Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Summer Haiku

The truest myth
   Tantalus
In his cave

Listless afternoons
   the sunshine
And the salt breeze

No one notices
   trees rustling
Beside a boulevard

The metaphysics of
   riding a motorcycle
Announcing itself

At the bottom of things
   all the dust
Settles

The aesthetics of
   punctuation:
A beautiful semicolon

Sometimes it seems
   like everything is romantic -
Or else nothing is

She was a dream
   even when I held her
Close in my arms

Quiet rebellions
   always make
So much noise

Mountain haikus
   lost in the altitude
Struck by afternoon lightning

Desires and expectations
   filling the world
With eternal longing

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Xavier Moon

Context first. Xavier Moon is the name of a character from my oft-restarted, oft-aborted, novel. In truth, Xavier Moon is, in some small way, me, and in many large ways, not me. Regardless, he's become so archetypal and abstract to me that in order to write him as a character I'm going to have to fight with him a lot.

What I'm about to post here is something I wrote back in October, but chose not to post at that time. Rereading it, I figure, hey, why not? So here's a paragraph about Mr. Moon. Be warned, this is me writing the way I really write. Kerouacian, if I flatter myself, or maybe just poorly. Hard to say. Regardless, here be (intentional) run-on sentences.

Xavier Moon is an impossible character to describe, because he's really only an idea, an archetype, a reflection of myself into some mystical, mythical world of forms, but not quite that, because Plato's forms have no meaning in our historical age, when we can see the past and make - or more often not make - sense of the stories about the past that we hear and accept. Xavier Moon has been a writer, a musician, a student, an athlete, a dreamer, a dream, a lover, beloved, powerful, meek, an astrologer, a scientist, a lonely man in shirt sleeves (after Eliot), and a man burning some preposterous version of his own second Troy. Xavier Moon stays up until 3 AM, but doesn't particularly care for clocks. He wears the finest clothes, but no jewelry, and has long, black hair. Or else his hair is brown, tawny and well-kempt. Regardless, his glasses give him a dignified, intelligent bearing, and he would never be caught writing in a generic notebook with a generic pen, not because he has some superficial aversion to the cheapness of genre, but because he somehow finds himself always surrounded by finery, as if by accident. He is no great man, but he draws the greatness of others to him. Except, there's a catch, because in the process of attracting and enabling power to come to be his own lunarity inflicts some shadowy maleficence upon the shining virtue of his interlocutor. He might rationalize his corrupting bearing by explaining that, in truth, there is no such thing as greatness uncorrupted, or else he might remind those poor souls to whom he is midwife that all births - especially significant ones - are painful.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Problem With Love

The problem with love, as a word, is that it’s woefully imprecise. The Greeks had no less than three words for our one. That’s a radical reversal of the usual state of affairs. Consider the Greek logos, which is variably – and accurately – translated as “word,” “logic,” “idea,” and “ratio,” and is also appended onto countless other roots to mean “the study of,” as in anthropology (literally “the study of humans”) or technology (literally, and somewhat ironically, “the study of art and craft”). Logos is typical of Greek: a single word referring to a great many concepts, for which we now have dozens and dozens of words.

English, however lexically rich in most cases, is destitute when it comes to love. Love is love. While we still believe in a difference between brotherly love – agape in Greek – the love of an idea – philos – and romantic love – eros – we have but the one word. It’s a problem that makes itself felt whenever we say we love someone. One would hope that context is enough, most of the time, to tell which kind of love is meant, but it’s not always immediately obvious.

For the purposes of this essay, I want to talk mostly about love as in eros. Romantic love. Desire. The other kinds of love are interesting, sure, but not interesting enough. So let’s extract ourselves from the linguistic mess. Love, from here on, need not be a complicated word. Or, at least, we can peel away the first level of complication and get to the real problem.

