Positives: So much effort was made to get the visuals right, and they are crisp and awe-inspiring. However, I wondered more about the volume of computing power that made such a spectacle possible than I did about the story. Unlike the first film, in which Jake’s amazement stood in for the audience—we watched him watching this world (the scene in which he tapped all the plants—How cool!—until a vicious creature was revealed—Scary, but still cool!). There is no similar character with whom I bonded, no one whose awe provided a point of entry for mine. So yes, the movie was a visual feast, but it remained at a distance.
The addition of children and watching them as they learned how to be an adult, or warrior, or mystic (or human being because even though Cameron populates the story with Na’vi, his project is deeply humanist) provided a welcome entry point for me. It added a coming of age angle that felt more natural than Jake Sully’s man-child evolution in the first film. Perhaps Cameron believes that all men are essentially immature—it’s a common enough trope, so not a surprise, but really? Round characters, please.
Not so positives: Avatar: The Way of Water is not a complete story. It is packed with loose ends of theme and plot that do not resolve at the film’s end. A three hour movie that ends with a battle that clearly is only the opening event in a war, with an father-son conflict stretched across species and moral codes, and with such gross power imbalances between the Na’vi and humans (seriously, you watched the return of the Sky People to Pandora and didn’t think, “Well, that’s horrible, but unbeatable”?) stretches this viewer’s patience. Wrap something up, for goodness’ sake.
Who’s your daddy/mommy? Grace’s avatar was pregnant when Grace died? And so she was an immaculately conceived girl? What? And Quaritch (the bad guy) had a son? And Grace’s daughter and Quaritch’s son are in love? Is this fan fiction? Are we supposed to tune in next week—or sometime in the next three or four years to discover the answer? This is a corollary to the Chekov’s gun axiom: if you put a gun on the mantel in Act One, it better go off by Act Three; big questions asked in Act One better be answered by Act Three. Cameron may expect the audience to wait a decade, but please do something with all those loose threads.
An assortment of complaints: 1) When did Neytiri become shrill? Did motherhood change her from Jake’s patient and wise tutor to a hissing ball of rage? Or is this just a lazy “tiger mom” cliche? Maybe since Kiri seems a more complex female character, the writers did not feel compelled to make Neytiri more than a plot device (she might drown!). 2) Does Kiri have epilepsy, or a profound (and important) connection to Eywa, the pantheistic force that unites all life on Pandora? Will circumstance force her to risk her life for the greater good? Then sharpen that possibility. 3) Did we really need a Quaritch avatar/clone? While the juxtaposition of Sully and Quaritch as fathers has potential, the deus ex machina was a little too handy. I suppose if the Avengers can invent time travel to save Endgame, a memory download is not too far afield. Nonetheless, no thank you.
There’s more, and I have already spent more time on this than I originally thought I would. After over three hours in a movie theater, nearly as long as Lawrence of Arabia, at minimum I expect something more than boggling my mind about how many terabytes of computing power went into the special effects. Three hours requires story, and Avatar: The Way of Water seemed incomplete in too many ways to satisfy. Ooh ah! And not meh. Feh.
No writer sits down without some darling in mind, whether that darling is a reasonable payday, fame, or a glimpse behind truth’s brocaded curtain. Sometimes the writer doesn’t know at the beginning of their current project what the darling is. They just feel compelled to reenter the swamp—hip deep with words and ideas—and trust that something worth their love and attention arises from the murk.
Then it does.
Whether you rescue your darling from a crocodile’s gnarled teeth or the soul-sucking mud of despair, the writer wades in and declares, “This darling is mine!” Then you fight to the death. Everything else you have written—all those flat sentences and chapters that advanced something like the plot—must go.
Keep your eyes fixed on your darling; that’s why you write, not to serve some “should”—even if it is a self-inflicted “ought.” Save that old draft (it may surprise you later), but carry on in the service of love. Be a hero. Save your darlings.
I pulled the paddle into my lap and raised my gaze from the bow of the canoe to the sky. Insects thrummed from both banks of the river. Over my head, the telltale wings of raptors drifted. The smaller sets of wings belonged to hawks, the larger to the few eagles that patrolled the river. One began to circle—head down, eyes scanning the water, wings in a sturdy glide—one loop then another, as it made its way upriver, as slowly as my canoe drifted downriver. “Does it see me?” I wondered. “Does it care?”
I hadn’t looked up much. I paddled alone; that’s not true. I paddled in a group of sixteen students and five adults. A momentary miscalculation and late invitation made our group oddly numbered, which does not suit traveling in canoes. Yes, of course, one canoe could have set off with three. Still, three in a canoe with a river running low after a summer of less rain (I opened an umbrella once or twice and almost always—and only—during summer afternoon downpours) leads to too much scraping through what would have been more boisterous water. As our party assembled, I suggested that I would paddle solo. There was one slightly smaller canoe. Advice was offered. Off we went.
A very long time ago—almost fifty years now—I was required to solo to pass a course. I remember being in some quiet part of Pickering Creek and rocking the canoe from side to side to watch the ripples cascade against the shore. The instructor chastised me and threatened to withhold certification. What fourteen-year-old boy does not revel in the movement of water, whether caused by throwing rocks as heavy as he could muster from whatever height was possible or watching a leaf float down a dreary current in August? YMCA instructors advocate safety and not exuberance. I passed.
So as I took my seat—the molded plastic bow seat now used as a midstern soloists bench—I began simple “J” strokes, gauging how much my pull would shift the canoe on either side. One of the joys of canoeing with a partner is that you can take full strokes. While it’s not like lifting weights, catching the water and pulling the canoe forward with the strength of one’s arms, shoulders, back, and hips is gratifying. Exertion that has an immediate result is a pleasure. With a partner in the canoe, finding a rhythm and effort that matches and propels the boat forward in a resolutely straight line is like singing in an improvised harmony. Get it right, and it’s beautiful and swift.
