The Fork Must Roam

                                                                                                            Oct 1, 1994

Four rough drafts of a letter to Tim Matson:

Dear Tim,

            All of us in Paris missed you for a long time after you left, but gradually we’re getting used to your absence. We’re starting to understand you only now. My walls are busy with your work—Swinkish dangling feet and loud crowns and hearts and enigmatic roaming forks. But the artist responsible for enriching these walls has vanished. I would appreciate it if you could get my Cosmos back to me. Perhaps you remember how I am about my books!  -Alex

                                                                                                            October 9, 1994

Hi Tim

            I am beginning to see it all. People were right! And yet sometimes I think I was the one who let you down in some mysterious way. It would be nice, by the way, to get back my copy of Sagan’s Cosmos. Could you possibly send it? 

Sincerely,

Alex

                                                                                                            11/12/94

Tim,

            I’ve been meaning to ask for my Cosmos, which, if I’m not mistaken, you’ve been hanging on to since the last time we saw each other. I expected to hear something about your stay in Seattle, your new place in Dreux, your American roommate, your life and thoughts and painting and wonderful Brian and Sue. Do write,

Alex

Dear Tim,

            So here we are with Christmas upon us and still I have no news. You’re welcome here in Paris anytime. The guest room will always be at your disposal. But you know that. Love to Brian and Sue. It would be lovely to hear from you.

Alex

  • The letter to Tim Matson:

                                                                                                Begun May 29, 1995

Dear Tim,

            I went to see Brief Encounter again last night. There were about ten people in the audience, and all of us were on our own. I thought I might enjoy seeing that film, but I realized I don’t like going to the movies alone, especially when everyone else is alone. So much aloneness.  I went to a bar afterwards. It was a cold night and I remembered how you and I used to talk about the movies during your season in my apartment.

            I took the Métro home. At the second stop I noticed a homeless man standing by the door. A moment later, after I’d already forgotten about him, he opened his mouth and announced to everyone that he’d just gotten out of prison and had a family to support. It was a sad thing to beg, he said, but it was sadder still to go hungry. I hated being assaulted by the loud deadness of his voice. I felt guilty for not giving and guilty, too, for wanted to look away: “Why are you looking away, Alex? You’re supposed to be a poet and face things, why can’t you face this man and at least study his face for some future description?”

            I went home and thought of the times you’d said “You’re so bourgeois, Alex!”—how right you were. I should’ve looked at that homeless man and some of the other people on that train, or maybe I should’ve tried to make friends, absurd as that may sound. And then I thought of the way you used to talk to me about me and how I loved it.

            I tore up so many letters to you, Tim. But now I won’t be the way I was in the
Métro. I will look at the truth of what happened. Truths hit me in stages.

            What do you run away from when you go clubbing? Why go clubbing? Tim Matson, the oldest clubber in Dreux. Thirty-two now, three years younger than I. The new arrival from England. Artist and teacher. The day you and I met I made a pot-au-feu. It was like finding a soulmate. We discussed Thomas Mann’s novels. Do you have anyone in Dreux to talk about Thomas Mann with? 

            Truths about you hit me in stages.

            We met through friends of friends, or something. I don’t even remember exactly how you ended up on my doorstep. But you came to Paris without knowing anyone, and I was your first friend.

            You left a message on my answering machine; I didn’t know what to expect. But I did have a guest room and was willing to put you up until you got settled here. I knew nothing about you except that you were born in Nova Scotia and that you were an artist. It seemed an attractive idea to house a stranger for a few nights and introduce him to Paris.

            That first night you told me you’d made your decision to relocate after skimming through The Rough Guide to France at a Camden bookstall.

            We had terrine de canard and a pot-au-feu. You smiled and helped me set the table and we discovered things about each other. You told me your favorite book was The Waste Land and you showed me a copy of Ulysses, which you were excited about starting. And I told you some of my story: spending the last ten years in Paris, writing poetry and translating a great but neglected French poet. We discussed Messiaen, Debussy, Brecht, Stanislavski, Jung, physics, cosmology, Batman. It was May and after dinner we sat in a café on the Boulevard Montmartre.

