Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Interlude of Awesome

As we hurtle towards hiatus, eight days from today, I wanted to take a moment to note that my friend is awesome.

Read the profile, and you'll agree!

Friday, December 26, 2008

Friday Poetry: Linda Gregg

Merry belated Christmas! Chappy continuing Chanukkah! Happy continuing holidays! I'm in Miami now, but have some poetry.

Linda Gregg
Winter Love

I would like to decorate this silence,
but my house grows only cleaner
and more plain. The glass chimes I hung
over the register ring a little
when the heat goes on.
I waited too long to drink my tea.
It was not hot. It was only warm.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

City Sidewalks to Tropical Christmas

I'm going to Miami today to see my entire extended family (and I very nearly mean my *entire* extended family, though not quite). I'll be there until Monday. I scheduled a Friday Poetry 'cause I'm magic, but other than that there will be no postings, not even about the craziness that is Bernard Madoff.

Happy Holidays, everybody!!!!!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Wherein We're Slightly Less Wary

Hmmm. Melissa Etheridge made friends with Rick Warren.


I guess this snap judgement problem is just going to be omnipresent right now. I'm going to remain skeptical of Rick Warren, because I still don't have enough information. But apparently I didn't have enough information the first time I assessed him, either.

Curiouser and curiouser.

(Read the post. Seriously. It intrigues me.)

In Competence We Trust

The last year of my life has gotten me thinking about competence, in particular the relationships between competence and talent.

I grew up talented. By that, I mean that I was recognized from a very early age as being very good at something I also loved to do, namely writing. Because I loved both the activity and the praise I inevitably received, I continued my work, and turned out to be unusually disciplined in it—I have no idea how that came about, though I'm sure growing up among theater artists must have had something to do with it—which made me interested in learning more about craft, interested in improving. Because I attended a small school where we all knew more about one another than we might necessarily have cared to, my reputation as a writer preceded me, and even when I was an unpopular, devastatingly socially anxious adolescent much more involved in writing the story of her life than living the reality of it, I didn't have the depths of social rejection that some of my friends managed. Of course, I wasn't exactly aware of that at the time, but I wasn't entirely unaware of it either. In a period of my life where I was questioning everything else (okay, that period never actually ended), I never had occasion to question my talent.

I am learning, slowly, about what talent can and cannot do, for myself as well as for others.

We are accustomed, I think, to the notion that talent clusters—in Hollywood, or in Williamsburg and Greenpoint, or the Iowa Writer's Workshop, or wherever the current (and sometimes local) romantic imagination has placed it. To myself I have finally had to admit that hipster neighborhoods like Wicker Park or the East Village of ten years ago, in spite of my voiced and partially felt contempt, still hold a magical allure for me, and it has to do with exactly this over-advertised, romanticized, somewhat obnoxious notion: talented people go here and do this; going here and doing this is how I prove my talent and how I best use it. To be fair, it is kind of true: it is often useful to talented people to be around other talented people. And yet, there are many talented people who do not cluster in these enclaves. And the talented people who do cluster are not necessarily displaying their talents to the best of their abilities, and that is sometimes due to the cluster, to the allure of its social comfort. There are other factors there too, though.

An incredible number of people are talented; there is far more talent than we ever see. This lack of opportunity to see the talent is often due to a lack of competence on the part of the talented.

This is something I have seen over and over, within and without my family. Talent has nothing to do with whether you can live off of your talent (or off of anything else); talent has nothing to do with whether you are capable of sharing your talent with the world in a productive way, or even at all; it has nothing to do with any actions that don't relate to the actual art or science or work at which you are talented.

I am willing to accept the notion that talent clusters to a certain degree, though I also posit that in romanticized artsy neighborhoods the number of poseurs at least equals the number of actual talented people.

What is talent? I guess that's an important question here. And I am not positive I can provide more than a Potter Stewart answer. But the closest I can come in considering it is that talent is what extends beyond the everyday. Talent is what you put into the world with the expectation that it will last beyond yourself in some way; competence is what takes you from day today as yourself (I'm assuming your immediate dependents/loved ones as part of "yourself" here).

