Friday, November 14, 2014

Winter Is Definitely Here

In Northeast Ohio, as I'm sure it is elsewhere, the first snowfall is usually an idyllic occasion.  You go to the windows and brush back the curtains and watch as those first flakes settle in the sparser patches on the lawn and sprinkle white powder on those last few fallen leaves that you forgot to gather from the yard.  By the end of winter, everyone is always grumbling and sick to death of the snow, and everywhere you look you see the remnants of ugly brown slush and a thick film of road salt on every vehicle.  But in that first snow, when it's still new and showing itself only in its most gentlest manifestation, there's still a sense of wonder about it.  People anticipate it even.  They talk about it for weeks beforehand.  "I hear it's going to snow this weekend."  And you can tell that they're at least a little eager.  You can tell they don't entirely hate the idea.  Not yet.

Well there was nothing gentle about what happened yesterday.  Winter opened up on us full blast and we had a few feet of snow dumped on us within a matter of hours.  Complete pandemonium everywhere.  Cars sliding.  Trucks getting stuck in snowbanks.  And my wife and I are out there in the driveway with shovels trying to keep ahead of it all.  It easily rivaled any storm that we had all of last year, and last year was bad, very bad.  At one point there was even thunder in the air.  I don't know if I've ever heard thunder in the middle of a snowstorm like that.  It sounded like the snow itself was cracking apart in great awesome chunks, somewhere beyond this impenetrable field of whiteness.  It was a terrifying sound.

After a few aggravating misadventures, I managed to make it to work.  Things were a mess there too.  I had to shovel out a parking space for myself.  As I was shoveling, I stopped to look up and there was a break in the clouds letting the light though, and all the massive piles of snow everywhere seemed to reach up into the sky and blend with the overarching clouds, so that they looked all of a piece, and it looked as though this glimmer of light was shining down through a thick chunky tunnel of snow and ice.  I felt like I had stepped onto another world.  That was the one moment that rose up above everything, like being pulled out of myself to survey a battlefield of plows and cars and flashing lights, and looking out over everyone's heads.  And then the clouds closed back again, and I turned around and went back to shoveling.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The One That Always Gets Away

I finally picked up something that I've been meaning to get for a while now, something long overdue.  I got myself one of those tiny pocket-sized journals, the kind with the rough cover and an elastric band to hold it closed.  The idea is that if my sleep is interrupted by some biological urgency or another, and if in my comings and goings I should happen to remember what sort of dream I was having, I'll have this journal to make a quick note in.  Because what usually happens is that I settle back down in bed, groggy and still half-asleep, and I make a mental note to remember the dream when I wake up later, and then when I do finally wake up later, I find that this mental note has been tossed out with the rest of the psychological trash.

I'm amazed that I've gone this long trying to rely on my own memory to keep track of my dreams, especially since this is precisely where my memory most often fails.  And it's always the ones that got away, the forgotten ones, that seem like they held the most treasures.  It's always that dream just out of reach, just on the periphery of my mind's eye, that seems like it was "the one."  As in, the one dream that I've been waiting for, the one that's going to hit me like a thunderbolt in all its epic shades of poignancy and truth and beauty, the one that's going to tear all of this wide open.  And there it was.  I had it and I lost it.

Of course, on a saner level and from past experience, I know that this probably isn't the case.  I've had times when I pursued those sorts of dreams doggedly back into the dark, intent on remembering them.  But then I get a hold of one and I find that it's just as dumb as the rest of them.  It's very rarely that any of my dreams strike me as anything extraordinary.  It may happen only once or twice a year that I wake up thinking, "Wow.  That was some dream."  It may happen to me slightly more often than the average person, but this is only because I've taken a continuing interest in my dreams that would probably seem obsessive to most people.