            “Alex, you’re a groover-and-a-half,” you said to me. “Can’t tell you how much I appreciate you letting me kip up in your place. Really am chuffed. And what a dinky little pad you’ve got! This’ll be the right move for me, I know it. That is, once I get enough dosh together to settle in properly. The thing is, I was sick of London and I didn’t want to go back to Scotland—that’s water under the bridge, Scotland. And Seattle is boring—my folks live there now. Didn’t like Prague. It’s pretty but I almost went gonzo. Had a fling with a German lass. Don’t know why. A lot of yanks up there in Prague—no offence, Alex! I bet you don’t take offence that easily! Smoke? No? Hope you don’t mind having a smoker in your flat. Think you’ll find me livable for the most part, though neatness ain’t my forte, gotta admit. But I do cook. Love it. Dig doing dinners, too. You like dinners? Hate parties—far too promiscuous. But intimate dinners with a few close friends over—heaven! Brandenburg Concerti in the background, or a bit of Vivaldi or Scarlatti. Good red wine, stuffed peppers, pasta primavera, and to finish it off, a lemon mousse and after-eights and a glass of Bailey’s. (That pot-au-feu you made tonight was something else, by the way!) But the raison d’etre of these gatherings would be conversation. We’d of course steer clear of politics. Boring! No, the talk would center on art and music and literature. Read any good books lately? I’ll be badgering you, I’ll have you know, till you give me something of yours to read. And I’ll show you some slides of my art in the morning. Another round? C’mon, it’s early. And it’s on me. Seriously, I got enough bread to last a few weeks till I start working. And I will be working. I realize it isn’t the best time of year to be looking for a job as a teacher, but I have faith. The kermits gotta learn English, no? They taught us great things at International House. Cuisenaire rods, wow! Never saw anything so wacky in my life. Hey I said that’s on me! Yes indeed Mr. Alex I shall not leave you in peace until I see some of your work. What do you think of Pound? ‘The dew is upon the leaf. The night about us is restless.’ Gives me goosebumps. And Frank O’Hara, there’s a giant one: ‘The razzle dazzle maggots are summary tattooing my simplicity on the pitiable.’ Sublime! Yep, I wanna see your stuff. And I can already sense you’re good. My instinct tells me this about you. By the way, any idea where I can point my percy at the porcelain around here?”

*

            And so we began a life together. After the first few days we realized we got along so well that it would be absurd to imagine you living anywhere else in this city, at least until you found work.

            I showed you around, I helped you out with the language, I introduced you to people. And they loved you. You had something for everyone. And you listened. It was startling to me, your appetite for people.

            And all the while, no matter where we were—in the Moreau Museum, in the Bois de Vincennes, in cafés and walks along the Quays—there was conversation.

            As the year wore on and you still couldn’t find work as a teacher, you began to spend more and more time at home reading Ulysses. I worked in my study and you would be out in the living room absorbed in your book. We never got in each other’s way. When both of us were tired of working (for reading Ulysses was work, even with—or especially with—an Encyclopedia Britannica and an unabridged O.E.D. on hand), we’d stroll down to the Boulevard Montmartre and sit for hours in cafés. Since you were running low on cash, more often than not I treated you. You liked the cafés and I could see how much you liked your beer—you loved your beer, you didn’t stop.

