Do You Need to Be the Smartest Poet in the Room?

“The contrariety between the most opposite things on earth, between fire and water, darkness and light, vanishes into nothing when compared to the contrariety between God and mammon.”                                                                                                                 —John Wesley

I was not on the right path. For well over fifty years, almost sixty.

I wanted praise. Or you could call it love from the world. I was spoiled, as an only child in a middle-class German-Jewish family, but my parents were critical, status-conscious, Holocaust-scarred people never lavish with their praise. In school I carried a briefcase and wore my shirts buttoned up tight all the way to the neck. During some of my childhood I was heavily bullied and made fun of. Then, starting around the age of twelve, I imagined that I might go into politics. The qualities that my parents and classmates did not appreciate would surely be recognized by a wider public. First I’d be mayor of San Francisco, then senator, then president. When I was fifteen and began writing a little poetry and fiction, I imagined that eventually I would be known all over.

I went to high school with an extremely popular, athletic boy who, only a few years after we graduated, began to be known the world over for his stories and novels. My father sent me newspaper clippings about him. I was in Barcelona then. I spent ten years living in Spain and this was the answer I gave to one of my students who asked me why I was there: “As an expat, it’s all right not to be well known for anything.”

I dreamed of publishing work that I had written. I imagined that I would open my mailbox and finally an answer would come with an acceptance; this would be “paradise,” as I told my Freudian therapist. And, eventually, when those acceptances did come I got a fleeting feeling of excitement and bliss. But that soon faded when I realized how much further up the ladder I still needed to climb.

I never cared much about money or material possessions, but praise from the world was another matter.

I’ll give an example of how this disease got worse. In 1998, with the airwaves full of Frank Sinatra songs on the day of his death, I went to pick up a new pair of glasses from the optometrist. I remember sitting there and trying on the glasses and speaking to the employee but feeling completely invisible and unworthy because I was not of the stature of the larger-than-life personage who had just died. Why would someone be nice to me? I had done therapy in Spain and now I was in Los Angeles with an even better therapist, and yet, to some extent, nothing much had penetrated into my thinking. I was still dominated by the tween in me who didn’t believe I could be worthy without some form of even limited renown.

I had begun therapy for what seemed on the surface something else: an intense romance addiction and the almost complete loss of self whenever a breakup occurred. But when I think about it, was it really more erotic loss or a horrific sense of wounded pride that brought me down into such a low? Perhaps it all had to do with ego much more than libido.

The search for approval never led me to experience as many depths as the ones at the end of (or during) romance, which is a much more primal thing. And yet, eating away at me all those years, was a nagging feeling of being less-than, an emaciated figure in a room full of bodybuilders, of never being able to catch up with my successful high school classmate or the women and men whose accomplishments got written up in the papers.

Years went by and I reached my fifties, at which time the romance and sex addiction waned to (comparatively) nothing. And yet the hungry ego raged louder than ever.

At some point during work on my memoir about my adoption, while reading many memoirs from the past, I dipped into St. Augustine’s Confessions. It struck me how much he talked about praise and his own temptation (if I recall right) to overvalue praise from the world. It was the first time I’d ever really seen praise talked about in this way. I knew about other vices; I knew about lust and gluttony, etc., but I never considered the extent to which hunger for praise from the world could be considered detrimental to having a good life. My upbringing had been (weakly) in the Jewish faith, which doesn’t dwell on humility—at least that’s not one of its salient features. And all that time in therapy, this simple concept of praise- and honor-hunger (or call it pride and vanity) hadn’t come up in precisely this way.

During the late 1990s and early 2000s I’d been active in 12-step groups and had worked through the steps though never quite reaching the twelfth step of a spiritual awakening. The prayers—especially the Third Step Prayer with its line “Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Thy will”—had touched on my area of difficulty, my narcissism (I use that word loosely since I don’t technically have a narcissist personality disorder), but the focus of the meetings had been sex addiction; what I needed more, perhaps, was Fameseekers’ Anonymous, if there were such a thing. Eventually I dropped out of the program but their (basically Christian) language and sayings stayed with me, especially, of course, the idea of God or a Higher Power. I believed, but I didn’t have much of a relationship with God.

Last year, while wandering around Santa Monica Boulevard as a human billboard in search of people I could persuade to maybe come to my plays, I listened to the whole Bible for the first time. The contrast was so stark between the words I was listening to on my headset and the loud words of my director, worried about filling seats: “Nobody knows who you are!” The experience of (desperately) trying to get people to fill seats made an impression on me. I had assumed that almost everyone I knew would (at least) be curious to see what I’d done, after all the hard work I’d put into both my plays. But it was hard even to get friends to show any interest. Of the two theatre groups I joined, in which the people seemed friendly and encouraging enough, no one at all showed up—even at severely discounted rates! Then I began to re-evaluate the poetry groups I belonged to as well: Did I really work so hard on my poetry so it could be discussed and even praised and then quickly forgotten by people around the table who obviously had concerns of their own? And when I made comments, I felt I had to be not just smart and learned, but the smartest and the most learned in the room. Why? Where did that really get me?

Between last year (the theatre year) and this past summer it all came to a head. I was, in a very deep and primal sense, not being nourished by the world/people. I couldn’t get them to do what I wanted. I thought of some of the old Barcelona friends like Karina and Alberto who’d dropped off the map, even some L.A. friends who rarely if ever called. People were not coming through. I was not getting what I wanted from “the world.” In a very real way, I was still that infant left by my birth mother for days before I was picked up by my new parents. “Where’s Mommy?”

At that point I realized it was time to try prayer again.

During my trip to the mountains in late spring, one of my last stops was (near) Durango, Colorado. I rented a cabin for a few nights and one of those nights I finally prayed. I got down on my knees out on the cabin’s porch and said the Serenity Prayer and the Third Step Prayer. In the days that followed I put away all my reading from the Enlightenment period, reading which I thought had nourished me, and once again read Status Anxiety—the perfect name for my condition. Then I reread The Imitation of Christ. I read Ellen B. White’s The Desire of Ages, her expansion and explanation of the Gospels. I began to reread the New Testament. I listened to Huston Smith’s lectures on world religions. Now I am listening to John Wesley’s sermons—a hundred and fifty hours of more wisdom and insight than I ever got in college or graduate school. I came to see that the big book in every motel nightstand drawer, the Gideon Bible, contains on every page more nourishment than a whole library of poets and novelists eager to climb their ladders and establish their legacies. All that time in therapy and all that 12-step work hadn’t quite gotten me to the point where I realized the futility of my search. In all the new (and old!) books I read, I found my status anxiety constantly addressed and challenged, as in this passage:

For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world (1 John 2:16).

