Tuesday, December 31, 2013

On Budapest Arrivals

This the first entry of a number from central Europe, from a trip we took almost on impulse and for which I am thoroughly grateful.  Here, though, is how it began.

After a number of delays, the most frustrating of which was the drag through London Heathrow, Rhonda and I touched down at the first destination of our trip.  Relieved to be off a plane for the next ten days, we found ourselves at the Liszt Ferenc International Airport in Budapest. 
                The plane had taken us over huge, scudding clouds—sure sign of the storms that were beginning to brew over the Atlantic and would hit Ireland and the U.K. pretty hard over our visit to the continent.  Yet above the cloud cover the sky was wintry blue—a color so bright and pale that it seems you would find it on ceramics rather than in the sky.  And that was only the beginning of the strangeness. All around us the incomprehensible consonant-twisting of Hungarian that made me realize how much we would be at the linguistic mercy of our hosts. 
My second languages, you see, are dead and buried—Latin and Old English—and yet they avail in so many circumstances.  I speak very little Spanish, but can understand more of it, as I can Italian and French.  Thanks to the Teutonic roots of the Old English, I can read enough German to go the right way on a one-way street and recognize which bathroom is for the men.  But I had no handle--absolutely none--on Hungarian, so I began by thinking that we would start in the most estranged and "foreign" of the cities we planned to visit—or, better said, in the city where we would be most estranged and foreign.
Budapest was the last choice I made on the cities we would visit—a choice made largely on convenience and expense.  On both counts it had seemed better than, say, Berlin or Warsaw, but I was beginning to have my doubts as our cab raced through industrial stretches of Late Soviet architecture on the way to the city center.  I expected guards in ushankas,  spotlights, defecting gymnasts.  But of course, it was nothing like that where we were headed, as I found in daylight.
Budapest, certainly at its center, has been largely restored over the last seventy years.  The Germans and Russians trashed it in the last winter of World War II, and you are hard pressed to find a building that remained undamaged.  That includes the castle, the Parliament, and the famous Fishermen's Bastion.  After the war, the landmark buildings were restored, with limited funds but to the old designs, using archival materials to guide the reconstruction.
The result is a mixture of beauties, a Parliament building that is breathtaking and a Fishermen's Bastion which, although pleasing to the eye, struck me as somewhere between a gothic structure and a Disney castle.  And yet even that cobbled arrangement had something urgent in its design, as though if you didn't raise it quickly and right, something would be lost forever.
It was T.S. Eliot who said, "These fragments have I shored against my ruin".  It was the people of Budapest who shored their own fragments by a careful attentiveness to what had gone before, to what they remembered.  It had to have been foreign to them—their homes flattened, the Soviets all over them and settling in to stay for fifty years—but what they managed to do along the Danube, guided by memory and archive, was to reconstruct an old identity out of guesswork and hope.  You can see the seams between buildings, the difference in a ground floor that remained intact and the facsimile upper stories: nothing quite connects like it did in, say, the 1920s, but things have been connected in honorable and lovely ways. 
After all, the architects of old gothic cathedrals shored fragments by considering no work complete.  Each building was a slow accumulation of what had gone before, a trust in the imperatives of both tradition and change.  On a foggy day, like our first full day in Budapest, you could stand on the ramparts of Buda and look across the river at the government buildings of Pest, glimpsing them as you can in my attached photo, as they seemed to take shape in a fog that hovered between settling and breaking.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

On Taking Refuge

Two weeks ago, Rhonda and I were up at the Ten Thousand Buddhas Summit Monastery, a secluded and beautiful site about fifteen minutes from our house in Corydon.  We were there at the invitation of the Reverend Thich Hang Dat, at a luncheon in honor of Mayor Greg Fischer's visit to the monastery.  For those of you outside our area, that's the Mayor of Louisville,  Rhonda's ultimate boss in Louisville Metro.  

We were at the event independently (i.e. not part of the Mayor's entourage) but we sat at the same table with him and Rev. Hang Dat—very pleasant company among two engaging and intelligent community figures.  Rhonda knows the Mayor, of course, and though I can't claim more than a passing acquaintance, I think he's a good man and a good mayor.  Before things settled in for the luncheon, he asked us, "Are you Buddhists?"

And hence the subject of the blog.