            By July you had formed a definite opinion of Paris: “What do I think of it?” you said one day on Place de St. Michel. “Big. Spectacular. Civilized. Except the Métro. And the prices. People stick to s’il vous plait and bon appetit and merci, but how do you see into their hearts? There’s a lot of glitz, a lot of dosh, but what’s underneath? You get the feeling this place lives on its past. It’s a relic. Unreal. Maybe in the fifties or sixties there was something still going on here, but now? And the people:  they put up with foreigners. Where would they be without the tourists? Probably they’ve seen too many of us. It’s a cold, lonely place. Wouldn’t particularly fancy living here on my own here. Admittedly, not knowing the lingo is a major hindrance. So what happens for us? THE FOREIGN GHETTO! And I see a look of infinite disgust comes over your face, Alex, but I find the ghetto inevitable and not in the least objectionable. People who share a language are going to stick together. No use fighting it. In fact, the trouble I’m having here is there’s not enough ghetto. People don’t call here, don’t you find? I go out and have this great sesh with radically interesting cats, we exchange numbers, and they don’t call or even return calls. It’d be nice to know someone’s out there! Like I said, I wouldn’t like to be alone in this city. Of course, there are a large number of foreigners here who are just plain out of their gourds. Let’s face it. Never seen people with so many hang-ups in my life. Milton What’s-His-Name with the beautiful white beard, the spitting image of Hemingway, who goes from bar to bar like a bumble bee spreading gossip and wisdom. And Jimmie the Northern Irish madman who limps about the neighborhood singing ‘God Save the Queen’ at four in the morning. Or Tony the ex-British army dildo who’ll stop you on the street and buy you cognacs and meals all night long just so he can tell you his latest romantic woes. And then there’s…Alex! Mad as a hatter, you are. absolutely crazy and insane, but the difference is that you are productively mad. (I still want to read your poetry, by the way.) No, Alex, seriously, you’ve got to be one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met. And dippiest. I mean, you’re a walking miracle. For one thing you don’t look a day older than twenty though you’re pushing thirty-five. You have a totally British accent though you were born in San Francisco. You allow mounds of dust to collect everywhere for months but you decide to give a dinner and suddenly the place is looking snappy as the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. You read Pascal and Thomas Aquinus and yet you’re capable of shelling out a fortune on pedicures and sunlamp studios. Madness, I love it. A gay man with no gay friends and no wish, apparently, to settle down with anyone, but you go to the local saunas to have ‘relationships’ with Arab youths who charge you. You’re a tragic eccentric and a great guy. Of course, I worry about you. You need to get out a little more often. But working on it, I see. I’d like to think I’ve had a little something to do with that.”

*

            You took up painting again, and the apartment filled up with big, garish works of art. You painted on wooden boards and signed everything “Squink.”

            Like you, these paintings were lively. And, like you, they seemed to let fresh air into my moldy old place. One of the paintings was a gift to me; you called it “The Fork Must Roam.” I’m glad I still have it on my wall, as tangible evidence that we were once friends. It depicts a pale green fork set against a wasteland and a cheerily setting sun.

            By the middle of the summer you were almost broke, so I treated you to a trip to St. Malo one weekend. We strolled through the old town and beyond the city walls and we sat and watched the tide come in and we went out to the little island and saw Chateaubriand’s tomb and listened to the gulls. We were still on the island when I mentioned a passage in The Magic Mountain: Hans Castorp sees an x-ray of his hand “and for the first time in his life he understood that he would die.” I told you how as a boy my parents could never share my world, how I’d read Mann at fifteen and asked my mother, “Did you feel anything eerie when you first saw an x-ray of yourself?” I wanted to convey to you something of my mother’s blank look and incomprehension when I asked her that question. You almost shouted: “Alex! I know exactly what passage you are referring to—‘Sudden Enlightenment’ I think is the chapter. Dynamite! The kind of writing that brushes the soul!”

            I looked straight ahead of me and couldn’t speak, knowing I had found a soulmate.

*

            I wrote your name in large capital letters and sealed the envelope which contained my chapbook. I left it on the dining room table and went out to eat with friends. I’ll always remember that day. I was in high spirits and so were my friends. But as much as I enjoyed their company I kept thinking I had more in common with you than I did with them. I went back to their flat and we watched Broken Blossoms. Both my friends complained about my choice of such an old, silent movie, and promptly fell asleep. I let myself out of their apartment and got home after midnight. You jumped up:

