Losing & Learning—poker and writing

You are going to lose.

At some point, you are going down the tubes, over the edge, off the rails. You may have something to do with the inexorable demolition of your temporary hopes and dreams, or a house may fall on you from out of the sky, while you are in mid-sentence about to say the most profound thing anyone has ever heard. Or not. You may be doing nothing more than mowing the lawn and wondering why it has gotten so dark so suddenly.

What prepared me? Nothing. I led a life of easy glory. Success came without consequence, well other than the third grade geography teacher who told me that my coloring was atrocious, or awful, and I wondered how the other kids filled in the map without the striations of crayons. So what, I won the class spelling bee. I sang in the chorus and joined the math club. Years passed, achievements accumulated.

I sat in my car after the first night I played in our local poker game in Pittsburgh. My heart pounded wildly in my chest, and my hands shook too much to take the wheel. I had lost sixty dollars, which was, at the time, the most I had ever lost at cards. I had played in a casual game in graduate school, and rarely lost, and when I did, it was the cost of a couple of cups of coffee at the local diner. And my winnings were rarely more than a few plates of hotcakes. Sixty dollars hurt. When I returned the next week—it was an amiable bunch of guys, and I sought their company as much as the play of the game—I played to watch and learn. I did.

Over time, I earned back my initial loss, and rarely lost in that group of players. When I sat down to play, I sat down with a plan, and with the hard-honed anger that allowed me to focus on the task. One player’s wife remarked that I had more testosterone than anyone else at the table. It was a back-handed compliment. She was—still is—a feminist, and masculinity, even back in the nineties, was out of favor, especially among academics.  Which we were. The game was made up of Ph.D. candidates and recently minted Doctors, along with a few locals (a movie reviewer for a local paper, a former Priest turned pharmacist, a former UPS worker, a purveyor of goods imported from South America and Southeast Asia). We played the gamut of Friday night neighborhood poker games—all sorts of strange and changing wildcards. Maybe that was why I lost the first time I played. Probably not. Later, when Texas Hold ‘Em became de rigueur, the table talk abated. Most games are quieter now. I miss the conversation—it took the edge of the testosterone. But I never forgot that first night.

We don’t learn from losses unless they hurt. A short sharp shock teaches better than a slow accumulation of pain.  Maria Konnikova includes an early chapter on loss in her book about poker, The Biggest Bluff.  She writes, “After all, losing is what brought me to the table in the first place. It makes sense that learning to lose in a game, to lose constructively and productively, would help me lose at life. Lose and come back. Lose and not see it as a personal failure… When it comes to learning, triumph is the real foe. It’s disaster that’s your teacher. It’s disaster that brings objectivity. It’s disaster that’s the antidote to that greatest of delusions: overconfidence.”

Later in the book, when she begins to recount the disaster that ended one particular tournament to her mentor, Eric Seidel, he tells her, “Stop… Look, every player is going to want to tell you about the time their aces got cracked. Don’t be that player. Bad beats are a really bad mental habit. You don’t want to ever dwell on them.” This may seem contradictory. Learn that losing is part of the game, but don’t talk about them. As long as you made good decisions, the outcome does not matter. Win or lose.

But, you say, don’t we play for an outcome? No. We play because we love the thrill of sustained focus. Making precise, intricate, and meaningful decisions allows us to shine. Define “shine” as you will. I recall Baudelaire’s poem, “Get Drunk”—“With wine, with poetry, with virtue, as you choose!” Choose where you will shine, and focus furiously. I stopped playing poker, saving my focus for what brings me back to the world. I write.

In my classroom, there are a series of posters proclaiming, “Think like a poet,” “Read like a poet,” “Write like a poet.” They were there when I arrived, and I left them up. The joy of writing (and yes, here’s where this comes back to writing), is the simplest of pleasures—making decisions, and learning as you go. You learn the process when you learn to read. (Or not.) You approach the text as a series of branches. “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…” Why the tripled “tomorrow’s”? Why the “and’s”? What comes next? (Creeps…). If you learned to read like THAT, then you have practiced how to write.

And losing? What is the bad beat in writing? Rejection? Better writers than I save rejection letters; there are even books full of them. A book of bad beats. Why? Writer’s block caused by what? A lack of simply sitting and scratching out a few words on unproductive days? Hardly. Turn on the music and write about that. Watch the news and write about that. Talk to your friends and write about them. Walk and write about what you saw. Just write.

The bad beat is the loss of faith, in the belief that your vision is enough. I don’t know what caused it for you, or how to restore your loss. Follow me, let me be the Virgil to your Dante. Imagine that—me, Virgil. You will lose—midway on life’s journey, the right road lost. But there is a way. Follow.

At War with the Virus

Say, you live in Maine, far from the coast, in the softly rolling hills in the part of the state known as “The County.” In Winter, the days are short and bitter with cold. You are not at war with the dark, and the winter wind is not your enemy. You may decide to move someplace warmer, where the sun rises earlier and warms the world even in January, but no matter where you go, The County will be cold in January.

Say, you live in Florida, and for four months each year, you pay special attention to the weather forecast in the morning. You have sheets of plywood stowed away in your garage, just in case. In Winter, the streets fill with license plates from places up North. Hurricanes and snowbirds are the limits of your life, but you aren’t ready to chuck it all and move to Tempe. You aren’t at war with hurricanes—what a futile battle that would be. They pass through, soaking the earth and knocking down trees. At least they aren’t earthquakes—unpredictable and worse than ornery.

My father planned his trips to Bermuda in late May and early June—when the weather was usually warm enough and before hurricane season roared into full flower. Only once did a tropical depression explode into hurricane force. We were still inside the reef, making our way from Hamilton to the customs house in St. George. One of the ferries veered off its routine course to check on us as we were about to depart Hamilton Harbor. My father’s stubbornness was as unrelenting as the weather. It took us a day to power around the island’s northern passage—a trip that usually took scant happy hours. I held the helm as we motored inch by inch into idiot winds. I slept well in an uneasy anchorage that night. By morning, most of the cell had crawled on, slowly dissipating in the pan of the chilly Atlantic.

A sailor, a Floridian, or a Down Easter all understand that weather comes and keeps on coming. Some cycles are reasonably predictable, but day by day, if you are planning a day sail, a picnic, or a ski trip, you better check ahead.

