Saturday, October 25, 2008


David Foster Wallace is, in the end, proof that outside affirmation is nothing in the face of our actual need for it to come from elsewhere. Like, within. (Why do I feel so defensive for saying something like that, something that is literally a matter of life, death, and/or fundamental happiness? Nothing more profound than that, eh? Yet it's impossible to speak of things like "affirmation" or "self-esteem" in this culture without emanating the horrid odor of triviality: "pop psychology," nothing more despicable than that. Now I realize I have just quickly given away the whole point here: we are so afraid of certain kinds of truth that we do a number on them in order to dispose of them quickly. So through projection the critical becomes the unimportant, and poof--literate intellectuals need not bother.)

Back to this particular literate intellectual. He gathered awards as easily as one might heap a basket with windfall apples in October. Um, darn easily, I'll tell you from experience just yesterday. His writing was so fluid and self-assured, smart and fluid (yes, I know I said that twice). You'd think he would wake up every morning and immediately start laughing, a robust acknowledgment that the world was in his hand.

Instead, he woke up one day and felt so hopeless and irrevocably shitty he killed himself.

I didn't know him. I don't know his true story. (You are aware that nonfiction writers tell you only so much of their true debilities as to make you like them in all their frail humanness, even to the revelation of partial but never entire shame, right? Just so we're clear.) But I know that his death had to do with a deep, deep fissure right through the center of his being. The hopelessness of ever tacking it together--of having to keep on living without anyone ever knowing how deep it was, riven through the place where a sense of self might have gone--had to have been what got him in the end.

I sit in the den of the house I grew up in, the cozy womb of bookshelves, dark paneling, and television. I am, I seem to recall, a teenager, though I might be older. I am watching a show on PBS. What I see makes me remember forever this moment and its setting, although now, the minute I write these words, a worry steals over me: Are you sure? Sure you didn't in fact watch this on the little black-and-white set in your less cozy, but even smaller and darker, bedroom in your second apartment in Hoboken, when you were 23?

A man on the screen is pulling on one element of a hanging mobile. When he does, the whole thing goes out of balance; it can no longer move freely, harmoniously connected yet also discrete. This is a model of the family, he is saying. One member of the family falls, or leans, and every other member must scramble to pull backward, contort themselves to cover the void.

This notion was so radical to me, it stopped time almost. It began, at that moment, to do nothing less than alter my worldview. And after beginning psychotherapy, this reconfiguration continued until I could no longer understand any motivation, whether of individual or society, the same way I used to.

The man, I am so unfashionable as to admit, was John Bradshaw. A world-shaker. Galileo, Bach, Melville, Einstein, and John Bradshaw. Oh, how funny you are, Melissa!

(Later in the series, he said something else that struck and stayed with me, an image frozen on the internal screen: Proportionally speaking, the adult is an eighteen-foot-tall being to the child, fearsome and formidable and otherworldly. [Use that power wisely, gently, parents.] It made me realize how afraid of my mother and father I had been.)

Every time someone assures me how happy their childhood was, I think of the tenuousness of that mobile. And because they have gone out of their way to voice this assurance, it becomes suspect to me. There is the truth, and then there is the self-protective turning away from it. Again and again. On the basis alone of what I hear when I chance to meet other dog owners on the trail--strangely convoluted stories about how their dogs are evincing "guilt," or their purported ability to know something they've done in the strictly human realm is "wrong," or is not bothered or or unafraid or "just playing" when their body language is fairly screaming that none of these is true, or is not being hurt by the zaps on the two (yes, I saw this on a beagle yesterday, and was sick) shock collars the dog is wearing when he is actually yelping in pain and redirecting the aggression that arises to the other dogs he meets on the path--I know our far greatest talent as people is the turning of reality into fiction.