Rhonda gave a longer and very thoughtful answer to the question.  Like a good Catholic girl (and I mean that description in the best sense possible) she said that no, we weren't Buddhists, but that we were drawn by the spirituality and kindness of the tradition, especially as we saw it in display among the people in the Summit Monastery's community.  We've been there a few times, she informed the mayor, and always come away with a sense of welcome and hospitality.

There was nothing in that answer with which I disagree.  Mine would have been shorter: to the mayor's inquiry as whether I was a Buddhist, I would have to say, simply, "Not yet."

As I understand, to become an "official card-carrying Buddhist", one "takes refuge" in  1) a belief in the Buddha's enlightenment and example to those who seek their own enlightenment, 2) a belief in the dharma (the basic Buddhist teachings), and 3) an embrace of the sangha, the Buddhist community of faith.  As of now, I'm inclined toward taking refuge, though I'm spending some time in mindful consideration of what is an enormous spiritual step.

The meditation I've been doing, under the guidance of Rev. Hang Dat and (of course) on my own, is a practice that is already bearing enormous psychic rewards: if I go no further into Buddhism than simply meditating morning and evening and being more mindful in the way I pass my days, that alone will make this experience worth my while in abundance.  I am very new to meditation, but already notice an equilibrium and focus that I've experienced only at moments before, and certainly never in a daily, sustained fashion.  I have a feeling that if I am observant, I'm pushing the second heart attack out of the way and enabling emotional and physical health.  Those are good things.

The rest of the bargain I'm puzzling through.  And here are some of the issues.

I've never been a believer in a personal God, which is the kind of deity that most of my Christian and Jewish friends profess.  I tried to be for fifty years, because I can remember distinctly not believing when I was about four or five, feeling awful then as though something was really wrong with me, and masking the disbelief with excuses, compromises, false professions of faith.  Folks, I did this for half a century—partly because I feared facing the distance and disfavor of some people around me, but not so much that as something else: a kind of residual fear like the one in the old Blood Sweat and Tears song…to myself, I swore there was no heaven and I prayed there was no hell.  I respected and even envied the faith of some of my friends, especially when I saw it give life and breath to their actions, and even more so when I saw it emerge from an intellectual and emotional vigor I respected.  That faith was apparent to me in a few of the people I knew, and it was probably at work where I didn't see it in others.  I always respected it (except for about a 3-year period in late high school and early college, but nobody respects anything at that time, so I apologize to you and forgive myself in one fell swoop for that particular irreverence).  

Buddhism has a wide range of belief on this issue.  The Buddha himself never talked much about metaphysics, and there's that wonderful metaphor of the arrow in one of the sutras, which in short says that if you're shot with a bow, the first thing you think of is how to tend the wound rather than who made or fired the arrow.  I really understand this: metaphysical ultimates are so far beyond my grasp that I have to leave the jury out.  If you know the essential truth and ground of your being, again I envy you because I don't.  What I do know is that it makes sense to live the happiest and most mindful life you can, for yourself, for those around you, and for the community of living creatures at large.  When the time comes to answer for that, I hope to do so without regret or reservation.  It's making a beautiful thing of the here and now, tending to the well-being of others as well as of yourself.  I think that's the heart of the good life in most religious traditions: if we learned it from some divine and ultimate source, evolved it as an idea of the best way to live with each other, or whether it was a combination of these things or something else entirely, I have no idea. 

But I do know this.  If you believe in that kind of living and don't subscribe to a Christian theology, then you're pretty much out to lunch with many Christians.  If you don't buy the metaphysics, you fall grievously and eternally short.  In other words, if you swear there ain't no heaven, you get the hell you've been praying all along doesn't exist.  It's clear cut, either/or, and it still scares me.  Not that I've found out what to do with that fear.  But Christianity tells me that what I should do with it is to believe something I don't believe.  The idea of hell scares the hell out of me, I know it's residual from childhood when it was stoked by being afraid that I couldn't believe what everyone around me seemed to believe, and it's strange how something so early and primal stays with you, like the tattoo you got when you were drunk.  

Is such a fear a sign that somewhere, deep down inside me, I believe some early teaching I have since forgotten?  Maybe or maybe not.  I don't believe that a fear of hell is the only thing on which I can base a worldview, because a worldview born out of fear strikes me as brittle, miserable, and ultimately weak. So is a worldview born of exclusion, and as much as I love the commitment and dynamism of some Christians I know, I get a little exasperated when others circle the wagons.