There’s a lesson here, and it’s full of holes. Not everything is like the weather. When we describe people as walking hurricanes or icicles, we make metaphors to explain their character. We know that their behavior did not originate as the result of cold air spinning over warm water, or that they are actually frozen. We alert ourselves to the difficulty of such people because we know that grappling with rain and wind or freezing cold is a fool’s errand.

The coronavirus is more like weather than some “invisible enemy.” We will not “contain it,” or “defeat it,” as much as adapt to it—the way that we put on a heavy coat in the Winter, or attach plywood outside our windows when the storm heads toward us. Yes, the virus can kill us, but it’s not a willful assailant. It did not attack us or declare war on us. It has no strategy learned at war college. The virus just is.

We think of the world in terms of stories. Even the way I began this—weather—is just a story based on my experiences, although I have never sealed a window behind plywood or hunkered out to check fields in the brief sun of Winter. I can imagine such things because I have seen them depicted in the news or heard these stories from people who have done them. Or because my life has brushed close enough to these places and that weather. Besides, these are common enough stories.

But war? A friend reminded me—over and over—how poorly the military was depicted in film and television. The military and war are described to conform to our sense of what they are—to fit the stories we already have. I recall Henry in The Red Badge of Courage, marching off to war with heroic accounts of the Greeks dancing in his mind. And then the battle happens.

There was a singular absence of heroic poses. The men bending and surging in their haste and rage were in every impossible attitude. The steel ramrods clanked and clanged with incessant din as the men pounded them furiously into the hot rifle barrels. The flaps of the cartridge boxes were all unfastened, and bobbed idiotically with each movement. The rifles, once loaded, were jerked to the shoulder and fired without apparent aim into the smoke or at one of the blurred and shifting forms which upon the field before the regiment had been growing larger and larger like puppets under a magician’s hand. (Crane, The Red Badge of Courage)

Of course, this is a little too poetic. Crane gets at the chaos and absence. The overall effect of his novel is the persistent shift from order to chaos and back again. He did not experience war but learned by listening to veterans as he prepared to write. We can learn new stories.

We fall back on stories that we already know. The gravity of the familiar is too powerful for most to escape. We repeat and replicate the stories from our lives with tidal regularity. We do it automatically and insensibly. And that is fine and sensible when what we already know helps guide us back to familiar places. However, when faced with the exceptional, we must learn, quickly, to adapt and revise those familiar stories into something that will suit the present moment. “Must”? Why “must”? We do well enough with the old ways.

Metaphors, which are all that stories are, helpful tools that can open and expand our understanding. In Range, David Epstein writes how Kepler used metaphors to help him discern the motion of the planets. However, metaphors come imbued with values and can ensconce our judgment with moral values that impede clear vision. In Illness of a Metaphor, Susan Sontag points how “[i]llnesses have always been used to enliven charges that a society was corrupt or unjust.”

So, if we are at war with the virus, it must be a foe with corrupt and evil origins. We demonize the virus to create a familiar story of us vs them. We go to war with the virus to stir a sense of urgency; war is the epitome of urgency. The evil enemy must be defeated. Leave out the chaos and unpredictability. The slip of genetic information becomes an “invisible enemy,” the President takes on the mantle of “War President.” Except this enemy does not stand on a field and fight, does not snipe at us from a jungle blind, does not line up or plan or have a General in charge of strategy. There is no Rommel, no Lee, no Hannibal directing the forces. No more than some angry, vengeful force directs the cold wind to gnaw off the fingers of your left hand, or tears trees up by their roots and smashes them down through your roof.

The man who attacks the wind is worse than a fool and doomed to fail. Even if the wind abates, and the serene sun returns like a balm, he did not defeat the wind, and he did not bring the sun.

Still, we feel the need to play the useful if futile part. We must do something. During the pandemic, many will do—and should do— much, as we slowly find out a way to live with this next new virus. There have been other illnesses, and there will be others. We can be sure of that. We will learn this lesson, or forget it and retreat to the familiar old story. The story was there before and will wait for us, as it always has.

Howl

Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones:
Had I your tongues and eyes, I’ld use them so
That heaven’s vault should crack. 

                                    King Lear V.III

My father and I traded knowing looks when one of our crewmates complained about the weather. Anyone who heads out onto the ocean for anything more than a day sail should understand that the weather will change and, then, change again.

My father, my brother Peter, and me

There is nothing a sailor can do to change the weather. You can alter course when conditions make the way forward nonsensically impassable. You should. Otherwise, onward.

That said, there are days on the ocean when all you want is weather of any sort, when the sea is glassy in every direction, and the horizon is a long uninterrupted line in the distance. The only wind blows in your memory, and even there, it is nothing more than a hot, lazy zephyr. If you chose to complain, your voice would rise only up to an endless and cloudless blue sky.

If you sail to find perfect weather, you waste your effort. Each day—whether bound with boredom or rapt with terror—is a test to match intention (your course) to the conditions. If you really are a sailor, the weather is always already perfect—such as it is. The same holds true for your vessel: the quality of your sails, the weight of your keel, the hull speed. Once you take the helm, you—your intentions, your ability, your fitness–are the only genuine, imperfect variable.

Complaint becomes, therefore, a reflection of the one thing that you can change: yourself.

When Lear unleashes his “Howl,” it demonstrates the dissonance between his internal state—his intellect and emotions—and the external state. He seeks to crack the vault of heaven not only to mourn Cordelia but because Cordelia died as a result of his inability to match his intentions to the world around him.  He rails against God because he cannot reconcile the failure of his plan.

So too, the sailor who complains, “The rain sucks.” Or, “I hate this rain.” No, it’s not quite a “howl,” but what that sailor really means is that she—or he—does not like rain. The rain, in and of itself, does not suck. The lack of proper heavy weather gear sucks (Be prepared, the old Boy Scout proviso). The desire for sunny weather sucks (the Buddhist approach). The pink beaches at our destination would be better (A quick visit to the deeper tangles of Epicurus). But complaint is not grief.

When I drove home after identifying my father’s body on the dock of the Tolchester Marina, I howled in the car as I drove west over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. It was a rainy Wednesday night, and a cat had wandered onto the dock while the emergency crew arranged his body between two pylons. They pulled the tarp back, and there he was, sodden and swollen from 36 hours in the water, and torn from where the hook found his body on the silty bottom of the boatyard.

