25 December 2013

Midwest Silence

I didn't go to Michigan this year for Christmas. Instead, I watched Alexander Payne's new film, Nebraska.

It wasn't a planned substitution. But as soon as I saw those leaning little frame houses and their careless furniture and their lumpy, extraordinarily real-looking people, I thought: well, here I am. Home.  

I also recognized a kind of silence. A running joke that blossoms into an important force in the emotional action of the film is the fathomless reticence of elderly father Woody. (Five seconds later I look back on the last sentence to find my fingers have substituted resonance for that noun. Well, yes.) He's no anomaly, we learn; this is simply the make of the men in the family and in the small Nebraska town they're from. Their silence is produced not so much by a stiff upper lip as by a state of low-level bewilderment at the emotional and social duties the world has been trying to rouse them to all their lives. Literally and economically, they inhabit a rough landscape. Isn't their survival within the laws of the land enough?

The women, though: they talk. Some, such as the mother, are ebullient monsters on the model of The Night of the Hunter's Icey Spoon—masters of gossip that appears to pour out so spontaneously as to preclude any suspicion of malevolence. Others are warm and kind or loudly demanding, but as far as the vocabulary of this and perhaps the main of American film is concerned, taciturn lacks a feminine form.

It should be uncontroversial to note that silence is gendered. This has been the basis for many a sitcom and standup act. The women: why, they never shut up. The men: how impossible to get them to utter a feeling. Certainly, a man can be a great talker and draw no criticism for that—consider the livelihood of those very comics, after all—and very talkative women can be condemned as annoyances or worse.

But a woman inclined to silence is something odd. I know, because I am one. It has happened that even when I think I have been practically dominating the conversation on a given evening, it will come back to me later that I have been pegged as the quiet one. People have picked at me for this trait throughout most of my life—not constantly, but regularly enough. (Of course, there's nothing more likely to drive a quiet person deeper into silence than the accusation that she is too close-mouthed.)

The incident that stands out most is this: I was waiting tables. The restaurant was rather busy, and I was carrying a bowl of soup; ahead of me passing from the kitchen to the dining room was a veteran waiter named Ali, a middle-aged man with a veneer of deliberate sweetness and formality brittlely coating some deep frustration with the world. Perhaps having forgotten something, Ali stopped short and whirled around in the other direction; in a flash we collided. The soup splashed dramatically over his crisp white shirt and black vest.

I gaped and apologized, even if I'd been splattered too and, had we been on the road, he'd clearly have been found at fault for the accident. But Ali would not be placated. Despite his civility I had never felt he liked me, and now he disburdened himself of the offense my very existence caused him.

"Why did you do this!" he shouted, eyes flashing. "What is wrong with you! You go around and don't even say anything. You never talk, you are not even human!"

I have received this damning criticism mostly, now I think of it, from older men trying to correct my behavior or badger me into flattering them—though also from bosses and even, once, from a subordinate. When I try mentally to substitute a similarly quiet man into situations like these, I simply cannot see him drawing as much disapproval, or even any particular notice. The women in his life might sigh over his uncommunicative nature, but they'd likely lump him in with the rest of his sex. As long as a man does more than grunt he will probably not fall too far beyond the pale of socially acceptable behavior.

I have sat uncomfortably through conversations in which female friends lamented the quiet men in their lives, framing their silence as being explicitly a male thing and even a rather unenlightened male thing; surely a guy more comfortable with the feminine mode of experience would lapse naturally into long conversations about his and everyone's feelings. To someone of this mind, talk is the glue that binds people together; neglect it and you float alone somewhere away from the human planet, probably judging all the voices that drift your way. If your mouth is not busy with something inoffensive, your mind is probably busy with something bad. 

Quiet guys anchored the sighs of many '60s girl-group hits, and they apparently retain their dreaminess today. Some comparative Google results:

"He's shy": About 122,000,000 results. The first page is filled with tips for women on reading the body language of the shy man and, above all, figuring out whether he likes them. Bits of pop culture such as The Pointer Sisters' "He's So Shy" and One Direction fan fiction appear, too. Shy men are fascinating puzzles to be carefully and sensitively decoded—when they're ready, of course.

"She's shy": About 30 thousand fewer results. On the first page here we also find tips for guys on dating shy women, but the focus is a little different. The goal is not to understand and decode but to meet and "score" shy girls. (There's also a link to a page of tips on managing your shy daughter's behavior.) Pop-culture symbols of female shyness are absent. Is a man's silence a deep pool to stare into, a woman's a closed door to bang against?

Part of what makes my several homes feel like home for me is that when I am there this sense of gender variance seems to fade. My girlfriend is, if anything, even more inclined toward stillness than I, and I even worry sometimes that I annoy her by gabbing on about inconsequential things. At those times I fear that I'm lapsing into my mother's habit of space-filling chatter, which would, like a rhetorical question, seem to require no answer. Until it turns out that it does, and she's wounded, and I'm unjustly annoyed.