The problem with love as a word is miniscule compared to the real problem. The real problem with love is as an emotion, as an experience. No two people have the exact same experience of love, but if great poetry and shitty pop music alike teach us anything, it’s that there are certain aspects of being in love that resonate across time and space and culture. Our experiences may differ, but in those differences there is much commonality. I won’t cite love poem after love poem – or pop song after pop song – as that could take ages. Instead, here’s the problem with love in a nutshell:

Love is always, and fundamentally, unrequited.

I don’t mean to say that two people can’t love each other. I don’t mean to say, either, that happy relationships don’t exist. Of course there are a great many people in the world who accurately describe themselves as in love with one another. There are genuinely loving 50th wedding anniversaries and lovers who finish each others’ sentences. There are men and women who cook for their partners at the end of a long day and couples who raise their children together joyfully. There are couples who never fight because they’re so much alike, and couples who fight all the time and revel in the fighting and so love each other for that. Who am I to say all that love is unrequited?

I hasten to explain that unrequited does not mean that love is not felt by both parties. Literally, etymologically, “unrequited” means “not given back.” And how could it be given back? Love, given to someone, is not meant to be returned. When two people love each other, they love with a different love, with their own love. My love for someone else is uniquely mine, and the love I receive in return is emphatically not mine.

That may sound like just semantics, though, and questionable semantics at that, so let me explain. What I really mean is, there is a certain, irrational, intrinsic myopia to love. Love is felt, but not really understood. We become obsessive over it. We act strangely. We lose perspective. Even if – especially if – we deeply, truly love another person, that love is so essentially our own that to think of it as being shared is almost absurd. When two people love each other, it is not that they possess each other’s love. Rather, they possess their own love for each other.

To distinguish this from more traditional and mundane unrequited love, let’s consider the ways in which love is typically not returned. A great deal of the love in the world is unrequited in the classic sense that one person loves another without being loved by that person. After all, it is much, much easier to find someone to love than it is to find someone who loves you. What’s more, it’s easy – and probably foolish – to trick yourself into thinking you’ve fallen in love with someone simply because that person loves you. This, too, is unrequited love, because however real it feels, it’s not really, really, real.

Then there are the countless cases where love fades, where the magic and passion that once allowed a relationship to flourish turn to mere duty and routine. This happens often, and while it may be expected and accepted that relationships lose their luster with time, at a certain point that love, that eros, becomes more a familial love, agape, which doesn’t particularly inspire – or, I dare say, matter – quite so much. The true tragedy is when this happens to one partner before it happens to the other. How awful is the unrequited eros of a man or woman whose partner loves, but is not in love?

Finally, there is the shared love, the storied requited love, of fairy tales. Prince Charming and his Princess, or Beauty and her Beast, or those all-American grandparents who were once high school sweethearts, married at 20, and have been together ever since. Even when these stories are real, though, they’re not true to the form of love. The nature of the seeming requital is too superficial. It doesn't go to the mythological roots. Is not Romeo and Juliet the truer story? Or Tristan and Isolde?

Scholars, intellectuals, and high schoolers throughout history have debated whether Romeo and Juliet truly love each other. For the moment let’s assume they do. Let’s assume that they are not just horny teenagers aroused by each other’s beauty. In that case, theirs is a classic requited love gone wrong. Thus, theirs is a tragedy of epic, mythical proportions (“never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo” and all). Love at first sight – true love – turns to ash, to death, to the bitterest of ends.

It need not be that way, but there’s a certain truth to it, no? Romeo’s banishment stems from his inability to separate himself from his world, to inhabit totally his love for Juliet. There is no doubt that he wishes he could do nothing but love her, but he cannot put aside the broader world. And such is love’s myopia: it wishes to be all, to consume, to be the heart and soul and core of one’s being, and yet it cannot. “Love is not all,” to quote Edna St. Vincent Millay’s famous sonnet, “it is not meat nor drink / Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain.” That Millay would not give up her love – her memory of her love, even – for those more practical things does not mean that love can replace those things. Romeo would certainly like to give up his family’s hatred for the Capulets – a ‘need’ which is good deal more abstract and less necessary than food – but he finds doing so impossible.