            “Congratulations of your chapbook, Alex! Found the envelope when I got up at noon and I was like ‘Ace!’ I ran down to the café and ordered a café crème and started to read. I read the first couple of poems and yelled ‘Fucking-aye!’ so loud that people turned around and looked at me as if they thought I’d gone bananas. I’m telling you, Alex, you’ve got something here. The first thing I read was ‘Whiteness.’ When I read that line—‘White is the color of the bone that dresses alone’—I nearly fell off my chair. I mean it was brilliant, big-time! And the next poem, ‘A Last Iris Fully Filigree’—it was stunning. Where does all this come from? You write in a world as far away as Pluto and yet your beautifully modulated voice manages to move the reader. ‘Communion’ is dark, foreboding, but it’s got that image, what was it? Yeah: ‘The ragged rosebush of duckling yellow.’ It’s solitary, difficult poetry and yet it’s rewarding. You ought to give up exile and go home and get more of your work out there. I mean, it’s what you deserve. What else did I like? What didn’t I like! ‘Bells Fill the Battignolles With Their Laughter’—perhaps not one of your greatest titles but it has that ending: ‘Undaunted, a man travels the horizon / Translated to a line of verse.’ Whoa! So much of you is here: your father walking out of the family when you were still in your teens did leave its mark. But in your work you are capable of rising above biography and capturing something universal. ‘Delirium Days” is almost perfect. Well-done, ten outa ten! Of course, my own personal favorite will always be ‘Whiteness.’ It’s a classic:

Painstakingly the eye watches over us.

The mother walks under bare branches,

Her hand white among angels.

*

            September came and once again you busied yourself looking for work in the language schools. And you had no luck at all. You’d wake up early and grease down your hair and you’d take your resumé and go out and spend all day in the streets criss-crossing this city in search of work in a language school. You’d come back in the evening smelling of beer and sweat but undefeated.

*

            One afternoon—you must have thought I was out—I heard you on the phone with your parents in Seattle. You were asking them for money and you started crying. I covered my ears and lay down on my bed and covered my head with my pillow so I could tell myself it wasn’t true and you weren’t crying.

*

            And then you heard about a school in Dreux, an hour by train outside Paris. You went there for an interview. When you got home, you told me you were now going to be a teacher.

            So you wouldn’t have to leave France and would only be an hour away. We were both ecstatic.

            I took you out for couscous in the Latin Quarter and we talked about the last four months and celebrated most of the night. The next day—your last—you asked me if you could borrow a book, Cosmos, by Carl Sagan. You were worried there wouldn’t be any English-language bookstores in Dreux (and of course you were right to worry). And so you took my Cosmos. I always thought I would get it back.

            That day we returned to the Musée d’Orsay and saw the Van Gogh room again. We woke up unusually early and when we got to the room it was strangely empty. I have never liked that museum. It will always be a train station to me. But that day was different. We stood in awe in front of “The Church at Auvers-sur-Oise.” Many times you had said that painting was the reason you’d come to Paris. We stood there, and the bright, contorted haunting image of the church hypnotized us. We shared a moment of exploring light, demented fields and pastures. It was even frightening, the way we penetrated together. And until that day I’d thought I wasn’t really susceptible to the visual arts. In you I’d found a soulmate, and for a moment I was even glad you were going to Dreux. Maybe seeing too much of each other might somehow take away from this moment. Our intensity was so deep that we would have to partake of it in instalments, sparingly, so that it would never diminish.

*

            After you went away, the apartment felt a little different. Dust began to collect again. During your stay, you’d gotten into the habit of dusting the whole place every couple of weeks, but now that I was living alone again no one ever dusted. Often in the kitchen I’d glance over at the feather duster in the corner, but I refused to pick it up.

            I had assumed that Dreux, a dull town in the middle of nowhere, would be the kind of place you would want to get away from at least every other weekend. After all, you’d come to France to be in Paris and not Dreux.

            But weeks and months went on and I got the feeling you were content to spend your time in the town where you worked. Apparently, you were living in an apartment without a phone, so the only way to reach you was by calling the Happy Language School. But the two or three times I called, we could never have much of a conversation, since you were always rushing into, or in the middle of, one of your classes. You were always still friendly, though! Friendly and chipper.

            I started watching a lot of television. I watched three or four hours a night. I watched game shows. I watched talk shows. I watched operas and soap operas. I watched anything.

