Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Road Not Taken Again and Again and Again and...

I was in Starbucks talking to a woman about her alma mater, a small liberal arts school, and she said smugly that going there had “made all the difference.”  She was confident that I would get the reference to Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” with its ending:  “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I --/I took the one less traveled by,/And that has made all the difference.”  And I did.  And I should have just let the conversation continue on easily.  But I didn’t.  I couldn’t help saying, ‘Yeah, I ordered a large coffee.   And that has made all the difference.”  She looked at me puzzled.  Was I mocking her?  Well, no.  And kind of.

A small coffee would have made all the difference as well.  Every choice – large and small -- makes all the difference.  This is revelation, truism, and banality.  The statement that feels epic:  The Sun Will Rise Today! – and it is epic.   What a miracle a sunrise is.  But the statement itself is about making a statement.

“The Road Not Taken” has become a clarion call for not following the crowd.  I’ve heard it in speeches, conversations, and years ago saw use it as a commercial.  Break away.  Don’t go where most people do.  Yet there are multiple problems with this.  For one, to take a path is to remain on a worn trail that others have gone.  You’re still not a wild bushwacking rebel.  For another, it’s funny that people keep turning to the same lines to trumpet difference and pseudo-individuality.  The paradox of poetry as bumper sticker anthem.  (I once saw Whitman’s “barbaric yawp” on the back of a car, and I want to believe that the owner was being ironic.  I want to, but . . . )  Most significantly, as many have pointed out, there is a difference between what the speaker says he or she is doing and what the situation actually is.  The paths are equally worn.  No one has trod either that morning.  The choice is between two ways that look similar, but the narrator realizes that “ages hence,” whatever choice he or she makes will be justified with the thought “I – I took the road less travelled by.”

The poem ends up being a complex assessment of human psychology and justification.  We have to make choices.  Some are equivalent – Pepsi or Coke -- but we’ll come up with reasons later to feel like we did the right thing.

I too went to a small liberal arts college.  The woman and I took the same path and read the same poems and buy coffee at the same places, but I – I interpret the experience different.  I -- I don’t agree with the mainstream.  I -- I don’t give an easy response in conversation.  I . . .

Frost has our number.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

One Problem (With Writing) About People

            It’s raining, and I get to my classroom drenched even though I’ve only had to cross the street from my office.  We begin a discussion of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, and many students criticize a moment in the film where Ofelia eats grapes even though she’s been warned not to do so.  (The result is bad.)  They ask, “Why would she do that?” and insist, “She wouldn’t do that.  It makes no sense.” 
            We talk about possibilities. Ofelia is a child, and children disobey.  She had shown just moments earlier that she knew better than the fairies guiding her.  She’s hungry.  All of these point to rational reasons, and maybe they explain her action.
            But, there is another possibility, and one more difficult to accept.
            I point to my still wet shirt and say, “I’m soaked.  Why?”
            “Because it’s raining.”
            “So,” I ask, “What does that tell you about me?”
            They offer possibilities:  I’m unprepared.  I’m poor and can’t afford an umbrella.  My umbrella is broken.  I was caught by surprise.
            I explain that I knew it was going to rain.  I checked the weather, and I brought a very good raincoat and umbrella to my office.  I was neither lazy nor forgetful.  Then, when it came time to walk across the street, even though I could see it was raining out the window, I simply chose not to reach for either the umbrella or the coat on a nearby chair.
            People are irrational.  We make odd, inexplicable, decisions, veering off from logical paths.
            This can be difficult to convey in fiction and narrative.
            Most of us get annoyed when a character does something unlikely for reasons of plot.  Certain types of obtuseness or inconsistency are clearly the authorial hand manipulating the story.  And, yet, I’m also uncomfortable with how frequently in critique groups, I hear something like:  “She wouldn’t do that” or “I don’t think he would say that.”  We want, even demand, a consistency in our fictional worlds that doesn’t always reflect how we live our lives (and perhaps the former stems from the latter).  We all know people who make terrible decisions, ones they can’t explain.  Most of us have done it ourselves. 
            A friend and I once made plans to cook for a household.  We decided on a lasagna recipe together, went to the grocery together, and bought the ingredients together.  We went back to the house, and suddenly she decided that she didn’t want to use what we had bought or make it the way we had talked about.  It not only changed the dynamic of the evening, but of the friendship, and to this day, I don’t know what happened.
Consistency of character. 
Isn’t it pretty to think so.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

What Makes Relationships Last? Maybe Not These Things, But...