There exists, for that matter, a talent at competence, when you can bring that kind of solid ability to bear on the world, which not everybody competent can.

And there exists much more pretense to talent, even as talent sometimes clusters, than actual talent.

Then again, it's rare for us to see competence either. But that's because most of the time it's tremendously difficult to notice.

What does all this mean? I've been working on this post for months and I really haven't found a thesis, beyond the somewhat obvious things I've mentioned above. I don't trust talented people to be anything but talented; perhaps I over time have come to trust the competent more than I trust the talented. But the allure of talent—other people's, never mind my own—isn't gone for me. Which may be why talented idiots, as a matter of general principle, get away with so much.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Parable of Contrition

About a year and a half ago, visiting family, I met a woman around my age who was dating a wealthy man twenty-five years her senior. She looked to me as if she had a fake tan, she worked as a pharmaceuticals representative, she wore very low-cut and tight clothes and made a lot of margaritas. Though she came across as a nice person, my snap judgment was negative and dismissive. Her values seemed far from mine, and easy to belittle, and I didn't see much else to recommend.

But I got to know this woman over the next year, at first because it was necessary, then because I enjoyed my time with her and wanted to. Before she worked for the pharmaceuticals industry, she got a master's degree in epidemiology, which involved travelling to Thailand, and worked in publicity for a women's health organization, requiring travel all over the country. She is a skilled and financially stable businesswoman in her own right, left the Big Pharma job to start a completely different company of her own soon after we met, and aside from all the practical stuff that clearly demonstrates my brand of snobbiness, she is straightforward, generous, thoughtful, and a really terrific conversationalist.

And the fake tan? Yeah, her father is black.

That's my parable. The wonderful thing about parables is they apply in any number of situations. For example, this one applies in the story I am about to relate.

I recently wrote a post about a conversation I had in April. It was a conversation whose content I was unhappy about, and I was very harsh towards my partner in that conversation. A few days ago she read my blog.

Such is the internet. But she was kind enough to send me a really thoughtful message, saying she agreed with the content of the post if not the tone, all the more so because she's now studying arts education in grad school and developing an ever-clearer sense of what she wants to do, what's important to her. The content of the program I lambasted, along with its description, was given to her by its coordinators with neither guidance nor real freedom, and she was far more frustrated by her circumstances there than I could ever have been by one twenty-minute conversation.

After I responded to her message, hoping to show as much rationality and thoughtfulness as she had, we chatted about arts education and grad school on facebook for a couple of hours, and it became one of the more compelling conversations I've had in the last six months. The kind I hope I can continue having over time.

All this goes to say, I should calm the fuck down on my snap judgements. Not on judgements in general, mind you; I'm still all in favor of those. But I'm in favor of them being rational and considered and, well, right. My judgements should be right, at least. To make them right, I have to have an appropriate amount of information to assess them. And that takes time, and it takes thoroughness. (Something else a good legal system knows that I still hadn't quite figgered out.)

So, in other words, I was wrong. Not in content, but in form. Without knowing the full story, there was no reason to make my attack on the ideas as personal as I made it.

Retracted, and plans for improvement noted here.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Friday Poetry: Elizabeth Alexander

Speaking of the inauguration, she'll be there too. This is the part I like.

Elizabeth Alexander

We pull off
to a road shack
in Massachusetts
to watch men walk

on the moon. We did
the same thing
for three two one
blast off, and now

we watch the same men
bounce in and out
of craters. I want
a Coke and a hamburger.

Because the men
are walking on the moon
which is now irrefutably
not green, not cheese,

not a shiny dime floating
in a cold blue,
the way I'd thought,
the road shack people don't

notice we are a black
family not from there,
the way it mostly goes.
This talking through

static, bounces in space-
boots, tethered
to cords is much
stranger, stranger

even than we are.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Wherein We're Wary of Warren

Rick Warren will offer a prayer at Obama's inauguration.