Perhaps love need not be so myopic? Maybe there is a healthy way of relating with it? Maybe it need not consume the way it consumes Romeo? Indeed, a great many people manage to live and love without being destroyed by the emotion as Romeo and Juliet are. Ah, but Romeo and Juliet are a metaphor, not a cautionary tale. They speak to the impotence of love – eros, to be clear – to affect or even relate to the world, even if it wants nothing more than to do so. There is a way of reading Romeo and Juliet, in fact, where it seems that the characters actually want to die.

To explore this idea, I think it’s better to turn to Tristan and Isolde. The classic poetic union of death and love – from the French euphemism “le petite mort” to the grand final scene of Wagner’s opera – is no accident. Eros, love, whatever word we want to use, is in some sense cover for the real heart of the matter. Wagner – and Shakespeare – aren’t actually writing about any kind of gilded, Platonic, or divinely pure love. They’re writing about sex. They’re writing about orgasm, as a release, as an escape, as an end, and also as a source of power, as a conflict and a struggle. Romeo and Juliet die. Tristan and Isolde die. Their deaths tell us how they love, not in some sweet and innocent way. Their deaths tell us how they fuck.

In Tristan and Isolde, the final scene is gruesome. Tristan never consummates his love for Isolde with Isolde. As such he lies on the stage dying, unable to wait for her any longer, his guts spilling out of him. His death comes, and Isolde arrives to find him spent. She finds him, also, beautiful, and proceeds to sing perhaps the most erotic solo in all of opera. If you’ve never heard it, go listen. It’s patently, blatantly, unavoidably sexual. At the end, as wave after wave of crescendo and tension finally resolves into a single explosive, orgasmic, musical moment – tension not only built in her solo, but through the entire opera – Isolde is said to have transcended the physical plane, dying her own peculiar death, reaching a spiritual fullness.

Tristan and Isolde want to die, and spend the entire opera trying to die together. Romeo and Juliet, too, want ever to die. Juliet has a particular penchant for trying to stab herself with Romeo’s dagger. Yeah, Shakespeare is subtle like that. She finally succeeds in the final scene, after he – much like Tristan – kills himself instead of waiting for Juliet to “arrive” (or wake up in this case).

[More could be said about the details of these love-deaths, about how Romeo and Tristan can’t wait, about how much more profound Juliet and Isolde’s experiences are, about the ways in which the pleasure of sexuality is tied up with power and pain and is never quite the sweet, innocent thing we like to pretend it is. But that’s all for another time and place.]

So what’s the deeper truth here? For one, erotic love is erotic. It is as much about sex as anything, and while loving a person may extend to – indeed, may depend upon – his character or her work ethic, his kindness or her sense of humor, his intelligence or the beauty of her heart, none of that is eros without the eros.

More to the point, though, is that Tristan and Isolde, and Romeo and Juliet, are archetypes for sexuality. They find true requital fundamentally impossible, because they cannot share their orgasms, and orgasms are as spiritually, metaphorically, and mythically significant as death itself. In these stories, the main characters’ little deaths do not occur at the same time as each other, but even if they did, would they be truly shared? When Romeo dies, only Romeo can die.

So what is the problem with love, again? All love is fundamentally unrequited. That does not make love bad. That does not make love worthless. That does not mean love will not continue to preoccupy me and the millions and billions of other romantics in the world. But my love will never, truly, be shared, even if it wishes it could be. My love will never, truly, be requited, because my love is, finally, mine alone.

Still, I feel that love, and wish, earnestly, for that impossible requital. Failing that – as I needs must – perhaps I’ll someday be one of those fortunate few who loves someone who loves me.

Monday, June 1, 2015

A Sonnet

The final assignment of the year is to write a sonnet. To prove it could be done, I wrote a sonnet about writing sonnets for my students this afternoon during homework period. Here it is.

