Snowflake

February 18, 2012

I am a straight, white male of upper-middle class means and European descent.

Which essentially means, on some intrinsic level, that I’m kindof an asshole.  It’s not intentional.  It’s not a choice.  I’m born this way.  I am the beneficiary of a long line of straight, white males of upper-middle class means and European descent… all of whom were slightly bigger assholes.

I’ve inherited this assholeness.  This privilege.  This rotten, funky nonsense that, thanks to years of post-graduate education, has coalesced into an exquisite mound of White Guilt.

In a way, it’s not unlike colon cancer.  It’s a pain in my ass passed down from man to man throughout my genetic heritage.  I don’t want it.  I didn’t ask for it.  But there it is… this horrible little meaty bomb in my belly… just waiting to go off and kill me.

The only thing I can do?  Learn as much as I can about it; try to keep an eye on it.

— — — — — —

It’s a Friday night.  I’m half-drunk on a bottle of wine, and I’m 2/3 through a pack of cigarettes.  I’ve long-since given up on washing my dishes and cleaning my kitchen – an activity I set myself to accomplish tonight so that, should the few dates I have lined up prove successful, I won’t appear to be the entropic dirtball I really am.

So, with all of this work ahead of me – and there is, indeed, a pile of work to do as my apartment, having survived the mire of a post-breakup depression, looks not unlike a Baltimore crack house – I decide the thing to do is to sit on my fat ass, smoke a cigarette, continue drinking wine and fuck around on Facebook.

After about an hour of looking at my own pictures, I come across a post by a man who I’ll call Sal.  I met Sal a few months ago at a story slam.  He told a story about being gay.  And it was a good one.  Not one of those, “Oh… you’re gay.  Who cares?” stories, but a story about what it is to be different and strange and desirous of a real identity.  something you can put your hands on.  A story, ultimately, about being human.

Sal’s post is a commentary which I’m forced to paraphrase, as it’s no longer up on his page (the reasons for which I’ll explain in a long, rambling moment).  It, in essence, reads thusly:

“I find it interesting that people would accuse a man of being a bigot while, in the same breath, mock him for being overweight.”

Utilizing my god-given gift for snuffling out context clues, I inferred that he was commenting on others’ attacks against Chris Christie.  Because when I think “fat bigot,” I think Chris Christie.

Facebook had been riddled with anti-Christie posts all day long.  As promised, he had just recently vetoed a NJ Senate decision to support Gay Marriage rights.  I, like many of my friends, groaned at this.  Because fuck him – let people be happy.

That said, I agreed with Sal.  Yeah.  It is a bit dissonant to excoriate a man for judging others while simultaneously judging him.  “Way to go, Sal” I thought, “way to be intellectually impartial.”

Sal, you see, is gay.  Or, at least, I had assumed (correctly, mind you) that he was gay.

Now, this is a tricky business – assuming someone to be gay.  It’s something that I’m a bit sensitive over… what with my own sexuality having been the subject of ridicule for many of my teenaged years.  I’ve always hated the idea that one’s sexuality is measurable by the observations of people you haven’t fucked.  Observations rooted in lazy, uncreative stereotypes.  I like poetry, sad movies, cleverness, emotional discussions and opera.  Straight men are supposed to like football, College gross-out humor, cheerleaders, taciturnity and Bruce Springsteen.  I fail many of these metrics… and therefore must be gay.

The fact that I both fuck and fantasize about fucking women is immaterial.

I hate this.  Not because it shakes my sense of identity… but because I think it’s shitty reasoning.  And nothing irritates me faster than shitty reasoning.

Still – my own sensitivity to misjudging a man or woman’s sexuality based on shallow observations aside – this dude seemed totally gay.  The crisp affect.  The sharp fashion.  The sway.  And, of course, the fact that when I met him, he was telling a story about how he’d spent the majority of his childhood saving his allowance money to buy Barbara Streisand albums.  I don’t care if he’s a homosexual or not… buying Streisand albums is totally gay.

So anyway – Sal, a gay man, makes this point that we shouldn’t bash Christie’s weight, regardless of his social/moral positions.  And I agreed.  “Yeah, Sal!” I say.  “I’m a member of Christie’s state… and I think his position on this issue is totally bonkers.  But that doesn’t give me the right to mock his body.  I consider myself to be firmly behind any movement that upholds the dignity and rights of my neighbors.  So, I guess, I’m behind Christie on this.  Though,” I add cheekily, “that’s mostly due to the fact that I enjoy the shade.”

Ba-dum-tss.

I’d responded with a clear statement of moral and political opinion… and followed it up with a puckish little joke, just to show that I don’t take myself too seriously.  In terms of Facebook comments… I’d say it was gold.

But this agreement, unfortunately, begins an argument.

Sal responds by impugning the idea of gay marriage.  He insists that it’s a non-issue.  That Christie had, in fact, been supportive of the gay community by lowering the NJ state flag to half-mast to commemorate the death of Whitney Huston – a gay icon.

Houston’s dubious credit as a gay icon aside… I took issue with his characterization of gay marriage as a non-issue.  “I don’t know if it’s a non-issue,” I responded, “I’m a taxpaying citizen of Christie’s state… and I think it’s an issue.  It’s a matter of equal rights.  I’m not gay, personally, so I have no practical dog in this fight… but I couldn’t ever support a policy that would enforce separate rights for American citizens.  You’re either equal or you’re not.  That’s not morals… that’s math.”

It’s at this point that Sal – a gay man – calls me gay.  And then he proceeds to say, “Of course you would shrug off the marriage issue.  You’re what, 30 years old?  Your parents probably got divorced and shattered the illusion that Barney gave you – that you’re a precious little snowflake who’s always right.”

My retort: “Well, my parents never really got the opportunity to get a divorce… what with my mother dying of cancer at 42 and all.  But please, continue your ill-informed and uncreative assault against my generation.  Honestly, it’s fascinating.”

It went on like this for a while – each post a further gathering of inanity.

Sal went on to insist that marriage is a cornerstone of our society.  That were we to allow gays to marry, we’d have to allow polygamy, and eventually incest.  I responded by mentioning how equal marriage rights isn’t a slippery slope – it’s an expression of the most fundamental ideals upon which our flimsy democracy is founded.

“Equal marriage rights?” he says, “God, it sounds so Orwellian.”

“Have you even read Orwell?” I respond, saucily.  “Equal marriage rights isn’t Orwellian.  You know what’s Orwellian?  The idea that ‘some animals are more equal than others.’  You wanna know why that’s Orwellian?  Because Orwell fucking wrote it.”

The whole time I’m arguing with this guy, I’m wondering: Wait, dude… aren’t you gay?  Weren’t you the one telling a story about being gay in front of an entire audience?  Aren’t you out?  You’re in your fucking 40s, and you’re out.  What’s this pablum about marriage being the cornerstone of our society?  What century are you from?  Our society isn’t monolithic.  It’s a goddamn prism.  It’s a bunch of subcultures all trying their best not to hate each other.

Sal tells me I’m a miserable little “Millennial.”  He insists that I’m being petulant and that he’s somehow hurt my feelings and that I’m a whiny little crybaby who can’t handle not being right.

I tell Sal that he’s attacking my generation and avoiding the points I’m making.

The whole argument makes us both look stupid.  Because it’s a Friday night, and we’re arguing on Facebook.  Because we are stupid.

Surely someone must have logged in under his account, I think.  Surely this isn’t him.  There must be some sensible explanation for all of this.

But it is him, it turns out.  It’s the guy I’d met who shook my hand and told me I told a good story and invited me to tell more stories in DC, where he’s apparently a big muckitymuck in the story scene.

I mouthed off to a guy who knows a guy who knows the gal who knows the guy who might invite me to tell more stories – a thing I love to do, because I’ve got a big mouth and finally there’s an outlet for it.  Finally there’s a way for me to tell stories about when I was a weird, goony kid trying to define and identify himself in a world so dead set on restricting who he’d become.  Finally I could stand in front of people (something I love doing, as it satiates my throbbing narcissism) and tell stories, ultimately, about being human.  Because that’s what good stories do.  And this guy should know – he told one.