In my years in Barcelona, I had often mentioned to my analyst how important it was for me to exist on a more exalted plane in the eyes of the world and to be more than and better than others, people like my portera (the lady who sat in her little curtained room on the ground floor and knew everyone’s business and read ¡Hola! magazine). I was many rungs of the ladder higher than her, wasn’t I? Just as people who got their short stories published in the Carolina Quarterly were many, many rungs higher than me, in this way of thinking.

I wasn’t on the right path. Far from it. Little by little, though, things are beginning to change. I will always suffer to some extent from status anxiety (just as an alcoholic with fifty years of sobriety will always be an alcoholic), but a change is happening. What they call in AA the “stinking thinking”: I bought into the world’s notions (and what we can call the “Devil’s” notions) of talent and genius and prestige and renown (much amplified by the media). I feel I am only at the beginning of getting to the right path. I pray more often. I haven’t yet found a church. I believe the Southern Baptists accept this one prayer as conversion: “Dear God, I know I’m a sinner, and I ask for your forgiveness. I believe Jesus Christ is Your Son. I believe that He died for my sins and that you raised Him to life. I want to trust Him as my Savior and follow Him as Lord, from this day forward. Guide my life and help me to do your will. I pray this in the name of Jesus. Amen.” Not so different in some ways from AA prayers. I believe other denominations have different requirements (the Methodists, for example). I haven’t yet said the above prayer but the moment is coming.

You may know the old saying: Religion is for people who don’t want to go to hell; spirituality is for people who’ve been to hell and don’t want to go back. I haven’t given much (enough) thought yet to heaven and hell, but I can say that in these teachings and doctrines that have been around for two thousand years, I am—even in the midst of this market-driven, status-mad, secular world—beginning to find a home.

Walking now with joy, and not with fear, in a clear, steady sight of things eternal, we shall look on pleasure, wealth, praise–all the things of earth–as on bubbles upon the water.” –John Wesley

The Work of Being Ordinary

Rousseau refers to amour–propre (self-love) as a “universal desire for…preferment and a frenzy to achieve distinction.” -Fred Neuhouser

Isn’t it now high time to accept being ordinary?  It would be nice if one trip to the mountains could make the difference to get me finally to a place of peace.

It’s been with me most of my life, the fantasy of being a VIP. It has to do with my adoption; it has everything to do with my adoption. And when I started writing at 15, I assumed that I’d eventually surpass the greatest greats. A larger-than-life figure whom fans would be amazed and astonished to see entering a room. In having these fantasies I wasn’t that unusual. Many adolescents go through such a phase.

Once, a long time ago, I upset a prickly lady with the comment that “Only celebrities matter.” The word “celebrity” now means, for me, people notable and recognized in their field, say, those who have a Wikipedia article written about them. People who have a following and a reputation. People, in other words, who are in some sense popular. And speaking of Wikipedia, any article on any town bigger than a hundred persons will likely have a section called Notable People. When there is an airline crash, there is always mention in the press of Notable People on board.

If I think about fame as popularity writ large, then I should be able to understand why it was going to be hard for me: I’ve never been particularly popular. In my thinking, lack of popularity writ large is actually an essential ingredient of ordinariness. Last year I produced two of my own plays; the hardest part of the experience was getting people to care, getting people off their couches and away from Netflix. This year, no theatrical productions at all, but instead: five weeks in the mountains! Which is better?

But this idea of Promoting myself: Not only is it boring; I didn’t realize until a few years ago that there was any need to do it. But I always loved the process of creation more than the final product. I used to care about being published, but now, when a journal which has my work in it arrives in the mail or appears online, I’m pleased for a moment and then forget about it. It’s the act of writing, the joy of putting together a poem or essay or story that fulfills me—or it should, until I hear a comment such as “I like Alex; he’s my favorite unknown.”

*

Ordinary: not a public figure of any kind, not visible on social media, without a following, without extraordinary talent or abilities or intelligence and without a huge drive to promote oneself. In other words, the challenge is to be an extra in a movie, and not one of the stars. Just being an extra. A face in the crowd who appears in the movie for a moment and never again. But, in advanced societies, and especially in the U.S.A., most of us are not content to be just extras.

How does one (how do I) come to terms with being ordinary/average and get to a place of living without pretensions, living with a notion that I am not better than others. I do wish there were one simple answer, to be explained in a single paragraph, but it’s a lifetime’s work, like being in AA. Here’s the beginning of a beginning of some answers:

In another blog post I wrote about Rousseau and my old (estranged) friend, Fred Neuhouser, an expert on Rousseau. The biggest takeaway from Neuhouser’s writing on Rousseau is this (and I realize it’s a simplification): There is a kind of self-love peculiar to humankind, even primitive humankind, that drives us to want to be better than our peers. Even in a non-inflamed, non-neurotic stage, we have a natural desire to want status. It’s almost as natural as the sex drive and the urge for survival.

So much for the natural man, the villagers competing to do the best dance in front of their huts. Then millennia passed and Christianity came along, and through the long period of the “Age of Faith” most of the populace, at least in Europe, lived simply with their simple faith that stressed the Afterlife, the real world beyond the present world, and annihilated all sense of vanity and status. My favorite image is that of artisans at work on a cathedral, gifted but humble souls who don’t even sign their names; so pious and modest are they that worldly renown is foreign and incomprehensible them. (There is, it seems to me, something profoundly Eastern about the way the West was at one time.) That all changed with the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. As faith declined, worldly love of status rose. Often I think about what used to be called the Dark Ages (the men of the Enlightenment came up with that term!). To be a peasant in Europe in 1100 was to live a hard life but a life with faith. The book from roughly 1300 called The Imitation of Christ could be a handbook on how to live for all people, for all time.