But then I start to write about it.  I set to the task reluctant and grumpy that this is what I have to work with.  But then it starts to happen.  It starts to come together.  I feel like I'm taking all these scattered pieces and setting them to music.  And if I can find that thing, the thing that orchestrates it all into something instead of just a random collection of nothing, then it all comes to life there on the page in a way that wasn't there before.  I've mentioned elsewhere that I often embellish and smooth over the clunkier details of my dreams, but really it isn't about what I change; it's about finding this music that breathes life into what's there.  One of my recent pieces "The Long Way" is a good example of this.  All the significant details were there in the dream, but it didn't really add up to anything in my mind.  But once I started setting it down in words, it fell into this vision that swept upward in a single stroke.

And it's easy to forget that it works this way.  The piece I write often comes to supplant the dream itself, and I'm left with the impression that my mind gave birth to the piece fully formed upon waking.  And sure, there's an obvious lesson to be gained from this.  Whether a writer is drawing on dreams or life for inspiration, the magic isn't going to be in the material but in the music made from that material.  But yet, there's a part of me that says the hell with that.  There's a part of me that still believes in that elusive dream, that masterpiece of the never world, that white whale hiding under my pillow, the one that's going to break my heart and shatter my mind with all the answers.  I keep chasing it.  That's what always keeps me coming back.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Day at the Park

On Tuesday, my wife and I went to Garfield Park over in nearby Mentor, Ohio.  The park is named after a granddaughter-in-law of President James A. Garfield.  His estate, Lawnfield, is just down the road from the park, and tours of his renovated Victorian home are available for a few dollars.  You can see his favorite chair, the table at which he ate his meals, the office where he worked on his campaign, and all the rooms in which he and his family lived.  The guide will supply you with all the domestic details until you can rightly picture the mother teaching her children the alphabet there by the fireplace.  I've taken this tour a number of times, although, to be honest, I don't really care much about about the 20th President.  I'm there for that brief doorway into the past.  The place sits there out of time among the strip malls, the shopping mall, the apartment buildings, and the congested traffic that has sprouted up around it.  But the porch of Lawnfield looks out onto a different world, carriages on the cobblestone street, dimly lit gas lamps, groves and meadows all around.

It was overcast and a bit gloomy when we arrived at the park, and actually all the better for it.  It was a little warm for the season and the geese and ducks took advantage of the nice weather to congregate at one end of the pond near the bench where we sat.  The October leaves crunched under foot as we took the paths through the woods.  I've always liked this park.  And I'm not even always especially crazy about public parks in general.  My feelings about them often range from bored to slightly unsettled.  But this was one of those rare collection of acres that one occasionally finds, some comfortable geometry of the landscape, some imbued sense of vitality, some marked impression of old laughter in the air, of warm companionship.  It's one of those few places where you feel rooted to the Earth, and you feel like nothing bad could ever happen to you there.

I began to daydream about living there, the parking-lot and tennis courts replaced by open fields, the trees all in their same places, because I liked where the trees were, and it seemed necessary to tamper with the scene as little as possible at the risk of breaking the spell.  Just enough to take it back a ways, to make it livable, personal.  I took the carriage-house-turned-community-center and turned it back into a house, and then replaced it with another bigger house on that same hill, overlooking my newly conjured fields incompletely dusted with snow on Christmas morning, an iron train steaming by on the tracks that run along the edge of the property.

I thought of a young woman riding a horse on the winding roads that led to and from the entrance of the park.  I pictured her drawing up the reins and stopping under the freshly green trees of May as she spots her cousin just returned from abroad, his traveling bag still resting against the trunk of the tree where he had sat waiting.  He doffs his cap and stands to greet her with a smile on his face.  He speaks first with the horse to tease her, and she invites him up to the house for breakfast.  They pass by the pond as they amble back talking of old things, the geese and the ducks still there.  My wife and I followed these winding paved roads up to the entrance of the park where the constant busy traffic on Mentor Ave. zips by, and where a fence of wooden posts marked the outskirts of my fantasy.