I know, I know…Buddhism (or some Buddhism, or most) has the whole thing of reincarnation.  Something that a skeptic finds a little out there, a little hard to believe as well.  But here's the thing about that.  The life Buddhism sets before one who takes refuge may have a past, but it is not contingent on the past—whether your own or a previous life you've lived, or even whether you lived that previous life in the first place.  It's about the mindfulness of now, the intensification and deepening of the time you have, and of finding a way to share that kind of poetry with others.

This time next year, if I see the mayor and he asks that question again (as well he might, because when you meet so many people, how can you keep track of what you've said to each one?) my answer may be the one Rhonda gave, the one I give in this writing, or something altogether different from both or either.  It will be, however, the fruit of thought and mindfulness and meditation, and of the gratitude for brushing against a tradition every bit as ancient and profound as the one that I've never quite grasped, even though I wanted to.  It took fifty years to find Buddhism, and whether it's a destination or a way station on the road, I wanted my friends to know I'm spending some time exploring the surroundings.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Game of Thrones: So far, so...far?

Like the late arrivals we often are, Rhonda and I are just now watching the first season of HBO's Game of Thrones.  I happened to luck into a remarkably bargain-priced set of the DVDs at our local Joe's Records, and picked them up because many of you have recommended them, because they're high fantasy, and since I started my writing career working in that genre….well, you know the rest.

My reaction to the show has been mixed favorable.  The acting, the production values, and the Northern Ireland sets are, to my way of thinking, pretty wonderful.  I've liked Sean Bean for ages, it seems, and having him anchor the cast is, to me, one of GOT's  principal strengths. 

But hold on a minute.  Does he really anchor a cast or is he just one among a helluva lot of people—so many that I'm finding myself looking at the guide in the DVD set because I can't tell the players without a scorecard?  Baratheon mingles with Stark and Lannister (there are also the blonde ones whose name eludes me—super-entitled wicked brother, gradually empowered sister) until  I find myself stopping the disc, tottering on the edge of lost until I piece together who's who, the image frozen on the screen.

This is digital narration rather than the television or the film I grew up with, so I am forced to scramble a little—not a bad thing for a budding geezer.  It's the kind of "cast of hundreds" you can pull off if your last name is Tolkien or Tolstoy, the leniency of prose fiction allowing the reader to backtrack and cross-reference.  But I'm not as used to it in film or video, and GOT is asking me to access the story in a way that's relatively new to me.  And I'm grateful for that gauntlet being thrown down, for something asking me to venture into unfamiliar realms of "reading".

Having said that, I'd really like to see the elements of the fantastic more in play in the series, fulfilling some of the stark (pun intended) promise of the first few minutes.  We're on the eighth episode, and it seems to be returning, but that's a long time to wait.  The preternatural lurks at the margins of the narrative, and we glimpse moments of it, but it's almost as though it's an afterthought, a kind of hood ornament on the far-ranging Byzantine intrigue.  Whatever one can say about Jackson's Lord of the Rings (and I've heard ranging opinions, from loving to loathing), the fantasy is integral to what happens on screen.  I also found it far easier to tell one character from another, but I'm not reliable on that, since I know LOTR better than any book other than my own, and leaned on that knowledge as I watched the movie.  People who were introduced to Tolkien via the Jackson films might well have found some rough going in growing acquainted with all the characters, but the film (and Tolkien's novel) have the advantage of convening the whole bunch at the Council of Elrond, so that their dispersal becomes easier to follow in the last two books of the trilogy; GOT, on the other hand (at least the TV series—I can't speak for the novels, though I suspect they do the same) moves its characters from distant sources toward convergence, so that the advantage of contrasting one dirty-haired Boromir-type with another goes clean out the window, and I've been looking at them as family members rather than individuals in order to tell them apart.

Something else, though, has always set apart fantasy from other modes of storytelling—especially the high fantasy version of the genre.  We often laugh about how many high fantasies involve the "rag-tag group who save the world from ultimate evil" but they do this because high fantasy deals in the Big Idea, the quest, the important issue, and rests on the premise that ultimately, the world is worth saving.  Martin's Westeros is up for grabs, and I have yet to get a sense of what's at stake beyond raw plays for power, and I am, as I said before, eight episodes in.  That's 4/5 of Season 1.

