Tuesday, June 22, 2010


My Aunt Belle once came to visit us at the farm bearing some rather expensive gifts. These consisted of two or three intricate, expensive, finely-wrought wind-up toys that I vaguely recollect were considered by the adults present to be special in some way – I think it might have been that they were imported from Europe, or were made by some renowned manufacturer. I remember one more clearly than the others; it was a model of a Ferris wheel which, when wound, rotated with its brightly painted little cars going up around and down, as Ferris wheels are meant to do. There was also, I think a carousel and possibly a third toy, which I can no longer recall or even be sure existed. Aunt Belle and my parents marveled at these fairly spectacular objects – I actually have a greater recollection of the adults’ sense of their specialness than I do of the toys themselves.

We kids were, of course, excited to receive these as we were excited to receive any toys. New toys were few and far between in the late forties and early fifties, and having these show up on a day other than Christmas or birthdays was a rare event, indeed. Even children far wealthier than we were, with parents far more indulgent than our own, did not seem to live amongst the constantly growing welter of playthings that create an almost pornographic excess in even the poorest homes I visit today. Pink, plastic and pornographic; it sounds like a magazine article, n’est-ce pas? But the problem was, once the adults had retired to talk of adult things, we were left with these expensive, seductive, colorful items with which there was nothing we could really do. One wound them up and then one just sat there watching. There was very little difference, really, between owning these toys and gazing at them in a shop window. Some instinct for survival warned us that our usual recourse with toys which no longer fascinated, either disassembling them to see what the insides looked like, or bashing one another over the head with them, were not options conducive to our continued happy co-existence with Mom.

So for a period of my youth these toys sat there giving rise in my young breast to feelings of impotence, frustration and a kind of anger. Did other, better children wind these things up by the hour and sit happily watching the wheels turn? Were other children inspired in some way by this expensive indulgence? Is it possible that other children – maybe city children or European children – actually wore these kinds of things out from constant happy playing with them? What was wrong with us (or with me at least), that we just had no idea what to do after about three wind-ups per toy?

I have no idea of what became of these toys; there will be no trip to the Antique Roadshow with happy ending for me. My clearest recollection of these toys is of the feelings of letdown they provoked; I can only vaguely visualize the Ferris wheel, and of the other(s), I cannot even recall how many there were.

I am very much afraid that Retirement is currently provoking feelings remarkably akin to those engendered by these toys. All the conditions are amazing; just now the weather is lovely, every seed I even thought about planting has sprung up, the expensive fixes I put in place just before I retired are all doing just fine – my fancy beveled glass front door, my just-in-time water heater, my flat screen TV, the new refrigerator. But I sit here amidst the luxury and I wonder, day after day, what can I do with all this? Don’t get me wrong, I would not for anything return to working. Freedom is a wonderful thing, but there just seems to be so much of it. It almost seems too precious to waste on anything I can come up with, especially on the sunnier days. I might put in a desultory hour weeding a flowerbed, but I can’t bring myself to commit to actually getting any one of the many plots into tiptop, weedless, well-mulched and fertilized perfection. I read a bit of this and a bit of that, but there are so many unread books I can’t seem to settle on one. I went for a brief canoe trip up the creek out back yesterday, and the difficulty I had untying the canoe from the tree to which it was anchored forcibly reminded me that I had not used this canoe for at least a couple of years. The rope had grown into the tree to which it was tied, (or I guess it was actually the other way around). And the canoe trip just filled an hour; even though the scenery along the creek was spectacular, like the toy Ferris wheel there was nothing I could do with it.

I have always been like this; I can travel to the most spectacular wonders, I can finally come to a castle I have read about for years, and then, well, there it is. What now? I have spent hours designing wonderful verdant bowers to which I can retreat for reading – and I have even spent some hours bring a few of these plans into a semblance of reality, but I never actually read in them and rarely even sit in them for more than a passing moment. There are mosquitoes or the stems scratch my leg, or I can’t lie down or the coffee pot is too far away and I have to keep getting up to get things, or the sun is too bright or the breeze keeps turning my pages or I just get bored, or I am not in the mood just now – mostly, the last. I get to thinking that I should replace or add some plant that I don’t have, or that I should build something that I’ll never build although there is a fifty-fifty chance I will spend a bunch of money I can’t afford to buy some or all of the necessary materials.

