which bands should constitute this final triumvirate, having settled first upon and having never once budged from Outkast, what do I hear as the first segue tune on the news? The opening piano riff of “Caroline”. Raise your hand if you’re over 35 and you know what I’m talking about. Raise your hand if you’re under.

What We Don’t Talk About When We Don’t Talk About Republicans

Posted on January 21, 2015

At some point in the last couple years it dawned on me that one does not mention the Republican Party in polite conversation. At least, the people whose conversation I admired, whose political sensibilities I most wanted to emulate, they don’t talk about Republicans. This would seem an awkward impediment to an open flow of ideas, but in fact nuanced discussions of policy are entirely possible without anyone ever directly invoking the GOP. Instead, you simply refer to any of the double helix of primarily corporate interests that represent the elephant’s genes–ALEC, Scalia, Monsanto, the NRA, “Big Fill-In-The-Blank” (Data, Oil, Pharma, etc.), Koch Industries…you get the idea. From what I have observed, those who engage in this campaign of deliberate omission fall into two camps.

Let’s call the first camp the Guarded. Among the Guarded, the word is hidden for any number of reasons. Mostly they seek not to offend (i.e., you find yourself addressing a small audience on the subject of climate change: to highlight a history of congressional obstructionism without inciting wrath, you use the term “deniers” instead of the more accurate “Republicans”). Maybe the Guarded are unclear as to the disposition of the debate, and so refrain from pointed nouns. Maybe the Guarded don’t want to be reverse ID’d as Democrats. Maybe the instinct is a cousin to the puerile notion that keeps candidates from identifying their opponents by name.

But I’ve been in rooms packed exclusively with spirited Democratic activists and seen speakers, at precisely the moment when naming the foe would be most gratifying, suddenly become Guarded. It’s like if a prosecutor, at the height of her opening peroration, rather than pointing her finger at the accused and intoning his name, were to just kind of shrug and mumble, “And that fellow is in this courtroom, next to his lawyer…”

Obviously, this tendency owes much to our training in etiquette. In most circles, talking politics is worse than boring, worse than profitless: it’s rude. When I reflect on my past of Verbally Opinionating, I could just as well be reviewing the history of a turbulent sexuality: I first Opinioned myself at age 12; at 14 I first said an Opinion to another… After my Opinions were assaulted, here, I became confused and experimented with heterodox Opinions for a few months… I remember during this time I was plagued by a recurring dream of walking into school wearing all my Opinions… Finally, I came out as an Opinionated Liberal Partisan.

I’ve had plenty of conversations about delicate issues with people I didn’t know all that well that were much more comfortable than even the most basic, tip-of-the-iceberg political talk with people I’d never see again. A contractor once sat at my kitchen table and asked me, in an oblique way, who I was going to vote for in 2012. I got around to Obama, but it was hard sledding editing the volcano of my beliefs on the issue down to an unmolten nugget. I stammered and flopped. My jaw got tight and my face hot. I’d have better handled a direct question about how I took my pornography.

One of the reasons we admire a candidate for office is that they boldly and unequivocally enumerate points in support of their ideology. Most of us don’t spend a lot of time doing that, so it’s convenient when someone else does. We hear them and go, Yeah, that’s why I support a woman’s right to choose, too! Or, I knew there was a reason I hate the minimum wage!

Last year, I entered the fray directly as a Field Coordinator for the Kay Hagan campaign. Kay was vying for re-election to the U.S. Senate from North Carolina. It was an appalling job and I didn’t last long in it, but the experience was singular. (I am thinking about, if a lobster could leap out of the pot…that’s what my experience was like.) Among the most eye-opening aspects of the job was the depth of ignorance out there concerning, uhhhh, everything. Because I had to practice my pitch on the phone five hours a day, six days a week, I got to where I could fairly fluidly deliver a pithy little sequence of infotastic tautologies at the drop of a hat. I blended the campaign-approved, intellectually vacant boilerplate with my own homespun witticisms and earthy common sense (i.e. “bullshit”). Hearing me, elderly volunteers seemed generally impressed. “He’s got the gift,” they’d say. “Watch out for this one.” And the truth is, in terms of the art of political persuasion, I sucked.

