My dad once told me that the hardest part about aging was watching his old girlfriends get married, and maybe it is harder for men, but I’m finding the sight of this groom shoving cake into his bride’s face pretty harmless. Maybe I would feel it more if he had been somebody I loved, but ours was a dry relationship: we met at a concert, we dated, we broke up. At any point, either one of us could have been swapped out with another person with only a few minor adjustments to the routine. (Advice columnists assure us that it’s fine to fantasize about another person while you’re in bed with your partner, but what about imaging another man while you’re watching Netflix together?) The only point of note was its length: three months. Now that I’m nearly thirty, three months go by immediately, and my months with the groom were pretty lean to begin with, but I still retain the childlike sense that a season is a long time. The leaves have changed. Haven’t I?
The bride thanks the attendees for their presence at the ceremony. (I only arrived for the reception, but the immediate rush on the bar suggests that the “vows that the bride and groom have prepared themselves” were more than usually slogging.) She reaches a line about “sharing our togetherness” and every couple puts their arms around each other. I appear to be one of the few single people at the wedding, a deliberate choice. There are a few guys I could have brought, but what message would that have sent to them? And what to the groom? This will be the first time he’s seen me since our break-up, and there is a very particular effect I wish to have on him.
He’s speaking now, tacking a few sentences onto her speech. He says something to the effect of “enjoy the reception”, his last words cut off by a sudden trip-hop beat. Everyone looks to the turntables where DJ Qualls, or whatever the guy’s name is, stands fiddling with some knobs. “Welcome to the party, Party People!” he explodes, adding “We’re gonna get THICK in here!” (What?) As a few dozen people ooze onto the dance floor, he starts playing “Blurred Lines” (oh, are you kidding me?), and the effect on the crowd is pretty much what you’re picturing. I let a few songs go by, let the strict coupling of partners break down into a looser mass, and then I join in. I’ve been developing a dance step in my mind for a few months, off-and-on. It’s all built around a pattern where you zig the upper half of your body while zagging the lower. I got the idea from a lightning storm. It’s very well suited to the two-way rhythm of “Boogie Wonderland”, but I can tell that the stopped dancers staring at me aren’t doing so in admiration. But what do they think I care about their shaming? Friends and family of a three-years-ex-boyfriend and his new wife are not high on my list of considerables. I keep twisting.
Afterwards, I take myself through a crowd of whisperers past the bar where your standard Steven Crowder lookalike clicks his tongue at me and tells the bartender “One Crippler for the dancer.” I accept it, thank him, immediately turn and hand the glass to some passing grandpa, turn back, and thank my benefactor again. If you have the opportunity, I strongly recommend this move. For a moment, he looks like he’s falling through cracking ice, then he forces a collegial grin.
“So you’re funny, too. I’m Tucker.” He extends his hand, but it’s the one holding his drink, and a few globules splash out onto my dress. It turns out he’s even stupider than not knowing if a hand is empty: this was apparently deliberate, as he immediately points to the stain and says, “You’re all wet. I can help with that.” His eyes incline downwards and I follow them to his free hand, which is running the zipper down the track of his fly. I stop him with a flat-palmed, arm’s length gesture and walk to the bathroom. If anyone is shocked that I’m not more shocked by Tucker, recognize that, in some manifestation or another, this is exactly the sort of Neanderthal behavior we face every day.
When I broke up with the groom, he called me, among other names, a “man-hater”, which, l’esprit de l’escalier, I should have said was selling me short. This was in the third of seven lengthy messages he sent me in the first six hours after I ended things. As I was not responding to him, each message came in a burst of his own inspiration, by turns pleading or furious or wounded. He was undeterred by my silence, which, I realized with the satisfaction of locking an interior jigsaw piece, had been exactly the dynamic of our entire relationship.
In the bathroom, a couple is getting it on in the first stall. I deftly close the door with my heel as I pass. Evidently, they started on the countertop, to judge by the handprint on the mirror. Hardly the worst part to be imprinted on the glass, so I don’t recoil from the sink. After a minute or so, the couple emerges from the stall, rolling their necks and flexing their limbs – moves they pass off as mere stretching, but by which they actually mean to obscure their faces. I actually wasn’t judging them: I liked their spiritedness, and wish they didn’t feel obliged to be embarrassed. I leave the bathroom, sort of searching for the couple, sort of hoping my approval will mean something to them, and run right into the groom. His eyes take a moment to focus properly, and I can smell the vodka on his breath. (“Well, of course this is the happiest day of my life. Now, quickly, another drink, please.”)
“Hello,” he says experimentally. “Did we send you an invitation?”
“So you’re crashing?” he asks, and I say “Yes,” and he says “Why?”, and no more flashbacks after this, I promise.
The day before we broke up, we were enacting one of our usual scenes. I had been late to our movie date (Seth MacFarlane’s Ted, if I may inspire your sympathy) owing to an unforeseeable delay at work. I had sent the groom a few messages alerting him, but he was already on the subway and didn’t see them until he had already bought the tickets, “which are now worthless!” he said, tearing them up when I finally arrived. We fought about my tardiness and general “just – ugh – lack of consideration” on the train back to, and at, his apartment. I conceded the tardiness but told him that calling me inconsiderate was totally illegitimate. I enumerated several kindnesses I’d done for him, and he dismissed each one. Finally, sufficiently needled, I broke three months of silence and told him that he was “too stupid or too selfish or too both” to understand what a chore it was to date him, and he punched me below the eye.
I stood frozen for a moment, waiting for an apology or for another strike, and he marched into his bedroom. I followed him in two minutes later (after wavering between there and the front door) and found him seated by the headboard, looking at the wall. I sat down next to him and he gave me something between a punch and a shove – that is, a blow with his fist to knock me off of the bed. I walked out of the apartment and never anticipated that I would see him again, but it was too easy – after seeing the announcement of his engagement online – to track down the details of the wedding, and too easy to slip into the reception hall. But that isn’t the answer I ought to give him.
“Why?” he asks again, then a third time, extending it to two syllables. “Wuh-eye?”
“I want to talk to your wife.”
He smiles and grabs me by the shoulders. From only a few feet away, it probably looks like a friendly embrace, which is crafty enough to make my heart momentarily seize up. “No.”
“She already knows about you.” He releases me into a potted spiral topiary and leaves, enunciating, “You had your chance with me.” I pull myself out of the branches and start looking for the white dress, hoping I can get to her before the groom, but he’s already at her side and she’s casting a disgusted look in my direction. In retrospect, there was no way I could have got to her before he did, but I had naively assumed that he would have kept my part of his past entirely secret, and that I could have built my case on level ground. I was not prepared for him to have flat-out lied to his fiancée, but maybe I’m silly and provincial to still take engagements and wedding vows seriously.
It feels like the obvious conclusion, so I decide to leave. I draw looks that range from snickering (the other dancers) to loathing (Tucker) to fuming (the bride), except from one face near the exit. Lighting up at the sight of me, he raises his glass.
“Hi again! Thanks for the drink!” The passing grandpa who facilitated my bar-side gag is catching some fresh air by the open door. He stops me as I pass. “Gosh! I’ve never seen somebody so glum at a wedding. What’s wrong?”
“Hey now,” he says, without a trace of irony. “No frowns today. Tell me what’s bothering you.”
“I don’t want to burden you,” I reply.
“Much too late: I’m plenty burdened already. I’m the bride’s father.”
My trick, if I can reduce the complexity of my behavior down to a few rules of thumb, is to never let the trauma of existence leave me unable to appreciate the wonderful opportunities life unexpectedly presents.
It’s rare for critical consensus to form glabrously about a piece of art, especially in an age where any reflexive contrarian has the whole of the internet on which to state his or her case. Yet I have been unable to find much but embarrassed disdain for R.E.M.’s 2004 stumble Around the Sun. A Google search for “Around the Sun is a good album” brings up only two results: a link to one Hawaiian’s lukewarm Amazon.com review, and an old U2 message board condemning those who would make such a remark. Even the band members themselves have referred to it as a “bad record” that “wasn’t really listenable”, and flatly stated, “I personally hated it.”
Held in even less esteem than the album as a whole is its fourth track, “Make It All Okay”, of which I can find no live performance, suggesting that the band recorded the song and immediately regretted it. R.E.M. fans have called the music listless and the lyrics cloying. It’s been referred to as the band’s worst song. It sounds like it could play under the last two minutes of the breakup episode of nobody’s favorite teen drama.
