Focus

"Kate's Collection"
© 2012 Whitney Reed

As a kid, I was mesmerized by my parents’ collection of National Geographics. The pictures of all those tribal people with neck rings and ear lobes that draped over their shoulders; strange animals in wet, neon green rain forests; snakes with their mouths open so wide you could see down inside their sickening hollow bodies, fangs dripping. These images haunted me. On the shelves, the magazines were harmless yellow-spined glossies pressed together above my dad’s record collection. I don’t know why my mom kept getting them, or perhaps they were inherited from my grandparents. I only know that on days when the maid told us we couldn’t walk on the freshly vacuumed carpet, I covered my island of a couch with these magazines, I opened them for the pictures, the horror, the worlds so colorful and so far away, so full of people, creatures, natural disasters, phenomenons.

Last week, I stayed in a home in Idaho (in the middle of a lake, in the middle of the mountains) that was filled with National Geographics, which led me to the website where you can find more beauty and more horror than any other one location on the internet: solar tornadoes; armless, legless amphibians. Did you know the Egyptians fed bird mummies? Some team of smart folks found mummified sacred scarlet ibis remains stuffed full of snails. Were you aware of this tiny spider whose brains are so big, they spill over into his legs? Speaking of spiders, what’s worse than those that jump? Have you seen this “King of Wasps,” they just found in Indonesia? Or this leaf-nosed bat they found over in Vietnam? Faces only a mother could love (assuming she has the same face).

In many ways, I believe that my draw to this kind of content stemmed largely from my boring, suburban, middle-class upbringing. I played sports, made mostly A’s and B’s in a private elementary school, snuck out a few times to drink beer in my later high school years, but, in general, I had a fairly unremarkable childhood–never did anything that warranted punishment more severe than perhaps a curbed curfew, never suffered any great personal tragedy or loss. I had the kind of safe, sweet childhood every parent wants for their child. What’s strange is that, despite the safety of the sheltered world I lived in, I was always afraid of something. And generally, my fears were unfounded in any real experience–they all pretty much came from National Geographic. The two biggest fears for me were snakes in my bed and Chinese Dragons that I imagined followed me into my parents’ room at night (when I was fleeing the snakes). In order to fall asleep, I would tell myself stories to push the scary out of my mind. I was always in these stories, and I generally set the stories against one of the other-worldly, awe-inspiring backgrounds from National Geographic. Like this, or this, or this.

Of course, what I’m most afraid of is myself. This is particularly inhibiting when it comes to my writing. Regarding my most recent writer’s block, a friend told me to “just talk and see what happens.” What happens when I write is I do one of two things: I admit I’m afraid or I pretend I’m not. Personal writing anyways. And as I get braver and braver, I have less to say. Because writing for me has generally been linked to fear. But now, for the first time in my life, I’m afraid of so little. It’s like my life has become one of those landcapes I linked to above–one of those worlds that is so large, so vast, so teeming with Awesome that all things I’ve been afraid of are diminished to the point of nearly-nonexistence–you can’t see a snake from the top of a waterfall. And so it becomes about what I see, it becomes about focus. My writing has become the stories I make from that focus (stay tuned).

So, as I was flipping through the National Geographic I brought to bed with me on my first night in Idaho, on the very same page as step-by-step directions on how to make a shrunken head (which sounds quite messy and very hot), I discovered this: That a blue whale’s heartbeat can be detected from two miles away. I love that there’s a heart on earth that big. So big in fact, that you and me both could crawl through the arteries and meet in the middle: in the middle of a heart in the middle of the ocean. So much blue.

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Thoughts on the Recursive. And Thank You.

© 2010 David Parker

Apparently, with no focal point (like a sun or a star or a you or a me), and with every intention to walk in a straight line, people walk around in circles. But, whether we’re blindfolded or just stumbling through the thick pitch of night, while we’re doing all of that wandering, we think we’re walking in a straight line. Without that external corrective, something inside of us, something about the way our atoms fit together, something about our biology, will not stay straight. I think part of what Souman’s study might reveal is that the human journey is not the shortest distance between two points. Rather, it seems to be the circle that connects one point back to itself.

This resonates with me. Maybe even validates my very existence. Because I do things, the same things, over and over, expecting different results. Someone once told me that this is the mark of insanity, but now I’m thinking maybe it’s the mark of humanity. Because don’t we all fall into patterns of behavior, patterns of thinking, rhythms of the everyday that are impossible to break? At least, they seem impossible to break. Especially without some kind of focal point like a person or a plan.

There are certain places in the geography of my life that I have been circling for the past five years–one of those places is the beginning of my teaching career. Another might be the day I met Ruthie. Another might be my divorce. Another might be the death of my grandfather. Another might be who I am in my family and who I am for real. And we all have these events, these anchors. Like the novelist Darin Strauss , who ran over a teenager when he was a just a teenager and wrote about it in fiction without knowing he was writing about it. (Now he’s finally written about it on purpose in a memoir called Half a Life.) And the only way that I’ve found to move past these events (or move through them the way one might move through a forest with trees thick as thieves and no light of day) is to write about them. With intention. The story of the event becomes my focal point, the external corrective to my inner recursive nature. And the sifting through those events reveals more and more of who I am. And that reveal is such a relief. Because for too long I’ve wandered around with these stories, these fragile stories, that I had to guard and protect and wear wrapped around my face. And now, here they are. Public and unapologetic: my stories.

