Friday, January 26, 2007

Shroedinger's Cat

When I was a child—a very small child—I frequently walked across the street to the convenience store on 6th street near downtown Irving. I remember crouching near the floor, staring at the magazine rack and counting what little was left of my allowance. Of course, I wasn’t staring at Car and Driver or Soldier of Fortune, which would fascinate me as I approached my teenage years, nor was I gawking at The Atlantic or Harpers, which holds my fascination now. Instead, I was gazing, with the same glazed eyes you’ll see on any child on the toy aisle of any department store at the comic books lined up on the bottom shelf.

Like virtually every other male child, I loved comic books. Perhaps my love wasn't as involved as that of Michael Chabon or the hundreds of thousands of people across the world who attend comic book conventions. Nevertheless, I still remember fondly those moments when I had enough allowance left to buy a soda and the latest Power Pack. No doubt, there are myriad reasons. Perhaps I was drawn to the presence of the extraordinary in ordinary people, like my father or our neighbors. Perhaps I was drawn to the crystal clear demarcations between good and evil, the elegant simplicity of a morality play. Perhaps, I needed to cultivate the spaces in my imagination for pure escapism. I don't know.

I do know, however, that aside from a peculiar fascination with the Green Lantern, my favorite stories involved alternate realities. Of course, every comic book is a depiction of an alternate reality, but I'm referring to those story arcs that delved into history and altered it to provide us with another possibility of what our world would be like. Through such comic books, I had the opportunity to imagine what life would be like if Germany had won World War II or if a handful of fledging British Colonies in the Western Hemisphere had lost their Revolutionary War. Even now, I remain fascinated by stories, like Philip Roth’s The Plot against America, that explore what could have happened.


Lately, I've been overly anxious about these initial rumblings toward a writing career. Money has been tight lately. I haven't had any paying work for a little while. I find myself worrying whether or not the investment of time is worth the hassle. I find myself thinking about what I ought to be doing, rather than soaking in the hot bath of the present. More, when a writing day goes poorly, I berate myself until I feel overwhelmed by the seeming failures of my life.

Of course, if I dwell too long, there are friends and acquaintances who, by one measure or another are more successful, but inevitably, my mind nevertheless wanders to those myriad "what ifs."

What if we'd stayed in San Francisco? What if I'd already finished that novel draft that may or may not be corrupting on my hard drive? What if I'd simply abandoned these dreams of poetry and fiction and focused on my professional career?

I think that, at times, all of us are guilty of such imaginings. We picture ourselves as we may have been if a single decision—like whether or not to kiss someone—had been handled differently. Our personal histories, like those of societies, cultures, and the world in general, are constantly subject to such speculation. This is why those alternative histories found in comic books are so intriguing—they demonstrate that possibility that everything could be different, occasionally on the basis of the smallest change, the smallest detail that might otherwise go unnoticed.


One of the greatest regrets of my life, thus far, is the way I responded to a partial draft of a story wrote around Christmas time the first year we lived together. Rather than simply pointing out some of the fascinating details she'd captured and letting her know I couldn't wait to see the completed draft, I offered a few criticisms I thought would be constructive.

She hasn't worked on a story since then.

To me, that time period seems like a brief and unique period in our lives, one in which my wife actually allowed herself to dream big dreams. Perhaps, after all, she would be a writer, as she'd imagined she would be as a small child, and as, in college, we both assumed. In fact, her career path seemed utterly clear to me: she would find some administrative job whilst slaving away in stolen moments to produce a novel of uncompromising genius.

Later, by the time we were both in our 30s, I would run into her at an AWP conference, and we'd catch up over drinks, laughing at the way we behaved around one another in college. This, of course, is an alternative history, and not at all what happened.

Instead, we both followed life's own peculiar momentum. My planned teaching career never got further than an adjunct position at a community college, and her professional development was mired in a bad administrative job back in Pittsburgh.

Yet, for a few brief moments in California, she let herself bypass the doubts and indecisions that plague most adults, most of the time, and she wrote a few marvelous paragraphs.


I like to think sometimes of alternative histories where my wife has already won a Pulitzer. I like to contemplate the brilliant possibilities. After all, if one errant decision, 20 years ago could so profoundly affect our lives, I know that, around the corner there is a decision that could profoundly affect the next 20 years.

For now, I'm trying to keep this simple notion in mind anytime that anxiety strikes, for risk, alas, is part of the equation. And, regardless of the outcome, I'll not confine this kitten of a writing career to the paradox of what might have been possible just yet.


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