Imagine your average white Hoosier teen with a decent jump shot introducing basketball to the people of some remote, unconnected land. They think he’s invincible. They take him on in one-on-one match-ups and laugh at the futility. They’ve never heard of Lebron James.

That about summarizes my experience in the campaign. I don’t want to be rude (not gratuitously rude, anyway), but my point is, even though the people who look like they know what they’re talking about don’t actually know that much, they still know a shitload more than most everybody else.

Scratch a partisan and you find someone who has uploaded certain tenets of their party’s platform into their gestalt. Scratch the gestalt and you find nebulae of emotion in orbit around a wobbly lodestar called Justice. “We engage in political activity so that we may, as societies of men, deal with the world as it is,” wrote English critic Henry Fairlie in a 1973 issue of Harpers: “This is not a slight endeavor; the world as it is, experience teaches us, is not easy to deal with.” I would put it to you that, in today’s culture, we engage in political activity mostly to compete over the privilege of defining what the condition of the world is. It’s a difficult, postmodern business, thorny with footnotes and clashing source materials; the swarm of worker bees flooding your neighborhood every two years to bring democracy to your doorstep work at several removes from their masters and are drilled to language their way through critical thought and to spend no more than five minutes on anyone. The vast majority of prospective voters, for the sake of whose allegiance billions of dollars are converted to bad television, have only the dimmest understanding of the American way of government. And all this frothing to-do results in paltry electorates dispatching to Washington ambassadors soon to be almost universally despised. Meanwhile, largely irrespective of which team controls the clock, the billionaires, as the marvelous essayist Tim Kreider puts it, “help themselves to the rest of the money.”

Which brings me to the second camp of people who don’t talk about Republicans: the Over It.

I first became kind of retroactively aware of the Over It while reading A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan. Goon Squad didn’t make much of an impression on me (I didn’t finish it) except for the story of Stephanie, who meanders from a West Coast punk scene in the 1970s to a married suburban New York life in the 90s–a life that sees her regularly at tennis with a neighborhood woman who is, dun dun DUN…: A Republican. One of Stephanie’s old confidants is stunned by this development. You’re friends with a Republican? I mean seriously, a REPUBLICAN?? Stephanie’s botoxed, bleached, white-skirt-clad, generally-augmented tennis buddy becomes a symbol of the collapse of her ideals. Reading this passage, it seemed probable that the denouncer had suppressed the word “Republican” for decades, in the same way a member of the nobility might for so long effortfully elide from his mind and speech all references to those wallowing in the muck that when one of the poor bastards shows up and drips in the vestibule the words are an outrage in him, an incantation, poisonous.

It’s hard to write about this without being really offensive.

I’m imagining a hypothetical schoolhouse dynamic…one in which the administrators have ceded control to the students for an object lesson in civics. For one day the kids have to deliver their own lectures, proctor and grade their own quizzes, preside over an orderly lunch, distribute appropriate homework, and so on. In my conception, the student body would divide into three factions: A select group of leaders would rise of their own volition; as would a class of kids uninterested in leadership but willing to modify their behavior for the sake of achieving common goals; then finally you’d have a bunch of clowns who just want to goof off and throw rocks.

In this analogy, the Republicans are the ones who want to goof off and throw rocks.

By the end of the day, a number of representatives from the first two groups would have decided to simply ignore the existence of the third. They’d be over it. Let them speak–sure, if they must–let them retard progress if they’re able, let them benefit from the decisions of a reasonable consensus…but acknowledge them? What’s the point?

Things could go on like this forever, and peacefully, so long as the doers stay in the majority over the undoers. What’s disruptive is when the clowns don suits and begin cultivating a constituency who’ll give them power. What’s problematical is when the dressed-up nihilism of their heretofore fringe ideology is granted an aura of authority by a media system bludgeoned into submission by the sledgehammer of liberal bias. And what’s catastrophic is when they win, raze the school, and declare a season of unending recess. “But it’s storming out,” someone might protest, pointing to the darkened, rain-spattered window.

And the new leaders look too but say, “No it isn’t.”

Which is one of the things we don’t talk about, when we don’t talk about Republicans.

 

-D.W.