How did I get into this argument?  I mean – how did I get into this argument in ways other than I’m a mouthy dickhead who didn’t want to clean his kitchen and took it personally when he mentioned something about my parents because I’m still fucked up over the fact that my mom’s dead?  Why am I fighting with a gay guy about gay marriage… and taking the side of the gay guy… against a fucking gay guy?

I call a friend of mine.  I’ll call him Zongo, because I think it’s funny.  Zongo’s sleepy and doesn’t want to talk to me because I’m annoying and I talk too much, but he’s a sport and he lets me prattle at him for a while.  Zongo’s bi – and he’s more conversant with this guy’s culture than I am.  I met Zongo in grad school – he’s a better man than me.  He’s a person who actually thinks the phrase “social justice” means something.  To me it’s always been too rhetorically nebulous.  To me, it’s no different than the phrase “family values” – just hyped up, over-emotional sloganeering… only from a socially progressive viewpoint.

Zongo doesn’t judge me for thinking this.  He sighs, smiles and is my friend anyway.

Everyone should be friends with Zongo.

I tell Zongo the details of the argument – the fact that an argument started with agreement and then reduced itself to a straight guy arguing with a gay guy about gay marriage – and the straight guy is the one in favor of it.

“Somebody’s gotta tell me the fucking rules,” I say.

And then Zongo tells me that sometimes people who’ve been taught to hate themselves can crack under the pressure.  Sometimes all that unkindness can just engulf you – can lead you to think and act and do some wacky things.  He talks blearily to me about things I hadn’t considered, because I’ve been too busy thinking about myself and my big mouth and the stories I want to tell.

And then my white guilt kicks in again.

I have absolutely no idea how to interact with others’ sorrow.

I don’t know how to understand their world.

Because to me the world is little more than a series of arguments I haven’t won yet.  It’s a thing I get to conquer with my big stupid mouth.  To me the world is a thing that should care when I’m right, that should bow down to my logic (or when I’m not being logical, my volume, derision, and glibness).  The world is just something I should be able to brow beat into submission… because that’s my right.  My privilege.  I’m privileged to think that it matters if I’m right or not.

I have no idea what to take from my argument with Sal.  I think he’s wrong.  Moreover, I think he acted like a dick.  Those things bother me.  They’re why I started writing this in the first place.  But what bothers me now that I’m finished is the realization that the fact that I’m bothered doesn’t matter.  That it isn’t about me.  That, in the most roundabout way, through his boundless wrongness… Sal was right – not about gay marriage, but about me.

I’m a precious, whining, petulant little snowflake.  I’m a mewling Millennial momma’s boy.

I fucking hate that.

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It must be by his death…

December 2, 2011

I’ve made a decision that I sincerely hope I’ll stick to.

A lovely friend of mine decided to cast me in a hefty role in his play.  I’ll be playing Cassius in the Dead Playwright’s production of Julius Caesar.  This is the first time I’ve been asked to play a character of any major substance – both in terms of his service to the play’s overall story, and in the level of actual acting required to play him.  I’ve got a lot of lines to memorize, and a lot of emotions to portray.  Because Cassius is, possibly, the most emotionally raw character in the entire play.  Which, for me, isn’t necessarily a stretch… but certainly a challenge.

I’m obviously a very emotional person.  I’m fiery and loud.  I wave my arms a lot when I talk.  So emotional, yes.  I’m just not very good at being so.  I often find myself not knowing what it is I’m feeling.  Only that I’m feeling.  I’m clumsy with my emotions.  I’m irascible and moody.  I’m like my father that way.  And like him, I’ve learned over the years the value of tempering my emotions with logic.  It’s a hat I enjoy wearing – the rational one – the problem solver.  The one in control.

Oh how I adore control – it’s emotion’s kryptonite.  It keeps me held together.  It’s my Higg’s boson, the force not only binding me together, but that which gives me mass – gives me substance.

I’m excited to play Cassius because he and I have so much in common.  He spends the entirety of the play trying to attain control.  He seduces and bullies and guilts and lies.  And he’s a character who, as the plot literally unravels before him, discovers not only that he doesn’t have control, but that he never had it in the first place.

In the end, ruined, thinking his best friend dead, he kills himself – his final act a last stab (har har) at attaining what little control the universe affords him.

“…life, being weary of these worldly bars, / Never lacks power to dismiss itself,” he tells the grouchy Casca in an earlier scene, foreshadowing his own end.  “Cassius from bondage will deliver Cassius;”

Who wouldn’t want to play that?

I’m taking this part seriously.  Not only as a silly community theater actor, but as a person with a neurotic obsession with self-discovery.  Understanding Cassius, I think, is a way to better understand myself.  And so it is my intention, over the next few months, to pour my many obsessive, cerebral analyses of Cassius (and the play as a whole) into this blog.  And I will publish them to cyberspace, and link to them on my Facebook, because I’m a paltry, weak fellow who simply adores other people’s attention.

So here are my first preliminary observations on the play and its characters.  Here’s the jazz in my head.  I sincerely hope it’s not too dissonant.

Brutus and Cassius are obviously dramatic foils of one another.  Certainly emotional foils – Brutus the cold, calculating stoic, to Cassius’ fiery, passionate epicurean.  But their opposition runs deeper than their mere behavior.  They want different things.  They believe in different things.  They conspire to kill Caesar for vastly different reasons.  And in the end, are opposed even in how they see themselves.

Brutus’ every action and choice clothes a central philosophical concept.  He’s kinda vague about it.  He calls it honor.  I’d like to be a bit more specific (nerdy).  Let’s give it a fancy name and call it the Spock Constant.

“The needs of the many outweigh the few, or the one.”

My love for logic and Spock aside, I’ve always kind of hated Brutus.  He’s such a stiff.  I know he’s the play’s tragic hero… but to me he’s always been unthinkably cold – willing, after a few moment’s rumination and torment – to murder his friend.  Not for something real.  But for an idea.  He picks the Republic over Caesar, and in so doing chooses to elevate the transient satisfaction of moral, political, and intellectual harmony above the tangible reality of the man standing in front of him.  He kills his friend because he might become something terrible.  Because he’s ambitious.  To Brutus, Rome is a republic, and Caesar is in the way.  “It must be by his death,” he says, “and for my part I know no personal cause to spurn at him /But for the general.”

What bullshit.

My own blathering to the contrary (and Spock’s brilliance notwithstanding), I’ve always had problems with this kind of thinking: valuing a concept over a person.  Call it what you want: nationalism, morality, honor, “the greater good”.  Even if these things actually had meaning (which they typically don’t, as they are instead so often the thin bloody veils one drapes over greed and ambition), they’re just so damn cold.  Assuming I had it in me to murder someone, I could never murder a man for an idea.  Ideas change.  That’s what’s so great about them.

But placed in the impossible circumstance, I think I could murder a man to save another man.  I could kill someone who threatened to harm the people I love.  My father.  My friends.  My cat.

Definitely my cat.

Brutus takes out Caesar so that all other men might live free.  It’s a compelling idea, in theory.  It’s dramatic and lofty.  Perfect for theater.  But in the day to day… it’s just fucking awful.  It doesn’t really compute.

Which is why I like Cassius’ motivation for killing Caesar so much more.  It’s so much more complex.  Because, unlike Brutus, Cassius’ motivation it isn’t what he claims it is.

On the surface, Cassius is the mythologically American character.  He’s the revolutionary.  The rabble rouser.  He’s the Samuel Adams of Rome.  “I had as lief not be as live to be / in awe of such a thing as I myself.”  I’d rather be dead than worship a man no greater than me, he says.  Down with the king.

This is true.  Cassius does, in a small way, embody this image.  In many ways, Cassius is an Ayn Rand libertarian.  And he’s attractive for the same reasons libertarianism, on its surface, is attractive.  Like libertarianism, Cassius deifies the individual, and turns the savage will required to live as an individual into his highest virtue.  Cassius won’t ever bend.  Won’t ever worship.  Won’t rest until he’s wrung every last drop of freedom from the world.

But like libertarianism, Cassius is only satisfying on the surface.  Like it, he is morally bankrupt.  And like Ayn Rand, Cassius is utterly full of shit.  Elevating the individual means stepping on the necks of all the other individuals around you.  One cannot prosper without another’s ruin.