I've been reading Bradshaw again, demeaning of my status as a literate intellectual as this admission is. I know David Foster Wallace would have found something laughable in it. It would have looked so pathetic to him, and in that, fair game for his ever-trenchant observation. But I offer this bit from Bradshaw, without shame:

Our culture does not handle emotions well. We like folks to be happy and fine. We learn rituals of acting happy and fine at an early age. I can remember many times telling people "I'm fine" when I felt like the world was caving in on me. I often think of Senator Muskie who cried on the campaign trail when running for president. From that moment on he was history. . . . True expression of any emotions that are not "positive" are met with disdain. . . . Playing roles and acting are forms of lying as a cultural way of life. Living this way causes an inner split. It teaches us to hide and cover up our toxic shame. This sends us deeper into isolation and loneliness.
It's too late for him. But maybe not for some of the rest of us, who in hearing it may suddenly not feel so alone with the truth, so damn deathly alone.

Friday, October 24, 2008


This is not the regular post. This is a movie review. Because I get severely bummed when the truth is as big as a billboard yet no one seems to see it. (This does in fact foreshadow tomorrow's post, though I didn't plan it that way. Or did I?)

Oliver Stone's new film W. is a strongly worded statement, but don't go looking for the meaning in the movie itself; it is carried extra-cinematically. Namely in the timing of the release: three weeks before election. So that he's asking us a question, and in that form issuing a whomp of a powerful warning.

The question: How [in the hell] does a man with no higher aspiration than baseball commissioner get to be president instead?

And the answer: through the unfair exercise of legacy (the same way a dope got into Yale), machinations, and the carefully constructed opportunity for a puppet to hold one of the most powerful positions in the world so that Machiavellian (and cynically greedy) operators can pull his strings.

The movie, qua movie, is a measured bore--just like its subject. But the warning is clear: Watch out, America. Watch out, because this is what you're really dealing with--a post that has lost its meaning, and a government that is no longer what you believe it is. This is how we get into trouble. And rain destruction on anyone who stands in the path of what the operators want (money, power, oil).

In this, Stone has created one of the scariest thrillers ever.


Saturday, October 18, 2008

Feeling Oats

Every year, I say I'm going to catch it this time. But the leaves change color anyway, while I'm not looking. It's the analog to the birthday that creeps up without us "knowing." We'd rather not know, thank you very much.

Still, I'm very happy for the change of season. Autumn feels like death to some people--flora does indeed look like it's dying, but it's not; it is dying in order to live again, just like some of us. This is the stream of paradox into which life pushes us. It carries us along swiftly, and cleanses us at the same time. But don't resist, or you drown!

Some people are anticipating a winter they feel is dark and oppressive, a boom that's lowering. It's called SAD. (Who came up with this one? Is there a hiring office for Apt Acronym Creation? What's the salary like?) There should be an award for naming this one, Seasonal Affective Disorder. Aka despondent depression. I've never felt it myself, but I am intimately acquainted with its effects.

Nelly doesn't feel it for her part; quite the opposite. The snap in the air brings a snap to her step, and she bounds off the rail trail (or "trailrail," in the parlance of a non-native-English-speaker I know) hot on the heels of a chattering squirrel.

[Think, for a moment, about what a squirrel's heels actually look like. Thanks.]

Just teasing you, Nel! I know you can't climb trees, heh-heh. She freezes, looking up at the branches, noble face outlined against the brown of the woods.

She is full of life, and so am I right now, for some reason. I don't know why, but I'll take it. Even though there seems to be so much that is frightening now. The prospect of another Great Depression. This horrible bubble we've been forced to sit on top of and now feel deflating under us--You mean none of that money ever existed? It was not real, yet we were spending it anyway, billions and billions and billions of dollars they simply call "the deficit," much of it ending up in the pockets of "contractors" for the "rebuilding" of a country we destroyed for no purpose, and somehow buying things like seven houses for one person who pretends to represent us--I can only shake my head, then decide where today I will take my dog for her walk.