Love*

Posted on January 5, 2015

So the holidays are over and A. and I’s lives have changed concretely, probably for keeps. I write this now (shame on me) installed at my new desk at South College Asheville, where I’ve through a marvelously simple daisy chain of contacts and events been named Chair of the Department of Professional Brewing Science. Funny how you can spend all this time gazing at your past like you do through a window at inaccessible baked goods, some enticing, others appalling, but all of them passively beheld, remote from you, gripless as yesterday, and then all of a sudden those same baked goods assert themselves enough to…

No: you’re up there on the foremast deck, at the conn, helm in hands, sails blooming full of a steady wind, and though your body is poised at the future, your gaze trails aft at the slow-boiling wake as it smooths back into the sea, and from back there all at once comes a sudden shift in the breeze and you’ve altered course.

That’s a little better than the metaphor of the appalling baked goods, at any rate.

In retrospect, hurrying into my MFA program wasn’t wise, and toiling four years at a local craft brewery felt less like a strategic move than it did treading water, but in the third act the first two are revealed to have been essential. For accreditation purposes, South College preferred that someone with a masters degree head up their new program, and there aren’t (yet) scads of people with those in the craft brewing field. As icing on the cake, one of the people instrumental in hiring me has a son who was briefly a staff writer for the literary arts magazine I founded as an undergraduate. It isn’t white smiling God in his glowing heaven picking up these scattered threads and cinching them into a neat bow. Fate is made by people. Let’s praise them.

To that end, we’re going out to dinner tonight with a couple friends who were key in hooking me up with South College. They’re getting a sitter for the occasion, are expecting number two any day, and I imagine the subject will come up.

We were blessed with beau coup nephew-and-niece time over the holidays, and while I’m not ready to haul up the curtain entirely on the most recent kitchen-counter-side Pressing Subjects broached in chez Walsh, I will say that the see-saw might could be at its see-sawing thing again. Might could. One can’t yet say for sure. One must wait to see which numbers one’s feelings throw.

The Slocums are expecting again in New York. The Warren-Hills of Weaverville. The Berlin-Moris. One childless couple in our neighborhood is preggers, another is in deep contemplation. Lukatrina just popped their first one out… This generation that flooded into 80s pre-schools together and came out the other side as college graduates in a melting economy, who lined up for choice interest rates on their first mortgages while watching D.C. unmoor itself from the mainland: blink and they’ve multiplied.

One thing is we had too much unstructured free time over the holidays. Vast slow unspooling bobbins of time, harassed by no one, kept awake by no one, unprepped for. We got bored, honestly. The idle hands of thirtysomethings are much more dangerous than those of kids. (Well, kids who use protection.) I read a short story in Harper’s Magazine recently in which the main character’s love interest tells him on a summer day, at the beach, “Knock me up. Let’s take our lives seriously.” Now there is a line that sticks.

*

My trouble is I see myself holding a beautiful baby, my own, my wife’s, and I love her, of course, but also I’m aware of what I’m missing, and I can’t shake that, and every time I kiss her forehead or nom her tiny toes there’s an asterisk, and I’m reminded that instead of spending a day with my wife on a couch engulfed in high literature, I’m reading Give a Mouse a Biscuit again.

Originally this post was called “If We Must Have a Baby, Let It Be a Bauhausy Baby,” because for some reason all day I’ve been listening to Bauhaus for the first time in more than a decade, thinking how great would it be if the 80s comic gothic quartet, less like any other band than any other band I’ve ever heard, reunited to make an album in honor of me and A.’s amazing new baby. In this fantasy, Peter Murphy, the gaunt prince of the glass-wristed set, attends the exhausted mother, bleary father and cooing newby on Day One, going, like: “I dub thee Chrysanthem,” and I say, “No, you can’t, but thanks,” and he says, “Your child is extraordinary. This demands a grand gesture. I’m getting the band back together.”

In particular, the last five songs of “The Sky’s Gone Out” (1982) have me hooked. It concludes with a trippy cycle in which, after the world ends, a father tells his son (reading from Bertolt Brecht’s first play, Baal): “My baby, how big you’ll be in a very little while. You’ll be going to school and you won’t want your daddy then, will you darling? Oh, I wish you could be my baby all the time. I wonder what the future holds…?”

I want to answer: it holds the past, but not like how you supposed it would.

 

D.W.

Be thou, Spirit fierce, my spirit!