A person who adores the individual must recognize that they’re not the only individual.  Everyone’s an individual.  So how can one rationalize the crushing of another free, beautiful, powerful person for their own benefit?

Call it what it is, Cassius.  You don’t love the individual.  You love yourself.  It’s not freedom… it’s solipsism.  It’s easy to live that way… like you’re the only one that matters.  Children do it all the time.

You know what you call a child who never learns to share?  You call it a libertarian.

Don’t get me wrong – I worship the individual.  And I worship myself (inasmuch as I detest myself… which is a kind of worship – see: Catholicism).  But I’ve learned that as much as I may love me and want to see me prosper… I recognize that I’m not in this shit alone.  So I’d better save some of my love for my neighbor.  And hope he loves me, too.

Murdering Caesar doesn’t make Cassius strong.  It doesn’t illuminate the glories of his person.  Cassius murders Caesar because he envies him.  Because he hates him.  Because he’s a small, petty, jealous man who’ll do anything he can to get what he wants.  Cassius is afraid.  Cassius wants control.  And so he murders the man who stands in the way of that.

He’s Brutus’ foil through and through.  Brutus kills a man, in order to honestly uphold an ideal, yes.  But he also does it for the good of other men.  This makes him tragic, and therefore a spectacular dramatic construct.

Cassius manipulates an ideal in order to murder a man.  And he does it for the good of himself.  This makes him vile, and therefore incredibly human.  And oh so much fun.

I’ve always seen Cassius as the more likable character – because who doesn’t understand the smaller, uglier human urges that guide him?  I know jealousy.  I know envy.  I know what it is to project my own self-loathing onto another person.  Because that’s really what hating someone is: being too much of a coward to hate oneself openly, and so one pukes that loathing onto another.  Cassius has that in spades.

But Brutus?  Brutus doesn’t hate anyone.  Brutus doesn’t kill Caesar for small reasons.  He does it for the big ones.  Because he really thinks it’s the right thing to do.  He’s willing to get his hands dirty – to harm his friend, and harm himself – for the good of everyone else.  Cruelly, it’s his belief that everyone else is worth helping that gets him killed.  He never suspects that Antony will behave in opposition to what he says.  He never thinks the Romans will not listen to reason.  He’s one of those sad, tragic figures who thinks that ideas can be trusted.  But in the world, ideas change… no matter how ironclad they may be in Brutus’ head.

In the end, Brutus goes out the same way Cassius does, falling on his own sword.  But his suicide isn’t at all the same as Cassius’.  Cassius’ suicide, despite his bluster and his bullshit about the freedom and strength it affords, kills himself to escape.  It’s an act of cowardice.  He dies because he can’t bear to see the outcome of his actions – his army destroyed, his plans ruined, his friend dead… no control.

Brutus kills himself because he realizes that his heart is where that sword belongs.  That he murdered the wrong guy.  That there is glory to be found on that battlefield… that there is an enemy to kill.  And it’s himself.  Brutus dies, and undoes the cruel dishonor of his deeds, and so becomes the very embodiment of honor.  He dies well.  Not scrabbling about for the last shreds of control… but peacefully, cooly letting go.  Because the needs of the many demand it.

I think that’s all I’ve got to say right now.

I’m sure I’ll disagree with myself tomorrow.  Because the great thing about Shakespeare is the great thing about an idea… it changes depending on how you look at it.

So long for now.

1. There’s a surprising number of older men with neurological disorders here. I feel like they should be sitting around a table playing cards, while Christopher Lloyd and Danny DeVito argue in their pajamas.

One of the guys has a bit of a legend around him: He used to be a firefighter, but lost his mind when a friend of his died. Now he wanders around in oxblood loafers and swollen ankles repeating friendly phrases to everyone, “Hey fella, howyadoin howyadoin howyadoin? It’s sure hot out there, hot out there, hot out there, isn’t it? Boy oh boy oh boy.”

I want to hug him, but I’m afraid that if I were to he’d never leave me alone.

I’m a bad person.

2. Across from me is the saddest-looking woman I’ve seen in a while. She’s impeccably dressed – black pantsuit, fancy sharp-collard shirt, makeup that coyly accentuates her looks. She’s siting on a couch, sipping her latte, staring out the window with a falling expression. She looks like she could weep at any minute – but won’t.

3. The guy three tables across from me: I’m jealous of his haircut. I’m jealous of everyone’s haircut. Well, everyone under the age of 35. I saw a seven year old with an awesome haircut yesterday. I wanted to push him over.

4. Two men converse outside. They’re both wearing smacked-ass hats. It dawns on me that I’m too neurotic to purchase a hat. I associate some kind of statement with the wearing of a hat. For nearly everyone else on the planet, it’s just fabric looped about the head. To me, it’s a political statement.

5. I’m stuck in the middle of a paragraph in the real thing I’m trying to write. And so I’m writing this. Why must frivolous sentences flow easily?

6. Punk music is the most uncreative artistic endeavor in history. I’d rather listen to marketing jingles.

7. Everyone here is using a Mac. I’m the embodiment of whiteness right now.

8. A man with a big beard just entered the cafe holding a giant bouquet of flowers. He walked once around the room, sighed, and promptly left.

9. I included an Oxford comma there on purpose.

10. It’s time to get back to work.

I haven’t had a cigarette in a week, and while that may not sound like much of an achievement, it’s the longest I’ve gone without a cigarette in over a decade. I had my first taste of smoke when I was 12. Didn’t become an actual smoker until 18. This used to be a deviation from the norm, as only until recently most smokers began smoking from 12-17. This has changed, unfortunately. So now I’m decidedly average. 18.9. Whatever. Jerks.

So it’s been a week. And, as far as I’m concerned, a week is a while, really. It means something. Seven days. Seven. The ancient Jews and Christians went bonkers over the number seven. David Bowie wrote an underrated song called Seven. Seven is the name of George Costanza’s would-be child. There are seven samurai, seven deadly sins, seven dwarves. Seven even rhymes with itself. Say it out loud right now: “Seh-vehn”.

It’s a psychologically satisfying number. It makes one think. Reflect.

In brief: it’s been weird. Quitting, I mean. When I consider my decision to quit, I’m forced to realize that, in one way or another, I’ve chosen to jettison a trait that’s been with me for a whole third of my life. It’s lasted longer than certain philosophical and political principles which seem intrinsic when I consider them now. I’ve smoked longer than I’ve loved certain movies and books that I consider defining. I’ve smoked longer than I’ve loved certain people. I’ve smoked longer than the Bush Administration was in power – and those eight years felt friggin’ endless.

I don’t really know how to approach my quitting, emotionally speaking. I’ve managed to handle the cravings easily enough (which is surprising, since in the past I’ve lacked the wherewithal to come even close to where I’m at now – more on that later). But still, despite my control over my urges… emotionally speaking, it’s confusing. It may seem silly to a nonsmoker (or a fellow-smoker – I don’t mean to suggest that all smokers have this experience when they quit), but there’s a quality to this experience that’s not unlike grief. Like I’m burying a part of who I was. Or like I’m breaking up with smoker me.

This last week has brought a number of interesting experiences with it, and I assume the following weeks (should I maintain my nicotine-free resolve) will be equally as interesting. So, naturally, I feel it’s best to try and put them to words – as I try to do with most things I find interesting (to varying degrees of success…). It’s my hope that I’ll manage to actually say something of some emotional value about this experience, and avoid merely cataloging the many ways in which quitting smoking completely blows. Just so we’re clear: It does, it does, oh good glowing God it does. Whether or not that’ll happen is still up in the air, of course. We’re here to experiment. To play. Let’s face it – we’re here because you don’t want to do your work, and you can’t bear to play another game of Minesweeper.

So here’s the first of what I hope will be several entries regarding my quitting smoking.

Number One: In the beginning…

I remember the first pack of cigarettes I ever bought. It was a pack of Marlboro Reds, purchased from a grimy pull-tab cigarette machine in a pool hall in Berlin, NJ. I was probably 17 years old. I was a Senior in high school.