I am very good at purchasing for contingencies. I have not one, but two, Chinese brush painting sets. I have acrylic paints and water colors and sketch pads. I have a complete set of more than 30 wood-carving chisels which I bought in Bali, as well as some supplemental American blades, in case I should ever actually be inspired to carve or sculpt some wood. Oh – and I have the wood itself in great heaps. There is also a wall of firewood in case I ever want to build a fire, and an air compressor should I suddenly become a person who does whatever one does with those. I have a bike I rode once and a helmet I bought after the one ride in case I might want to ride again, although the latter is still wedged into the fitted cardboard construction that it came in. I have a calligraphy pen somewhere, probably more than one. I have a set of 100 bits for one of my two cordless drills, and several smaller supplementary sets of drillbits. For leisure, there is a hammock folded up in the garage.  I am fighting an urge to spend $229 on yet another course in Arabic and I will probably lose the battle sooner or later. 

I have planted a number of vegetables this year, but if history is any guide, it is very unlikely that I will cook, eat or even harvest most of them. If I do want to cook them, I have more than one set of pans, and even some canning jars, just in case I become a completely different person than I ever have been, and if, miraculously, this happens just at harvest time. What are the odds?

I am doing one positive active thing, and frankly, I am amazed at myself; I wonder how long it will continue. After I returned from Bali and found myself slogging through the Slough of Despond, during the first half of March I joined a local gym. I actually have gone three times a week (missing only once or twice) since then. I didn’t really anticipate meeting any convivial souls there – that was not my purpose – and it is well that I did not hope to do so because other than my trainer (you get a person assigned to you to start you out and to measure progress every 6 weeks or so), I haven’t met anyone. I tend to dread going to the gym as I once dreaded going to work, but it has provided a semblance of structure to my life and unquestionably has made me feel a little more energetic and I look a little better. At first it actually seemed to motivate me to come home and do stuff (hence the semi-weeded and fairly well planted gardens) – it probably provided the oomph to get back to the old blog. But lately the motivations have tailed off, and even when I do something, it has the feel of throwing a teaspoonful of dirt into a yawning bottomless hole. It filled that moment; it got that task completed or started, but nothing seems to be strung into an ongoing chain of engagement. I have looked up a number of old friends from long ago, but none of these have caught fire. I know I need desperately – especially before the onset of another winter – to engage myself in something that I care about. I have looked up a local writing group and am thinking about some form of workshop or class or the like. But my fear is that I will end up feeling like I have a series of assignments, that I will turn one of the few things that are pleasurable into work.

The trouble with me is that I have to connect with a person or with people to really enjoy anything. When travelling I will remember a friendly taxi driver long after I have forgotten what the castle or hotel or cathedral looked like. I need someone to impress, someone to please, someone to admire, someone to like. I have a horror of groupthink. I don’t feel like other people – or as I imagine other people do. If I go to Hawaii, I dread things like the arranged luau or the lei greeting. Schedules make me shudder – at 5 we meet for a preparatory drink, at 5:15 we board the bus for the Waikiki Tour. The world seems to be full of versions of those children who actually enjoyed those elaborate wind-up Ferris wheels. Whereas I don’t like people who strive to be different just to be different, I do like people who don’t mind being different. And I really don’t know where to find what I am looking for. I am not even sure what I am looking for exactly; well, yes I do: connection and passion. I want to find something that I stick with because I love it or love the people it brings in its wake, not things that make me feel scheduled or as if I have an assigned task or thinks that make me a spectator. I know that the kinds of things that I want are not all pleasure, there are always the hard parts, but I know from experience that there are things which the hard parts are leavened by the awareness of moving forward and of getting to the rewards.

My efforts to find love have bogged down and are, for the moment, abandoned. I am pretty sure that I am not one who can find a partner through writing or answering ads. People seem to like me well enough when we are engaged together on a job or activity, but I do not appeal to people in either the exchange of letters or in discussion groups. I am so impatient with common wisdom. I do not understand how highly irreverent comedy can be so popular (as in, for instance, the Seinfield show) while people are so put off by anything but the most bland platitudes in real life. Am I the only person who dwells in the area that lies between cute kittens and dead baby jokes?

I really could live, I think, without having the things I want; what is really hard to endure is not knowing what those things might be.