I realized quickly that I was slower than the other canoes in the flotilla; I paddled with half the horsepower of the other boats. If the day before my partner and I had led us at a crisp, easy pace, today I would be challenged to keep up with eighteen-year-olds who were quick to fire. If the young like ripples, speed—whether running, swimming, paddling, or (prepare for this) driving—is an intoxication. Fortunately, after the first flurry, effort abates. I played the part of the tortoise and kept at it.
However, when soloing, each stroke contains a moment of counterpoise. Paddle too strongly, and the canoe will veer hard to the right or left, depending on which side of the boat you paddle. Fast in the wrong direction will not do. And so each stroke ends with a curl—the bottom of the “J”—that corrects direction but slows the boat. You are constantly foiling your effort to proceed forward. Think of it as “Yippee! Damn! Yippee! Damn!” I learned quickly that my right-armed strokes were too strong; they needed more “J” and, therefore, more slowing than my left-armed strokes. I am, after all, right-handed—naturally unbalanced.
The whole reason we were on the river was to forge bonds going into senior year. My school gathers the seniors for an overnight trip during which they hike and canoe together. Paddling alone ran counter to the purpose of our journey. Yet, there I was as they pushed ahead. I caught them when they rested, proceeded onward while they snacked, and then greeted them again as they passed me. Again. And again.
I scanned the water ahead and planned and planned and planned, reading and, almost as often, misreading the lay of the river. Paddling alone, I stayed focused on the water because the water was low, and I needed to find a way forward. Too often, I lacked the speed to catch the right course through the rocks that rested just below the surface and scraped to a halt, losing all the advantage of the river’s brief flurry of forward momentum.
However, keeping my eyes at river level meant that I witnessed turtles sunning themselves on rocks, a family of brown feathered ducks tucked in against the river bank, and once, when I was well ahead, a doe and fawn swimming across the river. At first, it looked like one small brown lump—I thought some small river mammal. I had never seen a deer in the water; the closest thing was a painting by Winslow Homer, The Hound and the Hunter. The deer I saw transforming from a brown lump to a full-bodied animal had no horns. She slowly emerged, an entire brown body of deer, picking its way across the rocks and onto the ledge at the river’s edge. Then the second body, still adorned with a fawn’s spotted coat, followed its mother. They stood by the water, then proceeded through the weeds covering the bank—eschewing a man-made stairway that led from a shed to the water—and into the woods. I was aware that they were aware and that if I had been surrounded by my group, their passage would have been quicker, affording a glimpse at best. Alone, I had moments with them.
Later, when I joined the crowd for lunch, one of the grown-ups recounted all the raptors they had seen along the way. I left the lunchers for a final three miles and put my paddle down, this time looking up. I had not looked up, my attention so much on the water and the passage.
On the final stretch, the wind picked up, and because canoes are keel-less, it pulled arrow-like into the wind, pulling me off the straight line of the river. However, if I paddled on my left side, I discovered that I could lay into my strokes more aggressively. The wind corrected my course without the impediment of the “J.” I began, over otherwise flat water, to make speed. I watch the blade of my paddle cut whirlpools that trailed deep. I watched my arm and hand as they worked lightly with effort. I may be sixty-two, and my knees ache, but movement delights me. I was delighted. Then the wind slackened, and my course went cattywampus. Everything is adjustment.
I arrived at our pick-up spot minutes before the students and teachers arrived. I pulled my canoe onto shore, tipped it over to expel the little water that had trickled into it while I shifted my paddle from side to side, and waited. Not long. One of my fellow grown-ups said, “You’ll sleep well tonight.” Little did he know that what would blanket me wasn’t lingering exhaustion but abundant happiness.
As I write, I realize that I have so much out; brief conversations as students and colleagues paddled around, then by me; a turtle that fell from a branch of a fallen tree; the angle of the sun. More. There is always more. And I acknowledge that there are several metaphors and lessons just below the water, and for once, I will ask you to avoid them as best you can. You won’t miss them all, just as I did not miss all the rock ledges that cut along the bottom of the south fork of the Shenandoah River. This is just about canoeing solo and together and the three and a half hours it took to go from Point A to Point B. Of course, it’s not, but put the paddle in and see where you go.
Look, there’s nothing wrong with cribbing from other sources (see Shakespeare, W.), and Westworld cribbed (delightfully, easter-egg-edly) from its original source material, and, during its first season, improved on that source. But now?
Not so much.
One of the joys of the first season was that it engaged the power of narrative, repetition, and error to evolve consciousness. It played with those big ideas because its characters –from Ford to Felix—were driven by those ideas. We watched as William evolved (or devolved, if you feel that way about him) as he chose a loop-driven path even as he attempted to navigate the maze. Did the show deliver violence and naked bodies (the epitome of HBO’s violent delights)? Yes, and it managed to call both the violence and the delights into question. Pretty cheeky.
However, after the first season’s climax, the subsequent seasons have just regurgitated the characters and ideas from the first season (we are all trapped in loops; men are really, really awful) and added a few old chestnuts (Dystopia! Greed! Information Anxiety! Eat the Rich!). It seems more and more like the writers stumbled over a powerful and generative idea and got lucky in season one because nothing has come close to that burst of intelligence (and coherence). Whip-smart has become crude flagellation.
And now, borrowing—okay, admit it, stealing—from the Avengers. And for what? Bernard Agonistes? I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall in that writers’ meeting. Get it? If you have watched any of this season, you will. Is this just going to be a retread of Lord of the Flies, sacrificing Piggy, Simon, and humanity to make a grim point while offering fan service along the way? I’m waiting for the stick sharpened at both ends and the delirium that will let the pig’s head talk, but maybe that’s just what happened.
Okay, I don’t know if this scene will stay or not, but while drafting (and until someone snatches it out of my hands, it is all drafting), I wrote this:
We walked into the sunlight outside. The sidewalk was empty; Willi and Benjamin had already turned at the corner and another corner. Cars crept slowly down the one-way street, pausing at the stop sign and squeezing into city traffic. The waft of a pizza oven turned my nose in another direction, away from lunch with these men.
“Are you ever not paying attention?” Carlo asked. “It’s like you are everywhere else before you realize exactly where you are.”