I can’t argue that it’s a great song, or even the best song on the album (that would be the blooming opener, “Leaving New York”), but I do think its much more complex and satisfying than it initially appears. Hearing it as merely a mopey breakup song misses the turn in the lyrics when the singer tells the ex, “If you offered me your hand again, I’d have to walk away.” The emphasis is less on the sadness that comes with the end of a relationship than with the self-empowerment that is necessary to handle those feelings. You can hear echoes of the quintessential “I like me” song, “I Will Survive” (a song R.E.M. is known to admire), in the line “So you worked out your excuses, turned away, and shut the door”, which is sung over the same chords as Gloria Gaynor’s “Go on now, go. Walk out the door.”
But this interpretation misses the second turn: the faltering in the singer’s resolve. In every verse, the singer (I’m sorry to keep dodging simple pronouns, but calling either of the figures in this song “he” or “she” seems inapt and limiting) recalls an action or statement made by the ex – “You made your ultimatum too big to ignore” – then asks, “Didn’t you, now? Didn’t you?” This repeated question is not sarcastic or rhetorical, but a means to stall the conversation. The singer knows the answer, and is simply restating the record to buy time and avoid facing the necessary conclusions. You likely pulled the same trick yourself in high school when you were faced with an essay you couldn’t answer, and filled up space by restating the prompt. The question of whether Mrs. Dalloway regrets her rejection of Peter Walsh’s marriage proposal and desires to turn back this decision at her dinner party, regardless of the social indecorum of such a decision, is a question that can only be answered by examining many different…
In the second verse this hesitation becomes more overtly evasive, as the ex makes an offer:
When I saw you at the street fair, you called out my name.
Didn’t you, now? Didn’t you?
You said we could start over, try and make it all okay.
Didn’t you, now? Didn’t you?
If you’re noticing a little drabness in the lyrics I’ve quoted, you’re not wrong. I can’t begin to defend the vague “It’s a long, long, long road. And I don’t know which way to go.” But some of the phrases are genuinely effective, including one that may seem squirmingly bad at first listen. Apparently turning down the ex’s offers, the singer declares,
Well, Jesus loves me fine.
And your words fall flat this time.
This is proudly declared against buoying instruments, and were it the end of the song, it would be unacceptable. But it’s only a set-up. Just afterwards, the singer’s confidence evaporates and he’s lamely wondering (against faint music – even the instrumentation is scared), “Didn’t you believe that I had finally turned away?” Not “realize”, “understand”, or “perceive”, but “believe”, suggesting that the show of independence was only a trick. The singer hasn’t turned away, as is made entirely clear by the next line, the muddled fragment, “Anything to hold onto to help me through my day”. Even better is the failed attempt to return to Christ:
Well, Jesus loves me fine.
But his words fall flat this time.
The singer is no longer convinced by (…can’t be avoided) his or her own claim. The song closes with one more question:
Was it my imagination, or did I hear you say,
“We don’t have a prayer between us”?
Didn’t you, now? Didn’t you, now?
Usually a coy expression, “Was it my imagination” here sounds like an actual question. Is it possible that all my pain was imagined? Does the resolved chord that ends the song suggest honest closure, or a willfully blind erasure of the past?
Obviously, this is a nerd’s pursuit. Any tacky art can be polished up with enough persistence and enough jargon. (“What you don’t understand is that Grand Theft Auto is actually a satire on the quote-unquote American Dream, and the limitations placed on upward mobility in a limitedly capitalistic system.”) I don’t intend to suggest that “Make It All Okay” is a masterpiece, or that Around the Sun is anything but an unfortunate album. (Even the aforementioned “Leaving New York” is marred by the asininity of the lyric, “I told you, forever: I love you, forever.”) They are works that cry out for a second draft. The promise of greatness – or, more modestly, goodness – is just barely out of reach, which makes their failure to achieve it even more frustrating. I could make the same complaint about Star Trek V, the third quarter of Twin Peaks, and my own life.
To be sure, my life is not nearly as bad an existence as Around is Sun is an album; I have a fairly corking time. But I feel achingly close to having a spectacular time. My goals are clear and the elements are near, but I’ve yet to grasp them. And this dissatisfaction translates into hundreds of small regrets: The time that I…if I’d only instead… One of the earliest memories I have is of devising the proposal (as every kid does) that life would be better if we could always have a second chance at everything. Perhaps what I respond to in “Make It All Okay” is that it both evokes that fantasy and scrutinizes it.
It’s fun, too, that a song about the second draft of a relationship should so desperately need one. I won’t claim that R.E.M. blindsided us with a piece of meta-work. (You may have heard that one once or twice in your writing workshops: “It was supposed to be boring! I was writing about bored people!”) It’s just neat to note how “Make It All Okay” expresses, in both inspiration and execution, our eternally unfulfilled – and communally foolish – wish to go over the world in blue pencil.
Greyer and fuller of face, to be sure, but there was no doubt I was looking at Wilson Kiev, NYU Class of 2011. Dropping my pasta arrabbiata on what little real estate remained on his table (the full face explained), I sat down and began to catch up. We’d never been close, but he had a permanent place in my heart for being my partner in the first day’s dorm-floor icebreaker. “This is Wilson. He’s from Phoenix,” I still remember reciting. “He’s studying photography. He once fell off a Brazilian zip-line.”
“How’s the world treating you?” I exclaimed after refreshing him on my biography.
“Great, actually. I just figured out how to link my Tumblr to my Flickr.” He inhaled some ziti, leaving me to decipher his happy news.
“Well, pip pip on that,” I offered, still trying to sort his sentence’s nouns from its verbs.
“Are you on Tumblr?”
“Poor equilibrium, I’m afraid.”
“No, the website,” he explained, adding “where you follow the world’s creators,” in a this-program-brought-to-you-by sort of voice.
“Not much of a creator. More of a conservationist.”
“You don’t have to be a creator to use Tumblr, though. It’s great for reblogging. I repost all the time: snarky news commentary, inspirational celebrity quotes, GIFs.”
“No, GIFs. Though I do have a page called ‘GIF Goldblum’.”
We were dining al fresco, yet still I felt walls closing in on me. While I shook my head to dispel the jargon buzzing about me like yellow jackets, Wilson diligently mopped up his cream sauce with a tear of bread. Bring me the jar of Alfredo Garcia, I was about to quip when he let fly another question.
“What’s your web presence?”
“Minimal. An email address, a Facebook page, an account on the American Arboretums message board.”
He looked at me horrified, like a shrew spotting an incoming owl.
“How are you going to build your brand?”
“Oh, Wilson, we’re city folk. Surely brands are for cattle.” I laughed, but when he failed to second the motion, I corked myself with a mouthful of peas.
“I have two Tumblrs, a Twitter, a Flickr, two Instagrams and linked accounts on Facebook, Google Plus and Pinterest, and I still haven’t established myself.”
“As a photographer, obviously.”
“Ah. And what have you been photographing recently?” I inquired, remembering his prints of Central Park trails and pixie-haired art students in floral patterned skirts. Not the sort of thing I would hang on my walls, understand, but the friendly images you’d feel comfortable seeing in a glossy ad for designer socks or a Sundance film.
“I haven’t taken any pictures for a few years. Not since the wedding.”
“Me and Izzy.”
Isabella Touk! This was news I could endorse. On our floor, Izzy had been something of a record-breaking loner: I once returned to the dorm late at night, flush with cheap wine and the unrestrained self-regard that comes only from being a freshman at NYU, and found her anointing every door in the corridor with a packet of dining hall butter. Still, we all deserve to find our soulmates, and I could not have brimmed with any more elation for the happy couple than I did without risk of spilling onto the sidewalk.
“And how is Izzy?”
He gave me a look like Obama in the last minutes of the Denver debate. “She left me,” he announced miserably into his risotto, and I gulped so severely that I nearly lost a tooth.
“A thousand apologies,” I gurgled before shoveling a heap of peppers into my mouth to curtail speech. Wilson yanked out his phone, ran his fingers over the glass, and presented me a picture of his moping face, beneath which ran the legend, “Relationship Status: Abandoned”. I pursed my lips tight enough to bend the tines of my fork.
“Said I wasn’t invested enough,” he moaned to the ceiling. “Said I bored the hell out of her.”
“Oh. Ah,” I sympathized helpfully. “I had no idea.”
He snapped his head down like Bill Cosby at the end of the season five intro. “Why not? You said you were on Facebook.”
“In a blue moon,” I defended, keeping him at bay with my oyster knife. “I only log in if I have some pith to share. Or a message of environmental concern. I speak for the trees, after all,” I concluded, smiling to divert his attention from my fearful sweat. He aspirated a gentle response. “Once more?” I requested.
“Hashtag The Lorax,” he repeated, almost as softly. “Hashtag Dr. Seuss throwback.” Tears rolled off his cheeks and made ripples in his minestrone.
From the avenue came the bleat of a trailer tractor’s horn, sounding for the world like an alarm going off in my brain. Crossing my cutlery over my empty plate, I stood up and remarked on the lateness of the hour. We gripped each other’s hands and I expressed my hope that he would persevere through his separation.