Unfortunately for her, she's pretty well alone in this tendency among our family. My grandmother is another quiet woman; my grandfathers, uncle, cousins, and father are all of this stoic Midwestern breed in varying proportions. To make my uncle laugh is a cause for pride, for I know that it takes some substantial force to break the silence. I do not mean to give the impression that we all sit around the turkey chewing wordlessly, but we most of us speak when we have something particular to say, not to be congenial.

Many of the silences in Nebraska are heavy with pathos. Had Woody been able to summon a definite opinion into words more often, he'd likely be happier with his life. However often I've cast wistful thoughts in the direction of monastic orders who hold it as a requirement for holy living, silence in itself is surely not a virtue. Certainly it can lead to missed connections, to regrets. But when I consider it as a trait I share with a larger Midwestern type of spirit, silence does not feel so lonely after all.

18 September 2013

Borderlands: In the Far North Air

A storm's been lazily roaming the sky all evening, dropping rain any which way as it becomes too heavy. Just now, though, came a crack as loud as any I've heard in my life, the kind that sends sound rolling away a long time down the curved edges of the earth. Now rain drives up to the building to stay. Neighbors' voices click on around the courtyard.

Earlier I took my dinner at the Ethiopian coffee shop across the street, and when I came out a man was standing in the bus shelter, playing jazz trumpet out into that moment's downpour. It was a too-perfect opening credit sequence to some film noir, and the strip snapped shortly as the player began to righteously rail against some enemy, real or imagined. (There may, after all, have been some heckler out there in the shadows, obscured from me by the rain.) Still, he started up again.

In Rogers Park we often get a little music with our weather. Some confluence of factors turns these blocks into a sort of magic-realist realm—the old hippies, the new students, the park and lake. A few weeks ago Heather and the dog and I went out into the water on a still hot night. The moon was a piece of gleaming alien currency casting a pink path across the deep; I followed drifting over sandbar after sandbar as in a dream one dips between lesser and higher states of consciousness and control.

In my childhood I invented precisely one ghost story. It was simple in its outlines, was exquisitely sad, and allowed me to show off my singing voice quite well, I thought. A girl whose name I recall as Marigold lived in a house on the shore. She woke up early one morning to the sounds of beautiful singing that, had she been a real girl, she would have found annoyingly derivative of the music in The Little Mermaid. The house was large and weathered and white; the girl rose from her bed, closed the screen door softly behind her, and went across the sand seeking its source. She reached the ocean's lapping edge, but the song was still out there somewhere ahead. With eyes alert and placid brow, she began to wade in as the song kept sounding. And she followed and followed, never to be seen again.

I was not interested at the time in Marigold's salvation, but two decades later as I resurfaced as far from shore as I could walk (I don't swim well), I found that a suitable hero had appeared on the scene. He had climbed the lifeguard's white wooden watchtower and was playing a ukelele. He didn't seem to be attached to any of the few small groups on the sand; he was simply there for our safety, luring us back to the human shore with scrappy bits of song.

Another night a young man with an acoustic guitar strapped to his chest stomped and sang through the park all alone; the dog crouched and tucked her tail as if fear had jumped onto her back directly from a dark branch. And just after our move here, in daylight, a group of people in African dress sang and drummed in a wide semicircle, apparently just practicing in the bright air. More regularly, there are the Hare Krishnas, parading and chanting and shaking things; almost despite myself I like the sound, and return the smiles of the soft-eyed young women who often lead them. (They had a large festival a month or two ago and as we walked through the park an occasional emissary would come up and ask whether we'd like to join in some chanting, as if they were offering us a newspaper or a sample of a new kind of gum.) And the coffee shop on the corner holds an open mic night every week. The music is sometimes exciting, even if I suspect I'd roll my eyes at the words; I sometimes think of attending out of nostalgia, for I myself, oddly, hosted an open mic on the patio of an Ethiopian restaurant as a teenager.

If you are inclined to look on your life cinematically, this is a landscape that all but demands regular epiphanies. Yet this summer I've felt quieted and slowed, oppressed by a sort of humidity that only sometimes coincides with the weather. Largely the effect of uninteresting life complications and a heavy workload, I suppose. But maybe the vibrations of all these odd moments are finally synching up and, with the gusty early dark we're getting now, are starting to shake things loose. 

I felt that way, certainly, on Thursday night, pushing toward home from the southwest where I'd met Peter and struck up a plan to put our band back together after a dormant summer. Some minutes into my ride the clouds broke and cold rain flooded the streets, drawing astonished laughter out of me and then drowning it in the deluge. 