“Isn’t that how everyone is? You pay attention—”
“Not like you,” he answered. He strode forward quickly. “If we don’t hurry, Benjamin will clean them out.”
Aletheia and the Thieves
My hero, Aletheia, has just managed a draw in a chess match with her mentor, Carlo. They are walking to lunch at the Reading Terminal Market, where they will join their friends. I had just finished writing the scene of the match and was getting them out the door and onto what was next, but I had an appointment to keep and didn’t want to leave the project on a closed note (the match was finished). I like to stop, when I stop, midair. Sometimes I stop mid-scene. Sometimes I stop mid-sentence.
When I want to move on with intent (write this tomorrow), I will end a writing session with a “tell” (as opposed to a “show”). I know the “tell” is not doing the work, and telling invites immediate revision. I set it down even if I have a glimmer of what the “show” will be. Tomorrow calls. Of course, as we know all too well, tomorrow is never guaranteed, but this novel writer must wrap himself in a heavy blanket of hope. More words will come.
This was not always the way.
In his column “The Greatest Life Hacks (For Now),” David Brooks included “The biggest lie we tell ourselves is, “I don’t need to write this down because I will remember it.” As much as we value multi-tasking, our brains don’t hold onto the gems. We think they will, but they don’t. We are eminently distractible. Something bright and shiny (or dark and jagged) will capture our attention, and flashes of brilliance dull quickly as we fall back into the morass of the already known and easily predictable. Surprise is the enemy of the homeostatic mind.
I carried a journal (hard cover, unlined) with me for years, taking notes about everything: movies, meals, architectural details, people. I accrued notes on pages of yellow, narrow-lined legal pads. Years of art history classes taught me to write quickly and legibly in the dark. I could (years of typing has muddled my handwriting) watch and listen and take notes simultaneously. I wrote everything down.
Yet, for all my writing, I did not have a daily specific writing practice. Even in graduate school, working toward a Ph.D. in Creative Writing (yes, that’s a thing), I wrote to meet deadlines. One short (1500-2000 word) and one long (6000 word) essay in each Literature class. Weekly seminar essays. Scrambling toward workshop slots (sure, I’ll have a story next week). I did not have a body of work to mine for revision. No particular point of view, no overarching theoretical approach, no “story of my life” that I wanted to unfold, refracted in fiction and poetry. I had come from a restaurant job where I worked 60-80 hours a week and had squeezed out enough chapters of a novel to get me into school, but once there, I was on terra incognito.
So I wrote everything down. Most of my work came about because I discovered new ways of writing each time I read something new. And everything was new. I wrote in response to—response through,really—the fiction, poetry, and philosophy I encountered in classes and on my own. I read constantly. My program’s joy (and hazard) was that the writing program was ensconced within an academic department. The creative writers met the exact requirements of our academic classmates: area distribution, exams, translation, and dissertation. In the course of my study, I didn’t just write. I learned about writers and writing, about processes and the vast array of forces that influence process. I took volumes of notes, repeatedly surprised by ideas and approaches, by the workings of minds so different and similar to my own.
Even though a biography of Dickens, Woolf, or Joyce will point out the peccadillos and triumphs, one thing rarely mentioned is the hours at work. Dickens could write in the company of friends as they gathered before a night out. Later, his study was off-limits to his family; he was not to be disturbed. Woolf wrote fiction in the morning, then focused on essays (or the other way around) after lunch. Yes, there were interruptions. Of course, there were interruptions, but writing became a habit. Are there writers for whom habit is anathema, who wait in a field with their pen held high, waiting for the jagged lightning of inspiration? Sure.
When you establish the habit of writing every day—and putting yourself to work for several hours every day—you never actually stop writing. You may not be typing. You may not be scribbling in your favorite notebook. However, your mind simmers. If you commit to 1500 words a day and stop after two or three or five or six hours, your mind will continue to work. You will not passively wait for pearls (or bakelite beads), so you will not be surprised when they come.
And you will not need to scurry to the pad when lightning strikes. You will be the blaze. Back to work.
We walked into the sunlight outside. The sidewalk was empty; Willi and Benjamin had already turned at the corner and then another corner. Cars drove slowly down the one-way street, pausing at the stop sign and squeezing into city traffic. The waft of a pizza oven turned my nose in another direction, away from lunch with my friends. My head turned toward the smell.
“Who’s driving the green sedan?” Carlo asked.
“A woman,” I shot back. “Was she wearing jewelry?”
“Jewelry. Was she wearing jewelry?”
“Earrings. Something dangling. Not hoops. I think.”
“No, you don’t ‘think.’ You know. What were they?”
“Fish,” I answered, recalling the glint beneath the voluminous red hair pulled back in an unkempt ponytail. “Gold fish hanging head to tail. Probably real gold. The sedan was a Mercedes 300.”
“Good.” Carlo hadn’t stopped walking. He hadn’t even turned toward me while he questioned me.
“Did you see her?” I asked. “No,” he answered. “Why would I? We’re walking to the Market, and I was thinking about the crowds.” He turned his head and glanced at me. “Besides, I knew you would.”
“Is that good?” I slowed down, and Carlo stayed on pace. I caught up to him at the corner. “Should I not pay attention?” The light for the cross traffic turned from green to yellow. I shifted my weight, ready for the walk sign. Carlo raised his arm to stop me when the white “WALK” sign lit up.
“Why are you stopping me?” He nudged me back from the curb and tilted his head to a space beneath a shop awning that was out of the flow of foot traffic.
“Do you want to pay attention?” he asked in front of a store that promised fast copies, faxes, and passport photos.
“What do you mean?”
“Do you look up and down the street and think about what you notice? Do you want to pay attention, or is it just what you do?”
“It just happens.”
“All the time,” he stated without a hint of a question.
“All the time.” A car horn barked at a man who had stepped into the intersection too late. A woman with red fingernails smoothed the back of her dress as she walked past. The man at the fax machine looked up at Carlo and me, and when I met his gaze, he looked away.
“Let’s walk.” Carlo reached out and guided me by the elbow. I felt adrift, like I would collide with everyone else on the sidewalk as he pushed me forward.