Oh, well, off to another damned day in Paradise.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Breaking Bad

A number of economic or financial trends – I am not sure what falls under each of those categories, exactly, but I am talking about cost of things – have come together to degrade the quality of some traditional entertainment (if 50 years or so can be called a tradition). People can only be drawn to theaters in sufficient numbers to pay the bills by either reliable genre products (horror, juvenile comedy, ‘family’ animation films) or by over-the-top special-effect spectacles which nearly always sacrifice subtlety or character development or quality script-writing to fireworks and blood. In traditional TV, the cost of production and the desire to knock off the competition has led to imitation, ‘unscripted’ reality shows (where the drama and scripting are provided by the editing of endless film (‘film’ being an archaic and incorrect term for the bits and bytes by which these travesties are recorded) and require no more than willing non-entities whose physiques are matched in spectacularity only by their shameless exhibitionism and good editors.

The TV networks seem to attempt, from time to time, to generate a few award-worthy shows, which are apparently very costly, only to cancel them within the first year or two, to the anguish of the few viewers they have managed to attract. NBC, in particular has broken my heart again and again by hooking me and throwing me back like an undersized fish. I still mourn American Dreams, the only drama which ever got the sixties right, and which captured the anguish, the insecurity, the push and pull that tore at families of that era, which is now viewed as either all black or all white and as faintly comic. The sixties era was exhilarating for some of us, but frightening and painful too; there were a LOT of casualties, and not only in Viet Nam or at Kent State. Currently there are a few- very few – excellent network dramas, notably Friday Night Lights, which is only hanging on because a deal was struck with one of the satellite ‘cable’ distributors.

Even when a series has some quality at its outset and manages to survive, the scripts often degrade over time because the plot possibilities have been exhausted. The first season of the original Beverly Hills 90210 show attempted to deal with a number of real issues – the sense of entitlement among the children of the wealthy, teen suicide, absentee parents – but devolved into a soapy mess as the need to keep the characters busy and to deal with the impossibility of having the whole concept – life in an upscale high school – go on and on with aging actors. Even TV high school students must graduate sometime if we are to take them seriously. Incidentally, Friday Night Lights has dealt wonderfully with this dilemma by having the coach transfer to a new school, thus writing out a number of popular characters whose storyline had essentially played out and introducing a number of issues that are found in high schools of a less affluent area such as that in which the student body of the new school dwell.

The problem with good drama is that it must arise from the locale and the times and the characters and, if these are not to be cartoonish, the characters must take time to develop and most situations need to be set up with a solid back story. Moreover, there is something silly about important human dilemmas which are resolved in 30 or 60 minutes (much less, really, since it seems that about half of any show’s runtime is given over to advertising.) Cop and hospital shows are able to deal with this, because of the natural fact that police and medical work is essentially episodic – the crimes are solved and the patients killed or cured and the main characters move on. But many viewers have a point where they are surfeited with crime or illness and can tire of a whole genre, unless some compelling new aspect can be found. The western craze of the 50s and 60s suffered this fate.

For those who are interested in believable relevant drama, there has been over the past decade or so a growing number of well-written, well-edited, beautifully acted dramas and comedies which do not rely solely on tits and pecs, gross-out body part close-ups and massive explosions. It started in the pay cable sites, notably HBO, and has been moving into the non-network free cable channels like AMC. These sites do not feel the need for the massive viewer count that the major networks find essential, although by giving us real quality content, they are sometimes finding extraordinary popularity, positioning their shows as must-see events, capturing word-of-mouth attention and critical approval. The Sopranos was a most spectacular example of pay TV achieving this kind of success, but there is a growing list: Six Feet Under, Deadwood, Big Love, Oz, Entourage, The Wire. There have been ambitious (and much loved by the few) failures like Carnivale and John from Cincinnati. In part, the successes have benefitted from being freed of the requirement to avoid controversy which drives advertisers (and, apparently, viewers) away in droves from quality network offerings. They have simultaneously moved the bar on network content, by allowing ‘adult’ themes and language to become more widely accepted, although the imitators and followers have utilized this latitude primarily to make endless juvenile ‘quips’ about farts, or to say the words ‘vagina’ and ‘penis’ liberally, usually to no intelligible, let alone worthwhile, purpose.