As I drove over the bridge under which I ended my first glorious sail home—making 8 knots on a firm beam reach, nearly a perfect sail in that old Cape Dory—I let loose one long howl, holding it for the length of the span, tears flowing freely. While we, my brothers and mother, all anticipated his death, we still mourned his passing. He was, as we continued to toast him in his absence, “the founder of the feast.”

A younger captain

He was also, over the last decades of his life, a sailor. He had his flaws—there were times when we should not have left port, despite the sacrosanct schedule that he typed up and kept in a folder on the navigator’s desk. But who’s perfect?

We looked at each other and then turned our vision to the horizon, grey and wet in every direction, as of no matter where we sailed, the rain would find us. We were wet beneath our foul weather gear. What did it matter? We are made of water. We never said as much, but we knew. It was perfect.

In the British Virgin Islands, 1972

I was not always a sailor, even though I learned when I was 11. Sailing on the Bay bored me;  even the crystalline beauty of the British Virgin Islands failed to hold my attention until we dropped anchor and snorkeled our way through schools of brilliant fish down to fans of coral 30 feet below the surface. I did not find my way until I was in my thirties, and we were on the ocean in heavy weather. Because I am not perfect, I left those lessons on the ocean for too long. Memory is a boon and a bounty—with each remembered hurt, there is a corresponding gift.

There is a time for grief, and for some, a time for complaint. For sailors, once the course has been settled, there is only the sail and a wish for steady wind. And then, an acceptance of whatever comes. There will be howls.

Sailing Over the Horizon

I don’t know how long I have been preparing for my mother’s death. It has been for some time. The first inklings came by way of my father.

My father had suffered—“struggled” is too valiant a word; he suffered from the diminution of his physical abilities, of a stutter, and drugs that knocked him out—with Parkinson’s Disease over the last ten years of his life. He insisted on driving, even when the autonomous reflexes that make safe navigation of country roads at high speeds had abandoned him. We—his family—worried that his end (and someone else’s end) would come on the road. It did not.

Before the disease, my father sailed. He began when I was 11, and I took lessons with him. He sailed on the Chesapeake Bay, spending weekends looking for wind. When he retired from full-time work, he began to sail on the ocean.

Everyone who has sailed on the ocean has a story of a near-miss. Some idiots sailed onto a reef, and lost their two million dollar boat. Cargo containers, my father’s persistent concern, floated like metal icebergs and ripped through the fiberglass hull of a ship. There was a boat whose hull breached when it was nudged by a whale—“Once the water got into the cabin, the keel pointed it to the bottom. Like an arrow.” Any number of unforeseen accidents could turn a gentlemanly jaunt across the waves into a disaster. Even without the gales and following seas, sailing, for all its trappings, is a dare.

When I sailed with my father, I was folded into the fraternity of casual, privileged risk. It is a different bargain than that made by those who forswear safety for a higher cause. Only a fool invites disaster, tempts it, for what? A dare? An assertion of meaning and purpose? A sunny destination? All those and more. We may have been foolish, but we prepared for the worst.

He was prepared too. He confessed that his trips on the ocean might have to end. He told me that he was contemplating selling his sailboat and buying a motorboat to “gunkhole” around in the Chesapeake Bay. A signal of its own.

And then in 2002, cancer—non-Hodgkins Lymphoma—struck my mother. She was not pleased, just as she had not been pleased with my father’s illness. Disruptions were anathema to my mother. However, her illness stunned my father. Whatever else in his life was uncertain, my mother’s tenacity was inflexible. I drove from Baltimore to the Philadelphia area to take her to chemotherapy sessions, sparing him as much as comforting her. After a few months, her doctor thought she had gone into remission, but then a second wave collapsed on her. Her liver swelled to the size of a football, and her blood became the consistency of maple syrup. We girded ourselves for the worst. And then it passed.

Six months later, my father slipped on a wet dock, fell into the water, and drowned.

Because of this, for the past 18 years, death has been a sometime presence in my relationship with my mother. My mother was nearly 72 years old when her husband died. He was diseased and at risk; the reef was hidden under the waves. We knew the odds.

My mother was halfway through her 88th year when she died. Otherwise, she was not a halfway kind of person. She was a pistol—full of energy and ready to go off in an instant.  She was fiercely independent—a characteristic that could make her difficult, but which also fired her painting. She started making art in her forties. Painting was a source of independence, stability, and consistency in the second half of her life.

While others made paintings that were representational and, well, let’s be honest, commercial, she stuck to abstraction. A quick word about abstraction: while some might imagine that abstraction is easy—just smear some paint on canvas—my mother found a challenge in getting a gesture onto the surface, and then a further challenge in adding a color, a second gesture, then another color. She labored over maintaining control of her gestures and palette and took solace in the layering of decisions that created a finished work.

If you had ever seen our house and its spare, precise decor, you could have seen how she battled chaos. Add to your imagination the rambunctiousness of her three sons, and the knowledge that we were forbidden from several rooms of the house until we were older and more settled. Her artistic life stood against the (self-invited, self-created) disorder of the outside world. She did not take to sailing—to the unpredictability of wind. She would retreat to the cabin when the boat heeled on a beat. She poured a glass of scotch, finding ballast and balance where none existed.

When I visited her with my family in 2014, a copy of Derek Humphry’s Final Exit ( a handbook for assisted suicide) was on one of the side tables. She was 82 and fully in remission, but arthritis made walking painful. She was sending up a flare of dissatisfaction. She had watched her mother linger and die in a nursing home. If my mother was a pistol, her mother was a blunderbuss, sour with nostalgia for a time before her marriage—the good old days. My mother did not want the end she had witnessed there. She put the book out to warn us: I am unhappy, and will not fade out of control.

The intervening years have unfolded with a number of slaps—like a cat playing with a mouse. Small strokes and other ignominies took small but noticeable bites out of my mother. When she gave up her studio—located in a community art building about 20 miles from her home—it was a keen signal.

 The past year she has navigated toward an ending, and I have been, as I often was with my father, a helping hand on the helm. It has been a strange duty. I encouraged her to work because I knew and shared the value of daily work with her. But I also listened to her dissatisfaction. “When I go to the studio, all I do is nap,” she told me. She told me more and told others more as well. She did not withhold complaints.