This is not okay.

We may have just hit upon the first move by the Obama administration that I really, vociferously object to. To the point that I believe it immoral. I have questions about some of his Cabinet appointments (I'm cautious about Hillary Clinton in a position of power over foreign policy, not necessarily her strong point; I'm not always wild about Arne Duncan's educational choices), but I can write those off to, well, Obama's more of a centrist than I am, I always knew that. And I do understand that he cannot bring Jeremiah Wright to the plate again.

Plus, my friend makes a compelling argument that we should trust Obama to do the whole reaching-out thing that has made him such a unifying figure. It's that style that got an actual intellectual elected to office, after all. (Say that last sentence ten times fast, please.)

But I can't condone, or trust, this choice.

In the wake of the Prop. 8 travesty, after a campaign in which Obama and Biden at least claimed they supported equal partnership rights for same-sex couples even as they waffled on the use of the term "marriage," this is unacceptable. Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether there should *be* "religious leadership in the White House," the first act of religious leadership in the Obama White House will be conducted by a man who believes the formal, legal recognition of consensual, loving relationships between same-sex couples is equivalent to the formal, legal recognition incest or pedophilia.

Not okay. Not okay at all.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Friday Poetry: Anthony Madrid

At Poetry Circle at Lawrence's on Sunday, Lawrence read this poem. I am into it.

Anthony Madrid
Of the Many Hymns to the Goddess Kali

Of the many hymns to the goddess Kali, only one is worthy of a poet's respect.
I mean the one wherein her ankles are hung with severed arms;—

I mean the one wherein her face is lit up with cruel pelasure, and she has a beard of sweat
As she has rear-entry intercourse with Vishnu.

The germ of the 580 couplets has passed through a fabulous network of tubes.
Strange, to think that mind and language can rise from a plate of meat!

My tutor lashed it into me, with a switch that had my name on it,
That every schoolboy is beside himself with envy for his teacher.

But better than "grisly revenge," or any other form of playing to the crowd,
Would have been to destroy the boy slowly and privately, by means of misapplied pleasure.

Whoever reads more than a dozen ghazals at a time will be overstimulated.
After a certain number of hits, one is simply wasting a precious drug.

You should have been a pretty girl, Madrid. The world might have been spared
All this body-resenting satire in the form of a parting shot.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Relatively Speaking, Part the Second

Off of what I said last night, I would like to add simpler terms.

If the only way we can deal with monstrosity is to dehumanize it, we're fucked.

That's why I have such vociferous objections to the views voiced by Manohla Dargis and Anthony Lane. They seem to have a paralyzing fear that if we view a Nazi as human, we'll forget she's a Nazi, and then where O where will we be? The same problem has sneaked in to Dexter over the last season and change: first it was a show that explored a monster as a human being—a sociopathic human being, but a human being—but slowly it has devolved into dismissing every serial murderer besides Dexter (Lila, say, or Miguel, people who started as deeply compelling characters) as an irretrievable monster, and as soon as we recognize *their* monstrosity we're not supposed to be invested anymore. It's a stupid annoying double standard, and beyond that it's counterproductive.

Why counterproductive? Because monstrosity *is* among us, every day, and those of us capable of love—still the majority—like as not will have some loving relationship with monstrosity. Good art should be willing to look that in the face. In fact, I'd go so far as to say art about monstrosity, and honestly art about Nazis in particular, has a *responsibility* not to dehumanize monstrosity, because we go in with the assumption that monstrosity isn't human, and good art needs to be challenging that assumption. So does good thought, for that matter; that's what Hannah Arendt was talking about in Eichmann in Jerusalem. The "banality of evil" is that monstrosity *is* human, and that's really what's scariest about it. It's too easy when we can dismiss it as some horrific outlier to humanity.

We accepted with relative ease the "few bad apples" idea of Abu Ghraib because we couldn't stand to think that that kind of behavior was endorsed by those who supposedly represented us. In The Last King of Scotland, Nicholas couldn't think he was attached to violence and monstrosity until one act was made to confront him personally, and then he had to acknowledge both monstrosities: that he had been interacting with, and that he had become.