*

            One day I took the Métro to St. Sulpice. It was already the Christmas season and it was cold. Thousands of people brushed past me. A few stops before the Odéon my car emptied out a bit and at the opposite window I could see a dirty bloated man carrying a bag of water with a goldish inside. I felt no curiosity about him and felt guilty for my lack of curiosity. I didn’t even wonder about the bag with the goldish. At the church I sat in one of the back rows. I’m not religious at all but wish I were. I wished someone would play an organ. I have only been able to enjoy the churches of Spain and Italy. I had gone to St. Sulpice to be transported but felt nothing. On the way home I watched a young couple—I assumed they were a couple—sitting across from me. I looked at the young man’s nails, rough and dirty. He started biting them. I felt no curiosity at all about these people. I felt lucky to be a poet and not a fiction or prose writer who had to have a deep journalistic interest in or fascination with other people. I missed Tim and thought of him often. I’ve started to write about him in the third person! I do that, sometimes.

*

            A few weeks into the new year I phoned the Happy Language School and asked about you. The secretary told me you were having a show at a Dreux gallery. So you’d been busy painting and all those weekends could be explained.

            I went to Dreux and stayed in a hotel. The night your show opened was a memorable one, and everyone was drinking. I met your new Dreux people. There was your American roommate and your close English friends, Brian and Sue. You were pleasantly drunk, surrounded by people who seemed to know you all your life. We managed to talk a little:

            “So how the hell are you, Alex? It’s been while, hasn’t it? Welcome to Dreux. I’m telling you, this town is a total mindfuck. After nine p.m. it’s Creepshow City and I’m being serious. I walk dark streets listening to my Walkman and all the proper citizenry are asleep. I’m like Antoine Roquetin in Bouville, know what I mean? I know you do, I know you do. Jeyesus, Alex, what they need here is plague. Yeah, something to happen. Maybe a blob from outer space. SOMETHING TO HAPPEN.  No wonder all the kids get into drugs. Never seen a town crawling with so many nonentities. I do wish I could get to Paris more often. Been busy lately. Terribly. I ought to call more often but not having a phone is a definite hindrance.”

            And on the walls was your show. There were nine imposing canvasses forming a series called “A Brave Ulysses.” These works were bigger and brasher than the art you’d done in Paris. “All very derivative,” I heard someone say, “and very Keith Haring.” But the remark didn’t mean much to me. I liked your work. The paintings dealt with what seemed your favorite theme: the exploits of a hero who wanders through the world, a kind of messenger or guide, determined to dazzle and enlighten. This hero never lingers anywhere for very long. He’s been sent to touch mortal lives for only a brief moment before moving on to new disciples and fans.

*

            I tried to get hold of Tim in April, hoping that he would think of coming to Paris again. The secretary at his school said he’d gotten into a fight outside a Dreux club at five a.m. and had broken a boy’s nose with his head. I wonder if my message ever got to him. The next time I tried, in the middle of the summer, the secretary told me he was no longer working at the Happy Language School and couldn’t offer any further information.

*

            I was sick soon after that, and I’m never sick. And I was silly one night. I couldn’t get into my new obscure book and turned on TV in the middle of Doctor Zhivago. But I had missed the first half. I was angry about this and threw a yoghurt at the screen. I turned on the radio and listened to the latest news bulletin. I should improve my French. It’s adequate but it’s not what it ought to be. I should never have moved to France. Only extroverted people succeed in foreign countries.        

            I was weak and feverish and went to bed. Once asleep, I was back in middle school with my bullies. They sat behind me in social studies class. One of them flicked his fingers against a bad pimple on my earlobe and it started to open and bleed. Everyone turned and laughed. The lady teacher laughed, too. I ran into the hallway without permission and there Tim Matson was hanging his paintings for an exhibit. I offered to help him. “I know San Francisco United School District isn’t any good,” said Tim. “But you’ve got to make the best of it. Start acting tough and they won’t pick on you so much.” Tim drove me to a town outside the city, on the coast somewhere, and we sat in an outdoor café eating shellfish. “This is like a dream,” I said to Tim. “You are here again, with your art and it’s wonderful. You’re back!” But suddenly Tim was gone and I was alone and without money to pay for my meal. “But I’m an old friend of Tim’s,” I said to the waiter. “Please, he is my friend, he’ll tell you that I have enough to pay you, just not today, please.”

