For David

Otter Topography
Andrew Mara

You marked the return of the river otter
To the banks of the Red
Slipping, sinewy, beneath the surface.

Breaking my reverie
A long, cold, lifeless river
Newly dappled with sibilent splashing.

I don’t know you well,
Yet your silvery connection
Threaded with laughing shadows

Warm suspiration
Language, place, change
Cyclic re-expression recreating

Ancestral topography
Changing, moving, ebbing,
Imperceptible, but through your poetry.


Surfing as Metaphor

One of the unexpected perks of being an English professor is the chance to learn about language tools to make up for communication problems that once vexed you in childhood. The mystery of complex social symbolic behavior was something that fascinated me as a child. I became proficient at drawing, music, and math at a pretty young age, but crafting strings of words together in speech and writing proved more elusive. There was no high ground that one could run to in order to certify that someone's interpretation of an utterance or inscription was "wrong." Instead, one always had to recognize that the chain of meaning depended upon each interlocutor in a conversation or reader of a text. You couldn't usefully cut out your audience. Although this intensely annoyed me as a kid used to relative mastery of symbolic skills (I thought it to be absolute at the time--not unusual for a white boy), it also fascinated me to no end. English classes became increasingly mysterious as I progressed through junior high school and into the uncertainty of high school advanced English classes. Nothing thrilled me more than having a teacher choose my essay to read to the class as an example of good writing or getting an award for a sonnet I had composed in jest, and nothing vexed me more than getting an essay back with what I felt were unfair criticisms that looked like so many diacritical marks.

This love/hate relationship with language kept me coming back to the well for ways to communicate what I thought and saw. I drew things in from my love of music and drawing. I created songs and wrote poetry to capture feelings that tended to skip over large expanses of logical scaffolding. Over time, I began to settle in on a few favorite metaphors. As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, running is a favorite metaphor for approaching the quotidian, sometimes trying things. A complementary metaphor that I've been employing over the years is that of surfing.

I am not a good surfer. In fact, I used surfing as a metaphor well before I ever left the beaches of my childhood--the painted desert and the valley of the sun. For those of you who do not know Phoenix well, you should understand that although it may seem paradoxical for an Arizonan/Phoenician to think about surfing, surfing provides an important psychological and metaphoric role in desert life. Desert rats (something I definitely was) think about sand as a medium upon which one can perform feats with postmodern sprezzatura. I grew up skateboarding, wagoning, bicycling, and generally sliding down sand dunes to break the boredom and to show my balance prowess. The taller the dune, the better. I was also lucky enough to spend a summer fortnight in Carlsbad California at a music camp ("one time at band camp..."). Every afternoon, for two weeks, I had the opportunity to boogie board and bodysurf until I was sunburned and my ears rang with the gurgle of the surf bubbling in my ears. The only analogous feeling to catching a wave and riding it in for me was riding a horse at full gallop. The energy was terrifying, electrifying, and almost mystical.

Phoenicians have an especially intense love/hate relationship with surf culture. Phoenix kids often think of themselves connected with San Diego culture--the trip down Interstate 10 actually leads to Los Angeles, but the sprawling enormity of the City of Angels seems too inchoate and intimidating for Phoenix kids to emulate or fetishize. In high school, kids would wear surf t-shirts, flip-flops (Flojos were the brand of choice way back then), and put In-n-Out and 91X (a San Diego radio station broadcast our of Tijuana) stickers on their cars. Even though "Zonies" would rib San Diegan kids as "Scum Diegans," there was a definite envy and emulation of the surf and beach culture. I had little time for such nonsensical emulation, the significance on surf culture still seeped into my consciousness. As a joke, when I was put into the "Who's Who of American High Schools," I requested inclusion of my fictional presidency of "The Surf and Poetry Society" in my profile as a test of quality control. As I suspected, there was no quality control. I was president of my fraudulent ocean club in writing, if not in reality.

