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.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Fire and Ice

I woke up early this morning after falling asleep near nine o’clock last night when the President was due to begin his State of the Union address. Yet, even with what would seem enough sleep, my eyelids feel like flypaper and my back has been transformed into an enormous throbbing ache. This morning, light flurries covered the footstep-mottled snow from Sunday with fresh powder. Everything was aglow with the reflective light of the morning's snow.

Now, Dixie is wandering the perimeter of our backyard, as Archie nuzzles against the comforter on the other sofa. My wife has just phoned, having forgotten her lunch, so, in a few minutes, I'll be off in our dinged-up gold Escort, sliding across the streets on balding tires to have lunch on the other side of the Ohio River.

Although I'm looking forward to a brief conversation with my wife at what seems an unusual time for me, I'm also weary and concerned about writing time. The morning, as ever, was spent minding the dogs, while surreptitiously catching up on a handful of emails. Oddly, last week was incredibly productive. I drafted three short stories—all of which have more potential than the majority of stories I've written in my life. But to get there, I'd settled into an odd rhythm.

Each day, after waking a bit too late, I would mind the dogs, getting in a writing exercise or two between emails with my wife and jaunts outside to tire the puppies. Some days, I'd even remember to eat a modest lunch—a sandwich, a bowl of cereal, or some form of pasta left over from dinner. Then, at last, around 1:30, I'd saunter off to a local cafe for hours on end.


That is not what happened today. Instead, exhaustion caught up with me, and I lazed on the sofa with the dogs for a two-hour nap, dreaming of vistas now forgotten. I woke just as my wife arrived home and read and read, in search of something akin to insider advice on the publishing industry.

And now, here I am, approaching the end of the day, lamenting the seeming lack of writing accomplishments as though it were a moderately serious injury, like a sprained ankle that would keep me off my feet for the better part of a week. Why?


In college, I took to writing in a cafe near campus. The cell-sized establishment, thick with smoke, catered to students from the nearby campus. I would sit there, sipping a hot coffee, lighting cigarette after cigarette, while contemplating the next tiny line to scribble along the lines in by black hardcover journal. But as I look back on that time period, imagining myself, a friend or two or five is always present. Perhaps someone sits across the table from me, reading a thick textbook for a class on Information Design. Or perhaps, across the aisle, a group gathers around a surprising trick in a game of bridge. Regardless, there is always the presence of others in these memories.

When the cafe, inevitably, closed, we were lost. There was chatter of transforming one or another friend's houses into a make-shift coffee house, but that didn't happen while I was still in school. Instead, we found another establishment where the smoke would fill the rooms, where we could write papers, poems, or stories, and where a game of bridge or spades was almost always ongoing.

At times, I miss the camaraderie of those days—so many of us gathering together like a gang. The endlessly foolish possibilities of youth constantly simmered beneath the surface. Greatness, it seemed, loomed at every corner, to the point where I started to get pissed if anyone called me a genius.


Last week, while at the cafe I now frequent, I made the acquaintance of an elderly man. For Christmas, his daughter had purchased him a new, black laptop, sleek as ice on an unsalted winter road. He needed help connecting to the free wireless and then logging onto his email account. In return for that smallest of favors, he played me a few tracks of a jazz CD his son had helped him record. He played the alto sax, long ago, with a series of long sustained solo notes, that trilled upwards and downwards with a gentle lethargy that sounded nearly pre-bop. More, he told me tales of a Cincinnati from long ago, when he had more work than he could imagine, and how each night, as he played his wife's favorite song, he would wrap his arms around her, cradling his saxophone behind her back, and dance the melody into those smoky clubs.

It shames me a little to say this, but part of me, longed for the solitude that I so often seek out in cafes now. I engross myself in the silence of chatter, and the act of actually leaving the house makes it easier for my psyche to think of the task at hand as work—even if the payment for such exertions remains constantly delayed. I take those two to three hours and focus on my current project without worrying over the dogs, jostling between emails, and quick glimpses at CNN. I manage, lately, to move ahead.

But through happenstance, I lost a day of writing.

I suppose, in many ways, this is the precarious position of the writer. We need both to experience, whether through reading or active engagement, the world. We need, also, to lock ourselves in a figurative hermitage, where writing, and writing alone is primary.


My wife is sleeping soundly on the sofa, with the puppies. I have a few moments now to gather my bearings and set out into the frightening landscape of a glowing white page. Emptiness everywhere, waiting to be filled with verbs, nouns, etcetera.