“Stop,” I insisted when we were less than halfway down the block. The city—all of it—seemed foreign, as if I had ever been here before. I felt out of breath.
I have spent hours in Gallery 69 at the National Gallery of Art over the past three years. The conversation between the Sargents, the Whistlers, and the Eakins inspires me. The seminal Whistler Painting Symphony in White, a portrait of Joanna Hiffernan, is currently in London, along with other paintings Whistler made with Hiffernan as a model. It will return along with those other paintings in July 2022. However, I have always been drawn to Sargent’s portrait of Margaret Stuyvesant Rutherfurd White. My first impression was that she was a bit imperious, and this was highlighted by the painting hanging across the gallery from the wistful, uncertain, and expectant Joanna Hiffernan. Over time, “Daisy’s” exquisite assertiveness won me over.
While I noticed that Eakins’ somber men held one wall, that Whistler’s presentation was more idiosyncratic, and that, one way or another, the curators selected Sargents that displayed women as they aged from childhood to sagacity, my attention was drawn to the two women in white.
Or, to put it another way, I missed something. Sargent’s 1901 painting of Ellen Peabody Endicott (Mrs. William Crowninshield Endicott) portrays a prominent “society hostess” from Massachusetts and later Washington DC; her husband served as Secretary of War for President Cleveland. The curator notes the sitter’s “melancholy expression,” which seems to mistake control for sadness. We have a more challenging time recognizing the depth of reserve—that chillier Spartan virtue. We live in warmer times.
We perform emotions with operatic range—if it’s felt, it must be loud. Compliments must be modified with “fucking” as in “fucking excellent!” as if excellent wasn’t already, well, excellent. Sadness unaccompanied by an ugly cry isn’t sad enough. In part, I believe that we have inured ourselves to parsing the ordinary everyday emotional life, and also because we have conflated reserved with sterile, or worse, sad. If we aren’t in the full bursting bloom of performative positivity, we must be bereft.
I was playing Max Richter’s The Blue Notebooks, which, besides being blue, is contemplative and revelatory. You may recognize “On the Nature of Daylight,” featured in Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 film Arrival. Frankly, I don’t trust constant revelation and proclamation. The drift from light to dark (and dark to light) puts revelation on a steady simmer. It’s a fleeting experience but perpetual. I think we prefer the experience of Archimedes shouting “Eureka!” and running from the bath to proclaim that he had discerned that the king’s crown was not pure gold (and that he had discovered displacement). At any rate, Richter eschews “Eureka” for a more diaphanous experience of revelation. One of my colleagues passed by and said, “Could you play something happy? That sounds like a funeral.” So much for the slow boil.
Ellen Peabody Endicott may have been melancholy—her husband died in May of 1900, months before she sat for Sargent. She is dressed in black (but that white lace!). Or she may be contained and self-controlled. We don’t have much good to say about control. We celebrate the romantic impulse of the barbaric yawp. YOLO! All in! We seek peak experiences. Maybe I’m overselling. Maybe I’m not taking Mrs. Endicott’s privilege into account; she lived life on the social mountaintop. Peak experience, indeed. She could afford—actually afford—self-control.
As an educator, I engage in discussions about students who lack self-control, but even at the level of “Friedrich lacks self-control,” we acknowledge his authenticity. Chaotic and unrestrained is how and who he is. We also recognize the authenticity of our more controlled students—in their own ways, not in some made to fit a prescribed mold. But we wouldn’t recommend our students forgo individual expression for something more staid. That would seem too controlled as if we were fitting them for muzzles.
Ellen Peabody Endicott’s self-possession would not fit. Perhaps the Southern affect that permeates my school makes monied New England restraint that masks stern and savage conviction seem so foreign. Terse condescending retort contrasts with the snide deference of charm. When some older member of my community says, “Bless your heart,” we all know by the tone exactly which epithetic calumny was meant. And we all know that it was meant. The young play at the clumsier “Let’s go, Brandon!” It’s not that offense was not given by those of Endicott’s ilk, but it was not coded. They played by the dictum that “a gentleman [or lady] never gives offense unintentionally.”
Perhaps I should not call Ellen Peabody Endicott “reserved” as much as “intentional.”
So, what did I miss? What does she teach me? For one, there is a value in being intentional. I tend to get distracted by the beautiful and magnificent. Who doesn’t? Daisy and Joanna would eclipse roomfuls of women. As a writer, I chase the beautiful—the elegant run-on sentence describing the transformation of a Jinn into a pillar of basalt, the frenetic conversation between a group of friends at dinner. But I must also be attentive to intent. I must get the words on the page in as straightforwardly (and, please, as often) as possible.
Are there hazards to chasing beauty? Yes. Are there perils in control? Yes, again. I learn to balance, to somehow manage the dual impulses of wild beauty and patient, controlled effort—what Adrienne Rich called “a wild patience.”
But the real hazard is failing to see what was right there all the time. I recognized the name earlier–Crowninshield is an old New England name that Washington Irving uses as one of the names that the devil harvests in “The Devil and Tom Walker.” I borrowed it for a minor character, even modeling her on the portrait. I hadn’t realized that she was more. She is, and that realization surprised and delighted me.
This is the second time I missed a Sargent painting, falling back on the too generic label “mannered society portraiture” that dogs Sargent. Whether the women he painted had the kind of intensity that his portraits reveal, or whether he imbued them with some kind of mannered focus, I cannot tell. I know that not all his portraits share the focused intensity of Ellen Peabody Endicott, Margaret Stuyvesant Rutherfurd White, or Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler. The painting of Marie Buloz Pailleron (Madame Édouard Pailleron)) catches a woman mid-scowl. There is more emotional distance between her, the painter, and the audience. The paintings in Gallery 70 also show an artist who will show other markedly less intense attitudes.
So, I sharpen my eye and sharpen my pencil (figuratively). There are characters to uncover, and surprises to come. Onward.mm
The centerpiece of the Once Upon a Roof: Vanished Korean Architecture are three chimi—roof ornaments. They look similar enough that one might, at first glance, assume they come from the same site. After all, they are displayed together. However, they come from three sites across Korea: Iksan, Buyeo, and Gyeongju. Two are from Buddhist temples, the other from a palace complex.
