CooperLabyrinthine

CooperLabyrinthine - BERNARD COOPER! LABYRINTHINE Bernard....

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Unformatted text preview: BERNARD COOPER! LABYRINTHINE Bernard. Cooper (b.1951) Bernard Cooper grew up in Hollywood, California, and received a Bachelor of Fine Arts and Master of Fine Arts From California Institute ofthe Arts. Cooper is the author ofthe short story coliections Maps to Anywhere (1990), For which he won an Ernest Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, and Guess Again: Short Stories (2000), his first novel A Year othymcs(1993), and the memw oir Truth Serum: Memoirs (1997}. Cooper’s essays have appeared in Harper’s, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, and the Paris Review, among other periodicais. LABYRINTHINE In “iabyrinthine,” Cooper uses the image of the maze to explore aspects of aging and of iearm ing. His childhood story ofdoing mazes in coloring books initiates a series of reflections about the labyrinthine complexities of learning and Facing truths about our lives. "When I discovered my first maze among the pages of a coloring book, I dutifoily guided the mouse in the margins toward his wedge of cheese at the center. I dragged my crayon through narrow alleys and around corners, backing out of dead ends, trying this direction instead of that. Often I had to stop and re» think my strategy, squinting until some unob— structed path became ciear and I couid start to move the crayon again. I kept my sights on the email chamber in the middle of the page and knew that being lost would not be in Vain; wrong turns only improved my chances, showed me that one true path toward my reward. Even when trapped in the hailways of the maze, I felt an embracing safety, as if I’d been zipped in a sleeping bag. Reaching the cheese had about it a triumph and {inaiity I’d never experienced after coloring a picture or connecting the dots. If only I’d known a word like “inevitable,” since that’s how it felt to finally slip into the innermost room. I gripped the crayon, savored the place. rI‘he lines on the next maze in the coloring book curved and rippled like waves on water. The object of this maze was to lead a hungry dog to his bone. Mouse to cheese, dog to honew—«the premise quickly ceased to matter. It was the tricky, halting travel I was after, forging a passage, finding my way. Later that day, as I walked through our living room, a maze revealed itself to me in the mahogany coffee table. I sat on the floor, fingered the wood grain, and found a winding avenue through it. The fabric of my parents’ blanket was a pattern of climbing ivy and, from one end of the bed to the other, I traced the air between the tendrils. Soon I didn’t need to use a finger, mapping my path by sight. I moved through the veins of the man his heart, through the space between the paisleys on my mother’s blouse. At the age of seven I changed forever, like the faithful who see Christ on the side of a ham or peering up from a corn tortilla. Everywhere I incited, a iabyrinth meanderecl. Soon the mazes in the coloring books, in the comic-strip section of the Sunday paper, or on the placemats of coffee shops that served “children’s meais" became too easy. And so I began to make my own. I drew them on the cardboard rectangles that my father’s dress shirts were folded around when they came back from the cleaner’s. My frugal mother, boarder of jelly jars and rubber bands, had saved a stack of them. She was happy to put the cardboard to use, if a bit mystified by my new obsession. The best method was to start from the center and work outward with a sharpened pencii, creating layers of complication. I left a 345 1i} few gaps in every line, and after I’d gotten a feel for the architecture of the whole, l’d close off openings, reinforce walls, a slave sealing the pharaoh’s tomb. My blind alleys were es- pecially treacherous; l constructed them so that, by the time one realized he’d gotten stuck, turning back would be an exquisite or" deal. My hobby required a twofold concentra- tion: carefully planning a maze while allow- ing myself the fresh pleasure of moving through it. Alone in my headroom, sitting at my desk, I sometimes spent the better part of an afternoon on a single mass. I worked with the patience of a redwood growing rings. Drawing myself into corners, erasing a wall if all else failed, I fooled and baffled and freed myself. Eventually I used shelf paper, tearing off larger and larger sheets to accommodate my burgeoning ambition. Once I brought a huge maze to my mother, who was drinking a cup of coffee in the kitchen. It wafted behind me like an ostentatious cape. l draped it over the table and challenged her to try it. She hadn’t looked at it for more than a second before she refused. “You’ve got to be kidding,” she said, blotting her lips with a paper napkin. “I’m lost enough as it is." When