I told my wife that I wished that we could live there.  I laid out the changes I would make and she could see it too.  I know, of course, that it will never happen in this lifetime.  But I know of another lifetime, and a dozen other lifetimes besides.  I know of that old trapdoor in the sky.  I can return there every now and then, at all hours dwell and ruminate.  I can populate the place with ghosts.  I can save it for myself.  I can keep it tucked away somewhere in the folds.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

On a Quiet Morning

There was one Saturday night at work last winter where the power was out all night and well into the next day.  I had to sit in the dark all night in my office.  The chemical plant next door had power from their generators and what little light there was to be had was just what showed through my window from their facility.  The morning came cold and cloudy.  I sat shivering in my office, huddled in my coat, and when enough grey daylight had crept into the sky to read by, I began the opening passages of the Cormac McCarthy novel The Crossing to pass the time.  The characters were trying to catch a wolf in the snow, and I felt immersed in winter in both mind and body.  Around 7am the backup batteries that were running the equipment in my office gave out and the monitors all went dead.  I had to go drive my car up to the main gate and sit and watch for traffic.  There were heavy flakes of snow falling, settling over everything, until it was all soft and white.

This night made an indelible impression on me, and I think of it often.  I'm not really sure why.  It's not a fond memory, or a particularly troubling one either.  It's just sits with me.  It occupies a place.  It makes me sad even.  Seems that when I look back on these days, and all that had come and gone, and where I was, and all that was happening then, I'll think of that night.  Whether or not I even want to, I'll think of it.  It's beyond my choosing.  It's that one thing in an era that comes to stand for everything else, all that was lost and longed for and long forgotten at the time.  And I feel like I knew it even then, sitting there on that bitter morning.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Double Feature

I recently saw two movies, Enemy and The Double, which both revolve around the concept of the doppelganger.  Enemy is about a guy who spots someone who looks exactly like him in the background of a movie he's watching and he tries to track this man down, and then things begin to spiral out of control.  The film is somewhat surreal in the sense that it requires using dream logic to ultimately figure out what happens and what the point of the story is.  However, aside from a few key touches, the story is fairly basic and straightforward and even fairly realistic in its details.  There's a look to the film which sets it apart from reality to a degree and engenders a pervasive mood of uneasiness, but it creates a world which feels consistent and necessary unto itself.  It creates a world that makes sense in its own right, one that you can take seriously.

The Double, on the other hand, is not so much surreal as it is surrealist, if you can grasp the distinction.  It tries a little too hard.  It piles on its absurdities with a nudge and wink, as if to say, "Hey, that's weird isn't it?  Kind of like something out of a dream, huh?  Huh?  Huh!!?"  It's loosely based on the Dostoevsky story of the same name.  Very very loosely.  In a way, I got the sense that the film-makers believed that Dostoevsky himself was some kind of artsy surrealist and they were trying to pay homage to that fact.  There's a scene where the protagonist pieces together a ripped up picture of his love interest and it ends up being a nod to Magritte's La reproduction interdite.  But Dostoevsky never really went in for those kinds of artsy visuals.  His stories existed not in a surrealist world, as much as in a world of feverish delirium.  You read a Dostoevsky novel and you start to feel like you're coming down with something, like you've been breathing bad air.  Dostoevsky wasn't about apples with doorways that opened onto the clouds; he was about cranking the heat up under his characters until they were sweating and dizzy and half out of their minds.

In that regard, Enemy is actually closer than The Double to the spirit of Dostoevsky, although neither story really bears much resemblance to the trials and tribulations of poor Mr. Goldyadkin.  But Enemy built more on psychological pressures than on wonky stagecraft and the random oddities of the supposedly avant-garde.  I prefer that.  It had a strangeness about it, but it was a strangeness that, as I said above, I could take seriously.  Rather than alienating me with deliberate weirdness, it crawled under my skin in a way that was genuinely unsettling.  It wasn't "dream-like"; it was a dream.