It’s not the museum’s fault I leaped to an erroneous conclusion. Even a cursory examination reveals differences in the three chimi: articulation of the “feathers,” ratio of height to width, and depth of the curl. Clearly, they are not from the same site. Could a map display have helped me not make that mistake? Maybe. Fortunately, I was able to sort out my error and enjoyed getting past my mistake to something more truthful.
On the other side of the Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art is the exhibit: Falcons: The Art of the Hunt. Two statues of falcons preside over the exhibit, and walking up to them, I thought, “What wonderful Horuses.” Both of the falcons have notched flat spaces atop their heads. Crowns would have rested on each, like this example of a Horus found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Except they aren’t representations of Horus. The display card reveals that they “bear the names of two gods, Herakles and Aphrodite, who were worshipped during the Ptolemaic (305-30 BCE) period.” This startled my mind into the thoughts: “How did the Ptolemaic Egyptians graft Greek and Egyptian religion (myth)?” and “Could falcons represent any god in ancient Egypt?”
Lesson one: read the display cards at the museum.
Lesson two: the story already in your mind may not be correct (even if you are wicked smaht). And while I recognize this on my Sunday wander, it happens everywhere else.
Why does the first draft (or first glimpse) of a story impress itself so firmly in our minds? I know that it does. To begin with, our minds are incredibly attuned to how we feel when we take in new information. For instance, the sudden “Aha!” when I realized that the roof ornaments came from three distinct and distant sites or the Greek connection to those stone falcons is a feeling I cherish. I seek that rush of discovery, and experiences that trigger that particular joy stick with me.
The innate fight or flight response does not lend itself to a careful mulling over facts. We jump to conclusions because of a deep-seated survival mechanism. Our minds are attuned to getting a story set as quickly as possible. Add to that the way our brains anticipate or predict every event that occurs in the world, and second thoughts become improbable, if not impossible.
So, it is not a surprise that we punish those who change their stories. “These people cannot keep their stories straight” is a refrain used to denigrate those trying to tell the truth. The minute the story changes, an error message is triggered in our mind, and out of that error, we envision obfuscations that reveal possibly darker machinations. And yes, sometimes that happens. The lesson of Watergate was that the crime of the cover-up can outstrip the original crime. However, even when there are no ulterior motives, we fight against the changes because the initial story carries such weight, even when it is inaccurate.
But how often do facts change because we learn more along the way? How often is the first report ever as accurate as a final thorough reckoning? In Think Again, Adam Grant suggests the power of thinking like a scientist (as opposed to a prosecutor, priest, or politician) can help us embrace “I don’t know”–not just as a starting point, but a possible if provisional endpoint. Did I know that Aphrodite and Herakles could be represented as falcons? No, but I can learn.
It would be too easy to ascribe the rush to judgment to a particular ideological camp; it is a universal proclivity. I have friends on the left whose anger at the changing approaches to the pandemic matches the rage on the right. However, it also points out the rationale behind people trying to manage the first blush of any story. Whether they know by inclination or research, those who manage stories in the public sphere know that once the bone of truth is set, it is hard to break again. And they also know that when the truth breaks, we want it set quickly.
What does allow us to change our minds? Well, let’s go back to feeling. Our feelings create a steady background noise in our minds. Suppose we are driven by a homeostatic impulse (maintaining not just a narrow physical temperature but a steady emotional disposition). In that case, things that interrupt that constant state will be rejected. We will seek out truths that align with our overall frame of mind. For example, if you own guns because you feel the need to protect yourself and your family, you probably feel that a threat already exists in the world. After a mass shooting event, someone may suggest that you (and everyone else) need to give up your guns. But after a shooting, do you feel more or less threatened? And does the request to disarm enhance or alleviate your fear? No matter what facts are bandied about, our feelings take precedence. In a similar vein, do teachers feel more or less threatened after a shooting? And does the thought of more guns in the classroom heighten or lessen their perception of threat? Our thoughts change to fit our feelings. And the same feeling can lead to entirely different thoughts.
The recent season of Michael Lewis’s podcast Against the Rules focused on experts and how, when confronted with a problem, we fail to find the right expert to help solve that problem. One stumbling block (and Lewis documents several) is that real experts will say, “I don’t know,” and “I don’t know” is never satisfying. We gravitate towards people who speak with authority, even when they are wrong. When experts do not clothe themselves in the trappings of authority, when they work in the basement as opposed to the corner office, or when they offer probabilities as opposed to certainties, we reject them and complain. Anyone who cannot provide a single understandable narrative (and the narrative we first decided on) must be wrong. And that wrong must be due to an intellectual and moral failing.
It’s a commonplace to acknowledge that “there are no wrong feelings.” But I wonder whether fear is still as helpful an emotion as when we wandered on the savannah or across the landbridge to the American continent? That’s a false wonder. I believe that fear—manifested in its instinctual form—is, as Roosevelt proclaimed, all we have to fear. As daunting as it may be, the unknown is fertile ground. I don’t know how fear keeps us from discovery, but I know there are discoveries to be made. Some are easy, like revelations I make on my Sunday museum walks. Others will prove challenging, almost intractable, like bridging the gap between equally frightened political camps. A commitment to the unknown, which is a commitment to the future, must be our North Star.
When I was in grad school, one of my teachers told me that swimming (I was doing 3000-4000 yards, 3 times a week) benefited my writing. I understood why. Putting one’s head down and churning away for an hour compares well with writing. You pile up the painful laps the same way you pile up the words, and there is no immediate end. You just have to do it every (other) day.