Posted on October 27, 2014

What if I were to begin consecutive blog posts recounting 7-year old memories of my literature professors? What kind of person would this make me? I say to you yes: whatever you came up with, that’s true.

Professor David Hopes, the egg-shaped ginger sprite of UNC-Asheville’s Karpen Hall, used to (no doubt still does) amuse himself by imagining Percy Shelley striding into a classroom to field questions. He’d insist that we wouldn’t believe in Shelley, because no one’s like Shelley anymore. People back then just lived more. He’d make us imagine the poet standing at the front of the room, radiating difference, intellect, energy, power: this pale little man who dared the west wind to be like him.

The story is, Shelley drowned when his sail boat (Don Juan) was rammed by pirates who mistook it for Lord Byron’s; or when intelligence agents of a foreign crown sunk him; or by committing impassioned suicide during a dramatic storm; or owing to a sloppy boatwright; or due to landlubberly seamanship and navigational ineptitude. Take your pick. He was found fully clothed but lacking most his flesh. After they’d lit his funeral pyre, friend Edward Trelawny rescued his entire heart from the fiery chamber of his torso. Cors cordium, they named it.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the Romantic poets, in particular the larger-than-lifeness that animated them. In a long, dreamy essay about the American novelist Marilynne Robinson in a recent New York Times Magazine, the writer, Wyatt Mason, describes an interview:

“I hate to say it, but I think a default posture of human beings is fear.” Perched on the edge of a sofa, hands loosely clasped, Robinson leaned forward as if breaking bad news to a gentle heart. “What it comes down to — and I think this has become prominent in our culture recently — is that fear is an excuse: ‘I would like to have done something, but of course I couldn’t.’ Fear is so opportunistic that people can call on it under the slightest provocations: ‘He looked at me funny.’ ”

“ ‘So I shot him,’ ” I said.

“Exactly.”

“ ‘Can you blame me?’ ”

‘‘Exactly. Fear has, in this moment, a respectability I’ve never seen in my life.”

I don’t know if Shelley was a Christian or not. I suspect he was deistic. Certainly he was keen on impermanence (“Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”). But, to be sure, his universe was lit by a wilder voltage than most of us would be comfortable with today.

Today, we know we are borrowing time on a pale blue dot circling through a vast, empty sea. When we die, we do not— most of us— expect to find heavenly architecture, luminous faces, angels at the gate. We are not the same gullible folk who lined the pockets of hack priests flogging indulgences. We are meat, and we know what happens to expired meat.

When we had faith, when we believed that death was a stride into eternity, were we braver? Maybe. Anyway, we’re wiser now. And scared as hell. Even as crime plummets to historic lows and scholars assure us that we live in an era of unprecedented peace, the national anxiety mounts. A hoodie— hoodie — becomes a menace on par with a drawn weapon. Waves of brown children lap at our southern border and mobs form, a Californian woman holds up a sign: NOT OUR KIDS, NOT OUR PROBLEM. He looked at me funny, so I shot him.

*

I’m pretty good, generally, about acting on my principles, I excel at letting my conscience complicate my life, and I stand up to bullies, but I’m not a very brave person. The great West Wind, were it to mimic my spirit, would rather stay home than explore. I’m more Deep Space Nine than USS Enterprise. I can be cavalier around electricity and rash with promises, but there are dark islands in me I prefer leaving off the map.

We went canvassing for a local campaign the other day, Arielle and I. We thought it was going to be in one part of town. We’d planned on making a nice few hours’ walk of it on a pretty autumn day. Turns out it was in a different part of town. We were quiet on the drive over. After parking, getting out, and puzzling over a logical entry point into the sprawling, homogenous projects, I decided to skip them. Took about five minutes. I would have been uncomfortable doing it by myself— my wife’s presence made me doubly uncomfortable. I caught myself rationalizing in the usual ways, again and again. We canvassed around the projects for an hour plus, doing good work, but finally more than half our packet went unknocked because, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I was a coward. When we were done and I turned in my data, I confessed to a pair of overworked field organizers. Later, I confessed to some friends.

Nobody shamed me.

 

D.W.

White Man Thinking

Posted on September 16, 2014

I don’t remember what I used to think about. In fact, I don’t remember thinking. Does anyone?

Maybe you can’t remember thinking because it’s a verb that leaves no evidence. What does it even mean, to think? You can’t unscrew a screwdriver with itself, and you can’t crack the nut of thought with thought.