Lucas mentioned last night that Foucault names a similar process "speciation": the notion that the criminal, and the murderer in particular, is a separate species from the rest of us. It's a notion that Les Miserables debunks over and over, this concept that "he's a convict, what else do you need to know?"

I'm not willing to go as far as Sufjan Stevens and say that all secret lives are really morally equivalent—that's where I reject relativism—but I think that separation is foolish. That's a postulate assumption, though. As I said in the previous post, it's why I am not a moralist.

We should, we must, explore all the components of evil acts and people, even those components that aren't evil. If we can only deal with monstrosity by dehumanizing it, monstrosity will continue to come upon us in alarming doses, because we'll never be able to see or admit its connection to our lives. You cannot contest or fight what you do are unwilling to know, because then it will always have tricks up its sleeve to which you cannot nor will not have any access. No matter how you define evil, as an artist or an activist or a politician or whatever the hell you are, it is an egregious mistake not to take a comprehensive look.

I'm glad Kate Winslet, the love of my imaginary alternative life, played a Nazi. I am particularly glad she played a Nazi who loved and was loved by someone else, someone real and well-thought-out. The movie was not quite good enough to accomodate this conflict and contradiction, but it was good enough to get me obsessed with this line of thought.

It is not shameful or unethical to condemn evil, or even wrongdoing, but it is fucking dangerous to dismiss it. And to say that you should not try to see all sides of something *is* to dismiss it.

Relatively Speaking

Am I a moralist?

I often feel like I am more willing to go into absolutes than other people I know, sometimes more than I care to be. I strive to understand everything, and have done so since I was very young, even things I find repugnant, but I believe firmly that some things are just completely fucking wrong no matter how you look at it. That is a consideration of morals, certainly; whether it is moralism is something I want to explore.

Tonight my mother and I saw The Reader, an imperfect but deeply moving and fascinating movie. (Beware of spoilers.) The film, with the always-awkward conceit of being set in Germany among Germans but being written and spoken in English with slight German accents, is an intense, beautiful exploration of morality, sex and literacy.

In 1958 fifteen-year-old Michael spends several months having a passionate affair with much-older tram conductor, Hanna (played by my favorite actor ever, Kate Winslet)—during which, at her request, he reads to her at least as much as they make love. Eight years later, when Michael is in law school, his legal ethics seminar travels to a trial of concentration camp guards, and Hanna is among the accused. Michael figures out that she has always been illiterate; after she has been in prison for many years of her life sentence, he sends her tapes of himself reading, from which she teaches herself to read. And she was still a Nazi, and even after she learns to read she does not regret her crimes.

I wept during the sequence where Hanna was learning to read. I am a once and probably future instructor of adult literacy, so it may mean more to me than to most people, but I cried.

There are things in the movie that have nothing to do with morality, passionate love or literacy, but they're poorly done (everyone's raving about a scene with Lena Olin at the end, but I could do without it) and irrelevant. (Except Kate Winslet's naked body, which is *always* relevant. That isn't the reason she's my favorite actor ever, but it's certainly a bonus.) Those things all kind of annoyed me, and distracted me from what I think was the central but somewhat poorly executed point that literacy does not bear any relationship to morality, even though we wish it did. I was frustrated with the mistakes it made (casting Ralph Fiennes as the older Michael was a big one—too bloody patrician, in spite of his best efforts), but deeply moved by its central relationship.

Then I read an Anthony Lane review in The New Yorker, wherein he panned the movie basically because he doesn't think we should care, or be asked to care, about an "unrepentant Nazi" becoming literate. He dismissed the movie based on that sentiment.

I was more furious at that than I am at the movie's failings. And I believe my first verbalized thought was something like, "What a smarmy moralist fuck."

Therefore, I am not a moralist.

But nor am I a moral relativist. This consideration made me realize how much control moralists tend to have in defining the world.