Sometime in my thirties, I decided that I had worked out enough for the rest of my life, that all those miles had inoculated me against the exigencies of time. After all, I was averaging 24,000 meters a day at my peak. You might wonder, “What is 24,000 meters, really?” The fastest runner ran a mile in a bit under four minutes, and the fastest swimmer swam four hundred meters in just under four minutes, so 24,000 meters in the pool is a rough equivalent of sixty miles. 6-0. Six days a week. Even the piddling 3000-4000 yard workouts I managed later in life amounted to five to eight mile runs. All those miles earned me something besides shoulder and knee injuries. Whether this is what I learned from swimming or if something already inside me made all those laps possible, I cannot be sure. All I know was that afterward, I knuckled down to a world of tasks, whether unpacking a truckload of books, driving all night to a funeral in Maine, or doing the daily work of marriage.
But no matter how hard I worked, no matter how much thinking or interacting I did, eventually, my body let me know that the actual workouts had to start again. By my middle forties, I was back in the pool, gobbling down yards. After one knee surgery, another looming on the horizon, and rotator cuffs that kept me up at night, I decided to stick to dry land training (weights, elliptical). I’m still at it.
Maybe it’s no surprise that I struggled with writing when I stopped working out. There were a dozen other reasons for my hiatus, but the lack of steady physical movement played a part. When I furiously wrote and read in grad school, I swam, then ran, and always took long walks in the middle of the night. I never taught sitting at a desk but prowled in the classroom, even, at one point, doing the backstroke across the length of several tables to demonstrate the power of metaphor.
Writing requires resilience. You have to be able to face down the blank page and the open ended-ness of your project. Most of us do not write with a guarantee of publication (or adoration). We write, compelled to add word to word, stringing together sentences, scenes, and scraps of dialogue, until something like a novel accrues. Some writers don’t need the physical analog to bear them forward in their pursuit of words on the page. Their minds take flight and find their ways through the canyons of words without having to ride the rapids through them.
We think of the imagination as free of physical constraint, even when we write scenes replete with physical—sensed—detail. It’s pretty to think that this works. I can write a depiction of flight even if I can’t fly because I can imagine it. My mind is not bound by what I cannot do.
I am reminded of a movie I saw ages ago. In The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda castigates Luke about the force. He grabs Luke’s arm with his claw-like hand and insists, “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.” And that’s the whole point: what’s inside you matters. Of course, this appealed to me when I was a sophomore in college. What does imagination—the expression of the soul—have to do with “crude matter”?
My belief in an inner self separate from bodily suffering—or ecstasy—was fundamental to my worldview. I wasn’t alone. Whether in theology or philosophy, the notion of something like a soul runs deep. Descartes’ cogito ergo sum (the first principle of his philosophy) locates being in the process of thinking—rigorous and effortful thinking, but thinking and certainly not feeling, and definitely not tasting, seeing, smelling, hearing, or touching. There is a longstanding division between the spiritual (the imagination included) and the physical. The mind is that “luminous being” within or around us. I learned to ignore the crude matter while I swam—playing songs in my mind while lactic acid built up in my muscles and my body cried out for oxygen. I was happy to engage in the separation of body and mind.
Except they are not separated.
While neurobiologists distinguish between the brain—a profoundly physical, almost mechanical thing—and the mind, which arises (or descends) from the machinery, they see the connections between the brain/body and the mind. Caroline Williams’ recent book Move tracks current science about movement—whether dancing or walking or crawling about—and how it impacts our mind. Reading her book alongside Anil Seth’s Being You, Mark Solms’The Hidden Spring, and Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary, I find it hard not to see our minds as a product of evolution—much in the same way that our brains and bodies evolved. We got opposable thumbs, eyes, and consciousness. Our thoughts—even the most abstract thoughts—are grounded in the dynamic range of physical existence. This thing we imagine as a brain-based entity is formed in concert with sensory signals from our bodies. We are made up of our smell, sight, taste, touch, and hearing. Our minds did not blossom while we sat at a desk and contemplated, but as we moved through and sensed the world.
Whatever else we are, we are sensory data collectors. Maybe the dog does a better job of sniffing or the bat of hearing. Our brains are tuned to the sensual world—it seeks and expects constant sensory stimuli. Mark Solms argues that our consciousness results from the perpetual influx of information coming into the brain. Our consciousness checks that flood of information against our brains’ equally endless sets of predictions. Whether we are regulating the temperature of our bodies or the emotional tenor of our workplaces, our brains and minds (I am using “mind” almost interchangeably with “consciousness”) govern unconscious and unspoken expectations. Stimuli that occur outside the narrow predictions trigger error messages, and our minds leap into action—defending the status quo with alacrity.
However, what happens when our minds expect smells, sounds, and sights (and the occasional taste and touch), and there are none? What happens when we remove the wealth of stimulation? I hypothesize that the lack of signals about the world creates an error message in our brains akin to the kinds of error messages about our temperature. Our body-brain-mind system adjusts for too much heat or too much cold, but it adjusts because it constantly surveying for information; the system expects information. Without that information, it must (I surmise) recalibrate the sensory array and how the information is processed. Our brains don’t atrophy—that’s what you would guess, yes?—but reach out in new overexaggerated ways.
However, I do not suggest stimulating children in expanded versions of Skinner boxes. Our body-brain-mind systems develop through self-directed use. We are designed to move through a world of sensation—to process on the fly and on foot. We learn to think, read, and imagine—we write—by moving through the world. Williams cites the work of Kyung Hee Kim on the value of movement. Kim states that “[c]reative thinking is stimulated by physical activity, whether walking, running or active playing”—all of which run counter to the dictum of “writing=ass in chair.”
And creative thinking does not contribute to just writing or sculpting; it’s a matter of finding solutions that don’t plop themselves down in front of your nose. Or just behind your nose in your prefrontal cortex—although this too is vital. Creative thinking must veer from the straight-ahead planning that our prefrontal cortices make so fabulously possible. Planning in a straight line—our preferred method—bound by the powerful predicting mechanisms in our minds does not always lead to the best outcomes. We discover solutions by getting lost, encountering (and embracing) the unexpected, then adapting. We have to trigger error messages in our brains and become comfortable with the inevitable mistakes. I think of my students who more and more routinely fight against reading because they “do not relate” to a particular text. What is “do not relate” other than a self-reflective (“It’s not me”; “It’s not something I already know”; “It’s not something I can easily predict”) error message?