Books like Status Anxiety and The Frenzy of Renown make, in different ways, the point about medieval man versus people now. As the Middle Ages gave way to the modern era, in which anyone could rise to become a Benjamin Franklin or an Abe Lincoln and we progressed to meritocracy, our religion came to be money, status, success, renown, the buzz generated by other (lesser) people talking and thinking about and emulating a Star. Being extraordinary. Since God “was dead,” the only answer was inventing a way of life that worshipped Madonna and Justin Bieber which included dreaming of someday being Madonna and Justin Bieber.

It’s not an accident that I mentioned AA . Ultimately an AA-type of approach to status anxiety is one of the only answers I can think of. AA stresses spirituality (as opposed to religion). The other answer is outright religion.

Spirituality? Religion? But that’s hard for someone like me who has no real background in a spiritual life. I recently read Thomas Paine; even though he lived over 200 years ago, his analysis of the Bible’s flaws and inconsistencies is devastating. Rousseau didn’t go quite so far: in his Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar he writes about the Bible’s problems but still values it as a book that could not have been written merely by a human hand. And Tolstoy’s desperate crisis, I believe, was healed by the sound of a simple peasant in the field saying “God is great.”

Maybe it takes having a kind of spiritual awakening to shake off fame lust and fully embrace the supremacy of the ordinary. Maybe it takes surviving a plane crash or finding oneself caught up in the midst of riots and revolution to finally shed illusions of grandeur and just simply live.

I laugh at people who care about driving fancy cars and wearing fancy clothes and living in fancy homes. I hope (dare I say “pray”?) for the day to come when I can laugh at people desperate for status, prizes, followers, a book deal, Facebook “likes,” YouTube views, praise from the New York Times, and a place in people’s hearts a hundred years from now. May the awakening come soon—an awakening, to be sure, that includes the wisdom to realize that status lust will always be there to some extent (as someone in AA will introduce himself as an “alcoholic” even after decades of being sober).

But may that lust shrink; may I find a way to minimize it on my “inside screen” to a more manageable size than it is today.

“No man is much regarded by the rest of the world. He that considers how little he dwells upon the condition of others, will learn how little the attention of others is attracted to himself.” –Samuel Johnson

“Know you that the love of yourself is more hurtful to you than anything else in the world.” –Thomas a Kempis

The Decline and Fall (and Rise) of Walter January

Fred Half Pic

There is one loss that still hurts.

I made the journey back to New York City for a short stay. That’s where we’d known each other. I thought of Walter January day and night. What went wrong?  I had a stranger’s apartment all to myself, the kind of place Walt or I might have rented in the old days. As I lay on the couch, I looked over at the dining-room table, and I thought, Walt and I should be sitting there over food talking about our lives. What happened?

*

We met in front of the gates of Columbia, introduced by a mutual friend. I was twenty and dumb and extremely immature. Walt was four years older and a graduate student in philosophy, also my major. After that first day, we ran into each other from time to time, went for coffee, went to museums, went to hear Allen Ginsburg read Howl, went to the symphony; once we drove to West Point and Hyde Park. Walt was mild-mannered, sharp, heavily academic, homely in appearance, a Marxist and an atheist. He’d been raised in Ohio. I’m uncomfortable saying this but I need to: over the first couple of years and maybe all the years, he would’ve liked to be more than friends, but I never thought about him in that way.

He did not live in the fast lane, my Walt.

I was in denial about the nature of his feelings. I valued him as a friend. He was my first grownup friend. Both of us spoke German: I because my parents were German; he because he’d mastered it in school. He could read Kant, Hegel, and Marx in the original. Even though he wasn’t a show-off, he did confess to me how status-conscious he was, how he thirsted for fame and recognition. Of all the people I remember from the early ’80s, he was the gentlest, but… even so… at times I sensed another side of him:

  • As when my beloved dog died, and I cried and said to Walt, “You met him, didn’t you like him and wasn’t he the most adorable puppy you ever saw?” Walt answered this way: “Oh Alex, I don’t get attached to animals.”
  • As when I applied for Christmas work at Macy’s but failed the arithmetic test, and, distraught, I said to him, “How would you have felt?” He answered coolly, quietly, “I wouldn’t have failed.”

He appeared humble and unpretentious, but he was also young and therefore growing into the personage he’d later be. He was, like me, an adult in the making. He hadn’t reached his full Walterness.

*

In those days I was awkward. I was slim and blond. I imagined I’d always be twenty-two. New York City was a fine place to be that young. In those days there were still bathhouses where you could find ten or twenty studs a night. I semiconsciously understood how immature I was and knew one reason for this: it could keep me young; and if I was young, then I’d be desirable.  Walt, on the other hand, never went to a bathhouse in his life. He wanted a relationship, and then he found one, with a young architect from India who shared Walt’s ideas of a male couple making a life together.

Our friendship went on as before. I couldn’t imagine any day in the future we wouldn’t be in each other’s lives. I loved him as an older brother, and yet I always believed our friendship was at heart one-sided. I was the more interested party. I always wanted to hang on when we talked on the phone.  Even when I decided to leave New York for good and move to Spain, I imagined things would stay the same, despite the presence of an ocean between us.

*

After college I was just a proofreader in an accounting firm, and that couldn’t go on. It was too meaningless—“alienating” as Walt put it in his Marxist lingo.  I visited Spain in the fall of 1984. I decided to move there and teach English as a second language and find romance and passion, maybe.

It was Walt who saw me off at the airport. He said, “It looks like you don’t believe you’re leaving that much behind.”

“It’s true,” I replied.

Maybe it was hurtful of me to say that, but I didn’t believe in my life in New York. I was young enough to fantasize about a new life in a far-off country. Everything would be better in Spain, wouldn’t it? And perhaps I sensed that I wasn’t getting that much from Walt. There was such a formality to him. He was so staid and proper that one always had to set up an appointment with him days or weeks in advance.  And he wasn’t curious about my writing—unless I insisted that he read something and give me his opinion, which he’d consent to do if I bugged him enough.

Youth!

*

As soon as I settled in Spain, I started the work of idealizing our friendship. He always wrote back with his aerogrammes and always responded wisely and insightfully. From time to time I phoned him.