            WARNING:  This post has strong, even vulgar, language.  If you’re offended by such, read no further.  It also has shocking sentimentality, if you’re offended by such, read no further.  It also has bumper-sticker advice that can seem smug, if you’re offended by such . . .

            Some time ago, a student who was getting married asked me for the “secret” to a happy-long term relationships.  I immediately thought of the husband in Frida saying “a short memory,” but I decided to out-source the task and ask around.  You can never know.  Seemingly great couples split, and you wonder why.  Couples who hate each other stay together.  But, here are some of the responses I gathered, and I post them as Valentine’s Day approaches.

For God's sakes, don't try to change them.

The three Cs:  commitment, communication, compromise.

Time apart.

Clean the dishes, or at least look apologetic when you haven't.  A hang-dog expression is useful.  Act like you give a shit.

Plan time together and time with others away from each other.  Be patient.  Do more than is expected of you.

Embrace optimism.

Make money; hire servants.

Being extremely patient and humble helps a lot.

Pick your battles.

I know this will sound like either I am mocking or full of crap, but [my wife] and I have always contended that one of our secrets is that we are able to say "Fuck you" to each other and still be there the next day.  I guess the point is -- if we censored ourselves why would we be married?

His wife's response (emailed separately) -- Laughter, intellectual curiosity, strong sense of self, ability to argue hard and make up............ or as [my husband] and I always say, the most important words in a marriage are "Fuck You."

           My folks took the question to one of their dining groups where, my father said, most of the couples had been married for over forty years.  He said they talked about it for a couple hours and the group decided:  Trust, Communication and Similar standards and values (work ethic, manners, ideas about education, parenting, etc.)
            As for me, after a dozen years of marriage, my wife began packing my lunch.  In part, this may have been because we had kids, and she decided to do mine as well as theirs.  (No one wanted me to do it; the kids are nervous whenever I have to.)  In part, she was horrified at my casualness.  When I “pack” my lunch, it will be a can of soup or a box of instant potatoes stuffed in my computer bag.  No silverware.  I just open whatever package I have and tip it into my mouth.  When my wife does the lunches, they’re much better – pasta, salad, fruit, yogurt – because she wants my life to be better.  And, when there’s two dishes, she puts in two spoons or a spoon and fork.  The silverware isn’t because she wants me to be more refined – I eat at my desk – but she wants the experience to be more pleasurable. She is trying to take care of me better than I’ll take care of myself.
            So, I think one secret is two spoons in a lunchbox. And filling up their gas tank.  Polishing their shoes.  What my brother calls Acts of service.
As for my wife, when I asked her, she immediately responded:  You have to be friends.
            And, there is another possibility.  My father tells me that my grandfather first saw my grandmother while walking down the street.  He approached, lifted his bowler, and said, “My name is Emmet Mills, and I would like to court you.”  Apparently, she let him.  After they were married, my grandfather liked to pat my grandmother’s butt as she walked past.  He did this once in front of a friend and was chastised.  Not by her, but by his friend who told him, “Your wife is a fine woman.  Refined.  Elegant.  You shouldn’t treat her like that.  It’s low-class.”  My grandfather was embarrassed, and he stopped.  Some time later, my grandmother suddenly burst into tears and said, “You don’t love me anymore.”   When my grandfather asked, “Why would you say that?” she explained,  “You don’t . . . touch me the way you used to.”  ”  He began doing it again and did it for the rest of their lives.  So, maybe the secret to a good relationship is consistent pats on the ass.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

On Being Asked What My Poems Are About: An Inventory

Children and people who used to be
children, couples (happy and unhappy,
together and separated, future and past),
traveling, trucks, rivers, and roads 
(country, city, traveled and less traveled,
crossed, high, low, and to nowhere)
wine, weddings, water, weather, winters
seasons, death, ghosts, graves,
families, friends (real and imaginary),
fire, fingers, foreign countries (mostly France)
a few things that happened in high school,
letters, toys, music (mostly the Beatles),
camping, coffee, prayers, other poems,
full moons, crescent moons, half moons,
many poor decisions and a few good ones,
notebooks, leaving home and going back,
losing home and finding it (or at least looking),
books and baked goods, nostalgia, regret,
longing and more longing, mostly longing.