Yes, though, of course I feel genuine fear: I do not want to be alone on November 4, because I am afraid I may then have to cry alone. I naively do not know what people are capable of; I do not know what the Republican Party is capable of, though I am being given to fear that it is truly deep into malfeasance and practically evil. I understand they are busy trying to wipe the rolls clean of all the new voters recently registered, because most of them are the previously disenfranchised, i.e., likely to support Obama. And do not underestimate the power of racism to curdle the milk. (My prison pen pal, who happens to be black, writes, "I'm really freaking pissed off at McCain after the last debate. I mean, why didn't he just call Barack a nigger? Instead he used the Southern 'that one,' which in case you didn't know is what passes for it in 'polite' circles. . . . McCain/Palin rallies are one rope short of a lynch mob.") This is something to be frightened of, and energized by. I am feeling my oats now. I don't want to cry alone. If the Bad Guys (and Gal) win, we will face an unprecedented disaster, on moral and physical levels both. We have been living in Fantasyland for a while here in the U.S.; we created an unsustainably high tower of cards. That it is now blowing down is cause for a paradoxical pleasure: only in destruction of the unreal construction is there the hope to rebuild something that can last because it is built on a foundation of truth.

Only because the leaves fall and die can the green of spring burst forth. Only by grace of a small recent disaster could I have unwrapped this gift of possibility: a new life based on the giving and receipt of love. Renewal hides inside death. So I say: Death to the old regime, and its false promises. Life to what is real. Feel your oats.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Driving through New Jersey on a Bus

In New Jersey, on Route 17, a place called Romantic Depot--the most unromantic, scary place you can imagine. Like death. Also, "depot" is maybe not the right image to call up in promoting warm, loving thoughts.


The Meadowlands: cattails, and cranes. Building cranes. Every inch of land not designated swamp is growing huge machines, poised and silent on this day, a brief pause in the rising of great stadia and electronics company headquarters.


Gas is 3.07. Cheap enough to forget what has happened, what you must face.


Then it comes to you: New Jersey is all about forgetting.

Who you were. Who we are.


And finally, around a triple curve of traffic, a spiral bridge drawing us down, around, down: the majestic city, glittering on its flat pad laid on the water that is gold in the sunset. Impossible, unreal. Distant, yet where we are going. We will get there. And when we do, it will not look like anything we are seeing now.


At the corner of Essex and Delancey, in a part of the still irrepressible city, a liquor store with Chinese characters. And then the English explanation: "As old as hills." You believe it.


And leaving, once more, it is late at night. But New Jersey defies it, glowing under pulsing yellow-orange light. And then, the bus slows. Three lanes of double red brake lights extend all the way to the vanishing point ahead. You creep. Ambulance lights circle. Finally, suddenly, you are upon it: a window seat onto a frozen moment, breathtaking, the sight of an empty red car, flipped onto its roof, a river of lost fluids darkening the pavement. Silent and strange. Then you are past, going faster, and you think: This is what New Jersey is. Something stupid and crazy, frightening and deep, all at once.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Please, I Want to Understand, Please

The students are all on their yoga mats. The teacher is still downstairs, checking in latecomers. She greets each with a great smile and a delighted exclamation that you've come, as if she'd heard that you'd fallen overboard in the middle of the Pacific, and that you're now here is so wonderful! Hello! You managed to swim ashore! That's just great!

This welcome is enough to keep you coming back every week, but there is more. The truth of it is that this is your big treat, the only thing that you give to yourself (the rest is to your child, your dog, your work, and your myriad possessions; but come to think of it, giving to them is giving to yourself, so why does it sometimes feel as though it's not?). You know that afterwards you will drive home in the dark, to a dark house, get out of the car, and, newly limber, pour yourself a glass of wine. Then you will make yourself the kind of dinner you can't the rest of the week when you cook for someone else too, replete with black olives and salad (or swiss chard, the most recent bogeyman of the nine-year-old boy).

The teacher comes up and dims the lights; you feel yourself start to relax. You have come to almost be able to exemplify her instruction: realize "there is noplace you need to be but here." You start to anticipate the wince-sigh-wince of a good spinal twist. And, at the end, before that lovely dinner, the gift of shivasana--the only time you really like the idea of being a corpse.