“I’ll be fine,” he assured me. “I’ve been hitting Tinder hard. And my OkC data says I’m compatible with 76% of female users.”
“Wonderful,” I said, charting a course to the 57th Street Station. “Wonderful, wonderful.”
Back at the apartment, I watered the ficus and wondered what had happened to the zip-lining Wilson I’d known. I supposed that I could find online as much informaysh as I needed to piece together his transformaysh. I started with his Twitter, which had been updated twice in the last hour.
#thatawkwardmomentwhen you run into an old friend and can’t think of anything to say…
“oh you work with plants…that’s interesting” drinks water to buy time #weird #weirdmoments #thishappenedtome
This was a rather egregiously revised history of our meal, and I steamed at the thought of his version worming its way into the minds of his readers. But then I thought of Izzy’s absence, how the joys of the real world had slipped so far from his grasp, and I made peace with his need to cultivate a little parcel of the digital landscape. If he hadn’t a partner with whom to share his soul, then let the self reflected on the computer screen – the low, narcissistic hum of the internet – be his companion.
I considered creating a Twitter account just to retweet his message, for I was sure that little gesture would buoy his spirits.
Know, of course, that I only considered this. I did not sign up. It was bad enough that I knew the verb “retweet”.
When you first watch Seinfeld, it strikes you as a very funny show. Then you move to New York, and you realize that it’s also an astute portrait of the city. Then you gain a little more experience, and you discover that it’s also a sharp and honest reflection of the existential realities of life on this planet, where ambition is futile, material success makes one emptier, and every person is impenetrably foreign and unknowable. Everything leads me back to that show, and I was mocked for it during my first primary campaign. “I think that for Lent, he ought to give up Seinfeld,” my opponent quipped, teasing me, but also subtly reminding voters of my irreligiousness. For a time, I was worried this would sink me, but then my opponent was caught, literally, with his hand in a honey pot. The voters had their say, and today I’m the one sitting in the Oval Office, 9:45 on a Tuesday night, counting and recounting the plugs on Vice’s head.
I know I’m here to talk about tomorrow’s vote, but I keep imaging that I’ve been called to the principal’s office for misbehavior, that I’m going to get censured for fraternizing with the enemy. All pious baloney about congratulating those who “reach across the aisle” aside, today’s Washington is too vacuously adversarial to condone even a modest hello between a D and an R, much less to condone the kiss I gave the Honorable Senator from the State of Nevada. It was after the day’s business was concluded, and we were left in the chamber, collecting papers. We were talking about an inflated speech given by Maine, in which he derisively referred to the Republican proposal as “a laugh and a half” no fewer than 18 times. I did a pitch-perfect impression, while she retrieved notes from her desk, tittering. When she looked up, I kissed her. I’d had the desire for months, but why I thought it sensible to make my move in our austere, musty, and decidedly unromantic workplace is a question I cannot answer. The words of George Costanza’s mother ring in my head: apprised of her son’s latest boneheaded scheme to attract a woman she wails, “Why can’t you do anything like a normal person?”
Vice is fixing me with his wonky eyes and extruding some stream-of-consciousness mumbling: “We’re gonna send the Minority Leader a reeeeal wake-up call, heh heh heh…” I’m following the rhythm of his speech, and laughing and nodding accordingly – I make sure to shake my head with incredulous admiration at his audacious zinger, “I wouldn’t want to be a Republican’s golf ball tomorrow!” – but I can’t focus on anything but the memory of last night. How on earth can I be expected to concentrate on anything as trivial as SB 31, when I’m on the verge of something truly important? (Not just important personally, but for my political education as well. Most people don’t know that Noam Chomsky met Carol, the love of his life, when he was seven years old. That’s the secret to his success: he solved life’s greatest challenge at a young age, so for the last 77 years, his mind has been free to study to the comparatively simple fields of linguistics and global injustice.)
How does a Chomsky-Gnome like myself fall for a free-marketeer like Nevada? It’s not – I repeat, not – out of a desire to “hate-fuck” her. (One of the worst phrases I know. Compare its sneering hostility to the self-reflective anxiety of Jerry’s “You can’t have sex with somebody you admire! Where’s the depravity?”) In fact, I resent the implication that I need to explain myself. Intelligent people eventually come to the realization that there are things more important than Democrats and Republicans. Or even liberalism and conservatism. Not that this is the place to make that argument. The President has joined us and is delivering dire warnings about a Republican victory in his usual clipped and irregular tone: “We’ve, uh…gotta make sure…that…wepassthisbill.” I’m starting to get a little flattered that the White House is seeking my support; thus far, my experience has been that a leftist in Washington gets about as much respect and attention as a slug at a snail convention. But then Potus reaches his thesis statement: “And if we’re gonna pass this…uh…solidly…we need some Republican votes.”
They saw the kiss (I shouldn’t have expected anything to escape Potus’ surveillance) and they think I can sway Nevada’s vote. The trouble is, they don’t even have my vote. I think SB 31 is exactly the kind of middling, posing-as-progressive bill I came to Washington to eradicate, and I tell them as much. “If you want to keep on doing the same old thing,” I say, channeling George’s words to the NBC executives, “then maybe this senator is not for you.” “Maybe this Senator would like to go back to being another subway-riding nobody,” retorts Vice.
In tidal rhythm, the two men play stick and carrot: Vice continually threatens to “primary [my] ass back to Brooklyn”, while Potus tells me that I have the chance to “be a part of something important. You’ve set yourself up to be the one to…uh…break…this Republican fever.” I’m a little bothered that they think I kissed Nevada to get close to her politically – and I start to worry that she suspects it too – but when I allege my sincerity, Vice interrupts me with, “cut the crap. We saw the way you kissed her. It was a tiny peck.” (How closely were they watching?!)
Potus offers me greater input on future bills, and tells me that I have the chance, “to really change things.” If I do, it’s not SB 31. History is already making its judgments on the American empire: “Worshipped money. Created Seinfeld.” If we want them to add any flattering emendations before China pulls us offstage with a shepherd’s crook, we’ve got to be bold and produce bills that truly address our country’s systemic distress. “Otherwise, it’s just masturbation,” as George says (but not in the episode you think). We must break free of the atmosphere of limited possibilities that my colleagues find so enriching. We must stop being mindless, lifeless politicians. No more zombies; more Noam Chomsky.
Of life, Jerry once pondered, with his usual curious detachment, “you say to yourself, ‘From this moment on, I’m not going to waste any more of it.’ But then you go, ‘How? What can I do that’s not wasting it?’” The four of them never found out how to make life valuable, but I think I’ve got a handle on it. “Thanks for the invite,” I tell Vice and Potus, popping out of my chair, “but you’ll have to find two other votes.” Contra Seinfeld, which posits that the pleasure of the “march-out” is low (“That’s when you realize all the money you’re losing”), I feel terrific striding for the exit. But I’m not walking fast solely for the spectacle of it: the one real difference between the two parties is that Republicans keep earlier hours, so I have very little time to search very many country clubs for my desert rose.
Do you remember The Sword in the Stone? I know you remember the blade; I want to know if you remember the Disney film. It was one of those ones released during the studio’s Blue Period, the interregnum when the square-spectacled, square-headed, all-American draftsman of the pre-war era were departed, but not yet replaced by the mechanized phenoms of Michael’s Eisner’s renaissance. Aside from The Great Mouse Detective – a witty, gripping, and quotable (“Yes! We’ll – we’ll set the trap off now!”) masterpiece – the films produced in those decades were non-entities. The Sword in the Stone is such, save for one sequence.
In the second act, Merlin puts young, king-to-be Arthur through a series of isolated and irrelevant setpieces, transforming him into various animals to teach him lessons that never penetrated my mind. After a dull interlude as fish in the castle moat, Merlin and Arthur assume squirrel-form and climb the trees, whereupon a girl-squirrel takes a fancy to Arthur. She finds his reticence charmingly coy, and pursues him, giggling, for a while. This is all very cute, whether you’re rooting for the boy or for the girl, but the fun dries up quite suddenly. Once Merlin decides that Arthur has learned the lesson of their exercise, he returns them both to human form, causing the girl-squirrel to recoil with a look of shattered disbelief, and run to her den in horror. Merlin and Arthur head home, and the camera cuts to a shot of the girl-squirrel watching them go and sobbing. Fade to black.