Last year as my mother began to make this final journey, I had started to date a woman. I told her about where my mother was, and what she asked of me. Rightly or wrongly, this woman noted the possibility of “unhealthy” and retreated. I cannot disagree or blame. I took the helm for my mother the same way I did for my father when he—foolishly, dangerously—kept to a schedule despite the weather. If, in telling the story of my mother’s death, I have returned to my father and his end, it is because they are intertwined—bookends spaced twenty years apart.

I ended my brief graveside eulogy for my mother, “She leaves us with this legacy, and with a vision of how to thrive in the garden of challenges that faces us all. Even this challenge. We go on, making our marks, as she taught us.” While many of my posts have been about my father, my mother was also my teacher. The lessons—both fortunate and unfortunate—that I took from them shaped me and prepared me. For what? For his death? Hers? My father once asked me if I could bring the boat home without him. He was prepared for disaster. I answered, as I must, as was true, “Yes.” These are the sailing lessons.

The Promise of London: A Writer’s Promise

A year ago I was in London. My first night there, it was cold and rainy—the worst weather of my short trip. In spite of that, there was a walk to take—a walking tour of locations connected to Dickens and A Christmas Carol. Only a handful (6? 8 at the most) came out for that walk. At some point in the night, I was recruited to help read from The Pickwick Papers. The walk ended at The George with mulled wine, and guests out of doors in the cold singing.

The memory is happy and sad. I had traveled to London with a woman whom I deeply loved. I had traveled with some amount of trepidation; I knew she had other stars in her eyes, or, at the very least, that she doubted that I was star enough for her eyes. However, London was a promise I had made to myself long ago, and I was fulfilling that promise, or, again, at the very least, making the first steps toward that promise. The trip was a dream and reminded me of why I made that promise years ago.

One part of the promise involved travel. When I was a graduate student, I had been accepted to travel to London to help with a program at my school. I did not go. I had met a woman and thought we were going to be married, so I reneged on my duties and planned a wedding and a life. The marriage did not happen. I stayed in Binghamton for the spring instead of traveling. I promised myself that I would go, and go beyond.

The other part of the promise was to write.

I had gone to Binghamton to be a writer. I began grad school at 28 with only a thin idea of what I wanted to write. To be honest, my idea of myself as a writer was entirely romantic—in that way Shelley’s idea of the poet from In Defense of Poetry is romantic. Such an idea, without a steadily glowing ember of practice, is not sustainable. My writing, though full of hopeful ideas, had not taken proper root. I was a dilettante—determined, but without that obsessive drive that propels most writers. While I was in grad school, I delved into the academic side of my studies—the ideas were thrilling, and it was easier to make headway there.

My first writing workshop focused on short fiction. Although I had written a couple of short stories and read some, especially when I was younger and gobbled up anthologies of supernatural stories, I came to writing because of novels, especially the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mark Helprin. I wanted big strange things to happen in my work, and for my work to reflect a world in which the impossible was ever-present—if stalwartly and stupidly ignored. I wanted to shine a light on that world. Did I know that then? I do not think that I could have made a clear statement of exactly what I wanted, besides to “be a writer.” That is hardly enough.

I struggled with short work. I wish I could say that I had ten dozen ideas waiting to spring Athena-like from my forehead. I did not. After two years, I somehow cobbled together enough work for a Master’s Thesis, but the work relied too much on retelling stories from my life. I invented nothing. It wasn’t until my third year that I began to find my footing, and then only in the shortest of pieces, prose poems.

While academic writing can flourish jumping from George Chapman to Virginia Woolf to Charles Dickens, from Michel Foucault to Alice Jardine to Judith Butler, creative writing needs a steady—almost boring—focus. You have to sit at the grindstone. You have to want to sit at the grindstone, putting the millstone around your neck the way someone else might blithely doff a silk cravat, tied while running toward a morning meeting, or an afternoon assignation. It’s a damned heavy tie. And there must be something magical and transformative. The words must have the power to change the world.

And here’s the thing—as I have written in some of these posts, obsessive drive was antithetical to my idea of how I wanted to live. I had seen too much obsessive drive and distrusted it. Where some saw vision, I saw blindness. I felt it in myself, especially when I was “in love.” I distrusted the way I experienced romantic love and doubted whether I would be able to love anyone. At 28. I may not have had a clear idea about my writing, but I did have a clear—if wrong-headed—idea about my heart. I had much to learn. Now, I feel called to write every day, and if I do not, I feel the bite of old dogs. If days go by, the dogs grow younger and hungry.

And, I had given up on magic. Are the two things, love and writing, all that separate? Sadly, or happily, for me, they are not.

What happened? Well, this, for one. In January of 2018, I started reflecting on lost bits of my life. I had something to reclaim. It started with reflections on love and what I learned from a selection of movies—some obscure, some well known. Then I started musing on happiness and moving and beginnings and, of course, writing. I had something to reclaim. I explained to a friend that my newfound sense of urgency was the result of losses around me and my own gnawing loss of self. I felt my life slipping away.

What am I to myself

that must be remembered,

insisted upon

so often?

Robert Creeley

One of the early writing lessons was that one had to fight against insistence on anything other than the artistic integrity of the work. Art was all that mattered. Everything else was selfish preoccupation. There is a nascent Buddhism in this practice. Writers must not crave; they must simply let the perfect “be” and then get the hell out of the way. Great writing was, at some level, an act of self-erasure—the presence of absence. Especially when I was a young romantic writer-to-be, this appealed to my innate perfectionism and idealism. In a world full of corrupted motivation and suspect morality, attempting to make something beautiful was honorable. This is part of the elusive call of writing, and of all art. Everyone else must live reined in by the art of the possible: politics and compromise. Writers and artists strive for the unobtainable. Even when we engage the flaws in our work, as often as not we are performing some subtle—or not so subtle—sleight of hand. We are like the carpet weaver adding the imperfection because the perfect is reserved for God alone. Or for Shakespeare.