And Dostoevsky himself had a great grasp of that real dream logic, the truly surreal, which he employed expertly when the occasion called for it.  The dream where the horse gets beaten to death in Crime and Punishment is so vividly portrayed, so utterly disturbing in the behavior of its principals, so perfectly necessary in all details, and so beautifully apropos of Raskolnikov's emotional state at that point in the story, it's as though Dostoevsky had crawled behind the eyes of his character and dissected his mind.  And, of course, that scene is prefaced by that wonderful passage that I try to remember when everything around me tells me that "no one cares about other people's dreams."  And so I'll close this post with Dostoevsky's great rebuttal to that sentiment: 

"At times monstrous images are created, but the setting and the whole picture are so truth-like and filled with details so delicate, so unexpected, but so artistically consistent, that the dreamer, were he an artist like Pushkin or Turgenev even, could never have invented them in the waking state."

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Off Season

It's been very gloomy here for the past week.  The clouds have settled in low, dark even at midday.  I've been feeling very off key.  My daughter has been sick, and I was sick for a bit this morning, wondering if I was catching the same thing.  There's been trouble at work that I've had to address.  I've found myself being cranky here and there online, and I've even been cranky with myself in my sleep, which is always a wonderful experience.  I laid down in bed yesterday morning and I kept waking up every few hours to beat myself up for sleeping and wasting the day.  Then I would drift back off and wake up a little while later and do it again.  I don't know why I was being so hard on myself.  I only slept for a good six or seven hours.  But at the time it seemed like I was letting my whole life go to waste, and sleep felt like some comatose suffocation that I had to claw and struggle against, as though I had gotten wound up in my blankets and couldn't breathe.

And yet, none of those things, taken in isolation, seem to be the cause of my uneasiness.  They all seem symptomatic of something else, something I can't put my finger on.  There's just something disquieting in the air, out there in the aether.  Going for a walk, I'm more liable to mistake a bush in the neighbor's yard for a man lurking or a rotten-toothed troll skittering away.  And now there's a faint break in the clouds where the sun is going down, letting through a dim red light that's all the more foreboding than a dismal fade from grey to black.  You can almost hear the hoofbeats of some pale horse and rider, galloping against this backdrop, breathing cold fire, bringing doom to the land.

A bit of an overstatement, I'm sure.  It's just the changing of the year, the shortening of the days, the falling of the leaves.  Still, It's funny how our holidays and traditions are so nicely suited to their seasons. Halloween captures that uncanny decadence of fall, the gathering of pumpkins and the lighting of the hearth colliding in the sinister grin of the Jack-O-Lantern.   Easter heralds the more basic ressurection of spring.  The heat of July inspires the fomenting of revolutions as well as the impulse to explode things in the open air.  Thanksgiving arrives with the bountiful harvest.  And it's hard for me to imagine bearing the frigid darkness of winter without the brightly strung lights and glowing joys of Christmas.  It's all part of that cavalcade of human experience on this little allotted portion of the Earth, going round and round, part history, part make believe, part nature, part weather.  It's that long count of the days.  It's our breakwater against the tides of entropy.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Enough Is Oddly Enough

I think I've reached the point where the phrase "oddly enough" needs to be dumped from my repertoire.   Any sentence that I feel compelled to begin with the phrase "oddly enough" should probably be immediately deleted, striken from the record, and considered superfluous to the conversation.  I don't mean this as a hard and fast rule for everyone to follow.  I'm sure "oddly enough" is a fine phrase with many legitimate deployments.  But for me it's become a shorthand for "I feel embarrassed and stupid for saying this, but here goes nothing!"  It's the sort of thing, if I said it in person, I would get all red in the face and start giggling and arching my eyebrows like an idiot.  That's my body's way of trying to tell me "No. No.  Please don't say this.  Just stop."  If only I'd listen.

The same probably holds true for "strangely enough" and "interestingly enough" and the whole "enough" family of pointless qualifying phrases.  A reader hardly needs me to tell them at the outset that something is strange or interesting.  Interesting things are best encountered in the wild, unawares, and without the proper safety equipment.  As you're jostling about on the tour bus of life, you don't need the guide to come over the loud speaker and say, "Now if you look to your right, you'll see something interesting."