*

Walter January was the first person who told me I should try therapy. No, I’ll rephrase that: he told me I needed to be in therapy. Until I knew Walt, I’d always laughed at people who saw “shrinks.” But after I went through love and loss and melancholia and even thoughts of suicide in Spain, he wrote this to me:

I hope you do seriously look for a therapist in Barcelona and that when you start feeling better (as you’re certain to do), you don’t just drive the whole idea out of your mind. I have felt almost everything you describe, but is there something in you that makes you always pick men like José Luis? The answer is probably “yes,” but is that what you really want? You asked me if it’s possible to love and be excited by the same person, a question I cannot answer. Is it possible for you? Why or why not? I don’t think you can answer these questions yet. Taking ice-skating lessons is a great idea. It’s something fun and affirmative. Yet I doubt that it is a substitute for a prolonged, serious self-reflection (i.e. therapy).

Sincerely,

Walt

 

“Sincerely”? What close friend writes “sincerely”? And the academic style: “Why or why not?”

Walt and I had always thought of our friendship as one of mentor/mentee, though we never said so explicitly. I relied heavily on those who knew more than I. And he? What did he get out of our relationship? Was there a physical component I was—and still am—struggling to deny? Or better yet: the physical component we’d occasionally acknowledged was there, was that what kept him in a friendship with me—me, whose writing he wasn’t interested in, who had little grasp of philosophy (even though it was my major), who was very young and silly. “You’re so dumb” he’d said to me more than once.

As to the content of his letter, of course it was decisive. I started therapy and have been in therapy ever since.

In all my time with the analyst, Walter’s name didn’t come up, not once. Why would it? We had a long-distance friendship, a solid one. In therapy one tends not to dwell on the good relationships.

*

One day he wrote on one of his aerogrammes that he’d been hired “—by Harvard!”  I’ll never forget that well-positioned em-dash and that lofty name. He’d been accepted by The Castle, and I was glad for him.

At first things appeared to go on as before, but we lived on different sides of an ocean. I didn’t at first want to admit to myself that I saw changes in him.

His demeanor was different. He seemed very sure of himself. During one of my visits back to the States, I had dinner one night with him and his lover (they maintained a long-distance Boston/Manhattan relationship) and I noticed that, when we parted for the night, he didn’t say “bye”’ or “talk to you later” or “see you soon” but “good-night.” Maybe that doesn’t appear so strange on paper, but it was also his tone of voice. Businesslike. Aloof.

And from that time on it is possible that if I hadn’t kept writing to him three or four times a year, we wouldn’t have stayed in touch. No break-up. No quarrel. Just a natural ebbing over time. He was now a Harvard professor. Imagine all the doors that were opening for him! He was on a first-name basis with icons in his field.

 

When he spent half a year in Germany, I wrote him with dumb enthusiasm about going to visit him and received this response: “I’m afraid the dates you suggest for visiting Germany won’t work.” The letter said more but that’s the line I remember. Its unadorned coldness.

The next year I found out that while I’d been seeing family in the U.S., he’d gone on a trip with his lover—to Spain!

And then it happened that I visited him in Cambridge one summer. He’d offered to put me up in his apartment for a few nights.

He buzzed me into his building and I took the elevator up to his floor. His door was open and I walked in and shut it behind me. There was no Walt. I peered over into an adjacent room and saw him with his back to me, talking on the phone. He hadn’t just picked it up to say “Sorry I’ve got a guest.” No, he remained on the phone another ten or fifteen minutes before he emerged to greet me with a light hug.

We had a few days in Boston. Sometimes he appeared his old self, but what I most remember are the first few minutes of the visit: me sitting in his living room picking up one coffee table magazine after another, waiting for him to get off the phone. I tend to forget that he told me how unhappy he was, how unfulfilled in his relationship with the architect (who seemed the more interested party), how worried about his future at Harvard, how dissatisfied with Boston (too much “Middle America” in Boston).

I have this theory about Walt. He came from a working-class family in rural Ohio, but spent his life pursuing German culture and philosophy. He even spoke English—to my ear—with a German accent, almost the way I do. I think he hated his roots and did everything possible to run away from them—and even Cambridge, Massachusetts was not far enough, full of too much “Middle America.” If Harvard could’ve been uprooted and put in the middle of Manhattan, he would’ve been happy.

He told me about some of his students from just a few years earlier who’d already become hot-shot authors. “Does that bother you?” I asked him.

“It would,” he replied, with his old candor, “if I were not a Harvard professor.”

*

A committee approved Walt for Harvard tenure, “but it’s not a rubberstamp,” he said ominously as we sat in the Hungarian Pastry Shop on the Upper West Side, almost like the old days, a year later. “Not by any means. It’s up to the president now.”

Even though we lived thousands of miles apart, we no longer broke bread together whenever I visited New York. He would only allot me short sessions—a quick coffee, or a quick drink in the presence of other people. He did not laugh anymore. There wasn’t much spontaneity or fun in him—not that there ever had been, even in our heyday.

I didn’t feel at ease around him, this new and important Walter.

I was about to leave Barcelona after ten years and move to Los Angeles. Walt was horrified when he heard “Southern California.” He couldn’t understand why anyone would want to live in Stupid Country (as a character in The Buried Child calls it).

 

After our quick coffee, we walked toward Broadway and 116th Street, and I asked him where the subway was.

 

“You don’t even remember where the subway is!” Walt exclaimed. “You really are a stranger here.”

A stranger here…

After that day, I never heard from him again.

*

When I moved to “Stupid Country,” I sent him a postcard with my new address. I wrote a short letter at Christmas—still to his Harvard apartment. Then in the spring I sent him a birthday card and wrote “I hope we don’t get lost to each other forever.” I didn’t really expect a response, and none came. It would’ve been undignified to write any more letters. I promised myself I wouldn’t, and I’ve been as good as my word for the last twenty-two years.

*

My biological father, a philosophy professor, told me one day, “Guess what. Your friend didn’t get tenure!”
“But how do you know?”

“He’s working down at UC San Diego.”

 

San Diego? My backyard? I found out he’d been there for years…Then I used the Internet to discover he’d left “Stupid Country” and gone to work at Cornell. And some time after that I read he was back at Columbia in his beloved New York.