And this bothers me.  In high fantasy, the stakes should be high for everyone involved, and I get the feeling that these intrigues at the uppermost levels of fantasy politics will make little difference to those who live day by day in Westeros, something you wouldn't have said about the events that take place in Middle Earth or Earthsea.  Maybe it's high fantasy with the postmodern turn of "no grand narrative"?  If that's the case, I suspect I'm going to feel cheated ultimately, like in so many postmodern stories: shimmering surface gives way to a kind of self-referentiality, a kind of brittle thinness.

All in all, the attempt to set down the War of the Roses or Jacobean intrigue in the midst of an alternative world may or may not end up successfully; I'm suspending judgment and enjoying the sumptuous visuals, the neat suspense of the self-contained episodes, and not yet worrying my pretty little head about a more nagging concern: the lack of a grand thematic design of the whole work (so apparent in Tolkien's books and in Jackson's film version of them).  Grand design is something I like in heroic fantasy, just as integral to the genre as the preternatural mythic stuff; however, I'm beginning to fear that, once you get beyond the dark visual beauties of George R.R. Martin's Westeros, it'll end up being kind of like Gertrude Stein's Cleveland, in that "there's no there there".

Saturday, May 18, 2013

On Right Speech

Those of you who know me on a daily basis won't be surprised to hear this, but of late I've been drawn to Buddhism.  It's a long story, and something for another blog entry, but not this one.  This is about what the Buddhists call "Right Speech", which they hold to be he best, wisest, and most productive way to talk to one another.   What I'm doing is a rambling riff on the principles of right speech, as they apply to writing and, I guess, how I try to speak to other people.  This passage comes from the Cunda Kammaraputta Sutta translated from the Pali byThanissaro Bhikkhu; the numbering is my own.
And how is one made pure in four ways by verbal action? 1. There is the case where a certain person, abandoning false speech, abstains from false speech. When he has been called to a town meeting, a group meeting, a gathering of his relatives, his guild, or of the royalty, if he is asked as a witness, 'Come & tell, good man, what you know': If he doesn't know, he says, 'I don't know.' If he does know, he says, 'I know.' If he hasn't seen, he says, 'I haven't seen.' If he has seen, he says, 'I have seen.' Thus he doesn't consciously tell a lie for his own sake, for the sake of another, or for the sake of any reward. Abandoning false speech, he abstains from false speech. He speaks the truth, holds to the truth, is firm, reliable, no deceiver of the world. 2. Abandoning divisive speech he abstains from divisive speech. What he has heard here he does not tell there to break those people apart from these people here. What he has heard there he does not tell here to break these people apart from those people there. Thus reconciling those who have broken apart or cementing those who are united, he loves concord, delights in concord, enjoys concord, speaks things that create concord. 3. Abandoning abusive speech, he abstains from abusive speech. He speaks words that are soothing to the ear, that are affectionate, that go to the heart, that are polite, appealing & pleasing to people at large. 4. Abandoning idle chatter, he abstains from idle chatter. He speaks in season, speaks what is factual, what is in accordance with the goal, the Dhamma, & the Vinaya. He speaks words worth treasuring, seasonable, reasonable, circumscribed, connected with the goal. This is how one is made pure in four ways by verbal action.
In a nutshell, then, a way of talking to each other.  I've seen this formulated into questions you might ask yourself before speaking.  You might have another version, another way of addressing how you talk to those around you, but what follows is my version, what I'm getting from this teaching, filtered through some of the things I'm learning as a novelist.  These are questions that I forget to ask myself sometimes, both in my work and in my daily dealings with all of you.  So I'm renewing the promise: I'm going to ask myself these things in the coming days.  I'm going to break the promise, and I'm going to promise them again because long experience as a writer and as a human being tells me that the things below add up to a kind of "right speech", a way for us to use language in books, in discussion, and in all kinds of conversations.  So, before I speak—either aloud or on paper—I'll be asking myself…
  1. How do you know this thing you're about to say?  Lots of treatments of Right Speech present this as "Are you sure?"  Lots of people I know, however, are always sure, whether they admit it or not, or whether it ends up that they are actually right.  I'm not much of a postmodernist, but I'm enough of one to know that surety is a pretty high bar to jump (postmodernists are sure of nothing except that everything is uncertain—of that, they're absolutely sure).  So I'll put surety to the test by thinking about the source of my information, "citing my sources".  Do I speak from personal experience?  From anecdote?  From an explanation of the subject by one of you?  Out of something I've read?  Seen on television?  None of these sources—not even FOX News—are always wrong, but when you look at the list, you'll probably come to the same conclusion I have: that none are always right.  Neither am I.  Nor you.  Does that mean you should not voice an opinion?  I don't think so.  