Around halfway through the school year, a friend of mine was suddenly dumped by his long-term girlfriend. Long-term, in this context of course, means about a year or so. But these are high school years, which are akin to dog years. High school relationships are the frozen-concentrated-orange juice of romance, in that they are a sickeningly overpowering facsimile of the real thing. Frozen-concentrated orange juice isn’t orange juice. It’s a stand in. It’s what you buy when you can’t have the real thing. It’s a knock-off. One that rots your teeth.

Consider further: At sixteen, human beings are as preternaturally drawn to the hysterical devouring and destruction of high school romance as we are to standing in the frozen waft of our open freezer, spooning dollop after dollop of frojay (I just invented that, and I think it’s utterly charming) into our mouths, with no thought to how endlessly disgusting the experience is, or how much we’ll come regret it later. One does not think of how gross frojay is. One merely consumes it.

This, my friends, is high school love.

So my friend got dumped. Powerfully dumped. Frojay dumped. And beyond that, to add insult to what was already considerable injury, she dumped him for a guy named Earl. Earl who, true to his name, was on the high school bowling team.

Ouch.

*** A brief interlude where I’ll succumb to my baser desire to write a few pun-infested sentences ***

She called a strike on their relationship. He wasn’t to be spared. Of course he felt like a turkey, being tossed into the gutter like that.

*** I’m done. As bad as that was, feel thankful that I chose not to stoop so low as to write a sentence including the phrase “ball polisher.” I had a good one. ***

My friend (whom I’ll call Doubleday, because I think it’s a funny name) went to pieces. Doubleday was the first among my group of friends to experience (or at least to share) the terrifying agony of being dumped. The rest of us were either still in happy relationships (everyone else), or couldn’t get laid for love or money (me). So when Doubleday melted into tears one afternoon during lunch, the rest of us merely stared at him. We lacked the experience or wisdom to have anything to say. We had no idea how to stop this strange chemical process occurring on our friend’s face. Hell, most of us were probably still under the misapprehension that boys aren’t allowed to cry. We were in high school – we were stupid. So we just sat there and watched him cry for a while, our mouths agape, pausing from our rapture to take small secret bites from our Otis Spunkmeyer cookies.

In the end it was the least expressive of the group (whom I’ll call Viceroy) who helped him. Viceroy – quiet, dignified and private – got up from the table and ushered Doubleday from the cafeteria. “What did you say to him?” I’d later ask. “I have no idea,” he said, “I have no memory of it at all. All I remember is putting my hand on his shoulder – then nothing. It was fucking terrifying.”

I’ve always been very proud of Viceroy for that. For the utter decency of it. He didn’t help to court attention – Viceroy has never been one of those exhausting nudniks for whom helping another person is merely an opportunity to prove their own sensitivity to whomever’s looking. Viceroy saw Doubleday lose his shit, registered that the rest of us were agog, and then did the right thing completely without thought. Good man.

One should also know that I was terribly jealous and resentful of Viceroy, as well. His kindness exposed my own awkward ineptitude. I dropped the ball when Doubleday needed me. Bad friend. I figured I should do my job, too – take a page from Viceroy’s book and help my sad friend. Having never really counseled a freshly-dumped friend before, I had no idea what to do. It’s a guy thing, I told myself. What do guys do in this situation? The answer, of course, was drink. But we were 18. Completely unable to drown sorrow in a bar… where sorrow belongs. So I went to the next most appropriate place I could think of – a place dingy and gross. We went to a pool hall in one of the seedier towns near my high school. There we’d play pool (poorly) and grouse about woman problems (despite the fact that neither of us really knew what we were talking about) until Doubleday wasn’t sad anymore.

It all seemed so terribly adult to walk in there and knock the billiards around. To make flippant comments about life and love and women. “Hey man, that’s women. You can’t trust ’em.” It’s a strange time in a person’s life – the teenage years. It’s a long, awful stretch of seven (Seven! Again!) years where a person consciously attempts to act as adult as possible, and in so doing behaves unquestionably like a child. That’s what teenagers do – they pretend to be adults. What ninnies.

I wasn’t a smoker at that point. In fact, until that evening, my only experiences with cigarettes were connected with either the bad kids who smoked under the bleachers at school (who were jerks, by the way), a disastrous canoeing trip in Maine when I was 13 (more on that in another post) and my paranoid-schizophrenic uncle whom I never actually saw smoking, but who always reeked of it. Each of these instances marred smoking for me – it was something jerky bad kids or my terrifying uncle did. Not for me, thank you.

Fastforward to that evening, Doubleday and I knocking balls around the billiard table without sinking a single shot, and suddenly cigarettes seemed almost necessary. We were there to deal with an adult problem – Doubleday’s broken heart – and guys need to smoke when they’re nursing a broken heart. I knew that for a fact. I’d seen it in movies.

*** NB: I do not wish to equate my decision to smoke with the whiny, handwringing suggestion that smoking in movies and television makes people smoke. In this case it wasn’t television that did it – it was the fact that in that moment Doubleday and I discovered that life, when you get right down to it, sucks. We’d learned a secret: Losing love is the inevitable aftermath of finding it. Life is a series of losses… one might as well wring whatever glee they can find from the losing. (Addiction: “Andrew, that’s a great argument to start smoking again…”)

If you want to put an end to self-destructive vices, do away with the things that lead people toward them: the fact that we’re alive, and that life, despite the cheery, granola-breathed blithering you hear from those who’d seek to remove smoking from popular media, is not always fun. In fact, most of life isn’t fun. Life sucks. People don’t smoke because television tells us to. People smoke because we know, deep down, that life is full of shit. Smoking (like all vices) is a temporary satisfaction, a treat, a moment of quiet bliss punctuating a long, miserable series of frustrating and exhausting events. Is it stupid? Hell yes. But that stupidity runs way deeper than a cartoon camel with penis for a nose. ***

“We should smoke,” I said. “I’m gonna buy us some cigarettes.”

“Good idea,” said Doubleday.

We were so earnest.

We pooled together a few dollars, and I marched myself over to the vending machine. I picked reds because marketing, despite my previous lecture, works.

Doubleday and I puffed at our new cigarettes for the rest of the night. I’m not even sure we inhaled. We just talked and puffed in that grimy pool hall, the billiards clacking and the Credence blaring, like two little locomotives choo-chooing our way around the table – the neon lights catching the silvery smoke trailing from our cigarettes. It made our gesturing all the more pronounced. Magic, almost. Like we were writing brief, curling messages to each other in the air.

I hated the taste of those cigarettes. But I loved how they looked between my fingers.

“You’re gonna be okay, man,” I told my friend.

“Yeah,” he said, his smoldering cigarette perking from his smiling face, “I’m gonna be okay.”

Click here to be magically transported to my jittery, fractured prose.

Aigo, Aigo, Aigo

February 3, 2011

Holidays and Sundays (when we can swing it) are a bit of a ritual for my family. We always do the same damn thing. Everyone sits about, professionally Italian-American, eating some permutation of pasta, and we’ll usually talk about sports, or television shows. Sometimes we’ll kvetch about work – or examine S.’s overwrought college curriculum, or how M. is doing in his new job. My aunt and I will trade horror stories about our terrible students or beam and marvel at one who actually managed to learn something.

Dinner, in my family, is pretty conventional.

But dessert: dessert is when we talk about death.

Once the plates are cleared and the sanka brewed, we’ll pass around shingles of thick, buttery pound cake, and wrench at the anecdotally deceased like a flock of drooling vultures. Who’s dead? Who’s dead, or who’s dying? The hows and the whens and the whys of it all. And once we’re done, our bellies stuffed and our hands all ajangle with caffeine, and every corpse we know exhumed and examined, we’ll all identically purse our lips and shake our heads – the room of us a communal genetic pantomime.

We’re obsessed with death, my family. Which, I’m sure, is one of the main reasons I’m writing a book about funerals.

The funny thing is, though – we’re obsessed with everyone’s death except one: No one talks about my mother. Not for more than five minutes, anyway.

When my mother died, no one said a word.  We all withered in our grief, but we did so silently.

Sure, we would speak of it occasionally, and even now, so many years later, we will acknowledge her death in conversation from time to time, as our moribund coffee-talk often leads to errant, caffeinated eyes flicking toward the empty chair at the table.  But for a family so fixated on death (the obituary page of the newspaper, for instance, is passed among my family faster than a cold sore at a kissing booth) this one subject is met with a strange and pregnant quiet.