Eventually I turned onto Bryn Mawr and saw another cyclist ahead of me; he must, however, have actively decided to go out in the storm, because he was clad in one of those cheap, clear plastic ponchos. We were the only ones out in that quiet northwest corner of the city, and as I trailed him through the dark he was transformed every fifty feet or so by streetlights. As they caught his poncho, he he was turned briefly into a wild bag of lightning, billowing down the road. The plastic crackled in the wind as the rain began to fade. As long as our respective routes allowed I modulated my pace to follow him, a beacon of obscure but hopeful import.

05 May 2013

Animal Thoughts

I worry about what the dog does all day. Not about whether she's destroying every object in our home with her typical attitude of a cheerfully undertaken duty, though that is always a possibility. It's something more metaphysical.

The hours simply seem too long for the range of pursuits available to a dog. She may sleep in various corners of the house; she may chew on one of the frayed ropes or deteriorating rubber things that are the only toys she can't destroy inside an hour; she may look out the window. But then what? Are the pleasures of merely circulating enough?

It is unnerving to imagine this alien but not unpersonlike consciousness drifting endlessly around the house. I worry that we have made for her a prison of boredom. When she sighs as if the last new thing under the sun had just withered away, pressing her chin to the floor between outstretched paws—is it our fault?

Clearly, the dog does want to be taken seriously as a person. Sitting tableside and staring up, she'll vary her exasperated groans and miffed little howls until we think she must have exhausted the repertoire of her larynx. But she methodically goes on, searching for the one phrase that will be correctly decoded by our limited ears. She disapproves greatly of our various indulgences: dancing, embracing, laughing at a movie. Her eyebrows, slightly redder than the rest of her head, furrow moralistically; she places on us one paw and then the other, as a door-to-door proselytizer might lay a hand on your arm while using the other to thrust a pamphlet at you. To her dismay, we do not convert.

Of course, it is all projection, we say to stay sane. Still, the irrational worry keeps coming back: can the dog feel okay about the shape her consciousness has taken? Isn't it the nature of consciousness, to struggle against its mute and bony ceiling?

If it is all projection, the dark little booth from which it beams is not so hard to find. For I feel ever more aware of and less okay with the particular sort of animal I am as the years go on. Having reached a state of abundant comfort, I realize with horror how painless it would be to continue in this fashion for decades on end, living pleasantly while getting nothing of consequence done—at only the bargain cost of being visited on the hour by the voice that intones: So, now you are closer to death. What have you accomplished?

To my animal brain it is about enough. I am fed, and loved, and entertained, and lucky—a better than expected outcome, all in all. What I am not is accomplished; what I am not is great. It seemed for twenty years or so that if I got the outward circumstances of my life in order the rest would follow. Feeling innately and inarticulately that I was a superior artist and an inferior animal, I put my energies into making a safe habitat for myself and expected that the art would come to fill it. But I may have gotten it exactly wrong. I am rather too good at being an animal, distracted into contentment by the slightest spring breeze, by minute gradations in the color of the lake from day to day. Ready to curl up and sleep in any patch of sun until it moves and I awake, dry-mouthed and desolated.  

Perhaps it will ultimately be good for the character, the tectonic shift in confidence that has occurred in the past year or so. Even more than before, I stand agape at the vast range of human endeavors in which I lack all skill, and at the vast-enough numbers of very talented artists—my contemporaries! As a child it was easy to believe they all lived unthreateningly in the past—afoot in those few fields whose corners I sometimes clumsily cross. I guess this is the task: to look on who they are and what they do with admiration, but save my envy and emulation for how hard they work. It may not be enough, but what else is there? Only to sit staring up beside the table, emitting a muttering whine of incomprehensible want. 

17 March 2013

More Light

On the horizon, spring. Freezing nights but days of thaw, laying bare mud that seems as cheering and delectable as cake batter. I feel as though I am about to graduate from something — to conclude or to start on some endeavor, although viewed soberly my days appear as settled and as uniform in measure as they have ever been. My mind does not rest on my work; it flits up from its branch every minute or so for a better view of what's in the air, returning wind-ruffled. (I began writing this from work; now it's Sunday and the house is full of unaccomplished chores, but the thing is that crocuses and daffodils have thrust their blades through the earth overnight.) I listen to a radio story about two brothers crossing America on horseback; their Southern accents sound drunk with fresh air and adventure, and the sweetness of their banter stings my eyes. I page through apartment listings urgently as though our building had just burned down, although there is nothing very wrong with our current place, we'll keep it if we find nothing better, the lease runs through May, and we aren't planning to travel outside a two-mile radius even so. I stay up too long, fueled by the new late light, and go to bed feeling as though I very likely will not have to go to work tomorrow; it will just happen that way, like a snow day but the opposite of that.