Despite the fact that my undergraduate career took me out to the University of Redlands, where I had the chance to get to the ocean on several occasions, it wasn't until I met my life partner that I finally got the chance to get up on a board and surf. The experiences I have had paddling, balancing, falling, and momentarily catching waves has only deepened my reliance on surfing as a counterbalancing and guiding life metaphor. Whereas running provides me with a basket of metaphors and a set of strategies to deal with enduring life's small, but consistent difficulties, surfing provides me a set of directives for dealing with life's sometimes-overwhelming conditions.

The only way you learn to read sets is to try some of the waves out.

The look of surfing and the feel of surfing are entirely different.

The same energy that can hurt or kill you is the energy that propels you.

You share an ocean with things that might hurt you. Show respect, but don't be afraid.

You aren't finished with your surfing day if you aren't hurting somewhere.

Waves are unique and temporary. Treat them as such.

There is no permanent value that you can attach to surfing beyond the immediate dance of surfer, board, and wave.

I would like to say that I discovered all of these things on my own. The truth of it is that I picked up all of these things from others. The audience that so vexed me as a child kept driving me out to the ocean of communication to try to find a better wave, to drop in more decisively, and to cut a better path across the face of a changing an ephemeral medium. The paradoxical fascinations of the people I lived among, and the shifting topography of the places I lived forced me to deal with the uncomfortable and seemingly Heraclitian flux of solid matter. Finally, my partner helped me build the courage to go out into the terrifying surf to try to improve my water dance.

This almost-insane urge to get out into an impermanent and inherently-unstable dance floor for a chance just to stand--or, with a great deal of luck, to dance--informs me deeply in my relationships with others. Not only does surfing provide me with material to evaluate whether or not I'm fighting against the energy of a situation, it provides a set of life rules for treating myself and others with the flexibility necessary for symbolic interaction.

It's necessary and healthy to take chances in unstable places.

Expressing oneself is inherently ephemeral and involves risk.

Keep your eye out for an try to respect others who might be surfing the same way--they may not return the favor, but at least you opened the door for reciprocity.

You don't create the wave. You can only interact with it.

Give in to the wave enough to become part of it, but never forget that you are a distinct part of the dance.

Trust that each ride will teach you something, even if you have to duck out or end up with a mouth full of sand.

Don't worry about a score or a record--just enjoy the moment.

Learn to read the rhythms of the medium.

Know when to bail out. There is no shame in kicking out or backing off a wave if you think you are going to wipe out or pearl.

On the other hand, there are some waves that might be worth taking the risk. Don't always kick out out of a wave that might be worth the risk.

If you don't get sore and maybe a little hurt, you are aren't doing it right.

Surfing's yin to running's yang help me balance the twin rhythms of my life--the sporadic and chaotic with the daily grind and quotidian. Just like the waves erode and refresh the beaches, so too does the chaotic wear at and recreate the accretions of the habitual. Surfing at the second break can help one make sense of the time spent running towards goals rationally and habitually. The economically and rationally fruitless time spent choking on sea water, getting slammed against a board paddling out over the waves, chafing your arms and chest while furiously attempting to catch a wave, and hitting your board and the dirt over and over when falling repays you by pulling you away from your own overwrought and gilded expectations of life. Finding joy in the moment of connection to a shapeshifting wave of liquid energy helps one see, respect, and celebrate the uniqueness of each moment in a relationship.


Of Second and Third Acts

This year, I finally crossed a threshold I set out to find 18 years ago. In 1992, while I was studying abroad at the University of East Anglia, I saw Toni Morrison give a reading from her novel Jazz. To be sure, I had been building up a vocational purpose before the reading--my music major and French minor, and pre-law emphasis gave me a mix of experience in both the beautiful and the practical. This mixture of serendipity and confident exploration put me at the doorstep of a vibrant art and literary culture that thrived in an English university. Even before Toni Morrison came to UEA, I had experience the joys of cultural exploration and critique. There were opportunities for me to see local Shakespearian productions, other artists (Arthur Miller and Graham Swift, to mention just two) came to UEA to collaborate and share with students, Additionally, I was immersed in literature courses, and, of course, I was in England. Still, nothing before that reading crystallized why I would choose to not finish my Music Performance and French majors (I graduated with a minor in music and just had a lot of French courses on my transcript).