*

The other day I walked my dog and stood outside his home and looked up. He lives on the top floor of a fancy building on the corner of 109th and Broadway. He can walk to work. No commuter train or subway for Walter, at least not to get to work. I saw the janitor polish the railings in the elegant foyer. Walt’s done pretty well for a Marxist.

And then I walked on. I walked through the gates of Columbia and a girl came up to me smitten with my dog and practically begged me to let her pet him. I sat by the Alma Mater statue and enjoyed a very good view of a young man’s extremely athletic back. I walked by Tom’s Restaurant. I went to Riverside Drive and sat on a bench, the same bench where the old Walt and I had once talked about meaning in life.

*

I understand what the alternative to just vanishing would have looked like. He could have written to say—and couched it in nice language—that we’d outgrown each other. That I would’ve accepted and even respected.

There are many explanations for what happened, and I’ve thought of all of them. Not getting tenure at Harvard probably sent him into a crisis, and reaching out to me was not a priority. He needed to look good in front of me. He needed to stay on a pedestal. Now he wasn’t a Harvard professor anymore, but just regular professor who would have trouble with the successes of all his brilliant ex-students.

It’s also possible that his gradual withdrawal from me all through the early ‘90s had built up so much resentment in me that I’d occasionally let it show in snide remarks.

It’s possible that since I was older now (thirty-four), I wasn’t interesting enough to look at, assuming that physical attraction may have played a bigger part on his side of things than I realize.

It’s possible that there were mysterious (intangible) reasons he didn’t feel comfortable around me anymore but couldn’t bring himself to say so. He’d outgrown me. I’d also outgrown him but couldn’t let him go. He was Walt. He was family.

It’s possible, above all, that as he rose in his field (even as a non-Harvardian) I was not a suitable friend. His friends (though perhaps not lovers, where one’s criteria tend to be different) needed to be other academics and people of influence, people who lived and breathed in a world of Fichte, Hegel, Marx, and Rousseau, and also people who admired Dr. January’s work.

*

It troubles me how keenly I still feel the loss.

When I reflect on how much I’ve changed, I realize that similar changes had to have been going on inside Walt. And when I think about things this way, I can begin to stop feeling guilty-dirty for having done something wrong, or for not being good enough to share in a Columbia professor’s life.

*

Walter January has been gone a long time. It’s time to bury him. But a few more thoughts before I close the coffin?

I saw him on YouTube, interviewed a few years ago about his work. Often during the session, he shut his eyes while making particularly profound points. Once, his eyes stayed shut for a full minute while he lectured. His whole manner is affected; he’s putting on a show. The old Walt would have laughed at such pretentiousness.

*

The last time I ever saw him was twenty-two years ago, on the corner of Broadway and 116th Street, at the same spot where we’d first met all those years earlier.

I wonder about the intervening time: his sojourn in my “backyard”—San Diego—his stay, later, at Cornell, and eventually his resumed life at Columbia. All this time I’ve been in Los Angeles, and I think about the visits we could’ve had, the conversations, the insights I would’ve gotten from him. Maybe, if I’d matured faster, he would’ve seen me as an equal and not abandoned me. Maybe, if I hadn’t made a certain snide remark that last visit in New York… Maybe…

I sometimes have visions of waiting another twenty-five years and visiting him in a nursing home and grabbing his shoulders and demanding an explanation for the decades of silence.

I believe friendship has been compared to clothing: having a shirt for a certain amount of years, and then discarding it. Some friendships, I know, are not meant to go the whole way, from schooldays to death. It’s understood that romance often fails to make the long journey, but people seem to take it for granted that friendship is by definition more permanent.

I have gained insights from other people’s losses. I’ll say, “Are you still in touch with so-and-so?” and they’ll say, “No, no, they lost interest years ago.” It’s helpful to keep things in perspective, to realize that I’m not the only one. The common thread in all these cases is middle age. The young mind hasn’t fully developed; it’s open to many things; it’s spontaneous; it’s flexible; and it’s fine with being dumb some of the time. The older mind has thickened and ossified into a state of cozy pickiness and prickliness and odd prissy rules and boundaries; it’s not as accepting of peccadillos and slights; it’s set in its ways and just doesn’t have time. And maybe Walt is just as ashamed of his 24-year-old self as I’m ashamed of mine. Who wants to go back and relive the beautiful and stupid days? Not Walt, I’m sure. And not me.

If he were sitting across the table from me now, I’d say something simple and banal like, “I am sorry we lost touch.” I wouldn’t ask him why. I’d be diplomatic, even though most of the time I despise him. What I need to do is release the anger. Put on my boxing gloves and pound the punching bag at the gym, and then do some deep breathing and affirmations, the way I learned in therapy.

One of the best concepts I got out of therapy (and therapy is the thing Walter, more than anyone else, steered me toward): “It’s not what happened; it’s how you deal with what happened.” Over the last twenty-two years I have dealt with it poorly or not at all. Releasing anger, as I’ve described, is one way to come to terms with the loss. Writing this post is another. The slogans of all the 12-step work I’ve done are useful. But as another member of group therapy (an old-timer) said in one of our meetings, “You do all that stuff, you do the meditations and affirmations and the anger work and it’s still gonna hurt.”

I’m sorry that Walt didn’t get a chance to know the mature me. But looking at the tape of him in tweed ensconced in his philosophy chair, I’m not all that sorry I didn’t experience the new him. I like what he has to say about recognition and fame and its relation to evil—I am, like him, preoccupied with thoughts of accomplishment and posterity. I like his thoughts, but the actual Walt I see before me is, for the most part, not the person I knew.

 

I wonder if the attraction he admitted to in the early days wasn’t in some part reciprocated by me in a purely platonic form. I never viewed him as an object (I was into young jocks). But in some way he may have been the “love” of my life. I had the kind of friendship with him that you only get a chance to have in your young years, when you’re free to be dumb and smart and mean and compassionate and giddy with life and future hope in one long session over French toast and coffee at Tom’s Restaurant.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stop Inflicting Her on Our Ears! (Thoughts on Upspeak and a Radio Voice)

Amy Nicholson

A new voice surfaced one day on my favorite public radio show, Film Week on KPCC. The roundtable format is simple and predictable: the host is joined by two or three film critics, out of a pool of eight or so, to review new releases. I sat down to breakfast expecting to learn something, expecting to smile, hoping to be entertained, even though I rarely go to any movies. But that day a young lady talking “mall talk” joined the panel. I felt an immediate hostility to her, and changed stations.