            I woke up and found myself in a bed so disheveled that my skin touched the naked quilt. Touching the underbelly of a quilt nauseates me. I slept again and this time I owned a new encyclopedia and looked up the C volume: Capitalism, Civil Law, Cameroon, Caviar. A chameleon jumped out of the article on chameleons. It began babbling about Marcel Duchamp and lay down on the floor delivering a well-rehearsed monologue on Chausson and Corfu. Suddenly the encyclopedia set was gone. I walked the streets and finally at Galignani’s Bookstore I complained to everyone who’d listen. I showed my receipt to the manager but he just shook his head the way the French do.

            For a while I doubted myself to the point that it was hard to buy half a kilo of ham or a duck confit at the charcuterie. I reviewed almost every day of the four months Tim had spent in my apartment. I’m a loner, and we all know loners aren’t attractive—and the same goes for people who have too high an opinion of themselves. I didn’t want to see anyone; I wanted my soulmate back. Perhaps I owed Tim an apology, but I couldn’t think for what.

            At the end of that summer I was in San Francisco, and spent an entire afternoon phoning all the Matsons in the Seattle area. “Tim Matson who lived in Paris? No idea who that is but he sounds interesting”—that’s the kind of response I got. I wondered about his father’s first name. It was exhausting to phone all the Matsons in Seattle, and I don’t recommend it. I returned to Paris and my translating work. I thought of putting together a new chapbook. Time went by. I wondered if I only stayed in Paris because of my psychoanalyst and considered returning to America. But I had almost no one left there, except an old father I didn’t get along with. One day his young girlfriend phoned to tell me he was dead and buried and had left everything to her.

            I thought of moving to Morocco. I thought of bright, sizzling beaches packed with hungry brown bodies. For a while all I could talk to my psychoanalyst about was the fantasy of Morocco.

            Last weekend I was determined to finally acquire a new copy of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. I went to every bookstore in Paris, but I couldn’t find it anywhere. “I’m very surprised!” I said, throwing a tantrum wherever I went. “I mean, that shouldn’t be allowed, not having Cosmos!” I walked along the Seine. The Pope waved to me from his boat, and I waved back. “You’re doing well for your age!” I called; he laughed and shouted back, “So are you!” “Any idea where I can buy Cosmos?” I asked him, but he didn’t hear, and passed under the bridge where I was standing. I ran to the other side of the bridge as the Pope re-emerged under it. “I have a death problem!” I called to him but my words were badly answered: the Pope gave me the finger. I ran in the rain to a loft where Picasso was preparing for his latest show in Dreux. “Where’s my Cosmos?” I asked. “But the fork must roam,” he answered, and turned his back.

            After I woke up I sat on the balcony listening to an accordion in the distance.

*

            I had dinner with friends last night. We went to see African Queen at a cinema by the Sorbonne and then tried a new Lebanese restaurant off the Place de la Bastille. Many new things have come into that quarter since the building of the opera house. When we left the restaurant it was snowing. My friends asked me if I’d ever heard from Tim Matson again. I told them I hadn’t heard from Tim in more than seven years. The last time I ever saw him was the night of his show in Dreux. My friends told me they’d heard a rumor that he’d moved to the West Indies and had married a Hungarian yoga instructor. But they also mentioned they could have sworn they spotted him just the other day crossing the Boulevard Voltaire near my apartment. “That’s very strange,” I said. “To think he’s been right around the corner all this time, and it’s been seven years.”

            By the time I said good-night to my friends I’d missed the last bus. I took a taxi home.

New Poetry Collections by Kathryn Cowles & Mary Ruefle

Maps and Transcripts of the Ordinary World by Kathryn Cowles. Milkweed Editions, 79 pp., $16 (paper).