It was only the palpable excitement of an American author presenting her newest work, Jazz, to an audience who understood the value of her work that I clearly saw that I wanted to be in involved in this most difficult, hard-to-define profession of teaching and researching literature and language. In that rural English university hall I saw the purpose of my first act solidify and start to take shape. After that, I would have many moments that re-inforced a sense that I my path was good. Writing my undergraduate honors thesis on Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon the year that she got her Nobel Prize deepened my confidence, as did tutoring a fellow student during our senior trip to Laughlin, Nevada (sometimes in our swimwear between river visits) so that she could finish her degree. I continued to deepen the grooves of my vocation working in the writing lab, taking intense theory courses, taking Navajo to re-aquaint myself with a language I often heard but seldom understood during my childhood, getting published, and finally landing my first academic job at Bowling Green State University. All of these steps validated the feelings of a 20-year old boy in England.

Of course, I sometimes think back on the turns that my life might have taken if I hadn't chase this particular path. What if I had finished my music degree and tried to make a go of it in the music business? What if I had tried to go to Rome with an earlier long-term long-distance partner? What if I had taken the job with IBM near the end of my PhD instead of completing the degree? These are life-truncations I'll never get to explore, and it does make me a little wistful from time-to-time. But these wistful imaginings do not usually sway me from the notion that I have picked a good life path. One of the pillars of Navajo philosophy is a concept called "hózhó," which, when translated, means "walking in beauty." To apply this concept into my day-to-day life, I try to incorporate my a bit of mathematical calculation and lessons learned in athletic competition. Pick a goal, then survive and advance. Of course, this merely covers the "walk" part of the philosophy, and not the "in beauty" part. Beauty, at least to me, involves a bit of serendipity and appreciation of what comes to you. My sometimes overpowering analytical side demands reconciliation between the multiple trajectories that my life could take. Figuring out the answer can be tricky. Instead of trying to find the right answer, sometimes I rely on the quiet and intuitive option. Toni Morrison's talk presented me with such a beautiful and intuitive option. Ms. Morrison had seen gaps in the culture, and created new voices to speak to those gaps. I could spend the next period of my life--the first period of my productive and professional life--to do the same.

One of my friends jokes that I'm having a mid-life crisis. Although that's always a possibility for someone rapidly approaching his 40s, I'm not sure that I can agree with that accusation. After all, I pretty much never stopped spending time with college students. Hell, over the past two years, I have lived in a residence hall. I travel many times a year, meet amazing people, and have yet to seriously try for something that I don't achieve. My internal sense of a life clock, while ticking, is not any louder than it was as a child.

I could spend much more time detailing what happened over that period of 18 years, but as I sit on this point nearer to the end of what many describe as the "1st Act" in my life, I can more clearly see that those choices not taken are still with me. I still want to make music. I used to wonder about the woman who wrote all those letters, spent all that time on the phone with me, and who inspired me to smuggle her favorite burrito cross-country on dry ice, only to leave with only a quick "I'm sorry." I wonder about kids. What I don't wonder about is the bond I have formed with my partner and lover. I don't wonder about my choice to teach and share the most complex and maddeningly complex subject I know--language and art made from that language. In the end, the wistful informs the strength of my choices. I don't regret my path, and I don't regret the lessons I have learned, even if they present mysteries.

As I look forward to my next act, I can say that I'm excited about the possibilities, a little sad about some of my mistakes, and in awe of all of the mystery that comes with having to make choices. Fortunately for me, choices made do not mean a diminishment of the choices I did not make. Living hózhó means that I maintain a mindfulness of all of the relations that make my life beautiful. Mindful of the people that I have chosen to share this life with, mindful of the people who are now distant, mindful of the path I have chosen and the ones I have ventured farther away from. All of these things, near and far, are still with me. I still am learning languages. My lawyer friends still keep me on my toes. Hell, all of my friends keep me on my toes. And yes, I am going to start singing in an ensemble again. It may be tricky to weave all of these things together, but hózhó means being true to the center of your path--not forgetting where you came from--in order to get to the next place.