And STORY is what carries us back to ourselves. Odysseus receives his ship home in return for a story. He tells a story in exchange for a ship that will (finally) take him back to where he came from, where his identity began. And I think it’s important that he tells his story. He doesn’t get the ship home in exchange for thinking of his story, but in exchange for sharing his story. And in telling my stories, I feel like I’m kind of giving myself back to myself. Owning not only the parts that are uncomfortable and awkward, but especially the parts that I’m proud of, the parts that were hard, the parts where I became. That ownership comes from sharing, and with each sharing, I’m peeling away pieces of my blindfold that hide me from my home.

All this is to say thank you. Thank you for reading and for watching me walk blindly in circles. I’d have no hope of home or a ship to carry me there were it not for your listening, allowing me to share. Just. Thank you.

Here’s The Thing:

© 2010 David Parker

This isn’t what I was planning to write today. This is something else. This is about The Thing you want to forget. This is about the proverbial pebble in the shoe of every kind of important human relationship. This is about The Thing you fight about when there’s nothing else to fight about. When all of your other issues have been rubbed out, this is The One that remains. Like a cut on the roof of your mouth that you can’t stop tonguing long enough for it to heal.

Maybe it’s because the weather was perfect. Maybe it’s because I was hungry. Or maybe it’s because my jeans had decided to hang on for one more day before their last fatal rip. Whatever the reason or the occasion, I somehow managed to find the invisible, hidden trigger that would shatter my perfect fall morning with a silent BANG! And then there it was, The Thing That I Can’t Seem to Stop Fighting About, right there on the table next to the plate covered in powdered sugar where the beignets had been. And once it’s Out There, it just hangs heavy between you, sucking all the air. You’re both quiet because there’s nothing new to say about it. You both know that you could be kinder, but you’re both kind of pissed that the other hasn’t moved past it yet. Because, let’s be honest, in order for the Thing to exist, both parties have to feel that it is a Thing, because if it were a mere thing, then one of you would be able to dislodge it.

What really sucks is that there is no human relationship that is exempt from The Thing: parents, children, siblings, friends, lovers, colleagues, they’re all marked by a Thing. And even though you (and whoever) have The Thing in common, you wrestle it alone (seemingly forever). Until all you want is to have is a normal conversation, where there’s no trace of The Thing left in either of your voices. Until you’re pretty sure The Thing is more of a thing that you perhaps shouldn’t have given so much voice and energy too. Until you’re pushed to the point of making ridiculous claims like I won’t let it bother me again, when what you should be saying is Next time it bothers me, I won’t blame you, I won’t pick a fight about something else, and I’ll do my best not to pull any triggers. Because here’s the thing: even though you know somewhere in your Thing-laden mind that you’re both probably sort of responsible for The Thing (and the re-hashing thereof), you really just want to be forgiven for pulling the trigger. Again.

‘Flicted with the Hubris

© 2010 David Parker

We started reading The Odyssey today in my AP class, and it’s got me thinking about quests and tests and challenges and nostos and hubris. Especially hubris, which is really a necessary flaw if you’re going to be an epic hero. I mean, being successful at anything requires a certain amount of ego, so if you’re going to be a fucking hero, I would imagine that you’d need maybe just a bit more hubris than the average guy. But in the end, the hubris is what brings the big boys to their knees. Well, hubris and fate.

The Odyssey was the first nail in my literary coffin. I read it my sophomore year of college in a Great Books class. It was the first time I realized that literature was about the human experience. It may have been the first time it was ever brought to my attention that there were certain universal aspects of being human. Except for the fact that Penelope never leaves the home, I love the narrative structure of The Odyssey: We begin with ourselves, our home; we go out into the world for a reason, on a quest; nothing goes the way we’d imagined it might; it takes a hell of a lot longer than we’d planned; we encounter challenges, battles, obstacles, monsters that test who-we-think-we-are; we eventually make it home (under strange sail and in exchange for a story); and nothing is as we remember it—not even ourselves. We thought we knew everything (hubris), we thought we were somebody (hubris), we bragged about how much of a somebody we thought we were (hubris), only to have our spirit sticks broken by the gods (fail). Just one big circle that begins and ends with me. And we arrive alone, without even our trusty hubris.

I think that’s why so many people experience success in their forties: it takes a long time and a lot of failing to get over the hubris. My twenties have been marked by arrogance and entitlement, and that too seems to be a universal piece of the human condition. Everyone is kind of an asshole in their twenties. We’re like Odysseus, messing over our accomplishments with our bragging. And my generation of braggarts is surely the worst yet as we proudly proclaim our cleverness from the tallest peaks of the Interwebs. Our status updates and tweets have a willingly captive audience and people like us. Social networking’s got us ‘flicted with the hubris. *heavy sigh* #kidsthesedays