            Beneath—or rather inside— the dry, somewhat arch tone of these landscapes and still-life poems, lies a wealth of vitality and wit. Kathryn Cowles does not linger over stories or explicit emotions; she trusts that with carefully chosen (often very basic) wording and judicious line breaks, she can render both the world in front of her and that within her. In “Three Poems Called ‘The Basil,’” she writes: “It is amazing the basil / how the water was sucked dry / its wilt and fall / how it took to the new water / and how back to normal.” The word “amazing” carries the same weight here as it does in the first line of John Ashbery’s “Some Trees” (“These are amazing”). Like Ashbery, Cowles reclaims the original energy of a tired adjective so that the plight of the basil and its worried owner turns into a garden mini-drama. In the following stanza, she hints at the thinking behind her method: “I cannot write about my dead dog / he is dead / the basil I can write is big and alive.”

            Far from the garish colors and hectic inanities that bombard us in everyday life, Cowles provides an islet of quirky calm. Sometimes, however, her voice can be understood as that of a victim calling for help within an onslaught of deadening modernity; this is most apparent in “I Am on a Plane” in which Cowles captures her state on a long jetliner journey. “Nothing” happens but sleeping, waking, and seeing: “The lady dispensing / the coffee is / halfway down the plane / and I am at the end. / Sometimes they start / at the end / but this is not / one of those times. / I go to sleep.”

Dunce by Mary Ruefle. Wave Books, 99 pp., $25.

            The world of Dunce is a strange one: it is approachable but aloof, austere but elaborate, cheeky and yet dead serious. Dunce, moreover, contains poems that do not need to be, and probably shouldn’t be, studied in any particular order. There is unity here in the sense that all the pieces are short and fanciful, with almost all written in the first person. But, beyond that, each poem exists as its own little gem and deserves to be appreciated the way a painting is, without undue regard to what came before and what is to come later. “Muguet des Bois,” for example, begins: “I was an unopened / action figure / hidden inside / an egg inside / an ovary. / The next thing / I knew I was / on the couch / reading / Madame Bovary.” The title (named after a perfume), the funny rhyme of ovary and Bovary, the short lines and deft line breaks—all these play together to deliver a rich, heady and most peculiar atmosphere, which is then completed by the lines “And when I finished / I could not move.” The poem continues with Anna Karenina and, having invoked “action figures” who die by suicide, ends with tragic paralysis.

            In “Happy Birthday,” Ruefle takes the most special but ordinary of occurrences, the birthday, and proceeds to embroider in the humorous and dark style that is her trademark. This style is mannered and literary but also soaked with real-life wisdom and an extraordinary consciousness:  “This day / wherein we love one another more than ever / but lose the desire to prove it // This day / once upon a time and maybe / nowadays who knows // This day / knows exactly where we are / and how much time is left.”

Only By Being a “Nobody” Can You Begin to Be Somebody

One Last Post on Status Vs. Spirituality

This is going to be my last post about letting go of the need for likes, followers, status, fame. I’ve said almost everything I need to say on the topic. And yet I realize that, until my dying day, it will bother me on some level that the world didn’t do what I wanted it to do for me. I also realize that it doesn’t matter. What the world values is who owns a Maserati and how many diamonds decorate someone’s fingers and neck and whether you have the latest gadget and the smoothest face so people will take you for twenty until you’re eighty-nine. What the world (or a small part of it) values is publication in The Carolina Quarterly and The Paris Review. At readings it is common for writers to be introduced by citing the number of high-prestige journals their work has appeared in. But at graveside memorials it would be an unusual state of affairs to include such advertising in a eulogy—although, come to think of it, that’s exactly the sort of thing one routinely sees on Facebook. Maseratis, diamond rings, fifty-million-dollar estates, Carolina Quarterly, twenty-year-old face—those are the world’s worries, not God’s.

I’ve delved into Christian teachings enough to know one cannot serve two masters. There is the spiritual realm, and there is the material. One cannot honestly aspire to both. A friend once told me the story of how, in searching for a new therapist, he came across one who wore several diamond rings on his fingers, and it even hurt my friend to shake the man’s hand when he left the room. “Why would I ever go back to that therapist?” he said. “He represents everything I’m trying to get away from!” And I have a similar story. One of the most elitist and snootiest people at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, which I attended in the late 1990s, was Jay Parini. I’ll never forget the sight of him physically brushing off an aspiring writer as the young man walked into a classroom seeking advice (it was my roommate—Parini was a bit kinder to me). And now I see he writes for CNN. And I note his latest book is on the life of Paul the Apostle. Why would I ever go to Jay Parini for wisdom on Paul the Apostle or anything else?  He represents everything I’m trying to get away from.