Which brings me back to London, a city in which Shakespeare’s famous theatre was rebuilt through the efforts of an American actor. When I went to London, I was a month and a half into a novel, and I knew that it would be a novel. I had imagined other work as long as novels before, but this was different. I had never felt drawn into the writing as I had with my book about the djinn. I knew it was going somewhere, and I did not know how it would get there. I was not simply writing about characters who were magical and from the world of enchantment; I was enchanted by the work. I researched djinn as I wrote, and would go back and revise whole sections to suit what I learned while I wrote. I let myself be out of control and let the book go out of my control.

The closest comparisons I can make to this were the feelings I had when I was at the crest of a wave—either on my father’s boat on the Atlantic Ocean or when I was body-surfing off the coast of California. In both cases, I was out of control and exhilarated. I felt the same way in London—that the waves of history, of literature, of streets, of unknown alleyways, and yes, of love could all come crashing down. They could, and some did, and I had to go ahead and throw myself into the waves anyway.

I wonder how this last novel came about so easily, but, really, it did not come easily. It began ages ago and I did not know it. I made a promise. As I gear up for the next, I am surprised that I am finding enchantment. Again. I am also pleasantly surprised that I know, a little, how to uncover enchantment when I need it. I have not needed to travel back to London. And yet, on this day—and if I am honest, every day—I feel the call. I have promises to keep. And miles to go…

Reclaiming Enchantment

SAAM-1929.6.127_1It happens to us once or twice in a lifetime to be drunk with some book which probably has some extraordinary relative power to intoxicate us and none other; and having exhausted that cup of enchantment we go groping in libraries all our years afterwards in the hope of being in Paradise again.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Why did I think I would have to live without enchantment?

Maybe, because enchantment—sheer magic—seemed all but impossible. Or if not impossible, somehow immature. Children believe in magic, not rational, brilliant adults, and I am both reasonably rational and brilliant within reason. Still, I fell in love with reading by pulling every book from the shelf about myths from all over the world. Later, I would come to appreciate the ache of Hardy and James. I discovered that after reading James, I could write like him, plumbing the mind with prolix sentences. But I wasn’t enchanted, either by the reading or by what I was writing. These sentences were not mine, even if the ideas came from my heart. I found truth, and truth would have to do in a world that had banished magic.

And then…

“Many years later as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

I had written some before I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Year of Solitude. There was a story about a disaster in a mine that I cribbed from Conrad—or it felt cribbed—it had the same sense of urgency and dread that Jim felt before the explosion in the ship. But it wasn’t until every impossible thing happened in One Hundred Year of Solitude, combined with the steady implacable voice of that novel, that a work of literature echoed the voice in my head.

While growing up, I had read some fantasy and horror—Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea Trilogy delighted my adolescent heart, and Stephen King was good for an easy shock—but for the most part that kind of writing calls too much attention to itself. The tone does not so much enchant as cudgel. And yes, I understand, some people like to be cudgeled. Marquez’s tone created a silkier enchantment—so much so that some of the sentences forgot that they had ended. It was all spell, but a spell told at the dinner table.

Art is enchantment and artists have the right of spells.  Jeanette Winterson

During the in-between years, I also read Mark Helprin’s novel, Winter’s Tale, which begins: “There was a white horse, on a quiet winter morning when snow covered the streets gently and was not deep, and the sky was swept with vibrant stars, except in the east, where dawn was beginning in a light blue flood.” The novel careens into twists and turns of incredulity—what the hell is that ship?—however, the horse that began the novel enchanted me as it ran over the streets of New York City, and became, years later, my horse, although of a different shade.

A friend gave me a copy of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, which blends science with whimsy. Two stories, “The Distance of the Moon” and “Dinosaurs,” are touchstones of longing—a sure sign of enchantment. Calvino’s Invisible Cities remains unteachable for me because I cannot help but fall into its spell each time I read it.

If I am not enchanted, what is the point?

I tried to write impossible stories when I began writing, and instead, returned over and over to stories from my life. The examples of writers who had preceded me on that path were innumerable—and many of those writers are among my favorites: Joyce, Woolf, Dickens. Even Marquez, it turns out, was mining his past—a magical realist past, but a past that existed nonetheless. Reading his memoir, Living to Tell the Tale was surprising. Perhaps impossible things can really happen.

Magic is hard to write. Too often magic feels like a trick, some cheap deus ex machina to shorten the distance between here and there. I tried. I had struggled with a story about a father who became the Cat in the Cat in the Hat (a great absent father story), and that became another story, of all things, about a man driven by love to masquerade as a Russian carpenter.

I wrote prose poems about my city of origin, Philadelphia. Philadelphia, as much as any city, rises from contradiction after contradiction. I had lived in West Philly when the MOVE fire took place. I had worked in an Italian restaurant with dubious connections. I had done other things. Philadelphia seemed impossible enough. I wrote stories and poems in which the sun failed to rise or a girl shot the moon out of the sky or angels gathered after the end of the world or a man gave away parts of himself as he walked through the city one morning. One of my mentors chased me away, asserting that I was singing in one key. I was still young enough, and tender enough (my great flaw) to step back.

After all, it was simpler to write about disenchantment. It felt more realistic, more, what? truthful. Disenchantment and disillusionment are the foundations of so much literary work. Even One Hundred Year of Solitude ends on a thudding note of despair.

 Like all dreamers, I mistook disenchantment for truth.  Jean-Paul Sartre

I took many steps back. I grounded myself, got a series of real jobs, and lost my sense of magic. No, of course, I did not lose it. I put it away. I attempted to replace it with something like a reasonable substitute—an honorable and valiant substitute. A wiser soul would insist that there is no substitute, no more valiant way forward. They would not have been fooled by my efforts at sublimation. I tried to fool myself, and threw myself into work and life, and lost sight of myself.

How did that work out?

There are times when we can feel destiny close around us like a fist around a doorknob. Sure, we can resist. But a knob that won’t turn, a door that sticks and never budges, is a nuisance to the gods. The gods may kick in the jamb. Worse, they may walk away in disgust, leaving us to hang dumbly from our tight hinges, deprived of any other chance in life to swing open into unnecessary risk and thus into enchantment.

 Tom Robbins

This time last year I was a mere 30 pages into a new work. It did not have a shape, and I did not know how it would end. I hoped that it would end with a love that persisted over thousands of years, but what did I know? There were some 270 pages ahead. All I did know was that I had allowed myself to become entirely enchanted by what I was writing. Was it good?  Was it bad? What did I know? I kept writing.