From then on I was elated whenever they didn’t feature the voice. I suspected it would return, and it did. It was now going to be one of the regulars.

The young lady’s name is Amy Nicholson.  I flipped the dial, or found another podcast, whenever I realized they’d invited her back. I was angry at the station, which at one time I supported with donations, for unleashing that voice on a whole region, when so many other reviewers would have done better. I was even angrier at Ms. Nicholson It was not only her voice: it was also what she did with it; the issue was the hip, nonchalant persona she oozed onto the airwaves.

I am not alone in my dislike. Film critic Nicholson has many critics on the station’s website. AlfaRomeo911 says, “Amy is an immediate reason to skip the show.” Shadow Lady says, “Another show made unlistenable by Amy Nicholson.” Terminatrix666 says, “Amy is dreadful. Please replace her with any of the others. When she’s on, I’m afraid I skip the entire show.” Webstuff says, “I just have to join in the chorus. I don’t mean to be mean but Amy has the perfect voice for a phone-sex worker. Please do us all a big favor: stop inflicting her on our ears and return her to her desk job for God’s sake please!” In response to these protests, the station features Ms. Nicholson more prominently than before, and on more programs.

So what does she sound like? First, what she’s not: the other panelists have meaty, engaging voices. They aren’t of course actors; what they do have is personality, three-dimensionality, and a soothing atmosphere of authority. Listening to them is like listening to brilliant dinner guests. When the show is over, you can’t wait for them to come back.

Amy, of the texting generation, talks very fast in a tone devoid of discernable emotion. She fails to fully appreciate she’s on the radio. Like many people nowadays, especially middle-class whites, she tends to upspeak, bending her statements into questions: “I like what low-budget horror movies do in terms of taking risks?” Or: “This film doesn’t just tap into nostalgia?” Or: “It’s not often in a teen movie that the female love interest gets to be recognized as her own person by the protagonist?” Upspeak is an irritant, conveying a kind of in-your-face lack of confidence as well as mistrust in the listener’s ability or willingness to listen (“You know what I mean?”) and even demanding attention in a subtly admonishing way with the unstated message “Are you still there? Do you get me? Do you feel me?” Besides the upspeak, Ms. Nicholson’s speech is plagued by a fussy, very Californian overemphasis on certain operative words: “Adam Sandler’s characters are so negative and sour, and yet he thinks that’s adorable.” “José Morales has this movie star presence.” “Rosamund Pike plays an annoyed wife better than about anyone else on the planet.” I don’t think anyone knows for sure how or where upspeak got its start, but it’s here to stay (at least for the next decades) and almost as common among young men as among young women. Alongside this habit, Nicholson often gets grandmotherly when singing a film’s praises; it’s a Julia Child/Valkyrie shrillness that grates, so that in one sentence she can go from Valley Girl to octogenarian. And not only that: she often finishes utterances with “vocal fry,” a low, growly Valley way of sounding sophisticated. As if that weren’t enough, she slurs and even mispronounces so many words that a good part of her speech becomes unintelligible. Amy Nicholson’s voice and delivery are a disaster. One listener, Peteski Archer, has put it well: “Amy, you’re awful.”

Radio voices talk from a space that is at once the idealized ether and the untidy den of the inner head. Those I know exclusively from the airwaves have never been burdened with faces or bodies: they are just smudges, analogous to mental images of abstractions like “over the last few weeks” or “in the eighteenth century.” I accept these voices as stand-ins for actual persons whom I never trouble to picture in a precise way. I’m satisfied that for me they will always be voices only. In fact, I need them to stay voices: they’re complete as they are.

One Saturday, back in the States after living in Spain for ten years, I turned on the car radio and heard a wise, comforting storyteller-voice that told an ethereal tale about a youth with terrible acne who wandered into the north woods and fell in love with the sight of a doe in the distance. Before that day I’d never heard of A Prairie Home Companion, but from then on I tuned in every week. I looked forward to the drive home from the gym on Saturday evenings when I could hear Garrison Keillor paint a picture of a forlorn, frozen, funny Minnesota town. I would have been less interested in the same material on the page. Half the charm was the voice’s music, the timing, the pauses, the baritone alternating with an occasional sententious falsetto, the cunningly crafted breaths, the downhome talk spiced up with New York style. It was also a voice that suggested twilight and farewells. It looked back to an era long-gone but cherished, and part of its genius lay in its always threatening to fade away, its continual and somber message to the audience that not only were the old days dead, but the artificially revived radio show was itself a precarious artifact forever teetering on the edge of extinction.

In the two decades since I’ve lived back in America I’ve never owned a television set. I’m content with my radio. Even with the advent of YouTube, I still get most of my facts, news, updates, and entertainment from disembodied voices. And when they leave, I often mourn them. I liked Canadian personality Barbara Budd  on my favorite station late at night. First the cheesy, tired jazz tune “Curried Soul,” iconic theme music since the ’60s, then Barbara’s matronly, mellifluous voice came on to introduce CBC interviews with the famous and the obscure, mostly the obscure, on topics ranging from the London Underground bombings to bald eagle sightings and fishing mishaps. It felt as if Barbara were talking to me, looking after me, watching over me, and so of course when she retired I felt betrayed and abandoned. She wasn’t looking out for my welfare after all.

Some voices don’t depart voluntarily. One such was NPR’s Neal Conan. I’ve never seen a picture of the man, but out of his voice I hazily, lazily construct a tall, lean, bearded, bespectacled man a bit past his prime. This urbane voice gently introduced me to MySpace; his was a voice of reason and restraint when we were attacked in 2001 and when we twice went to war and when Trayvon Martin’s death started the country soul-searching about racism and prejudice. I came to trust Conan’s warm blend of wit, polish, and aplomb. When Talk of the Nation was suddenly cancelled, it was a calamity in my quiet little world almost as shattering as the demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban.

When I turn on NPR and hear Paula Poundstone , the oxytocin is released into my bloodstream and I’m experiencing something akin to euphoria. Amy Nicholson, on the other hand, is a third-grader squeaking out her practice sessions on a recorder. I loathe her voice so much that I almost get physically sick listening to it. But just as interesting as the voice itself is my reaction. I’m intrigued by my hatred; I want to learn more about it.