I watched the rest of the movie aghast, suffered through Merlin’s “humorous” cavorting and the mediocre, arbitrary villainy of Mad Madam Mim, waiting for some sort of resolution. If not a happy ending for the girl-squirrel, I bargained, then at least some acknowledgment of her pain. But the film never again references this encounter, never shows us what becomes of her. The heroes (yeah, right) never express remorse for having broken a heart, and make no mistake: the girl-squirrel was in love with Arthur. (Merlin even sings a grip-your-armrests-bad song about it.) In the silence with which her feelings were greeted, my purpose was forged.
I wrote an alternate ending where Arthur, rather than pulling the sword from the stone, returned, as a squirrel, to the forest. (This did leave the major dramatic question – Who becomes king? – unanswered. If I were writing it now, I might drop in some lines suggesting that, in the absence of a king, the state withered and the People reclaimed…but you’ve heard this before.) After a several days of badgering, my mother sent the script to Burbank, but before any response came, I had already moved on to other causes: a new girl, Anna, had come to our school, and a group of boys, styling themselves “Anna Sweepers”, were spending recess marauding about, making her feel unwelcome.
Their nastiness formed the root of a short story in which a group of unwholesome boys were bullied and ostracized by the “Sexist Sweepers”. (I knew that their animus was gender- and not Anna-based, having observed these boys long enough to know that they deserved their spots on my regularly updated lists of sexists, racists, and the A.G.P: “Against Gay People”. [No, I didn’t know the word “homophobe” but remember, I was only in the second grade.]) On “Fiction Friday” that week, I read the story to my class and watched the dawning realization assume control of the bullies’ expressions. I felt again the thrill of using words to bend the world towards justice. (Honesty compels me to add that, in an ending of the mordant style favored by Soviet wits and Tales From the Crypt episodes, the result of my recitation was that the “Sweepers” only stopped targeting Anna…)
The irony, which took me 15 years to realize, is that there is also no better way to inflict pain than to write. Last month, I published an ebook that got a few buzzy reviews (under headlines that seemed to bring out the usual in every publication – The Atlantic, pseudo-sociology: “The First Novel of the Digital Generation”; Slate, hyperbole: “The Best Book in 150 years. Seriously.”) But some of the people close to me were hurt by the way I used them in my work. My mother, for one, was not fooled by the gender bending in the opening line of chapter four: “I am very upset with my father for upstaging my graduation with a slurred ‘Oh Come, All Ye Faithful’ sung into an old Mr. Microphone.” “You are like a feral dog,” she texted me, “scavenging for material.”
Writing the publicist character reawakened my tender feelings for her inspiration, my high school paramour. (That word is not quite right, but there’s no term for somebody who was both “never” and simultaneously “much more than” a girlfriend.) Reading the publicist character, however, inspired only stormy feelings in her. Screaming at me from her stoop (I had flown home and had the airport shuttle drop me off in her driveway), she informed me that the details of our eleven nights together and of the dreams she’d shared with me were not mine to publish. “You stole my life and used it for your own advancement,” Anna bleated, likening me to some ghoulish Mega Man, before she slammed the door, leaving me dumbly proffering her bouquet to the night at large.
A non-writer might assume that such an experience would put me off the written word, and that being the nice person I’d like to be would require a new vocation. “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” as a Narcotics Anonymous counselor (and not Albert Einstein) wrote. Then again, she wrote it. A writer – usually after passing through the stages of writing for attention and writing out of boredom – eventually comes to the state of writing as a corrective action: corrective to problems both personal and public. Delusional or not, I believe in the strength of words, and according to a letter I received in today’s mail, I am not the only one.
“We are in possession of a speculative script written by you,” it reads. “As it was voluntarily submitted by you to our studio, and as it features characters wholly owned by The Walt Disney Company, including, but not limited to, Girl-Squirrel and ‘Murlin’ [sic]” – their [sic], not mine: that was how I spelled Merlin – “your script is likewise owned by the aforementioned company. Any rewrites or adaptations you do of this piece will also become the property of The Walt Disney Company. Do not resist us. Do not make claims of youthful naivety.” As it happens, I had no intention of revisiting that script, but these attorneys have put ideas into my head. Material is elusive; you must seize inspiration when it comes. And the story of two animalistic lovers has never been more resonant. Exterior: The Woods. Day. Two squirrels chase each other around in a circle, faster and faster, until the two become one furry blur.
I’m a woman of science, but sometimes I develop a fear, or at least an unease, even though no evidence supports it. It’s irrational, but these fears have staying power because there’s similarly no evidence to disprove them. In exemplum, I have no reason for me to think that Quint won’t be in for his 3:30 appointment: in six weeks, he’s not missed a single appointment, always arriving a crisp five minutes before commencement. Still, I don’t (I can’t) know that he’s coming today, and a pattern is only a pattern until it’s broken. I’m so worried that I can barely concentrate on guiding my current patient, Lorne, through the waters of geriatricism. (Before any snotty linguistic prescriptivists get on me for that not being a word: the English language is patchy and inefficient, so I have to create words to fill in the gaps as best I can.)
Quint came to our clinic suffering from Achilles tendinitis so I began the evaluation by opening a tub of Free-Up Cream and massaging it into his calf. In my three-and-three-quarters years as a physical therapist, I’ve become accustomed to the feel of skin, which generally resists an aggressive massage, shifting only reluctantly, with the sticky friction of two slabs of uncured rubber pressing against each other. (This does not include the skin of the aged, which shifts unbidden, like adult clothes on a child’s body.) Quint’s skin, however, was uniquely soft and yielding. Running my fingers over him reminded me of the sensation of dragging my hands through the water-smoothed sand in my childhood aquarium. What’s more, I felt an unmistakable buzz ripple through my hands as I pressed against him. This was a heretofore (hitherto? Why do we have two arcane words for the same chronology?) new sensation, and I took every opportunity to keep my digits on him for the next 45 minutes.
Thankfully, my next patient had cancelled, so after I wrapped up with Quint, I excused myself to the restroom and got myself off. (More weird phrasing: What are we getting off of? And why is it good to get off and bad to be turned off?) I wish I could tell you that I was purely excited by his entrance into my life, but I was also quite terrified. If this was the effect he had on me after 45 minutes, I wasn’t sure I could safely continue to treat him. He was capable of making me lose my license.
If you’re thinking this is just some sex-starved geek getting all worked up, let me set you right: yes, I go through fertile and fallow periods like anyone else, but I’ve never gone long enough without attention to enter the dread ranks of the involuntarily celibate, or “Incel” (a scary term I encountered in a med text years ago). If you doubt this, a prejudice is likely at work. While male doctors are top sexual prizes, females who practice medicine are merely thought of as grown-up nerds. Women in other professional industries – finance, business, law – are seen sexually, and I suggest that this is because they appeal to the domination fantasy, while I, as a caregiver, do not. The Oedipal fixation is split into Mother-as-Nurturer and Mother-as-Disciplinarian, and I got the short end of the stick. (The fetishization of nurses torpedoes this theory, but I’m still working on this, and don’t think you’re so clever for figuring that out.)
Besides, this connection wasn’t purely sexual. The buzz I felt was not just a physical tingling, but a cerebral awakening. I felt enlightened by him. The chaotic world revealed its order when we were in session together. I was a physical therapist – not a surgeon as I’d promised my parents, or a psychologist as I’d begun school pointed towards – so that I could heal him. He made me feel that my medical skills were limitless. This was such a significant conclusion to draw that I forced myself to test it, to see if what I thought was “Us” was really just “Him”. I tried to explain my feelings to my coworker Ron, who treated Quint every third visit, and this (with lengthy caesuras redacted from his dialogue) was our conversation:
“Do you ever feel a sort of buzz when you’re treating him?”
“You mean like he’s experiencing a plantaris spasm?”
“No, I mean: have you had a sense of ‘no limitations’ with him?”
“He does have truncated flexion of his tibialis anterior. We should work on enabling him to move without limitations.”
Honestly, though, the stupider (I know: “more stupid” is proper, but “stupider” both means what it means, and sounds like what it means, and I like my words to do double duty) person here was I. It’s always a waste of time to hope that any third party will understand feelings of this magnitude (making the feelings both an impossible burden and a thrilling secret), and Ron was a particularly poor choice. He thinks only of physical therapy and finds it unprofessional that I care about anything else. Sometimes I think he has a point. Maybe it shows what an unserious PT I am that I get so distracted. At this moment, for instance, I’ve totally lost track of Lorne’s reps: I told him to plant his cane within a splay-footed stance and bend his knees outward, squatting and rising like he’s in a dinner theater chorus. He’s done this at least 100 times, but I’m too preoccupied with my fear that Quint won’t show to come up with another exercise. I call out “Halfway done!” and let him keep vamping.