I have no idea why free cable stations like FX or AMC are able to develop or purchase, and sustain, quality shows with smaller followings than the major networks will countenance but such is the case. One difficulty for these quality shows, whether on network or free- or pay-cable is that they are nearly impossible for a viewer to get involved in, if he or she has missed the earlier episodes. A second characteristic that is overall a positive, but which has the negative issue that it can be off-putting to a viewer who has not yet been captured, is that good characters which are well-written and compelling plotlines which are portrayed realistically take more time to develop than is afforded by a single episode. Network TV often has attempted to resolve this dilemma (because it is a real problem if a viewer has not found enough ‘meat’ to return to the table next week) by beginning with an unusually long pilot episode which is more like a theatrical movie. This requires schedule juggling and can alienate fans of the regular shows displaced by the extra long pilot, especially if the pilot is very different in content from that to which the viewer is accustomed at that hour. The pay cable stations just go ahead and start the series and give the viewer the respect or benefit of the doubt of believing he will sample more than one episode before deciding that a show is not for him. One of the first successes of free cable was The Shield which, being a cop show, had the advantage of the kind of story that can immediately grab many viewers. But more recent shows of high quality on the free TV channels such as Breaking Bad and Mad Men have made the same bet that the pay channels made: they have taken their time to develop plot and characters.

One of the most amazing, and wonderful, of these high quality shows on free cable is the aforementioned AMC series Breaking Bad, which on the face of it has an almost comic (or horrifying, if you are a sober-sides) premise, a milquetoast high school chemistry teacher turns to manufacturing meth to finance his medical treatment when he develops cancer. This show, underneath the surface, is a remarkable study of how a man can become completely given over to evil. The characters are, without exception, brilliantly written by the writers and even more brilliantly played by the actors. They are believable people and many of them are not all that likable where they would normally be expected to be sympathetic roles – the wife, the son, the teacher himself, the in-laws… A friend and I both find ourselves put off mightily by the teacher’s wife, yet when I stop and examine her actions given only what the character knows and sees, I find her behavior believable, almost inevitable.

The astonishing arc of this story over three seasons – especially over the first two seasons - show a decent guy slowly becoming a monster. The lead character, Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston) becomes ever more manipulative, ever more callous, yet you can see the logic, the denial, the shielding of his psyche from observing the cost to others of his decisions. He manufactures meth, but does not sell it, so he need not deal with the devastation his product wreaks on the lives of his customers. When some inkling breaks though his firewall of denial, caused by some event spectacular and undeniable, such as an airliner accident caused, in a series of twists, by his product he is impacted, but his choice is always to harden the callouses that shield his sensitivity. He uses the grand old excuses of victimization (life has not treated him fairly) and love of his family to justify his activities, but slowly we can see how he moves way beyond any justifiable position. More and more people are made to suffer, and increasingly these are folks to whom he claims to be dvoted. Manufacturing meth is as addicting to him – the money, the use of his strengths, the validation of his manhood, the power – as his product is to the addicts who purchase it. He uses the show’s best character, Jesse Pinkham, a former student, to market his output and it is Jesse who actually retains some conscience and some feel for the moral issues and human suffering that is being enabled.

Jesse Pinkham as played by played by Aaron Paul is a marvel. He manages over the three seasons to retain sympathy. He is always just one tiny step away from cleaning up his life. He is the quintessential heart-breaking son, the boy whom parents try over and over again to trust, to bring in out of the cold. He is the friend that brings harm to all who care for him without intending to. He just never can quite get past the point where he bails when the going gets tough – and for Jesse, the going gets VERY tough. I have known addicts who would have been great guys or girls if they had not ever become addicted, but who can never quite make up the lost time required to get back to where they would be if they hadn’t slipped. As a person moves into addiction or gives in to his worst instincts he inevitably burns bridges which must be slowly and painfully reconstructed, requiring the very qualities of persistence and toughing-it-out that an addict most lacks.
I have seen shows I liked better overall than Breaking BadUpstairs, Downstairs, American Dreams, The Wire, Six Feet Under, to name some of the best – but I have never seen a show that so intelligently addresses who these drug folks are. We want to smack the characters sometimes. The show lets us see what they tell themselves, and why the near and dear hang on for too long, and why these same associates often give up just when their love and connection might actually have helped. Most of all it is a fascinating study of an ordinary man slowly giving himself over to total evil. The baby steps, the situational solutions that must be made instantly under pressure, the taking just a little more advantage of other people’s love, the lure and arrogance and self-justification of evil: all these are faultlessly shown as the series takes its time to develop.

There are many peripheral characters that are funny or engaging or heart-breaking. Each is played by a master actor. The show is not afraid that you won’t like it; it trusts you to see what is going on. There is never a misstep.

It all sounds rather awful and off-putting, but some of the characters are so likable, so human, and often even the worst situations are funny as hell. There is real suspense, the show never loses sight of the extremely dangerous world that drugs inhabit. A former dealer told me that any time a dealer, however white collar, however small-time, begins to make some real money, people notice. People with guns and connections and a notable lack of scruples.