In the fourteen years since her death, the only grief I’ve shared with my family has come in fragments. Little chips of sorrow or longing or regret, each parceled out in small but powerful bits.

Like offering someone an Altoid.

I’ve always found it strange, this quiet.  These Altoids.  My family is overwhelmingly loud and boisterous.  We’re all in each other’s business.  We poke and prod and pester.  And we love the dead.  So why is this one body we all adored, one not excavated from the chalky obits, but one instead so present in its absence, the one we never mention?

Why is our grief so private?

Why do we treat our grief with the same awkward privation one reserves for shame?

I spent tonight amid the piles of research I’ve accrued for my book, and read for hours about Korean funeral culture and the psychology of their bereavement. I read about the nature of grief in a culture which always seemed to me, the polar opposite of my own. I read about death tonight. And did so, appropriately, over coffee. Lots and lots of coffee.

My hands are exceptionally ajangle, right now. But my eyes, rather than falling on that empty chair, instead are scanning the rest of the table. And I find myself comparing what I’ve read to what I’ve known for the last fourteen years of my life. And it’s got me thinking.

My family members are jarring and emotive – firebrands and hand-wringers and wisecrackers. You know: Italians. We’re loud people. You’d think we’d mourn loudly. Rend our hair. Tear our garments. Talk and talk and talk about our sorrow through wet eyes and snotty noses. But we don’t. We’re quiet.

Koreans, I’ve always thought (perhaps/absolutely incorrectly) were more austere.  Quiet sentinels of taciturnity, every one.  I’ve come to believe this, of course, in the same way any American comes to know things about a foreign culture: I saw it in a movie, once.  But even in my own personal experiences – dinner, for instance, with the families of  Asian friends – I’ve noted this difference.  They’re quiet, compared to my family. 

(Of course, personal experience is just as dubious a metric as a movie – I’m sitting there like Schrodinger’s friggin cat, tainting the sample with my little observer effect hairballs. But still…)

You’d think quiet people would mourn quietly. You’d think a Korean family, wreathed in sorrow for their dearly departed, would mourn like stones. But they don’t. They erupt.

In his essay, “The Death System in Korean Culture,” Simon Young-Suck Moon writes: “At the moment of death, survivors cry as much as possible in their portrayal of grief… the normal wail is ‘aigo, aigo, aigo’ and a loud verbal lamentation follows.”

In another essay I learned that upon a loved one’s final breath, a male relative climbs to the roof of their house and waves an article of the deceased’s clothing in the air. And then he screams their name into the wind.

The night before my mother died, after returning home from the hospital where I saw my mother for what would be the last time, I turned to my father and said in a brittle voice, “I’m going for a walk.” My father turned his face to me. He kept his eyes on the front door. “Okay,” he said. He was giving me my privacy.

I walked through my neighborhood, past the houses, over a fence, and I wept quietly in a field. I wept for ten minutes. I haven’t cried since. That was fourteen years ago.

Oh how I wish I could have learned from this culture as a boy. How I wish I had called her name. Screamed it to the world one final time; woke the neighbors; set dogs to barking. How I wish I had the wherewithal to uncloset something of her’s, and wield it about my head, a flag of my sorrow and frustration. The semaphore of grief.

But instead I approach death in a way opposite to how I live. I mourn inert. I mourn like a stone. Because that is my culture. That is how my family mourns. I don’t blame them. I’m not angry. It makes me comfortable, that quiet.

But I hope the more I read and learn of other cultures for this book, and how they weave their loss into metaphor, the better I’ll come to understand myself. Not in how I am, but in how I am not.

And my deepest hope is that, once I am finished, once I peck that final punctuation, I will be more than what I am, and more than what I’ve lost.

Aigo, aigo, aigo.

Pins and Needles

November 16, 2010

Both of my legs fell asleep tonight while I worked at my desk grading papers.  A deep sleep – each leg numb up to the cheek.

Suddenly I had to pee.

There’s no way I could walk to the bathroom.  I tried walking on a numb leg like this once in college – I wound up collapsing in a heap. So instead of walking, I scooted my desk chair down the hallway, as if rowing a little rickety canoe down a creek.  Once I reached the bathroom, I tried to pop the wheel over the threshold, but I lost my balance and fell on the floor.  Both my my legs exploded into a trillion sparkly little pins and needles of leggy pokey death.  I screamed and moaned and oooooh fuuuuuuuck meeeeee’d and dragged myself across the bathroom floor towards the toilet.  Once there, I unbuckled my pants – still screaming – climbed atop and peed sitting down.

My cat watched me the whole time, his face a mixture of confusion and disgust.

I’m almost 30 years old.

I called a cancer patient a solipsist today.

But in my defense, she was being toooootally solipsistic.

Like, really.  It was an apt description.

And:  If you wanna be accurate here… I didn’t really call her a solipsist.  I just said that the point she was making was solipsistic.  But did she appreciate that nuance?  Nooooo.  She got offended, and accused me of demeaning her.

But:  Anyone who claims that we should get rid of all airport security, thus endangering every single person who ever flies again, because her cancer taught her that, “When your number’s up, it’s up,” is acting pretty friggin solipsistic.  Or, as I put it to her:  “That’s like saying, ‘I’m not really all that hungry, so I don’t see why you should eat.'”

So:  What have we learned?

Answer:  That lady’s nuts, and I might be a dickhead.

Update:  I just discovered that the woman I called a solipsist had a PhD in rhetoric.  Her arguments were fucking terrible.  This makes me angry.  I feel like anytime someone completely outargues someone with a PhD in rhetoric, they should get to take their PhD away.  Like duels in Ye Olde Worlde – the guy who wins the swordfight gets to take the loser’s sword.

Seriously… the lady made like three shoddy comparisons to the Holocaust.

Yeah… because that’s some doctoral rhetoric right there.

 

I’ll get this out of the way first:

1.  I love NPR.  I am unable to list the number of times I have been educated, delighted, moved, fascinated and inspired by their programming – both news and entertainment.  I have bridled in the past at the suggestion that NPR is a “mouthpiece for the liberal media” – and have responded to such accusations (when they were made to me) by pointing out that in the media climate of the last 10 years… NPR is pretty much the best example of objective reportage available.  Yes, they have an intellectual lean to them… yes they focus (moreso than other networks, but certainly not as much as they could) on multicultural issues.  But this doesn’t reduce the quality of their programming… and hardly does it make them left-wing media.  At least… not in the same way that Fox News is right-wing media.  Which brings me to my next admission:

2.  I hate Fox News.  The very thought of it is like a mouthful of bile and hot ash.  I believe Fox News to be one of the worst things to happen to intelligence as a whole – and I believe this with such force that it has (at times) caused me to question my beliefs regarding the freedom of the press, as guaranteed by the First Amendment – which allows them the right to spew their hateful, opaque, jingoistic bullshit all over the air and, as a result, make us all a lot fucking dumber.  I think Fox’s shows are tailored towards the lowest common denominator of our society (those consumed by that patented American uninformed-yet-righteous outrage), and disperse the most glaringly inaccurate, crass, mindless form of misinformation available on television.  In fact (I’ve even included a bit of research here!) here’s a terrifying statistic from back in ’03 – please click this link, it’s important. (I think this shred of evidence works two-fold here – both displaying the danger and unprofessionalism of Fox, and the quality of NPR)

People say Fox News leans to the right.  This isn’t accurate.  Fox News is not just right-leaning (as NPR may be left-leaning, inasmuch as its programming is tailored towards their primary audience’s interests: culture, world music, gardening… car trouble, which I still don’t get).  It’s far more than that.  It’s a mouthpiece for a specific political viewpoint – a political reality.  Fox is right propaganda.  Fox News has, for at least within the decade I’ve watched it, tailored, warped and molested their interviews and reportage to both establish a Neoconservative philosophy, and to denigrate, smear and even vilify their opposition.  Their “personalities” (as I refuse to refer to them as journalists) bully, deride and slime their guests for their opposing viewpoints, and then (in O’Reilly’s case) cut their mic and refuse them the opportunity to defend themselves.  All of this theater is followed, of course, by a host taking the opportunity to congratulate themself for their behavior – they justify their absurd, childish tantrum by saying they’re merely, “Keepin’ ’em honest” or “Respecting the 9/11 victims” or whatever empty bit of heartless, cynical, self-serving rhetoric these yahoos say.  Among Fox viewers, it seems that this behavior is upheld as helpful – as decent – as not only right, but good.  That, of course, we should yell and call names.  We should castigate and bluster about.  Because we’re right always… and if you disagree, you’re a pinhead or you hate freedom or you’re not quite as good as I am.