Every Sunday, I rely on long walks through museums to help reset and reinvigorate my mind. I walk through space (about five miles) and time. I proceed on a well-worn route: garden to museum to garden to museum to lunch to museum, and within the museums, I travel from Neolithic China to Philadelphia in 1984. In one display at the Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art, objects displaying nearly identical winged protectors encompass fifteen hundred years. It’s a visual echo that resonates over millennia.
More than that—if that wasn’t enough—the walk takes me gradations of the unknown. We don’t know why the jade bi were sliced from jade. I return every week to them to revel in not-knowing—not ignorance per se, but engaged wonder. The bi remind me that some wonderful human-made things have no explanation. We can guess—we should guess—but our guesses should always be acknowledged as such. Precise and well-informed whenever possible. However, we must never let our desire to know ONE answer outstrip our willingness to learn as we go. Remember that you don’t know. I sit in front of a row of paintings by Monet, and I listen as someone explains how he had cataracts, which was why he painted like that. I do my best not to correct or alter the assumption, but it’s hard. Borofsky put the number “3277542 ” on his Man with Briefcase, and I may know how he numbered his work and why he said that he counted into the millions (these are documented facts), but as far as what motivated the artist, well, that’s an educated guess.
I constantly compile lists of things I know. People congregate in doorways. The left lane holds an uncanny attraction for slower drivers. Most people have not noticed that in Gallery 81 of the National Gallery of Art, the figures in the three paintings on the westward wall mirror those in the painting on the eastern wall. Children sometimes fall asleep in their parent’s laps. A man will ask, “Are you writing the great American novel?” (Answer, yes.) Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler sometimes looks strident, sometimes annoyed, but rarely befuddled. People take photographs of themselves that feature Mercury’s bottom, and I am sure that often this is an oversight. The people who work at the Courtyard Cafe will put aside the last napoleon for you. After that, mystery is certain. And necessary.
To return to movement: swimming was always a venture into the known—the well-loved, effortful known. I swam with my head down and eyes focused on the line on the bottom of the lane, chasing yards and time, sure that neither would fundamentally change. Fifty yards is always fifty yards, and a minute is always a minute. Yes, I filled those minutes with more yards (or spent fewer minutes swimming more yards), And, most of all, pain is always pain. Variations in the depth and texture of pain were a cause for concern (the knees, the shoulders), but pain was always a given.
While writing requires sustained effort, one must also embrace the unknown. Moving helps.
I became a better reader (which helped me become a better writer) by moving between tables in various restaurant jobs. I wasn’t a bad reader in college, but that was because I could do the determined slog of three hundred pages between a Tuesday and Thursday class. I read with my committed swimmer’s mind. Whatever brilliance I glimpsed only came into full view after turning my head in seventeen directions and delivering service, hot food, and cold drinks, all in the proper order. And because I moved in a dozen other, unexpected ways. Words on the page became easier and more ecstatic. And no, I don’t think one needs to wait on tables to be a better reader (or thinker). However, learning to think on my feet and realizing that the persistent thrum of “I, me, mine” became more powerful when it moved through the music of “him, her, them,” helped me become a better reader and writer.
“I, me, mine” are necessary, especially when writing. You cannot hope to enchant some unknown “them” until you find a way to please yourself as you slog away hour after hour. And then you may fall into a rut. That’s not always the worst thing. There are plenty of creative and successful people who hew to the ditch they dig. Their neural pathways run straight and certain down deep gulleys. Helpful habits will keep you returning, chairbound, to the work.
And yet, stuck happens, and sometimes banging our heads in the mud only makes it worse. Seat of pants dully applied to seat of chair risks stagnation. And no amount of instruction (this is the structure of plot; this is the value of metaphor) and mental exercise (write a paragraph in another character’s voice; write a story about an animal) will return you to the light. Go for a walk, breathing through your nose so you can smell the world. Take out your headphones and listen to the world as you pass through it. Dance in a crowd. Break a sweat, and forget your brilliant, luminous mind. You don’t have to go to the woods, the mountains, or the ocean. You are a wild animal wherever you are if you just remember to be one.
There is a wildness to writing, and not just a wildness of mind, although, please, a wildness of mind. But our minds, we forget, are grounded in the crude animal matter of our bodies. The glorious, perfectly imperfect body will help us move the words, ounce by ounce, page by page, and pound by pound into the world. What happens next is a mystery, but by moving my body and mind, I have learned the value of mystery. It’s what comes next.
I began the day in a foul mood. That’s not true. I shook the snooze on my phone enough times to drift back in and out of a dream I was having, gathered the cats’ feeding mice (they retrieve their food from a set of “mice” that I secret throughout my apartment twice a day), and poured a small cup of coffee. Traffic was inordinately painless. Then there was a line outside my first Sunday stop, a French bakery off Logan Circle in DC. People bundled in the late March chill. Flurries on the 27th? So be it.
Then the first blow, no almond croissants. Routine is terrible; I accept the necessity and know that I must make adjustments—perpetually. I arrive by ten to ensure my weekly extravagance of three almond croissants, which I portion out across the awful early days of the workweek. So be it. The friendly counter assistant offered almond croissants with chocolate, but I prefer not to mix my pleasures. “I’ll have three pistachio croissants.” There were, fortunately, plenty. “I’ll suffer,” I told her as the owner of the bakery looked on, noting my disappointment and smiling nonetheless.
And then the descent. As I left the shop, a young man burst through the open door and into the crowded shop. A wiry blonde fellow carrying a blue paperback textbook. Physics or economics—it hardly matters. He charged in without acknowledging his rudeness—one other person was waiting to exit. Unlike Ishmael, my first impulse was not to knock his hat off; he wore no hat. I wanted to deck him. “There’s more room out there,” slipped from my mouth, and then, “Dumb ass.”
In his 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, David Foster Wallace warned against such flares of anger. He suggests “that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.” I get it. That young man might have had some life-saving advice to give to the people he was meeting at the bakery. Or he may have been on the spectrum and not in control of his social cues. I have many more moments when I can find the deeper solidarity of human experience, but I am keenly aware of my disdain for what? the failure of something like social grace.