A moralist, I now believe, is someone who not only believes in absolutes of right and wrong, but also believes that those absolutes of right and wrong are unique and paramount in defining the world, that no other standards should be used. A moralist believes that the polarity of right and wrong trumps everything else in the world we live in—that when it comes down to it, the world is not defined by any factors other than morals.

I believe that there are absolutes of right and wrong. This can make me unpalatable to some genres of liberals (or make those genres of liberals unpalatable to me). I try to be pluralist and inclusive, which makes me unpalatable to some genres of moralists or conservatives, but the truth is I am always secretly happy when I can reduce things to moral polarities. But I also believe that there are things that have a controlling interest in the way we live and behave, and the way we should live and behave, that have absolutely nothing to do with morality.

Moralists would have me believe—and on occasion *have* had me believe—that this perspective makes me a moral relativist, somebody who thinks nothing is genuinely good or bad without a thorough deconstruction of the surrounding circumstances. Moralists would have you believe that being a moral relativist is the only way you can, say, care about a murderer, or be invested in a character who's a Nazi. Both Anthony Lane and the constantly, needlessly snotty Manohla Dargis take this position when considering The Reader: if a movie asks us to empathize with, care about, a character who believes in things that are inescapably morally wrong, and if it succeeds and we do so, then both we and the movie are inescapably morally wrong.

This is bullshit.

Why is this bullshit? Because love is separate from morality. Because understanding is separate from morality. Because literacy is separate from morality. The three things I just mentioned, among many others, are tremendous factors in the world. As such, they need to be considered with as much weight as morals if we are to live in the world we do live in, as opposed to one that would be neat to live in. I have as my Email signature the Camus quote, "Unless we choose to ignore reality, we must find our values in it." This is exactly what he was talking about.

Some things will always be wrong, and nevertheless we will always have to live with them. We are better served in living with them by being able to see what else we live with.

Is letting three hundred people under your control burn to death inescapably morally wrong? I would say so. Can you still be in love with someone who did something so inescapably morally wrong? Fuck yeah. Does that give you a role in that inescapably morally wrong thing? I don't know, and that's a question I could write about for the rest of my life, and *want* to write about for the rest of my life, and that I don't think good writers, or even mixed-quality writers like Reader screenwriter David Hare, should dismiss or shut down because you can attach the trigger word for inescapable moral wrongness, "Nazi," to a character's name.

The revelation of The Reader as it stands isn't that morality and literacy are not the same thing, but if the film had in fact hit what it was aiming for, it would be. If they'd done the last scene with Hanna and Michael right I would have been fucking weeping in devastation, and it would have been because of that. The movie made me realize that I taught a murderer. I never thought about it in those words; he was who he was. I knew of his crimes and history, and I knew him in the classroom, and those were two different people. For me to keep those elements of the same man completely separate was unfair; for me to not appreciate his considerable talents as a writer or a student because he was a murderer would be equally unfair; for me not to acknowledge the horrific thing he had done was equally unethical. Had I been braver and better-considered, I might have tried to learn more from him about what makes a murderer. I was neither of those things. Yet my teacher-student relationship with this man existed and mattered. Whether it existed "independent of his being a murderer" is a matter for deeper consideration than I am capable of at this hour, but both the fact of its existence and the fact that the man committed murder are unimpeachable. Hanna's horrific acts and the controlling love and passion she and Michael shared are, similarly, both unimpeachably true in the world of the film.

We gain little by saying one piece of knowledge trumps all others, and that is the central argument of moralists. If you know Hanna was a Nazi, say Manohla Dargis and Anthony Lane, why develop her character? If you know right from wrong, goes the moralist credo, you don't *really* need to know anything else.

And that is the kind of bullshit that makes me furious, whether you're talking about my student, this movie, or anything else.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Coming to a Close

This is the Year-Ending Meme. I know we're not quite at the end of the year yet, but we're close, and I always like the summarizey feel it offers. Plus, I've just made and written a good twenty-five Christmas cards and I need a break. (If you know me and want a card, send me your address. They're pretty.)