At night, unrolling like sod down the length of my dreams, is land. I have been lately to the Pacific coast and down strange ravines, but mostly I have been to my grandparents' 40 acres in the Michigan woods. I have gone there so long and so often in sleep that as a young child I sometimes failed to discern where, precisely, stood the glass of the mirror between the waking and the dreaming forest. I'd ask, for instance, to be brought again to the little brick church we had found back behind the Yoohoo House (that is, the old outhouse, fixed up, scrawled with camouflage spray paint, and transported from the back yard to the top of the knoll we generously called the sledding hill, to serve as a deer blind and playhouse), which I believed I had visited a couple of years before, in a near-infancy that would explain the haziness of the memory. This sort of thing happened a couple of times with locations in the city, too, but my dreams more often overlaid their maps across the woods. Now, even if sleep sets me down in some stranger landscape, I often will still wander back there, to the east meadow, the west meadow, the swamp, the crick, the frog spring — no matter if I have to pass an alpine lake or flowering gorge along the way.

All winter my mind has seemed dull, its thoughts thudding into existence like the muddy bass coming from my downstairs neighbor's stereo. Too well insulated by snow clouds and city buildings and work to receive the slightest breeze. In memory, last winter slushes into this one without regard for the months between; May, for instance, seems like something I'd read about a couple years back but never experienced firsthand. I am eager to finally see it for myself.

There is a time of day that's routinely wrecked me for as long as I can remember: three or four o'clock in the afternoon, the point at which the day seems to have reached maximum saturation. An unreasoning dread (though reason would concur, were it roused) settles into place in the gut—a dread verging on certainty that the ensuing decay will continue not just until the morning but forever, the sun slowly going dead rather than swinging away for a few hours. But now, just past the time change, there is a little reprieve: suddenly, an extra hour of daylight that makes the evening seem near enough to eternal. When I awaken from my work in the late afternoon to note this fact, joy swells in me. It's hard to keep to myself — I want to go around informing people about it, this extra light, as though it were good news they might not have seen yet. Yeah, I don't know if you heard, but it turns out all of this is free! And, get this — tomorrow there'll be even more.

It feels good to sometimes be unable to bear the length of the day solely because it's blocking me from tearing into the next one, like a child on a perpetual Christmas Eve. At the same time, I do not actually want time to move faster at all, not by a single breadth of the needle. Since I reached my middle twenties I have been more and more distressed by the relentless speed that has got into things, got there without even the compensating thrill of perceptible acceleration. My mother beamingly repeated a joke she'd learned from one elderly patient at the medical office where she works and used with success on another, about life being like a roll of toilet paper, getting used up faster at the end; I could not laugh as convincingly as she'd have liked. Perhaps this generally troubles us less as we get older, past a certain point; that would be a mercy.

I could not laugh so well partly because my grandmother is getting genuinely old now. She was in her early forties when I was born; throughout my childhood, the white-haired, bosomy grannies who populated picture books with their cookies and crinkly smiles shared nothing with her except a more limited version of her skill set. She accompanied us up mountains and down alongside waterfalls on vacations; she fished and hunted; she was bottomlessly kind and utterly unsentimental, of a sharp and original cast of mind (despite thinking of herself as fundamentally unintelligent from childhood, having been very slow in school). She shocked me one night on a camping trip in Ontario — the stars brighter than I have ever seen and the moon so huge and clear over Lake Superior that we could actually see it move upward, like a boat or balloon or any old thing — by remarking, in an offhand way and in connection to some mundane matter I've forgotten, that she did not believe that people went anywhere special after they died, they went into the earth and that was that. I was still a little religious; I think I was twelve; the black night under the trees back inside the pop-up camper seemed suddenly to have more the ring of truth about it than the dazzling moonrise we'd just watched.

This is how I think of her, and this is why lately it is hard to call her on the phone: she repeats stories I've already heard three times, she asks me the same questions, there are tiny gaps after I speak where she must pause and either work to understand what I've just said or work to pretend she understands what I've just said — and, most terrifyingly, she is becoming sentimental. Her love for me has never been in doubt, but it has never been very demonstrative; that is not how it's done in our family. But she misses me, she says now, in every conversation and email; she says she is proud of me for "all that I've accomplished" (and god knows what that is; previously she would have had no doubt that so far I've done nothing of consequence — which knowledge would of course have had no impact on her esteem for me); she has even hinted that I ought to come visit her soon. And that edges so close to an admission of need it sends chills down my spine. You go down the usual dirt road, climb the usual little hill, and the little brick church is not where you expected; there is not even any sign that it has been torn down. Until now, you had not thought to wonder why you were so certain it was there.

I should, in fact, go visit. Why not in the spring? The land will be lively; there will be miles of country roads for me and the winds to gust down; I can ask the names of birds and flowers, and request to hear again old stories I loved as a kid, stories we both know I have heard a dozen times. Why not wring all the light we can from this sense of quickening in the air?