There are a few scenes with a high ‘ick’ factor, but these are not constant as in Bones or the CSI series. And often, amidst the ick, the scenes are very funny – and this is coming from a guy who looks away when someone shows the ultrasound image of a fetus, or a lion pouncing on an antelope.

As is the case with many of these quality series, I probably would not have become a fan were I to have watched just one episode per week. For me, the opening to enjoying and appreciate these series is the full-season set of DVDs. This is how I watched the Sopranos, Nurse Jackie, Six Feet Under, The Wire and others. Since I have already rented the DVD, I will usually watch a least a full disk – two to four episodes. And I am hooked. I think these series and mini-series are where the highest quality writing and acting is going these days. I thing the whole of some series will one day be regarded as the equal of some of the greatest theatrical films. This is even more remarkable since (I assume) the storylines are developed as the series continues, rather than being written as a single long work before filming begins.

So anyway, folks, that is my take on the state of modern entertainment; you can take it or leave it. But I bet, if you take it, you’ll like it.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Faded Photographs

One constant among people of a certain age is their oft reiterated statement that they don’t feel as old as they are. Those who don’t say it aloud at least think it, and I believe the only exceptions to this are people who are so worn by illness or addiction or work they loathe and who can no longer escape the fact that they feel as much dead as they do old. The very first day that the thought enters one’s head that one doesn’t feel as old as he or she is, is the day that person stops being young.

One pretends one is merely trying to look good, or that it is just that grey hair doesn’t frame the face properly or has any one of a million reasons why one dives obsessively into the gym or the hair-color section of the pharmacy or into those sections of the more expensive clothing shops that offer high necks or reinforced tight waists or flattering (i. e., concealing) hemlines, waistlines, sleeves. One writes in personal ads, “I look younger than that” as he or she discloses an age from which they have subtracted a year or two in the first place. “Age is just a number!” one cries, forgetting that rich is just a number also, but some numbers matter; they make a difference. Such numbers may not change how nice one is, or how charming or how wise or how worthy of friendship, but they change people’s perception, they change one’s own perception. You do not excuse what you do not consider.

But before this day of denial come the passionate years – so few in number – that these people deceive themselves into believing are just around that last corner, just beyond that last rise, sure to be revisited shortly. So it is with goodbyes, most of which, in most of our lives, go unsaid. “I never had a chance,” says the grieving spouse or child or parent or friend on the six o’clock in-depth look at the latest tragedy, “to tell him/her/them how much I loved…” But those are the dramatic farewells, ones which are sudden and newsworthy and noted as they happen. So much more common, and so insidiously debilitating to the heart are those unrealized goodbyes, the moves, graduations, retirements, job changes, marriages, births of children, new interests which separate us as regularly as cells die and are replaced in our skin. “I’ll never forget you guys!” we cry with hearts full as we separate from them, clutching the humorous card signed by the whole gang, and the gifts and mementos and scrawled phone numbers. We assumed we’d write or call or drop by; we meant to do so – we may have sworn to do so, but time passes, and people whom we would have visited or called without a second’s hesitation any time of the day or night become people who might be busy, might not wish to be interrupted, might not feel quite the same as us about a call at this hour or on this day. And, anyway, can’t they call us? And they become like pictures on our wall, captured in a flash or painted in a single afternoon, and now unchanging, taken for granted; we imagine our friends to look as they did when we last saw them or first met them: young, fresh, funny, interesting, even when we know this is impossible. They are changed as we are changed, and even should we write one day, or call in a fit of nostalgia or with a longing to have it all back again just one more time, the promises to meet taper off, and if we do meet, there comes a point after twenty minutes or an hour of ‘remember when’ – that moment comes when the only thing to say is, “And what are you doing now?” or a similar version of the query, “Who are you, anyway?” We see, perhaps only dimly, that this was not a hello again but a goodbye. If we do not see it, then the other person will, and no matter how sincere is the effort to be whom we once were together, the effort fails and we begin to think of how we can leave this time – how soon can we draw this meeting to a close; we feel the pull of our current life, even if that life is alone in a room with only a television.