So, the first and last sentences of every month in the year 2008 on the blog Third Rail Themes are below. Not including the first or last lines of poems, only lines that I wrote.

First: I coulda chosen a more uplifting poem for my first post of 2008, I suppose.
Last: I love the poem because that doesn't matter.

First: A couple of months ago, among many other strange experiences, I had the strange experience of listening to the Indigo Girls' "This Train Revised" for the fifteenth time and realizing for the first time that it was a Holocaust song.
Last: I like it when poetry uses exclamation points.

First: Now you can actually hear me.
Last: Please come see me read!

First: It's National Poetry Month!
Last: By the way, they all live together in the Sharking Shack.

First: I'll get back to the thing where I post with substance in between Friday Poetries soon, I promise.
Last: I didn't end up liking the book very much, but I must say that I do like thinking about the poem.

First: Okay, the knowledge that I now have a driver's license perhaps does not particularly serve the public, but it is nevertheless being announced.
Last: I've never loved him, but I guess I need to do this as I move out of Chicago.

First: This is one of those state-of-the-blog blog posts.
Last: All my love with A and her family.

First: Hard to believe I've never posted the man before, but this poem came into my life yesterday and was one of the socked-in-the-stomach moments.
Last: Why do we forget this so easily?

First: Some interesting comments were made on my previous post that you should read.
Last: That's all I know until I teach myself more.

First: This one he actually did create, and I like it.
Last: In the meantime, I'll liveblog if I can; if not, VOTE, ferfuckssake!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

First: I've just returned from five days knocking on doors in New Mexico.
Last: Thanks.

First: 2008 has come to feel to me like the Year of Mortality.
Last: … who knows …

Friday, December 05, 2008

Friday Poetry: Bob Hicok

I went to visit my high school poetry class this week. Still going strong, same as ever, and I am grateful for its constancy. The teacher, who taught me poetry from kindergarten through twelfth grade and is himself still going strong, handed out this poem.

Bob Hicok
For three whose reflex was yes

Nobody I know is a god. A mother and son
fall into the river's million hands, the river's
smash and grab. They go under, climb the ropeless
water up, wave, open their mouths and scream
wet silences as they slide back under.
A man jumps in to save them, leaves the edge
as a needle into the river's muddy sinews, a woman
jumps in to save his vanishing and the mother
and son and is stripped by the flood, her pants
drowning right beside her, another man jumps in
to save them all and a woman jumps in after him
to save them all plus one, cars arrive and people
get out and leap into the river, the river's being filled
with whatever's in their pockets and their hands
and their eyes, with nickels and dollar bills
and bibles and sunsets, the beautiful brush strokes
of this beautifully dying day, people pile
like a river inside the river, they keep coming
and divingin, they keep feeding their breath
to the water, which is less, which is thinned,
until the mother and son rise on a mound
of strangers and dead, the sun warming them, blessing
their faces slowly dry.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Educational Interlude the Second: What It's Really About

This morning on my way to work, I came up with the right answer to something that was bugging me eight months ago, so I thought I'd share.

I worked on a theater piece with a woman who was just beginning to do arts education, working with eighth-graders on a civics and theater project at a school where I knew many of the students. She explained to me that the project was about presidential elections and figuring out the importance of politics, "but really, it's about giving the kids a voice, you know?"

Though I didn't say anything at the time—see, I'm learning!—I was disgusted and a little offended by that last statement. I couldn't say why at the time. But now I can!

There are two reasons.

First, the kids already HAVE a voice. Or, to be more accurate, many voices. To say otherwise is banking education—to imagine the kids as empty vaults until you came along and Gave Them a Voice! Aren't you just a savior! If you want to say you're giving them tools for USING that voice, if you're teaching them powerful WAYS to use that voice, you have my blessing. But to say that you are the one giving the kids that voice creates a relationship in which you want them to be wholly dependent on you. Not to mention that the notion of giving the kids "a voice" implies that you're expecting a certain kind of uniformity, that they will all speak with this one voice that they've so generously been given.