I began writing and trusting in enchantment—rough magic to be sure—because I changed my life to reclaim enchantment. I set aside a life I had lived. I left two jobs—and a career of sorts—that had made the distance between my heart and hands more pronounced and distinct. And I began calling enchantment back into my life.

There must be people, writers, whose lives and work can take separate but equal tracks. I cannot. One part of me still feels that is a failure. As a mature adult, I should be able to compartmentalize the various parts of my life and live with the contradictions between what I dreamed of in my fiction and what I did at work and how I lived as a father and husband.

One of the great attractions of writing is that one is in complete charge of what one does. And what one does is, in the end, something like the most profound and energetic kind of play possible. The only rule of this game is: play more. Play more precisely. Play more wildly. Play more passionately. Play more broadly, quickly, intensely, blithely. Play into and out of contradictions. Play. More.

Try and lead the rest of life with that dictum in mind. Especially when one is a principal of an Orthodox Jewish boys school, or the director of religious education for a Unitarian Universalist congregation. Or as a husband. Or as a father. It all worked fine while I played in graduate school and wrote essays about William Blake or Virginia Woolf or Charles Dickens or George Chapman. Or dropped everything and sailed for a month. Or ran through streets at midnight. Or. Or. Or. The ability to take play in many different places became a strength. It even was a strength while I tried to write fiction and explore where my craft would take me—and the field seemed open and endless. It was also a field without guarantee, which can be daunting, even to a 34-year-old newly minted Ph.D. I had to learn to make peace with unnecessary risk and enchantment. It took a while.

I am in the middle of it: chaos and poetry; poetry and love and again, complete chaos. Pain, disorder, occasional clarity; and at the bottom of it all: only love; poetry. Sheer enchantment, fear, humiliation. It all comes with love.

Anna Akhmatova

Allowing myself to be enchanted again meant allowing myself, for the first time in a long time, to fall inescapably in love. I do not know if other writers struggle with this. If they are like the rest of humanity, they all come to their work from different places and with different impediments. I came freighted with years away from writing, years of attempting to lead a life that was a little more guaranteed—a life that would make sense to others. I let much of that go and, without ballast, took flight. For me, that meant opening myself up to love. I realize that you, dear reader and (possibly) fellow writer may have been able to balance life—your craft—and love more successfully. In order for me to fall back into writing’s long dark spell, I had to give in to the complete chaos of love. All of it. I had to be vulnerable to unnecessary risks. I had to risk everything—it was the only way that I could reconnect with the bright source of possibility that inspires my work.

Enchantment had to be unreasonable and total. I could not corral it into one part of my life. Or I could, and did. And I could not, not this time, not with everything waiting ahead of me in the gloaming.

I once argued with a friend that the whole point of writing (I was talking about critical essays at the time) was to praise. I know that many writers would strenuously disagree. They leverage opposition to create—resorting to a kind of perpetual Hegelian dialectic. My best work simply praised. Why note failure, when some more glorious success awaits? It is so much easier to look back in anger—or disgust or disdain. Looking forward means looking into something that does not yet exist. When I praised writers in my essays, I praised them for their forward-looking vision.  I praised the chances they took. I have been singing to the risk-takers for a long time.

How did it take me so long to hear my own old song?

At the outset, it is only liking, not understanding, that matters. Gaps in understanding … are not only important, they are perhaps even welcome, like clearings in the woods, the better to allow the heart’s rays to stream out without obstacle. The unlit shadows should remain obscure, which is the very condition of enchantment.

Andre Breton

I am in the shadowlands. Looking back will not get me where I am going. Asking the questions only serves to remind me that although I lost my way, I also found my way. There are some parts of this journey that are beyond my comprehension. Part of me hates that. I am a bright man and should be able to make sense of what happened and what changed. I have written these short posts as a way of reminding myself—and with any luck you—that the way ahead is not limited to the past. We can—and do—move in and out of understanding. But we move guided by our deeper inclination—what Breton calls “liking.” Let me suggest “loving,” which seems more committed, and therefore, riskier. I learn to live with the obscurity, even to court it, at my own peril, and for my own reward.

Writing must take us toward some inexplicable place. We read to be surprised and delighted by what we did not know when we began. Affirmation is fine. Discovery is essential. And when we write, we seek that same experience again—something like paradise. And again. And again. And this is how to live.

 

Writing is a fountain of youth

I was asked, “Do you feel old?” It was a question and an accusation.

I have reasons to be aware of my age. Over ten years ago, I had knee surgery as a result of years of overuse in swimming. My right shoulder has a tender rotator cuff; like my knees, my shoulder woes began when I was 17 and had a hitch in my freestyle stroke that put stress on the joint. Injuries never exactly go away as I am painfully reminded each time I lift weights with my hands out of a neutral position.

When I trim my beard, the hair falls from the electric razor like snow. The tide of my hairline has ebbed far enough to reveal another furrow on my brow. There are feathery lines that betray my transit. I do not always recognize the face that stares back at me, but I never truly recognized it. I have been surprising myself since before I can remember. Is that me? It is. It still is.

I know more than I did when I was 20, 30, or even 55. The accumulation of knowledge never stops. Each new day brings new articles of knowledge. I learn new ways of seeing the world or thinking about what I do. I gravitate toward books and lessons that show me something I did not know before I began. I am a specialist in my own ignorance. Every few years I feel a desire to overturn my life—uncomfortable in anything that feels like mastery, or rather, what might be mistaken for mastery. Yes, there is a value in going deep into a subject—in tunneling to the heart of a matter. But, to extend the metaphor, does the heart matter if one does not connect it to the bones and nerves and skin? What does the heart matter if it does not move out into the world and connect not just to the other 8 billion human hearts, but to everything living heart, and every other thing that does not have a heart? The more I learn, the more the connections pull at me.

I write—the single consistent strand of the past thirty-five years—because writing is not bound to any single subject. I write about movies, families, love, death, writing, baseball, anatomy, and art. I write about poems I love, and people who anger me to the point of distraction. I write about them to quell the dull ache of calcification and the even duller sense of disappointment with a world that replaces genuine surprise with momentary thrills. I write fiction and poetry to reach into the world and to describe a world that is thrilling—momentarily and for so much longer—but also deeply mysterious.