Lately I’ve begun to help the homeless. Sometimes I seek them out and give them five-dollar bills. I know it’s not much. Yesterday outside a Starbucks in West Hollywood, a homeless man asked me for money and I turned around and gave him a dollar. He said it wouldn’t be enough to buy food so I gave him three dollars and he thanked me and said “God bless you.” If I had it to do over again, I would not only have given him some money, but would have asked him what he wanted from the coffee house and bought it for him. Well, next time…

I can imagine my old Barcelona psychoanalyst, a strict Freudian, shaking her head and scoffing at what she would probably call my “God delusion.” I can visualize my old Scottish Marxist/Leninist/Stalinist/Pol-Potist roommate turning in his grave (he died in 2017) and railing against my “idiocy” and “naiveté.” Let them scoff and laugh. In front of the supermarket a woman asked me for money and I gave her some and she asked me if I was a believer in Jesus Christ and I said I was. She said she would return the favor if I ever needed help someday.

There was a time in 2015, after signing up for Twitter, that I began to tweet and count my followers. I celebrated whenever I had a new follower. Five years later, I can count 150, a number slowly dwindling since I don’t tweet anymore. Often over the last few years I’ve commented on YouTube hoping for likes and, even with insightful and elegantly phrased comments, I was lucky to get three likes, while a thirteen-year-old whose sage utterances are riddled with misspellings, gets seven thousand thumbs-up. I got to a point where I couldn’t compete in the world of likes. In 2014-2017 I wrote a good memoir but eighty different literary agents said no. And at roughly the same time I attended the AWP convention in Los Angeles, where a huge convention center filled up with thousands of writers, publishers, agents, etc. I happened to glance over at a panel discussion which took place, not in a separate room, but on the edges of the colossal main convention floor. Six or seven people sat in the panel discussion with a handful of people as their audience. And yet several of the panelists were wistfully gazing over at the thousands milling about the great hall who were not listening and would never hear or care about their talk.

I attended a Sunday service yesterday and got a lot out of the sermon. The pastor talked about the Greek word for “sin”—hamartia. This is a term used in archery meaning “missing the mark.” It is also a way of describing a “tragic flaw” in Greek drama. And I was reminded of my statement to a friend when I came back from my trip to the mountains last summer: “I haven’t been on the right track in life.” I spent almost sixty years focusing on my own version of a Maserati.

I have decided not to send out any more work for publication. If someone wants something I’ve written and they come to me, I will accept—gladly. But it was getting too hard to send work to some very mediocre journals and always hear no. I could no longer base my state of mind on the endorphin rush caused by some 19-year-old in faraway Podunk typing a casual yes (Yes Alex You’re a Poet and We Love You). One result of this? I now write more poems than ever. And if they only “live” in my desk drawer, that’s fine: it’s the process of writing that I love. Recently, after a workshop, the facilitator came up to me and asked for my work for his website. And late last year an actor came to me to work with me on a new play. These are small things. Yes, it does bother me that the actor too often mentions “fame” and that his favorite play of all time is called Famous… I take a deep breath, and withhold the sermon.

I’ve started praying for my enemies—fortunately they aren’t in my life, but they are still living, albeit faraway. I wish them the best health and happiness and do it in sincerity. I have been able to let go of so much anger against the woman who took half of my inheritance. Jesus asks a lot from us but gives a lot in return.

I came across this quote in Thomas Merton’s No Man Is an Island: “The one who has most in the realm of the spirit is the one who loves least in the order of the flesh.” And, on a more macro level: here’s a quote from Galatians 2:20:  “It is no longer I that lives but Christ that lives in me.”  And we can say with our friend the Old Possum: “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire / Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.”

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.