I’m never so negligent with Quint – as I say, he inspires me to greatness – but he does cause failure of my bedside manner. I want to use our conversations to learn more about him, but I’m always scared that I’ll ask him something stupid, so I wind up babbling about myself. (That riff I had earlier about women doctors never getting the wandering eye originated as something I rambled about to him.) One day, before his appointment, I wrote the initials “TAH” (Talk About Him) on my ring finger, but they rubbed off when I started the massage, leaving a smeary “HAT” on his calf. I had to massage him again to wipe off the ink, which obviously didn’t bother me, but I worried that he noticed, and I got nervous, and I started talking about myself again.
A few weeks ago, I was staring at the hollow at small of his back when I suddenly blurted out, “I love the color of your skin!” (I didn’t specify this earlier, because it didn’t seem relevant, but he’s got a complexion like a steely, overcast sky brightened by the cumulative glow of many neon lights.) Growing up among the translucent, I’m always drawn to variations in skin color, but I’m awfully concerned that that this is symptomatic of some muted, mutated prejudice, so I rarely express my observations. I froze, terrified that I’d relaxed my rule at exactly the wrong time, and was plotting a course through the open window to the pavement below when I realized that he hadn’t heard me over the vibrating and pulsing of the electro-stimulation unit hooked up to his leg. What’s more, getting that remark out of my system freed my words, and once he was de-electroded, I engaged him in a great conversation. I learned that he runs a company that replaces old traffic lights with energy-efficient models. I had never considered the need for such a service, but of course it has to be done. Everything he does fills a void I didn’t know was (wasn’t? We are talking about a void) there.
With five minutes to go, just as I’m telling myself to appreciate all the appointments we did have, he walks in and I feel the anxiety of the day lift. I ask Ron to finish up with Lorne, so I can get right to work on Quint, and he agrees. Not because he wants to help me out, mind you, but because he’s got a compulsion to treat as many patients as he can. If he could, he’d take over the clinic and treat 24/7. I don’t know what void he’s trying to fill (maybe he’s an Incel), but it works for me, and it works for him, and Lorne’s an old man who’s earned a therapist who can genuinely focus on his (many, many) ailments.
I do Quint’s closing evaluation and he passes with flying colors. Across-the-board improvement. I choke up telling him the results, not just because I’m happy for him, but also because I can’t believe how well I’ve done. (Throughout school and my professional life, I’ve never been able to shake the sense that I’m a fraud, and that, with enough exposure, the dangling sword would fall.) Once I’ve read through the entire checklist, I let him put his clothes back on (it wasn’t necessary for him to undress this time, but I wasn’t going to stop him), open the door of the treatment room and say, “It’s been a pleasure.” This is true, but it’s not enough. He doesn’t move for the door, but puts his arms out for a hug, draws me in, and says, “I felt it too.”
Or so I think I heard. There’s a lifetime of difference between “felt” and “feel”, but the phrases are 90% identical. I’ve been hugging him for 15 seconds, unwilling to let go until I’m sure I’ve got the words right.
I take a standard 8.5x11 sheet of paper and fold it across the horizon (“hamburger-style”, though even in my meat-eating days, I never saw a hamburger with the dimensions of a Signet Shakespeare). Pinching the loose ends, I slip a letter opener into the crease and push it through. There’s a noise between a crunch and a zip: the paper is bisected.
Since my first day here, I’ve admired the letter openers. The last place I worked had us opening mail with long, blunt boning knives that crumpled the envelopes and turned the daily post into a gruesome autopsy. Here we have thin plastic semicircles with a slit across the diameter leading to an angled blade that splits the envelope’s flap cleanly, like a can opener. Unfortunately, no other utensils offered by this company have been so good. The first thing to do upon arriving at a new job is to check out the office supplies: Are the binder clips stiff? Are the shelves stocked with knock-off brands like “Stick-It Notes” and “Bick Pens”? The answers, I’m sorry to say, were Yes and Yes. I would have found more crimes against humanity, but eventually, I was told not to spend so much time in the supply closet. When I explained to my supervisor that I was still acquainting myself with the office, she told me that I couldn’t “play the ‘New Girl’ card forever”.
If anybody needs to be told what cards can’t be played forever, it’s her, dressing with total disregard for her age. Far be it from me to criticize anybody else’s costuming – I wore the same green vest from 8th grade through my high school graduation, amending it only with additional silly pins – but this woman dresses like Joan Didion circa Play It as It Lays, which would be fine if it were 1969 and she were a 30-year-old pioneer of New Journalism. But it ain’t, and she isn’t. Every time she calls me into her office, I’m distracted beyond all hope of recovery by the jangling of her bracelets and the flashes of flesh briefly exposed by her loose, flowing blouses. “Do you have any questions?” she concludes all our meetings, and I always want to reply, “Were you just thawed out of a small glacier?”
I align the two halves of the sheet and fold them again. (Now it’s more akin to a hamburger.) The letter opener goes through again: there are four pieces.
She would probably have frustrated me to the point of blurting out that insult, were it not for Sienna, who works on the other side of the Xerox room. (Excuse me: the “Aficio Brand Copy and Print Unit” room.) We started off exchanging cathartic eye-rolls whenever our supervisor passed. Then we began exchanging unflattering doodles. Finally, we exchanged names, and were fairly inseparable for a time. We ate lunch together, commuted home together, and even started meeting on the weekends. It would have been a milestone just for me to make nice with a co-worker, but she became the best friend I’d ever had.
Closeness is better experienced than explained, but the following examples seem, to me, to be utter summations of our friendship: When Sienna put up a world map in her cubicle and started fantasizing about escaping to New Caledonia or Saint Barthélemy (“I like the French, but I don’t like France,” she explained), she always included me in her plans. I let her read drafts of my picaresques. When I moved to a new apartment – having decided that I could no longer live under the fascist yoke of my “No-creeping-plants-on-the-fire-escape” co-op board – she put together the housewarming party. That was the party at which all my troubles began. (Obviously, my first wish is that I’d never opened my mouth to hurt her at all, but if I were allowed only a smaller wish, I would wish that I said my piece on any other night. I hate to imagine that she thinks, on top of everything else, that I don’t appreciate her hosting skills.)
Fold. Slip. Cru-zip! Eight.
Colleen asked me who had baked the carrot cake in the shape of a new apartment, and when I said “Sienna”, that must have caught her attention. (Sienna, that is. Not Colleen, who’s always too attentive, listening to you with wide eyes and slow nods like Joseph Smith taking dictation.) She walked up, unseen by me, just in time to hear me add: “I’m assuming you’ll want to have a lot to drink before you try it.” It was only fourteen words, but there’s a horrible rule that applies to the mathematics of human interaction: The number of words required to reverse an insult is a thousand times greater than the number of words in the initial insult.
I explained to Sienna that this was a joke at the expense of Colleen’s drinking habits (this would have been more clear with better phrasing: “There’s no rum in it, if that’s what you’re wondering”, maybe?), and not at her, and she accepted this, but there was haziness at the corners of her “All’s Well” smile. So I kept talking. Words and words later, I still felt that I hadn’t scrubbed the scuffmark off our relationship. It’s awful when the greatest effort can’t effect even a miniscule result, especially since the pleasure of our friendship came from how the smallest actions of one always meant the world to the other.
Mending this wound is vitally important to me – the first important thing I’ve ever had to do – and I am completely unprepared. Not once, in all my years of education, was I once taught how to handle such a situation. High school found five hours a week for four straight years to teach me geography, but at no point did anyone prepare even one brief assembly in the auxiliary gym to teach me how to be a person. This, for the record, is why every teenager, at some point in high school, has her or his mind blown by a special novel. Until that point, all one’s ever been taught is frivolous gobbledygook, and the first glimpse of true human life is as shocking and energizing as a sudden ice cube down the back of the shirt. (My special book? George Plimpton’s Paper Lion.)
I fold the paper again, but now the crease is too thick, and my attempt to push the blade through for sixteen makes things all wonky.
Given my state of helplessness, I want any accusations that my efforts toward amelioration were “excessive” or “freaky” to be stricken from the record, or at least put into context. Maybe sending her a week of orchids and lilies was too much, but when you’re pricing apology bouquets and the florist asks “How sorry are you?”, it’s easy to lose sight of how impractical flowers can be. (As to the demands that I bear the repair costs for the automatic stapler shorted out by a spilled vase of water, I laugh defiantly and respond twice: Would a “dry” plant like a cactus really have been less of a hazard? Should we blame mechanical failure on the water, or on the b-list engineers at “Wingline Staplers”?) I had the arrangements sent here and not to her apartment because I wanted to be around for a follow-up if my apology wasn’t clear and more words were required, but sending them to her home would probably have been better. The office nits would have been kept out of a purely personal issue, Sienna could have dealt with this at her own pace, and I wouldn’t be here waiting for an “Emergency Employee Evaluation” with my supervisor, which, by the sight of her absurd, Martha Mitchell hairdo coming ‘round the doorframe, I realize is starting.