What's helpful to me in my version of the question is that it asks me to think about where I learned this, and to proceed with the knowledge that I just might be mistaken.  Those who know me can vouch for my own failings in being humble in this, but it's something I work on as a novelist as well: there's always a danger to a story if the writer tends to preach, to proclaim, to rant.  I find myself more tempted to do so as I get older, because I've lived a long time without seeing certain things get fixed, and sometimes it gets frustrating to know that they are not gonna get fixed, that they are unfixable given the human condition.  But as a novelist, you always consider motive, how the character comes to his behavior and what makes him do the things he does.  If you hijack the plot and characterization to suit your personal agenda, you're setting up one of the ways that a book can go bad.
  2. Does what you're saying create concord?  This is the question at which a lot of my community fails, since most of my friends are pretty individualistic, not doctrinaire with their philosophies, theologies, politics.  We tend to characterize the other guy as doctrinaire, of course, but not ourselves—we call it as we see it.  The longer I live as a novelist, the more I understand this question through my own work.  Characters who are doctrinaire become pretty much uninteresting as primary actors in a piece of fiction: they can be great foils or cameos or walk-ons, all of which help define the main characters, the ones you are interested in, the ones who change, question and contradict themselves, and otherwise comprise a good subtle story.  But for all that individualism, they're part of a larger story—events that move toward meaning and a kind of resolution.  Which I think is what I'm looking for in living, even if I don't find it a lot (or even most) of the time.  It's what most people are looking for, at least in my experience.  And our conversation should reflect that.  The idea is to find common ground so discussion can begin: the sutta talks about reconciling those who have broken apart or cementing those who are united, and I think if we are going to live together, that should be in our sights.
  3. Is it kind? Of the four questions, this one is probably the least obviously connected to my life as a writer.  Start by saying I follow a number of the Buddhist framings of abstaining from abusive speech.   Language is my medium: I use it to make up people and events, and I should honor it by dedicating myself to its precise and evocative use.  That means a number of things: that I should attend to grammar and usage, so that each sentence is intentional; that I should understand the characters who emerge from my words and honor their motives; that I should honor the writing rather than writing for honor.  Kindness, in its most interpersonal form (because ultimately kindness has to do with how we treat others), leads me to questions of professionalism:  Writers can be exasperating, ego-ridden people, and I have been among the worst offenders.  But it's an ego-based calling to begin with.   We tend to forget that people don't have to read our work, that their generosity in doing so is, in some ways, a call to our gratitude and kindness. It can be humbling to remember that. And those who hold egos in check are usually the most kind and (to me) among the most admirable.  As I write this, I think of my friends Marian Allen, Stephen Zimmer, and most of all Margaret Weis, who is (next to my wife, Rhonda) the best person I know.  One other thing about abusive speech: Being kind doesn't mean you have to agree, just that you should strive for civility.  Lanny Davis, a former advisor to President Clinton, has written on how to re-introduce politeness into American conversation, especially when we are disagreeing: he says to start with the facts, to put them on the table, and then discuss.  Now, sometimes discord in this country (perhaps worldwide, but certainly in this country) often has reaches the point that we can't even agree on some of the facts.  But trying to establish them has a tendency to cool down the conversation.  And folks, please consider the possibility that name-calling is not discussion? I don't tend to cut off conversations unless you're calling people names.  Finally, yes, sometimes there is kindness in correction, but see #1 above before you start correcting? 
  4. Is it necessary? The sutta speaks to idle chatter.  I suppose that's gossip and superficiality.  But necessity also suggests that there's a right time to say things. As a novelist you have to learn when to introduce detail, situation.  It's pacing, timing, the soul of good narrative, and something I wrestle with all the time, often unsuccessfully.  But I still attend to it, still think about when it's right to bring something up.  This also is useful to think about when we are in conversation: someone I knew quite well, rest her soul, would say hurtful things, then justify having done so with "I had to say it".  Well, she really didn't have to.  Sometimes I've found it best to be quiet, when people are neither listening nor ready to listen.  If I had offered my opinion, it might have been a kind of "vanity press"—unleashing words into a conversation that are not shaped and chosen and polished to be heard.
A lot of things went down in this blog: writing and Buddha and everyday conversation.  All of which centers on acts of attention.  I'm not great at tuning in, but my work and temperament and life in general improve when I attend to right speech.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

