Monday, April 20, 2009


"Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real."
-Cormac McCarthy

A linear life is something that feels mythic to me, an existence in which the trajectory is true as a compass without switchbacks, doglegs, detours, alluring byways or sinkholes. The liver of such a life has a plan. Their focus is not diverted by the giant tinfoil ball which, the billboards assure, will astound all who see it. Their canteens and gas tanks are full, nobody in the car has a sudden need for a restroom. They have a destination and estimated arrival time and, by God, nothing pulls them off course. They meet all goals and deadlines, each step builds upon the one before and, without doubt, their hair always turns out in the back. No badly-tossed Frisbee or untied shoelace has ever caused them to stumble; they've never accidentally wandered off course due to some amnesiac condition, fallen asleep with something in the oven or been inclined to take up with someone who, as was said in my family, was no better than they ought to be.

The absence of that linear inclination (or is it DNA?) has for years led to endlessly unproductive comparisons and an abundance of mental scolding. For the record: there is perhaps nothing that I find less agreeable than a scold; a tuna-and-turpentine sandwich sounds a whole lot tastier than anyone's voice (why do we do this to ourselves?) pointing out bad calls like a panel of sportscasters dissecting the Lakers game I just watched. At a certain age, I had to own that, like Jack, I would be likely to trade whatever animal I was leading for the magic beans, not because I'm a fool but because I believe that sure things are an illusion and Divine opportunity finds the least predictable ways of drawing us in. Added to these less-than-top drawer inclinations is a lifetime of depression, never adequately identified or treated until middle age. Here is a piece of advice: if you have the feeling that something is wrong, even if you think what's wrong is you, pay attention. Sooner or later you will find that it isn't you in the sense of your core being, your soul, but rather your chemistry and, maybe, your scars.

In elementary school we learned to square dance. There was the hand-over-hand promenade around the circle, some steps that took us backward, the changing of partners, a substantial number of fifth-grade boys who would stare at your eighth-grade chest and one guy who must have prayed to be delivered by that nuclear flash we were always preparing for rather than have to extend his moist and waxy hands to girls who would - how could we help it? - talk about him later. But it had a free-wheeling cheeriness and no sense that the world would actually end - no flash involved - if we made a mistake. In seventh grade I learned ballroom dancing (called with droll amplification, Cotillion) and clearly saw the difference between the ordered disarray of the hoedown and the, at least as we practiced it, stilted and land mine-strewn world of boy-girl dancing. The rules were much clearer, the chances of getting it wrong much greater.

If we have been, for the most part, reasonably sober, reasonably present and not serially stupid by intention, yet still found ourselves in lives that seemed to fold back on themselves like mixing cake batter AND have glanced around and seen that People Who Looked Like They Were Doing It Right didn't have their hems held up with safety pins or seem conflicted about what they might be when they grew up, self-criticism is tough to dodge without other models or new definitions of success. Our past is real, as is our present. The scars deserve examination for they may be the breadcrumbs that help us toward home.

To be continued...

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Words on a less-than-perfect day

This may be a day of straight talk, borrowed from the pages of EVERYTHING REVERBERATES: THOUGHTS ON DESIGN from Chronicle Books.

My day has been spent waiting to hear legal advice on a medical question and at the moment, as well as most of yesterday, it has that life-and-death, feel your pulse in your throat, I-could-be-wrong-but-the-system-sucks aftertaste. Before I fall asleep I wanted to read what smart people had to say about other things. So as an antidote to the day, here are a few quotes:

Discomfort is almost a prerequisite for a great idea.
- Craig Frazier

Most people
ignorantly suppose that artists
are the decorators of our human existence,
the esthetes
to whom the cultivated may turn
when the real
business of the day is done....
Far from being merely decorative,
the artist's
is one of the few guardians
of the inherent sanity and equilibrium
of the human spirit
that we see.
-Robert Motherwell

there is simply no need
to be either
clever or original.
-Ivan Chermayeff

(and, finally, from one of my icons)

I do think there is something to
be said for art which is just sort of
lukewarm...the kinds of things
that I'm attracted to are nonchalant.
-Edward Gorey

From me: we are not always going to get it right, either in the doing or the responding or the interpreting. The most we can hope for is that to any moment we bring our best, suspend criticism and comparison, and remember that civilized behavior is contagious.