Maybe I will tell her how ridiculous she looks. Let her throw that stupid “Winking Sun” pendant at me, I don’t care. I get a static shock from the chair as I stand up. Big surprise. I won’t miss anything about this job. All I liked were the letter-openers.
Wait. No. How could I say that?
How could I think that for even a second?
Eight squares of paper are just enough to dab away my tears.
When I was ten years old, the decision was made to have me skip the fifth grade. I had earlier been under consideration to skip the first grade, and the sense that I did not belong to my year had persisted. The aim was to bring me into temporal alignment, but it was unsuccessful. I remain too old for my age.
I was unaware of this affliction for years. I always behaved naturally and unconsciously, and it was not until college that anybody informed me that my mannerisms and appearance – stiff collars popping out of solid wool sweaters, and a 1970s Republican haircut (cf. Ron Ziegler) – set me off as an Old Soul. That term was usually deployed by women in what sounded like an approving tone, so eventually, I put it on my OkCupid profile. It wound up serving less as a green light than as a red flag.
After a period of disappointment on OkCupid, I joined, in a moment of desperate loneliness, a cougar dating website. This is an embarrassing admission, and in my defense, I can only reiterate the forlorn state that led me to see the site as a perfect nexus of supply and demand uniquely facilitated by our wired age. I had some success, if achievements are measured by notches in the belt, but the victories were hollow. My hope was to meet the cougars as equals, but they insisted (for this was their fantasy, too) on treating me as my actual, and not my acted, age. (The appellation “boy”, with or without some lewd modifier, was issued demoralizingly frequently.) The only relationship worth having is with a partner who sees (and likes) you as you really are, and I remain unconvinced that the internet, so accommodating to the obfuscation and reinventing of identity, is the place to find that truth.
(Not that I’m a Luddite. I greatly appreciate contemporary technologies. My favorite is YouTube, for allowing me to take a nostalgic trip into the episodes of PBS’s Firing Line that defined my childhood. I’ve always loved to hate William F. Buckley, and while other kids spent their recesses inserting themselves into the adventures of Harry Potter, I would fantasize of teaming up with Gore Vidal and using our rapier wits to cut Buckley down to size, leaving him with his jaw on the floor [quite a feat when you consider that Buckley never even opened his jaw to speak].)
Maybe the trouble is that, while other people online were interested in dates and hook-ups, I, ever of an advanced age, was already marriage-minded. I realized this when I caught myself admiring men with wedding rings, thinking how much I’d like to wear one myself. This led to my admittedly hasty engagement. We’d only been dating (having met at a Spiegelman reading) for a few months when I popped the question, but we shared many interests and were happy for a time. We decided to call off the wedding when it became clear that between us was an irreconcilable incompatibility: I was an Old Soul and she was a Nostalgia Hound, and it wasn’t right to build a home over that division. (Once it was over, I realized that what I admired about men with wedding bands wasn’t their marriage, but the subtle accent that the flash of gold gave to their gestures, and I was able to get that by buying an old Dartmouth class ring off an alumnus. If there’s a lesson to this story, I guess it’s to always examine and question your own motives.)
After the wedding fell apart, I threw myself into my career. I can see now that I pushed myself too hard, but the myriad rewards – the corner office, the interns, the honor of being the youngest executive at VH-1 Classic – were too much to resist. I was greedy, and it’s only right that I have to pay for it. I’ve never believed in God, but I began to suspect that some force with a taste for irony and dramatic consequence was at work when a stress-related heart attack felled me during my commute, and I crashed my BMW – a corporate thank-you for securing the Tears for Fears catalog – into a Nuts4Nuts cart.
An EKG revealed that I had the heart of a 60-year-old. (My doctor tried to cheer me up by telling me that Martin Luther King, Jr. did as well, but I told him that I didn’t think anybody [even a medical professional] ought to compare anybody [even me] to our country’s greatest hero. [N.B. Active in the 60s, natch.]) The staff at the hospital remains confident that the bypass will be successful, but I’ve begun to make the mental preparations of the nearly departed, just in case. I feel sad sometimes, thinking of how quickly I passed through my youth, and I wonder if there was a moment when I could have made the decision to slow down and act my age. But mostly, I try not to dwell on the woulda-coulda-shouldas. You can’t retrieve the past by looking backwards. “You’ve got to go forwards to go back. Better press on.” So says the hero of a dimly remembered children’s movie from my brief youth.
I do have one sharp memory of that era: It’s a sunny Saturday morning in 4th grade, and I’m on a pint-sized soccer field – one of eight carved out of a weedy forest. I’m playing goalie for my YMCA team, The Tigers. An opposing forward punts the ball towards my head, and, flailing in fear, I knock it into my own goal. A furious groan goes up from my teammates and their parents as my opponents laugh and jeer. To stop myself from crying, I bite the inside of my cheeks, hard enough to draw blood, but the tears come anyway. My vision gauzed, I take off running into the field’s adjoining woods, twigs stinging my face, the jersey cotton of my Adidas shorts whip-whiping infernally.
Like most young people, I thrilled at the 2008 election. Via a regular diet of The Huffington Post, I kept this up through the first half of Obama’s term, cheering every PR victory, and investing myself too much in the drama of the health care debate. (From my journal, November 22nd, 2009, on a personal subject: “I felt meaningful, as though I was really part of something, moving forward and experiencing life. [Here a paragraph break] I also feel like mentioning that yesterday the Senate Democrats secured the 60 votes necessary to block a filibuster.”). My support lasted through the 2010 midterms, long enough to do my part in denying the turtle-faced Mitch McConnell some of his sadistic pleasure, but over the last two years, I’ve abandoned my allegiance. Though I hate to tip my hat to this pathologically lying meanie, you may number me among Paul Ryan’s disappointed college grads, staring up at (or in my case, down to the floor at) an old Obama poster.
The first inclination I had that something was going wrong came during the 111th Congress’ lame duck session, when Obama signed an extension of the Bush Tax Cuts rather than fight a battle in which (it seemed to me) he could have easily won public support. The following summer, the debt ceiling negotiations dragged on for weeks and resulted in, as The Onion put it, tough concessions by both Democrats and Democrats alike. Obama wasn’t just losing fights; he hardly seemed to be fighting. That is, unless I was mistaken in my understanding of Democratic priorities, and what I saw as crushing losses were merely collateral damage in the victories of the party’s real concerns.
I’m not sure exactly when I gave up on the Democratic Party, but I don’t remember it being too painful. Much harder was giving up on the identification “liberal”. I wasn’t giving up on liberal philosophies – or rather, I was giving them up, by leaving them in the dust on my brisk march into libertarian socialism (that is a real philosophy, not a typo) – but I was giving up on Liberal as an American ID. I no longer wished to be numbered among a group that, after a recent, impressive run, seemed to be selling out for the sheer gratitude of finally having buyers.
During the first two years, when Obama’s betrayals were primarily economic, Liberal excuses were usually an assurance that the president was playing a long game and that soon – soon! – he’d start acting progressive. (Mostly, people seemed to say this day would come in his second term, a theory that holds no water: If he’s going to limit his “good” years to one term, why not have that be his first term? Why futz around for four years?) But recently, as information about Obama’s national security apparatus has come to light, this excuse has given way to one far worse: no excuse at all. American Liberals, who so recently stood against the War in Iraq and the War on Terror, taking abuse from all kinds of media folk and politicians, refusing to back down against immorality, were now either ignoring the president’s warrantless wiretapping, drone strikes and due process-free executions, or worse, supporting them. At the 2008 DNC, the crowd cheered politicians who vowed “we reject illegal wiretapping of American citizens” and “we will not…detain without trial or charge prisoners who can and should be brought to justice for their crimes”. Four years later, the same enthusiasm is lavished upon a White House that fought for the renewal of the Patriot Act, signed the NDAA, and initiated the President’s Personal Kill List. What a long, strange trip it’s been, brothers and sisters.
Over the same four years, the GOP, perhaps feeling its territory encroached upon, managed to drain more water out of its pool. Already really, really bad – cf. George W. Bush using homophobia to buy electoral validation for a fraudulent, failed war – the party reinvigorated itself by hijacking the regressive, hypocritical, astroturfed Tea Party movement. Once back in (some) power, the Republican Party flailed about wildly, taking all kinds of positions, no matter how dangerous, nonsensical, or arbitrary. If you doubt the sheer rootlessness of the GOP, please recall when Obama sent troops into Libya and the same people who started two wars in the last decade, who shriek at any proposed (or supposedly proposed) military cut, and who won election after election portraying Democrats as weak on defense, actually turned dovish. Speaker of the House John Boehner wept that “[T]he limited, sometimes contradictory, case made to the American people has left some fundamental questions about our engagement unanswered”, evidently forgetting his joyful, unbothered support for the Bush administration’s frantic hodgepodge of justifications for the Iraq War. This newfound humanity lasted less than a month, but it was memorably weird.