On Slowness

In the late 80s and early 90s, I turned out eight books at what was, for me, a rapid pace.  I was involved at the university by that time, and remember a number of people observing that I was "prolific" and "cranking them out"—phrases used with contempt, as though I was spreading germs by sneezing in an elevator.   They always observed this under a mask of objectivity, a mask that didn't hide the curled-up lip very well—the expression of disdain that we academics always use for something we don't understand.

They're wrong and they're right, you know.  At least given my current writing rhythm and rate of production.  I see people caught up with a kind of marketing fever, preoccupied by the fear that they will pass from the knowledge of readers if they don't publish a couple of books a year.  And they, too, have a point:  a friend of mine wanted to do an article on my work for Louisville Magazine back in the late 90s, only to have the proposal rejected because "he hasn't published in five years" (I'd published two books in the five years in question, so whoever said this was mistaken, but the observation tells you something—that publishing is, understandably, fascinated with what is most recent).

But I don't work that way anymore.  Writing a book is, for me, a long gestation, as ideas, plots and subplots, and additional characters introduce themselves over the course of several years, and in ways that connect and deepen what I'm working on, ways I could not hope to attain if I kept up the pace I set twenty years ago. 

I think of two models of creation.  God made the world in seven days, according to Genesis 1 and 2.  I don't believe for a moment that this is a literal account of how the world got done (whether or not it's helpful as a metaphorical account is the subject for someone else's blog); far more reasonable to assume that creation was the slow process all the scientific evidence indicates.  That's how good things get done in nature, and as I grow older, I have come to appreciate that process, to know in my bones that faster is not better.

And no, you young 'uns out there: it's not that I'm old and tired.  My age and weariness may show itself in other things, but a slow writing is to me harder work.  Instead of thinking about a book for six months, I think about it for two or three years, turning its possibilities in my hand, seeing it from various angles, like you'd do when you were a kid tilting a prism to the light.  I love working on books, and I love doing the work at my pace, in my time.

I do want to publish, mind you, and I do dread the possibility of being passed by in an industry that, as Shakespeare said of Time, "hath a wallet at its back/Wherein it keeps alms for oblivion".  But don't be too quick to delight in the fact that I'd like to see my books in print: the best part of this job—hands down, nothing else about it even remotely close—is the writing itself. 

So I'll take my time and see you down the road.  Wait for me.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Williams Diet: A Summary

Those of you who see me at the Authors Fair in Madison this coming weekend may take note that, yes, I have lost a substantial amount of weight—24 pounds in six weeks by the last count (my weigh-ins are on Friday mornings, and it is a Wednesday as I write this).  In fact, you should take note of the weight loss, damn it, because this is one of the harder things I have done this millennium.

I am not using this occasion to cite obesity statistics (which are appalling, granted) or to wax self-righteous about this accomplishment.  I flat-out have to lose weight, what with a heart condition and the bone structure of an eleven-year-old girl (don’t believe me?  Then check out my wrist size next time we meet).  Heart medicine has put on weight that only dieting and exercise can take off, and when I woke from unsettling dreams to see that my identity had been stolen by a dumpy, 75-year-old Irishman, I decided it was time to transform.

Here is how I've done it, but first a caveat.  This is not a pleasant journey, and if you have another way, please choose it, with my blessings.   Choose it FOR YOURSELF, if you feel you need it. In return for those blessings (which I give you gladly, no matter if you keep this part of the bargain), I ask only that you not share with me your far easier, sleeker and sexier method of weight loss.  The world is filled with internet experts, and my version, though painful, has goddamned worked for me this far.  