I live alone. Most of my voices emanate from the radio or the computer. I prefer these to be older than me: I need to be guided and entertained and protected by the droll, experienced brains and mouths of my elders. It is disturbing to hear so many junior voices born twenty years after me. I’m reminded of the passing of time and of other people’s successes, i.e., my own failures. I’m reminded that most of world is younger than me. I now know a few men and women in their nineties; I sometimes ask myself whom they have, among the living, to look up to. When they turn on their devices, they’re met with the same thriving post-collegiate faces I am, hear the voices of boys and girls talking politics and poetry and medicine and talking very smart, voices of their grandchildren’s or great-grandchildren’s generation. What can these children know? It must be common to die of loneliness in such a young world.

In Amy Nicholson’s youthful voice, I hear my own mortality.

Most of us dislike listening to the sound of our own taped voices; I didn’t realize this until late in life (I’d thought I was the only one). I was playing back the recording of a friend talking—to me he sounded like himself—when he suddenly cried out in pain. I felt satisfaction in realizing I was not alone. It was a moment of solidarity with the rest of the world. But I go further than others in that I dislike my own voice not just when it’s played back, but even when I hear it from inside me. It’s not the voice as much as the accent. Though from California, I was adopted (at four days old) by a Jewish couple, refugees from Nazi Germany, and used to speak with a heavy German accent, whereas now I speak with a light one. I don’t sound like wholesome American folks and hate my messed-up accent. True, Amy Nicholson sounds American, but I nonetheless hear much of myself in her: a lack of control, an inability to enunciate, an effeteness of presentation, a disparity between her fluid, smart prose style (she is a good writer) and her quick, mumbling voice (it’s as if she originally learned to talk in an abandoned house with a troubled single parent as model). When the other panelists opine, they do so as confident players in a larger group: there’s the lively, well-trained tenor of the show’s longtime host that plays off against the urbane, distinctively gay baritone of the animation expert that harmonizes with the wide-open, exuberant tenor of the show’s lone African-American voice that makes music with the affable, very white soccer-mom soprano of one of the other female regulars. Amy demolishes the mood of this madrigal ensemble like a baby screaming bloody murder in a theater’s front row.

In Amy Nicholson’s voice, I hear my own undeveloped voice.

Like a lot of adopted people, I searched for and reunited with my birth parents. After years of being “in reunion,” my birth mother died, and not long after that my birth father began to display signs of senile dementia. I tried to help with daily tasks like shopping and housework. I alerted his daughter, my biological half-sister Samantha, but at first she couldn’t accept that anything was wrong, and even gave him a big new dog. After a year she finally caught on that he was sick and helpless. She sold his house and moved him far away, to another state. She is now the sole inheritor of his estate. Samantha talks very fast and has a chaotic voice. Her favorite words are “Oh. My. God” and “totally.” In her presence, you have to plan carefully when to jump in, so you can get a word in edgewise—but it’s hard work and requires cunning, the kind you need when swatting a fly with your hands. I once spent Thanksgiving dinner with her. She talked incessantly and anyone could see how much she loved her beer. Her boyfriend loved his beer even more; he guzzled it down and held forth on baseball and football and motorcycles and NASCAR and his favorite topic, urban planning, as she peppered him with questions. Around him Samantha, though over forty, turned into a co-ed constantly in need of an assertive male to instruct her. She was every inch my biological half-sister: we had nothing in common. If I had said to her, “I am tired of life in the States and plan to hitchhike to Bolivia and join the Mennonites and father eleven children,” she would have looked at me untroubled with her candid, inscrutable face and asked, “Oh my God that’s totally awesome, when are you leaving?” If I had said, “Life’s not good and I wish to end it all; do you have any ideas on how I might do so?” she would have gazed at me in her chipper way, free of emotion and concern, gone on drinking, and inquired about the many available forms of suicide. Samantha’s voice is so much like Amy Nicholson that when I juxtapose the two, I hardly discern a difference. I have not heard from my bio half-sister in a year, while her ward, my birth father, languishes in his darkened room, ungroomed, unwilling to shower, deaf and half dead, looking not seventy-nine but ninety-nine.

In Amy Nicholson’s voice, I hear the silly, rejective voice of the sister I never got to know.

I wish I could say that understanding the origins of my allergy to Amy has made it possible to listen to her. But insights alone aren’t enough. At most, insights have allowed me to channel my hostility into writing down my thoughts here instead of leaving caustic comments on the show’s page. I do feel guilty about some of those comments. But what I wrote was the result of a sense of loss and betrayal: the old voices are going away, the sonorous public radio voices I grew up with are disappearing, and kids born in the ’80s and ’90s are taking over and becoming stars. This generational shift is inevitable and I should try to come to terms with it.

While reflecting on Amy’s oice and all that it does and doesn’t do, I’ve come to realize how unusual it is to hear a media or public-figure voice (even a drastically uptalking voice) that completely fails. And never in history have there been more voices or more choices. When I first moved to back to the U.S. from Spain, the Internet hadn’t yet taken off and people were still listening to shortwave radio. I struggled with my antenna and even attached a wire that I dangled out the window just so I could listen to Radio Exterior de España and the BBC World Service. Half the time the reception was so bad I had to give up. Now I not only listen to Radio Exterior but also regular Spanish radio and myriads of local Spanish stations. The way they read their news is urgent, bellicose—the authoritarian style I remember so well, though most of the voices have gotten younger. The World Service announcers read everything much more slowly, in their gracious, post-imperialist accents, though the names have become more exotic: the Francis Lyons are dying off, making way for a new era of Ritula Shahs and Razia Iqbals. What would meals be without them? Music won’t work: my racing-around thoughts won’t pause enough with music. I need to travel somewhere, hear stories; food needs to go down to the sound of a good voice telling me a story.