Meanwhile, the party’s presidential nomination contest elevated a handful of lunatics, resurrected Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, two rightfully slain ghouls, and even managed to tarnish the few good guys who showed up (check out the vacant expressions on Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman when their debate audience boos a gay soldier). Ultimately, to nobody’s surprise and everyone’s disappointment, the winner was the man with the most money. In the summer since he won the nomination, Mitt Romney has failed at every conceivable attempt to prove himself presidential, politically competent, or even human. His non-human qualities may inspire amusing memes, but they are also suggestive of the cold, unambitious, and backwards country America would be under Romney’s rule, when he would be a vessel for the nastiness of his retrograde party.
So the 2012 race has come down to a soulless suit who affects any position to get himself through the day – and fails at even that simple task! – and a hollowed-out progressive who’s done…much the same. Obama may have been overrated during the 2008 campaign, but the fact remains that he, not Hillary Clinton or John McCain, was the candidate who stood for the most mature, thoughtful, and humane policies. All of his past writings and work pointed to years of dedication to forward thinking. In four years, he’s shed that commitment with impressive ease.
This is not to say that the candidates are exactly the same; there are clear-cut differences on social policies. (Although a cynical person might point out that, since Obama has sold out on so much, what assurance is there that reproductive rights [say] will not be next?) (For the record, I don’t expect Obama to sell out on that particular issue, not because I trust his moral consistency, but because he’s smart enough not to take such an obviously losing stand.) But in many important ways, Romney and Obama are two nuts in the same fruitcake. Romney can woo people with lower taxes, but under Obama, tax rates are already historically low. The president pursues suspected terrorists in Asia with undiscriminating zeal, while his opponent vows to “double Guantanamo” right off of our shores. Not identical, no. But would you take fraternal twins?
A lot of Liberals have said that a presidential election is not the time to take a stand. But if not now, when? As politics and policy become dictated more and more by money, a vote is the only tool left to the Average Joe. Protesting is fine and necessary, but if the establishment knows it can always count on you to fall into line on election day, why would they bother to listen to your protest? If you don’t make politicians earn your contribution, they will focus their energies on those who do.
It’s been a disillusioning bummer of a term, but I must say, I actually feel pretty good. Not about the future of this country, which I expect to be foul and unacceptable, but about my own education. Yes, it was satisfying cheering the passage of Obamacare, but it’s more satisfying knowing that it was a bloated giveaway to the insurance industry. A painful truth is better than an opiating fantasy. To paraphrase (try not to hold this source against me) Karl Marx, casting off imaginary comforts is the first step towards gaining real comforts.
What’s more, as I’ve left my old groups, I’ve become more empathetic with all sorts of people, and more empathy is what life is really all about. I used to find libertarians, for instance, hopelessly annoying, but as I’ve evolved, I’ve come, in spite of substantial disagreements on policy and philosophical emphasis, to admire them for seeing, earlier than I, the nonsense of the duopoly. In the past, I was ginned up into believing that there was an intractable divide between me and any Republican voter, but now I can see that somebody who voted for McCain was most likely a victim of the same assault: I was boxed in the left ear, they in the right. We’re no longer opponents, but rather can share a commiserating shake of the head. “They got us,” we’ll say. “They got us good.”
Heath arrived at Hunter College’s Counseling and Wellness Services office right at 9:00am but, like everyone save the rare, happy workers, he delayed the onset of the day’s tasks by slowly reading through his accumulated emails.
From: Alicia L.
Subject: Thought of the Day
“I’m not at all contemptuous of comforts, but they have their place and it is not first.” – EF Schumacher
Aside from his relationship with his freshman year roommate, Heath had no prior experience in the field of mental health, but his position as a receptionist required no skills beyond a phone voice, the ability to spot typos, and the fortitude to ignore every natural impulse each morning, leave his bed, and climb onto the A train to share the world of limited possibilities with all the other hopeless commuters. (“I mean really hopeless, as in no hope ever,” wrote Daniel Clowes. “Those of you who have ridden the subway will recognize that this was not just some hallucination.”) Heath had issued himself a standing challenge to find one straphanger who looked even remotely happy, and every morning he failed. The working world was a cruel structure to demand so much more from its participants than it ever returned to them; a terrible perpetual motion machine, creating misery that dampened people’s dreams, staunched their sense of possibility, and resigned them to the inevitability of greater misery. (Heath had recently noticed that he was becoming a socialist, as if he didn’t have enough problems already.)
To halt (or at least delay) his total subsumption, Heath spent every spare moment at the office sketching anything that came into his eyeline, compiling research for the graphic novel he would (might? could?) write someday. After seven months, he had filled an entire sketchbook, an achievement that underscored and was in turn overwhelmed by the length of time he’d spent at the office. Sick at the thought of his tabled ambition, he hastily gathered the contact information for the art departments at each of the waiting room magazines he updated weekly, and sent them each a portfolio of his best drawings.
From: Isabelle C.
Subject: RE: Thought of the Day
So true…try to tell that to people today and they act like YOU are crazy!
The first time he’d given anyone a drawing was in the middle of his freshman year, when his roommate Alec had requested a portrait. “Exchanging personalized gifts demonstrates a serious investment in a friendship,” he explained, though Heath hadn’t asked. He was intimidated by Alec’s strong opinions and short temper, but the two of them got along fairly well, and Heath was flattered to have a picture commissioned. Upon receipt of the picture, his roommate did not respond in kind.
Alec spent a long minute glowering silently at the picture, then furiously stuttered while he pointed out offending details. “Is this really how you see me?” he demanded. With certain specifics isolated, Heath could almost see his point, but he still felt he’d drawn the picture without prejudice, capturing Alec’s receding hairline, but also his bright eyes. Furthermore, being completed, the picture was no longer “of Alec”, but rather, was only itself. But before he could offer these defenses, Alec raised a second question – “So what is your opinion of me?” – and from the moment Heath finished his answer – that, though he was intimidated by Alec’s strong opinions and short temper, he felt they got along pretty well – to the last time they saw each other in person – moving out of the dorm five tense months later – he found himself, more or less permanently, on the receiving end of Alec’s ire.
That experience rattled him greatly, but it wasn’t until the following year that he stopped giving out pictures entirely. Akina, the girl he’d been crushing on that season, was having her 20th birthday at a bar lenient towards underage patrons. Two hours in, he managed to secure her attention long enough to give her his gift, an 8.5x11, blue-and-black crayon drawing of crows against a suburban night, matted on a construction paper frame. In the bright fluorescence of his dorm room, it looked impressive, but as he watched Akina squint at it in the dim bar, Heath registered his error. He had been literally childish, making a drawing from kindergarten materials and presenting it to her on precisely the night she was emphasizing adulthood. After that evening, every drawing went directly into his files.
Heath was able to convince himself that his fear was professional prudence, for eventually he received a friendly response from the art editor of Psycho, a journal of psychological and sociological research and reporting. What its editors hoped would distinguish it was the pushy, contrary attitude of its writers (hence the selection of a title better suited to a Peter Bagge zine). Most of its articles began with an illustrated title page, and the art editor wanted to use Heath’s drawing for a piece titled, “In Defense of Insults: Why Your Bully was onto Something”. (Like all nominal contrarians, Psycho could only barely hide its desire for the approval of the powerful.) The drawing was of a group of middle-aged adults smiling and staring pleasantly, if blankly, ahead. The editor had annotated Heath’s original with arrows pointing to each character, affixed with words like “stupid”, “lazy”, and “pathetic”. Officially, Heath couldn’t abide by bullying or by people altering his work, but it was their magazine, and he had to admit that, in the rare moments when he redirected his anger outward, those were some of his favorite words.
From: Gail S.
Subject: Chocolate Lab?
Hi everyone! Is anybody interested in adopting a chocolate lab? He is my husband’s and my first dog and we have realized that we cannot commit to raising him. Rocky is 1.5 years old and very lovable, but you will have to train him because (unfortunately) we have not taught him anything!
He generally suppressed those feelings, as they were of neither philosophical satisfaction nor practical use, especially in the singles’ world that had been his reluctant focus since Mallory’s departure. He had no genuine yen to be dating, secure in the integrity of his lingering affection for Mallory, but he was maddeningly nagged by the knowledge that his excellent reason might be only a weak rationalization. A boy who was merely complacent or fearful of rejection could easily retreat behind an affected front of supposedly noble emotion. (Perhaps, too, he was wrong to understand her presence as preclusion: “I don’t think you ever really move on from someone,” suggested Jeffrey Brown. “You just make room in your heart for new people.”) Heath sincerely doubted this to be the case, but, knowing that doubt might very well be symptomatic of rationalization, he defied his natural impulses (a skill he was getting very good at) and pursued as many dates as he could.