The teacher turns on a CD. It is some sort of faux native American flute, though sometimes it's pseudo-Indian chanting by Californians who've seen the light, or e-z listening guitar, wallpaper music that flows through the back of your head because it isn't smart enough to take up any of the front. Like a cheap version of Brian Eno's "Music for Airports." (You think wistfully of this record, sitting far away and out of reach in the hermetically sealed storage pod with the rest of your things which will rise one day in a sort of Rapture, the glory day when you find your home--and you mean this both in the larger sense and in the quite concrete one.)

You find yourself blissfully happy the music police are not here tonight. Because you like this non-music, its unchallenging quality, perfect for exactly this time and this place. It reminds you of a long-ago time, another of your many lives, when for six months you lived on ether and fantasy. You went down to Philadelphia, and the promise of happiness, and through some mistakes of happenstance, the soundtrack to the journey was the stuff they call Lite Jazz. Why this was, you don't remember; it just happened that way. And so the memory of your happiness for that time is laminated to this particular type of sound, and now it melts on your tongue as sweet as sugar ice. So you don't want some tiresome pedant from the hipper-than-thou school of music appreciation giving you a bad grade for liking something you shouldn't.

You close your eyes now, breathe in deeply, out. Just as you're trying to find your sitz bones on the floor, vaguely aware of the sound of American sitar floating in the air among you all, anticipating the "om"--

Please, I want to understand: why are there always some people in a yoga class who have to show they've taken voice lessons by harmonizing an octave and a third above the rest--but off-key--on the "om"?

--and suddenly the guy next door starts up his weed whacker. The sound comes in through the studio windows, open for fresh air against the moment when, in the middle of a long Warrior II, your thigh muscles start to tremble and you realize you're feeling rather warm. Is there any uglier sound in the world than a weed whacker? Zing, buzz, zing, buzz, around his yard he goes, and it goes on and on, thirty minutes, while you try so hard to concentrate on the breath, and then, at last, it stops. But in a few seconds, you can hardly believe it, a leaf blower starts up, and its sound is perhaps even more abrasive, and you can't really imagine there could be that much plant matter left to require so much energy to obliterate.

Please, I want to understand: what is so awful, so offensive to the sight, of leaves and growing plants that they must be assaulted ceaselessly by gas-powered machinery so that finally the yard is as free of this abomination of non-human life as a living room?

Now you are starting to think ugly thoughts. It comes into your head, the phone call from a friend you got just before coming here, in which you heard the upsetting news that she encountered a couple of guys that afternoon in the cornfields where you walk the dogs who told her they were going to set steel traps "for coyotes and rabid foxes" along the placid stream. It suddenly comes to you: Do they think you're idiots, to believe a leg-hold trap can tell the difference between a sick animal and a well one? What is it, a medical diagnostic tool? You can't help but think of the fox you saw a couple of nights earlier, coming home after dark: he crossed the road, reached the berm, stood for a moment as if on a pedestal, turned his head and was silent, surveying a far greater reality than the one you inhabit, then faced forward again and leapt away with such grace it left you breathless. So now you can't get it out of your head, the scene of struggle, torment, pain--

Please, I want to understand: how can it be that the skin of this living being can belong to someone else? To be torn off and exchanged for some money to be put in a pocket?

--and next you are remembering the passage in a book you just read, about the early days of Amazon exploration, in which one of these heroic men of science forced a pack of hysterical, fighting horses and mules into a river full of electric eels and piranhas--driving them back in with spears when they sought to escape--just out of curiosity to watch how they expired.

Please, I want to understand: what gave them the right?

Please, I want to understand: what is the matter with us, anyway?

Finally, you realize your ability to heed the injunction to "be present in only this moment" is shattered, though you try to get it back. You breathe deeply. Night is falling now. The sound of the leaf blower abruptly stops; it has taken him over an hour to get his lawn completely clean, and you know that it has accomplished something deeply meaningful for him, even if you lack the capacity to know what it is. As does he. That's all right. We know so little about what we do, or why. These are the eternal questions. Sometimes you just want a few moments where there is nothing you want to know.

In a few moments you will say it, and bow your head. You will put your hands together in prayer position. Then you will acknowledge everyone in the room, most of whom are strangers to you, with a gaze and a smile. Namaste.