A sonnet is no easy thing to write.
It takes much practice, effort, skill, and time.
Against the meter poets ever fight,
And 'tis no simple task to make it rhyme.
But these are just the formal steps to take.
The real art lies in saying something true
That with the reader needs must resonate
Because it is profound, brilliant, or new.
So many poems explore the same old themes,
Like love, desire, death, and happiness.
A few, though, do escape those tired memes,
Exploring thoughts unique, and nothing less.
So when contributing your own new verse
Expound on all, yourself, the universe.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Eulogy

I have thought long and hard about where and whether to publish this piece. In many ways, it is so deeply personal, so familial, that to post it here on my (granted, near-desolate) blog seems scandalous. And yet, I feel that I am not only writing to my family, but to families writ large. However barbed my words are, here, they come from a place of love. I have learned, the hard way, that love is not just about comfort and soothing. Sometimes love is hard. Sometimes love has to speak hard truths. This is one of those times.

I may well alienate many members of my family by posting this. But the point is, I am already alienated. I am already excluded. And perhaps that is what I needed in order to be able to speak.

___________________________________________________________________________

When I was one, Patricia Scott – Grandma Pat – decided to retire after a foot injury because she wanted, among other things, to be able to spend time with her grandchildren. When I was in high school, commuting from Boulder to Denver and back, I not infrequently stayed at her house instead of making the long trek all the way home. In her quiet, but firm way she was an inspiration for me. In retrospect, the path I have followed mirrors hers: Like her, I attended Stanford; like her, I hold a degree in Education; like her, I teach English.

Pat Scott was caring and fiercely intelligent, and while I could never have articulated it as a child, now as an adult I can see why she must have been an incredible educator. She was organized, always, and had a strong sense of right and wrong. I can imagine her – perhaps I channel her myself, these days – saying “no” to an 8th grader in a way both that stops him from overstepping boundaries and still reminds him that she cares, that discipline is not for discipline’s sake, but in order to help students grow and to become disciplined.

I saw my grandmother for the last time less than a week before she died.  Her Alzheimer’s was about as advanced as it gets, her memory all but gone. Still, she had moments of recognition, and for a time she smiled and held my hand as she slept.

Of course, Alzheimer’s is a brutal disease precisely because it eats away the mind while leaving the body intact. Pat’s brilliance eroded over years. It’s hard to say exactly when she stopped being the woman she once was, but by the end she was unthinkably far removed from the Pat I remembered growing up, the larger than life grandmother who, despite being Colorado born and raised, was almost British in her comportment and dignity. Her family nickname – “The Baroness” – was well earned. Perhaps there was something mocking in calling her that, but there was also a great deal of respect.

Pat Scott lived a rich, full life. I cannot say that I am sad for her loss, exactly, as we all must die and Pat’s time had come. She experienced and achieved so much that it’s hard not to smile, when you think about it. In this case, at least, the universe was fair. A good woman, a dedicated educator, a brilliant thinker had her time on this earth and enjoyed it. She made the most out of her sisterhood, adored her grandchildren, and even rekindled her own mother’s passion for the piano in her later years. Hers was a life well-lived, a life worth celebrating, and I am honored to have her as a grandmother and an inspiration.

___________________________________________________________________________

This is where this piece of writing should end. But it can’t, because Patricia Scott’s death is not self-contained. You see, my grandmother’s funeral was two weeks ago, and I was not invited.

She would have wanted me to be there. She was my grandma, and I was her grandson, and although we weren’t always all that close, when we did spend time together we had a kinship – owing to our many similarities – which I only now understand.

And yet, I wasn’t told about my grandmother’s funeral, even though I visited her less than a week before her death. I wasn’t told even though it was on a weekend when I easily could – and would – have flown over from California to attend. I wasn’t told, and all of the reasons for why that I can imagine are, at best, stupid ones. In the grand scheme of things, my being left off of the invitation list for Grandma Pat’s funeral is a small thing. But it is so case-in-point, and so blatantly, obviously wrong, that it’s hard to ignore.