Near Union Square, he met a chef whose interest waned visibly when he revealed that he wanted to be a cartoonist. (He had forgotten Alex Robinson’s injunction against that very admission.) He took a graphic designer to a bar in Bushwick, expecting they’d have much to talk about, but instead found silences so blatant that they couldn’t even make eye contact and were reduced to eavesdropping on another couple having a bad first date. “Do you like video games?” the man asked desperately, sending a jolt through Heath, not from sympathy, but from the harrowing realization that he was probably only a few minutes away from venturing such a terrible question himself. He shot pool with a first-year med student whose candor was easy to like – he was pleasingly ruffled by her unprompted admission, “I don’t bite my fingernails, but I do bite my cuticles” – but they had only two dates before she returned apologetically but resolvedly to her estranged neurologist boyfriend. Even without knowing the man, Heath conceded the validity of – and rather admired – her choice.
From: Michelle D.
Subject: DISCOUNTED TICKETS: SPECIAL STAFF ONLY OFFER
Ticket Center is happy to offer discounted Broadway and off-Broadway tickets at prices exclusively for Hunter College faculty and staff. Visit our website or our office and plan your perfect New York night.
It would have been unfair of him to compare those dates to June 10, 2011, except that he compared every day to that Friday. He had made plans with Mallory to meet at Tompkins Square Park, where she’d been spending her summer afternoons playing the public piano. He approached her from behind, and, without looking up, she began adding lyrics to her song:
Business goes broke,
Friends will deceive,
Family’s a joke.
Romantic travails leave you
Except maybe you.
She resolved the lingering chords and got up to offer the piano to the next performer, but nobody in the crowd dared to follow. Though it was on his mind through their entire picnic dinner, Heath didn’t mention her song until they were back at her apartment that evening. He commended her improvisatory skills, and Mallory confessed (as though it was in any way worse) that she had actually written “the doggerel” beforehand. Reaching over to the keyboard, she continued:
You overuse words like
“Perhaps” and “Unless”.
You know all about pencils,
But not how to dress.
You’re not self-assertive
Or physically tough.
It’s easy to see
Why I can’t get enough.
Heath couldn’t ably convey the vertiginous feeling he got from her singing, but he managed to offer a small compliment, which she quickly brushed away. She struggled to maintain the usual detachment in her voice as she confessed a fear that her musical skills were insufficient to maintain her uniqueness against the terrible world: “It’s easy to feel myself getting fainter.” At this, Heath found his words – many, many words – beginning with “yeah, but, see, it’s the other way: against you, the world starts to dim,” and concluding with “I love you.” (He actually said, “…I love you?”, the pause and rising inflection not indicative of internal doubt, but of delighted incredulity that such a beautiful woman was – by her flickering smile and soft eyes – giving him the prompt.
Later, as they lay in her bed, each wearing a t-shirt and a pair of his boxers, Mallory asked Heath if he would draw her portrait. “Even just with a ballpoint,” she said. He mumblingly demurred, feigning exhaustion, but actually wide awake with anxiety at her request. It was awful enough to have had a picture ruin a fleeting crush or a tenuous friendship. The idea of one devastating this evening was unthinkable. He was sure that any picture he drew would be incapable of capturing her adequately, of demonstrating his awe, of giving her the satisfaction she deserved. These justifications suited him until he left her apartment and was immediately struck by the terrible irony that his very effort to protect the evening had rent its perfection.
Pain is always worse when condensed into pithy phrases, the sort that had been rushing in to fill the vacuum left in Mallory’s absence. The worst one he’d developed was “She meant more to me than I meant to her”. It was impossible to prove, of course, but he couldn’t reason away the insistent voice that forced the notion. Worse, it was both conclusive enough to be hopeless and inconclusive enough to deny any relief. He was unable to release her (or, better said, release himself) as – it was in the very premise – she meant that much to him, even if they didn’t visit, even while he didn’t speak to her, even as she forgot about him.
To: Heath B.
From: Alec M.
Subject: Your Illustration
I saw your drawing in the August issue of “Psycho” and noted with disdain your inability to use your artistic interests toward any end but your own narcissistic relish. (In theory, the two should be incompatible.) It is heartening to see that you’re working in a mental health office, but given your total lack of self-reflective qualities, I doubt that, even in the presence of professionals, you will accept the help you need.
Heath read through the email twice, hoping to find even one phrase that wasn’t alarming. While it certainly couldn’t have been difficult for Alec to uncover his place of employment or his email address (though it was unsettling he had it done at all), finding his illustration in a low-rent trade magazine was incontestably obsessive. It was troubling enough to know that he had his own personal gremlin, but what upset Heath most was how the letter threw light on his own fixations. What difference was there between Alec’s fixation and his for Mallory? Heath could tell himself that his was rooted in adoration, but surely that was exactly the specious defense of a crazy man. He could commend himself for not sending Mallory an unprovoked email – indeed, for leaving her alone entirely – but it now occurred to him that the mark of genuine affection might not be to hide in the shadows. There was a duality, creepy and deceitful, in having gained her attention through kindness and gentility, and now lingering on that attention in a feverishly infatuated manner. (He considered the possibility that he was, in Adrian Tomine’s words, “the kind of person who looks okay at first glance, but is actually quite ugly”.) Heath wondered how he could consider himself so thoughtful and still originate such negative energy, and decided to go forward putting even less stock into his natural impulses.
To: Heath B.
From: Alicia L.
Subject: Need to meet
Heath, please come to my office as soon as you get this.
Many mornings, as Heath rode the elevators to his office, he said to himself, “Today is the day they will finally see through me.” But that was only a mantra, a way to assure himself that he didn’t belong to this world. He was actually quite stunned to be fired. When he walked in, Alicia held up the August issue of Psycho, and Heath instantly remembered the origin of his published drawing: he had copied the group photo from an old office Christmas card that sat on his desk. If he’d thought that he had any chance of recovery, he might have explained that a drawing, once completed, severed any connection to its subject and became a self-contained object. But he wasn’t sure if he actually believed that. He also considered telling Alicia that he wasn’t the one who wrote the invectives. But that seemed a rather picky distinction. He had drawn the picture and submitted it, and it was his fault that her face had been published bearing the legend, “Loser”.
He walked out of the office and onto the train, and refused to think at all until he was at the Hudson River Park. He finally understood that the people who have time to sit in the park on a weekday morning are not necessarily the free: they may be the doomed. (One and the same?) The sunshine provoked a brief wave of contentment that was quickly washed away by a dread he likened to the ominous atmosphere of Sunday afternoons, when the pleasure of time off is mocked by the looming Monday. This was worse, though: the only activity more painful than having a job was looking for one. He felt ashamed of his sense of entitlement, of having loathed a job that only degraded him mildly, when so many people suffered worse employment – or worst of all, suffered no employment. He failed as an obedient worker, and he failed as a sensitive socialist.
Suddenly, Heath realized that the pithy phrase under which he’d been operating was false. The problem wasn’t a world of limited possibilities. That was a misinterpretation caused by the dark confinement of the subway tunnels. In the bright sunshine, he saw that the problem really lay in limitless possibilities. He could publish a drawing and lose his job, or keep the job and lose himself. He could embarrass himself in front of chefs, graphic designers, med students, or any profession at all. He could draw a portrait and he could not draw a portrait, and he could be sure to offend either way. There was no reason he couldn’t be both pathologically lovestruck and paralytically fearful. An infinite panoply of grief lay before him and the idea of facing another day, another week, another 25 years and then another 25 more of no-win scenarios was inconceivable. The world was full of double-edged swords, but never when you needed one.
Heath stayed in the park as long as his shift would have lasted, and then for a few hours more. He leaned over a Pier 45 railing towards New Jersey, wishing that by sheer desire he could launch himself away into another life. But New Jersey couldn’t be that much different from New York. Any city in the country, or on the entire planet, for that matter, would fail to be a refuge. If he wanted a world where everything happened properly, he would have to create it himself.
Unless art, too, proved not to be enough. Heath wasn’t sure he could bear another heartbreak of that magnitude, but the only way he could learn if drawing was a waste of time was to waste his time drawing – another foreboding double-bind. But at least any misery so produced would fuel another drawing. (“That’s one thing about art,” wrote Daniel Clowes. “No matter how ashamed you are of what you’ve done, there’s always tomorrow.”) It was a tremendous perpetual motion machine. Heath pushed himself off of the railing and headed north to the 14th Street subway station, where he would meet further inspiration.