This is, to me, black paint to the mind.  This is toxic, and dangerous, and all too common.

I say this because I want to establish that I am, in fact, biased:

I think NPR is largely good for the soul.  It has given me shows like “Radiolab” and “Fresh Air” and “This American Life” which have gone lengths towards opening my heart and my mind to the world around me.  It’s given me “WireTap” which continues to redefine humor.  I think NPR has made me, not only a smarter, more worldly person… but a better person.  That’s what information can do – it can help someone grow and evolve and become.  And I believe I owe NPR a debt (which is why I pledge almost every time they beg for my money).

Conversely, I think Fox News is a cancer of the mind.  I think it’s grotesque theater that not only caters to, but helps to create the hate-filled, polarized extremists of this country – the groundlings who insist their newshosts be blonde and attractive, with just a sliver of cleavage showing – the proles who vote to regain those “good old days” before a black guy was president, and gays wanted equal rights.  Fox News pundits have become media emperors – holding rallies, selling t-shirts, defining and redefining what’s good or true or factual or American, and their programming has heightened the rhetoric in this country to such a point that I fear at times it will cause everything to crumble.

I think Fox News is fucking poison.

So, clearly, I cannot be objective here.  Not that it’s my responsibility – as I’m a blogger, not a journalist – but as everyone and their mother is yelling about this issue (and thereby making us all dumber)… I’d like to at least get my noise out of the way at the outset, and try to actually write something worth thinking about.

We need less opinion… more consideration.  Please… I’d gladly see us trade in our surety for some circumspection.

Now… to my point (Fair warning: I don’t really know what my point is yet):

I think it’s clear at this point that NPR made a mistake by firing Juan Williams.  They’re in the middle of a pledge drive.  The puppetheads of the far right (Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee) are using this as justification to attempt a federal defunding of NPR as a whole.  It has created an issue where there really didn’t have to be one.  It was just a bad call, Ripley.  A bad call.

But I want to look beyond that, and say that not only do I think it was a bad call… I think it was wrong.  More than wrong – I think the decision to hastily fire Juan Williams goes against everything NPR stands for.  Or, at least, what I think it should stand for.

I know you’ve probably read it everywhere already, but let’s look at what Williams said again:

“Look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”

These are the sentences that got Williams fired (or at least, that’s what they say he was fired for – others have suggested that NPR suits have been gunning for Williams for a while…).  Williams then went on to say that he knows all Muslims aren’t extremists, and that all Christians shouldn’t have been blamed for the Oklahoma City bombing.  So really, his statement was made in the context of a larger acknowledgment that there is in fact a difference between what one observes and reality.

The comment isn’t sensitive.  Clearly.  I can certainly understand why people would be offended to hear such a thing.  But, if we’re gonna be totally honest here… I know what he’s talking about.  I’m guilty of the same thing.  I’ve been in airport terminals before, waiting for my flight, and have caught the glimpse of a middle-eastern looking guy in some kind of ethnic garb.  And yeah – you know what? – it made me nervous.

The poor guy is just sitting there sipping from his diet coke, probably dreading the flight as much as me (because flying, with its recirculated air and sardine can seats is fucking horrible), and here I am wondering for a brief moment if he’s going to blow me to ribbons once we hit cruising altitude.  How wrong of me.  How silly and scared and simple of me.  Do I really think the guy’s a terrorist?  No, of course not.  But do I feel a brief flicker of doubt?  A little inner wondering if this guy might be different?  Yes, I do.  And I doubt very strongly that Juan Williams and I are the only two people in this county who have felt this way.

What should I do with a feeling like that?  Should I deny it entirely, on the basis of its impropriety?  Should I bury it under my own internal rationalization – satisfy the momentary creeps I experience, but never actually mention it to anyone for fear of appearing racist or bigoted?

No.  I don’t think so at all.  Because to do that, to deny the feeling, is to simply internalize it.  It doesn’t actually go away… it’s just rationalized until tomorrow.  And that needs to change.

I think I should talk to people about it.  I think we as a culture should have a discussion about our perceptions of Muslim-Americans, and about the reality of who these people are… and through discussion and openness and honesty… maybe, if we’re lucky, we’ll actually learn something.  Maybe we’ll be closer than we were when we started.

I think I do that man a terrible disservice by not being honest with him – by pretending that I’m not, for a moment, afraid of him.  I’m talking about him to myself… and never inviting him into the conversation.  Never hearing his side.  I’m treating him like he doesn’t exist at all – or, worse, I’ve actually turned him into an idea of a person – a ludicrously polarized Good Muslim or Bad Muslim… and in doing so I essentially erase his own actual humanity altogether.

That, to me, is exactly the opposite of what’s needed today.  If we’re going to move forward as a people in the face of the Age of Terrorism (or whatever you want to call it), we’re going to have to discuss everything (even the ugly stuff) with openness, circumspection, patience and honesty.

And that’s exactly what NPR didn’t do when they fired Juan Williams.

The head of NPR heard what he said, and promptly fired him (and in a rather salty, condescending manner at that – suggesting that he share his opinions with his “psychiatrist or publicist”… which is, you know… mature and intelligent).  She didn’t pause to consider the perspective for what it might mean about what’s happening in our culture.  She didn’t give him a moment to explain.  Instead, she succumbed to a fit of moral and righteous outrage… and then she cut his mic.

NPR pulled a Fox News – worse, they pulled a Bill O’Reilly.  And that really upsets me.

Think of the opportunity that was lost here.  An entire discussion could have been held on public and personal perceptions of Muslim-Americans – even by the media.  NPR could have dedicated an entire week to it on one of their talk shows.  Juan Williams could have been one of the panelists.  Why, when faced with this opportunity to learn and grow, did they choose instead to cut all ties – to end the discussion before it began?

Well, for one – because Williams is a journalist, and he’s not supposed to express his opinion.  This is a reasonable claim… but to be frank, I think it’s bullshit.  Yes, Williams is a reporter… but his comment was made not during an act of reportage… but on an opinion show.  And while, yes, I would rather snakes mate in my mouth than defend someone like Bill O’Reilly and the bilious, empty-headed claptrap he espouses on his show – I think we have to recognize that a person asked of their opinion is actually entitled to one.  Williams was invited onto O’Reilly’s show to share opinion – I don’t see how this can be held against him.

But beyond that… I think there’s a deeper issue.  And it’s one I’ve mentioned a few times on this blog, and out loud to many of my friends (who tend to disagree with me).

I think Juan Williams was fired because what he said was considered to be offensive.  Because he wasn’t being politically correct.  And I think political correctness is becoming a menace to thought.

I’ll start by saying this:  I understand the desire and the need to communicate oneself with conscious respect and decency.  I also recognize that if one is not conscious of the effects of their language, they may  end up doing considerable harm.  Take the casual use of the word “gay” for instance:

“Gay” has, for some – hell, most – come to mean (as best I can gauge) the opposite of “cool”.  It doesn’t mean awful.  It doesn’t mean hellish.  Instead, it’s what someone says when they find out news they’d rather not hear.

“Brad, I checked the schedule… you’re working a double tomorrow.”

“I am?  Dude, that’s gay…”

Now in this case, the word “gay” no more implies homosexuality than the word “cool” implies a weather forecast.  When someone shows me a neat card trick, my response of “cool” doesn’t suggest that I should have worn a sweater – it’s just something I say when I think something’s generally okay… like a neat card trick.  Same goes with “gay”.  Brad isn’t suggesting that his double is looking for another boy-double to make out with – it’s just something he says when he hears crap news.  In both cases, these words have been divorced of their original meanings, and have come to represent something else entirely – nebulous good, or nebulous bad.