Here's my schedule:
7 am: Slimfast
12 noon: Slimfast
2-5 pm: Blind, craving-fueled rage at all around me—students, friends, family, the cosmos—telling myself the uncomfortable truth that it is not real hunger, it's just having been spoiled by too much to eat.
5-6 pm: Supper with reasonable, rest-of-the-world portions.  Not the Amurrikan ones where you can't see the news from over the tumulus of carbohydrates on your plate.  All the while wishing you could eat until your spouse says, "That's it, honey.  The town is entirely out of food."
8-10 pm:  Go to sleep.  The earlier the better, to stop thinking about it.

I bought this plan on the long term.  Reached fifty years old without a concept of portion size or calories.  Now I know that "portion size" = "leaving the table hungry". And whatever you like has too much calories.  So I have to stop putting so much of what I like into my mouth.

I believe I'll reach my target weight, which is still ten pounds away.  And then maybe I can shed some of my housecat mentality, which is basically yearning for the next meal and the next nap.  Yes, it's distracted me from my best work, but I figure my worst work may come after a fatal heart attack, so I'll put up with this until I'm ten pounds lighter.  Then see if I can eat something I like once in a while, and weigh every Friday to derail the Fat Irish Express back to the weight I was at when this whole irritating business started.  I do believe this is a craving, like when I quit smoking, different only in the fact that, with the diet, I'm giving up some of what's good for me because it's too much.  It's a space that can be filled with other things.  

Like compliments on how good I look.  So tell me that.  Even if you don't mean it.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

On Cutting Some Slack

Even my most libertarian friends, with their dreams of desert freeholds or serene isolation from the rest of us, have to own up, sooner or later, that we live in a community.  That unless you are Ted Kaczynski, making bombs and manifestos in an isolated cabin, you'll have to deal with people in a way that is civil and constructive, even if it isn't always friendly.

This is where slack-cutting is of value.  The quality that lets slide the irritating quirks of others, usually with phrases like "Oh, that's just [him/her]" or "I have to work with [him/her] later, so I'll let it go".
Public hostility is different.  Recently I was rudely and aggressively insulted in front of a large crowd.  I had respected the offender, and in some ways I still do—in ways that will be enough to work with her if I am called upon to do so.  After her tantrum I can no longer like her, but I've cut slack to a practical ground, where any contact I have with her can be useful, though I am reasonably sure it can no longer be pleasant.

Fiction writing—or at least some of the characterization that a fiction writer does—can begin in cutting slack.  You let things slide because you're interested in seeing where they head, because you realize they may make good copy up the road.  But it's good as well for people who do other things.

I tend to pace in the classroom.  It's because I can't stand still when the ideas are good.  I can see that it might unsettle someone: twice in twenty-five years of teaching, people have complained, but for the most part my students put up with it, out of their own kindness and graciousness and, I certainly hope, a returned respect for me and for my forgiveness of late papers, class-cutting, and improvised apologies and excuses for the aforementioned.  I also hope they get excited by the ideas as well, and realize we all have different ways of making that known.

Still, when I saw a student evaluation that expressed real discomfort with my pacing—that went on about it for a paragraph or so—I took stock of my habit.  This was mid-semester, on a large internet site, so it gave me time to correct my behavior to less discomfort a student who was apparently very upset about it.  I tried to check the pacing—a practice I found a little distracting myself, since I had to call myself out on a number of occasions—but I figured the class was about the students instead of about me, so I could adjust as much as I could.  And the student mentioned that it had gotten better…in the four subsequent evaluations where she registered complaints that it had happened to begin with.

Yes, I said 'she', because it wasn't hard to figure out who it was.  She dropped pure factual information into the paragraph—the course she was taking from me, and that she was taking yet another simultaneously—so I knew instantly.  Don't ever think you're that opaque on anonymous evaluations.  She graduated before three of the five complaining paragraphs were published, but in her aftermath she left me thinking:

First time, maybe the second time, the problem was about me.  By the fifth time, it's about you, my dear.

Which speaks to cutting slack.  One thing we can learn is how to do it.  Because the things about someone else are sometimes about you.  I've learned it too often in my own life, made too many mistakes, indulged too many bad quirks and habits, to not hope for slack from those of you I have offended.  Which doesn't mean that your own little performances won't show up in something I write someday.  

 Because that's the way I roll.