It was reported that Einstein thought in shapes. That’s one of those things that sounds neat but, really, what can you do with it? Did Julia Child think in recipes? Did Ty Cobb think in line drives? My name is Homer Simpson. I think in donuts.

Merrit Moseley, A literature professor at UNCA (now the chair of the department), once remarked that he himself couldn’t write a novel–this art form he loved, the study of which he’d dedicated his career to–because he wanted for invention. All my stories, he said, end up being about a middle-aged white man, sitting in a room, thinking.

Contemplation, rumination. I was thinking about you the other day. Mull it over. Chew on that. Then it occurred to me.

I remember a conversation I had with an old roommate. He’s the only person I’ve ever heard say that he thought in complete sentences. You mean, I asked him, when your alarm clock goes off in the morning, you lie in bed and think to yourself, ‘I’m going to hit the snooze button now,’? Yeah, he said. ‘I’m going to answer the phone now’? Yep.

I still don’t believe him, but what the bleep do I know? For me, thought is inarticulate bodylong sensation, the original cloud drive, aura, mood, my mind’s weather.

Of course, used to be I listened to a lot more music. And listened hard. Listened to drive faster, to be transported. I remember vividly the trance Blackalicious’s Release put me in when I first heard it, sitting in my parked blue Honda Civic in Austin, outside the coffee shop where I worked while the rain pounded down. I went to a Roundrock Express baseball game that night or the next, solo, sat there in my dad’s seat behind home plate, vibrating in this out-of-mind state from the song, and fell raptly, harmlessly in love with one of the player’s wives sitting in the player’s wives section. It had almost nothing to do with her.

A song will move your psychic stuff around. It will recalibrate you in such a way that people, events, objects and actions hum and glow with ineluctable meaning. You know what I’m talking about.

For me this is also true of certain passages in literature, certain plays, certain scenes from film. (I’m sure it’s true of paintings, too, though I haven’t encountered that painting yet.) But there’s something to the sonic, versus the watched or read, that etches grooves right into the meat of things.

It makes guttural sense that thought is more like sound than stuff. At night, lying in bed, who hasn’t stunned–even confused–themselves with the quality of an imagined voice?

When we are thinking, we are distracted…thought is distraction. It gets in the way. I used to be more distracted by puerile fantasy and illusions of grandeur than I am now. I used to be more distracted, too, by really good creative ideas. But I don’t actually remember thinking. On long car trips I’d babble incessantly in accented echolalia along with AM radio. When I dialed in to an Astros game, I paid attention. Listening to favorite songs, I’d unthread the instruments from each other. Probably I spent a great deal of time reconstructing whatever had just happened. Revising. Re-enacting. Re-recording.

It seems reasonable to suggest that thought is the mind’s exhaust, and that the mind is an engine that, absent oodles of sensory input, runs hot. Maybe it’s reasonable, too, that the most complex sensory input available to us is human company. People, after all, are things into which we have peculiar insight. They smell. You can study their expressions. Their limbs are always moving. They open their mouths and out spills language. Incredible! Being in company solves thought, it keeps the mind occupied. Being alone is revving the motor, temperature gauge rising, which makes being in company all the more treacherous.

Who was it…? Someone’s obituary. Can’t remember. What was the sentence…? Nope, not that either. But the idea was: when I developed an inner life, that’s when everything changed…

“define inner life” gets you a lot of Eckhart Tolle, lot of Goddyness. But my inner life is not after peace or serenity, except insofar as it stills me in myself like with poured cement: I am certain that there is a part of me that is unchangeable, that is “Devin” in the same way a submarine floating through the sea is not the sea. My inner life is given to brooding. It is a broth of anxieties and their opposing sureties. A brew. A brine. It is preoccupied with cruelty, suffering and injustice. It’s achingly sentimental–every touch leaves a print. It is the kindling flame of a politics anchored on different words. It sings my rightness and indicts me a proud fool. It watches the world sadly and wonders what will happen.

*

At 34, the animal’s temperament deepens. Quieter, more solitary, it better hears its own music. A wide block of real estate in its mind is zoned Regret. The knowledge of time as a perishing resource is no longer purely intellectual. It drifts into the busy world and listens.

D.W.