Everyone we have left behind - everyone that mattered, at least - is like an old film or book we loved, and which we may re-watch or re-read a thousand times, even seeing certain scenes in a new light, or noticing details that we missed previously, but ones which are finished, written, preserved up to, and including, that final phrase, “The End” which is splashed across a final rolling shot of the lovely scenery where the action unfolded; we see the cast of characters down to the minor parts where we find ourselves thinking, “Oh, I had forgotten she appeared in this.”

When we put down a perfect book or leave a perfect movie, we long so much to spend more time with the characters that so moved us. In this time of easy gratification, these wishes seem more and more often to be pandered to with sequels, but the conventional wisdom – and truth – is that the sequel is never as good. There have been exceptions, but generally in such rare cases that sequel then led to a further sequel which is, in nearly every case, appalling. The fact is that in fiction as in life (a fact which contributes much to truly great fiction), one cannot do it over again. A great film can only be made once ( a remake is never the same film - it is updated, removing those frozen-in-time touches that placed it in its era); a great book can only be written once and a great summer, or job, or vacation, or friendship, or romance or circle of friends can only be marked by your departure once, even when that departure seems temporary or just a slight bend in an ongoing road. Life’s sequels are promised or marked by some form of the plea, “Let’s keep in touch.” But you were not in touch while it lasted – you were in constant proximity, real or mental, and it was an embrace, a clinging, a passionate attention to each other and, even if the circle you left included people you hated or who ignored you most of the time, they were there, they were real, they were felt, they had to be taken into account. Now, as with dead heroes, they are nothing but pictures, they are stories told too often and with the same words until they are a grey worn habit more than a real time with real people. Like George Washington, they have come down to a lifeless litany: wooden teeth, father of his country, a cherry tree, a general, a dollar, the first president, an unfinished portrait - that one that is in the White House, maybe, painted by someone whose name is on the tip of your tongue, a Jeopardy question.

Seeing an old friend after some years is somewhat like seeing for the first time a person whom one had come to know only from telephone conversations. No one ever looks as one has imagined them. That vibrant, manly voice from this weedy little man? That soft alluring voice from this angry-faced, repellent woman? We are flooded with those aspects of the old friend from which our memory has smoothed the details: the habit of clearing the throat, the insistence on getting the time and date exactly right, the taste in clothing, the nervous laugh that accompanies every remark, the insistence on an ironic distance from every emotion.

My cousin Warren, who has had a somewhat episodic life because his mother is one of those people who finds new enthusiasms and new jobs in far-flung places, and who saw his father infrequently after his mother discarded him along with whatever he represented for a time, shocked me by telling me that he always considers friendships as temporary things. I am quite the opposite, the very essence of a friendship to me is that it will be forever. Yet, I am much like Warren’s mother, constantly moving, looking for the new meaning, imagining that this time I have found what I was looking for. If I look honestly at my situation, I have only one friend who is still truly my friend after many years. There are a handful of people with whom I am ‘in touch’, with whom I still usually imagine I am friends as I once was. One of these, my old college and surfing buddy, Moondoggie, sent me a letter two Christmases ago, wryly referring to it as ‘our annual catch-up letter’. This year I wrote the first of our annual exchanges, although it was several months past Christmas and thus even more indicative of the fading that is happening between us. We will always love each other, ‘love’ meaning a friendship that was truly felt, not any romantic thing – and we will always think of each other in the present tense, at least until one of us dies. But we will never again be Moondoggie and Dave, the guys who could talk all night, the guys who could somehow sense what each other was thinking or feeling. Moondoggie will forever be California and I am forever (I think now) New York. I may – I hope I will – visit him again a time or two, but I know that he will never visit me. (I seem to be the half of most pairings who does the visiting.)And the number of times we will see each other again can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand.
As much as I rail against the idea, and shocked as I was by Warren’s calm assertion of the temporariness of friendship (though I see that it is true for both him and me), the fact is that there are now people whom I have never met in the flesh who know me better than many folks I still half-consciously think of as my best friends.