The next twenty minutes of my morning descended in a spiral of disgust and disdain. Bad drivers multiplied like fleas and ticks on a lost dog. The sensor in my car alerted me that the air pressure in a reasonably new tire was low. The news and Joe Biden’s slip of passion—too much like my own. The world.
Except there are always bad drivers and people who back up without looking on crowded sidewalks or couples who stand conversing in entryways as if no one else wants to enter or exit. There are also kind shop owners, docents who recognize you and wave at you over the heads of a crowd, women who pet dogs, and dog owners who say, “Yes, she loves people.” Part of my Sunday ritual casts me pointedly and intentionally into the sea of museum-goers. The way people gaze at art—their comments and commiserations—delight me. We are at a concert, dancing and singing along with the masters of the world.
No wonder I write surrounded by all this—and all of them.
So, why such hypos today?
I just killed one of the characters in my novel. Yes, of course, someone else in the book killed him; I didn’t do it. But I did it. I knew I would do it and try as I may—and did—to distract myself from this inevitable passing, it had to happen. And today’s writing would carry me into the aftermath of that realization. I would have to begin the slow work of grief with the characters who remain. Writing has consequences, and no number of almond, or pistachio, croissants will salve the emotions that the work stirs. Yes, other characters have died in other works, but this was the first time a central character died because of another character’s cruelty. He will haunt the rest of the novel and haunt the characters who loved him.
I used to tell students in my college classes that they could miss a week of classes and needed to provide no excuses. “You’re adults,” I told them, “Life happens.” I also said, “Do not invent excuses. Do not claim sickness or death that did not happen—no, ‘I had to attend my great aunt’s funeral.’ Words have consequences. They are magic and can change the world.” I still believe this.
So today, on a perfectly ordinary day in a perfectly ordinary world, my brain hunkered down in advance of the pages that waited. Huzzah for belated self-awareness. I haven’t broken anything yet. Lesson: writing will shape your world, even if you aren’t aware of the shaping, even if it doesn’t change the rest of the world. Get to work at your own risk. Risk it all.
As a coda, there is a painting by Gilbert Stuart—he of the famous portrait of Washington—of a skater (called, The Skater). The man is utterly self-possessed. Unflappable. And yet, he is inscribing perfect circles on the ice. He has a nice hat. I don’t want to knock it off. I see him and think, “abstemious” (Either that or he just came from a long ocean voyage). Just as Prospero advised Miranda and Ferdinand, “Be more abstemious.” Advice well given. Back to work.
“I saw Ms. X___, and she said, ‘That’s what it must be like to be in one of his classes!’”
“That part was written for you!”
Yes, there were compliments, for which I am grateful, and all of which I could better hear after setting aside my natural predilection for self deprecation—why is it that I will always be more aware of my mistakes than my successes? I found some easy connections with Fagin: “What happens when I’m seventy?”; my current novel is about a gang of thieves; like Fagin, I am a teacher. However, I am not the outsider he has no choice to be; if I am, I choose that route. After the play, I washed off the make up, hung up the pants with gaping holes at the knees, and when Monday came, I put my pressed blue shirt with metal stays in the collar when I returned to classes. A costume is a costume
Still, some of the compliments rankled. That’s hard to admit, because it feels as ungracious to write as it must sound. I was delighted by the kindnesses that came my way. But no dear reader, I am not Fagin. Neither was Clive Revill, Ron Moody, Jonathan Pryce, or Rowan Atkinson, though all did excellent work in the role. Hear me out.
Once upon a time, a friend assessed another friend’s new book without reading it. The new book centered on a novice (an aspiring nun) who had stigmata (wounds that mirrored those suffered by Jesus on the cross). Previous efforts by this same writer included westerns and a book of short stories that had been described as “hardware store prose”—so, maybe a novel about a nun was unexpected. The pre-baked critique was along the lines of “What does he know about women?” As it turns out, the book fully understood the struggles of its protagonist and included passages of luminous, protean prose. It was just plain—and absolutely not plain—good.
Writers wander into new territory warily. Those who have long and successful careers tend to work the same plot of land—even if that plot covers ten thousand acres. Dickens stands out as the exemplar—popular beyond imagination and perpetually revisiting themes and character types—all those damned orphans, all those criminal step-fathers. But think of Austen, James, King, Grisham, Tyler, Hoffman, Rice. A writer like Virginia Woolf whose vision may be singular, but whose books vary in structure and approach, is rare. Joyce? Calvino? “Calvin-who?” you ask. Exactly.
And it isn’t just writers. I had a minister who sermonized that “The one thing was figuring out the One Thing.” Most of us spend years figuring out who we are and then hew tightly to that semi-self-defined course. In the public sphere, politicians who change their minds are lambasted by their critics. Over the course of the recent pandemic changing guidelines and responses drew salvos from all quarters. People want One Thing; anything more draws complaint and criticism.
Fuck it. We change. Life changes. Only an idiot sails into a hurricane (I’m thinking of you, dad) because that was the course he set months in advance. Granted, change is not easy, except when we are young and change is a daily and inevitable event—the voice, the hair, the height, the hormones. What’s the line from “Bittersweet Symphony”—“I’m a million different people from one day to the next?” A million may be too much, but just when you think, “Finally, the One Thing!” along comes life. Maybe we should take a lesson from all those years of change. Maybe.
At the end of the play, Fagin sings, “Can somebody change? It’s possible. Maybe it’s strange, but it’s possible.” Okay, I’ll own that connection. But really, possible? I can’t help but think that it would be horrible to be one person all one’s life. I clamor for the fourth and fifth act—or the 1001 Nights. I splash in Heraclitus’s river, changed and changed and changed again.
Why else write? Even these pieces are meant to dip into the river. Even when I visit and revisit a work of art, my parents, love, teaching, or writing—they are all stops at some bend, newly dug by the course of time. The writing barely binds them together.
“But they’re all about you.” As if. They’re just stories, ramblings and meditations on this strange journey. And really, they are all for you—the same as when I sang as Fagin. I’m singing to you, kid. Always.