What’s the bigger story, here? Well, it involves all kinds of family drama. It involves my father’s suicide and his brother’s unwillingness to learn from that suicide. It involves a cynical assumption that my brother, my mother, and I are both far greedier and far wealthier than we actually are. It involves decades of unspoken family traumas, of burying conflict under the rug, of pretending to love instead of actually loving.

___________________________________________________________________________

It’s hard to tell any part of the story without telling the whole story, but I’ll do my best to keep it brief.

Robert Franz, my father, committed suicide just over two years ago. The story doesn’t start there, by a long shot, but it’s as good a focal point as any, because Bob’s death is still the fracture, the center of the spider web of broken glass which stretches out to his brother and cousins and children and all who knew him. There are many ways of telling the story of Bob’s suicide: he was an alcoholic who was so good at being an alcoholic that it cost him everything; or else, he was depressed by his closest friend’s losing battle with cancer; or else, he moved to Hawaii only to find that you cannot escape yourself.

There’s another way of telling the story of Bob’s death, however. Bob was an alcoholic his entire life, and his alcoholism was perpetually enabled – and often encouraged – by his family and friends. The ultimate responsibility for his actions lies with him, but with Bob’s death waves of guilt rippled through my extended family. “We didn’t know it was so much of a problem,” was a common refrain. “I wish I would have done more,” another.* The reality is, though, that no one could or would have done more. To do more would have been against the essence, the culture, the very being of our family. To confront Bob was unthinkable. To intervene was impossible.

* And yet others, still, stubbornly refused to see that there had been something wrong, that Bob’s death was something other than an unexpected and unimaginable tragedy when, in truth, it was a long time coming.

You see, Robert Franz was but one of many alcoholics and addicts in his extended family, and like so many families of addicts ours tries to brush the problem under the rug. Bob’s suicide made doing so, at least in his case, impossible, but my own unaccountable silence on the topic ever since – when I used to write so much more – owes in large part to my sense that we, collectively, as a family, we do not want to acknowledge that Bob was not alone, that Bob was not the only one who needed to ask for help, and that Bob was not even close to the origin of this problem. My own silence owes to the fact that I was taught, from a young age, not to be confrontational, to make peace rather than to tell the truth (at least when it came to family) because that’s what love is.

But that’s not what love is. Love is telling the truth, even when the truth hurts, and the truth is that the Franz / Scott / Lankford family is still a family of alcoholics and drug addicts, and those of us who are not addicts are terrified to call out those who are. “Terrified” isn’t even the right word. “Unable” is closer to the mark.

I do not think that drug use or drinking makes people into bad people. I do believe that there are some people who are able to drink and use drugs responsibly – at least to an extent – and that extremist prohibition is as unwise and unhealthy as extreme addiction. But within this family drugs and alcohol have done so much damage that we must be overly careful, overly conscious, and overly articulate. The truth is, we have been none of these things, so much so that drugs and alcohol have more say in who attends whose funeral than blood. My exclusion from my grandmother’s funeral owes, fundamentally, to this: I am clean and sober.

I’m beyond thinking my family – my extended family – can change. It is too wounded, too wrapped up in its drug-induced stupor, too permissive, too much in denial about its profound dysfunction, too concerned with the appearances of loving each other to actually do so. I would hope some of them, at least, have the decency to feel ashamed at not telling a grandson about his grandmother’s funeral. But I suspect, more likely, they’ll hide behind the lie – the insidious, twisted lie – that they were protecting me, my mother, and my brother from further heartache. Or else, they were avoiding – or postponing, and we are ever-postponing* – drumming up drama and trauma we mistakenly imagine to be best left undisturbed.

* We collectively postponed confronting my father until it was far, far too late.

The irony is that, in playing politics with my grandmother’s death, the deeper pathology of the Franz / Scott / Lankford world has surfaced. Drugs and alcohol, long the bane of the family, are but a symptom of something deeper: an inability to be true with and to each other. We would rather hide our diseases and discomforts, our predilections for addiction, our deep-seated distrust of each other, than acknowledge them with the understanding that it is precisely with family where our flaws, collective and individual, shouldn’t matter.