That said – one should also recognize that to use a word like “gay” in this context might very well suggest something about our cultural perception of homosexuality.  It might also unconsciously suggest a comparison between gay people and “gay” situations – if “gay” means uncool, then maybe it’s uncool to be gay.  Now, is this the end of the world?  No… gay people have much bigger fish to fry these days.  But is it appropriate?  No… it’s really not.  And so we should probably not say it.  Think – would you ever use the word “black” in place of the word “gay”?  Not on your life.

So clearly, there are times when we should be aware of our language.  But this isn’t what I’m talking about, really.  I’m talking about the darker side to political correctness – the side that values how we communicate over what we’re actually communicating.  Political correctness can (and I would argue often does, but that’s another blog for another time), become an impediment to an honest sharing of feeling and thought.  I And that’s what happened with Juan Williams.

So horrified and disgusted were people to hear that Williams was scared for a moment, based on insensitive, prejudicial thinking, that they fired him on the spot.  I’ve heard people on the NPR side of this argument add other such observations as, “You know… any time someone prefaces their statement with ‘I’m not a bigot, but…’ you know they’re about to say something bigoted.”

Well… I understand why someone might say that.  I’ve said it myself.  But if we’re going to be rational here, then no – prefacing a statement with that warning doesn’t necessarily mean that what they say will be bigoted.  Maybe they’re saying it because their position isn’t necessarily going to be sensitive – but just because something’s insensitive doesn’t mean that it’s bigoted.

And it doesn’t mean that it’s wrong, either.

Williams admitted that he was nervous.  Lots of Americans are nervous.  Is it because they hate Muslims?  Some might.  But for most, I’d assume, their nervousness is a direct result of the fact that the world is big and scary and filled with scores of people who want to kill everyone in sight… and they’re all wearing funny hats.  We’re not going to get any less nervous if we’re not allowed to say what’s on our mind – respectfully, sure – but honestly first-and-foremost.  To hold all Americans to the ironclad stricture of what any-and-everyone might find offensive places appearance over reality – feelings before thought – emotion over mind.

And that is, with all due respect, fucking stupid.

Which brings me back to NPR.

What kills me about this whole debacle is, like I suggested above, the fact that NPR really made a Fox News move here – harsh, hasty, one-sided, self-satisfied judgment at the cost of pensive, intelligent analysis.  It just did it for its own reasons.  Where Fox News has its self-congratulatory psycho-conservative bluster to justify its refusal to hear another side… NPR has its prejudicial intolerance of honest, understandable prejudice.

Williams isn’t my favorite guy on NPR.  In fact… I’m not really very fond of him at all.  I doesn’t break my heart to see that he’s gone.  What breaks my heart is that the one outlet I have in this country for rational, considered circumspection and analysis is acting so stupidly.  They did what so many progressive people tend to do – they focused on the wrong thing entirely.  Williams’ gaff was something worth exploring.  Something worth talking about.  Not ever something worth cutting him off over.

The suits at NPR should have taken this event as an opportunity for consideration – to put information above emotion – to teach, rather than lecture.  Because that’s what they’re there for.  That’s what they’re good at.

Fox News?  Yeah… they’ve got lectures covered.

 

The Light

October 19, 2010

It’s no secret to those who know me – or those who stand near me long enough to hear one of my frequent gushings – that I adore the show In Treatment.  I think it’s brilliant.  The writing, the direction, the acting… everything.  It’s a show that relies on subtext – on what’s not said – on silence, or tone, or a person’s expressions to do its telling.  Nobody holds a gun sideways and demands that a terrorist “give [him] the password!”  Nobody makes fart jokes.  There are no slutty vampires or crime-busting cops or lusty doctors.  It’s just people and their problems… sitting in one place… talking.  I can’t think of another show like it, and I doubt I’ll ever see anything like it again.

That’s due almost certainly to the subject matter.  What better setting is there to explore human drama than a therapist’s office?  What better way to chronicle the slow unfurling of a character’s psychology than to plop them on a couch for a few weeks and slowly strip away their preconceptions and untruths, those red herrings of the self we’re all guilty of creating, only to expose a deeper, quiet pain.  A personal truth.  A fear they can’t face.  A wound so old that it’s passed entirely from their conscious mind, but seethes, relentless in the undercurrent.  In Treatment chronicles the discovery of the Self.  Dramatized and inaccurate, for sure – but still… in terms of television drama?  It’s damn impressive.

For analytical psychos like me… this is cat nip.  I’m a people-watcher.  Always have been.  I’m always trying to understand why people do the things they do – to an almost compulsive extent.  And here’s this wonderful show… so eloquently phrased, and powerfully performed… on demand… ready for watchings and rewatchings.  All I need is a remote control and a couch.

I remember watching the first season with an ex-girlfriend of mine.  We’d ignore the show all week (at that time, it showed an episode a day, Monday through Friday)… and then gorge ourselves on a five-episode marathon over the weekend – the two of us together on the couch, my eyes almost certainly wet… hers almost certainly dry.  It became for us a welcome diversion from a relationship that had, after four years, begun to exhaust its own supply of interesting topics for discussion.  How many times can you talk about work before one finally ups and murders the other?

I’d watch the show alone, too.  I would tear through each character… graciously accepting the perspective the show afforded me.  The audience of In Treatment gets an interesting lens to the drama: we’re granted not only a view of the patient… but the shrink as well.  In so doing, we witness the development of two psychologies… the patient – through his or her stories, and the doctor – through how he listened, what he’d say, what he’d not say.  And, of course, we’d get to see him on the couch once a week, too.  This makes us in the audience a kind of meta-therapist.  Here we have this whole universe of people exposing who they are, completely unaware of our watching.  It’s a voyeur’s dream.  We see everyone for their blindness – and how they, over the course of the season, come to sight.

This is an exciting prospect to a person like me.  Despite my grouchy nihilistic belief that nothing really means anything (in the long run, I mean) – I’m also a firm believer (almost to the point of zealotry) that there is not a single behavior that cannot be understood.  Everything we say has meaning.  Even the things we don’t mean.  I’m the worst with myself – I introspect and ponder and navel-gaze chronically.  My brain is like a mortar and pestle – I grind my behavior to the point of pulverization… and then play around in the dust.

This is, of course, tremendously unhealthy.  I can often get lost in my own head.  Spend a weekend in my apartment, reading old letters, writing in journals, leafing through photo albums… just kinda thinkin’.  I don’t mean to sound morose – I go out, too.  I like karaoke bars.  I enjoy drinks and cigarettes with friends.  But whenever I return home from some outing… I always tend to dump the night’s events back into the mortar and get a’poundin.  I’ll wonder what someone really meant when they said a certain thing.  Then wonder why I wondered what they meant.  Then wonder why I wondered why I wondered.  And down I go into a psychotic cascade of meta-redundancy.

I fall into these cascades a few times a year.  One day I’ll be fine – chipper, charming, “dashing” (as I was called tonight… which was delicious to hear).  The next, I’ll be sweeping around my apartment like an opera villain… casting my eyes this way and that.  “I’m going to die.  My cat’s going to die.  The sun is going to explode.  Nothing means anything.  But I’m okay with that, right?  Why shouldn’t I be?  What if I’m not?  Why can’t I just turn my brain off?  Other people don’t do what I do.  Or maybe they do.  I’m not special.  Why do I think my experience is so special?”  I’ll Hamlet around like this for a while, until I’m reduced to reading Emily Dickinson poems and eating $30 worth of Chinese food in the bathtub.  Some call it crazy.  I call it complicated.

It’s dawned on me in the past that I should probably see a shrink.  I was required to see one after my mother died – we had two sessions.  She was some surly looking frau-bear in a peach-colored pantsuit.  She asked me in our first meeting how my mother’s death made me feel.  I told her it made me hungry… and then I ignored her.  I resented the requirement – that some organization of hand-wringing school administrators deemed it necessary that I endure some stranger’s fee-for-service curiosity.