my father returned from work that night, he hefted his briefcase into the closet, his hat wet and drooping from the rain. “Later,” he said {his code word for “never”) when I waved the banner of my labyrinth before him. It was inconceivable to me that someone wouldn’t want to enter a maze, wouldn’t lapse into the trance it required, wouldn’t sacrifice the time to find a solution. But mazes had a strange effect on my parents: they took one look at those tangled paths and seemed to wilt. I was a late child, a “big surprise” as my mother liked to say; by the time I’d turned seven, my parents were trying to cut a swath through the forest of middle age. Their mort- gage ballooned. The plumbing rusted. Old friends grew sick or moved away. The creases in their skin deepened, so complex a network of lines, my mazes paled by comparison. Fa- ther’s hair receded, Mother’s grayed. “When you’ve lived as long as we have . . . ,” they’d say, which meant no surprises loomed in their future; it was repetition from here on out. The endless succession of burdens and concerns was enough to make anyone forgetful. Eggs were boiled until they turned brown, sprin- klers left on till the lawn grew soggy, keys and glasses and watches mispiaced. When I asked my parents about their past, they cocked their heads, stared into the distance, and of- ten couldn’t recall the details. rl‘hirty years later, I understand my parents’ refusal. Why would anyone choose to get mired in a maze when the days encase us, loopy and confusing? Remembered events merge together or fade away. Places and dates grow dubious, a jumble of guesswork and speculation. Whatis-his-name and thingama- jig replace the bright particular. Recollecting the past becomes as unreliable as forecasting the future; you consult yourself with a certain trepidation and take your anewer with a grain of saEt. The friends you turn to for con— firmation are just as muddled; they furrow their brows and look at you blankly. Of course, once in a while you find the tiny, pure gent details poised on your tongue like caviar. But more often than not, you settle for sloppy approximations—“l was visiting Texas or Col— orado, in 1971 or ’72"—-and the anecdote rama bles on regardless. When the face of a friend from childhood suddenly comes back to me, it’s sad to think that if a certain synapse had— n't fired just then, I may never have recalled that friend again. Sometimes I’m not sure if I’ve overheard a story in conversation, read it in a book, or if I’m the person to whom it hap— pened; whose adventures, besides my own, are wedged in my memory? Then there are the things I’ve dreamed and mistaken as fact. When you’ve lived as long as l have, uncer- >1. tainty is virtually indistinguishable from the truth, which as far as I know is never naked, but always wearing some disguise. Mother, Father: l’m growing middle-aged, lost in the folds and bones of my body. It gets harder to remember the days when you were here. E suppose it was inevitable that, gazing READENG AND THINKING BERNARD COOPER: LABYRINTHINE down at this piece of paper, I’d feel your weary expressions on my face. What have things been like since you’ve been gone? Lebyrinthine. The very sound of that word sums it up—as slippery as thought, as per~ plexing as the truth, as long and convoluted as a life. ‘ 2. What does Cooper learn as a child about mazes, especially about finding his way to the goal? What does he mean by saying that wrong turns actually improved his chances of solving the maze? . Why did Cooper, as a child, prefer solving mazes to connecting dots and coloring pic» tures? What other examples of mazes does Cooper identify? Why do they cease to sat- isfy him? . Why does Cooper begin constructing his own mazes? How does he do it? What method does he adopt in building his mazes? Why does he do it the way he does? How does he fool and baffle and free himseif? THENKING AND WRITING 1. What does Cooper convey about his parents by describing their response to his mazes? Through his description of their aging faces? Through his mention of eggs and sprinkless and keys and watches? What idea is he developing by means of these examples? . Explain what Cooper means by saying that "uncertainty is virtually indistinguishable from truth” and that truth is "never naked" but always “wearing some disguise”? . What is the effect of Cooper’s addressing his parents in his final paragraph? What does he say to them? Why? What is the significance to: Cooper of the word “labyrinthine” and of the heat sentence of the essay? 347 ...
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This note was uploaded on 03/25/2011 for the course WRITING 102 taught by Professor Khurana during the Spring '11 term at NYU.

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CooperLabyrinthine - BERNARD COOPER! LABYRINTHINE Bernard....

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