I’m ashamed to admit that my favorite voices come on late at night. I avoid the computer and the tablet and the smartphone and turn on my oldest radio, part of a dusty RCA stereo from the ’60s, the same one I listened to when I was little. The hour is too late for politics and debate or well-considered critiques; it’s past time for the rational and enlightened.  A host and his guests  are discussing UFOs and alien abductions and poltergeists and Ouija boards and sprites and leprechauns and raising the dead—even the embalmed dead—and truckers from all over America are calling from their lonely rides through the night to share about their ghosts and their close encounters and near-death experiences and miraculous cures. What better way to spend the time when no one is around, when all you can hear outside are the coyotes in the hills? I turn off the lamp; the ancient radio gives off its frail glow. Through venetian blinds, slatted moonlight floods a patch of bedroom near the window. The gun-show and smell-good plumber and Roto-Rooter commercials out of the way, it’s time for the host to introduce his guest and his topic—mindless stuff, you could argue. But it doesn’t matter. I manage to forget everything I found out in college and beyond, and let myself be seduced by those Middle American voices that so easily, so earnestly, spin story after story from the Outer Limits. I couldn’t imagine those voices in daylight: maybe the sun’s first rays would shrivel them up as if they were vampires. Here they come! I curl up with my chamomile tea and feel my pleasure chemicals percolate and circulate as night voices draw me in with the latest “report”: sonic booms and brilliant blue pie-plates are hovering in the darkness over Utah.
Vocal Fry

AN OLD SLUT PONDERS GAY MARRIAGE

Rodin ThinkerThe biggest moment in the gay rights movement since Stonewall has arrived. Now straight people, when referring to a queer acquaintance, can say not only, “He’s gay—but he’s in a loving, long-term relationship”; they can also say, accurately, “He’s gay—but he’s about to be wed to his long-term partner,” as if to counter the notion that all gays are whores and pederasts (a stereotype that doesn’t apply to lesbians). The truth, of course, is that gay marriage is much more than the right to marry. It’s about human rights, after a long, long history of discrimination and persecution. And yet I can’t help seeing a giant index finger rising cobra-like out of the Supreme Court building; unlike the “Uncle Sam Needs You” finger in the famous poster, this one is pointing sideways—toward churches and city halls, with the understanding, “You folks are all right if it’s all about love and commitment till death do you part.” The stirring language of the more liberal justices is important for posterity and an absolutely necessary milestone, but what about us sluts?

Today great actor Ian McKellen was interviewed on the radio. Speaking about the 1950s and ’60s in Britain, he said, “[Homosexuality] was against the law, so you kept quiet, but within the confines of a play or a screenplay or a script or a piece of fiction, you could indulge your emotions, which you weren’t allowed to do publically, as an ordinary person. Now, once I came out, once there were no restrictions on being myself, once I could hold hands with somebody I loved in public, once I could draw attention to my feelings, acting for me changed from being about disguise and came to be about revelation, about telling the truth.” The experience of coming out turned him into a better actor, and he makes this point eloquently in the Fresh Air interview. Notice the words I’ve italicized. Coming out and being oneself, in this instance as in so many others, are lumped together with “holding hands with someone I loved.” The long-term, caring relationship, is set up as not just the ideal but the norm: “See! We may be queer but we can love just as well as you!”

Many of us have tried and failed in that endeavor. Due to the way we’re wired, “relationships” can’t last. Some of us love too much, too obsessively, while others can’t love at all. Then, in the absence of anything big, we go for gratification where it’s fast and easy. We still dream (some of us do) about “someone special,” but as Quentin Crisp told us in The Naked Civil Servant, “I have never found the great dark man because there is no great dark man.” Perhaps (no, for sure!) we’re fantasists. So we go on, without abstinence, often without boundaries, occasionally without condoms. On the June day the decision came down, I could almost feel every bathhouse and sex club and peephole in the country starting to crumble, termite dust aplenty pouring down the walls, roofs giving way . . .  Marriage is here: suddenly going into one of those establishments, or pleasuring oneself in front of a computer screen, or obsessively checking Grindr profiles, has taken on a new significance. This is lust trying to survive in the age of marriage. This is lust prowling the parks wondering if good things like groping and exploitation will ever come our way again.

That June day everything changed. While the loving couples, of both sexes, celebrated, the sluts sensed—with varying degrees of awareness—that the act of entering a porn theater or an adult bookstore was taking on a new meaning. The government of the country had given us a way to official recognition and respectability, and yet we (some of us) were denying it, as if it were 1975, and slinking back into our outmoded ways. If straight society saw us as “bad” before, how much worse are we now that we (some of us) have rejected a path to legalization? Are we doubly depraved? But maybe the opposite is happening:

One could say we’ve been granted a general amnesty that spreads beyond marriage and into the walls of the sex clubs and bathhouses that we (many of us) have always loved and needed. The government has in the broadest sense completed its evolution in the direction of accepting homosexuality, which could make all the lurking in the shadows obsolete. In their final phase of decadence, the sluts’ old haunts are becoming relics, soon to go the way of Gold Rush ghost towns or the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas.

Sartre’s well-known words come back to me now: “We were never so free as we were under German Occupation.” A  British friend of mine in Barcelona always used to say, “The Catalans were much more interesting under Franco, when they had something to fight against.” What’s going away is the thrill of the forbidden and the illicit, the quick heartbeats on finding the perfect hooker within reach, the delights of exploitation and abuse. Now, post June 2015, if these acts occur between two men or two women, they are boringly legal.

At any rate, these are the issues I ponder when I (still, occasionally) enter one of those dying establishments in which most of the patrons haven’t been young since 1975. Are we more depraved now than ever? Or are the glory holes and the slings and the orgy room more “vanilla” than ever before? But there’s no doubt that U.S. society, represented by the high court, is recognizing queer men and women as never before in the same breath that it asks us to behave like straight men and women—or, I should say, asks us to behave. We left the age of free love behind decades ago and have entered a new age in which nearly half of all marriages end in divorce.

I celebrate the court’s decision (with my dog, not my lover—lover, where are you?). Nor is the rightwing radio commentator right to casually and flippantly assert that most gays don’t want to marry and would’ve been content with the pre-June status quo. I am speaking (writing) mostly from what we may call a personal, psychological point of view, as someone whose vocation it is to be single and unattached, a stoical worshipper of the ideal young buck who might consent to sleep with me once or twice, but who ultimately demands his freedom, the way Carmen does in Carmen:

Libre elle est née et libre elle mourra!

Free she was born and free she will die.