Writing is a time machine. It returns me to the giddy, carefree, and fearless time of youth. When I was ten, a flood brought the creek water a dozen feet higher than usual. The water rose above the bridge on the road below our house—a house on a hill. I went to the bridge and marveled at the swift brown water that reached the rails that spanned each side of the bridge. I waded into the water and held onto the rails. My feet lifted from the road and trailed behind me as I went hand over hand across the bridge. And once I crossed, I came back the same way.

Later in life, I did similar things, but the feeling then—water rushing past me, my feet straight out behind me, the weight of my body held by my extended arms—only fully returns when I write. And writing lets me shake off the years, not just mine, but all the years. I travel to any time I wish, unstuck from this moment, unlocked from expectation. In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald writes about romping in the mind of God. Writing is like that. It can be. It must be.

Do I feel old? Positively. I am ancient because my writing carries me to that world—to every world. And I am young, still. Always.

Dumping Heroes: Gatsby, Manhattan, and coming to terms with it all

After watching Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby, and his introduction of Gatsby to Rhapsody in Blue, and reading Fitzgerald’s description of New York as Nick and Gatsby cross into the city:

Over the great bridge, with the sunlight through the girders making a constant flicker upon the moving cars, with the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money. The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world…

 “Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge,” I thought; “anything at all. . . . ”

Even Gatsby could happen, without any particular wonder.

I cannot help but recall Woody Allen’s opening of Manhattan. Manhattan elates and saddens me.

I first saw Manhattan in 1979, when I was 19 and thought myself precocious. I was a sophomore at Swarthmore College, a school full of young people who rebelled in their precociousness. Tracy’s relationship with Isaac simply echoed my sense of myself. Who among my friends would have put a limit on the seventeen-year-old Tracy? We were only steps away from that age; we were not intimidated by 42-year olds. What did we know about power dynamics or anything more than our own blossoming worth in the world? Blossoming? Fuck that—we were valuable and powerful as we were.

If anything, we looked at the adults: Isaac, Yale, and Mary, as failures. They were warnings against what adulthood held for us. How many of those warnings were broadcast directly to us—adults, even bright, hyper-intellectual, and connected adults, failed miserably at the single focus of life: true and abiding love. (Is that the focus of life? Should it be?) They were even willing to ensnare us in their tangled ruin. And yet we were becoming those adults.

I still hear Rhapsody in Blue as flirtatious, triumphant and orgasmic—just as Allen used it to begin his movie. It starts with the clarinet ensorcelling the listener, almost drunk, almost like the opening of “West End Blues.” Then it is answered by the horns—overwhelming in their insistence, and unable to be subdued even by the speedy-fingered piano that interrupts the answer. There will be horns. There will be crescendo and climax. Yes, there is more. It is hard not to feel movement through that city when hearing this music, but that city is full of sexual vibrancy, and sexual competency. We do it, and we do it right.

The sadness with Manhattan comes, of course, with the knowledge of what happened to Allen-—that youth and vigor swept him away. That romanticization won out over, what? Adulthood? And couldn’t we see in Manhattan all the signs of that? Where was there a space to be an adult in his work? Who knows what Tracy was going to come back to the city as—still full of possibility? or wrought into something, somehow less?

And here’s the thing—we are all going to be wrought by life, by struggle, by disappointment. It’s what we do after the first act that determines who we will be. Or the second act. Or the third.

Life contains an element of the bipolar—there will be elation and sadness. I embrace both. I struggle with both—or I try to. I tell myself to get ready for the fourth act; Agincourt, after all, takes place in Act IV. Still, the bitterness of disappointment is hard to set aside. And there have been so many disappointments, so many sadnesses, so many disenchantments. Heroes fall. I fail. What was once sweet on the tongue no longer pleases. My knees hurt. “I ache in the places where I used to play,” sings Cohen, and he sings in spite of his indelible croak. “Born with the gift of a golden voice,” indeed.

Manhattan elates and saddens me because it lays bare all the trouble to come and makes a statement about the seductive power of the city—a power I felt every time I visited it, every time I visit any great city. Life—like the city, the film about the city, and the novel by Fitzgerald—is rich and dense and confusing—and infuriating. I wish it was not so, and yet, it must be.

500 pages

I graduated from SUNY-Binghamton with a Ph.D. in English Literature/Creative Writing in 1994. Before I went to graduate school, I did not know what I wanted to be. I had written a little earlier in life, and had taken a fiction workshop while I was an undergraduate, but my sense of myself as a writer was hazy at best. Still, I had done some work and I applied to writing programs in the spring of 1988. I was accepted at Binghamton.

While I was in graduate school, I wrote stories, a novel that I shelved, some poetry, and essays. I also wrote a slew of academic papers. Mostly, I read furiously and widely, delving into a world of literature and philosophy that had not existed for me before I began this turn in my life. I still have many of the books that I read in those six years and they are either a bulwark or an anchor. Now, they seem more like part of a wall that divided my life into the time when I did not write, the time I discovered writing, and the time I stopped writing.

That time ended in 2018 when I considered moving away from family and the jobs I held in Norfolk. I had been separated and divorced for four years. Calamity at one of my jobs resonated in my life. I was at sea. I needed to find a ground that was not defined by the needs and desires of other people. I needed, frankly, to be selfish and directed. I do not believe that it is a surprise (to me at least) that my colleagues sent me packing with the book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck when I left in August of 2018. Message received.

Because I did give a fuck — too many fucks — not just in my professional work and personal life, but in my writing. Unlike some of my one time classmates, I felt called to writing not so much because I had a need to express myself, but almost in spite of any need to exclaim, “Here I am!” I was obsessed with getting at some ineffable and intractable truth that existed outside my narrow sense of self. I wrote with an evangelical zeal. Can I say that art motivated by such a keening has little easy air to breathe? It does not. My stories, even when they were fantastic, needed to tread more often on the ground.

When I started writing this blog in 2014, I was in China to adopt my daughter. I started to write about simple human truths that were grounded in my simple human experiences. I hoped that my observations would have some resonance with others, but I wrote without too much of a concern for an audience. The work proceeded in fits and starts after that initial push. And then it flared into this—a daily practice of reflection and direction. That fire lit the flame of the novel I finished in August and has carried me into a second.