That isn't just semantics. If it is indeed semantics, it is an example of why we shouldn't say "just" semantics. Semantics matters. It effects how we perceive things. Including our own work.

Second: TEACH WHAT IT'S REALLY ABOUT. Seriously. If it's not really about that thing—say, civics and theater—then why is that what you're teaching? It is possible to give people a voice, or even better, to give people the tools to use and maximize the power of their preexisting voices, without using theater or civics, much less combining the two. Why are you choosing theater and civics? How do those subjects effect what use you make of your voice? It may be that in a general, very abstracted sense one subject is as good as another, but that doesn't make for uniformity; it doesn't mean that because all things can teach you good ways to use your voice, all things teach you to do so in the same way or with the same power or to the same ends. If you're choosing to do civics and theater, make it real, make it specific, look at the ways that these specific subjects matter in the world along with their application to some vague abstract goal like "having a voice."

Especially if you're a theater artist going into arts education, have enough respect for your subject, for the work you do, to make that what you're actually teaching to kids. Otherwise, why are you even doing it yourself, much less passing it on?

Rant out.

Mortal Coils

2008 has come to feel to me like the Year of Mortality.

People have, if you want to get technical, been dying all my life. People close to me and people close to the people I love. Last year that somehow jumped to the forefront: I experienced my first Death in the Family as an adult (I lost two grandparents when I was in middle school and my beloved great-aunt while I was in college), friends of several of my close friends died while others experienced devastating illness in their families, romantic relationships among my friends and family collapsed, an elementary and high school classmate died suddenly, and I watched and felt the full impact of Six Feet Under.

And this year it's happened again. This year two beloved friends have lost parent or parents. My grandmother's fear of her own death has become all-consuming enough to exacerbate her illnesses; my friend's grandmother, who had been in a similar situation for a long time, succumbed. My student's brother was shot in the head; another student was shot in a drive-by. I have been diagnosed with a chronic illness—not at all life-threatening, certainly not until I'm substantially older, but somewhat life-compromising. A friend's friend, my own age, has been diagnosed with two kinds of cancer. Another high school classmate died earlier in the year; a teacher from my high school (never my teacher, but well-known) died yesterday morning. Today a father I know has had a piece of his liver cut off in one hospital to be placed inside his six-month-old son in another hospital, while their family members wait.

This is the year I am compelled to understand that this is not, in fact, unusual. This is the year I am realizing how and why Six Feet Under is right: that it's always going to be like this. This is always a world where people come (a high school classmate just had a baby; my cousin A is pregnant, and the birth in February will mark the beginning of a new generation in our family) and go, and because of that the questions we ask and devote ourselves to answering cannot be about that alone.

None of which makes any individual story any easier to endure. This is the year I feel wrapped in mortality, feel the loop of each of the stories I mentioned above. This is the year of mortal coils. Each one matters, each one puts pressure in a different place; this is the year I know they're all part of the same snake.

This is surely the year of mixed metaphors.

I am thinking today of the amazing courage it takes to survive the things that could happen to anyone, but don't. Which is a strange realization, that for the most part it takes astounding courage just to live life, live life in the form that this year has made me realize it comes in. I applaud everyone I love for living their lives at this constant risk, with this constant knowledge, especially those who have been pressed up more closely against this reality than I have.

I am also thinking: Okay, Universe, I get the message. I think everyone I love has gotten the message. So we're ready for you to relent a little. I think a successful transplant would be just the ticket. Just as a gesture of good faith.

It's good information for me, I can't deny it. I need to know about mortality; I need to know that I live in a world where it is a constant, and as such all I can do is choose when and how to use it as part of my definitions. When I have the luxury of choice, that is. But like all information that comes to me, and most stubborn smart people, I want to use it only on my own terms. This may, too, be the year I learn where that is not an option.

Or perhaps that last will be for next year. I'll have to see.