I really have to stop reading coming-of-age novels, especially on rainy days; just see what it is doing to me!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Digressing in All Directions

My nephew Sebastian, one day when we were talking about books, told me that one of the books that blew him away when he was in high school was Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon. Later, when I expressed an interest in reading it, he backtracked somewhat, saying that it was a long time ago, and that he may have been overly impressed because it was one of the first books he encountered that talked forthrightly about gay characters. I think Sebastian is a little afraid of recommending books to me, because I think he believes I have some intellectual standard he might fail to meet; what is funny is that the reverse is also true: I feel a little vulnerable when expressing likes in books or music to him, because I think he has a certain level of cool that I admire, a level from which I don’t want to fall too far short. Sebastian was one of those kids who first couldn’t, and then wouldn’t, hide the fact that he was gay. He has now just turned 40, so you may guess what conditions were like for a kid like him in the rural schools he attended when he was younger. Worse I suppose, he was forced at one point to transfer to a new school when his father, my brother Liam, moved from a suburban area to a rural one. It is odd, when I think of it, to talk about a kid being gay, because being gay, I assume, means being sexually attracted to one’s own sex, yet gay kids are ‘gay’ before they are really attracted to anyone sexually. All boys can be enormously drawn to other men or boys who are gifted at sports, or exceptionally kind, or who offer some attribute that a boy finds attractive. It can be close friendship, hero-worship, whatever; yet with boys like Sebastian and me, it is not really the same as other boys and we know it, whether or not others recognize our difference. In my case, I think people generally did not notice; in poor Sebastian’s case, nearly everyone did.

Liam is the most tolerant man I have ever known, and in many ways, Sebastian was very lucky to have him for a father. Liam told me he thought Sebastian was gay when the latter was five years old, and I (who had admittedly seen little of the boy, having lived in California all his life, while Liam and Sebastian lived in New York) was surprised because I had noticed nothing unusual in the few times I had met Sebastian. On the other hand, since Sebastian grew up in a situation where he was universally acknowledged as gay, he not only suffered cruelties from his peers, but also had to deal with his father’s circle, who may have felt they were just being matter-of-fact or even accepting, but who actually provided a barrage of hurtful remarks and acts. I heard once of one of Liam’s friends giving Sebastian a bra wrapped as a gift, which seems to me to be an act of shocking cruelty, not to mention the obtuseness of believing that because a boy is gay means he wants to be, or to dress like, a girl. Sebastian told me recently that his best friend during school days was eventually forbidden to associate with him, because it might give rise to rumors.

I have no idea how a parent should deal with his child in this situation. Liam was always someone Sebastian could talk to honestly, I believe. When is an action cruel or bullying and when is it an acknowledgement of visible fact? When someone is different from the majority, whether by ethnicity, orientation, handicap, or otherwise, does one – or should one - pretend not to notice? Do you offer to assist the handicapped child when something is difficult? May you mention it when a person of his ethnicity has acted badly to a person who might be the only member of that ethnic group in your circle? Can you talk about weight to the fattest kid in the school?

People do talk about misbehavior, which occurs in all groups of people, so is it not equally insensitive to avoid mention of this when the listener is a member of the same group as the offender? People talk about weight all the time; must they keep quiet on the topic, when a listener is fat? If you would offer to assist anyone having difficulty completing a task, do you behave differently if the difficulty results from a physical handicap? I recall those angry first days during the rise of militant feminism, when to extend a courtesy such as holding a door so it would not fly shut in the next person’s face, a courtesy I would extend to anyone, was to be greeted by such a such a burst of outrage by some women as would leave my eyebrows singed and my hair curled for a week.

I am now halfway through The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, and I am finding it so far to be a wonderful depiction of a phenomenon that occurred to me in my younger days, as it occurs for many: the encounter with a small group of people who seem so bright and witty and clever and so just plain cool that one feels thrilled to be admitted to their company, proud to be associated. One feels as if one has been admitted to the Algonquin Round Table, or the Merry Pranksters, or the Knights of the Round Table or the Lost Generation. Whatever group represents one’s measure of the right people, it is this very group which has accepted you as one of their own. Jack Kerouac meeting Neal Cassady and his beat friends; Andy Warhol’s circle, a regular at Club 54; all these are noted examples of this on the grand scale. In the film Boys Don’t Cry, the single moment that most entranced me was that moment when Hillary Swank is accepted by the young men who do not realize she is a girl and is invited to take a dangerous ride, an invitation that would never be extended to a girl. The look of absolute delight on Ms Swank’s face was so eloquent, the stunned look of someone not only invited unexpectedly to the prom, but invited by the team captain, that I feel she earned her many awards right in that single moment. This kind of group is simultaneously an ‘in’ group and an ‘out’ group; there is an element of outlawry, of pushing the envelope, of understanding how foolish or oppressive the rules are. It is, in some way, like answering ‘yes’ to Jimi Hendrix’s question, “Are you experienced?”