My writing projects since May of 2018 have produced over 500 pages of words. Some are good. Some are better. My nonfiction has been largely about my writing and writing in general. My fiction has just been a story about a Djinn, almost a retelling of an older—much older—story, with some of my preoccupations thrown in for good measure.

Writing (fiction and nonfiction) has felt revivifying. I have enjoyed the deeper reflection and playful invention. The writing has come more easily and far more consistently than anything else and at any time I have ever written. Ever. I have looked forward to the task and have left it—whether I write for an hour or the better part of a day—feeling replenished. More will—and does—come.

When I shared this insight—500 pages! More is coming!—with a friend, I did so with the proviso: “in spite of the past year.” She corrected me: “Because of it.” Perhaps so. Perhaps I spent the past year and a half knocking myself off my moorings just so that I could get this work done, just so that I could reclaim all that I had feared was lost.

I told another friend that I felt a kind of urgency to write. She worried that I was ill or distressed. Yes, I have been distressed. Old wounds have haunted me and focused my attention. I have allowed them the space to heal. And have used the writing to help me heal.

While the writing has helped me gird myself against that distress, it has also allowed me to wrap myself in joy. I feel that joy more profoundly now than when I was starting out some thirty years ago. The old uncertainties have fallen away. I do not ask, “Is it good enough? Will there be another? Do I have the right?” Instead, I take solace in a more durable method that suits my heart and mind. I go this way.

Why the Djinn?

A friend asked where I got the idea for the Djinn. Here is the long story.

I wrote poems when I was in ninth and tenth grade. They were lengthy works with regular rhythm and rhyme. They told stories. When I asked my school to allow me to do an independent study in poetry writing, I was turned down, but one of my teachers suggested working with him to write sonnets and other formal verse. Stung by early rejection, I refused his offer.

I started writing fiction in college, and was accepted into a workshop in my senior year. After graduation, I started writing an espionage novel that had something to do with Monet’s Haystack paintings in the Hermitage, in St, Petersburg. I started work on a story about a baseball player. I started something about two friends who decided to go to college and pretended that they were ten years younger than they were.

I had a sense of the novel, and novel length stories, but at this point in my life, I had only read a few hundred novels—and many fewer short stories. Even though I started writing with poetry—blame A.A. Milne and Dr. Seuss for the sounds in my head—I had been enchanted by folk tales, fairy tales, and mythology at an early age. I took out book after book of myths (Greek, American—Native American and regional folk tales, Indian, Chinese—I was only limited by the selection on the shelves) from my the local and then elementary school library. My other interests in the library were the Rod Serling or Alfred Hitchcock anthologies of horror stories, atlases and encyclopedias.

I did not start reading adult novels until I was in 7th grade and a friend lent me his copy of The Guns of Navarone, after which I read everything that Alastair MacLean wrote. I made a mad dash through Kurt Vonnegut in 8th grade. I read all of Ursula K. LeGuin’s books before 9th grade. All this is a fairly slim bit of literature. My parents were not big readers—we had collections of Reader’s Digest Condensed Novels on our few bookshelves. My mother did read to us, sharing Beowulf and Poe stories. But we were not a bookish family. My brothers and I found what we looked for with relatively little guidance.

I was an able enough reader in high school, but short of Billy Budd, little of what I read stuck with me. On my own, I read all of Neil Simon’s plays, and other plays, and took up with science fiction and fantasy (Asimov, Tolkien, and a little known writer named Zenna Henderson). I read and reread Robin Graham’s account of his trip around the world, Dove. Mostly, I spent long hours listening to progressive rock, watching old movies, swimming, and driving the family car as far and as fast as I could.

In college, I discovered William Blake, James Joyce, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, and Gustave Flaubert. It was also when I read all of John Le Carre’s spy novels, The Joy of Sex, and the only Daniell Steel novel that ever passed my way—The Promise. The main focus of English Literature courses was exposure to more—and I share the story of having a short novel assigned between a Tuesday and Thursday class with my students now. I read widely and gleaned what I could as quickly as I could. In my junior year, I switched focus to Art History (same deal: memorize as many works of art—in order and with an understanding of importance—as fast as possible), which, fortunately included a Cinema class that greatly expanded my limited knowledge of film.

So, what does any of this have to do with Djinn? I suspect that strains of all this—and of all the events of my life to date—appear in this work. Mainly, there is the myth, the early fascination with and appreciation of the fantastic as a genre, and the long interest in things that were away from here.

I encountered the djinn—as genies—in Sinbad and the Tales of the 1001 Nights. This book re-entered my life while I was in graduate school, in large part because of John Barth’s insistence on non-western sources of and for stories. But also because, once I encountered the djinn (or jinn), I was impressed by their wiliness and cruelty. I wondered—right or wrong—whether they had been mis-portrayed by the writer of the 1001 Nights. Why would such power need to be cruel? To refer back to Blake—“…what shoulder & what art,/ Could twist the sinews of thy heart?” I wondered. But I did not pursue the djinn, not yet.

I wrote in other ways. Although I have a set of prose poems set in Philadelphia that delve into the fantastic, I followed the realist tropes of my time. Perhaps this is what kept me from finishing—I was writing away from the story in my heart. Last year, when I dropped everything to take on new responsibilities—to myself and my work—I set aside the piece I had feverishly labored over for over ten years. During that ten years, I had written down a brief thought about a character who was keeping a secret (secrets will be something I grapple with forever). Five years ago, I was waiting for friends in a Mexican restaurant, and dashed out to buy a composition book, wrote a couple of pages before they arrived , and promptly forgot the book at the restaurant.

That story became the story of the Djinn.

I was dating a woman who shared my appreciation for the 1001 Nights—you have a copy too?—and that was enough of a spark to light the fire in this book, because the kindling, and the logs, had been waiting all these many years. Suddenly, I had a character whose secret was so closely held that he did not even know he was keeping it. He had forgotten that he was a Djinn.

There are other connections to other parts of my life and my studies that fueled this fire. Some of those will remain secret. Others are perhaps too obvious for me to mention here. For those of you who wonder how novels—or anything—gets written—by others or by your own hand—the short answer is that we tell the stories that enchant us. The shorter answer is that we sit down and write every day. No matter what. Perhaps because we are enchanted and under some infernal command—I wish that you write a novel, Djinn. So be it.