But then there was this wonderful show on my television.  One where people who were way more fucked up than I am sat down and talked to a swarthy Irishman about nothing… and after a few weeks experienced some revelation.  A breakthrough.  What would it be like to experience a breakthrough like this?  Do they actually happen in real life?  I was entirely aware that In Treatment, regardless of the research its writers had done when crafting the storylines, was still just a television show.  People don’t experience catharsis in seven weeks.  It takes years… if it even happens at all.  But still – there seems to exist this thing – this ending.  An answer.  Some kind of clarity.  One they can’t see on their own – because they need someone to guide them.  Someone who isn’t blind.

And now for the internet oversharing:  I started seeing a therapist a few months ago.

Actually, I’m on my second therapist.  The first was a protoplasmic tumor of a woman with a southern accent and thinning hair.  Her office walls were an eggshell-colored stucco, and her shelves were lined with little glass figurines of angels… their dainty little hands pressed together in sharp, frozen prayer.  She had hung a native American art print on one of the walls – an awful airbrushed mosaic of moon-baying wolves, and a stone-faced brave… in the background, silvery moonlight filtered through the dense webbing of a dreamcatcher.  It’s the kind of image one would expect to see emblazoned across the t-shirt of some Appalachian meth-addict, not hanging in a doctor’s office.  The decor was enough to drive me away… but I forced myself to be open-minded.  That was… until she told me she was a psychic.  “I come from a long line of readers,” she told me… her voice all wispy and faraway.  “Oh yeah?” I said.  “Yes.  My mother had Sight.  My grandmother had Sight.  And I have it.  I feel that it connects me to them.  And with that Sight, I think I can help you.”  I leaned forward and laced my fingers together.  I looked up at her, a little corn-fed Buddha in a spangled, billowy blouse.  “Well.  Here’s the thing:  Were you really clairvoyant… you’d have known better than to tell me such a thing.  Nothing personal, but I put absolutely no stock in the supernatural.  I appreciate your perspective… but I’m looking for a doctor… not a shaman.”

She spent the rest of the 50 minutes backpedaling.  I had her in the palm of my hand, and I hadn’t even finished my first session.

I found my current therapist the next week.  He’s a quiet, clever, pudgy gentleman with white hair.  I told him about the psychic moon goddess in our first session.  We spent the next thirty minutes laughing about it and talking about books.  He reads Joan Didion and Susan Sontag.  “I take a very scientific approach to therapy, Andrew,” he told me, switching one pair of glasses for another – a behavior he repeats several times each session, “were you to decide to come back here, we’d approach whatever you want to discuss from several perspectives – psychodynamic, cbt, neuropsychological should you require – but I can promise you… no incense.”

Sold.

Here I’ll begin to pull back – there are some things even I am unwilling to share with the internet:

I’ve been seeing him for the past few months.  In that time we’ve argued, exposed, bullshitted.  We’ve gone back and forth a lot.  Some days I’ll leave his office exasperated, my arms all aflail, utterly convinced of the uselessness of the profession.  But that’s rare.  Most days, I leave feeling refreshed.  Unburdened.  Lighter.

I often find myself comparing my experience in therapy to In Treatment.  For the first two months, I’d embroider my language (something I tend to do anyway… but especially in this case).  The patients in In Treatment all speak in florid prose.  Their descriptions are colorful – their recollections vivid and tangible.  Most people don’t talk like this.  Even with my overwrought vocabulary and silly, mock-pompous manner, I fell short of their dialogue.  I realized that I couldn’t live up to this standard because people really just don’t talk like that… but nevertheless… for those first few weeks with my shrink, I found myself waxing prolix – lapsing into elaborate runs of overdescription.

I wanted to get what those patients got.  I wanted catharsis.  But not one excavated through actual introspection and vulnerability – instead, I wanted it manufactured – something built rather than found.  I’d emulate what I saw in fiction – play the expressive neurotic – but when he would actually counter with a specific point, something worth exploring, I’d reel back… assume a ponderous tone and respond, “well that’s fascinating.  I wonder why people would do such a thing?”  I came to realize over time that I was hiding in words – something I do in my own writing – something I do all the time, really.  I was bullshitting… and after a few weeks, my shrink called me on it.  “You’d rather think than feel, Andrew,” he told me one day, “we go somewhere vulnerable, and you intellectualize it.  You jump back – avoid the issue and make a theory out of it.  I can’t help but wonder if this is worth your money.  I’d happily sit here and talk to you about ideas and abstractions all day – especially if you’re paying me for it – but it’s not really helpful to you.  And that’s what I’m really here for.  To help you.  So cut the shit.”

I can’t think of many people I’ll let talk to me that way.  It helps that he was completely right.  So for the past two months now… I’ve been trying to be open.  To really feel things.

I had a session with my shrink today.  And that’s really what I’m writing this for.  Because I had a breakthrough today – one I won’t be sharing with you.  Apologies.  It arrived so suddenly.  No pensive lead-in – no swelling minor chord.  It wasn’t like television at all.  It was like ping pong: a seemingly endless volley of jaunty back and forth, finally punctuated by a sudden explosive strike, far too fast to comprehend.  The patients on In Treatment herald their breakthroughs with tears.  Every character cries.  It’s part of the formula.  I didn’t cry.  I haven’t cried yet in therapy.  To be honest – I’m really nervous about it happening… which should grant you some insight into my shit.

In truth… tears wouldn’t be the appropriate garnish for my realization today.  It just wouldn’t fit.  It would be like sprinkling rainbow jimmies on a baked potato – the intent is nice… but the result: ridiculous.

Instead I just clamped my hands to my head, sat back and said, “Holy fuck…”

And then I laughed for five minutes.  Though, maybe I laughed so I wouldn’t cry.  I don’t know.  It’s a tangle in here.

So why am I telling you this?  I can hear you now, “No shit, Andrew… therapy isn’t like television.”  Well I know that.  I knew that then… I know it now.

I’m telling you this because, even though I know therapy isn’t like television – I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with what I learned today.  On In Treatment… the patents take their breakthrough, slip it in their pocket, shake their shrink’s hand and walk out into the light.  And then the credits roll.

My session ended with my shrink and I telling jokes.  Then I walked out into the light and got in my car… and realized that I’ve got to keep going with what I’ve learned now.  I’ve got to try and reconcile myself to this new realization (I’ll give you a hint, only because this level of obfuscation is obnoxious even to me: It was about my mom, and the person I’ve become as a result of her death), and right now… with all these student essays to grade… I find myself thinking about what I learned today.

I’ve been thinking about this one Annie Dillard essay all night… it’s called “Seeing”.  It’s one of the first chapters of “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” and I suggest everyone read it.  It’s one of my favorite things in the world.  There’s a section of the essay where Dillard talks about a book she’d been reading – it’s a book about blindness.  In it, she relays quotes from people who had lived blind for years, and as a result of an operation, had regained their sight.

“Some delight in their sight and give themselves over to the visual world.  Of a patient just after her bandages were removed, her doctor writes, ‘The first things to attract her attention were her own hands; she looked at them very closely, moved them repeatedly to and fro, bent and stretched the fingers, and seemed greatly astonished at the sight.’  One girl was eager to tell her blind friend that ‘men do not really look like trees after all,’ and astounded to discover that her every visitor had an utterly different face.  Finally, a twenty-two-year-old girl was dazzled by the world’s brightness and kept her eyes shut for two weeks.  When at the end of that time she opened her eyes again, she did not recognize any objects, but, ‘the more she now directed her gaze upon everything about her, the more it could be seen how an expression of gratification and astonishment overspread her features; she repeatedly exclaimed: ‘Oh God! How Beautiful!'”

I find myself experiencing these same three reactions all at once:  I look at my hands, and I am not myself – I am not now what I seemed to be.  I look at others, and they are not now the way I saw them before – men are no longer trees.  I am bewildered by the light, my knowledge of myself has changed – those things I felt so purely before, now are harsh and strange.  I’d like to think they’re beautiful… but at this point, I’m not sure I can.

I’m blind from all this seeing, today.

How do I move beyond this?  How do I choose where next to step, when I can’t even see where I’m going?

It’s frightening, actually – to consider something like this.  To begin to see something, a pattern – a Self you never knew was there.

But scarier still is the thought that it’s not the not knowing – it’s not the dark that slows me anymore.  It’s the light.