This kind of “in” group doesn’t last; it doesn’t have any official standing (although if any of the exploits thereof become famous or infamous – as, for instance the Manson Family became - people spend quantities of time and prose discussing who was, and who wasn’t, a member). But in miniscule such groups are everywhere, they form and disperse like waves upon the sea. They begin with two or three people liking each other, pushing each other to ever greater measures of whatever it is that forms the group’s core activities – drugs, surfing, acting, writing, drinking, obscure sports, conversation, painting, travelling – a few like-minded souls are caught up in the adventure, and then the group disperses because of personal animosities which arise, or marriages, or perceived betrayals, or the need to earn a living, or times changing, or addiction or boredom, or the determined entrance into the group of someone who turns out to first to dominate it then subtly to destroy the spontaneity. These groups are like summer romances, but among more people and on a larger scale. Often these groups are no longer really in existence by the time most people are aware of them. I recall the “Death of Hip” being celebrated in the Haight Ashbury in, I believe, 1967 (googling this does no good, all you get are references to the death of hip-hop, which, I guess, proves how very utterly the hippy phenomenon is over and how very long ago it became so) before many soon-to-be so-called hippies had even stopped cutting their hair or run away from home.

So far, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is perfectly describing the experience of the narrator discovering and entering into one such inside group. I can see how thrilling the book would be to the high school-age Sebastian reading of such a group of friends, the like of which he might one day find. I remember how thrilling I found it when I encountered such groups, and to be accepted into one was almost like falling in love. There is a feeling of being with the absolutely coolest group of people possible; a complete indifference to the opinions of anyone other than your fellow initiates; something like a family feeling exists amongst the group; a feeling that these are my people.

When I discovered that The Mysteries of Pittsburgh was a skillful rendering of this in-group phenomenon, I recommended to Sebastian that he try reading James Kirkwood’s Good Times/Bad Times. I was swept away by this book when I read it years ago, because when I read it I found it perfectly depicted a related phenomenon; the two-man friendship that is something like the equivalent of these in/out groups. When I was in college, there was a boy with whom I formed a friendship different from any other friendships I have ever experienced. This was with Tony Doyle, the boy with whom I later wound up spending a week in the D. C. Jail, an experience about which I have written some time back on the MySpace version of this blog. I have never been able to satisfy myself as to what was the nature of my connection to Tony. I can be entirely honest with myself and admit it if the connection was sexual, but I am sure it was not. There were a number of other boys I was violently attracted to at the time; Tony was not one of those. Knowing Tony was like finding religion: every word he said entranced me, everything he did seemed to be the most admirable deed possible. I think I would actually have risked death to win his admiration and attention. I don’t think this worked in reverse; one of Tony’s more fascinating qualities was his ability to find whomever he was with immensely interesting. It seemed like he found something amazing in everyone, and expressed that amazement to anyone who would listen. Then the person in question would actually become more interesting as a result. Tony was catalytic; he found leaden personalities and transformed them into something resembling gold. He may well have done this with me, was I leaden? He made me feel interesting, at least.

Tony is far too complex a subject for me to cover when the day outside is bright with sunshine and beckoning me to come plant and weed and prune. And the several times I have fallen in amongst the sorts of in/outlaw groups in my past is likewise more than I have time for right now. And the odd thing is that my original intent here was to write a little bit about a guy named Harlan I used to hang with in my surfing days, of whom I was reminded by something I read in the Chabon book a few hours ago. It is easy to see why I never accomplish anything: my mind seems to flit from one thing to another without making any lasting stops at any of the many points it visits. This is pretty much how I get things done (or don’t get things done). I go out to plant tomatoes, notice that the peonies need tying up, go to get some string, find a bat drowned in the pan of oil I drained from my rototiller (which is still sitting where I left it in the middle of the yard a week ago), look for a utensil to extricate said bat from its oily deathtrap in the search for which I notice that my gas can for the lawnmower gas is empty, throw the can in the car to go get it filled, pass a grocery on the way to the station which reminds me I need to buy some olive oil for cooking, stop and in the store find a great bargain on some paperbacks, buy several and come home to sit on the deck and sample them. And for the next week the bat molders, the garage door remains open, the tomatoes wither, the peonies sprawl, the mower awaits its refueling and the rototiller remains in the middle of the yard and none of my bills get paid, which is a side issue that never seems to quite pierce my consciousness. It is not that I don’t do anything: I do a thousand things a day, I just never finish anything. I have at least a half dozen books lying open to the page where I left off. The latest of these is The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. But I left that to write about Harlan.

As you see.